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  • Gavin Whitehead

The Baker Street Bazaar and the Cult Leader of Kent (S3E7)

Updated: Apr 4

After more than three decades of touring the provinces, Madame Tussaud made the unexpected decision to settle down in London in 1835. Within a matter of years, Tussaud was running the metropolis’s number-one tourist destination, and she updated the Chamber of Horrors more frequently than ever before. In 1838, she unveiled an effigy of Sir William Courtenay, the aspiring Member of Parliament turned cult leader who committed a murder that led to a government massacre of his followers. Show notes and full transcript below.

Above:John Nichols Thom, also known as Sir William Courtenay, the Knight of Malta.



Undated print showing Tussaud's exhibition at. theBaker Street Bazaar in London. This image appears to represent the Hall of Kings.

Tussaud dedicated two chambers to Napoleonic relics at the Baker Street Bazaar. The most popular attraction was the emperor's Waterloo carriage, depicted here. When this image was created, the carriage was on view at another exhibition, the Egyptian Hall, owned by William Bullock. This satirical etching captures the popularity. ofthe carriage as well as the out-of-control behavior of visitors.

1849 engraving of the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's. To the right is the dock, a wooden structure modeled on its counterpart at the Old Bailey, full of figures of notorious criminals. If you look closely, you can see Sir William Courtenay with his long dark hair and bushy beard in the upper right-hand corner. His real surname, Thom, is etched into the dock.

An eyewitness sketch. of the Battle of Bossenden Wood, drawn expressly for the Penny Satirist. The Battle of Bossenden Wood is known as the last battle fought on English soil.



---Berridge, Kate. Madame Tussaud: A Life in Wax. New York; London; Toronto; Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2006.

---Chapman, Pauline. Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors: Two Hundred Years of Crime. London: Constable, 1984.

---Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

---Pilbeam, Pamela. Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxworks. London; New York: Humbledon and London, 2003.

---Reay, Barry. The Last Rising of the Agricultural Labourers: Rural Life and Protest in Nineteenth-Century England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

---Rogers, P.G. The Battle in Bossenden Wood: The Strange Story of Sir William Courtenay. London: Readers Union Oxford University Press, 1962.



Sir Charles Wetherell never expected a warm welcome in Bristol. The year was 1831, and Britons were butting heads over the hot-button issue of parliamentary reform. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the delegation of seats in Parliament no longer reflected the geographical distribution of the British population. So-called “rotten boroughs” enjoyed inflated representation. For example, if you lived in Boroughbridge, a constituency with a mere forty-eight electors, your tiny hamlet got two seats in Parliament. Imagine the anger of those who came from cities like Bristol. In 1831, roughly 100,000 people called Bristol home, and how many MPs could they send to Westminster? Two, the exact same number as the rotten borough of Boroughbridge. Sir Charles Wetherell was no friend of the reform movement. As it happens, he represented Boroughbridge, and he understood that reformers meant to eliminate his seat, among others. Wetherell was particularly unpopular in Bristol because, in 1830, he had the temerity to stand before Parliament and falsely assert that Bristol broadly opposed electoral reform. In fact, some 17,000 of the city’s residents had signed a petition demanding an overhaul of the electoral system. Tempers were already running high in 1831, when the Second Reform Bill came up for a vote in Parliament. It passed the House of Commons only to die in the House of Lords, arousing indignation across the United Kingdom. On October 29, Wetherell, an opponent of the Reform Bill, traveled to Bristol to meet with its mayor, Charles Pinney. Expecting trouble, local authorities took measures to keep his arrival secret.

Despite these precautions, protestors learned of Wetherell’s itinerary and pelted his and Pinney’s carriage with stones, forcing them to seek shelter at the mayor’s residence, Mansion House. Rioters stormed the property and ran amok inside, emptying the wine cellar of its finest vintages and finally setting the building alight. In a last-ditch effort to escape the blaze, Wetherell clambered onto the rooftop and fled to a neighboring edifice. Destruction spread outward from Mansion House. Armed with sticks, railings, pokers, and other improvised weapons, rioters burned down houses, warehouses, and assembly rooms along the heavily trafficked thoroughfares of King Street and Prince’s Street. The sky crimsoned with the conflagration, which grew to such proportions that you could see it miles away in Newport, Wales. As the mob wreaked havoc in Bristol, they gave voice to revolutionary sentiments. One man scaled a statue of King William III riding a horse and shouted for liberty, a tricolor cockade on his head and a torch in one hand. Others roared, “Down with churches and mend the roads with them!” Shocked by the violence, an estimated 3,000 middle-class residents volunteered to aid military forces on the morning of October 31, more than twenty-four hours after the chaos had broken out. Later that day, they finally succeeded in quelling the riot.

As many as 250 people lost their lives in the uprising, with up to £300,000 worth of property damage. Newspapers ran apocalyptic reports about the casualties—severed heads charred black by flames and torsos stripped of limbs figured in the coverage. In the words of diarist Charles Grenville, “The business at Bristol . . . for brutal ferocity and wanton, unprovoked violence may vie with some of the worst scenes form the French Revolution.”

Madame Tussaud and Sons almost fell victim to the carnage. At the time of the revolt, they were exhibiting in assembly rooms on Prince’s Street.  Arsonists threatened to raze the premises to the ground, and the Tussauds went into high gear, hoping to salvage whatever they could of the collection before the venue went up in flames. An article in the Bristol Gazette notes, “During this awful state of suspense, Madame Tussaud and her family experienced the most painful anxiety. It was stated that the assembly rooms marked out for destruction containing at that time, their invaluable collection of figures. These, at an imminent risk of injury, were partly removed as hastily as circumstances would permit.” The article went on, “The house in which Madame Tussaud lodged on the opposite side of the street was among the number which became ignited from the firing of the West side of the square and we regret to hear that the lady’s constitution has received a very severe shock.” Tussaud had seen more than her fair share of anarchic violence, and there’s little doubt her thoughts shot back to the bloodstained avenues of revolutionary Paris as she hurried her handiwork out of harm’s way on the burning streets of Bristol.

