The renowned true-crime writer William Roughead called the death of Charles Bravo "the prize puzzle of British criminal jurisprudence," and "a very pearl among poisoning cases." Even though he wrote those words decades ago, it is still hard to argue against this distinction. "The Balham Mystery," (as it became known to contemporaries) is the greatest novel Agatha Christie never wrote. The facts in the case are simple, yet utterly baffling. There were a very limited number of suspects in his death, but no evidence could be found to positively pin guilt on any of them. As in many a Christie story, the sordid private lives of upper-class, "respectable" people were suddenly and painfully unmasked as a result of this death. It even proved impossible to determine a motive for Bravo's murder.
Some crime historians question whether it was even a murder at all.
The road to Bravo's ruin began on December 7, 1875, when after a whirlwind courtship, the 30-year-old barrister married a wealthy, attractive widow of the same age, Florence Campbell Ricardo. Although neither would have admitted as much, it was essentially a marriage of convenience on both sides. Florence had a complicated romantic past. When she was nineteen, she wed a dashing officer named Alexander Ricardo. Unfortunately, the marriage was an almost immediate disaster. Ricardo was an alcoholic, and when intoxicated he abused his wife, making her life such a hell that she took the then-radical step of insisting on a legal separation. The kindest thing Florence's husband ever did for her was to die of delirium tremens in 1871, leaving her a tidy sum of money.
Soon after Ricardo died, Florence entered into a clandestine love affair. Her lover was Dr. James Manby Gully, whom she had first met when a patient at his hydrotherapy clinic at Great Malvern. Gully was over thirty years her senior and unprepossessing in appearance, but he was charming, cultured, and intelligent. His courtly devotion made a delightful change from the drunken brute she had married. He had provided emotional support during the dark days when her marriage to Ricardo collapsed, and had even helped arrange the separation. The two wanted to wed, but there was a serious impediment to this plan: Gully's wife, who had been in a mental hospital for many years. She was, however, well into her eighties, so the pair felt it would not be long before she died, leaving them free to enter into a socially respectable union.
|Dr. James Gully|
Eventually, however, their affair encountered other problems. Florence became pregnant. Dr. Gully performed an abortion on her that left her weak and sick for some time afterward. She was so physically and mentally traumatized from the experience that she ended their sexual relationship, although they remained close. Adding to Florence's misery was the fact that her relatives learned of her relationship with the doctor. (Although they were unaware of the sexual intimacy.) Her father--who seems to have been the classic strait-laced Victorian domestic tyrant--forbade anyone in the family from having any contact with their black sheep until she gave up Gully and repented her sinful ways. Florence adored her mother, so this banishment from the family circle was heartbreaking for her. On the surface, her life seemed ideal. She had all the money needed to make life very pleasant, she had a lovely home in Balham, "The Priory," and she had the affectionate society of Dr. Gully. But she was lonely and unhappy. Florence was not cut out for an unconventional existence. She missed her family, and she was growing heartily sick of backstairs romance. She wanted a stable, respectable home with husband and children--and Mrs. Gully was showing a disheartening reluctance to die.
It was right at this difficult juncture in her life that she had the misfortune of meeting Charles Bravo. His stepfather, Joseph Bravo, was an acquaintance of Florence's paid companion, a prim, briskly efficient widow named Jane Cannon Cox. Charles was young, high-spirited, and seemed both amiable and jolly. Practically as soon as he met the pretty, rich Mrs. Ricardo, he set out to sweep her off her feet. Florence still loved Dr. Gully, but she had to admit that she enjoyed this younger man's open admiration. He also offered her something even more inviting: renewed respectability.
In the end, that proved to be most important to Florence. When Charles asked her to marry him, Florence accepted him and--not without pain--told Dr. Gully that their relationship was over. Although the doctor was naturally surprised and hurt by being thrown over, he accepted his walking papers and vowed to never see her again. Although it is highly doubtful Florence ever deeply cared for Bravo, she loved her family, and she loved social acceptance. She told herself that would be enough to make it worth her while to marry a man she barely knew.
