Lord William Russell: Murdered by François Benjamin Courvoisier

Early on 5 May of 1840, a few minutes before 7am, 73-year-old Lord William Russell was found dead in his bed at his house, No. 14, Norfolk Street, Park Lane (now known as Dunraven Street). Lord Russell was the eldest son of John Russell, the 4th Duke of Bedford, and a well-known aristocratic and longtime parliamentarian. His body was discovered by the housemaid Sarah Mancer.

She was going about her normal duties when she discovered one of the sitting rooms had Lord Russell’s papers strewn all over on the carpet. Concerned, Mancer began to further investigate. She discovered several things tied in a bundle near the hall door and also found the dining room disturbed. It had knives, several silver candlesticks, and other silver things sitting on the floor. At this point she rushed to inform the cook, Mary Hannell. Then she roused Lord Russell’s Swiss valet, François Benjamin Courvoisier. 

Lord William Russell - François Benjamin Courvoisier

François Benjamin Courvoisier. Courtesy of Harvard Digital Collections.

Mancer and Courvoisier proceeded to Russell’s bedroom. There they were greeted by a “melancholy catastrophe.” It was a horrible, astonishing sight. Lord William Russell had been “barbarously and inhumanly murdered.”[1] He was lying in bed, his pillow soaked with blood, a white napkin over his face, and his throat slit. The horror-stricken servants immediately rushed from the room to a neighboring house where a surgeon resided named Henry Elsgood. He returned with them, examined the body, and noted:

“[An extensive] wound extending from the shoulder on the left side round to the trachea … was about seven inches in length, and about four or five inches deep near the shoulder, dividing the vessels and the trachea.”[2]

The surgeon surmised that Lord William Russell had been dead for three or four hours. He also remarked that whoever killed Russell likely used “a razor, or some sharp instrument.”[3] So, a search was conducted by the servants to find the instrument of death, but nothing was discovered.

Lord William Russell. Author’s collection.

Russell was laying on his back, partially inclined to the right side. Based on this and the fact that his bed clothes and bedding were barely disturbed, Elsgood decided the struggle was minimal. He suggested Russell had been awaken by the thief or thieves and murdered to prevent him from crying out in alarm. Additionally, Elsgood maintained that because of the severity of the wound, it was likely Russell died immediately and that he did not suffer.

In the meantime, police authorities were notified. Upon the arrival of Superintendent Baker and Inspector Beresford, a diligent investigation was conducted. The premises were also thoroughly examined. Investigators hoped to locate the instrument that had been used to kill Lord William Russell. Unfortunately, their search was as unsuccessful as the servant’s earlier search. Investigators did discover that a bolt on the kitchen door had been broken and “wrenched off by a ‘jemmym.'”[4] However, it was difficult for them to tell whether the perpetrator or perpetrators were breaking in or breaking out of the house.

The police also found more evidence. Footprints near the kitchen door caused them to believe the nefarious villain or villains were secreted in the house by the time everyone retired. Investigators also asked Courvoisier to determine what items had been stolen. He noted Russell’s jewelry box was rifled through and several costly items missing. He also discovered a quantity of plate had been packed in paper as if ready to be carried away. However, for all of Courvoisier’s help, suspicion soon fell on him.

The police became suspicious of him because police concluded the robbery had been staged. This occurred after they found several items in the house that Courvoisier claimed to be stolen. In addition, police also discovered banknotes behind the wainscoting in Courvoisier’s pantry, and a “middling-sized chisel” that belonged to him showed that they fit exactly with the marks on the kitchen door.

Courvoisier, a young man of about twenty, was arrested. He was described as having “very dark hair and eyes, [a] brown complexion, [and] regular, handsome features.”[5] Despite his good looks, he remained in jail while an inventory of Russell’s property was conducted. Investigators were unsure whether or not Courvoisier was guilty, and, they might not have never known for sure, if Courvoisier had not confessed.

When shown the evidence, Courvoisier told investigators he had been stealing Russell’s property when he “unexpectedly came downstairs, and caught him in the act of concealing his property.”[6] Russell then accused of him of being a thief and told him that he would be discharged the following morning. Hoping that his thefts would not be discovered, Courvoisier decided to murder Lord William Russell in his sleep.

Lord William Russell - Courvoisier

Murder of Lord William Russell by François Benjamin Courvoisier. Courtesy of Harvard Digital Collection.

Having confessed to the heinous crime, it was not surprising he was found guilty of murder. Before his execution on 6 July 1840 Courvoisier attended what was called the condemned sermon at the Newgate chapel. It was overflowing with important spectators and several members of the House of Commons. After the sermon, Courvoisier returned to his cell and met with a Swiss Counselor, who brought a letter from his mother “conveying her forgiveness, her blessing, and her farewell.”[7]

Before midnight, spectators began to assemble in front of Newgate to obtain a good spot to witness the upcoming drama of Courvoisier’s execution, just like they had when the London Burkers and Elizabeth Ross were executed years earlier. The spectators also coalesced into a dense mass extending from St. Sepulchre’s Church to the gate of the Old Bailey. At two o’clock the spectators watched as workers constructed the gallows, finishing them around 4:30am.

As dawn approached, the spectators who “had been during the night tolerably quiet, began to wax noisy — practical jokes were played off, coarse and ribald jests were uttered, and roars of laughter were elicited in consequence.”[8] At eight o’clock the death bell rang and that was followed by a solemn funeral procession, during which “Courvoisier looked pale but calm, and quite firm.”[9]

Courvoisier proceeded staunchly forward through the prison’s dark and gloomy passageways to the execution point. When at last he appeared on the scaffold, the crowd roared. The executioner completed his preparations and Courvoisier stood waiting for the end. The drama of the moment was summed up in the following fashion:

“The fatal bolt was withdrawn, the drop fell, and after a few convulsive struggles the spirit of the murderer … left this world to meet the spirit of his victim before … God.”[10]

Execution of François Benjamin Courvoisier for the Murder of Lord William Russell

Execution of François Benjamin Courvoisier for the murder of Lord William Russell. Author’s collection.

Courvoisier’s body hung for an hour, during which time newcomers arrived to witness the spectacle. When the clock struck nine o’clock, his body was cut down and shortly thereafter carried to the dead room where “artists were in attendance to take a cast preparatory to [Courvoisier’s] interment.”[11]

As he was being carried, someone in the crowd screamed, “Mad bull!” The practical joke was not so funny. It resulted in panic and alarm. Hundreds of frightened and confused people stampeded. People were thrown to the ground and carts overturned as everyone tried to escape. Several other accidents also occurred, and, in the end, “several persons were taken to the Bartholomew’s Hospital, having sustained fractured arms and other injuries.”[12]

References:

  • [1] “Murder of Lord William Russell,” in Mayo Constitution, 12 May 1840, p. 2.
  • [2] “Murder of Lord William Russell,” in Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier, 9 May 1840, p. 3
  • [3] “Murder of Lord William Russell,” in Mayo Constitution, p. 2.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] “Diabolical Murder of Lord William Russell,” in Dover Telegraph and Cinque Ports General Advertiser, 9 May 1840, p. 6.
  • [6] “Confession of the Murderer,” in Western Courier, West of England Conservative, Plymouth and Devonport Advertiser, 24 June 1840, p. 3.
  • [7] “Courvoisier – Chapel of Newgate,” in Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser, 7 July 1840, p. 3.
  • [8] “Execution of Courvoisier,” in Liverpool Standard and General Commercial Advertiser, 10 July 1840, p. 2.
  • [9] “Execution of Courvoisier,” in Leicestershire Mercury, 11 July 1840, p. 2.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.

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