Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder, The Unsolved Murder that Shocked Victorian England by Paul Thomas Murphy

Life was different in the English Victorian age. There were the gentry, but there was also the merchant class as well as they who were the poor. Anyone considered the middle class had a servant who served more like a slave, doing the bidding of the household from cooking to cleaning to laundry to emptying out the chamber pots. It was a hard life, but with large families to feed, the children were expected to make their own way once they reached the age of twelve. Many girls, unable to find work due to slovenly habits or the lack of a reference, had to turn to prostitution in order to survive.

Jane Marie Cloussen, at seventeen, had recently quit her most recent job as household servant for the Pooks who owned a print shop. Living in a boarding house, her friends and cousin had noticed her morose mood had suddenly brightened. Jane confided she was meeting Edmund Pook, the handsome young son of her former master, and that he was going to whisk her away to a better life. Instead she was found brutally murdered by a hammer/axe, and an autopsy revealed she was two months pregnant (a good reason for her depression since her reputation and a chance of future employment would have been ruined). The local police pieced the information together and went to the Pook home hoping to gather further evidence and a confession, but ended up arresting Edmund without definitive proof of his guilt. This was the beginning of a series of bungling mistakes which eventually led to an acquittal although many felt that justice was not served with the resulting not guilty decision. Yet, without modern technology and the judge’s refusal to admit the “hearsay” statements of Jane’s friends, the trial was doomed from the beginning.

While this was not considered the trial of the century, like OJ Simpson’s acquittal, there were numerous errors by judge, jury, and counsels, with the police being suspected of tampering with the evidence and perjuring themselves in order to establish Edmund’s guilt. Everyone wanted to attend the court hearings and vast crowds cheered and/or jeered the suspect. In the end the killer was never found although a reward was offered. While many believed Edmund the true culprit, his guilt was not effectively proven.

Paul Thomas Murphy gives us details of these events in Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder, The Unsolved Murder that Shocked Victorian England, including various specifics of life in England in the 1870’s relevant to understanding the story. Well researched with numerous footnotes and works sited, there is also a series of photos and cartoons depicting the involved characters. A photograph of the monument at Jane’s gravesite, a rarity for an impoverished female, shows the community support for the young girl’s plight.

While the main events were interesting, I began to lose interest about two thirds of the way through the book and wished the author had wrapped things up a little more quickly. An annotated list of characters would also have been helpful, especially since many of the players went on to make a name for themselves in the judicial system.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.


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