Charles' motives for pursuing Florence were equally self-serving, and far more distasteful. Joseph Bravo was a wealthy merchant, but he kept his adult stepson on an irritatingly small allowance. Charles chafed at this embarrassing dependence, and the quickest, easiest way to escape it was through marriage to a rich woman. Meeting the charming
Florence was touched and grateful for his magnanimity, little guessing the true reasons for his forgiving attitude. In order to win her fortune, Charles Bravo probably wouldn't have cared if she had confessed to being a serial killer.
Florence was given a far more serious warning about her fiance when the time came to draw up the marriage settlement. Charles, instead of hiring an attorney, opted to handle the negotiations himself--something that was considered indelicate "bad form." This did not go well. When Florence's solicitor congratulated him on the engagement, Charles rudely snapped, "Damn your congratulations! I've come about the money!" The lawyer was so offended that he withdrew from the negotiations and had one of his partners handle the matter. Further trouble came when Florence announced that she wished to retain legal possession of The Priory's furnishings. Charles threw a violent fit. He swore he would break off the engagement rather than live in a house where he could not sit on his own chairs. He insisted on ownership of everything in The Priory, including Florence's jewelry and personal effects.
Florence was deeply shaken by his tantrum. It began to dawn on her that perhaps Bravo was attracted to more than just her personal charms. She was tempted to call his bluff and end the engagement. What stopped her was the fact that she had entrusted Charles with the secret of her sexual relationship with Dr. Gully. She feared that if she jilted Charles, he might be angry enough to blab and permanently ruin her reputation. Having no one else to confide in, she took her difficulties with her new lover to, of all people, the old lover. Although the doctor wasn't terribly pleased at being dragged in the middle of Florence's new romance, he kindly, if unwisely, counseled her to let Charles have his way. She agreed, although she remained disturbed at this new side of her intended.
Florence and Charles married soon after this--the groom insisted on a speedy wedding--and they settled down at The Priory. Sitting on Charles' new chairs. On the surface, all seemed well. The newlyweds appeared touchingly affectionate to each other. The new man of the house delighted in showing off what he always called "my estate" to his friends. Florence was reconciled with her family.
A happy ending for this stormy tale?
No, of course not. Just weeks after the wedding, Florence suffered a miscarriage. When she recovered, she almost immediately became pregnant again, only to lose this second baby early in April. She began to suffer bouts of severe pain and vomiting. Adding to her distress was the fact that Charles showed himself to be extremely stingy and possessive of the money he had so recently acquired. Although Florence never spent more than she could afford, the lavish lifestyle of The Priory annoyed Bravo. He was constantly nagging his wife to cut expenses, even pressuring her to give up her carriage horses, cut back on her gardening (a pet hobby of hers,) and dismiss some of the servants. Although he liked Mrs. Cox, he begrudged her the three or four hundred pounds a year she cost the household, and began to talk of dispensing with her services. Worse still, Florence confided to her mother that on several occasions Charles "upbraided her about Dr. Gully." Still, these frictions did not keep Charles and Florence from presenting a sunny front to the world. Friends saw them as the ideal couple.
One sinister note did intrude into the ostensibly placid life at The Priory. Soon after the wedding, Charles received anonymous letters accusing him of marrying Florence for her money, and taunting him about her past relationship with Dr. Gully. Florence later said that Charles believed Gully himself had sent the letters--a suggestion she heatedly rejected. It was never learned who had sent these poison-pen notes, and why.
On the evening of April 18, 1876, the Bravos and Mrs. Cox sat down to the dinner table. It was Florence's first day up and about since her second miscarriage, and she was still feeling a bit poorly. The most notable feature of the meal was that between them, Florence and Mrs. Cox polished off two bottles of sherry--a curious culinary detail that rivals the famous mutton breakfast endured by Lizzie Borden's family on that fatal day in Fall River. While dining, Charles read a letter he had recently received from his stepfather--a letter that made him extremely angry. He was not specific about the contents, other than that he would tell his stepfather "to attend to his own affairs and not to meddle." Joseph Bravo later said that his letter expressed disapproval with some Stock Exchange transactions Charles had made. We will never know for sure if Joseph Bravo was telling the truth, because this letter mysteriously disappeared.