The period of time from the late 1700s to the mid-nineteenth century is sometimes referred to as the age of revolution because so many revolutionary movements cropped up. Revolution never came to Great Britain, and yet disturbances like the Bristol riots revealed a hunger for radical change among certain segments of the population. In 1838, Tussaud capitalized on another deadly uprising, this one led by a failed politician and murderous cult leader. Today, we’ll hear how Tussaud made London her permanent home, became one of the capital’s most successful show-women in a matter of years, and how the aspiring Member of Parliament, Sir William Courtenay, carried out a murder that led to the government massacre of agricultural workers outside Canterbury. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 7 of Queen of Crime . . .

The Baker Street Bazaar and the Cult Leader of Kent

Death of a Diva

 After surviving the Bristol riots of 1831, Tussaud and her family allowed themselves little time to rest and recuperate. They resumed touring and remained on the move for the next four years. In spring 1835, they made a return trip to London, having stopped there two years prior. By this time, Tussaud had been on the road with her exhibition since 1802, when she first left Paris for the British capital. From that point forward, her boundless stamina and will to prosper had propelled her through thirty-three years of arduous travel. She may have turned seventy-three in 1835, but this grandmother-juggernaut showed no signs of slowing down. Rule number one for itinerant entertainers was simple: staying put meant going broke. After scouting out a suitable spot for her waxworks in London, Tussaud signed a short-term lease, fully prepared to pack up and move on in the near future.

The latest home of Madame Tussaud’s was the Baker Street Bazaar, a handsome, three-story building in between Dorset and King Street. Offering a blend of retail and entertainment, bazaars attracted an urbane, middle-class clientele, much like the assembly rooms that Tussaud had favored in the provinces. Bazaars multiplied in London after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Before it was converted into the Baker Street Bazaar, the structure housed the King Street Barracks. In 1815, the British Army’s most senior regiment, known as the Life Guards, saddled up and set out from this very barracks to face off against Napoleon at Waterloo. Never missing a chance to impress patrons with the history of her new headquarters, Tussaud often related that her main showroom had previously served as the Life Guards’ mess hall.

Joseph and Francis Tussaud spared no expense in tricking out the Bazaar for the exhibition’s opening. At their behest, a team of specialists designed what was billed as the Golden Corinthian Saloon to the tune of £1,100. The showroom was decorated with rich crimson drapery, paper-mâché ornaments, and pilasters with gilded Corinthian capitols. One journalist raved, “[T]he whole appearance on entering, more especially in the evening when the whole is beautifully illuminated, is peculiarly imposing and splendid.” Extravaganzas like this one reveal the circular movement of money at Tussaud’s. First, they raked it in at the cash box. Then, they invested it right back into the exhibition. This, in turn, allowed for novel, more spectacular attractions and thus greater profit.

In late 1836, the Tussauds celebrated the biggest boom in business since they had set up at the Baker Street Bazaar. That September, superlative opera singer Maria Malibran passed away. Born to a Spanish family of musical prodigies, Malibran stunned audiences from New York City to Milan with her miles-wide vocal range and power-house delivery. Rossini gushed of her, “[S]he surpassed all who sought to emulate her, and with her superior mind, her breadth of knowledge and unimaginable fieriness of temperament, she outshone all other women I have known.” In July 1836, she fell from her horse, sustaining permanent injuries. Then, in September, she collapsed onstage while performing an encore in Manchester, England. One week later, the diva was dead. Waves of mourning surged across England, and as per usual, public sentiment guided programming at the wax museum. Many years after Madame Tussaud’s passing, her grandson, Victor, wrote in a letter to her great-grandson, John Theodore, “The sensation created [by Malibran’s death] was immense and the newspapers in England and on the continent were full of various accounts and for a time little else was talked about. It was then that your grandfather modelled a most excellent likeness of the cantatrice [tby which he means Malibran] . . . The attraction was so great that the rooms were thronged for many months.” Indeed, ledgers show that earnings doubled during this period.

Recent improvements in mass transportation accounted for the windfall. Starting in the 1830s, steam-powered trains enabled more people to travel faster than ever before. Many who came to pay their respects to the waxen Malibran on Baker Street would have journeyed to London by rail. As out-of-towners streamed into the Bazaar, a realization dawned on Tussaud. In the age of the stagecoach, she had gone to her customers. In the age of the railway, they would come to her. This consideration, more than any other, motivated Tussaud to end her more than three decades of touring and establish a permanent location in London. With her mind made up, she moved into a house that adjoined the wax museum and overlooked Baker Street.

The Salon Above the Stables

 Over the course of the next decade, Tussaud updated her trove of waxworks with characteristic frequency and landed on a layout for the museum.

The Bazaar’s ground floor did not belong to the Tussauds. The occupants of that floor sold horses and carriages. They also hosted the Annual Royal Smithfield Cattle Club Show along with the occasional poultry show. To reach Tussaud’s, you bypassed the horses, chickens, and cattle, headed down a hallway lined with modern and classical statuary, and finally took a magnificent staircase up one level.

You never would have guessed it based on the odor of horse manure downstairs, but a sumptuous salon waited above the stables. Playing the part of hostess, Madame Tussaud greeted you at the cash table and sold you a ticket, along with a catalogue if you cared to purchase one. Matronly in both appearance and bearing, Tussaud dressed in what one museumgoer called “her veritable black silk cloak and bonnet.” Once you paid, you were at liberty to wander the main showroom of the exhibition. Initially referred to as the Great Room, it measured 100 feet by fifty, and it was nothing if not opulent. Plate-glass mirrors covered the walls, as well as scarlet drapery and gilded ornamentation—an homage to the court of Louis XIV. Individual effigies as well as small groups were arranged on all sides of a central tableau. Much as you might find in a modern art gallery, ottomans and sofas were scattered throughout, allowing patrons to sit and relax or study the displays. The orchestra supplied music from a balcony situated above the main entrance. Responding to the atmosphere of refinement at wax museum, one that Tussaud had always cultivated, a visitor enthused, “This is one of the most delightful salons in London: the first people of the day (past and present) appear as if attracted by the hospitality of Madame. It is true that they remain silent, but an acquaintanceship with phrenology [compensates for] that defect to logicians.” Something tells me that last sentence was funnier in the 1840s.

