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It was on June 30, 1860 when three-year old Francis Kent disappeared from his bedroom in the Kent family home near Frome, Somerset. His nurse, Elizabeth Gough, discovered early in the morning that Francis was missing from his bed and a search of the grounds was launched. Rather than alerting the local police, Francis' father, Samuel Kent, drove to the next county to report his son's disappearance and left others to continue the search. The discovery of Francis' body in an outside privy horrified the searchers. Not only had the boy's throat been cut (and his head nearly severed) but later evidence showed that Francis had been suffocated. When Jonathan Whicher, an inspector from Scotland Yard, was dispatched to investigate, he immediately focused on two suspects who were brought before the Magistrates: the child's nurse, Elizabeth Gough and Francis' sixteen-year old half-sister, Constance. While Gough was cleared of any wrongdoing or motive, Constance was another story.
As one of the five surviving children born to Samuel's first marriage, Constance had little love for her stepmother. Mary Kent was the former family governess and had been Samuel's mistress while his first wife was still alive. Despite Whicher's suspicion that Constance had killed her half-brother as part of an elaborate revenge on her father and his second wife, the lack of evidence led to her release. Local outrage at Constance being accused permanently damaged Whicher's career and the murder stayed unsolved. A cloud of suspicion remained over the Kent family and Constance was later sent to a religious school in France.
In 1863, Constance attended St. Mary's School in Brighton and it was there, two years later, that she confessed to Francis' murder. Controversy still remains over how this confession was obtained. Reverend Arthur Wagner, principal of the school, approached the Home Office with a "handwritten confession" and insisted that Constance be tried for murder. The resulting trial was somewhat unusual since the only evidence was the confession itself and Wagner maintained that much of what Constance had told him could not be repeated in court due to the "seal of the confessional". Constance pled guilty and was sentenced to death after a sensational trial.
When objections were raised over the validity of the confession and whether Constance's father played a role in forcing the confession (he had been accused of murdering Francis himself in a fit of rage), Constance's sentence was changed to life imprisonment. She served twenty years in prison before her release in 1885. Constance then immigrated to Australia to be with her brother William and changed her name to Ruth Emilie Kaye. Qualifying as a nurse in 1892, she had a long nursing career (including serving as a Matron at a school for "wayward girls") and finally retired at the age of 88. Constance Kent/Ruth Emilie Kaye died on April 10, 1944 at the age of 100 and is buried in Australia.
What can we say about Constance Kent? If she did murder her brother, then it was the only act of violence that she ever committed in her long life (despite the efforts of some overly eager crime writers to link her to the Jack the Ripper murders that took place in London three years after her release from prison). If she made a false confession to protect her father or some other family member then she was remarkably loyal. She never recanted her confession despite outliving her father and virtually every other member of her family.
The truth behind Francis' murder will likely never be known (but the mystery remains).
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