Unsolved Murder Mysteries

A Secret of St. James’s Palace

It was three o’clock in the morning of Thursday, the 31st of May, 1810. The watchman who patrolled St. James’s Street and Pall Mall paused, lantern in hand, at the arch leading to the courtyard of the squat, rambling, red-brick Palace of St. James, swung his light inside the vaulted gateway and passed on towards Piccadilly. All was well.

So no doubt thought the porter who was dozing in his roomy leather-covered, hooded chair in the entrance hall. His Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland was safely housed​—​he had been to a dinner at Greenwich, then to a concert at the Opera House in aid of the Royal Society of Musicians and he returned to the palace about midnight.

The duke had three valets, of whom two were Neale, an Englishman, and Sellis (or Sellies), an Italian. It was a rule of the household that only the valet on duty should sleep in the Royal apartments, but on the night of May 30th there was a deviation. Neale was the valet on duty, and Sellis was sleeping in a room in the ducal suite instead of his own quarters in a distant part of the palace.

This variation of the routine was not due to any order of the duke but to Sellis himself, no doubt with the consent of his master. The duke, as will be seen later on, must have known that Sellis was sleeping within call. In view of what happened during the small hours of Thursday morning, the movements and the behaviour of Sellis previous to the terrible tragedy enacted within the duke’s apartments and his general character are of extreme importance.

The Italian was married and had four children. He was devotedly attached to his family, regular and domesticated in his habits, always cheerful and good humoured. Of the three valets, Sellis was the duke’s favourite, so much so that His Grace and one of the princesses were godparents to his youngest child.

On that tragic night, in consequence of the illness of one of his children, Sellis arranged to sleep in his room in the duke’s apartments. He was a capital cook and before leaving his quarters he prepared his own supper. Then followed the customary cheerful chat; and kissing his wife he bade her good night and went off to the duke’s suite of rooms. These extended nearly the entire length of the palace, overlooking Cleveland Row.

At about a quarter-past three, the hall porter was still comfortably snoozing, when he was violently awakened by someone seizing his arm. He opened his sleepy eyes and saw Neale, the English valet, standing in front of him, pale and trembling, and holding in his hand a sabre from which blood was dripping.

“Get up, get up!” cried Neale, agitatedly. “His Royal Highness is murdered.”

This, however, was but the exaggeration of fright, for at that moment the duke himself, half dressed and with blood on his face, was seen in the dim light descending the staircase, and looking like some ghastly spectre.

“Let all the doors be guarded. No one must leave the palace,” he exclaimed. “Neale, I am fainting. Help me back to my room.”

The porter, no longer drowsy, summoned the household. Bells clanged, flickering candles cast grotesque shadows, scantily dressed men-servants hurried in all directions, frightened maids screamed. In the midst of the turmoil was heard the duke’s voice:

“Where is Sellis? Call him at once.”

A posse of servants rushed to the room where it was known the valet was sleeping, and hammered at the door. There was no response.

“Sellis, the duke is murdered,” shouted one of the men.

Still an ominous silence. It was thought that, in spite of the arrangements to sleep in the duke’s suite, Sellis might be in his own apartments after all. A hurried scamper thither, only to find that the man was not with his family; a race back to the duke’s quarters, and a renewed knocking at the valet’s door.

Structurally, the interior of St. James’s Palace was that of a rabbit warren. Six rooms intervened between the duke’s bed chamber and Sellis’s apartment. They followed each other in this order: Duke’s bed chamber, west yellow room, ball room, east yellow room, armoury, bed chamber, dressing room. Then came a very short passage with three steps descending to the door of Sellis’s room. It was at this door that the servants first knocked. They found it fastened and there was no response.

Suddenly someone recollected that the room had another door. By this door the duke’s chamber could be reached by going through three rooms only. Back rushed the excited little crowd to the east yellow room and thence into a lobby separating Sellis’s apartment from the steward’s room, and into which the other door of the valet’s bed chamber opened. The bed was situated near this door, and as the group drew near the entrance they involuntarily stopped, their hearts icy with terror. A sinister sound​—​a strange gurgling noise as that of a man in the agony of death​—​was coming in gasps from the interior. Not one of that little group of terrified domestics, with blanched faces, had the courage to open the door.

“Call the guard!” faltered one.