On the far side of the main showroom, a doorway led to the Golden Room, later rechristened the Hall of Kings. As the name implies, this exhibit celebrated the monarchy, with sculptures of Henry VIII, Elizabeth, Charles I, Mary Queen of Scots, along with the Hanoverians. A tableau of King George IV’s coronation, which we talked about last time, remained a popular attraction for many years, not least because the sovereign’s likeness was dressed in robes that George had worn for the occasion, rumored to have cost an astronomical £18,000. (Tussaud bought them for the remarkably marked-down price of £300.) In 1837, the youthful Victoria ascended the throne, and in 1840, she married the love of her life, Prince Albert. In 1846, Tussaud’s unveiled a tableau of the royal family entitled “Sweet Home,” the name inspired by the wildly popular song, “Home Sweet Home.” It portrayed Victoria and Albert at home, “sitting on a magnificent sofa” and “caressing their lovely children.” In the words of an eyewitness, “the whole [was] intended to convey an idea of that sweet home for which every Englishman feels that love and respect which can but end with their lives.”

Man of the Century

Since arriving in England in 1802, Tussaud had tapped into the British fascination with their great nemesis, France. In 1843, she took things to a whole new level when she opened two rooms dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. In fact, Tussaud’s amassed the world’s premier collection of Napoleonic relics.

It might seem strange that Britons still cared about Napoleon, let alone felt a certain awe of him. His fall had been devastating, spectacular, and almost absurd—like a rind-stoned piano dropping out of the sky. In 1815, while Madame Tussaud was still touring with Joseph, the emperor suffered a decisive defeat at Waterloo. On June 22 of that year, lacking support in France, Napoleon abdicated. “I offer myself in sacrifice,” he declared. “My political life is over.” Advisors counseled him to seek asylum in the United States, where he proposed to live out the rest of his days as a humble farmer. “They will give me some land, or I shall buy some, and I shall live on the products of my fields and flocks,” he mused to an aide. Instead, the British exiled him, the man who had dreamed of dominating Europe, to a dust pile of an island in the middle of the Atlantic, St. Helena, ten-and-a-half miles long by six-and-a-half miles wide. Craggy, windy, and perennially rain-soaked, parts of this volcanic outcropping were uninhabitable, and to call it isolated would have been an understatement. St. Helena was located 1,200 miles from the west coast of Africa and nearly 2,000 from the shores of Brazil. Upon his arrival in mid-October of 1815, Napoleon rued the life choices that had brought him here: “This is not a happy place to live. I should have stayed in Egypt. I would now be emperor of the entire Orient.” After six years of unhappy exile, Napoleon died on May 29, 1821, aged fifty-one, probably of hepatitis followed by stomach cancer. Despite this ignominious death, Napoleon lost none of his his larger-than-life stature. Indeed, now that this Corsican megalomaniac was out of the picture, it may have felt safer for the British to indulge their abiding curiosity about him.

Tussaud had them covered. In the so-called Shrine of Napoleon, the first of two chambers given over to him, patrons could eyeball his waxen likeness, based on a painting by Jacques-Louis David. The figure wore clothes that Napoleon himself had worn on St. Helena. You could see several objects related to his death—the bloodstained bed in which the exile breathed his last breath, for example. Also on view was a deep-blue cloak that had served as his funeral shroud. Yet other objects reminded museumgoers that part of Napoleon still lived on: a cradle that had belonged to the emperor’s infant son. A wax model of the baby lay, swaddled, inside.

These ojets paled in comparison to the pièce-de-résistance: the carriage in which Napoleon escaped from Waterloo. Another London-based showman named William Bullock, proprietor of the famous Egyptian Hall, purchased this vehicle and put it on display shortly after Napoleon’s downfall. Bullock eventually sold it off, and sometime in the early-to-mid 1830s, an unnamed member of the Tussaud clan spotted it moldering in the Gray’s Inn Road Bazaar in London. Whoever this was liked the idea of adding the conveyance to the wax museum. £52 and the carriage was theirs. This bad boy was equal parts armored tank, first-class train coach, and Lamborghini. Equipped with navy-blue, bullet-proof paneling emblazoned with the imperial coat of arms, the carriage was designed for maximum speed on the battlefield. The interior contained multiple compartments in which Napoleon had stored pistols and other weapons. A movable desk could be drawn out, in which the emperor might have stored jewelry, money, maps, or other items. He could also put the top down, if he so chose. Divided into two parts, the roof of this premodern convertible could fold both forward and backward, while the window supports were collapsible. Napoleon dined inside with gold and silver eating utensils embossed with the letter “N” and the imperial coat of arms, in case anyone should forget to whom the carriage belonged. After dinner, you could lift up the seats and unfold a bed that was mounted on casters. When the vehicle first went on display at Tussaud’s, visitors were allowed to climb onboard and sit inside, some even munching on sandwiches as they did so. (Refreshments were available for purchase at the museum.) Management revoked this privilege, however, after vandals peeled strips of the carriage’s wooden interior to take home as souvenirs. Even so, the Waterloo carriage proved so magnetic that Tussaud’s exhibited a fleet of other vehicles associated with Napoleon.

London’s Foremost Tourist Destination

Today, the London location of Madame Tussaud’s ranks among the British capital’s foremost tourist destinations. Believe it or not, it had already achieved this status in Tussaud’s lifetime. Just a few years after her passing, Charles Dickens reflected on the lasting popularity of the establishment: “Visitors from the country go to see these waxworks if they go nowhere else; tradesmen living in the neighbourhood put ‘Near Madame Tussaud’s’ on their cards: the omnibuses which run down Baker Street announce that they pass that deceased lady’s, as a means of getting customers: and there is scarcely a cab horse in London but would make an instinctive offer to stop at the well-known entrance to ‘Tussauds’ [sic].”

