The Old Bailey,
7 April 1826
My trial starts the way my life did: a squall of elbows and shoving and spit. From the prisoners’ hold they take me through the gallery, down the stairs and past the table crawling with barristers and clerks. Around me a river of faces in flood, their mutters rising, blending with the lawyers’ whispers. A noise that hums with all the spite of bees in a bush. Heads turn as I enter. Every eye a skewer.
I duck my head, peer at my boots, grip my hands to stop their awful trembling. It seems all of London is here, but then murder is the story this city likes best. All of them swollen into the same mood, all of them in a stir about the 'sensation excited by these most ferocious murders'. Those were the words of the Morning Chronicle, itself in the business of harvesting that very sensation link an ink-black crop. I don't make a habit of reading what the broadsheets say about me, for newspapers are like a mirror I saw once in a fair near the Strand that stretched my reflection like a rack, gave me two heads so I almost didn't know myself. If you've ever had the misfortune to be written about, you know what I mean.
But there are turnkeys at Newgate who read them at you for sport, precious little you can do to get away.
When they see I’m not moving, they shove me forward with the flats of their hands and I shiver, despite the heat, fumble my way down the steps.
Murderer! The word follows me. Murderer! The Mulatta Murderess.
I’m forced to trot to keep up with the turnkeys so I don’t tumble crown over ankle. Fear skitters up my throat as they push me into the dock. The barristers look up from their table, idle as cattle in their mournful gowns. Even those old hacks who’ve seen it all want a glimpse of the Mulatta Murderess. Even the judge stares, fat and glossy in his robes, his face soft and blank as an old potato until he screws his eyes on me and nods at his limp-haired clerk to read the indictment.
FRANCES LANGTON, also known as Ebony Fran or Dusky Fran, is indicted for the wilful murder of GEORGE BENHAM and MARGUERITE BENHAM in that she on the 27th day of January in the year of Our Lord 1826 did feloniously and with malice aforethought assault GEORGE BENHAM and MARGUERITE BENHAM, subjects of our lord the King, in that she did strike and stab them until they were dead, both about the upper and middle chest, their bodies having been discovered by EUSTACIA LINUX, housekeeper, of Montfort Street, London.
MR JESSOP to conduct the prosecution.
The gallery is crowded, all manner of quality folk and ordinary folk and rabble squeezed in, the courtroom being one of the few places they’d ever be caught so cheek to jowl. Paduasoy silk next to Kashmir shawls next to kerchiefs. Fidgeting their backsides along the wood, giving off a smell like milk on the turn, like a slab of pork Phibbah forgot once, under the porch. The kind of smell that sticks your tongue to your throat. Some of them suck candied orange peel fished out of their purses, jaws going like paddles. The ones who can’t stomach being caught in any sort of honest smell. Ladies. I know the sort.
Jessop hooks his gown with his thumbs, pushes to his feet. His voice laps steady as water against a hull. So soft. He could be gabbing with them at his own fireside. Which is how he wants it, for that makes them lean closer, makes them attend.
‘Gentlemen, on the evening of the twenty-seventh of January, Mr and Mrs Benham were stabbed to death. Mr Benham in his library, Mrs Benham in her bedchamber. This . . . woman . . . the prisoner at the bar, stands accused of those crimes. Earlier that night, she confronted them in their drawing room, and threat- ened them with murder. Those threats were witnessed by several guests in attendance that evening, at one of Mrs Benham’s legendary soirées. You will hear from those guests. And you will hear from the housekeeper, Mrs Linux, who will tell you the pris- oner was observed going into Mrs Benham’s rooms shortly after she had retired. Mrs Linux went upstairs herself at around one o’clock that morning, where she discovered her master’s body in his library. Shortly thereafter, she entered Mrs Benham’s bed- chamber and discovered her body, and, next to it, the prisoner. In her mistress’s bed. Asleep. When the prisoner was woken by the housekeeper, she had blood on her hands, blood drying on her sleeves.
What frightens me is dying believing that it was me who killed her
‘All through her arrest and incarceration . . . to this day, she has refused to speak about what happened that night. The refuge of those who are unable to offer a plain and honest defence. Well, if she can now offer an explanation, I am sure you will hear it, gentlemen, I am sure you will hear it. But it seems to me that a satisfactory explanation is impossible when the crime is attended with circumstances such as these.’