The idea was acted upon. The yeomen of the guard hastened to the scene and found their way into the room, the door, unlike the first one, not being locked. Here they came face to face with an appalling sight. Sellis was lying perfectly straight in bed, the head raised up against the headboard and nearly severed from the body. His arms were lying quite straight by his sides and blood covered the under part of the body. He had on his shirt, waistcoat, breeches, and stockings. The inside of his hands were perfectly clean, but on the outside were smears of blood.

His watch was hanging up over his head, wound up, his coat was carefully folded inside-out, and laid over the back of a chair. The washbasin was in the stand, and was half full of bloody water. Upon examining Sellis’s cravat, it was found to be cut. The cravat was lined with silk, padded and quilted; and what was remarkable, both the padding and the cravat were slit, as if some person had made an attempt to cut the throat with the cravat on; then, finding the woollen or cotton padding impeded the razor, took it off in order the more readily to effect his purpose.

In the meantime, what of the duke? He was being attended to by the doctors, Sir Henry Halford and Mr. Everard Home, who pronounced his hurts to be severe but not dangerous.

This summary represents the story in brief based on what purports to be the evidence of the witnesses. An analysis of this evidence, however, shows much that was vague and contradictory, not a little of it was altogether inexplicable, and certainly opposed to the verdict of the coroner’s jury, who found a verdict of felo-de-se against Sellis.

Not a moment was lost in investigating the mysterious affair. Indeed so much haste was shown that it is fair to assume the authorities were extremely anxious to get rid of the unpleasant business as soon as possible. There were, indeed, good reasons not only for hurry, but for keeping in the background anything which might lead people outside the court to form their own conclusions. The duke’s reputation was of the worst. His character and conduct had been more frequently brought before the public than those of any other member of the Royal Family, and there were dark hints of certain circumstances concerning him about which the less said the better.

Nothing favourable either in his character or appearance can be said about the Duke of Cumberland save that he had more brains than any of his Royal brothers. Stockmar describes him as “a tall, powerful man with a hideous face; can’t see two inches before him; one eye quite turned out of its place.” He was a source of trouble to his father; he was shunned by the other dukes, and the only members of the family who cared for him were the Regent, over whom he had great influence, and his sister the Princess Elizabeth. Few writers on the lives of the sons of George III have a good word for the duke. Mrs. Crawford in her Victoria Queen and Ruler says: “There was a dread among all who wished for a better England … of the Duke of Cumberland ascending the throne. He was at once a bad man and a bad fellow, and a debauchee and a ruffian. The active principle of his being was malevolence. He gave a constant example of that form of wickedness which the Germans call schadenfreude, or happiness at witnessing the misery of another person.” His brother Clarence said: “He is not a bad sort. Only if he knows where you have a tender spot on your foot he likes to tread upon it.”

The year 1810 was a particularly unpleasant one for the Royal Family. The scandal of the Duke of York and the notorious Mrs. Clarke, the year before, had caused a great sensation; the treatment of the Princess of Wales by her husband was a constant dish of gossip; and that the most hated of all the dukes should be dragged into association with murder and suicide must have thrown all his relatives and the supporters of Royalty into a tremor of apprehension as to what might be brought to light.

A few hours after the tragedy, an official investigation commenced. The depositions of the various witnesses were taken​—​not before the coroner, but by the Privy Council, a magistrate, Mr. John Read, assisted by the chief of police at Bow Street. The police, so far as they were represented by the Bow Street runners, had nothing to do with the matter. The coroner, Mr. S. T. Adams, may have been present at these proceedings, but there is no definite mention of this. The first examination was conducted in private, and neither newspaper reporters nor the public were admitted.