Despite her international acclaim, Tussaud had plenty of haters, too. In 1854, a troll who wrote for the Illustrated Family Standard depicted her wax museum as a tawdry tourist trap: “During a late sojourn in London, one of my first expeditions was to Madame Tussaud’s, a place that everybody sees, or has seen, but which it is nevertheless the fashion in London to laugh at, as being the delight and resort of the wonder-seeking, horror-loving country bumpkins who visit town.” There’s little doubt some Londoners rolled their eyes at Tussaud’s, but this appraisal by no means negates the countless genuinely glowing reviews that newspapers published about the establishment.

François, Still Freeloading

Circa 1844, a blast from the past threatened to destroy everything that Tussaud had built in London. One day, she received a letter from one of her least favorite people, her husband, François, now seventy-two. There’s no indication that Monsieur and Madame Tussaud had ever corresponded since 1808. François’s out-of-the-blue communication reached Tussaud’s by way of a French acquaintance of his who lived in London, a widow by the name of Madame Castille. François’s motive for writing was outright outrageous. As Marie’s husband, François asserted his legal right to take possession of her inheritance from Philippe Curtius. (This went against to their prenuptial agreement, which allowed Marie to retain control of her assets, contrary to custom.) Madame Castille characterized Marie’s reaction to his letter as follows: “She appears to hold against you certain very grave reasons for dissatisfaction since in the first place she seemed not at all pleased to hear from you and told me that she had transferred all her possessions to her sons.” That must have stung, and Madame Castille would have only made it worse when she unintentionally rubbed his wife’s success in his face. She advised him, “You can write to her at this very short address—Madame Tussaud’s, as your wife is very well-known in London. It is impossible to describe the beauty and richness of this exhibition—in all my life I have never seen anything more magnificent.”

Marie never acknowledged François’s claim in writing, but it clearly had her worried. If he was serious about seizing her assets, he could assert ownership of the Baker Street exhibition. And if she died before him, he might just succeed—he was her husband. Horrified by the thought of it, Marie consulted a lawyer and signed articles of partnership with her sons. These documents ensured that her business would transfer to Joseph and Francis upon her passing.

Nothing daunted, François kept writing to the famous “Madame Tussaud’s.” She never once responded. Instead, Joseph and Francis wrote back to him jointly, declaring their official partnership with her. In December 1844, they co-authored a letter that is hard to read for its brutal candor: “You left mother in debt and difficulty in London, all of which she overcame by hard work and perseverance, without asking from you one sou from your own pocket. Up to the present time you have not sent any money to help her. On the contrary you have sent no details of her business [in Paris], and the profits from that business, of which you alone have had the benefits for many years. We believe, with mother, that she has no reason to have any regard for you, who have treated her in such a way. I can assure that every time you write, mother becomes ill and above all when you write that you will come and see her. It is too ridiculous for words.” As much as their father sickened their mother, Joseph and Francis would not forsake him. They sent money every now and again and reportedly went for a visit in Paris—the first time that Francis had set foot in his birthplace for more than twenty years and Joseph for more than forty. According to family lore, Marie went berserk over this perceived betrayal, and Joseph could not bring himself to occupy the same room as François. The neglectful gold-digger kept needling his family until he finally died in 1848.

The Chamber of Horrors

At the Baker Street Bazaar, Tussaud exploited the craze for true crime as she never had before. After molding a sculpture of Edward Marcus Despard in 1803, Tussaud went exactly twenty-five years before immortalizing another criminal in wax. First came William Corder in 1828, then Burke and Hare in 1829. Encouraged by the immense popularity of these figures, Tussaud began expanding her hall of infamy whenever a horrible murder made national headlines. In the early 1840s, she named her rogues’ gallery the Chamber of Horrors, a moniker often attributed to Punch, a satirical magazine, though probably minted by one of the Tussauds.

After exploring the rest of the waxworks, you forked over an additional sixpence to enter the Chamber of Horrors. The Chamber was gloomy, and according to Charles Dickens, “the stormier and more untidy passages” of the orchestra’s music penetrated the exhibit, imbuing it with “an inexpressible dreariness.” In the middle of the room stood the Marat tableau, along with special exhibits, while death heads of French revolutionaries adorned the walls. Most of the models stood to one side in a large wooden structure called the dock, based on its counterpart at the Old Bailey, London’s criminal court. The pantheon of murderers featured the likes of Giuseppe Fieschi, the chief conspirator in a bid to assassinate King Luis-Phillippe of France in 1835; James Greenacre, the London grocer who dismembered his fiancée after she misled him about her finances in 1837; and François Courvoisier, the Swiss-born valet who slashed his master’s throat before robbing him in 1840. Yet there was a moralizing dimension to the Chamber as well. In this cross between a showroom and a courtroom, the oversize dock reminded patrons that the criminals inside it had gone to trial for their crimes and paid with their lives. The moral was straightforward: “Remember, kids, killing people is bad.”

As the Chamber of Horrors grew in popularity, Madame Tussaud’s displayed fewer and fewer likeness of criminals who had committed political crimes. Many—maybe most—of the men and women who wound up depicted in Tussaud’s dock were guilty of domestic murder. However, in 1838, the Chamber of Horrors introduced an effigy of a murderer who spearheaded a rebellion of agricultural laborers that ended in tragedy. We’ll hear the whole story after a quick break.

