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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History


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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

A traveling researcher engages people and places from Britain's past and present, drawing comparisons and contrasts between past and present for today's reader.

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A Letter From the Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter of a Murder Victim

By Donna Fletcher Crow ~ February 1, 2012

One of the wonderful things about sending a book out into the world is that you never know where it will wind up. Writers are often advised to have an ideal reader in mind when they write, and my ideal reader is always the person who knows the most about the background of my story. I find that keeps me on my toes, always trying to keep my research as accurate as possible, always trying to be absolutely honest in my writing. But even with such an imaginary reader sitting on my shoulder, I've never imagined an actual descendant of one of my characters reading my work.

So you can imagine my surprise when I received an email asking if I had used "the murder of my great-great-great-grandmother (Catherine Bacon) in Chatham, Kent on 29th January 1855 as the inspiration for your book To Dust you shall Return."

Indeed, I had! Each book in The Lord Danvers series, of which To Dust You Shall Return, is the third, is about a Victorian true crime with a fictional crime woven around it. When I encountered the murder of Catherine Bacon in Victorian Studies in Scarlet, by Richard D. Altick (W. W. Norton & Co., 1970) I knew I wanted to tell that story.

That was in 1995, and now, 16 years later, with the Lord Danvers books enjoying a new life in their re-release as ebooks, I was hearing from Catherine Bacon's great-great-great-granddaughter Jane. Unfortunately, I was unable to answer Jane's query as to where her ancestress is buried— my research didn't extend beyond the trial— but Jane very kindly agreed to answer my questions which her query elicited.

Donna: Jane, again thank you so much for writing to me! I'm still in awe at the connection. How did you come upon To Dust you Shall Return?

Jane: In my attempt to find the burial place of my great-great-great-grandmother I have taken to searching on the internet every month or so, to see if anyone has posted a reference that might help. I don't necessarily use the same phrase and the one I used last, came up with a reference to "Frail, elderly Catherine Bacon has been murdered" which turned out to be for your e-book!

Donna: I'm wondering how it feels to read a book about the killing of your ancestress. I had the same question when reading The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher a Victorian true crime story about the Constance Kent case. The Kents were a very large family, so there must be descendants of Constance reading that very popular book today. Do you have a comment?

Jane: Had I not been aware of Catherine's murder, I suspect that I would have been mildly irritated that the name of an ancestress of mine had been used as the victim of what appeared to be a fictional crime! However, as I had read nearly one hundred newspaper articles about the crime and trial, I was simply eager to see if the author's research added anything to the knowledge I had already gained.

Donna: My research said that Catherine Bacon's husband Colonel Bacon was killed at Waterloo. I never found any reference to their having had children, and yet they must have for you to be her descendant. Can you fill me in on your family that I missed in my research? Also, do you know more about Colonel Bacon's army career?

Jane: Although I know of another two ladies named Catherine Bacon at about that time, neither were the one murdered in Kent. Co-incidentally the one married to an army officer was part of the Unitarian Gaskell family (into which the authoress Mrs Gaskell married) who are ancestors of my husband's family!). However, my Catherine was married to an Engineer who when younger had been personal private assistant to Sir Marc Brunel (you may well know him to be the father of the more famous Isambard K Brunel). Catherine and her husband Matthew had four sons, all of whom married. The eldest had no issue and I am descended from the second son.

Donna: the conections are fascinating! I've read many of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels and am a great fan of Isambard kingdom Brunel, we visited his museum in Bristol.
Ordnance Terrace in Chatham, where your ancestress lived, and apparently next door to where Charles Dickens lived for a few years, is still there. I wonder if you've visited it? Since you have that connection to the great Victorian writer do you enjoy reading his works, especially Oliver Twist, David Copperfield or The Pickwick Papers which are set in Rochester near to Chatham?

Jane: 130 years after the murder (1985) I visited Ordnance Terrace to photograph the exterior of Catherine's home. That was no mean feat as my research at the Local Record Office had informed me that the numbering of the houses had changed! It is frequently and incorrectly stated on the internet that Catherine was murdered in the house that John Dickens and family had lived in during that family's brief stay in Chatham. Catherine lived in her house 1813-1878 and between 1817-1820 the Dickens family's were neighbours in that same terrace of houses. Co-incidentally both families had previously lived in Portsea, Hampshire!
Although I admire Charles Dickens' descriptive powers and find them incredibly impressive, some of the judgements he makes of his characters verge on the cruel. Recently re-reading Sketches by Boz I was struck anew by the way Victorian humour differs from that of a twenty-first century reader.

Donna: Catherine Bacon had an extensive collection of silver and porcelain. As a matter of fact, that provided the motive for her murder. I'm wondering if any heirlooms of Catherine's are still in your family?

