How Charles Bravo Died by Yseult Bridges
There’s been a recent bookish trend for popular volumes covering real life crimes; “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher” is the most obvious one, and that title could be regarded as having kick-started the whole fashion. However, it’s interesting to find that this *isn’t* in fact something modern, as a chance find in a charity shop revealed. I picked up “How Charles Bravo Died”, published in 1956, on a whim some time back in one of the local charity shops; I knew that the Bravo case was a famous one from the past, but apart from that I wasn’t familiar with anything about it, so I came to this with no preconceptions – and what a great read it turned out to be!
The case was a notorious one, also known as the Balham Poisoning, and one that was never solved. Charles Bravo was a young barrister; he met and married Florence Ricardo, a beautiful widow, in 1875 and the two settled in The Priory, Balham. Both partners had something of a chequered past: Charles had a long-term liaison with another woman by whom he had a child. As for Florence, her first marriage had been an unhappy one as Captain Ricardo was a drinker; she had taken the unusual (in those days) step of seeking a legal separation before he drank himself to death. She then had an off-on relationship with an older man, Dr. Gully, which resulted in at one point the latter having to undertake an abortion for Florence. However, she craved respectability and allowed herself to be rushed into marriage with Bravo, a mistake she would come to regret.
Charles Bravo was a queer fish; doted upon obsessively by his mother, and controlled through the purse strings of his stepfather, it’s hard not to conclude that he married Florence for her money. However, Florence was no pushover, keeping control of her funds, and this caused clashes within the marriage. And despite the fact that she’d been open about her relationship with Gully before the marriage, and Charles had promised never to mention it, he in fact constantly berated her about Gully, causing further tensions.
In April 1876, Charles Bravo suddenly became ill. He called for his wife but instead her companion/housekeeper Jane Cox initially attended. Numerous doctors were called; various treatments were tried; but owing to a combination of stupidity and the drug taking hold too quickly, Charles Bravo died three days later from antimony poisoning. He was lucid enough to know he was dying but he declared on several occasions that he’d only taken laudanum for pain, nothing else, and no-one was able to find out how the antimony got into his system.
What followed was a farce: two inquests, both badly run and badly controlled by the coroner, which concluded little and simply served to throw suspicion on Florence and Mrs. Cox. Their lives and their reputations were dragged through the mud in the most appalling way (especially bearing in mind these were only inquests and not court proceedings) and Florence in particular was judged and condemned by the public for her relationship with Gully (and how hypocritical that Charles Bravo’s affair and illegitimate child were brushed over).
Yseult Bridges’ book is a fascinating investigation of the case, complete with illustrations and maps of the house. She covers the background to the family; both inquests in depth; and draws conclusions at the end, presenting a very plausible solution of her own. Because fascinatingly, the case was never solved; despite the second inquest jury finding that Charles Bravo was murdered, they stated that there was not enough evidence to say by whom, and although the implication was that either Florence or Mrs. Cox or both were guilty, neither woman was ever prosecuted. However, the reputation of Florence was in tatters and she did not survive her husband long.
Bridges is systematic and thorough with her presentation of the case, drawing on a number of sources, and it’s clear that she thinks Florence was unjustly maligned and unfairly treated by the inquest. The marriage had not been easy for Florence; Charles was demanding, unreasonable and unsympathetic when she was unwell. In the short marriage they had, Florence suffered two miscarriages, one not long before the poisoning, and Bravo’s attitude was not always kind.
As for the solution – well, I’m not going to reveal what it is but Bridges makes a good case for her hypothesis. I looked up the case online after I’d finished the book and her resolution is still given credence. I don’t suppose the truth will ever be known but I’d like to believe that Bridges’ deduction is the right one as it means there’s a certain poetic justice involved. The book is a gripping read; a little old-fashioned in the writing occasionally, but still just as exciting as a crime fiction novel. I was going to say that it’s a good thing that the Victorian hypocrisy of judging women’s sexual behaviour differently to that of men has gone, but I’m not actually convinced it has. I wonder if a modern-day Florence Bravo would meet with the same judgemental attitudes – I rather fear she would…
(As an aside, I’ve been able to find out nothing about Yseult Bridges, which is a shame. She seems to have specialised in writing about real life crimes and on the evidence of this book she certainly had a talent for such things!)