Sir William Courtenay Runs for Parliament

In September 1832, a newcomer to Canterbury in southeastern England had the whole town talking. Aged thirty-three, he went by the name of Count Moses Rothschild and claimed to descend from distinguished Jewish ancestors. Count Rothschild stood an imposing six feet tall, spoke with a booming, baritone voice, and wore his black hair long with a bushy beard. Exceedingly handsome, the nobleman also had a passion for fashion, albeit fashion from a bygone era. On any given day, he might have sported a gold-trimmed crimson velvet vest along with a mantle of the same material, making it seem as if he had fallen out of the Tudor age and tumbled into Victorian England. Shortly after arriving in Canterbury, Count Rothschild took a room at the Rose Inn, situated on the corner of Rose Lane and the main drag, quickly ingratiating himself among the locals. Like plenty of aristocrats, the Count had no need to work for a living and spent most of his days sauntering from one pub to the next and shooting the breeze with anyone who cared to. He styled himself as a friend of the people and made charitable donations to the poor and needy of Canterbury. Apart from this munificence, his love of lampooning high-ranking officials like the local mayor and the Archbishop of Canterbury greatly endeared him to the Average Joes around town. Count Rothschild surprised those who knew him a week or two after his arrival in Canterbury when all of a sudden he reinvented himself. He now called himself Sir William Percy Honeywood Courtenay, Knight of Malta, the rightful heir to the Earldom of Devon. (Sir William Courtenay is how most of his contemporaries came to know him, so I’m using this name for the rest of this episode.) Among his many grand pronouncements, Courtenay maintained that he had inherited Hale Place, a mansion located outside the city, in the middle of a scenic park. One day, he went to the property and announced himself as the rightful owner. When he did so, however, a member of the household balked at the claim and shooed him from the grounds. In view of this and other embarrassments, many residents of Canterbury regarded Sir William as an imposter. But that didn’t mean they liked him any less. Quite the contrary, Courtenay’s apparent “Eh-who-needs-it?” outlook on truth only increased his popularity.

After a few short months, Sir William made an unexpected bid for Parliament. In early 1832, after failing the previous year, the Reform Bill made it through both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Enthusiasm for reform ran high in Canterbury, and it was expected that the liberal Whigs would clean up at the polls. As a result, it was assumed that the conservative Tories would not stand a chance and would waste their time in even nominating a candidate. When a leading Whig politician, the Honorable Richard Watson, made a snide remark to that effect in public, however, the Tories hatched a plan that was meant not to win them any seats at Westminster but rather to irritate the hell out of the Whigs. To that end, the Conservatives sat down with the intoxicating Sir William Courtenay and proposed that he run for Parliament. Courtenay was no Tory, but the meeting gave him an idea. The Knight of Malta registered as an Independent, entering the race as the sole challenger to two Whigs.

Sir William ran on a populist platform and called on voters to shun political parties: “Any man who belongs to a party, whether Tory or Whig, cannot serve the public.” If elected, he would eradicate all forms of injustice—and even just inconvenience—from the face of the planet. Slavery, taxes, the laws of primogeniture—all would be dismantled under his leadership. At one event, he vowed to restore “the good old days of roast beef and mutton, and plenty of prime, nut-brown ale,” a winning platform if ever I’ve heard one. Sir William’s promises of radical reform and revitalization energized a substantial percentage of the public, making him a hero in the eyes of his supporters. While campaigning, he rode around town in a horse-drawn carriage, stopping to hold forth in front of a crowd whenever he could. On one occasion, a speech of Sir William’s so riled up his listeners that a group of them released the horses from their reins and took their places at the front of the carriage. They insisted on pulling the conveyance, their champion still aboard, back to his headquarters at the Rose Inn. There, Courtenay delivered a spirited address from the balcony, scattering coins like so much confetti among the crowd before disappearing into his rooms. A reporter for The Times described the joyful rally as “a scene bordering much on the ludicrous.”

Regardless of such snipes, Election Day proved that many in Canterbury took Sir William and his populism seriously. Voters went to the polls on Wednesday, December 12, with the results tallied by the late afternoon. The Honorable Richard Watson received 834 votes while his fellow Whig, Lord Fordwich, garnered 802. Sir William Courtenay earned 375. The Knight of Malta had lost. After the results came in, the Honorable Richard Watson snarked at Sir William’s expense in the packed Guild Hall, thanking the electorate for choosing him—that is, Watson—who dressed in unremarkable attire, over “the Knight of Malta, in his gorgeous apparel.” What a shame Sir William missed out on a seat at Westminster, Watson vamped. But, hey, maybe he could rename himself Lord Viscount Courtenay and wriggle his way into the House of Lords. The was a sick burn by nineteenth-century standards, but Watson failed to realize that Courtenay and his followers were there in full force. They booed with such anger that the MP was forced to pipe down. Then, jeers turned to cheers as Courtenay leapt onto a table and gave an impromptu oration. He called out the Tories for exploiting the working-classes and went after the Whigs for watering down the reform movement. Then, spurred on by his own righteous fury, he spun to face Watson and declared that he, a man of high birth, could wear whatever he damn well pleased without the permission of elected officials. Courtenay might have lost the election, but as the roars of applause made plain, he had trounced Watson in this war of words.

Though disappointing, Sir William’s defeat struck many as a victory. True, he had finished dead last, but let’s not forget that he had first shown his face in Canterbury just three months before running for Parliament and without any prior political experience. Despite all this, well over a sixth of the voting population cast a ballot for him. This strong showing inspired Courtenay to run for Parliament in East Kent as well. Unfortunately, that campaign ended in unmitigated disaster, with Sir William earning a dispiriting three votes.

The Champion of Canterbury Falls From Grace

Courtenay’s no-two-ways-about-it rout in East Kent led to further disgrace in 1833. On February 17 of that year, the Lively, a ship under the command of one Lieutenant Shambler, caught sight of the Admiral Hood, a fishing vessel suspected of smuggling.  Keeping a watchful eye on the Admiral Hood, the crew of the Lively observed them throwing tubs overboard near the shores of the Goodwin Sands, off the eastern coast of England. Given this suspicious activity, the Lively closed in on the Admiral Hood, ordering the latter to heave-to. The situation escalated, with the Lively firing warning shots and then giving chase as the Admiral Hood tried to escape. In the end, the fugitives were forced to drop anchor. Members of the Lively team recovered the tubs and opened them to discover contraband liquor inside. The seven men aboard the Admiral Hood were charged with smuggling.

