Murder at the Priory: The mysterious death of Charles Bravo #RealCrimeFriday

In December 1875, Charles Bravo, a barrister, married Florence Ricardo, a famous Victorian Heiress. Florence had previously been married to Alexander Ricardo, but had been left widowed in 1871 when Ricardo died under mysterious circumstances. Florence’s marriage to Alexander had been marred by his numerous affairs and violent alcoholism. She too, had had an extramarital affair with Dr James Gully, a man much older than she was, and who was also married at the time.

Florence’s marriage to Charles seemed equally as stormy. Police enquiries would reveal that Charles’ behaviour towards her was controlling and violent. Where power was concerned, the relationship was unbalanced. Florence was wealthier than Charles, and she opted to maintain control of her own money, causing immediate tensions within the marriage.

Florence Ricardo
Florence Ricardo

Four months into the relationship, Charles was rushed to hospital from the couple’s elite Victorian household at The Priory, a landmark house in Balham, after becoming violently unwell and falling unconscious.

Notable physician of the time, Sir William Gull, was called to come to Charles’ bed side. Gull and the other doctor present concluded that Charles had been poisoned. After three days of excruciating pain, Charles died, on April 21, 1876.

During a post-mortem it was discovered that Charles had doses of 20-30 grains of antimony in his system. A theory was that Charles may have been slowly poisoning Florence with numerous, small doses of antimony, in the form of tartar emetic, due to wanting to gain control of her fortune. Then, whist using laudanum to treat toothache, he accidentally swallowed some. He then took the tartar emetic, mistaking it for true emetic that would induce vomiting. Mrs Cox, the housekeeper, told police that Charles had admitted to her that he had been used the tartar emetic on himself.

19th Century laudanum bottles
19th Century laudanum bottles

There were other suggestions, however. Three people were suspected. Florence, Mrs Cox, and Dr Gully.

Florence and Charles had been engaging in premarital relations, leading to Florence becoming pregnant in November. However she had difficulty carrying the child, and miscarried in January. After a second miscarriage, Florence became seriously ill. She was terrified that if Charles forced her to become pregnant a third time, that it would kill her.

The second was the housekeeper, Mrs Cox. She was a widow with three children, and Charles had threatened to sack her in order to save money. She was reported to be evasive on the night of the murder, and told police that Bravo had spoken about committing suicide, which he had not.

Then there was Dr Gully. He was allegedly angry and bitter at Florence marrying Charles. He was the first to be ruled out however, due to being nowhere near the scene.

The key players in the case
The key players in the case

The first inquest was held on April 25, 1876. It was found that Charles died of effects by poison, though there wasn’t sufficient evidence to say how the poison came into his body. There was immediate dissatisfied outcry from the public, who demanded a second, more in-depth inquiry.

On July 11, a second inquest was held. Both Florence and Jane Cox testified that Charles was deeply disturbed and mean-spirited. However these claims were refuted unanimously by relatives, friends and servants, who described Charles as a strong, active man with a cheerful disposition.

It was also established that Charles kept a water bottle at his bedside, to drink from at night. It was presumed that the water bottle could have been poisoned.

A newspaper account of the inquest
A newspaper account of the inquest

A verdict of wilful murder was reached, but that there insufficient evidence to find one person guilty.

Though the suspects were free to leave, the case would have a damning effect on their lives.

Dr Gully was professionally ruined, and Florence died two years later, from alcohol poisoning, due to chronic drinking.

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