Jane: As a family we do have heirlooms but as the youngest girl in my family, my brothers and elder sisters naturally take precedence. There are many portraits, including one of Catherine's husband but regrettably no likeness of her. She must have been tiny as at the time of her death she was reported to weigh only four stone (56 pounds). From all the articles I have studied it appears that the thefts tended to be money, books, jewellery and clothing, all of which were easy to pawn without arousing too much suspicion.

Donna: What about family stories? Have personal recollections of her been passed down through the generations?

Jane: Catherine appeared on the family tree and although there has always been much talk of current and previous generations and their exploits, there had been none about her. Until 1976, when a cousin of my late father's ordered a copy of Catherine's death certificate, all we knew of her were her places of birth, marriage and death, her spouse and children.

Donna: From my research it appears that she was strictly teetotal, very kind and generous and somewhat casual in her dealings? Does that accord with family accounts?

Jane: As we know so little about Catherine, it is fascinating to learn that you gained that impression and had your research notes not been lost, I would have loved to know what led you to that conclusion. I too got the impression that she was generous and kind and the reports certainly suggest that her children were very fond of her right into adulthood; Her second son, who lived nearby, stated in Court that on the servant's evening off he would visit his mother so that she was not alone and after she had been so brutally murdered, he kissed her blood-besmeared cheek.

Donna: Jane, you wrote that "Extraordinarily a descendent of the [person] who murdered Catherine contacted me recently to let me know of the connection!" That is truly extraordinary! So have you been corresponding with the descendent of the murderer of your great-great-great-grandmother? I would love to hear more.

Jane: I did reply to the descendant, pointing him in the direction of the British Library's newspaper repository at Colindale, but have had no acknowledgement!

Donna: This was a most interesting case because ultimately the killer (who was unmarried at the time) was only convicted of theft, not murder. It's so interesting to ponder that your correspondent wouldn't exist if justice had been done. Any thoughts on that?

Jane: Extremely interesting. I tried to place myself in his shoes and wondered if I would have contacted the descendant of my ancestress's victim - I think not!
As I understand the case, there were three factors that enabled the murderer to cheat justice. Firstly, the composition of the jury (the abolitionist in their number), secondly, the fact she was a pretty young woman who looked even younger than her years and thirdly that she was such an accomplished liar. To have boasted of her deeds (stealing, lying [to some of her cohorts, she even suggested that she was a companion to an elderly aunt, which was why she had a right to the items she had infact stolen!] breaking her employer's trust and finally, axing to death one tiny elderly lady and going to enormous lengths to cover up the vicious crime.

Donna: Jane, thank you so much for being my guest today on "Deeds of Darkness; Deeds of Light." Is there anything else you'd like to tell us about the Catherine Bacon case or the effect it has had on your family, if any?
Jane: Thank you Donna for asking me to share with you my thoughts about the case and giving me a platform to put right some of the incorrect information that appears on the internet. Only too frequently, supposition is placed online and then treated as fact. In these times when amateur genealogy is such a popular pastime and the internet is so often used as a primary source, mistakes are made and perpetuated. Just a couple of those that I have come across are the Dickens family living in my great-great-great-grandmother's house and a great-uncle of mine supposedly married to his step-mother! Both are easily explainable. One because the house numbering had changed and the other because both the father and eldest son had identical names, but both completely untrue, then disseminated further afield by people who have not checked the veracity of the source documeent. 

Donna:  Research can certainly be a sticky wicket. I invite my readers to scroll down to      the  previous article in which Fay Sampson discusses another pitfall of researching family history.

Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

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Reader Comments:

Jane, thank you somuch for taking the time to answer my questions so carefully. I'm delighted to have this opportunity to set the record straight on some of my own confusion--especially the information about Catherine Bacon's family.
-Donna, February 1, 2012

What an amazing succession of events to bring you two together. Jane, I am envious that you can trace your lineage back so far. Though this was a terrible event, the sense of connectedness you have is clear. I'm glad this story wound up in Donna's gentle, knowing hands.
-jennymilch, February 1, 2012

Good grief, Donna, what an amazing thing to happen! I was enthralled.
-Dolores, February 2, 2012

Thank you Jenny and Dolores. On another list I received a comment from a lady who lives just down the street from Ordnance Terrace, but didn't know about the murder. She does, however, participate in the Dickens Festival in Rochester and knows 2 of Dickens' descendents.
-Donna, February 2, 2012

That was fascinating. How great that you could share your thoughts and ideas.
-Sheila Deeth, February 6, 2012

Thank you, Sheila, we're in an amazing business, aren't we!
-Dnna, February 6, 2012

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