Sir William took more than a casual interest in the case. He wanted to do whatever he could to exonerate the crew of the Admiral Hood. It’s unclear whether he fully believed in their innocence. But he certainly aimed to score political points by making a spectacle of siding with the little guy—in this case, a group of humble fishermen. The trial took place on March 1, in Rochester, and Courtenay saw to it that he could attend. Before the proceedings could begin in earnest, Sir William shot to his feet and asked Thomas Colrup, the first defendant and the Admiral Hood’s skipper, whether he wished to stick with his trained attorney, Mr. Langham, or whether he wished to have him—that is, Courtenay—act as his lawyer instead. With his six-foot figure and stentorian voice, the would-be advocate made such an impression that Colrup took him up on his offer. He soon came to regret this decision. In the absence of evidence to vindicate the skipper, Courtenay quoted scripture and heavily implied that Lieutenant Shambler, commander of the Lively, had lied in his testimony. Sir William’s remarks reached a spectacular climax when he unsheathed the scimitar he wore at his side and laid it on a table, swearing that he would defend truth and justice with his sword if need be. Courtenay’s one-man show left the jury unconvinced. They fined the skipper £100, recommending imprisonment if he could not afford to pay.

Alarmed by the verdict, the six remaining crewmembers of the Admiral Hood were none too keen to repeat the skipper’s mistake. They forcefully rejected Sir William’s offer to argue their case. Instead, they entrusted their defense to Mr. Langham, the credentialed attorney. Though shut out of lawyering, Courtenay assured the court that he would provide evidence to establish the fishermen’s innocence. Taking a seat in the witness box at the appropriate moment, Sir William testified that “on the day in question” he was returning to England from France aboard a vessel called the Action. In his biography of Courtenay, P.G. Rogers points out that the name of this ship curiously recalled that of the Lively. As he crossed the Channel, Sir William stated, he happened to spot tubs adrift in the sea, floating toward the Action in a westerly direction. He was certain these tubs were the same ones the Lively retrieved from the depths and equally certain that they had not come from the Admiral Hood. Why this was certain was a mystery to everyone else in the courtroom. After a perfunctory cross-examination, Courtenay left the stand, confident that he had secured an acquittal. There, he was mistaken. The jury found all six crew members guilty. Outraged, Courtenay glared at Lieutenant Shambler and declared that he was prepared to test the entire crew of the Lively in mortal combat the very next morning. Hardly anybody paid attention to this challenge—court was adjourned, and spectators were already filing out of the building.

On March 18, the thwarted advocate, witness, and duelist received grim tidings: in the wake of the Admiral Hood affair, the prosecution determined that Sir William had lied under oath, and now they were indicting him on charges of perjury. The trial commenced on July 25 at the Kent Summer Assizes and drew spectators from near and far since it revolved around Courtenay, something of a local celebrity. After a monotonous start to the proceedings, a tremor of excitement rippled through the court as the key witness for the prosecution came forward. This was Mr. T.W. Wright, vicar of Boughton-under-Blean, a village about six miles outside Canterbury. Mr. Wright testified that he had performed his duties at church on Sunday, February 17, the day Lieutenant Shambler placed the crew of the Admiral Hood under arrest. That morning and afternoon, Mr. Wright observed the defendant, a man of extreme piety, sitting in a pew. Another witness corroborated the vicar’s testimony, causing Courtenay to roll his eyes and scowl. Clearly, he had not been aboard the Action, crossing the English Channel. The case for the Crown was unassailable, and nobody was surprised when the jury handed down a guilty verdict—nobody, that is, except Sir William. Utterly thunderstruck, he staggered to the dock and professed his innocence. In a series of statements that many viewed as poignant, Courtenay implored the judge to show mercy and declared his great affection for those present: “If you knew the love I have for you all, that I would take every one of you to my bosom, and that I would lay down my life for every one of you—you would not think me capable of this crime! I ought to have the justice of an Englishman. I am descended of the best blood of my country.” Courtenay’s pleadings and protestations would not suffice to soften the judge’s heart. He sentenced the perjurer to three months’ confinement in an English prison, after which Sir William would be transported to Australia for ten years.

The Unhappy Tale of John Nichols Thom

Courtenay would never set foot in Australia. In August, a month or so after the trial’s conclusion, a woman from Cornwall, on the other side of England, traveled to Maidstone with a shocking revelation. She introduced herself as Catherine Thom and suspected that Courtenay was her husband, John Nichols, a suspicion she formed after hearing about Courtenay’s trial. The governor of Maidstone Gaol brought her to see Sir William, at which point she provided a positive identification.

Catherine confirmed the many doubts about Sir William’s supposedly blue-blooded parentage. The son of two innkeepers, he grew up in Cornwall. After studying law for a spell, he took a job as a clerk at Lubbock and Co., wine merchants based in the Cornish town of Truro. When the owners retired, Courtenay took over, marrying Catherine in 1821. Ten years later, the wine merchant received treatment for “an attack of insanity,” after which he made a speedy recovery. In spring 1832, he sailed to Liverpool with the aim of selling malt. His family never saw him again until they caught wind of a guy in Canterbury going by the name of Sir William Courtenay. According to rumor, he fit the description of Catherine’s absentee spouse. Courtenay denied any relationship with Catherine, but the medical community believed her account. Concerned about Courtenay’s history of mental illness, two surgeons examined him and declared him to be of unsound mind. Sir William served his three-month sentence in prison, and then, on October 28, 1833, the authorities transferred him to Barming Health Asylum.

Some observers have questioned whether Courtenay actually suffered from mental illness. Those who examined him at the psychiatric hospital diagnosed him with “religious monomania,” based on his obsessive, stream-of-consciousness diatribes related to Christianity. However, another contemporary who knew Sir William insisted that he was feigning both his religious fervor and his mental instability, describing them as an “artful contrivance.” In his book about Courtenay, historian Barry Reay notes that Sir William did suffer bouts of insanity at times when they seemingly worked to his advantage, perhaps suggesting that he was putting on an act. For instance, Sir William was able to evade transportation precisely because the doctors deemed him unstable. In the end, however, Reay dismisses the idea that Courtenay was faking it. His behavior in the last year of his life certainly pointed toward mental disturbance. We’ll hear how it ended after a quick break.

The Murder of Nicholas Mears

Courtenay spent four years at Barming Health. In 1837, considering the patient’s exemplary behavior, the superintendent recommended that Catherine petition the Home Secretary for her husband’s release. In one of her earliest acts as monarch, Queen Victoria pardoned Sir William. It was at first stipulated that Courtenay live with his father in Cornwall, but Courtenay refused. Instead, he was allowed to move in with a Mr. Francis of Fairbrook, a wealthy farmer who resided in Boughton-under-Blean.

By January 1838, Sir William had made an enemy of Mr. Francis so he moved into the home of the Culver family at Bossenden Farm, a property that abutted Bossenden Wood. The farmhouse stood at the end of a narrow lane surrounded by meadows. Over the next few months, the Knight of Malta became acquainted with the neighborhood’s impoverished small-holders, tradesmen, and agricultural laborers. More like a cult leader than a political organizer, Courtenay cast himself as their savior, vowing to rid their lives of chronic unemployment and poverty. He even called himself Christ, reincarnated. Stirred by Courtenay’s way with words and his utopian vision of economic equality, somewhere between two and three dozen men pledged their allegiance to him. Like so many disciples, they accompanied him on his daily wanderings and listened to his teachings. Their activities remained peaceful, but Courtenay’s rhetoric at times turned violent.

 Several townsfolk watched these gatherings of aggrieved agricultural laborers with increasing alarm, worried that they could give rise to violence. Still-fresh memories of the Bristol riots, not to mention other recent disturbances, fed these fears. Finally, on May 30, one Dr. Poore issued a warrant for Courtenay’s arrest. The task of executing said warrant fell to John Mears, a plumber by profession who also acted as High Constable of Boughton-under-Blean. Sir William had a habit of rising early, John knew, so he planned to set out at 4:30 the next morning and confront the wanted man at Bossenden Farm. Not wishing to make the pre-dawn journey all alone, especially since Courtenay and his followers might put up a fight, John enlisted the aid of his assistant, Daniel Edwards, as well as John’s brother, Nicholas.

A sense of foreboding fell like a pall over Nicholas Mears. He confided in his wife on the morning of the mission that his gut was telling him to stay away. It was only his fraternal loyalty to John and his desire to protect him from harm that motivated him to go. Mrs. Mears had her own misgivings, but she kept them to herself, reminding her husband that by reputation Courtenay insisted on law and order. She saw Nicholas out the door and waved good-bye as he walked down the road to the rendezvous-point.

Before long, the Mears brothers and Edwards were plodding down the lane to Bossenden Farm, an uneasy silence hanging in the air. Nicholas’s feelings of trepidation grew heavier with each step as the farm came into view. Breaking the silence with a hushed voice, he expressed anxiety about the coming encounter. Sir William was well-built and ill-tempered. Backed into a corner, he might resort to force. Both John and Edwards tried to reassure him, to no avail. Nicholas sighed that if any of them had to die that day, he hoped it would be him instead of John for, unlike his brother, Nicholas would not leave any children behind.

John had little opportunity to dispel his brother’s dread. They were now close enough to Bossenden Farm to make out three or four laborers milling about. Recognizing John as a member of the police force, one of these fellows ran to a window and hollered inside that the constables had come. In the meantime, John and Nicholas Mears and David Edwards climbed over a wooden stile in a fence that enclosed the southern side of the property, intent on proceeding from there to the front door. Just as they were headed that direction, Sir William emerged, ready for a fight. He wore a truculent look on his face and—more alarmingly—a pair of pistols and a sword at his side. He strode over to Nicholas, John, and Edwards and demanded, “Are you the constable?” directing his question at no one in particular.

As if by reflex, both John and Nicholas answered “Yes!” at the same instant. No sooner had they spoken than Courtenay pulled a pistol and fired at Nicholas, nearly point-blank. Screaming in pain, Nicholas tottered and lurched toward the fence, attempting to steady himself before crumpling to the ground. By the time he went down, Sir William had returned his firearm to his belt and drawn his sword. “Yes! And you’re the other!’ he cried, fixing his ferocious eyes on John. He lunged toward the constable, waving his blade, but John and Edwards were too quick for him. They dodged his blow and off they dashed into the meadow, quickened by the adrenaline of mortal terror and running at top speed toward Bossenden Wood. Courtenay chased after like a rabid hellhound and might have overtaken them had he not tripped over a tussock of grass and fallen to the ground. Stinging with pain as he regained his footing, he growled to himself as Mears and Edwards vanished beyond the tree line. There was no hope of catching them now. Furious, Sir William sped back to the fence, where he found Nicholas right where he left him. The injured man moaned, “What am I to do! Am I to lie here in this way?” Standing over him, Sir William snarled, “You must do the best you can!” Without another word, he unsheathed his sword, raised it overhead, and dealt a mighty blow to Nicholas. He repeated this motion, once and then twice. Finally, he pulled his unfired pistol out of his belt and shot his victim for a second time.

A small cluster of Sir William’s acolytes witnessed the bloodshed, speechless. Courtenay had certainly made use of bloody rhetoric in the past, but never until now had he harmed another soul. Putting away his firearm, the Knight of Malta pivoted to his onlookers, suddenly more shepherd than slaughterman. “I am the Savior of the World!” he bellowed, “You are my true lambs—every one of you!” As if to justify the savage murder, he pointed toward the corpse and proclaimed, “I have killed the body, I have saved the soul.” He commanded four of the bystanders to pick up the cadaver and deposit in a ditch. Too afraid to resist, they bent over their load and lifted it. As they did so, several of the assembly slunk away from the farmhouse, hoping to escape. However, Sir William would not abide defectors. “If any one tries to run away,” he barked, “he shall be a dead man!” Nobody doubted the sincerity of this threat, and they stopped in their tracks. They watched as Nicholas’s body was heaved into the ditch, where it landed with a thud. Sir William jetted back into the farmhouse. Now was not the time to dally; he and his supporters needed to mobilize and make ready for battle. Police reinforcements could arrive any minute.

