The Notting Hill Mystery: A British Library Crime Classic

The Notting Hill Mystery: A British Library Crime Classic

The Notting Hill Mystery was first published between 1862 and 1863 as an eight-part serial in the magazine Once a Week. Widely acknowledged as the first detective novel, the story ...

About The Author

Charles Warren Adams

Charles Warren Adams was a journalist, traveller, lawyer and sole proprietor of the firm Saunders, Otley & Co, which published ...

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The Notting Hill Mystery

Mr. R. Henderson to the Secretary of the —— Life Assurance Association.

‘Private Enquiry Office, Clement’s Inn,

‘17th Jan., 1858.


‘In laying before you the extraordinary revelations arising from my examination into the case of the late Madame R**, I have to apologise for the delay in carrying out your instructions of November last. It has been occasioned, not by any neglect on my part, but by the unexpected extent and intricacy of the enquiry into which I have been led. I confess that after this minute and laborious investigation  I could still have wished a more satisfactory result, but a perusal of the accompanying documents, on the accuracy and completeness of which you may fully rely, will I doubt not satisfy you of the unusual difficulty of the case.

‘My enquiries have had reference to a policy of assurance for 5000l., the maximum amount permitted by your rules, on the life of the late Madame R**, effected in your office by her husband, the Baron R**, and bearing date 1st November, 1855. Similar policies were held in the ——of Manchester, the ——of Liverpool, the ——of Edinburgh, and the —— of Dublin, the whole amounting to 25,000l.; the dates, 23rd December, 1855, 10th January, 25th January, and 15th February, 1856, respectively, being in effect almost identical. These companies joined in the instructions under which I have been acting; and, from the voluminous nature of this letter and its enclosures, I shall be obliged  by your considering my present reply as addressed to them conjointly with yourselves.

‘Before entering upon the subject of my investigations, it may be as well to recapitulate the circumstances under which they were originated. Of these the first was the coincidence of dates, above noticed; and an apparent desire on the part of the assurer to conceal from each of the various offices the fact of similar policies having been elsewhere simultaneously effected. On examining further into the matter your Board was also struck with the peculiar conditions under which Madame R**’s marriage appeared to have taken place, and the relation in which she had formerly stood to the Baron. To these points, therefore, my attention was especially directed, and the facts thus elicited form a very important link in the singular chain of evidence I have been enabled to put together.

‘The chief element of suspicion, however, was to be found in the very unusual circumstances attendant on the death of Madame R**, especially following so speedily as it did on the assurance for so large an aggregate amount. This lady died suddenly on the 15th March, 1857, from the effects of a powerful acid taken, it is supposed, in her sleep, from her husband’s laboratory. In the Baron’s answers to the usual preliminary enquiries, forwarded for my assistance, and herewith returned, there is no admission of any propensity to somnambulism. Shortly, however, after the occurrence had been noticed in the public prints, a letter to the Secretary of the Association from a gentleman recently lodging in the same house with Baron R**, gave reason to suspect that in this respect, at least, some concealment had been practised, and the matter was then placed in my hands.

‘On receipt of your instructions, I at once put myself in communication with Mr. Aldridge, the writer of the letter in question. That gentleman’s evidence certainly goes to show that, within at least a very few months after the date of the latest policy, Baron R** was not only himself aware of such a propensity in his wife, but desirous of conceal- ing it from others. Mr. Aldridge’s statements are also to a certain extent supported by those of two other witnesses; but, unfortunately, there are, as will be seen, circumstances calculated to throw considerable doubt upon the whole of this evidence, and especially on that of Mr. Aldridge, from which alone the more important part of the inference is drawn. The same must, unfortunately, be said with regard to some other parts of the evidence, as will be more clearly seen when the case itself is before you.

‘From his statement, however, in conjunction with other circumstances, I learned enough to induce me to extend my researches to another very singular case, which not long since had given rise to considerable comment.

‘You will, no doubt, remember that in the autumn of 1856 a gentleman of the name of Anderton was arrested on suspicion of having poisoned his wife, and that he commit- ted suicide whilst awaiting the issue of a chemical enquiry into the cause of her death. This enquiry resulted in an acquittal, no traces of the suspected poison being found; and the affair was hushed up as speedily as possible, many of Mr.  Anderton’s  connections being of high standing in society, and naturally anxious for the honour of the family. I must, however, acknowledge the readiness with which, in the interest of justice, I have been furnished by them with every facility for pushing my enquiries, the results of which are now before you.

‘In reviewing the whole facts, and more especially the series of remarkable coincidences of dates, &c., to which I beg to direct your most particular attention, two alternatives present themselves. In the first we must altogether ignore a chain of circumstantial evidence so complete and close-fitting in every respect, as it seems almost impossible to disregard; in the second, we are inevitably led to a conclusion so at variance with all the most firmly established laws of nature, as it seems almost equally impossible to accept. The one leaves us precisely at the point from which we started; the other involves the imputation of a series of most horrible and complicated crimes.

‘Between these alternatives I am constrained to confess my own inability, after long and careful study, to decide. I have determined, therefore, simply to submit for your consideration the facts of the case as they appear in the depositions of the several parties from whom my information has been obtained. These I have arranged, as far as possible, in the form in which they would be laid before counsel, should it ultimately be deemed advisable to bring the affair into Court. In view, however, of the extreme length of the case, I have given, in a condensed form, the substance of such of the depositions as did not seem likely to suffer from such treatment. The more important I have left to tell their own tale, and, in any case, my abstract may be at once checked by the originals, all of which are enclosed.

‘Should your conclusions be such as have been forced upon myself, further deliberation will yet be required with reference to the course to be pursued; a point on which, in such case, I confess myself almost equally unable to advise. Whether, in a matter so surrounded with suspicion, it might not be well, in any event, to resist the claim, is certainly a question to be considered. On the other hand, even assuming the fullest proof of the terrible crimes involved, it is a matter calling for no less careful consideration, whether they would be found of a nature to bring the criminal within reach of the law. For the present, however, our concern is with the facts of the case, and ulterior questions had better be left on one side until that issue is decided, when I shall, no doubt, hear further from you on the subject.

‘In conclusion, I must trouble you with a few words on a point which seems to require explanation. I allude to the apparent prominence I  have been compelled  to afford to the workings of what is called “Mesmeric Agency.” Those, indeed, who are so unfortunate as to  be the victims of this delusion, would doubtless find in  it a simple, though terrible solution of the mystery we  are endeavouring to solve. But while frankly admitting that it was the passage from the Zoïst Magazine, quoted in the course of the evidence, which first suggested to  my mind the only conclusion I have as yet been able to imagine, I beg at the outset most distinctly to state, that I would rather admit my own researches to have been baffled by an illusory coincidence, than lay myself open to the imputation of giving the slightest credit to that impudent imposture. We must not, however, forget that those whose lives have been passed in the deception of others, not unfrequently end by deceiving themselves. There  is, therefore, nothing incredible in  the idea  that the Baron R** may have given sufficient credence to the statement of the Zoïst above-mentioned, for the suggestion to his own mind of a design, which by the working of a true, though most mysterious, law of Nature, may really have been carried out. Such, at least, is the only theory by which I can attempt, in any way, to elucidate this otherwise unfathomable mystery.

‘Awaiting the honour of your further commands,

‘I am, Gentlemen,

Very faithfully yours, ‘Ralph  Henderson.’

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The Notting Hill Mystery: A British Library Crime Classic

“The book is both utterly of its time and utterly ahead of it.”

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