After the meal, Florence went up to her room to lie down. (She and Charles had been keeping separate bedchambers during her illness.) She asked the housemaid, Mary Ann Keebler, to bring her a glass of wine. Charles observed the errand and tartly told his wife, "You have sent downstairs for more wine: you have drunk nearly a bottle today!" (This seems to have been a great underestimation.) She made no reply, and he went off to his room and shut the door. Miss Keebler spent a few minutes tidying the dressing-room. When she came back into Florence's bedroom, she saw her mistress lying on the bed, apparently asleep. Mrs. Cox was sitting at the bedside. She told the maid to put away Florence's pet dogs for the night.
As Keebler was calling the animals, she was startled to see Charles suddenly burst out of his room, shouting frantically, "Florence! Florence! Hot water! Hot water!" He then dashed back into his room, where he began vomiting violently.
The startled maid rushed to Florence's room and fetched Mrs. Cox. (Florence appeared still stupefied by her largely liquid dinner.) Mrs. Cox, in her usual capable fashion, instantly sent for an emetic and did what she could for the now semi-conscious man, while giving orders for medical aid to be summoned. When Florence was awakened, and saw the state her husband was in, she became hysterical, screaming at the servants to get the nearest doctor.
Doctors were indeed called in. Eventually, no fewer than six physicians attended the patent. Among them was the famed Sir William Gull, who came away with the opinion that "Whatever Mr. Bravo took, he took it himself." It was soon determined that Charles had ingested a large dose of a powerful irritant poison, which was later found to be antimony. The question was, how did this happen? Mrs. Cox quietly took the doctors aside and confided that when she first answered Charles' cries for help, he told her he had "taken some of that poison. Don't tell Florence." During his spells of consciousness, the sick man steadfastly professed all ignorance of how he had come to be poisoned, vehemently rejecting any hint that he had taken it deliberately. He only admitted to taking small medicinal amounts of laudanum. At one point, he snapped to one of the doctors, "If I knew what I was suffering from, why the devil should I send for you?"
The remains of the Burgundy he drank during dinner were found to be completely normal. It was then thought that the water carafe in his bedroom was the culprit. (It was his invariable habit to drink a swig of water before bed.) However, the remaining water was also poison-free. (Although it would have been theoretically possible for the murderer to dispose of the doctored water and replace it with fresh before anyone thought to examine the carafe.) No one ever determined the source of the antimony.
Florence appeared genuinely and heartrendingly confused and frantic by this sudden disaster. She sought every means to save her husband's life. After the doctors had announced there was nothing more they could do, she even secretly sent Mrs. Cox to consult with Dr. Gully, whom she called "the cleverest medical man in the whole world." (He suggested mustard plasters and a homeopathic solution, which did no harm, but were obviously useless in this situation.) For his part, Charles was markedly affectionate to his wife. "What a bother I am to you all, Florrie," he sighed. He seemed to know he was doomed. He dictated his will, leaving everything to Florence. He urged her to remarry after his death. He told his ultra-possessive mother--who disliked Florence and had fiercely resented his marriage--to be kind to his wife. And early on the morning of the 21st, he died, leaving as a legacy a boatload of unanswered questions.
There was, of course, an inquest. It was not what one would call a searching inquiry. The coroner in charge was an old friend of Florence's family, ensuring that the proceeding was a model of genial discretion. It was tacitly agreed that the best way of dealing with this shocking death was to rule that Charles had simply committed suicide. The alternative solutions were just too uncomfortable. The jurors was reluctant to go quite that far, but they obediently returned an open verdict.
However satisfied Florence and the coroner may have been with this judgment, the public was far less pleased. And, not unnaturally, the Bravos were seething with indignation at this slur on Charles' memory. Charles' parents were convinced he had been murdered, and they hired private detectives. So great was the dissatisfaction with the inquest that questions were raised in the House of Commons. The Solicitor to the Treasury held a private inquiry into Bravo's death. Ominously for those two ladies, neither Florence nor Mrs. Cox was asked to attend. At the advice of their respective lawyers, the women submitted formal statements giving their accounts of how Charles had died.
