Chapter 1. A Casual Prophecy
Tuesday 7 December 1876
Regulars at the Bedford Hotel paid no attention as the 11:50 thundered along the West London and Crystal Palace line. In the tap room, a customer by the wooden bar raised his voice to compensate for the clattering hooves of the iron horse on the adjacent bridge.
"It ain't fair," he said, his wiry fingers clasping a ceramic mug of porter.
"What happened then, George?" his companion asked.
"Mrs Ricardo asked me to take her into town in her landau. We were in Bond Street and a wine cart pulled out in front of us. Pulled out, just like that. I steered the horses to the right but..." He shook his head. "The carriages hit. I got the blame, of course."
"And Mrs Ricardo asked you to leave?"
"Yeah, last Friday with a month's notice." George Griffith hesitated, his mood shifting from melancholy to resentment. "But the missus ain't the problem. It's him! He's the one who wanted me gone."
"Yeah, he told her that I was not a safe driver and I had to go. What choice did she 'ave? She could hardly disobey her husband-to-be." Griffith downed some of his ale. "You know he forced her to destroy one of the hounds after it bit him on the arm? I was the one who had to shoot the wretched thing. He also made her sack her maid. Too many servants, he said. As if she's counting the pennies!"
"Well, he's the man of the house now, layin' down the law. Nothin' wrong with that."
"Yeah, but the missus won't like it. She's been used to havin' her own way."
"So yer outta work now?"
"Yeah, but I might 'ave found a new missus."
"What, 'ere in Balham?"
"No, Herne Bay in Kent, but I wouldn't have to move anywhere if it weren't for this marriage."
The ears of the fresh-faced hotel manager pricked up, and he lumbered over. "Hey George, haven't you gone to the wedding?"
"Nah, I'm on my way to Wandsworth, Mr Stringer," Griffith replied. "The County Court."
"You in trouble?" Stringer asked, concerned.
"Oh, I had a summons. An unpaid bill, nothing serious. I really ought to be on my way." He picked up a grey cap from the stool and placed it neatly on his head. "If you see the missus, make sure she has plenty of brandy before the wedding, won't you?"
Stringer frowned quizzically. "Mrs Ricardo?"
"It'll be Mrs Bravo later today, for better or worse." Downing the last of his porter in a few audible gulps, Griffith wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He headed for the door, glancing over his shoulder. "Poor fellow, I wouldn't want to be in his shoes. He won't live four month."
The barroom prophecy was eerily prescient: Charles Bravo died in agony just a little over four months after his wedding to Florence Ricardo. Not only had George Griffith apparently foreseen Mr Bravo's untimely death, but also when it would occur. And there was more. The post mortem identified that Mr Bravo had been poisoned by the same chemical used by Griffith to manage equine parasites as part of his duties as a coachman. Further, one of his former employers was an eminent doctor who had an illicit affair with Mrs Ricardo before she left him for her younger but short-lived husband.
How had Griffith known what was to happen? Not surprisingly, he found himself at the eye of the storm when it raged a few months later. A key witness at the sensational inquest into the death of Charles Bravo, he was asked about his wedding-day premonition, his links to the deadly poison and the jilted lover. But we will come to this - and much more - later.
This case is unusually baffling because the body of evidence, mainly from the inquest testimony, appears to support equally the different theories of how Charles Bravo met his death. Indeed, since the fateful night over a century ago, many books have been published on the case with each author sifting the evidence to support their particular view of events. I intend to take a different approach. I'm inviting every reader to take a seat on the Cold Case Jury.
In Part One, I will take you back in time to reconstruct the immediate events that led to Charles Bravo's death and different versions of how he might have died according to the various theories. In Part Two, you can see original evidence, some of which has never been published before, including police reports, witness statements and extracts from the first-ever book on the case written by a doctor just months after the poisoning. Finally, in Part Three, I offer my opinion on who was responsible for the infamous death of Charles Bravo, but it is your opinion that matters. As in a real court of law, the verdict always rests with you, the jury. I hope you will enter your decision at the Cold Case Jury website where you can also see a poll of how your fellow jurors have voted. The result should be a fascinating verdict in the court of public opinion on a death that has mystified for well over a century.
The case revolves around the young and privileged bride, Florence Ricardo, and her broken relationships. Before we turn back the hands of time, we need to discover her background and the antecedent events that led to the death of her husband. And this first takes us to the other side of the world.
Florence was born on 5 September 1845 in Sydney, Australia, into wealth. Her grandfather had left Scotland for the new continent 20 years earlier and had made a fortune from wool. After his death in 1851, Florence's parents, Robert and Ann Campbell, took their inheritance and ever-growing family back to Britain. In 1859, Robert Campbell purchased the run-down Buscot Park, an estate of 3,500 acres nestled to the west of Oxford and south of the Cotswolds. Over the next few years, and at vast expense, the imposing, neoclassical-style mansion was completely refurbished, and became Florence's home until her marriage to Lieutenant Alexander Ricardo of the Grenadier Guards. The young couple had met in Canada, on one of her family's foreign tours. The groom was the son of Lady Catherine Duff and John Ricardo, the late Liberal MP, founder of the Electric Telegraph Company and director of the London and Westminster Bank. At just 21 years of age, Alexander was wealthy and well connected, and the Campbell's thoroughly approved of the match.
At 10:30am on 21 September 1864, the wedding party left the grandeur of Buscot House in eight carriages, each drawn by a pair of horses. As the entourage wound its way through the grounds of the estate, it passed under a series of floral arches, each bearing messages of good wishes to the young couple. At Buscot Church, a large concourse of onlookers witnessed the arrival of the bride. Florence's rounded face of delicate features and glorious cascade of auburn hair was hidden by a veil of white tulle and festooned by orange blossom. She was followed into the church by a trail of nine bridesmaids, including her two younger sisters, Alice and Edith.
After the ceremony, the married couple left the church along a flower-strewn path flanked by a choir of 18 local school girls dressed in pink frocks and straw bonnets. As the smiling couple slowly walked to their waiting carriage and future, the choir sang Bridal Wishes. Certainly, 19-year-old Mrs Florence Ricardo had the "wealth for all her days" as the hymn suggested, but she was to cruelly discover it would not buy her love, friendship or even freedom. For her marriage was a path lined not with flowers and petals, but secrets and scandal.
Continued in the book Poisoning at The Priory published on 18 July 2019.
Available as an e-book on 18 July 2019 and paperback on 17 October 2019.