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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

DEATH BY ENEMA

I want to relate to you one of the most famous murder cases in English history. But the crime is not famous because of the weapon used. Nor is the case unusual because the victim and the killers were both wealthy and powerful. And there was no great mystery either, since the killers left their fingerprints...well, all over the crime scene. But what did raise this tawdry tale of sin and politics out of the common sewer and dropped it right onto the throne room was that from all indications one of the killers was sleeping with the King - along with one of the most beautiful MILFs in all of 17th century England. And he wasn’t married to either one of them.
You see, when the virgin Queen Elizabeth died the early dark of March 24, 1603, she figured it would be better for England if her crown went to the son of her worst enemy, Mary Queen of Scots. On the very afternoon of Elizabeth’s death, it was officially announced that James VI of Scotland would become James I of England. In fact, under Elizabeth’s orders, officials of the English court had been visiting Edinburgh for years, to smooth the transfer of power. It was probably the most noble thing Elizabeth I did for her people, something no other monarch of her age did. But it turns out, that was where the trouble all began.
Sir Thomas Overbury (above) was one of the court officials sent north to prepare James and his court for their new responsibilities. Now, Thomas was handsome, smart as a whip and as popular as canker sore. One of his competitors described him as “prone to over valuing himself and undervaluing others”, which was the polite Tudor way of calling him arrogant jerk. And in 1601, Thomas was in Edinburgh when he was introduced to a drop-dead handsome 23 year old servant lad named Robert Carr.
Now, Robert (above) was a mimbo – a male bimbo. He was not very a smart, but he was gorgeous, ambitious and he was willing – very willing. Enthralled, Thomas took the boy home with him as a sort of souvenir. And on March 24, 1608, when Robert broke his well turned leg during a jousting tournament held in honor of King James, James noticed that leg. And it was love at first sight.
James (above) began his courtship by giving the convalescing Robert daily lessons in Latin (as opposed to Greek). He made the boy a Knight, then the Viscount of Rochester, and showered him with gifts of money and land, gave him a key to the royal bedchamber, made him the keeper of royal documents and, according the King’s own letters, they spent most nights together. At one point James sent a note, complaining that Robert was “withdrawing yourself from lying in my chamber, notwithstanding my many hundred times earnest soliciting you to the contrary.” By 1610 Robert was one of the King’s closest advisors.
Of course Robert was not smart enough to advise the king about anything, But Thomas was. And he whispered suggestions in Robert’s ear, who passed them along to King James. So the combination of Robert’s good looks and Thomas’s brains made for the perfect intimate for King James. Of course, Thomas not only advised the king what was best for England, but what was best for Thomas was well. But as far as our little circle within the Court of James I, everybody was happy. There were only two things that could have gone wrong, and they both did. Thomas’ ego could not resist boasting to everyone that he was the brains behind Robert’s success. And, as one observer at the time noted, “Some one or other told James that it was commonly reported that, whilst Rochester ruled the King, Overbury ruled Rochester.” That angered the King, who didn’t like Thomas much anyway. Nobody did, really.  And then Robert fell in love – with a woman, of all people.
She was Francis Howard (above), the Countess of Essex. She was smart, gorgeous and treated sex as if she were a man - as a hobby. Robert began a torrid love affair with Francis, and although neither her husband nor the King seemed to mind their dalliance, Thomas did. He warned Robert that she was “a filthy, base woman…noted for her injury and immodesty.” And Thomas may have been right, because even the lady’s husband described Francis as “a stretched glove”, not exactly a compliment. But when Robert and Frances started planning to divorce her husband so they could marry, Thomas went ape. His ego could not abide the insult. He told Robert he would do everything he could to prevent the divorce. And when Robert told Francis about Thomas' threat, it was open war between Francis and Thomas. And here Francis discovered her real talent was not sex, it was revenge.
Her plot was simple and simply devious. She urged Robert to urge the King to offer Thomas the post of ambassador to Russia. She also urged Robert to urge Thomas to turn down the offer. Well, Thomas saw the offer as an attempt to get him out of the way and so, taking Robert’s advice, he turned the offer down. And, just as Francis had planned, the King was enraged by the rejection of his "gift". 
In April of 1613, noted a chronicler, “Sir Thomas Overbury is sent to the Tower for saying he could not and would not accept a foreign employment.”  Once locked away in dank rooms of the Tower prison for five months, by the end of September, Thomas was dead. Just about everybody who knew Thomas figured his death was just a happy accident; but not everybody.