It is not without significance that the reports sent to The Times, the Morning Post and the Morning Chronicle were practically identical, in other words, a report was prepared officially and issued officially. Official reports in those days of the doings (and misdoings) of Royalty were not models of accuracy. When necessary they were “cooked,” and the public rarely accepted them as truthful. With the newspapers it was different. Their existence was dependent upon standing well with the authorities, especially in regard to anything concerning Royal personages. The officials who drew up the document for publication had not the slightest doubt that Sellis had first attempted to murder the duke, and failing to do so had committed suicide fearing detection. So it came about that the newspapers took the same line and expressed their horror at the crime and their detestation of the black ingratitude of the murderer. The Morning Post, indeed, posing as the champion of the Royal Family, and seething with indignation, indulged in a patriotic outburst, in the course of which it said: “Of all the European countries, we confess our dislike of the Italians is the most keen and inextinguishable We did not want this most glaring and abominable instance of the foul association of so many detestable vices to confirm and justify our aversion to that race of men.… The preference given to foreigners to the prejudice of native worth and fidelity … is a shame and a scandal against which in the name of our country we most solemnly protest.” These sentiments, no doubt, were held by a large section of the community, for somehow the popular belief of most English people in those days was that foreigners, and especially Italians, went about with daggers and stilettos which they were ready to use on the slightest provocation. It did not therefore need much proof that Sellis, being an Italian, was also likely to be a murderer.

Admitting, however, for the sake of argument that Sellis was guilty, the question of his motive and of his plan of assassination presented difficulties which the newspapers could not overcome, and having only cut-and-dried evidence before them they could but fall back on conjecture. This cut-and-dried evidence was presented at what was termed the coroner’s inquest, held on June 1st, the day after the murder​—​an inquest conducted in a fashion which would hardly be tolerated at the present day. It was alleged that the coroner’s officer, instead of summoning the jury personally, went to “Mr. Francis Place of Charing Cross, man’s mercer,” and, to quote the affidavit of Mr. Adams put in at the trial of an action for libel which was brought some twenty-two years later, and which will be dealt with further on: “The said Francis Place then mentioned to the officer the names of many persons fit and eligible to compose such jury, and of such persons so summoned by the officer aforesaid, an impartial jury was formed of which jury the said Francis Place was foreman.” It was typical of the mystery and muddle in which the affair was involved that Mr. Place, a reputable man who, as a Radical and a strong supporter of that ardent reformer, Sir Francis Burdett, occupied a recognised position in political matters, should repudiate the coroner’s statement. He asserted that, so far from mentioning the names of persons to be summoned, he only knew five of the seventeen men empanelled.

Mr. Adams’s method of opening the inquest is reminiscent of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, who sentenced the culprit before she heard the evidence. The official report reads thus: “Mr. Adams addressed the jury and informed them of the violent attack that had been made upon the Duke of Cumberland, and that there was very little doubt but it was done by the deceased.” And so before the jury had heard the depositions read, they were expected to accept the coroner’s opinion and not to trouble to think and judge for themselves! Maybe some inference of this sort made the coroner uneasy in his mind, for he went on to intimate that the witnesses would be called before them and the depositions would be read; “when they would have an opportunity of altering or enlarging, and the jury could put any question to them they thought fit.” No questions, however, could be put to the principal witness. The Duke of Cumberland was absent, presumably on account of his wounds, but there was no suggestion that the proceedings should be adjourned to allow him to attend. As the coroner had already settled that Sellis was the duke’s assailant, perhaps this course was not considered necessary.

The interest of the tragedy, however, does not centre round the duke’s evidence but around the evidence concerning Sellis. It is important to remember that the principal evidence against the man came from the mouth of Neale, the English valet, who was on very bad terms with the Italian. Sellis, some months before, had written to a member of the Royal Household accusing Neale of dishonesty. “This man,” wrote Sellis, “is as great a villain as ever existed; no oath or promise is binding with him, and he relates alike that which he must have sworn to keep sacred in his bosom as he will a most trifling thing; and slanders and threatens with public exposure and large damages his benefactor and only maker of his fortune just as he would one of his own stamp.” The ill-feeling between the two men was well known, and in view of this fact the story of Neale deserves careful scrutiny.

