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The Wicked Boy
Cover of The Wicked Boy
The Wicked Boy
An Infamous Murder in Victorian London
Winner of the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime Book!
From the internationally bestselling author, a deeply researched and atmospheric murder mystery of late Victorian-era London

In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London — for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbors they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When she eventually forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey.
Robert confessed to having stabbed his mother, but his lawyers argued that he was insane. Nattie struck a plea and gave evidence against his brother. The court heard testimony about Robert's severe headaches, his fascination with violent criminals and his passion for 'penny dreadfuls', the pulp fiction of the day. He seemed to feel no remorse for what he had done, and neither the prosecution nor the defense could find a motive for the murder. The judge sentenced the thirteen-year-old to detention in Broadmoor, the most infamous criminal lunatic asylum in the land. Yet Broadmoor turned out to be the beginning of a new life for Robert—one that would have profoundly shocked anyone who thought they understood the Wicked Boy.
At a time of great tumult and uncertainty, Robert Coombes's case crystallized contemporary anxieties about the education of the working classes, the dangers of pulp fiction, and evolving theories of criminality, childhood, and insanity. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Kate Summerscale recreates this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man's capacity to overcome the past.
Winner of the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime Book!
From the internationally bestselling author, a deeply researched and atmospheric murder mystery of late Victorian-era London

In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London — for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbors they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When she eventually forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey.
Robert confessed to having stabbed his mother, but his lawyers argued that he was insane. Nattie struck a plea and gave evidence against his brother. The court heard testimony about Robert's severe headaches, his fascination with violent criminals and his passion for 'penny dreadfuls', the pulp fiction of the day. He seemed to feel no remorse for what he had done, and neither the prosecution nor the defense could find a motive for the murder. The judge sentenced the thirteen-year-old to detention in Broadmoor, the most infamous criminal lunatic asylum in the land. Yet Broadmoor turned out to be the beginning of a new life for Robert—one that would have profoundly shocked anyone who thought they understood the Wicked Boy.
At a time of great tumult and uncertainty, Robert Coombes's case crystallized contemporary anxieties about the education of the working classes, the dangers of pulp fiction, and evolving theories of criminality, childhood, and insanity. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Kate Summerscale recreates this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man's capacity to overcome the past.
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  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from May 2, 2016
    Summerscale (The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher) bolsters her reputation as a superior historical true crime writer with this moving account of Victorian-age murder that is a whydunit rather than a whodunit. In East London during the summer of 1895, 13-year-old Robert Coombes and his younger brother, Nattie, attended a heralded cricket match on their own, telling neighbors that their mother was in Liverpool visiting family. In fact, Emily Coombes was already lying dead in her bed behind a closed door, having been fatally stabbed by Robert. Horrifically, her corpse remained undetected for well over a week while the brothers acted as if nothing were amiss. Upon arrest, Robert claimed he acted after his mother had beaten Nattie, and before she could do the same to him. The resulting trial focused on the question of Robert’s mental state, whether he was really the wicked boy of the book’s title, and how the penny dreadfuls he was so fond of may have warped his mind. Summerscale’s dogged research yields a tragedy that reads like a Dickens novel, including the remarkable payoff at the end.

  • Library Journal

    June 1, 2016

    Summerscale's (The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher) book about Victorian child murderers Robert and Nattie Coombes starts out as a standard true crime read and ends with what was clearly a surprise to the author. That Robert killed his mother at age 13 was never a question--he admitted it freely in a confession--but the subsequent trial of a defendant so young and his sentencing to Broadmoor asylum rather than a prison (or a hanging) was sensational to Victorian newspaper readers. What happened next, however, was shocking. Coombes's incarceration seems to have actually benefitted him, contrary to the common notion of the affects of 19th-century asylum life. His service in World War I at Gallipoli was notable, and most important, his postwar life in Australia was quiet and uneventful, save for his rescue of a neighbor boy from an abusive home, a situation with which Coombes was all too familiar. Summerscale's research reveals that early tragedy for Coombes need not be his end, like it would have been for many, but that it would later provide him with a way to help another young boy in need. VERDICT For true crime readers, history buffs, and fans of the grittier side of Victorian life.--Amelia Osterud, Carroll Univ. Lib., Waukesha, WI

    Copyright 2016 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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