Another Russell, Lord William the 4th Duke of Bedford, not to be confused with the one who was executed in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (Gazette, 12 November), also met a sticky end.
On 6 May 1840, His Grace was murdered in his home at the northern end of Park Lane. His housemaid Sarah Mercer found the house ransacked and Lord Russell lying dead on a bloodstained bed, his throat cut from ear to ear. There was no apparent sign of a break-in and suspicion fell upon Russell’s valet, the Swiss-born François Courvoisier, particularly after stolen silverware was found in his house.
In his favour, however, no blood was found on Courvoisier or his clothing.
Courvoisier was defended by Charles Phillips, of the Irish Bar before coming to England where he was slightingly known as Counsellor O’Garnish. He was an experienced man but when during the trial Courvoisier told him he had indeed killed Russell, Phillips panicked. He went to see Baron Parke, sitting with the presiding judge, to ask what he should do. Parke told him if Courvoisier still wanted to plead not guilty he must be allowed to do so and that Phillips must use, ‘all fair argument arising on the evidence’.
Phillips continued to maintain that his client was indeed innocent, and, it was thought by some, in his final speech tried unsuccessfully to implicate poor Sarah. In 1841, Phillips was given a minor official appointment in Liverpool.
As for Courvoisier, before he was hanged on 6 July in front of a crowd of 20,000 outside Newgate Prison, he explained the lack of blood saying he had been naked when he killed the Duke. He had killed Russell because he had forgotten to collect his master from his club and feared dismissal. This, of course, did not explain the earlier theft of silver.
Both Thackeray and Dickens attended the hanging. In Going To See a Man Hanged, Thackeray later wrote: ‘I feel myself shamed and degraded at the brutal curiosity that took me to that spot.’
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor