The Confession of Constance Kent

Constance Kent was born in 1844 to Samuel Saville Kent, an Inspector of Factories for the Home Office, and his first wife, Mary Ann Kent, daughter of a successful coachmaker. Their marriage was fruitful, bearing ten children, but of course, that doesn’t mean it was imbued with happiness. Mary Ann started to show signs of mental instability, which drove Samuel into the arms of their children’s governess, Miss Mary Drew Pratt. Mary Ann died in May 1852, and not long after, Samuel married the governess. She bore him another five children, in addition to those from his first marriage.

Constance reacted badly to her father’s new wife. She irritated the new Mrs. Kent to the point Constance’s father had her packed off to a London school. Constance returned home to find she had a new baby brother, Francis Saville Kent, born in 1856, whom the Kents doted on. Constance, however, was less than thrilled with her new sibling.

A sketch of Constance Kent. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The tense family made their home in Road Hill House in Rode, Somerset. Mr. and Mrs. Kent slept on the second floor of the residence, with Francis sleeping in the room across the hall. Constance and her full brother, William, also slept on the same floor in separate rooms. The housemaid and cook slept on the top floor.

On the night of June 30, 1860, the Kent family woke up to a horrific surprise when Francis’ nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, raised the alarm at 7:15am that he was missing from his crib. The family searched the house for Francis, finding a crack in one of the windows in the drawing room. Samuel, fearing his son had been kidnapped, yanked on his clothes and set out to develop a search party in the village. Francis was found by two servants in an outhouse with knife wounds to his body and his throat slit so severely, his head was almost severed from his little body. It looked like an animal had murdered the 4 year-old boy. 

Mary Pratt Kent, Constance’s stepmother. (Credit: Murderpedia, Public Domain)

Initially, Francis’ nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, was arrested for the murder. However, she was soon released, because there was little to no evidence to support that she’d been the one to take a knife to Francis. On July 15th, Scotland Yard took over the case with Inspector Jonathon Whicher investigating the crime. He interviewed the servants in the household and discovered the children from Samuel’s first marriage received less love and attention than the children from his second marriage. Constance, especially, held heavy resentment against her father’s second wife and her half-siblings. His suspicions for the murder soon fell on her. 

Before Scotland Yard intervened, the local police had interviewed family, servants, and villagers. Which went back and re-interviewed everyone, learning that a maid had a suspect encounter with Constance in the days after the murder. Constance had approached the maid preparing to take the family’s laundry to the village washerwoman and asked for her nightgown, claiming she’d left her purse in its pocket. She also asked the maid for a glass of water. Once the maid returned, the nightgown was gone. The maid thought little of it until Whicher questioned her.

Why is this relevant? If the nightgown went missing while in the washerwoman’s keeping, it wasn’t Constance’s fault. She could claim the washerwoman had misplaced her nightgown, while allowing a nightgown that might’ve been streaked in blood to go missing. It wasn’t what we could call in the 21st century a “slam-dunk case,” but it was enough to lead Whicher to arrest Constance on July 20th. 

Whicher might’ve expected to extract a confession from Constance while she was in his charge. However, Constance didn’t break under his barrage of questions. She continued to deny her involvement in the murder of her half-sibling. Without a confession, the evidence against Constance was laughed at when presented in court on July 27th.

ewspapers reacted poorly to the case, painting Constance as a victim and Whicher as an incompetent investigator. This might have had to do with the Kent family’s higher standing prejudicing the press against Whicher. 

Photograph of Jonathan Whicher. (Credit: Murderpedia, Public Domain)

Constance was released on bail and the case later dropped. Whicher retired from Scotland Yard in 1864 without ever having caught Francis’ killer. Whicher’s reputation took a blow from the case, ending his career in shame and ridicule from his peers and the public.  

Samuel sent Constance to a finishing school in France, while moving his family to Wrexham in Wales. While in France, Constance returned to England in 1863 when she went to St. Mary’s Home in Brighton, a religious institution. She must’ve undergone some religious experience that tickled her conscience, because in 1864, she confessed her guilt to the Reverend Arthur Wagner. Reverend Wagner encouraged Constance to confess to the police, and on April 25, 1864, he accompanied her to their offices on Bow Street in London. There, Constance admitted to murdering Francis. Whicher had been right all along. 

Constance had volunteered herself as the murderer, but she provided little in way of motive or an explanation for how she carried out the murder. Reverend Arthur Wagner provided her confession to the police, prefacing his statement with how he was bound by the seal of “sacramental confession” to withhold certain information. 

Constance taking her baby brother from his room. (Credit: Murderpedia, Public Domain)

Scotland Yard was able to piece together what happened that night between Constance and Reverend Wagner’s statements. Constance had waited for everyone in the house to fall asleep. Once she was certain no one else was awake, she went into Francis’ room, wrapped him in a blanket, and took him to the outhouse. She stabbed and sliced him with a razor stolen from their father, then discarded his body in the outhouse. The murder was likely planned, because matches had to be stored in the outhouse before the murder for Constance to see what she was doing. She’d premeditated Francis’s murder, likely out of revenge for the attention and love stolen by him from her father.

Constance was tried on July 21, 1865. She pled guilty to the crime of murder. Her guilty plea enabled Reverend Wagner to not appear again to provide a statement to the court. She was sentenced to death, but because she had been sixteen when she’d committed the crime, her sentence was reduced to 20 years in prison. She was released in 1885, then 41 years of age, and emigrated to Australia shortly after her release. She lived with her brother, William, in Tasmania, where he was a government adviser over fisheries. She changed her name to Ruth Emilie Kaye to avoid the notoriety from her case and found purpose in training to be a nurse. She died on April 10, 1994 at the age of 100. Let it be remembered that’s 96 years more than her brother, Francis, ever got to see. 

Further Readings:

Casebook: Jack the Ripper, Constance Kent

The confession of Constance Kent, of the murder of her brother, Francis Kent, on June 29th, 1860

Constance Emily Kent on Murderpedia

The first whodunnit: How the murder of a three-year-old boy gave us the fictional detectives we know today by George Wansell

Glimpses into the 19th Century Broadside Ballad Trade: No. 15: Constance Kent and the Road murder

The Grisly Case Of Constance Kent, The Victorian Teen Who Murdered Her Baby Brother by Genevieve Carlton

HARPER’S WEEKLY. A JOURNAL OF CIVILIZATION. / Volume IX, Issue 452, on Constance Kent

Jonathan Whicher and the Road Hill House Murder

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