Death at the Priory : Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England, Paperback

Death at the Priory : Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England Paperback

4 out of 5 (3 ratings)


'Excellent, a triumphant feat of detective work...Ruddick's book is not only a gripping historical whodunit, but also a brilliant evocation of the sort of tribulations that had to be endured by many Victorian women who were doomed to disastrous marriages.

Thanks to Ruddick and his meticulous research, I, for one, am utterly convinced that we now know who really murdered Charles Bravo.' Val Hennessy, Daily Mail 'Death at the Priory is as compelling as any fictional thriller.

James Ruddick possesses a real talent for bringing the characters and the situation to fascinating life.'Kate Atkinson, author of Behind the Scenes at the Museum In 1875, the beautiful and vivacious widow Florence Ricardo wedded Charles Bravo, a dashing barrister.

The marriage seemed a happy but, one night, four months after the wedding, Bravo collapsed.

For the next fifty-five hours, with some of London's most distinguished physicians in attendance, Charles suffered a slow and agonizing death.

All the doctors agreed: Charles Bravo had been poisoned.

The dramatic investigation that followed was covered in sensational detail by the press. The finger of suspicion pointed at various times at suicide, at Mrs Cox, at George Griffiths, a stableman with a grudge, and at the remarkable figure of Florence Bravo herself.

James Ruddick's meticulous recreation of the case brings its main characters and their times to vivid life.

The brilliant conclusion draws on new evidence unearthed by the author himself to demonstrate for the first time who really murdered Charles Bravo.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 192 pages, 8pp b&w plates
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: True crime
  • ISBN: 9781903809440



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Review by

This book is about the murder of Charles Bravo, the second abusive husband of one Florence Ricardo, nee Campbell. Florence was born into a wealthy, high-class family in Scotland in the mid-1800s. She first married Alexander Ricardo, a dashing military officer from another society family, but he turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. Her life took a couple of other interesting and tragic turns, and she winds up in London as a single woman with a dubious reputation. She met Charles Bravo, a wealthy and outwardly-respectable man, and he proposed. They married, but he, too, quickly turned out to be extremely controlling and both physically and emotionally abusive. About 5 months after their marriage, Charles is poisoned by antimony and dies. Because of Florence's past reputation, the case was sensational and highly-publicized. It was investigated by the Metropolitan Police and an inquest was held, but the jury found that no one could be accused of the crime. It is a fascinating story, and the first half of the book, in which Ruddick tells the tale, is great. The second half of the book, though, is more about Ruddick's ego than the crime. He promises at the beginning of the book that he has new evidence, uncovered through careful research across the globe, that will finally establish who killed Charles Bravo. It does appear that he did extensive research, but he turned up very little new information of any significance to the crime itself. He learned more about the people involved, and he uses that information to retroactively pscyho-analyze the suspects and speculate about whether they could or could not have killed Bravo based on his assessment of their character and motivations. His ultimate conclusion about Bravo's death is logical, but he didn't need to do any more research to reach that conclusion; it is based largely on testimony from the inquest. Ruddick would have done better to fill out the original story with the additional background from his research and then present his theory as simply that--a logical theory proposed by someone who had studied the case--rather than presenting it as a conclusion based on new evidence.

Review by

In December 1875, wealthy widow Florence Ricardo (nee Campbell) married ambitious barrister Charles Bravo. Less than six months later he was dead, as a result of poisoning by antimony.Florence's first marriage had been disastrous, her first husband being a very heavy drinker who terrorised his wife. Florence left him, despite tremendous pressure from her family to endure the marriage for the sake of appearances. Once she was free of him, she outraged society by having an affair with elderly physician Dr James Gully. She was caught in flagrante delicto with him, and he aborted the baby (his) that she was carrying.Her marriage to Charles Bravo was a marriage of convience rather than love - he would restore her shaky social position, and she brought to the marriage a substantial amount of money. Unfortunately, Bravo was a typical Victorian male, and a bully. He sexually abused her and expected to control her finances. Florence was not a typical Victorian woman - headstrong, demanding control of her own money, and desperate to avoid any more pregnancies following the abortion and two later miscarriages.Ruddick presents the facts and the cast of characters in a readable style reminiscent of a classy murder mystery. Through his researches, including tracing of descendents of the main protagonists, he unearths fresh evidence and provides a credible version of exactly what happened to Charles Bravo and who killed him. What makes the book especially interesting is the way in which Ruddick examines Victorian attitudes towards marriage and sexuality, and the role of women. [May 2007]

Review by

Charles Bravo (1845 - 21 April 1876) was a British lawyer who was fatally poisoned with antimony in 1876. The case is still sensational, notorious, and unresolved. It was an unsolved crime committed within an elite Victorian household at The Priory, a landmark house in Balham, London. The reportage eclipsed even government and international news at the time. Leading doctors attended the bedside, including Royal physician Sir William Gull, and all agreed it was a case of antimony poisoning. The victim took three days to die but gave no indication of the source of the poison during that time. Was it suicide, accidental self-poisoning, or murder? No one was ever charged for the crime.His wealthy wife Florence had previously been married but had been separated from her first husband (who later died) because of his affairs and violent alcoholism. The impetuous Florence had also enjoyed an extramarital affair with a fashionable society doctor, the much older Dr. James Manby Gully, who was also married at the time. Her affair became public knowledge and Florence fell out of favor with her family and society. In order to reenter society, she married Charles Bravo. The marriage appeared to be doomed from the start. It was whispered that Charles had married Florence for her money, but the wealthy Florence had opted to hold onto her assets, a choice provided by new laws in England at the time (Married Women's Property Act 1870). This financial imbalance led immediately to tensions within the marriage. Police enquiries in the case revealed Charles's behavior towards Florence as being controlling, mean, and violent. Florence also experienced several miscarriages in quick succession, but Charles brutally persisted in forcing her to keep trying for an heir. However, given the nature of the man, there was no shortage of people in the Bravo household with motives for poisoning Charles Bravo.Two inquests were held and the sensational details were considered so scandalous that women and children were banned from the room while Florence Bravo testified. The first returned an open verdict. The second inquest returned a verdict of wilful murder; however, nobody was ever arrested or charged. The household broke up after the inquest ended and the twice-widowed Florence moved away, dying of alcohol poisoning two years later.Over a hundred years later, author James Ruddick embarked upon his own in-depth investigations in a case that reads like a modern page-turner. Drawing on detailed court and newspaper records, archives, family papers and letters, and interviews with surviving relatives, he has unearthed a wealth of information that gives conclusive evidence as to various suspects' motives and opportunities. His travels locally and internationally yielded comments from surviving family friends and local inhabitants. Medical research also gives tantalizing hints as to why, if it was not suicide or accidental self-poisoning, Bravo did not say whom he thought was the poisoner. This is a fantastic read and I could not put the book down. The author has found such compelling evidence to exonerate some particular suspects, evidence that was never investigated all that time ago. It points out the flaws in policing methods of the day, as well as how social perceptions of the time influenced popular thinking. Ruddick give a deep and, at times, sensitive insight into the personalities of the main players, showing how they were trapped by their own natures (the headstrong spoiled Florence and the dominant Charles) as well as by the social mores and actual laws of the era. It is also a fascinating insight into the stultifying, repressive atmosphere of Victorian England, and the sad situation of many women of all social classes. Detective novel, historical docu-drama, and police thriller... call it what you will, I highly recommend this book to all readers with a penchant for detective and mystery novels. Draw your own conclusions...the author gives plenty of evidence for and against!