‘I had long been trying to write a story on this subject, to find a body, a vehicle, for that strong sense of man’s double being which must at times come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every thinking thing.’
66: The House That Viewed the World
By John D. O. Fulton
Published by Scotland Street Press
Chantrelle was an acquaintance of Stevenson. His continuous presence for the trial’s duration suggests that Stevenson was keen to gain an insight into the complex alter ego of an educated and talented man who had murdered his wife. Another figure of notoriety, who had fascinated Stevenson as a boy was Deacon Brodie, a locksmith and respected town councillor, who had committed his crimes ninety years earlier. Brodie had confined his activities to armed robbery and more particularly burglary. These were committed at night by him gaining entry to houses through using copy keys he had cut for the new locks he had fitted for his trusting clients. Like Chantrelle, the scaffold awaited Brodie but the nature of their crimes was quite different. A far greater darkness lay within the soul of Chantrelle. He had abused his wife and other women whilst expressing no empathy or pity for those whose lives he had ruined or, in the case of his wife, taken.
To try to understand what may have been the fascination which drew in Stevenson, one needs to look at his early life. He was brought up as an only child in the New Town of Edinburgh by parents who were devout and serious Presbyterians: a situation fortified by his faithful nurse who held strong Calvinistic and folklore beliefs. For her the theatre was the ‘mouth of hell’ and she filled the head of young Louis with, amongst other terrifying images, the blood-drenched religious fundamentalism of the two previous centuries. Her remedy for her charge’s frequent bouts of insomnia was a cup of strong coffee in the middle of the night which, with the ill-health he suffered through a weak chest, induced powerful dreams and nightmares in which reality was bent between the conscious and the unconscious. Even as a student his dreams were so real he felt that he was leading a double life making him fear for his sanity.
. . .
He had gained some insight to Chantrelle’s ‘quite remarkable powers’ during a chance meeting one evening in the street. Chantrelle asked Stevenson if he had seen a mutual French friend’s translation of Molière. Stevenson said that he had but did not rate it. ‘His eyes blazed with hope, had me to a public house; and bidding me name any passage of Molière with which I was well acquainted, offered to improvise without the book a better version than their mutual friend.’ The challenge was accepted and, as far as Stevenson could judge, he did well what he professed. Stevenson said he was in no position to judge fairly and he must be given a written copy before he could, as desired, approach a publisher on Chantrelle’s behalf. Nothing more was heard from him and ‘the spark of hope … must have died out’. The next occasion Stevenson found himself observing Chantrelle was in the High Court of Justiciary when the latter was listening ‘with singular and painful changes of countenance, the evidence of his own trial for murder.’
Chantrelle had been born into privilege in Nantes in 1834. His father, who was a shipowner of some repute, provided his son with an excellent education which led to his son’s attendance at Nantes Medical School where his ability earned him a commendation. For reasons that are not clear but may be associated with his father suffering commercial hardship due to the French Revolution of 1848 Chantrelle was no longer able to continue his studies at Nantes but managed to continue them by attending classes in both Paris and Strasburg. These events unsettled him and his aspirations for a career in medicine faded. Instead, by seventeen, he had become a Republican. In 1851 he manned the barricades in Paris where he was wounded in the arm by a sabre. The success of Louis-Napoleon no longer made France a country he could identify with. America beckoned and he spent several years there although what he did there remains unknown. In 1862 he arrived in England where in different regional cities he worked as a French language teacher. By 1866 he was teaching in Edinburgh and was proving himself an excellent linguist in French and German with a proficient knowledge of Latin and Greek. He had further enhanced his reputation by compiling several textbooks which had been adopted by many of the local schools. It was in one of these schools, Newington Academy, that the thirty-four-year-old Chantrelle, replete with a cultured and polished manner, met the fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Dyer.
Seduced by him Elizabeth fell pregnant and her parents forced Chantrelle into marriage on 11 August 1868. The first of their four children was born two months later. The marriage was not a happy one with Elizabeth regularly being subjected to abuse, both mental and physical, in the knowledge that her husband was systematically unfaithful to her. She fled to her parents repeatedly and, on at least two occasions, the police were called in for her protection. Chantrelle threatened to shoot Elizabeth with a loaded pistol and frequently said he would poison her whilst taunting her that he had the knowledge to do so without medical detection. Poor Elizabeth was caught in a bind. Her parents were not prepared to intercede; and having taken legal advice, although she knew she could sue for divorce on the grounds of adultery, the public shame of doing so and the risk of forfeiting the care of her much-loved children prevented her from taking action.
Chantrelle’s unacceptable behaviour, amplified by drunkenness, took its toll at work. His classes dwindled and financial difficulties and debt set in. It was perhaps an increasing sense of desperation in a man who had lost his self-control that led him to make enquiry of two insurance companies about taking out life insurance policies on the life of his wife and himself for the sum of £1,000 each, and on the life of the maid for £100, all payable in the event of an accident. With the first policy he asked if the company, Accidental Assurance Association of Scotland, were in the habit of insuring women (which they were not) and mentioned that his son had accidentally shot him with a loaded gun which had been sitting on the table injuring his hand. It was this event he said that persuaded him to insure himself and his wife against the risk. With the second company, Star Accidental Insurance Assurance Company, he wanted to know what constituted an accident. Amongst scenarios he mentioned the case of a friend who had eaten Welsh rarebit in a hotel and was found dead in his bed the next day. Would that be covered by the policy? In the circumstances of the case the insurer’s answer was firmly ‘No, certainly not’. The policies were taken out with Accidental Assurance on 22 October 1877. This was done very much against the wishes of Elizabeth who informed her mother that she feared for her life pointing out that her husband had more than once threatened to take it.
