The murderer who painted Voltaire, an 18th century crime

Theodoré Gardelle, an enamel painter and limner, was born in 1721 in Geneva, Switzerland into a family of goldsmiths, jewellers and miniaturists. He received a good education which included the study of anatomy. Theodoré, against the initial wishes of his father, decided to become a painter, and as such he criss-crossed between Paris and Geneva from the age of sixteen years. In Geneva, around 1754 or 1755, he became known to the celebrated Voltaire and painted his picture, later enamelling it upon a copper snuff-box.

Around the age of 30 years he fell in love with a Mademoiselle Dupin who lived with his maternal aunt in the neighbouring house and who had previously been in the care of a hospital (probably a form of orphanage) from a young age. Theodoré took his love to Paris but his friends refused to consent to their marrying. An account of his life written after his death says that he met and married a woman at Paris whose name was Nouel and by whom he had two children. Had Theodoré then abandoned Mlle Dupin, or is this the same woman under a different name? Either way, Dupin or Nouel, he actually married neither, as made clear in several sources, simply living with the mother of his children without the legality of a marriage. Theodoré does not seem to have found the success he hoped for in Paris, even though he went there with a recommendation from Voltaire, and began to think of travelling further afield in search of work. The Duc de Choiseul, the French Foreign Minister, suggested London. There are rumours that he wished Theodoré to spy for him

Portrait of Voltaire by Theodoré Gardelle, c.1754/5 © The Trustees of the British Museum
Portrait of Voltaire by Theodoré Gardelle, c.1754/5
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Seeking work, Theodoré travelled to Brussels and possibly also to Holland, although he glosses over that in the account of his life he later wrote and perhaps for good reason. Did he travel through Holland simply on a journey to England, or did he stay for a period of time in the country? We’ll come back to Theodoré’s possible stay in the Netherlands at the end of this article, with some information which will prove crucial to this narrative.

In April 1760 he set sail from Helvoetsluys in the Netherlands for Harwich, landing there on the 1st May. In the summer of 1760 he journeyed to London (although he neither spoke nor understood much English) and lodged for three months at the house of Mrs Ann King (described as a ‘merry gentlewoman’ and a ‘gay showy woman, of a doubtful character, who dressed fashionably and was chiefly visited by gentlemen’) in Leicester Fields (now known as Leicester Square), almost opposite Frederick, Prince of Wales’s apartments, before moving to lodgings in Knightsbridge for a few months. That coming to an end, he made the fateful decision to return to Mrs King’s, where he took the second floor of the house.

A View of Leicester Square, London c.1753 by Thomas Bowles. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
A View of Leicester Square, London c.1753 by Thomas Bowles.
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Mrs Ann King had been born in Durham and had received but a poor education. She had been a virtuous woman, brought up by a ‘sober, honest mother’ who had become blind in her old age and whom Mrs King had looked after, until a journey to London. There she had made the acquaintance of some ‘ladies of the town’ and of a nobleman who kept her for five years. Together with a small annuity from the nobleman, and a frequent gratuity from a surgeon who ‘often had favours from her’, she lived comfortably, opening up her house to gentleman lodgers and affecting to be called Madam King.

She was to meet a terrible end. On the morning of the 19th February 1761 Theodoré murdered Mrs Ann King in her own home, before gruesomely cutting up her body in an attempt to dispose of it and cover up his crime. Although he eventually admitted his guilt, he tried to present it as an event which was not premeditated.

Portrait of Theodoré Gardelle © The Trustees of the British Museum
Portrait of Theodoré Gardelle
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Theodoré had sent the servant, Ann (Nanny) Windsor, who had only been employed a fortnight, out of the house on an errand, to deliver a letter and buy him some snuff from Mr Peter Fribourg, a fellow Swiss who kept a snuff-shop in the Haymarket. As the maid was worried that there would be no-one to hear the front door if a visitor called while she was out, Theodoré offered to sit in the parlour. Mrs King’s bedroom suite was on the same floor, with a door adjoining the parlour. No-one but Theodoré and Mrs King were in the house; the other lodger, Mr Wright who occupied the first floor together with his servant, Thomas Pelsey who had the use of the garret, had left for a few days. Theodoré subsequently claimed that Mrs King had begun to abuse him, possibly about a picture he had painted of her which she had not found flattering. He denied he had entered her bedroom with any intention of forcing himself on her. Mrs King struck his breast, Theodoré claimed, and, calling her a ‘var impertinante Woman’ he pushed her, whereupon her foot tangled in her bedroom carpet and she fell, striking her head against her bedpost. Blood was pouring from the wound and from her mouth and, frightened that the unfortunate lady would prosecute him for attempted murder, Theodoré took the decision to commit actual murder. Grabbing an ivory comb with a sharp taper point designed for composing curls in the hair, he stabbed Mrs King in her neck (although at his trial he claimed it had not punctured her skin and her death was due to her fall). Pulling Mrs King’s prone body onto the bedsheets, so that they rather than the floor should soak up the blood, Theodoré then fell into a faint before coming to when he heard the maid return. Locking Mrs King’s door behind him he claimed that he trembled so much that he struck his head several times against the wainscot, a calamity with which he would explain the marks and bruises which were subsequently noticed on his face (Ann Windsor recalled that he had a little bump over his eye and a black eye-patch on, neither of which had been present as she left the house).

