The Park Lane Murder
The Victorian public loved few things more than stories of murder and high society. And the Park Lane Murder combined both of these. What’s more, it involved a young, foreign woman and was fueled by pure greed. It had all the ingredients of a hit newspaper crime serial – except, of course, that it was all completely true.
It was January 1872 when Madame Caroline Besant Riel finally took on a new cook to work in her Park Lane house, right in the fashionable heart of London. The 46-year-old Belgian widow opted to employ a fellow French speaker, 29-year-old Marguerite Dixblanc. From the very start, however, the two had a fractious relationship. By all accounts, Mme Riel was a tough employer with high standards and an extremely quick temper. She would routinely scold her staff and heated arguments between her and her new cook – always conducted in loud, passionate French – were everyday occurrences in the Park Lane household.
Then, on Sunday 7 April, the arguments came to an abrupt halt. At 4pm that afternoon, Dixblanc announced her intention to go to church. But instead of going to pray, she took a taxi to Victoria Station and then headed to the coast. She was soon on her way across the Channel to her native France. In London, meanwhile, the other staff soon started to grow worried. After Mme Riel hadn’t been seen for more than a day, they searched the house. To their horror, they found the widow folded up and hidden in a locked pantry. Her dead body was covered in bruises. What’s more, money was missing, and so too was the cook.
It didn’t take long for the London police to alert their counterparts in Paris. Dixblanc was arrested and sent back to London to face justice. The fact that she was found in Paris with a large sum of money on her person meant that hopes were high of a conviction. Indeed, Dixblanc never denied her guilt. Rather, she insisted she killed Mme Riel in self-defence: she claimed her employer had attacked her verbally after one of their many arguments about the quality of her cooking turned violent.
The judge overseeing the case declared that verbal abuse by an employer was not a good enough defence for murder. Furthermore, he noted that Dixblanc had enjoyed her victim’s finest wines before escaping the scene. He sentenced her to hang, though this was later commuted to a full life sentence. She died behind bars. As an interesting side note, historians have since revealed that Mme Riel was a long-term mistress of the 5th Earl of Lucan – the 7th man to hold the title would himself vanish after the brutal murder of his children’s nanny in 1974.