Sir Walter (above) fumed while Francis Howard’s marriage was annulled just a week after Thomas had died. And Sir Walter steamed, when in November, the King made Robert Carr the Earl of Somerset, as a wedding present. And when Robert and Francis took their vows the day after Christmas 1613, Sir Walter Raleigh was already hard at work, tracking down an obscure man we know only as William.
What made this William stand out was that although he was a lowly apprentice to an apothecary, he had suddenly left England for Holland. Where would a lowly commoner get money for such a trip? And why would such a man suddenly want to travel to a country where he could not speak the language? Sir Walter eventually tracked down William in Holland and had him followed closely for over two years. And when William fell ill in the summer of 1615, Sir Walter’s agents were on hand to obtain his deathbed confession of his part in killing Sir Thomas Overbury.
The apothecary, read William's confession, was nervous. He had advised William that Sir Thomas was weak, and might be near death already. But, he added, their patron was growing impatient after trying to kill Sir Thomas for months. The apothecary offered William  £20, literally a small fortune in 1613, to administer a massive dose of arsenic directly into Sir Thomas' bloodstream, in the only way it could be administered without cutting the skin and leaving a mark. William swore on his deathbed that a guard, who seemed to be in on the plot, had first drugged Sir Thomas' wine and then helped William roll the defenseless  man over, while William had inserted the tube into the terminal junction of his digestive canal and released the clamp. By six the next morning Sir Thomas was dead.
That confession produced an investigation led by Sir Francis Bacon (above), part time playwright and the Royal Attorney General. The first victim to be tortured, er, I mean the first suspect to be questioned was the apothecary, James Franklin, who admitted to preparing seven concoctions to be used against Thomas Overbury; sulfuric and nitric acids, copper vitriol, mercury powder, arsenic powder (lapis cotitus), “great spiders and cantharides, otherwise known as Spanish Fly.
According to Franklin the list had been prepared by Mrs. Anne Turner (above), the widow of a London doctor, who made a living selling love potions and the like to wealthy patrons. Mrs. Turner admitted under “questioning” that she had been directed prepare the list and to deliver the finished poisons, one after the other, to Richard Weston, Thomas Overbury’s jailer. In his turn under enhanced interrogation, Richard Weston admitted he had slipped the poisons, one after the other, into Thomas’ food and drink. However none of them had been effective. Evidently Thomas was unfortunate enough to possess an iron constitution. Everything he ate made him sick, but he refused to die. So, in the end, said Mrs. Turner, it was decided to speed him along with a coupe de grace, right up the coupe de shute, via the steady hand of William the late apothecary assistant. And the villain who requested this barrage of food born punishment, was the lady Francis (Howard) Carr.
Francis (above, another impression) was smart enough to confess her crime under the mere threat of torture. Her husband, the mimbo, Robert Carr, remained convinced he had nothing to worry about. He was certain his “friend” King James would never allow him to be questioned, because he knew too much. But James had moved on to a new young friend, George Villiers, and was no longer interested in Robert. And just in case Robert decided to blurt out some embarrassing truth at his trial, two men stood at either side of Robert while he testified, just in case it was necessary to muffle the mimbo.
The result of the trial was a far gone conclusion. Richard Weston was hanged. Mrs. Turner was hanged. Mr. Franklin was hanged. Even the Lieutenant of the Tower, Grevase Helwys, was hanged, although his only crime seems to have been he suspected what was going on but couldn't figure out which bunch of his betters were going to come out on top, so he did nothing.
The only two people who did not hang for the murder of Sir Thomas were the two who had conceived of and financed the whole thing; Robert and Francis. They were both sentenced to death, but instead the King ordered him sent to the Tower for life, while Francis was confined in her home, which is where she would have been anyway because she was “with child”. In January of 1622, Richard’s was finally released on the condition that he and she leave London for ever. The rumor is that alone at last on their country estates the pair learned to loath each other. She died of uterine cancer in 1632, and he died in 1645 of old age and probably, terminal stupidity.
And thus ended one of the most amazing murder cases in England history, in which at least four people hanged, and two reputations were destroyed, because they helped to murder a man no body even liked. Oh, and because they were stupid enough to get caught at it.
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