Sunday, 6 July 2014

Did she fall or was she pushed? A Victorian melodrama

In 1898, the story of a newly married young woman’s unresolved death and her husband’s suicide appeared in the papers.

On 30 March, Edward Emilius Joseph Possel, known as Joseph, married Eleanor Gertrude Beckett at St Augustine’s Church in Kilburn. Eleanor was 25 years old and her father John had been a clerk at the Bank of England until his death in 1894. Eleanor lived with her widowed mother at 61 Clifton Hill, off Abbey Road. Under the stage name of Nellie Beckett she was a member of the chorus at a London Theatre. She was beautiful, blonde, tall and graceful.

At the end of 1897, a young man from France who had come to learn English, lodged with the family as a paying guest. Eleanor fell in love with the dark, good looking young man who claimed to be the Marquis de Gondoville. Joseph even persuaded her to break off her engagement to her fiancée, much against her family and friends’ advice. They didn’t like Joseph who was prone to violent rages and after attacking her had been asked to leave the house. But Nellie was infatuated; before their wedding day, she handed over £1,400 to Joseph in return for what he called a ‘bond’ worth £3,000, payable on his father’s death. The family believed she was marrying a French Marquis.

Their honeymoon was spent travelling round Europe. By mid-July they were staying in the Hotel Sirena in Sorrento, where every day they would ride out in a carriage driven by Joseph. On 21 July they again visited a viewpoint at Colli di Fontanelle, where the cliffs drop steeply 200 feet down to the sea. The hotel keeper was very surprised when Joseph returned alone that afternoon and he asked where Eleanor was. When Joseph said nothing, the hotelier was suspicious and informed the police. They arrived at Colli di Fontanelle at 2am the next morning. It was impossible to see the base of the cliffs in the dark and too dangerous to try and climb down. Returning at dawn, they discovered Eleanor’s mangled body at the base of the cliff.

Joseph was arrested and questioned. How had Eleanor died? Apparently Possel gave various explanations. To the police he said the horse had bolted and poor Nellie was thrown from the carriage, over the precipice to her death. Her sister and mother maintained he’d told them that Eleanor had sat on the edge of the cliff, overbalanced and fallen. What was irrefutable was the fact that he had taken out a massive life insurance policy on Eleanor with a French company in early July. Worth £10,000, it was payable to her husband.

But with no convincing evidence to hold him further, Joseph was released on bail after four days of questioning. Although told he had to stay in Italy, he immediately travelled to Paris where he tried to persuade the insurance company to pay out on his policy. When they refused, he returned to London to see Eleanor’s family. Then he left again on 2 August for Paris where he went to the Hotel Durand in the fashionable Place de La Madeleine and asked to rent a room. He explained that he wasn’t expecting guests, but he wanted somewhere quiet to eat and write letters during the afternoon. Lunch was served and writing materials delivered to his room. Around 2pm, the guests in the restaurant below heard a gun shot. The staff rushed upstairs and found Joseph on the floor. He’d shot himself in the right temple but was still alive, with some of his brain protruding through his head. He had just enough strength to point at two letters he’d written and ask for them to be posted. One was addressed to his mother in Amiens, the other to Police Commissioner Gavrelle. The shot was fatal and Possel died in hospital without regaining consciousness. In his letter to Gavrelle, he declared he was committing suicide because of the foul accusations made against him since his wife’s tragic death. But he did not admit that he pushed her over the cliff. 

Bizarrely, a few days later Commissioner Gavrelle had just finished his report and gone home for dinner when he collapsed unconscious at the table and died. Three people had now died in this incident.

The fact Nellie died only 13 days after taking out the insurance policy, along with Joseph’s attempt to get the payment quickly, raised many doubts. The New York Times said Joseph had been seen at the cliff top ‘rehearsing’ his crime, throwing large stones over the edge and watching how they fell. One reporter had no doubts about what had happened: ‘in order to avoid recapture, Possel committed suicide.’

It was discovered that around 1895, Joseph had spent several years in the St Anne and Ville d’Array lunatic asylums. Possel’s mother said Joseph may have been ‘a neurotic subject’ but maintained he had not murdered his wife. She said her son lived in considerable style in London and that 7,000Fr were found on Joseph’s body. 

He was buried in St Ouen Cemetery, Paris after a simple service at the church of St Phillippe du Roule. Eleanor was buried in the cemetery at Positano, near where she died.

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