More than one version exists of this evidence, and we prefer to take that contained in The Times of June 2nd. What Neale deposed was that “he slept in a room which was separated from the duke’s only by a thin partition. On Thursday morning he was awakened about three o’clock by the duke’s voice, who cried out several times, ‘Neale, Neale, Neale, I am murdered.’ He instantly started up, and the duke told him to take care as the murderers were in his bedroom. The duke was in his shirt all covered over with blood. He [Neale] immediately seized the poker, and as he proceeded onwards towards the yellow room, which was open, he trod upon a naked sword which was reeking with blood. He took it up and asked the duke’s permission to pursue the murderers. The duke answered, ‘No, no, Neale; for God’s sake do not go from me or leave me alone as there are more of them in it.’ The duke then leaned on his arm and they went downstairs together. The porter was by this time roused, and the duke directed him to lock the doors and allow no person to leave the house. They then met Mrs. Neale, whom the duke directed to go and alarm Sellis. After this they returned to the duke’s chamber to search for the assassin. Neale looked into the closet and there he found Sellis’s black leather slippers, a dark lanthorn, a bottle of water, the scabbard of a sword and two bolsters; the key of the closet was on the inside.” After alluding to the arrival of the surgeon, Mr. Home, who found that the duke had been wounded in the head, the throat, the thigh and the hand, Neale went on to say that “it was plain that the person who made the attack on the duke must have remained secreted in the closet, as all the other doors leading to the duke’s apartment were locked. A few days since Sellis had according to orders taken the duke’s regimentals and sword out to make them ready for a review which did not afterwards take place. He afterwards returned the regimentals, but left the sword upon the sofa, where it had lain ever since until the fatal night.”

From this it is clear that Neale had “reconstructed” the crime to his own satisfaction. But how was it so clear that the would-be murderer had concealed himself in the closet? Because, said Neale, all the doors leading to the apartments of the duke were locked.

Yet Neale must have known that Sellis had a key which opened all the doors and that this same key was found in his coat pocket. This being so, why, if Sellis was the assassin, should he take the trouble to conceal himself in the closet and risk the chance of a discovery when he could have entered the duke’s bedroom at any time? But his slippers and a dark lanthorn were found in the closet. A man about to commit a murder would surely consider how to get away quickly after he had done the deed and would be careful to leave no clue behind. For what reason did Sellis take off his slippers? If there was any reason it was certainly most stupid of him to allow them to remain in the closet. Also the lanthorn. If such a thing were necessary, it was for guiding the murderer’s movements while in the room of his victim. But there was no need, since a lamp was burning in the duke’s room. The evidence concerning this lanthorn was anything but conclusive of its belonging to Sellis. One of the servants said that she had seen such a lanthorn (it was a square one) in Sellis’s possession. Other servants described Sellis’s lanthorn as round. Mrs. Sellis never knew her husband to have a lanthorn other than the one in their own private apartments, which had never been taken away.

Both the duke and Neale were sure that the wounds were inflicted by the duke’s own sword. Neither had seen the sword used, but there it was lying on the ground “reeking with blood.” And had it not been lying upon the sofa in the duke’s room for some days “until the fatal night”? Sellis, according to Neale, had put away His Royal Highness’s regimentals, but had left out the sword, the inference being that he wanted to have it handy. Why he should have taken the scabbard to the closet is a question as difficult to answer as that relating to the slippers and lanthorn.

Let us examine the duke’s deposition. His account of the affair differs materially from Neale’s. He stated that he had been awakened about three o’clock on Thursday morning by two violent blows on the head, which were immediately after followed by two others, followed by a hissing kind of noise. From this circumstance his first conclusion was that a bat had by some means or other entered his room. There was a lamp and taper hanging in the chamber, and by their light he perceived a letter which lay upon his table completely covered with blood. This immediately struck him with the idea that there was a murderer in the room, and he accordingly struggled as quickly as he could out of bed. At this moment a naked sabre was dropped upon the floor, and he perceived the figure of a man flying into the yellow room and escaping on towards the apartment in which Sellis slept. He went downstairs, aroused his page and gave the alarm, through the house, of murderers.

It will be noticed that in this narrative Neale is not mentioned, unless the word “page” applies to him. But this could hardly be, as the duke says he went “downstairs,” and Neale’s bedroom was on the same floor as his own. Neale is circumstantial enough about the poker and what the duke said to him, and it is, to say the least, strange that not a word to corroborate his story appears in the duke’s deposition. It will be noticed that the duke described how he saw a figure flying into the yellow room “escaping towards the apartments in which Sellis slept.” This is purely a gratuitous assumption. As a matter of fact, there was no other road open to the “figure” whom the duke saw “flying”; but seeing that six rooms intervened between the west yellow room and Sellis’s quarters, and that there were several exits to the staircase in the corridor or kitchen court, it is quite obvious the duke could not say positively whither the hypothetical figure was fleeing.

