Today's Reading

THE OLD BAILEY, LONDON, 7 APRIL 1826

I never would have done what they say I've done, to Madame, because I loved her. Yer they say I must be put to death for it, and they want to me to confess. But how can I confess what I don't believe I've done?


CHAPTER ONE

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 like 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, was 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 Bedford Square, 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 threatened 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 prisoner was observed going into Mrs Benham's rooms shortly after she had retired. Mrs Linux went upstairs herself, shortly afterwards, at around one o'clock that morning, where she discovered her master's body in his library. Shortly thereafter, she entered Mrs Benham's bedchamber 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.

'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.'
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