Books and stories about child killers or children who have lived through grieving abuse and found the courage to share the strength in their stories of survival wrench and knot my soul. After reading such books, I am often brimming with not only anger and outrage, but also with hope and the lessons shared by the writers of these tales.
As a writer, I seek to pass on lessons and stories I am passionate about. Writing also allows me to settle my anger at humanity’s horrifying and cruel capabilities into words and find peace within myself. I write what I feel while I feel so you may feel.
The story of a Victorian child killer more widely known as the Wicked Boy, as told by Kate Summerscale in her award-winning book The Wicked Boy, has been on my mind for a while now. I smiled sadly with it, clenched my hands with it, and ultimately learned from it that anyone can overcome his past if he wants to.
In the summer of 1895 in England, thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes murdered his mother and left her to rot. By the time his aunt became suspicious of Mrs. Coombes absence and forced Robert and his twelve-year-old brother, Nathaniel George Coombes, to open the house door, the woman was being consumed by maggots in her bed.
Robert confessed to having killed his mother. Earlier in the week, preceding her death, Mrs. Coombes had thrashed Nathaniel for stealing food and threatened to whip Robert if he intervened. In hurt anger, Nathaniel threatened to kill his mother but, lacking the courage, he said he would help Robert do it.
Mrs. Coombes friends and neighbors declared her a good woman. Some claimed she was too free with her boys while others claimed Robert and Nathaniel were well-behaved children. However, school officials complained the brothers were often late and misbehaved in class.
After the murder was discovered, the boys were brought to trial. While Nathaniel stuck to his story of his mother being a kind woman, Robert explained he decided to kill his mother because he was afraid she would kill Nathaniel. She had thrown knives at both boys and threatened to split their heads open with a hatchet.
Parents often used physical force to punish their children and it was common to see a strap above a household fireplace for this purpose, but Robert was describing actions even the court of 1895 deemed as abusive.
Though the Children’s Act passed in 1889 made it possible to prosecute a parent for neglect or cruelty, or remove a child from their home, most magistrates were reluctant to do so. Corporal punishment was a common and accepted practice, and most people felt a parent’s authority over a child was unswayable and unquestionable.
Many schools also used a cane to enforce rules. Given the strict rulesets found in both the home and school environment, pupils had little chance or incentive to learn empathy or creativity in the classroom or at home.
No one cared or considered it had any standing to the murder that Mrs. Coombes had beat her children.
While Nathaniel was acquitted and sent to live with relatives after giving evidence against his brother, Robert’s motivation for the crime was not fully understood, though his home life was difficult. His father, being a steward, was away at sea, and his mother was emotionally unstable. People said that Robert’s addiction to the dreary and sensational, ‘penny dreadful’ novels of the age was also a factor.
Being too young for the gallows and deciding he was insane, the judge sentenced Robert to incarceration in Broadmoor, the most infamous lunatic asylum created.
Robert lived at Broadmoor for seventeen years before being discharged in 1912. When the first World War broke out, he served in the Australian army. Army life was similar to the security and comradeship he experienced at Broadmoor. It also gave him an outlet for the musical talent evident in him from his youth and fostered at Broadmoor. Robert became a bandsman and stretcher bearer until Armistice was declared on November 11th, 1918.
Could Robert Coombes’ reality have been different?
Could this murder have been avoided?
This a gruesome murder that has its roots in a tragic example of what home life looked like for many children during the 1800’s. Taken that Robert killed his mother to protect his brother, one could say Robert was a child desperate to change his hurtful reality and, with no one who would listen or act on his behalf, did the only other thing his young mind said he could.
Had Mrs. Coombes not used physical punishment as a means of discipline that slowly devolved into abusive actions, the insecurity her presence threatened Robert and Nathaniel with would not have been present. Had she been a supportive and engaging mother who guided Robert through the bloody stories told in the ‘penny dreadful’ books and taught him to appreciate life instead of leaving him to learn from the gruesome stories in the books he was fascinated with, Robert could have been an emotionally stable young child instead of a drowning boy.
With a positive home life, there would have been no incentive or reason for murder. Mrs. Coombes failed to provide a good home for her children largely due to the fact that society had rigid expectations of both parents and children. Respect from a parent to a young child and even kindness was an alien concept. This is not the story of a wicked boy, but of a wicked mother and the ripple effect her thoughtless, harsh actions sent out into the world.
Related Read: Tragedy
Despite his youth and seventeen years spent at Broadmoor, Robert overcame the shaky roots of his childhood and planted his tree in solid ground. Perhaps seventeen years of quietude, musical practice, and fellowship with fellow inmates gave him the time he needed to nurture himself in ways his mother never could.
Related Read: Revolutionary
After his discharge from the army after the first World War, Robert moved to Nana Glen, a village in Australia near the Orara river. He kept a small garden and enjoyed his own company.
Robert’s solitary life changed when an eleven-year-old boy walked four miles to the local police station to display the injuries his stepfather had inflicted by beating him with a brush hook. The boy, Harry, was also suffering from the flu.
Harry was removed from the abusive environment of his home after Robert offered to care for the boy. The two lived together until Harry left to build roads for the forestry department at the age of seventeen. He later served in the Second World War, as did Robert until he was discharged for health conditions.
During his time with Robert, Harry looked up to Robert as a father and Robert looked after the boy as he had once wanted to look after Nathaniel. Robert learned from his past; he never used physical or corporal punishment to teach Harry life’s lessons, remembering the mistakes of his mother.
It is possible Harry knew of Robert’s past, but Robert’s standing as a child killer did not affect his love and respect for the only man he knew as a real father.
People can change if they are willing to learn from past mistakes. Robert’s story shows the importance of providing a safe and nourishing home for children with gentle guidance. Society nowadays is also more willing to advocate for gentle parenting and delve into the unhealthy side effects of spanking as well as abusive treatment.
Parents pass onto their children their traditions and methods of teaching. It takes a great deal of uprooting and consciousness for a grown child to do anything but what their parents did when they become parents themselves. Not everyone grows up with such consciousness, so it is important to teach well and with as much respect as possible at all ages.
Related Read: T is for Teacher
That said, Robert’s story also highlights the powerful ways people can change. Cycle breakers like Robert look to set right the mistakes that hurt and held them back in their pasts, and pass on a new method of more positive and healthy teaching to their descendants.
I write to share such powerful and moving stories as this. Each poem and short story I write seeks to pass on gentleness or journeys to gentleness and kindness, respect and compassion in as many ways as my words can hold. Above all else, I write to tell the truth. The truth stings a little, but it heals more.
If you feel so called, you can learn more about Robert Coombes by buying the book, The Wicked Boy.
How did Robert Coombes’ story connect with you? What questions did it raise? Did the story give you a reason to look at the repeating cycles in your life, or in the lives of others, with open eyes? Tell me below!
AD-Sponsored. Looking to connect with writers as diverse and versatile as you? Explore the MK Blog Directory and add your own nourished online writing space for free!
Want access to exclusive writing? Become a patron!