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An Appetite for Murder
A Frances Doughty Mystery
By Linda Stratmann
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Linda Stratmann
All rights reserved.
Sometimes, thought Frances Doughty, with just a trace of irritation, the people of Bayswater had nothing better to do with themselves than quarrel. Even gentlemen of education and mature years, who really ought to know better, the very same gentlemen who addressed sensible ladies as if they had the intellect of small children, made themselves look ridiculous by puffing themselves up, pontificating about their erudition or their morals, and exchanging gibes and insults with other similarly stubborn and conceited gentlemen. They indulged in this sport not in decent privacy but in the public press, and these petty wars often ended up in a court of law or even in the street, where blows were exchanged, hats dented and noses pulled. Both participants then asserted, usually before a policeman, that the other had started it first, and both claimed to have won. The worst offenders, Frances observed, were politicians and medical men.
Take for example the furore that had erupted recently over the unfortunate death of Bayswater accountant Mr Thomas Whibley. Mr Whibley had been aged only forty-nine when he expired, but his death had not come as a great surprise. He was a wealthy gentleman who enjoyed the good things in life, and had enjoyed them all to excess. His pleasures were rich food, good wine and brandy, fat cigars, and beautiful women of high class and low morals. Such was his indulgence that it was the subject of some discussion, and not a few wagers, which species of gross intemperance would kill him first. Mr Whibley, although not quite a Daniel Lambert, had achieved monumental proportions of stoutness, weighing, although not a tall man, almost thirty stones. This, however, did not appear to have slowed him in his relentless pursuit of pleasure. In the event, he did not expire slumped across a table in his favourite restaurant, or in a cloud of cigar smoke at his club, or even in an actress' boudoir. He surprised everyone by being found dead one morning, in his own bed, quite alone. His heart, unable to maintain the task he had set it, had decided to stop beating.
There, with a few prayers over his extra wide coffin, the matter should have ended, and it only remained for his executors to dispose of his effects and distribute the proceeds between the four mistresses and twelve children mentioned in his will. Unfortunately someone calling him or herself 'Bainiardus' had written a letter to the Bayswater Chronicle, and even more unfortunately the Chronicle, which relished a good fight, published it. Bainiardus alleged that while Mr Whibley's heart had undoubtedly failed him, this was nothing to do with his dangerously imprudent mode of life, or even the strain of carrying so much weight about his person. Mr Whibley, the writer revealed, had been warned by his doctor that he must lose weight. For the last month, he had been on a reducing diet, and it had been no ordinary diet. Mr Whibley had been 'banting', and it was this harmful and ill-advised practice that had caused his death.
Mr William Banting, after whom the diet was named, was, Bainiardus explained, not even a medical man, but an undertaker, who had once been extremely corpulent. Some years previously he had advocated a dietary regime that consisted of nothing but meat, fruit, vegetables and dry wine. This had not been deleterious to Mr Banting's health; indeed, he had lost his excess weight and claimed that he had never felt better. Recent practitioners, however, had taken matters to hazardous extremes, and Mr Whibley had been living off nothing but broiled beefsteak and champagne for a fortnight before his death.
Further correspondence followed. Mr Whibley's doctor, who declined to give his name, stated that it would not be giving away too many secrets to reveal that he had been advising his patient to lose weight for the last ten years, although he had not recommended any particular regime, other than reducing intake of food, especially pastries and sweets, and taking exercise.
A Dr Adair, who practised in Bayswater and advocated the Banting diet, wrote to the Chronicle in warm support of it, saying that not only was it not dangerous to health, but it was a great boon to the corpulent who had been unable to reduce their girth in any other way.
Several other doctors took up the argument and they were soon joined by Mr Lathwal of the Bayswater Vegetarian Society, who abhorred the excessive consumption of meat advocated by Dr Adair, and Mr Rustrum of the Pure Food Society, who abhorred the excessive consumption of anything. Thus far, nothing being said or written was actually actionable, and while there was a certain amount of placard waving and pamphleteering on all sides, the excitement looked destined to die down, especially when the sudden advent of appalling weather in the middle part of January became the new topic of everyone's conversation.
After a balmy opening to the year 1881, which had led to optimistic forecasts of a mild winter, London was suddenly gripped by a cruel frost with temperatures dropping as low as fifteen Fahrenheit, while heavy snowfall was driven by gales into deep drifts, blocking windows and doorways, bringing the business of the capital to a halt and endangering deliveries of food, post and newspapers. Traffic in the streets was all but stopped and few pedestrians ventured out; clubs and places of entertainment were deserted, and communication between London and the rest of the country suspended. The enterprising carrier could make something of it, though at considerable risk to himself, charging double rates for the delivery of urgent messages, but for most, venturing onto the streets was a matter of necessity rather than choice. The few cabmen who still plied their trade were shrouded in veils and spectacles to protect their eyes, and on the Gray's Inn Road, a watchman froze to death.
