Kent, Constance (1844–?)

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Kent, Constance (1844–?)

English murderer . Born in 1844; the ninth of ten children of Samuel Kent (a carpet manufacturer) and Mary Ann (Windus) Kent.

One of the most shocking murders of the Victorian era took place on the night of June 29, 1860, in a quiet village five miles from the town of Trowbridge in Somerset, England. In the early morning hours of June 30, the body of three-year-old Francis Savile Kent was discovered in a detached privy on the family property. The little boy's throat had been slashed with such violence that the head was nearly severed from the body and there was a congealing stab wound in the child's chest which was believed to have been made after his death in an attempt to force the body further down the privy cavity. Almost as shocking was the fact that the murderer was not some crazed stranger, but the victim's half-sister, an intelligent, demure schoolgirl of sixteen who covered up her crime for a period of four years. She unexpectedly confessed in 1864, although her declaration of guilt raised more questions than it answered.

Constance Kent grew up in a more-thantypically repressive Victorian family. She was the ninth of ten children (five of whom died in infancy) of Samuel Kent, a rug manufacturer and later inspector of factories for the West of England, and his first wife Mary Ann Windus , the daughter of a respected merchant. Samuel was said to be a pompous, ostentatious man, who was not particularly well liked by his neighbors. At home, he was a tyrant. He spent his salary lavishly on entertainment, clothes, and horses, and left his wife with little to run the household and care for her children. Mary Ann, burdened with a frail constitution, lost ground with each of her ten pregnancies, and by the time Constance was born in 1844, was deemed mentally disturbed and unable to care for the infant. After the birth of another son, William, the following year, Samuel hired a well-educated young governess for the children and removed himself to another bedroom in the house. "Mrs. Kent was left by her husband to live in the seclusion of her own room," reported a friend at the time, "while the management of the household was taken over" by Mary Pratt , "a high-spirited governess." When the older Kent children went away to boarding school, it was general knowledge among the townsfolk that Mary Pratt had become mistress of the house in every respect.

Mary Ann Kent died in 1852, and, after the customary year of mourning, Samuel married Mary Pratt. Constance, then nine, served with her older sisters as a bridesmaid at the ceremony, which was apparently her last moment in the spotlight. The couple immediately started a new family on which they lavished their attention. By the accounts of the servants and others, Constance was neglected and harshly disciplined, although it was also acknowledged by friends that she was a difficult, willful child. In the summer of 1856, after some particularly harsh treatment by her stepmother, Constance convinced her brother William to run away to sea with her. The pair made it to Bath before they were apprehended by the police and returned home. They were both beaten, and Constance was locked in the cellar for two days.

By 1860, Mary Pratt had given birth to three more children: five-year-old Amelia, three-and-a-half-year-old Francis Savile, and a baby daughter Eveline. A nurse, Elizabeth Gough , was hired to care for the smaller children. On the morning of June 30, 1860, when baby Francis was acknowledged as missing, Samuel Kent immediately took off for Trow-bridge, to alert the police. In his absence, nearby villagers began searching the grounds, where they eventually found the murdered boy.

Adding to the horror of the crime was the ineptitude of the local investigation. After a bumbled investigation and testimony before the coroner's jury, it was determined that the murderer was an outsider. When official inquiries did not produce any formal indictments, Scotland Yard sent famous Chief Inspector Jonathan Whicher to take over the case, a move that rankled the local police who refused to cooperate further in the investigation. Whicher quickly fingered Constance as the most likely suspect, but he had little proof. He began to probe deeper, questioning former servants and acquaintances of the family. He learned that Constance resented her father's new family, and that in school she referred to her family as "different." In searching Constance's room one day, Whicher found some three-year-old copies of the London Times, containing stories of the trial of Madeleine Smith of Glasgow, Scotland, who was accused of murdering her lover but acquitted. The detective concluded that Constance's interest in the Smith case was highly abnormal, and that perhaps she had a touch of her mother's mental instability. Whicher's only solid evidence, however, was the fact that a nightdress belonging to Constance, presumably the one she had been wearing the night of the murder, was missing.

On July 20, 1860, 16-year-old Constance was arrested and charged with the murder, causing a fury of protest from the locals. Knowing his case was shaky, Whicher hoped that Constance would break down under close interrogation and confess, but he was wrong. After a week's imprisonment, Constance emerged calm and resolute, telling the magistrates at her hearing—yet again—that she had been in her room the night of the murder and knew nothing about it. In the end, the judgment of the original coroner's jury, death by "person or persons unknown," was allowed to stand. Constance was released on £200 bail in order to guarantee her reappearance should she be called upon in the future.

To escape notoriety, Constance was sent to a convent school in France. She was allowed to return to England three years later, and enrolled under an assumed name at a High Church establishment affiliated with a hospital in Brighton, where she planned to train as a children's nurse. A year-and-a-half into her studies, she returned to England for a religious retreat, staying at St. Mary's Home in Brighton. Sometime over the next 12 months, Constance underwent a spiritual epiphany that moved her to bare her soul. On April 25, 1864, she appeared at the office of the magistrate in London and confessed to the murder of her half-brother. Her declaration was later printed in the London Times in the form of a letter to the editor from Dr. John C. Bucknill, who had examined her and declared her sane. She had told Bucknill that on the night in question, she took the child from his bed and into the privy, which she lighted with a candle. While the child slept, she inflicted the wound to the throat with a razor she had stolen from her father. She further confessed to burning the stained nightdress in her bedroom after discovering that the two blood stains on it did not wash out completely. Although she denied that "cruel treatment" had prompted her actions, she failed to offer any other motive for the murder. She further declared that she harbored no ill will against the boy except that he was one of the children of her stepmother. She also said that her father and stepmother had always been kind to her.

On July 21, 1865, Constance Kent was condemned to death by a tearful judge and jury. The sentence was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment, and she was imprisoned at Mill-brook. In 1885, after serving 20 years, she was released. Following a brief period with an Anglican sisterhood, she immigrated to Canada, where she was believed to have become a nurse. The date of her death is unknown.


Hartman, Mary S. Victorian Murderesses. NY: Schocken, 1977.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Kent, Constance (1844–?)

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Kent, Constance (1844–?)