The Priory Puzzle


On April 18, 1876 the occupants of the ostentatious mansion known as the Priory at Balham, a suburb of London, sat down to dinner. Their meal included whiting, lamb, and poached eggs on toast. The male occupant drank three glasses of Burgundy while his female companions polished off almost two bottles of sherry between the two of them.
After three days of excruciating agony, one of them would be dead. The cause of death was determined to be antimony, a particularly harsh poison, and would lead to one of England's most celebrated unsolved murder mysteries.
The Victim:

Charles Delauney Bravo was an up and coming barrister with a promising Parliamentary career in front of him. He resided at the Priory with his wife, Florence Bravo and her paid companion, Mrs. Jane Cannon Cox.
Charles Bravo was described as a cruel and vindictive man who had been accused of marrying Florence for her money. In typical Victorian fashion, he was the master of his domain and his wife was to submit to him in all things. He became enraged when he learned that Florence, intended to retain control of her considerable fortune and punished her by forcing her into degrading sexual acts, in addition to being verbally and at times physically abusive. In an effort to cement his hold over Florence, he insisted that she bear him a child regardless of the consequences to her health.
The Suspects:

Florence Bravo was a widow when she met Charles Bravo. Her first husband, Algernon Lewis Ricardo, was a Captain in the Grenadier Guards. He received an honorable discharge from the guards after their wedding but found that he was not cut out for a non-military regimen. Within a year the marriage was already under a tremendous strain. Florence discovered that he was sleeping with other women. He also developed a fondness for the bottle and quickly developed into a dipsomaniac. They remained married an additional 6 years during which time he was rarely sober. Their marriage ended after he became physically abusive during one of their frequent arguments and she packed up and left. Rather than go back to her husband as her father demanded she went to a hydropathy clinic in Malvern, Worcestershire. While at the clinic she was informed of her husband's death and that she had inherited his estate to the tune of 40 thousand pounds. She immediately made plans to leave Malvern and move to London where purchased the Priory. She would eventually meet Charles Bravo and the two married in December of 1875 after Bravo made sure the odds were stacked in his favor. The two began having premarital relations and Florence became pregnant in November but she had difficulty carrying the child and miscarried in January. Charles insisted that they resume relations three weeks later even though Florence had not yet recovered. She soon found herself pregnant but again was unable to carry the child to fruition and miscarried in April. Florence became seriously ill after the miscarriage and was terrified that if Charles again forced her to become pregnant before she had a chance to sufficiently recover it would kill her.
Mrs Jane Cannon Cox was a widow with little means and considerable debt. She and her three small sons moved back to England from Jamaica after the death of her husband. Her sons were enrolled in private school and she barely supported herself and her family by renting out her home and by working as a governess. When she and Florence met they took an instant liking to each other and Florence offered her an ideal position as a highly paid live-in companion. The two became fast friends and Florence came to rely heavily on Mrs Cox for advice and guidance. Charles was jealous of the close relationship between Florence and Mrs Cox. He also felt that Mrs Cox was the reason why he could not control his wife. Even though they were extremely well off, Charles was a penny-pincher and insisted that Florence fire Mrs Cox among other things in an effort to save money. Mrs Cox faced the possibility of losing her comfortable lifestyle and returning to a state of poverty and destitution.
Dr James Manby Gully was the director of the hydropathy clinic in Malvern, Worcestershire. He first met Florence when she came to the clinic after she had separated from her first husband. Even though he was nearly 40 years her senior the two became attracted to each other and began a scandalous affair causing Florence to be ostracized from her family and society. During one of their illicit rendezvous, Florence discovered that their attempts at birth control had failed and she was with child. Realizing that their reputations would be permanently destroyed if word of her pregnancy became public knowledge, Dr Gully agreed to perform an abortion on Florence.
Florence suffered severe complications after the abortion and nearly died. She would eventually recover but their relationship was never the same. Even though he was still deeply in love with her, Florence insisted that their relationship remain purely platonic. Upon hearing about the upcoming nuptials, Dr Gully became angry and broke off all communication with Florence.
