Death at the Priory: Love, Sex, and Murder in Victorian England

by James Ruddick

Death at the Priory : Love, Sex, and Murder in Victorian England by James Ruddick

I love a good true crime book as much (or more) than the next gal. I also enjoy reading about Victorian England. In theory this is the sort of book I love, but the execution did nothing for me, and Ruddick’s “investigation” left a lot to be desired. Death at the Priory seeks to illuminate the 1875 poisoning of Charles Bravo. Though physicians knew he’d been poisoned, and did not lack a shortage of suspects, they were unable to pin the crime on anyone. The first portion of the book outlines the characters involved, and the crime as it unfolded. The second part of the book is where the real problems begin, but lets focus on the crime first.

Charles Bravo was the second husband of a woman called Florence Ricardo. Florence had divorced her first abusive husband, entered a sanitarium, and had an affair with her Dr. Not exactly in that order. Florence was already an infamous type woman within her neighborhood and sought to marry Bravo in an attempt to re-establish some domestic stability and return to polite society. Bravo is presented as a no good fortune hunter which might be accurate to an extent, but I doubt is entirely fair. Florence’s former lover, the good Dr. James Gully, lives just down the street, and her ladies’ companion, the shrewd Mrs. Cox also figure largely into the drama as it unfolds. One night Charles collapses and dies a painful death three days later. During that time Mrs Cox accused him of confessing a suicide attempt which he repeatedly denied, but Charles Bravo could gave no accusation as to who would want him dead. During the inquest the lurid details of  Florence’s love affair with Dr. Gully, and an illegal abortion came to light, thus effectively causing Florence Ricardo to be one of Victorian England’s infamous women.

The second portion is where Ruddick unleashes his armchair detective theories. Though entertaining, and certainly another opinion about a fairly well known case… there weren’t enough primary sources to constitute actual investigative journalism. One of the points Ruddick made that I found absolutely ludicrous is that Dr. George Gull (not to be confused with James GullY, Florence’s former lover), the only Dr. who was content with the idea of suicide, was doing so because he was a Mason and Mason’s tend to look after the interests of other Masons. Florence Ricardo’s father (Dr. Gull’s friend) might have been a Mason too… seriously. That was ‘evidence’ in the book. There was also the completely laughable portion when Ruddick eliminates Dr. Gully, Florence’s former lover, because his words at the inquest ‘ring true’ despite the fact that he had an adulterous affair with his mental patient AND preformed an illegal abortion on her, Ruddick claims he was an honorable sort of man and thus could not have committed the murder. At the end of the day, this book was not a serious work that probed new insights. It was written in much the style of the sensational true crime shows, where theories are presented as facts and stack up to ‘prove’ a specific theory. All in all, true crime readers might enjoy it in passing, but it wasn’t well thought out or well written.

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1 Comment »

  1. Maria says:

    I have just read your review and I have a few comments to make.
    First of all, from what I’ve already read about the case, Florence didn’t divorce her first husband, who incidentally was just as much of a bad lot as Charles Bravo. She insisted on a legal separation, and shortly afterwards he most fortunately died and left her a large fortune.
    Also you write that one of the physicians who tried to save Charles’s life was called Dr. George Gull, but in actual fact his name was Sir William Gull, one of Queen Victoria’s own physicians.
    Am I right in thinking you seem to disapprove of Florence, and of Dr. James Gully as well? I myself feel that Florence was extremely stupid to embark upon a second matrimonial alliance when there was absolutely no need for her to do so. She was a wealthy widow and had no need of financial support. And I suppose it was rather unprofessional of Dr. Gully to have an affair with one of his patients, however willing she doubtless was. However these are harmless human failings and don’t merit censure from anyone. Florence’s strange behaviour in contracting her second marriage and her equally strange desire for bourgeois respectability are admittedly extremely irritating. If she had steered clear of Charles Bravo none of this would have happened. Seems to me her only offences are extreme stupidity and a hideously conventional and bourgeois attitude. I don’t think she murdered Charles; I don’t think Dr. Gully did either.

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