For Frances, the weather was not only inconvenient for the essentials of food and laundry, it also prevented the arrival of new custom for her business of private detective, and was the perfect excuse for existing clients to delay paying their bills. When a small improvement in conditions later in the month brought new clients, not all of them were welcome, but by then she felt she had little choice in the matter.
A correspondent of the Chronicle signing him or herself 'Sanitas' had resurrected the argument that had begun with Mr Whibley's death, introducing a new and worrying tone. The Pure Food Society, claimed Sanitas, was a dangerous movement, and its chairman, Mr Rustrum, had no right to criticise either Dr Adair or anyone else. The Society advocated regular fasting, had undoubtedly been responsible for a number of deaths, and its practitioners were guilty of criminal negligence or worse. The Vegetarian Society, Sanitas hinted, was not a great deal better. Sanitas had struck a nerve, and undoubtedly meant to do so. Many people thought that the letter emanated from a medical man, not a few supposed that Sanitas was actually Dr Adair, and several were unwise enough to say so.
Frances, who had rather hoped that her services would not be required to settle this particular squabble, received three letters on the issue, one from Dr Adair who said he was being libelled and that he was not Sanitas and did not know who was, one from Mr Rustrum and one from Mr Lathwal. These three gentlemen, while deeply divided on the subject of correct diet, were united in one respect; they all wanted to know who Sanitas was, and they wanted the letters stopped. Frances wrote to all three to make appointments, and found, with some difficulty, a cab which proceeded cautiously along the still largely snow-obstructed streets to the offices of the Bayswater Chronicle on Westbourne Grove.
Her appearance at that establishment often occasioned excited anticipation amongst the employees who assumed, always correctly, that she was there because she was working on a case. 'Has there been murder done?' she would be asked, rather too eagerly, and the reply that there had not was greeted with disappointment. Frances, whose activities had provided the Chronicle with some of its more sensational stories, was readily granted permission to look at the folder of letters that had arrived following the death of Mr Whibley, and took it to a desk in a corner where she would not be overlooked. She also carried with her the letters that she had received from Dr Adair, Mr Rustrum and Mr Lathwal, and was quickly able to determine from comparison of handwriting and notepaper that neither the Bainiardus nor the Sanitas letters had been written by any of those gentlemen.
The Chronicle had only printed extracts of the letters and their full content made interesting reading. Bainiardus had claimed to be a personal friend and business associate of the late Mr Whibley. 'While it must be admitted that he exhibited a degree of corpulence that many another man might have found restricting,' he had written, 'this was not the case with Mr Whibley. He bore his weight well; indeed, he was remarkably active and light on his feet for a man of his dimensions. He often observed to me that much of what others thought to be fat was in actuality sturdy muscle and the weight of extra-large bones, and his size was in no way detrimental to his health. Imagine therefore my concern when he informed me that a medical man had advised him to take up the practice generally known as "banting". Over the next few weeks I was distressed to see my friend grow slowly weaker and more miserable under this dangerous regime, and begged him to stop.'
The whole blame for Whibley's death should, felt Bainiardus, be laid at the door of 'the man who advised him to take up the pernicious practice of "banting".'
Several letters had followed, several condemning the practice of banting as unnatural, while others, including one from Dr Adair, declared that it was safe and beneficial provided it was conducted under the supervision of a medical man.
Then Sanitas had entered the fray, commenting, 'While the practice of banting may be beneficial in some cases of corpulence, there are others in which it is highly injurious. We must not submit men and women to these extremes simply because it is fashionable, but only in cases of necessity, otherwise we may, as undoubtedly occurred in the case of Mr Whibley, do great harm. Banting is only safe where it is actually required. We have heard from Bainiardus, a friend of Mr Whibley, who tells us that Mr Whibley was not in any way inconvenienced by his girth. Why then was there any necessity for him to try and shed flesh at all?'
While most correspondents believed that excess weight was always harmful, Sanitas clearly did not. 'What is not generally known is that excessive leanness may be as injurious to health as excessive fatness, and lead to decline and an early death,' he continued. 'In times of grave illness it is the fat man who has the better chance of life, since he may lose flesh with impunity, whereas the lean man may quickly wither away and die.'