Shortly afterwards he managed to dismiss the maid; she thought that her mistress had behaved indiscreetly with Theodoré and was ashamed to face her and accepted her dismissal from Theodoré. With one problem out of the way another presented itself; Mr Wright’s servant Thomas came back to take up his lodgings on the evening of the murder. Theodoré said that Mrs King had gone away on a visit to Bristol or to Bath, and began to plan how to dispose of the body. Various people came and went from the house, including a prostitute engaged by Theodoré’s friends to ‘cheer him up’ and who stayed for a few days, sleeping in Theodoré’s room (the lady in question, Sarah Walker, claimed to be merely a servant looking for a lodging and engaged as Mrs King was away). He took a small box to his friend Monsieur Perronneau, saying it contained colours of great value (necessary to his painting) and asked him to look after it. The box was later found to contain a glove, a gold watch and chain, bracelets and ear-rings.

It was on the Tuesday following the murder that Thomas noticed an unpleasant smell. Theodoré said that somebody had put a bone in the fire. Dreadfully, he was probably telling the truth! On the Thursday Thomas went with a newly-hired charwoman, Mrs Pritchard (who didn’t live in), to examine a tub filled with blankets, sheets and a bed curtain in the back wash-house, which had been soaking there for some days. Thomas now suspected foul play and took his concerns to his master, Mr Wright.

Theodoré had been engaged in disposing of poor Mrs King’s body, cutting it into pieces.

A gruesome depiction of the crime from the Tyburn Chronicle, 1768
A gruesome depiction of the crime from the Tyburn Chronicle, 1768

It was Saturday 28th February when Theodoré Gardelle was taken into custody, suspected of the murder of Mrs Ann King although, at that point, her body had not been found. Sir John Fielding (the ‘Blind Beak’) sent men into the house on Leicester Fields to search for her. They found blood in Mrs King’s bedroom and a bloody shirt in Theodoré’s room, together with a blood stained shift. The ‘necessary’ was found to contain the bowels of a human body and the ‘cockloft’ (a small loft under the ridge of a roof) a breast, part of a body and bones. In the garret fireplace were the remains of burnt human bones. Theodoré later claimed that, in the ten days between the murder and his discovery, he had not fled as he feared an innocent person might then be accused of the crime and suffer for it.

On his arrival at the New Prison in Clerkenwell, Theodoré attempted to take his own life with an overdose of opium. When this failed to have the desired result he tried swallowing several halfpennies, which only had the effect of making him ill. When he was subsequently admitted to Newgate on 2nd March, he was chained to the floor and watched constantly to prevent any further attempts. He wrote from Newgate to his mistress in Paris, the mother of his two children who were then aged around four and one year old, advising her to return to Geneva and throw herself on the mercy of his family lest the children should be taken upon a charitable foundation and brought up as Roman Catholics in Paris (Theodoré was a Calvinist or a Presbyterian). He also wrote to his mother and sisters in Geneva, insisting that his crime was accidental and not performed with any intent and commending his children to their care.

View of Geneva, with an Artist Sketching by Stadler; The National Trust for Scotland, Brodick Castle, Garden & Country Park; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/view-of-geneva-with-an-artist-sketching-195874
View of Geneva, with an Artist Sketching by Stadler; The National Trust for Scotland, Brodick Castle, Garden & Country Park

The trial took place at the Old Bailey on the 1st April. As Theodoré was a foreigner, he asked that half the jury also be foreigners and an interpreter was employed. The verdict was that Theodoré Gardelle was guilty of murder, and the sentence was death, to be carried out as soon as possible and his body to be dissected and anatomized, although it was instead hung in chains on Hounslow Heath. Theodoré’s execution took place on the 4th April 1761, in the Haymarket and facing Panton Street.

So, do we believe Theodoré’s account? Or do we suspect that he entered Mrs King’s bedroom with the intent of enjoying her favours, by force if necessary? And that Mrs King, rather than striking him in his breast, instead thumped him in his eye in her attempt to fight him off before he murdered her? The author of The Life of Theodore Gardelle, published shortly after his death, certainly through this was the case, and that Theodoré feared Mrs King would accuse him of rape. A gentleman who had travelled to England from the Netherlands also thought along the same lines.

A gentleman just arrived from Holland, says, that some years ago Gardelle (who was executed last Saturday in the Haymarket) lodged with a German woman named Verbest, near the market place in the Hague; that they were very great together, and used often to ride out in a chaise, but that all of a sudden she was found missing, upon which Gardelle gave out that she was gone to Francfort [sic], and that he himself was to sell her effects and follow after. Accordingly he soon converted every thing into ready money, and went off, tho’ not without some shrewd suspicions from the neighbours, who apprehended foul play. These suspicions, however, subsided; but about a twelvemonth ago, a Dutch peasant cleaning out a muddy well just in the skirts of the town, the body of a woman was found there, which coming to the ears of the neighbourhood where Mrs Verbest lived, with some other particular circumstances attending, makes it but too probable that Mrs King was not the only person murdered by him.

 

Header image:

Leicester Square, London, British School, National Trust Collections

 

Sources:

Newgate Ordinary’s Account, 4th April 1761

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1st April 1761

The Annual register, or, A View of the history, politicks, and literature, of the year 1761, published London 1762

The Life of Theodore Gardelle, Limner and Enameller, 1761

The Tyburn Chronicle: Or, The Villainy Display’d In All Its Branches, volume 4, 1768

Derby Mercury, 10th April 1761

The Ipswich Journal, 11th April 1761

 

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