I grip the railing, shackles clanking like keys. I can’t hold on to what he’s saying. My eye swings around the room, catches the sword hung behind the judge, silver as a chink of moon. I read the words hammered in gold beneath. ‘A false witness shall not be unpunished, but he that speaketh lies shall perish.’ Well. We’re all going to perish, liars and truth-tellers alike, though the Old Bailey is meant to speed a liar’s progress. But that’s not what frightens me. What frightens me is dying believing that it was me who killed her.
I see you at the barristers’ table. You look up, give me a quick nod that settles on me like a horse blanket. There, laid out like china on a buffet, is the evidence against me: Benham’s cravat, his green brocade waistcoat; Madame’s lavender silk, her chemise, and her bandeau with the swan feather dyed lavender also, to match her dress. And there is Linux’s butchering knife, which, so far as I knew, was in its scabbard in the kitchen the whole time I was in Madame’s room.
But it’s the thing beside them that you’re frowning at. When I see it, worry curdles my guts. It’s curled inside an apothecary’s jar, tight as a fist. The baby. Someone joggles the table and it flattens against the glass, like a cheek. There’s a question in your raised brows, but it’s one I cannot answer. I didn’t expect to see it here. The baby. Why is it allowed here? Will they ask me to speak about it?
When I see it, my knees start to quake, and I feel all the terror of that night again. But the mind is its own place, as Milton said, it can make a Hell of Heaven and a Heaven of Hell. How does it do that? By remembering, or forgetting. The only tricks a mind can play.
A wave of memory breaks. She’s lying in bed, up on her elbows with her toes pointing into the air, in her hand an apple I’m trying in vain to coax her to eat. ‘Listen! Are you listening?’ She kicks one of her heels.
‘I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said ‒ “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies . . .'
I’m only half listening, because it is impossible, this thing that is happening, my mistress lying with me in her bed and reading me a poem! But also because it was one of those times, when it fell to me to watch what they called the balance of her mind, like a pot I had on the stove. Is she well? I’m asking myself. Is she well?
A novel is like a long, warm drink but a poem is a spike through the head
She turns to me. ‘Do you like it?’
‘Who is it?’ I ask, stirring her hair with my breath.
‘Shelley. Though I like Byron better, don’t you? The prince of melodrama.’ She turns over suddenly, onto her back, and closes her eyes. ‘Byron is proof, if ever it were needed, that a man is merely spoiled by his vices while a woman is soiled by hers. Oh, Frances, Frances, don’t you think everyone should be prescribed a poem a day? Woman cannot live on novels alone!’
She was right about that. A novel is like a long, warm drink but a poem is a spike through the head.
I told you that story yesterday when we first met. I don’t know why, except maybe I wanted you to know something about me and her other than the terrible things that are being said. You lawyers are as squeamish about hearsay as a planter about cane-rats, yet a trial boils a whole character down to that.
‘John Pettigrew,’ you said, holding out your hand, with your brief still in it so the ribbons dribbled down your wrists. You peered out through all your dark hair. I could see you were even nervier than I was about what lay ahead of us.
Then you said, ‘For God’s sake, give me something I can save your neck with.’
But how can I give you what I do not have? Remembering is a thing that happens or doesn’t, like breathing.
So I told you that story. I suppose I wanted to show you there was love between me and her. Though what good does that do? Whatever she and I were to each other is not a thing you men would care for. At any rate, love is no defence to murder, as you said, though, more often than not, it’s an explanation.
But this is a story of love, not just murder, though I know that’s not the kind of story you’re expecting. In truth, no one expects any kind of story from a woman like me. No doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories, all sugared over with misery and despair. But who’d want to read one of those? No, this is my account of myself and my own life and the happiness that came to it, which was not a thing I thought I’d ever be allowed, the happiness or the account.
I have the paper you gave me, and a fresh quill, and your instructions to explain myself.
Any gaol-bird could tell you that for every crime there are two stories, and that an Old Bailey trial is the story of the crime, not the story of the prisoner.
That story is one only I can tell.