According to the account which appeared in The Times on the discovery of the tragedy, the attack was a “most ferocious one.” The alleged assassin “seemed to have stood rather back towards the head of the bed, which stood in a small recess, in order to avoid discovery, and was therefore obliged to strike down at the duke’s head in a slanting direction, in consequence of which the curtains which hung from the top impeded the action of the sword, and to this alone can His Royal Highness’s preservation be imputed​—​several of the tassels of the curtain were cut off. The sword was a large military sabre of the duke’s and had been sharpened. The whole edge appeared hacked and blunted with the force of the blows.” If this be true, then it is hard to believe the duke could have survived. In any case, his impression of having received “four blows” (it will be noted that he was very precise as to the number), of hearing a “hissing noise” which he thought was made by a bat reads strangely. These four blows were inflicted by a sabre as sharp as a razor, so runs one statement, but that on account of this very sharpness it was the more easily blunted! Whether this be so does not very much matter. The cuts, if we may accept the evidence of Mr. Everard Home, the surgeon, were deep enough to show the pulsation of the brain, and that being the case, the skull must have been cut through, but the surgeon does not say so.

How the duke’s thigh was cut is as difficult as the medical evidence to understand. This wound could hardly have been received while lying down, and as the sword was dropped while he was struggling to get out of bed, he could not have been wounded when on his feet unless the would-be assassin picked up the weapon and again attacked him. But this hypothesis will not serve, because the duke says, after the “naked sabre was dropped on the floor” he perceived the flying figure. When, also, was his finger injured? One account speaks of it occurring while he was trying to get possession of the sword, but the deposition of the duke is silent on this point. On the whole, the duke’s story is incomplete, it is contradictory and unconvincing, and it does not tally with that of Neale. Defective and unsatisfactory as the narrative is, it must be left so. Nothing more can be said.

We now come to the crucial question​—​was Sellis the guilty man and did he commit suicide? The fist question is by no means fully answered by the depositions of the duke and Neale. The second demands still more careful consideration.

The story of the valet’s body being found stark on his bed, the throat so deeply cut into the head as nearly to sever it from the trunk, has already been told. The first puzzle which presents itself is the position of the body. It was perfectly straight, the arms were also straight, were close to his sides, the insides of the hands were clean, smears of blood were on the backs. Mr. Jackson, one of several surgeons who saw the body, and the only one who gave evidence before the coroner, described the wound in the throat as six inches in length, gaping open an inch and a half, the windpipe being completely severed. Unconsciousness, if not death, must have followed within a few seconds. Strength must have departed instantaneously. How could anyone in such a state have composed his arms in so placid a position as that in which they were found? The razor, it is true, might have fallen from the fingers at the first agony, but it was picked up two feet from the bed. That such a gash could have been inflicted without leaving blood on the inside of the hands is almost inconceivable. How is the basin of bloody water to be accounted for? The explanation was put forward that Sellis, after coming from the duke’s room, had washed his hands, and if he was the duke’s assailant, the explanation might be accepted. But was he? It will be remembered that Sellis is represented as being in the duke’s room in his stocking-feet. According to an anonymous statement, evidently written with a strong bias against Sellis and with a circumstantiality which excites suspicion, the duke’s blood “flew eight feet high around the walls of his bed chamber, besprinkling the portrait of Pichegru and spoiling other pictures with large drops of blood.” Now if this were so there must have been blood on the floor, and the would-be murderer’s feet could hardly escape being stained. Sellis’s stockings were never examined. Had marks of blood been found upon them the question of his guilt would have been solved. On the other hand, the absence of such marks would have been in favour of his innocence.

Bearing in mind that the object of the investigation from beginning to end was to establish that Sellis was a murderer and a suicide, it is not surprising that no mention was made of the stockings. We may be sure that had blood been found upon the soles the fact would not have escaped notice.

Two other points suggest consideration. The first is the cuts on the cravat. These cuts went through not only the outside silk but the quilted padding below. The theory was that, the padding impeding the passage of the razor, the cravat was taken off to effect the purpose more readily. Possibly. But was the hand wielding the razor that of Sellis or some other person? It must not be forgotten that though one bedroom door was locked the other was not. These were the facts, but explanation is wanting.