The Battle of Bossenden Wood

By three o’clock in the afternoon, Sir William had corralled about thirty-five of his adherents and led them to a clearing in Bossenden Wood. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, he deployed several tactics to instill an esprit de corps in his men. He made vague promises of material gain—together, they would somehow seize the estates of the wealthy and divide them up. Each man would receive at least fifty acres. He inspired awe with proclamations of his messianic status—he was Christ come again, having descended from the heavens in a cloud. One day he would ascend to the firmament, never to return. When all else failed, he cowed his followers. If they abandoned him, he warned, fire would rain from the skies and consume them, after which they would suffer everlasting torment in hell. Asked whether it was true that he had killed Nicholas Mears, Courtenay retorted, “Yes—I did shoot the vagabond! And I have eaten a hearty breakfast since!”

Meanwhile, news of the murder at Bossenden Farm had filtered to the authorities, and now a small army was advancing on Bossenden Wood to capture the perpetrator and his allies. A high-ranking officer, Major Armstrong, proposed a pincer formation. Another soldier, Lieutenant Bennett, would lead a detachment into Bossenden Wood from one direction and keep Courtenay distracted while Major Armstrong approached from the opposite direction. The two groups split up and enacted the plan. Before long, Lieutenant Bennett and his men were striding through the woodland. They caught sight of Sir William while they were passing along the northern lip of a land-drain. The murderer had ditched his trademark crimson vests for a simple smock coat and wore a broad-brimmed hat on his head. His disciples stood around him in the clearing, equipped with staves and cudgels. Major Armstrong was drawing near, but he and his troops had encountered delays, forcing Lieutenant Bennett to stall longer than expected.

The lieutenant called over to Sir William, hoping that he could persuade the outlaw to stand down. Courtenay was in no mood for palaver, and he was just as desperate now as he had been that morning. He walked over to Lieutenant Bennett and raised his pistol. A few yards away and sensing danger, Major Armstrong shouted for Lieutenant Bennett to fall back. To retreat was no longer an option, however, as Courtenay had come within a few paces of Bennett. Projecting self-possession, the lieutenant unsheathed his sword and ordered Sir William to surrender at once. Courtenay answered his command with a glare and then opened fire. Lieutenant Bennett gasped as the bullet struck him. He collapsed to the ground. A collective shout of outrage and sorrow erupted from his men.

Courtenay often quoted from the Book of Revelation, but he and his adherents would never come closer to the apocalypse than this moment. Shouting like madmen and brandishing their weapons, they charged Bennett’s cavalry, which in turn raised their firearms and discharged a volley of bullets. Meanwhile, Major Armstrong’s contingent closed in on the left flank of Sir William’s band. Mindful of protocol even under life-threatening circumstances, Major Armstrong called out to his commanding officer, “Dr. Poore! Dr. Poore! Are we to fire?” Stationed at the rear of the battalion, Dr. Poore likely never heard the soldier over the fray. Receiving no answer, Major Armstrong gave the signal to shoot. The clearing flashed with gunfire and resounded with the cries of wounded men.

The odds were not in favor of Sir William’s fighters. They were outmanned and only two among them—Courtenay and another—were carrying firearms. Nevertheless, they struck their opponents with their staves and cudgels. When these armaments were knocked or fell to the ground, they punched and kicked the enemy, their heavy boots dealing considerable damage. Major Armstrong later testified that never in all his years as an officer had he seen such frenzied, unrelenting courage. As the melee intensified, Major Armstrong commanded his soldiers to attack with their bayonets. This strategy succeeded in dispersing the renegades, who discarded their clubs and retreated into the wilderness. The soldiers pursued them until Major Armstrong instructed the bugler to sound the cease-fire. With a blast of the horn, the bloodletting ended.

The Battle of Bossenden Wood, as it came to be known, lasted no longer than three or four minutes, with fewer than sixty shots discharged. By the time it was over, eight of Sir William’s party lay dead, himself included. Almost as soon as the shooting started, Sir William fell, struck by bullets from multiple directions. Thomas Millgate, a civilian who had joined forces with the soldiers, also landed a blow with a club. An additional seven of Courtenay’s contingent were injured, one of whom later succumbed to his wounds. On the opposing side, Lieutenant Bennett and a Special Constable Cant had perished. More blood could have been shed, for sure, but the number of casualties sent shockwaves across Britain. Many regarded the bloodshed as born of nothing but Courtenay’s madness. However, others saw the skirmish as the product of a social and economic malaise that plagued agricultural workers in Boughton-under-Blean and elsewhere. Sir William was eccentric, perhaps mentally ill, some admitted. But with his brand of populist politics, he had tapped into a strain of resentment familiar to many rural Britons.

Tussaud’s Take on the King of Jerusalem 

On July 29, 1838, just under two months after the Battle of Bossenden Wood, Madame Tussaud and Sons announced the arrival of Courtenay’s effigy in a special advertisement. They clearly expected to do big business with the new attraction. The name “SIR WILLIAM COURTENAY, ALIAS JOHN THOMS [sic]” appears in capital letters at the top of the notice, even above “MADAME TUSSAUD and SONS.” Not surprisingly, given Tussaud’s obsession with fashion, the advertisement stresses that Sir William’s likeness appeared in “the splendid crimson dress” that had made him so conspicuous.

In this ad as well as catalogue entries about Courtenay, Tussaud’s downplays his political ideology. The advertisement does mention his candidacy for Parliament, but the emphasis falls squarely on his mental illness. According to an 1851 catalogue, Courtenay’s effigy wears the garb of “the king of Jerusalem,” a title that highlights his delusions of grandeur as well as his religious fanaticism. The same catalogue entry makes no mention of the socio-economic hardships that prompted Sir William’s supporters to join with him, instead describing them as “deluded.”

The sculpture of Sir William Courtenaydid not enjoy the same longevity of others in the Chamber of Horrors. Within a few decades, memories of him and the Battle of Bossenden Wood faded—a striking development since modern historians assign a good deal of significance to the woodland bloodbath. Some have even called it the last battle fought on British soil. Still, the fever-brained publicity about the debut of Sir William’s effigy suggests that Tussaud’s considered his likeness to be a highlight of their offerings in 1838.

Now firmly rooted in London, Tussaud had reached the height of her fame. Next episode, we’ll hear about perhaps the single greatest controversy she provoked in her career. The firestorm started when she brought forth a figure of the glamorous murder who had risen to infamy as a modern Lady Macbeth.


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