Podcast Episode 261: The Murder of Lord William Russell

Image: Harvard Digital Collections

In May 1840 London was scandalized by the murder of Lord William Russell, who’d been found in his bed with his throat cut. The evidence seemed to point to an intruder, but suspicion soon fell on Russell’s valet. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the investigation and trial, and the late revelation that decided the case.

We’ll also marvel at Ireland’s greenery and puzzle over a foiled kidnapping.


Marshal Ney directed his own execution.

Lewis Carroll invented an alphabet he could write in the dark.

Sources for our feature on the murder of Lord William Russell:

Yseult Bridges, Two Studies in Crime, 1959.

Claire Harman, Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London, 2019.

Thomas Dunphy and Thomas J. Cummins, Remarkable Trials of All Countries, 1870.

J.E. Latton Pickering, Report of the Trial of Courvoisier for the Murder of Lord William Russell, June 1840, 1918.

William Harrison Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard: A Romance, 1839.

“Remarkable Cases of Circumstantial Evidence,” in Norman Wise Sibley, Criminal Appeal and Evidence, 1908.

Samuel Warren, “The Mystery of Murder, and Its Defence,” in Miscellanies, Critical, Imaginative, and Juridical, 1855, 237-271.

“Trial, Confession, and Execution of Courvoisier for the Murder of Lord Wm. Russell: Memoir of F.B. Courvoisier, Lord W. Russell’s Valet [broadside],” 1840.

“Russell, Lord William (1767-1840),” in D.R. Fisher, ed., The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1820-1832, 2009.

“The Practice of Advocacy: Mr. Charles Phillips, and His Defence of Courvoisier,” Littell’s Living Age 25:313 (May 18, 1850), 289-311.

“English Causes Celebres,” Legal News 14:39 (Sept. 26, 1891), 310-311.

O’Neill Ryan, “The Courvoisier Case,” Washington University Law Review 12:1 (January 1926), 39-46.

Michael Asimow, “When the Lawyer Knows the Client Is Guilty: Legal Ethics, and Popular Culture,” Law Society of Upper Canada 6th Colloquium, University of Toronto Faculty of Law 10 (2006).

J.B. Atlay, “Famous Trials: The Queen Against Courvoisier,” Cornhill Magazine 2:11 (May 1897), 604-616.

Paul Bergman, “Rumpole’s Ethics,” Berkeley Journal of Entertainment and Sports Law 1:2 (April 2012), 117-124.

Abigail Droge, “‘Always Called Jack’: A Brief History of the Transferable Skill,” Victorian Periodicals Review 50:1 (Spring 2017) 39-65, 266.

Albert D. Pionke, “Navigating ‘Those Terrible Meshes of the Law’: Legal Realism in Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm and The Eustace Diamonds,” ELH: Journal of English Literary History 77:1 (2010), 129-157.

Matthew S. Buckley, “Sensations of Celebrity: Jack Sheppard and the Mass Audience,” Victorian Studies 44:3 (2002), 423-463.

Elizabeth Stearns, “A ‘Darling of the Mob’: The Antidisciplinarity of the Jack Sheppard Texts,” Victorian Literature and Culture 41:3 (2013), 435-461.

Ellen L. O’Brien, “‘Every Man Who Is Hanged Leaves a Poem’: Criminal Poets in Victorian Street Ballads,” Victorian Poetry 39:2 (Summer 2001), 319-342.

Matthew Buckley, “Sensations of Celebrity: Jack Sheppard and the Mass Audience,” Victorian Studies 44:3 (Spring 2002), 423-463.

“This Day’s Examination of the Valet for the Murder of Lord William Russell, M.P.,” 1840, English Crime and Execution Broadsides, Harvard Digital Collections.

Peter Dean, “Death by Servant,” Daily Mail, May 18, 2019, 12.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, “The Victorian Melodrama That Led to Murder and Mayhem,” Spectator, Nov. 10, 2018.

Hannah Rosefield, “The Strange Victorian Murder of Lord William Russell,” New Statesman, Oct. 31, 2018.

“Look Death in the Face,” [Liverpool] Daily Post, Sept. 1, 2018, 12.

Alexandra Mullen, “Bloody-Minded Victorians,” Wall Street Journal, July 26, 2013.

Dalya Alberge, “Vital Clue Ignored for 50 Years,” Independent, Dec. 9, 2012.

“Murder of Lord William Russell — Confession of the Murderer,” Sydney Herald, Oct. 20, 1840, 3.

William Makepeace Thackeray, “Going to See a Man Hanged,” Fraser’s Magazine 128:22 (August 1840), 150-158.

“Murder of Lord William Russell,” New-Orleans Commercial Bulletin, June 16, 1840.

“Further Evidence Concerning the Murder of Lord William Russell,” Spectator, May 23, 1840, 7.

“Francois Benjamin Courvoisier: Killing: Murder,” Proceedings of the Old Bailey, June 15, 1840 (accessed Aug. 4, 2019).

Annalisa Quinn, “Could A Novel Lead Someone To Kill? ‘Murder By The Book’ Explores The Notion,” National Public Radio, March 27, 2019.

Listener mail:

“Local Elections Results,” Irish Times, Aug. 17, 2019.

Wikipedia, “List of Political Parties in the Republic of Ireland,” (accessed Aug. 8, 2019).

Wikipedia, “List of Political Parties in the United States” (accessed Aug. 9, 2019).

Wikipedia, “United States Marijuana Party” (accessed Aug. 9, 2019).

Wikipedia, “United States Congress” (accessed Aug. 8, 2019).

Justin McCurry, “South Korea Mulls Ending Arcane Age System to Match Rest of World,” Guardian, June 2, 2019.

James Griffiths and Yoonjung Seo, “In South Korea, You’re a 1-Year-Old the Day You’re Born. Some Want to Change That,” CNN, June 3, 2019.

Beatrice Christofaro, “In South Korea’s Unique Aging System, Some Babies Turn 2 Years Old the Day After They Were Born. A Bill Is Trying to Change That,” Insider, Jun. 3, 2019.

“Life Term in Murder Contested; Culture Cited on Age,” KDKA Pittsburgh, Aug. 7, 2019.

James Halpin, “Killer Claims Ignorance of Korean Age Custom,” Citizens’ Voice, Aug. 8, 2019.

James Halpin, “Killer Blames Culture Quirk for Age Miscalculation,” Citizens’ Voice, Aug. 7, 2019.

Wikipedia, “National Assembly (South Korea)” (accessed Aug. 11, 2019).

Penelope’s drawing:

penelope's drawing

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Ken Murphy.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!