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by Kate Clarke

What is it that ignites and unleashes an uncontrollable fury, exposing the smouldering resentment in those who finally rebel against a life of servitude? Surprisingly perhaps, this type of killing is relatively rare and when one considers the degradation and exploitation experienced by generations of servants, it is remarkable indeed that so few have resorted to murder.

Surely it could not have been merely the fussy, ostentatious ways of Mrs Julia Thomas that drove the surly housekeeper, Kate Webster, in 1879, to push her down the stairs and then systematically cut up her body and boil the bits in the kitchen copper?

Could it be that the obsequious widow, Jane Cannon Cox, was so determined to maintain her luxurious life-style as companion to the wealthy Florence Bravo, that, in 1876, she was prepared to kill Charles, her mistress’s new husband, with enough antimony to ‘kill a horse’?

Is it really possible that something as innocuous as a broken iron unleashed such an orgy of violence in the incredible case of two maids, Christine and Léa Papin, who, in France in 1933, mercilessly beat their mistress and her daughter to death and literally scratched their eyes out?

It is difficult to believe that being given the sack in 1927 had so enraged the mild-mannered and kindly butler, Charles Houghton, that, after serving their breakfast the next morning, he calmly shot his two elderly employers, Ella and May Woodhouse, at point blank range before returning the gun to its usual place in the larder.

As for the dumpy chatter-box, Louisa Merrifield, she was finding it hard to manage on her low wages and husband ‘Pop’ Merrifield’s old age pension. When, in 1953, her elderly employer rashly made a will bequeathing the couple her modest little bungalow in Blackpool, the greedy housekeeper helped her on her way by feeding her the occasional spoonful of rum, laced with rat poison.

In 1884, young John Lee made criminal history by cheating the hangman and becoming famous as ‘The man they could not hang’. When his benefactress, Miss Emma Keyse, had decided to dock sixpence from his weekly wage, he was seen to be upset.  He was even more annoyed when she asked him to forgo an early morning tryst with a young lady in order to rake the gravel paths. He killed the old woman, it was said, by knocking her senseless before cutting her throat to the bone.  But was he the killer or was the perpetrator, in fact, the lover of his pregnant half-sister, the cook, Elizabeth Harris?

Roy Fontaine was a meticulous butler, a brilliant conman and an audacious jewel thief; a career criminal who murdered five people – his first victim was an ex-lover, David Wright, and in 1977, he killed and robbed his wealthy employers, Mr and Mrs Scott-Elliot. He went on to beat one of his accomplices, Mary Coggle, to death with a poker because she refused to hand over part of the loot - a luxurious fur coat and some very expensive jewellery. His final killing was that of his despised half-brother, Donald, with chloroform.

This book contains studies of seven extraordinary cases of servants who have killed their employers, revealing the frustration and inner turmoil fostered by insecurity, poverty or greed so urgent and compelling that they were driven to kill, each in a totally different way.   

But in each case it achieved nothing. Kate Webster, Charles Houghton and Louisa Merrifield lost their lives on the gallows. One of the Papin sisters lost her sanity. Jane Cox, though never charged with the murder of Charles Bravo, lost Florence Bravo’s friendship, her credibility and her job. As for John Lee, though he cheated death in one of the most bizarre incidents in criminal history, nevertheless wasted twenty-two years of his life in prison.

Finally, the incorrigible Roy Fontaine, convicted of five murders and incarcerated for the rest of his life, time enough to reflect on his extraordinary life and truly callous killings before dying in Kingston Prison, Portsmouth, on 16 September, 2002, aged 78.

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