The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

Penguin Pr. Jul. 2016. 384p. maps. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781594205781. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780698135000. CRIME
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.
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