Thursday, June 21, 2012

Miss Kent and Major Street: The Case of Constance Kent (1928)

Rhodes [sic] in his 'Case of Constance Kent' has made a great feature of insanity.  Was Mrs. Kent insane?

Constance Kent 1862
So began the missive that had been sent from Sydney, Australia to the offices of Geoffrey Bles, publisher of John Rhode's The Case of Constance Kent (1928). This missive, which was to prove one of the key documents in the great Constance Kent murder mystery, was turned over to Major John Street, the man behind the punning pseudonym John Rhode. Major Street determined to discover for himself whether the writer of the letter indeed was Constance Kent, who at this time, 1928, had been vanished from England for some forty-three years....

Kate Summerscale's bestselling and award-winning The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008), an examination of the Constance Kent case, appeared eighty years after the publication of John Street's The Case of Constance Kent (1928).

Although in her Suspicions Summerscale alludes briefly to John Street's important role in the untangling of the Constance Kent affair, most reviewers of Summerscale's book seem to have been under the impression that Summerscale was plowing a virgin field in true crime.  Indeed, some reviewers of Summerscale's most recent book, Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace (2012), have remained under this impression.  "Like her award-winning The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher," writes Rachel Cooke in the Guardian, "[Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace] blows the dust off long-forgotten people and events...."

this latest account of the
Constance Kent case
became a bestseller 
Perhaps it is true that if an event has been forgotten by journalists it has well and truly been "forgotten," yet the fact is that the Constance Kent case incontestably is one of the classic English murder cases and has been treated as such by true crime writers since it so memorably burst upon public consciousness in 1860. The case was the subject not only of Street's book-length study, but of book-length studies by Yseult Bridges (Saint--with Red Hands, 1954) and Bernard Taylor (Cruelly Murdered, 1979/1989), as well as essays by the true crime writers William Roughead and F. Tennyson Jesse, two of the greatest figures in the history of the field.  To say that  the Constance Kent case was a "long-forgotten" event until Kate Summerscale wrote about it seems to me to be a little like saying that no one now recalls just who or what it was exactly that a certain Lizzie Borden was supposed to have whacked with an axe.

For the purposes of this piece, I want to look more closely at John Street's role in the Constance Kent historiography.  It has been a disappointment to me that no review of Summerscale's Suspicions that I have seen has acknowledged Street by name (a 2008 review in The Independent is as close as I have seen to an acknowledgement, but, alas, Street is referred to only as "a writer investigating the case").

Road Hill House, home of the Kent family in 1860, when three-year-old Francis Saville Kent
was found dead with his throat cut, in the household's outdoor privy
It of course is true that due to the success of Kate Summerscale's Suspicions, a great many more people now are familiar with the facts of the Constance Kent case, but I will briefly recount them.

In 1860, Francis Saville Kent, the three-year-old son of Samuel Saville and Mary Pratt Kent (Samuel's second wife), was found dead with his throat cut, in the household's outdoor privy.  Jonathan Whicher, the celebrated Scotland Yard inspector eventually called in by a floundering local police force, soon charged the dead boy's sixteen-year-old half-sister, Constance, with the brutal crime.  The charge against her was dismissed by magistrates, leading to Whicher's public humiliation and premature retirement.

Five years later, however, Whicher was vindicated when Constance, who had come under intense religious influence, confessed that she had indeed done the dark deed with her own hand.  After serving twenty years in prison Constance was released and left for parts unknown.  At the time of the publication of John Street's The Case of Constance Kent, Constance had been absent from England for forty-three years and was generally assumed to be dead.

John Street was not enamored with
conceptions of Victorian patriarchy
and class privilege
In his book on the Kent case Street professed contempt both for Samuel Kent, Constance's father, and the local police chief, Superintendent Foley, bluntly denouncing Victorian concepts of patriarchy and class privilege.  In connection with the letter Constance Kent wrote to Street's publisher, Geoffrey Bles, Street's discussion of Samuel Kent and his relationship with his first wife, Constance's mother, is most pertinent.

Samuel Kent had continued to father numerous children by his first wife, even after her health irretrievably broke down (at the time of the murder and also in Street's day it was accepted that she had developed gradually worsening insanity). Five of the couple's ten children died in infancy.  Himself the father of only one child, Street vigorously condemned Samuel Kent's conception of family planning.  He damned Kent as a "typical mid-Victorian father" who "seems to have considered it right and fitting that [his wife] should continue to become the mother of defective children [meaning the five who died], irrespective of her mental condition."

Constance Kent in later life
Copies of Street's book found their way to Australia, where Constance Kent had migrated and was still living in the late 1920s (she would not die until 1944).  Constance Kent read the book and evidently was provoked to write her letter by Street's discussion of the alleged insanity of Constance's mother.  Constance denied that her mother was mad (she was, rather, suffering from syphilis contracted from her philandering husband); and she insisted that her stepmother, her former governess, had been cruel and vindictive toward the young Constance, provoking the girl to commit "her most callous and brutal crime"--the murder of her young half-brother--as a misguided act of retribution.

Constance pretended that the letter writer was a friend of Constance's and that Constance Kent had died.  Street was unable to determine whether, as he suspected, Constance was truly the writer of the letter.  It was Bernard Taylor who discovered several decades later that Constance indeed had migrated to Australia, survived into the late 1920s and written the letter, which Street had dubbed the Sydney Document.

After the Detection Club was formed in 1930, Street donated the Sydney Document to the Detection Club library of crime fiction and history, where it was lost or destroyed amid the chaos of World War Two.

Providentially Street himself typed a copy of the letter.  This copy was discovered in his papers after his death and included in the 1989 reprint edition of Bernard Taylor's book on the Constance Kent case.

I hope this piece helps provide a fuller picture of the historiography of the Constance Kent case as well as an understanding of John Street's role in aiding scholars of the case to reach definitive answers about it.  Yet more detail on this matter is found in my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961. See here.


  1. Curt, Sayers also had a keen interest in 'solving' the mystery and I'm sure she will have discussed it with Street. Do you have any reoord of this? She certainly had a copy of his book, which she studied closely.

  2. I seem to recall a TV play in a series about women murderers around 1980. Those plays tended to prove that the women in question were either wrongly accused or could not help doing what they did. Not sure which way the one about Constance Kent went.