This proved to be a startling turning point in the case. Mrs. Cox announced that, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to her employer, she had not told "the full particulars." She dropped the bombshell that on the night Bravo was poisoned, he had told her "I have taken poison for Gully. Don't tell Florence." Both she and Florence dropped all pretense that the Bravo marriage had been a happy one. The women described Charles as being consumed by jealousy of Dr. Gully--to the point that he once, in a rage, struck Florence. The widow vividly recounted her husband's stinginess, his bad tempers, his obsession with her old friend Gully--even though, she was careful to say, her attachment to the doctor had been entirely platonic. In their nervous eagerness to show the dead man had motives to kill himself, they overlooked the fact that they were supplying even stronger motives for them to kill him.
All this was more than enough to have authorities order a new inquest, which opened on July 11, 1876. It wound up being an informal trial for murder, with Florence and her companion as the two defendants. A parade of witnesses--led by the now-vengeful Bravo camp--described Charles as a happy man, devoted to his bride, and showing no sign whatsoever of the insane jealousy described by his wife.
Suspicion grew against the two women--particularly Mrs. Cox. After all, it was agreed that Charles had talked of letting her go from her comfortable, well-paid position. She was a poor, nearly-friendless widow who was the sole support of three young sons. If she lost her job, her situation would be a desperate one indeed. What better motive for murder? A parody of Goldsmith began to make the rounds:
"When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds her husband in the way,
What charm can soothe her melancholy,
What art can turn him into clay?
The only means her aims to cover
And save herself from prison locks,
And repossess her ancient lover,
Are Burgundy and Mrs. Cox."
Mrs. Cox began receiving anonymous hate mail accusing her of murder--including one particularly unsettling letter featuring a crude drawing of her hanging from a gibbet. It was looking increasingly likely that she would wind up being charged with murder. The companion found herself quite literally fighting not just for her life, but for those of her boys.
This undoubtedly explains what happened next. When it came time for Mrs. Cox to give her testimony, she told the world the whole, unvarnished truth about her employer's past relations with Dr. Gully. She left no doubt that it had been a fully sexual affair, which ended with Florence's "miscarriage." In short, she provided ample justification for Charles' alleged jealousy of Gully. She also left no doubt that Florence Bravo was, by the morals of the day, a "bad woman," who, by implication, could be guilty of anything.
Including, perhaps, the murder of her husband.
When Florence took the stand, she made a valiant effort to save what scant traces were left of her reputation, but it was a vain effort. With some tears, a certain amount of defiance, and as much dignity as could be mustered under the circumstances, she acknowledged the truth of everything Mrs. Cox had said about her romance with Dr. Gully. All she could say in her defense was that the affair began after her first husband died, and ended for good before she married her second. When asked about her current feelings towards Mrs. Cox, she replied quietly, "I think she might have spared me many of these painful inquiries to which I have been subjected."
This sexual scandal may have titillated newspaper readers and the audience at the inquest, but it did nothing to solve the puzzle of Charles Bravo's death. The coroner's jury delivered a verdict that managed to be both vague and accusatory. It stated that "We find Mr. Charles Delaunay Turner Bravo did not commit suicide; that he did not meet his death by misadventure; that he was wilfully murdered by the administration of tartar emetic; but there is not sufficient evidence to fix the guilt upon any person or persons."
In other words, the jurors said that they believed Mrs. Cox or Mrs. Bravo--or the two working together--were poisoners, but they could not prove it.
And there, officially at least, the puzzle ended. Florence may have been a free woman, but the "good name" she had been so anxious to preserve was gone forever, her hopes for a happy home and family irretrievably blasted by the permanent taint of "immorality" and murder. Soon after the inquest ended, she told a family friend, "I shall not long survive this cruel blow." She was right. Less than two years later, Florence, who had become virtually a recluse, was dead. The story given out was that she became an incurable alcoholic and drank herself to death, but reading between the lines, it seems highly possible that she committed suicide.
Even though there was no reason at all to believe he had anything to do with Charles' death, Dr. Gully's personal reputation and professional career were ruined by the scandal. He retreated into a quiet retirement until his death in 1882.
