In 1860, the British public became obsessed with a disturbing murder of a young boy in an English country house. Suspicions fell upon the members of the household. Letter writers besieged authorities and newspapers with their theories about “who dunnit” at Road Hill House. Was it the father and the nursemaid? The nursemaid and a lover? The jealous children of the first wife? Neighbors who despised the family? There was adultery, madness, a governess who became the stepmother.
Journalists camped out at the house and court. Sounds just like today.
Scotland Yard sent its best — Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher who made great headway, only to be attacked for his intrusion on the sanctity of the English home and hearth.
The story is detailed in Kate Summerscale’s book, “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.”
The case inspired much of today’s detective fiction, beginning with Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone.” Charles Dickens was fascinated by the case and had his own theories. He used elements of the case in his own works.
The book discusses origins of the language of detection. The word “clue” comes from “clew,” meaning a ball of thread or yarn. It came to mean “that which points the way” because of the Greek myth in which Theseus uses a ball of yarn, given to him by Ariadne, to find his way of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. People unravel mysteries. They untangle the knots and follow the thread of evidence.
The book also talks about our uneasy relationship with the police. We need them, yet resent their prying. The original detective (“detect” is from the Latin de-tegere or to “unroof”) was Asmodeus, the prince of demons, who removed roofs to spy on the lives inside, according to the author. This was a book I couldn’t put down.
Your own mystery: In the photo above, what is the detective examining?