At the trial witnesses testified to Chantrelle’s abusive behaviour towards his wife and of her opinion that he visited brothels. It was then that the witness Barbara Kay was called: a person whose presence in the witness box Stevenson would observe with acute interest. For Barbara Kay was the keeper of the brothel in Clyde Street frequented by Chantrelle and only a short distance from the Stevensons’ house. The brothel would have been a destination shared by other respectable gentlemen in town. A heave of collective relief may have been heard from within their number when the Lord Justice Clerk announced that what had already been proved of Chantrelle’s behaviour was quite sufficient for the Crown’s purposes. The gossamer layer between the public perception of good and evil remained unbreached.
Evidence was given that up to New Year’s Day of 1878 Elizabeth had been in good health but that evening, because she was feeling slightly unwell, she retired to bed early in their home at 81a George Street, Edinburgh, where the family lived on the two upper floors. Her servant had been given the day off leaving Elizabeth at home with her children and her husband. On the servant’s return at 10pm she found her mistress in the back bedroom with her baby beside her ‘looking very heavy’ and not well. There was a tumbler of lemonade three-quarters full beside her bed and Elizabeth asked her servant to peel an orange for her. The servant gave her mistress a quarter and left the remaining three segments on the plate. Retiring to bed Chantrelle slept in the front bedroom with his two older children. The next morning, on rising, the servant heard moaning from Elizabeth’s bedroom. The door usually closed was partly open. She found her mistress lying unconscious on the bed with stains of vomiting upon the pillow. She called her master who was in his own bedroom with the three children. He returned with her and tried to rouse his wife; the servant suggested he call for a doctor.
Chantrelle claimed he heard the baby crying and told the servant to attend to it. The servant found the baby still asleep and returned at once to the bedroom where she found Chantrelle moving away from the window. He said, ‘Don’t you smell gas?’ She did not immediately smell it but after a slight delay did whereupon she turned off the gas at the meter. Dr Carmichael was called and when he arrived the room had a pervading odour of gas. Chantrelle explained there had been an escape. The doctor called for Dr Littlejohn, the city medical officer, ‘to see a case of coal gas poisoning’. Upon Littlejohn’s arrival both doctors because of Chantrelle’s assertions and the smell believed Elizabeth to be suffering from gas inhalation. Remaining comatose Elizabeth was admitted to the Royal Infirmary where the ward doctor diagnosed the case as not one of gas but of narcotics poisoning, probably opium, and he treated the patient accordingly. At 4pm, Elizabeth died without regaining consciousness. The post-mortem examinations ruled out gas as the cause of death but failed to detect the narcotic poisoning indicated by the symptoms. Analysis of the stains of vomit on the bedclothes and the pillow, however, proved the presence of opium together with the orange pulp.
On 5 January immediately following Elizabeth’s funeral at which those present had been deeply moved by her husband’s very public outpouring of grief Chantrelle was arrested for murder and dispatched to Calton Prison. The defence argued that the symptoms of death were consistent with gas poisoning and that the stains were not proved to be the result of vomiting. On the basis of medical evidence alone the Crown might not have had enough to secure a conviction. But it was proved that positioned behind the window shutter, from which the servant had observed Chantrelle retracing his steps as she had re-entered the bedroom, was a disused gas pipe. It was the source of the gas having been freshly broken by being twisted back and forth. Had it been in that condition for any length of time the room would have filled with gas. Whilst Chantrelle denied knowledge of the pipe it was proved that he had been present in 1876 when it was repaired and its location discussed with the workman.
It was further proved that on 25 November 1877 Chantrelle had bought from a local chemist a measure of opium extract for a use which was never established; but he had informed various witnesses that before retiring to bed he had given his wife a bit of orange and some lemonade prior to taking the baby away as Elizabeth was feeling unwell. The jury was not convinced by Chantrelle’s explanations and a unanimous verdict of guilty followed. Before descending into the cells, with the permission of the court, Chantrelle had given a rambling speech in which he ‘demolished the whole fabric of his case by arguing that his wife had taken the opium voluntarily and someone had rubbed the poison on her linen in order to incriminate him’.
The verdict was cheered by a very large crowd pressed into Parliament Square who were hopeful of glimpsing the prisoner on his way to jail. His appearance evoked hisses, groans, hooting and yelling which continued until the prison van had disappeared into the High Street. This execution, unlike the last in the capital thirteen years before as a result of legislative change, would take place in private within the walls of the prison and away from prying eyes seeking entertainment.
. . .
More than twelve years later when living in Vailima in Western Samoa, Stevenson had no doubt as to Chantrelle’s guilt. He recalls in his diaries of being told by the Procurator Fiscal that Chantrelle had left France because of murder; he had left England because of murder; and already since he was in Edinburgh more than four or five had fallen victim to his supper parties and his favourite dish of toasted cheese and opium. Stevenson concludes that ‘Chantrelle had all the talents to succeed in any trade, honest or dishonest; and though it may be said that he did for a while succeed in that grisly one he selected, it never brought him even a decent livelihood, and to judge from his face, can have contributed little to his peace of mind’.
Eight years after the trial, Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He claimed it was the product of years of worrying at the same theme: ‘I had long been trying to write a story on this subject, to find a body, a vehicle, for that strong sense of man’s double being which must at times come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every thinking thing.’
66: The House That Viewed the World by John D. O. Fulton is published by Scotland Street Press, priced £19.99
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