The second point relates to the position of the body. It was lying straight on the bed and there was no sign of struggle or convulsion. The conclusion arrived at by the investigation was that, having fled to his room, Sellis was alarmed by the knocking at the door, and that in a paroxysm of fright and desperation he took the razor from a drawer and slashed his throat. To do this he laid himself on the bed, composed his limbs, and started upon hacking his throat, after which he arranged his arms and hands straight out, one on each side of his body. Does this deliberation suggest the conduct of a desperate man? We venture to say it does not.

The opinion of Mr. Jackson was not that of other surgeons who examined the body, but who were not called before the Privy Council or the coroner. One of these gentlemen was Mr. Carpue, who had a great reputation as an anatomist and was also well known as a lecturer on anatomy. The following passage from the Rev. Erskine Neale’s Life of the Duke of Kent tells us what he thought: “Mr. C. [Carpue], a surgeon of note, saw Sellis after his death, and, having examined his wounds, gave it as his opinion that the cuts on the back of the neck could not have been inflicted by the deceased. Nor was Mr. C. content with simply giving utterance to this monstrous [sic] assertion, but had the hardihood to make the subject the basis of a lecture to his pupils, in the course of which he declared that if Sellis died by his own hand he did not cut the wound at the back of his neck. ‘Sellis,’ he observed, ‘had not one but several wounds on the back of the head. If Sellis had meant his own decollation, he must have begun behind his neck; but labour as he might, it would only hack and hew his flesh, for no physical strength would be sufficient to terminate the existence of an individual by beheading himself.’”

From this it is pretty clear why Mr. Carpue was not called to give evidence. That evidence would have been dead against the verdict of felo-de-se. The Royal brothers were greatly incensed at the surgeon’s presumption, and the Duke of Kent, meeting the offender some little time after, “looked him fairly down and then rumped him without mercy.” A brotherly argument, but hardly a convincing one.

It is not without significance that Neale represented Sellis as an ill-tempered man; that the past history of the latter, some twenty years back, before he entered the duke’s service was raked up, but all that was adduced was that he was once charged with a trifling act of larceny which was not proved, and that he had been heard to utter the words: “To hell with the King.”

The witnesses who gave this evidence were servants, whose ideas of truth are notoriously shaky, and their trumpery attempts to blacken the man’s character may be summarily dismissed. It was also asserted that Sellis might have been insane, but for this supposition there is not the slightest ground. The doctor who was called to speak on the point declared that his mind was in no way affected.

All the efforts to dispose of the case summarily as one of suicide did not stifle public curiosity and comment, but at last the matter died out, to be revived twenty years later, when an article purporting to be a narrative of the actual facts was published in the Satirist. The writer insinuated that there was a motive why the duke and Neale should wish to get rid of Sellis, who, it was alleged, was in possession of an infamous secret affecting both. The accusation was based upon a statement supposed to have been made by a man named Jew who was in the duke’s service at the time of the tragedy. It was impossible to remain silent under odious insinuations seriously made. The duke took proceedings against Josiah Phillips, the proprietor of the Satirist, the man Jew was produced and denied having made the allegations referred to, and Phillips was found guilty. It ought to be noted, however, that the duke’s account of what happened given during the action for libel in 1832 differs materially from that contained in His Royal Highness’s deposition of 1810​—​so materially, indeed, that it is difficult to reconcile the two.

It was typical of the brutal tastes of the times that the bedrooms of the duke and his valet should be thrown open for exhibition. The papers solemnly recorded how the “sheets and white satin pillows that were on the duke’s bed when he was attacked were put on again to satisfy the curiosity of the public,” while the bed and bedroom of Sellis were allowed to remain in the same state as when the tragedy happened. The hot summer weather, however, put an end to the repulsive show, which, it may be presumed, was permitted so that everybody should be convinced that the official reports were correct. In the meantime, the body of Sellis had been buried at night in Scotland Yard, where the remains, for aught we know, lie at this moment, decomposed by the quicklime which it was the practice to use in cases of felo-de-se. Despite the endeavours made to attach odium to the memory of the unhappy man, his widow was granted a pension​—​an act which the duke’s enemies probably did not regard as prompted by generosity, but rather as conscience money.

Few people who to-day assemble to watch the trooping of the guard in the courtyard of the Palace are aware of the dark tragedy enacted within its walls. Yet for a mystery which baffles all attempts at a satisfactory solution, it takes a prominent place in the annals of crime.