Thus far the letter had been merely an expression of opinion, refraining from personal insult, but then the writer, perhaps in a burst of emotion, had added:
'These men of the so-called Pure Food movement walk amongst us like so many horrible skeletons and tell us we are better to eat almost nothing, and on some days actually nothing, while the vegetarians would have us renounce the most nutritious and healthful food we have. And, what is most dangerous, this is actually advocated as a life-long practice, so their foolish followers suffer great inconvenience and misery. These men are not doctors, and have no right to criticise qualified medical men. How many members of the Pure Food and vegetarian movements have gone to an early grave? Should there be charges made of criminal negligence or still worse, manslaughter?'
Frances could not help wondering if Sanitas was a corpulent individual who, not wishing to undertake the restrictions necessary for the reduction in his weight, had decided to make it a virtue. She asked the editor if she might be allowed to borrow the folder for further study, and permission was granted with the stipulation that the letters must be preserved with great care, and returned at once if they ever became the subject of legal action, something he hoped her intervention might avoid.
Frances thought it would be useful to learn as much as she could about what diet was recommended by doctors, both for reduction of corpulence and general health, and on her return home, she delved into the collection of medical texts that had been left to her by her late father. Mr William Doughty had once been the proprietor of a chemists shop on Westbourne Grove, and had liked to read about the diseases of his customers to give him better authority when selling remedies. Irregularities of the digestive system along the whole of its turbulent, troubled and lengthy tract had often been discussed with much relish at the Doughty dinner table.
There was however, as Frances discovered, a considerable difference between the opinions of pharmacists, who were in general agreement as to which draught or powder best suited their customers, and doctors, who could agree on nothing at all, and her studies only served to increase her mystification on the subject. Frances' companion, Sarah, who had once been the Doughty family's servant and was now a no less indispensable assistant detective, arrived home from an errand to find her employer throwing down pamphlets onto the table in despair.
Frances and Sarah had only been detectives for a year, and both, though they would not have admitted it to their clients, had been obliged to learn the art as they practised it. At first, Sarah had acted only as directed, but the former maid of all work, with more insight and initiative than anyone other than Frances gave her credit for, had a hard cynical view of the world and soon showed that she could see to the heart of problems and determine a course of action on her own account.
'There is almost no article of food or drink,' exclaimed Frances, 'that has not been both denounced as the cause of fatness and praised as the natural food of man. Here we have a doctor who tells us that we are made fat by drinking pure water, and others who urge us to drink nothing else. Meat is of course either the best food of all, or a snare for the unholy. One man says that butter is to be avoided at all costs by those wishing to lose excess weight, but another declares that it cannot make us fat at all. It seems he tested his theory by feeding doves on nothing but butter and found that they grew very thin and died.'
'Do doves eat butter?' queried Sarah, looking dubious.
'They do not, I am sure of it,' said Frances, 'but this gentleman, while a person of education, seemed not to know that.'
'I am not considered fat, am I?' asked Sarah, suddenly. She was a woman constructed on generous principles, large in every part of her person, especially about the waist, shoulders and forearms.
'You are exactly as you should be,' Frances reassured her firmly. She had read a great many opinions, all of them expressed by gentlemen, as to the correct amount of fat a woman should carry on her person, and there was considerable disagreement on that too, leading to pages of animated exposition on the subject of bosoms and hips and abdomens and how full and rounded and soft they should be. Frances was tall and thin and wanting fat on every part of her form, and it was no comfort to have it confirmed in medical prose, that sometimes approached indecency, just how far she deviated from the most admired female proportions.
That evening, as Frances and Sarah enjoyed a hearty supper of mutton stew followed by a pie made from the best bottled gooseberries, Frances wondered how it was possible for so many persons to disagree on the diet that was best for health. Surely if one simply ate wholesome, nourishing and digestible food, neither too much nor too little, that ought to be enough?
As they ate, another letter arrived, hand delivered, which was, thankfully, nothing to do with diet, and which Frances discussed with Sarah. A Mr Hubert Sweetman, who revealed that he had not long emerged from a term in prison, wanted to trace his estranged family; a wife, son and daughter from whom he had heard nothing since his conviction in the autumn of 1866. A man who had been in prison for over fourteen years, and who might well have originally been sentenced to twenty and granted an early release, had clearly not committed a trivial offence. 'He might be a murderer,' observed Sarah with a thrust of her lower lip. Frances agreed, pointing out that she had interviewed murderers before, although admittedly she had not known them to be murderers at the time.
Excerpted from An Appetite for Murder by Linda Stratmann. Copyright © 2014 Linda Stratmann. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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