The Story of the Carr’s Hill Murder by Jane Housman.
One cannot help but feel that Jane Housman is a fan of Kate Summerscale’s best selling The Suspicions of Mr Wicher, in which Summerscale takes a mid-Victorian murder and attempts to create a fictionalised murder mystery story. Both women carried out extensive research and both seek to unmask the hypocrisies and suspect moral codes of that period.
Here, though, the comparisons end. Housman’s tale is set in Tyneside, in an industrialised, but still rural north, her characters are from the labouring classes and her murderer, the apprentice, facilitates a study of lunatic asylums as well as police procedures.
Interestingly the area had a proportionately high number of Irish immigrants, attracted by the promise of employment, unattractive and noxious though many of the available posts were. Housman states, “local tensions were running high. There was sectarian hostility between Catholic and Protestant Irish immigrants and general anti-Irish feeling from the indigenous locals, exacerbated by fears of an Irish uprising and acts of terrorism”.
The victim of the Carr’s Hill murder is Sarah, 5½, the daughter of an Irish immigrant couple, Mary and Michael Melvin. The suspects are the parents of the murdered child, their motive: poverty. Whilst the post-mortem, or dissection, took place on the family kitchen table, crowds gathered outside the Melvin’s house, brought there by the railways and their voyeuristic tendencies. Dr. Barkus concluded that Sarah had received a blow on the head before being strangled. After death, he believed, her genitals had been cut with a knife in an attempt to mask the fact that there had been no rape.
The press, if not the police or judiciary, determined that this dastardly act must have been carried out by Sarah’s mother. The child was one too many for the family to support so it seemed likely that Mary had killed her own child and tried to deflect suspicion by making it look as if she had been raped by a man. Housman presents a society which is both anti-Irish and misogynistic.
Low and behold a young Englishman comes forward and confesses to the murder. This is Cuthbert Carr, a fifteen year old, considered by locals as ‘mad’ and ‘feeble minded’. His motive: ‘the virgin cure’. At the time, the mediaeval belief that sex with a virgin was a way of ridding oneself of gonorrhoea and/or syphilis still held sway. The murder was a sidepiece to prevent identification. Here is the apprentice of Split Crow Lane, an apprentice who could not stick at a job because he was anxious and nervous. An Irish girl child has been murdered by a vulnerable and frightened English boy.
Next there is a chance for various ‘medical men who had had experience in cases of insanity’ to make their contribution. The report, by Robert Smith MD, the Medical Superintendent of the County Lunatic Asylum at Sedgefield, concludes, among other things, that Cuthbert Rodham Carr, looks like an imbecile and also sits like one. He “declared unequivocally that Cuthbert lacked the mental capacity to be responsible for his acts and should be treated in an asylum”.
According to Housman ‘in Broadmoor Cuthbert’s madness effloresced”. By the age of 20 he had tried to escape twice. He committed violent acts against other prisoners and guards, he wrote a “ferociously articulate” petition to Her Majesty’s Commissionaires in Lunacy and became a “spanner in the Broadmoor works”. But Broadmoor, which labelled Cuthbert as chronically manic with delusions, is still extant whilst the apprentice himself died at a relatively young age.
Housman’s style is didactic: perhaps over-reliant on her research, “I became driven to find out every available detail. Nothing about it bored me”. This might not necessarily be the reaction of the reader who might be discombobulated at finding a paragraph-long footnote explaining the trade and working hours of teazers, (furnacemen). Housman is an enthusiastic user of parentheses, (brackets); a stylistic format which I, as a youngster, was forbidden by my English teachers. Additionally Housman is somewhat addicted to defining words rather than assuming that her reader knows, or can easily find out, the meaning. She makes assertions and speculates unnecessarily around the factual evidence that she has found. And there is something cloying and self-congratulatory about her tone in such phrases as “I flatter myself”. The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane is Housman’s labour of love and presents the avid, if undiscerning, reader with gruesome detail and overwhelming context.
Housman, J. The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane. Riverrun. 2016.
A version of this review was first published on page 36 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 1st April 2017.