The first inquest was held on April 25, 1876 at the Priory with Florence providing refreshments for the jury. The Coroner, an acquaintance of Florence's family, convinced that Charles Bravo had committed suicide, took great pains to keep any scandal to a minimum. The proceedings were kept private and Florence was never called to testify. Two of the five doctors present during Charles' sickness testified to the fact that when he was confronted with the fact that they believed he had been poisoned stated that he had rubbed laudanum on his gums for a toothache and might have accidentally swallowed some. He denied taking poison and refused to name anyone who might have wanted to harm him. The doctors also testified that Mrs Cox had made known to them that Charles had admitted "I've taken some of that poison, but don't tell Florence." The Coroner then closed the inquiry and the jury returned with an open verdict. That is, "the deceased died from the effects of poison - antimony - but we have not sufficient evidence under what circumstances it came into his body."
When additional facts of the case and the verdict of the inquest were revealed to the public there was an immediate outcry of dissatisfaction and a demand to open up a second more in depth inquiry. One of the physician's present, Dr George Johnson, who had not been allowed to testify at the first inquiry gave a statement to the press in which he claimed that Charles Bravo had not knowingly taken poison. Mrs Cox also changed her statement previous statement which she had altered in an attempt to shield Florence from public scorn. She claimed that Charles had actually told her that he had taken poison for Gully and to not tell Florence. In light of this the illicit affair of Florence Bravo and Dr James Gully again resurfaced.
On June 19, 1876 the Attorney General made application to the Court of Queen's Bench and was granted a rule that squashed the first inquiry and ordered the Coroner to hold a new inquest.
The second inquest was held at the Bedford Hotel in Balham on July 11. Both Jane Cox and Florence testified that Charles Bravo was mean-spirited and deeply disturbed. They claimed that he was often verbally abusive and had one time even struck Florence. He was also extremely jealous of her former relationship with Dr. Gully. On one occasion he had called Florence a selfish pig and that he was leaving her. How he hated both her and Gully and wished they were dead. Their testimony was seen by some as a means to lay the groundwork for establishing the fact that he had taken his own life.
Florence and Mrs Cox's statements were refuted by the unanimous testimony of relatives, friends, and servants. They described Charles as a strong, active man with a cheerful disposition. The last man who would ever commit suicide. To them his relationship with Florence appeared happy and affectionate and none of the servants had ever heard or sensed the level of discord described by Florence and Mrs Cox.
It was further established that Charles kept a water bottle at his bedside and it was his custom to drink from it each night when he went to bed. The bottle was filled nightly by one of the housemaids. It was presumed that the water bottle was the medium for the poison since he would have become ill within 15 minutes of consuming the antimony. But one of the physicians was sure that he had drunk some of the water from the bottle while attending to Charles.
When she was on the stand Florence was forced to describe in lurid details her relationship with Dr Gully and at one point pleaded with the Coroner to protect her from the relentless questions put to her by the solicitor representing Charles' family.
Dr. Gully was much more controlled on the witness stand. Even though he admitted to the affair with Florence he unequivocally denied any direct or indirect participation in the poisoning of Charles Bravo.
On August 11, with no hard evidence, the jury reached a verdict of willful murder. "We find that Charles Delaunay Turner Bravo did not commit suicide; that he did not meet his death by misadventure; that he was willfully murdered by the administration of tarter emetic; but there is not sufficient evidence to fix the guilt upon any person or persons.
After the trial, the three suspects were free to leave but their lives were forever changed. Florence Bravo was publicly disgraced and disowned by her family. She moved to Southsea in the county of Hampshire where she died at the age of 33 in 1878 from alcohol poisoning. Dr. Gully also suffered complete ruin to his social and professional reputation and died in 1883.
Mrs Cox fared much better than her counterparts. She returned to Jamaica with her sons where she received a substantial inheritance from her husband's aunt. She eventually returned to England and died in 1913.
To this day the questions still remain a source of great debate, who killed Charles Bravo and how?


Anonymous said...

he took the poison himself to fake an attempted murder attempt by his wife in the hope that he could lay hands on her money once she is convicted. unfortunately he overdosed himself and died.

Jane Aston said...

If this was the case why didn't he leave a note to say he suspected his wife of trying to kill him. At least then he would have some insurance in case it all did go wrong.

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