As for Mrs. Cox, she quietly disappeared from history, perhaps back in her native Jamaica. In any case, she had a quiet strength and courage that probably ensured she fared better than anyone else in this story.
So, how did Charles Bravo come to take a fatal dose of antimony? There are only three plausible possibilities:
1. His wife, sickened by his abusive behavior, poisoned him.
2. Jane Cox, fearing the loss of her job, poisoned him.
3. He took the poison himself, either by accident or design.
There are problems with all these theories. Although in recent years Florence has replaced Mrs. Cox as the most popular candidate, it is somehow hard to picture her murdering her husband of only four months. While she was likely an immature and self-absorbed woman, she was also sensitive, generous, forgiving, and anxious to be liked by others. She completely lacked the icy ruthlessness normally seen in the poisoner. Her motives hardly seem sufficient for such a drastic step. And the shock, grief, and confusion she displayed during Charles' illness comes off as completely sincere. This is admittedly just my gut instinct, but I simply cannot picture her as a cold-blooded killer.
As for Mrs. Cox, a closer analysis casts serious doubt on her presumed motive. Some time before Charles' death, her ailing aunt in Jamaica had written her, urging her to sail there to deal with some pressing business matters. Just a week before Charles died, she told the Bravos of her decision to go. Charles promised to "look after" her sons (who were in boarding school,) while she was away. It is not even clear if Charles seriously considered dismissing Mrs. Cox. To friends, he praised her usefulness around the house, and their personal relations were friendly enough for them to call each other "Janie" and "Charlie." In short, she had no motive to kill Bravo at all. Indeed, his sudden death would only delay and complicate her plans. In any case, it seems ludicrous to picture conventional, self-effacing, unctuous Jane Cox poisoning her employer's husband. She would have seen it as an unpardonable liberty.
That would leave Charles as responsible for his own death. Suicide can fairly safely be ruled out. He was too fond of himself and too enamored of his new wealth and independence for such a step. If he poisoned himself, it was by accident. But how could this happen?
Yseult Bridges' fascinating book "How Charles Bravo Died" offers the most interesting solution to the mystery. Bridges quoted a letter written in 1923 by a lawyer named Arthur Channell, who had known Charles Bravo well. He gave his belief that Bravo's death was due to "misadventure." After closely studying all the facts in the case, he concluded that Bravo was secretly giving Florence small doses of antimony in a well-intentioned, if creepy, effort to curb her wine habit. (This was not an uncommon 19th century treatment for alcoholism.) It is worth noting that Florence's mother testified that the previous Christmas, Charles commented to her that Florence drank too much wine, and that he would "cure her of it." He did not say how this would be done.
Channell thought this secretive tactic would be entirely in character, as Bravo was "fond of dodges." He surmised that on the fatal night, Bravo accidentally took an overdose of the laudanum he was using to ease the pain of toothache. In his fright, Bravo took a dose of the antimony as an emetic, but inadvertently swallowed enough to kill him. As Bravo was reluctant to explain why he had antimony in his possession, he simply kept that information to himself.
Channell went on to say that during the second inquest, he had discussed his theory with Mrs. Cox's lawyer, J.P. Murphy, as well as other solicitors involved in the case, and they all believed it was the probable solution, although it came too late in the inquiry for Murphy to feel safe resting their whole case upon it. However, Channell believed that it was the advocate's hints to the jury of such a scenario that kept Mrs. Cox from being charged with murder.
Bridges took Channell's scenario one step further. She argued that Bravo had indeed been slowly poisoning Florence, but not to stop her from drinking.
He wished to stop her from breathing.
All who knew him acknowledged that he had, in the words of Florence's mother, "a money mania." Immediately after the marriage, Florence made a will leaving every cent she possessed to her new husband. Seen in that light, Charles' bizarre efforts to curb his wife's spending have the sinister look of someone trying to preserve as much as possible of an anticipated inheritance. Another friend commented that he was a man of "very little sentiment." Ever since his marriage, Charles had secretly been pitting his wife and his parents against each other. Behind Florence's back, he was making efforts to get more money out of his stepfather by asserting that his new wife was a hopeless spendthrift who was leaving them deeply in debt. At the same time, he was wheedling cash out of Florence by complaining to her how his stepfather was refusing to give him a cent. When Florence learned that her in-laws believed she was spending beyond her income, she wanted to "have it out" with them, but Charles frantically managed to stop her. Bridges pointed out that he would hardly enter into such dangerous double-dealing "if he were looking forward to a long married life."
Although he was by profession a barrister, Bravo's real love was medicine. He was an expert on medical jurisprudence, so would have known all about antimony and its highly lethal properties. Bridges believed that Florence's debilitating miscarriages during her marriage were, in fact, a side effect of slow poisoning. She pointed to an odd little detail: Soon after Charles' death, Florence, while being interviewed by the police inspector in charge of the case, made what was only described as a "grave charge" against her late husband, and that "if he wished to know more he could go to [her personal physician] Dr. Dill." When asked about this at the inquest, Florence replied that "I sent the Inspector to Dr. Dill to to inquire about my health." She flatly refused to say what this "grave charge" might have been. (Although inquiry established that--contrary to what you might be assuming--it was not that Charles had given her a venereal disease.) Bridges hypothesized that Florence's doctor realized that the poor health she had experienced throughout her brief second marriage could be due to poisoning--something that was, perhaps, confirmed by tests.
The scenario Bridges offered for Bravo's death was, in brief, this: On the night he was poisoned, he became very upset about that mysterious letter from his stepfather. In his room, he took some laudanum to calm his nerves. He reached for some epsom salts he had been prescribed for indigestion, but accidentally swallowed some of his private stash of antimony instead. (Both substances are similar-looking white crystals.) He immediately realized his horrible mistake, which explains his desperate cries for hot water (a common emetic.) He would know that if he could only vomit sufficiently, there was still hope for him.
Bridges believed that when Mrs. Cox ran into the room, Charles truly had told her he had taken poison, and then he ordered her to throw the incriminating box into the fireplace, and tell no one--particularly Florence--what had happened. Mrs. Cox, caught off-guard and accustomed to obeying orders, complied without thinking the situation through. Later, when she realized that she was suspected of murder, and that she had destroyed the only clue that proved otherwise, she decided that her only hope was to muddy the waters and direct suspicion elsewhere.
As indirect evidence that Charles told Mrs. Cox he had accidentally poisoned himself, Bridges pointed to the fact that after Charles collapsed, the first thing Mrs Cox did was give him an emetic. As the "Lancet" commented shortly after the inquest, "A mustard emetic...is by no means a remedy likely to be instantly applied, least of all in a family of homeopathic proclivities...The inference is forced upon us that either the patient made a statement to the effect that he had taken poison, or it was known or suspected by the person directing the use of the mustard emetic that he had taken something which would require to be removed from the stomach by a powerful stimulating appliance to produce vomiting...The hypothesis is that the patient himself knew or believed he had taken poison is further supported by the circumstance that he called loudly for warm water..."
Bridges suggested that Bravo's behavior on his deathbed showed a sense of guilt--although not enough guilt to confess what had happened. She agreed that Bravo was "'the last man on earth to commit suicide': he was also the last man on earth to remain mute if he thought he was dying by another's hand."
While Bridges' theory would explain much that is otherwise inexplicable, it still is too based on speculation to be accepted uncritically. But then, that is true of every effort to account for how Charles Bravo died.
[Note: On July 31, 1881, the "Memphis Daily Appeal" carried a footnote to the Bravo mystery that, if reported accurately, confirms at least part of Bridges' theory. The newspaper stated that "In January, 1879, a lot of gentlemen were made sick, with symptoms of antimonial poisoning, by some sherry which the wine merchant, it proved, had bought from Mr. Bravo's father, who, we believe died a few days ago. It came out a few days later that Mr. Bravo had told his wife's mother that he would cure his wife of drinking, and a Mr. Raymond, who sold a cure for dipsomania, consisting of tartar emetic (antimony,) testified that he had sent Mr. Bravo six packets of his powders."
I have not seen this detail in any other accounts of the case, leaving it uncertain whether this was genuine inside information, or a journalist's fantasy.]