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Defendant and Defence
On the afternoon of November 1st, 1901, Hugo Jameson QC asked to see Victor Gorenhoff, the self-confessed child-murderer he was soon to defend in court.
Doctor Stephen Conrad took Jameson and Professor Albert Longden to the high-security ward of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.
Longden had not seen Gorenhoff for more than a month, and was shocked at the physical changes that had overcome the man. Gorenhoff seemed to have aged 20 years and had lost a great deal of weight, leaving his face gaunt and hollow-cheeked; his hair, though close-cropped, had clearly greyed. He sat on a stool at the room’s only table, staring fixedly at the opposite wall with a listless gaze.
Conrad explained that Gorenhoff had been in a semi-catatonic state for weeks, eating rarely and hardly ever sleeping. When he did move, it was only in the dead of night, crouching below the cell’s barred window, staring mournfully up at the moon and muttering to himself in words which could not be clearly distinguished.
Conrad had managed to coax him into speaking only once during this period, and Gorenhoff had only spoken on one subject: the cleft palate that rendered his speech almost impossible to understand.
‘Now my master has deserted me, there is no hope. I will carry this curse with me to the grave.’
‘And why has your Master deserted you?’
‘He has ruled me unworthy now of his grace.’
Jameson listened to these words with a sceptical expression then said it was imperative that Conrad find some way to raise Gorenhoff from his lethargy.
Not only did Jameson have questions for the defendant, he needed to be sure his client would be able to speak during the trial. ‘I cannot defend a mute,’ he said. ‘And if he fails to answer the judge when asked to make his plea, it will not do our case any favours. The newspapers are already busy whipping the masses into a lather, and the public is crying out for a hanging.’
Conrad could suggest only one solution. An oral dose of cocaine would likely make Gorenhoff talk, but Conrad was wary of using it on him, given the man’s immense physical strength and propensity for sudden and terrible violence.
As Conrad prepared the drug, wardens dressed in padded jerkins and leggings were summoned from all over the asylum. Three of them crowded into the cell, armed with wooden truncheons, while another two waited outside.
Despite the activity, Gorenhoff seemed utterly unaware of them, gazing fixedly at the grey stones of the wall.
Conrad began with an oral dose of four grains of cocaine dissolved in water [roughly quarter-of-a-gram). Gorenhoff swallowed the water without problems, draining the cup in a single draught. Twenty minutes later, he showed no signs of having taken the drug apart from a slight dilation of the pupils.
Conrad gave him another four grains.
Again, there was no visible effect.
When Jameson pressed Conrad to prepare a larger dose, Conrad expressed worry that he might end up killing the man.
‘Let me be frank,’ Jameson said. ‘I abhor this man and his crimes. But my love for the Law is greater, and the Law determines that I defend him to the best of my ability. But he’s as good as dead if he won’t talk to me. Besides, I would imagine a death by cocaine infinitely preferable to that of the gibbet and the noose.
‘If found guilty, I’ll bet you a golden guinea the hangman will fix things so he gets the short drop and dangles and chokes. Besides, I must be convinced of the man’s insanity if I am to defend him. And I must tell you, sir, that at the moment, I am not. Vague tales of phantom masters will hold little water once we’re in court.‘
Conrad prepared a dose of eight grains. Again, Gorenhoff swallowed the admixture, but still there was still no visible effect apart from a slight trembling of his hands.
Gorenhoff had now taken more than a gram of medicinally pure cocaine (roughly equivalent to five to seven grams of adulterated street cocaine) in less than an hour, enough to turn a normal man into a babbling idiot, effervescent with false good humour and confidence.
When Jameson suggested a fourth dose, Conrad refused. ‘His constitution is unlike any man I have ever seen or read about,’ he said, ‘but I will not put his life in danger merely to satisfy your need to make him talk. If he goes to court a mute, then so it must be.’
Jameson bridled and began to argue. Then Professor Longden interceded, suggesting that a dose of amyl nitrate might prove viable as an alternative stimulant. Conrad agreed.
A tin box containing glass ampoules of the liquid drug was brought.
Conrad took one of these, held it beneath Gorenhoff’s nose, and snapped it open.
The effect of the vapours was instant.
Gorenhoff reeled back on his stool, clutching his temples as his sallow face reddened to a deep crimson, his eyes bulging. Then he fell to the ground and began choking. Conrad bent to tend to his patient, but could do nothing to alleviate Gorenhoff’s suffering.
For tense minutes, both wardens and academics watched what they feared were the man’s death throes.
Then Gorenhoff rose to all fours and began gagging.
‘He seemed at first like a cat coughing up a furball,’ Longden later wrote. ‘But then it became something infinitely more horrible as his convulsions increased. So immense did they become, blood began to pour from his nose, mouth and tear ducts. Then, with a final violent spasm and a series of pig-like grunts, Gorenhoff choked forth what had been lodged in his throat: a spherical object the size of a cricket ball, slickened with blood and mucus.’
Every man in the cell took a step backwards as Gorenhoff tried to grab the object, but Conrad kicked it out of his reach. Gorenhoff struggled groggily to his feet, his face a mass of blood, his eyes bulging. Conrad ran from the cell, followed by the three wardens, and locked the door.
Gorenhoff gave a mournful scream.
‘Take not His token from me,’ he cried, his face pressed now to the bars. ‘It was gifted to me as a guerdon.’
When Conrad refused, Gorenhoff went wild.
‘Never have I seen such a terrible display of violence in my life,’ Longden wrote. ‘The man was bestial in his fury and his strength terrible to behold. He destroyed a sturdy wooden stool with a single downward blow of his clasped hands, snapping the legs as if they were matchsticks. Then he assaulted the edge of the table, managing to rip free the iron rivets that secured it to the stone floor. This he proceeded to reduce to splinters with his bare hands, despite the table top being three-inches thick.
‘Once all in his cell had been destroyed, he became suddenly quiescent, the blood still streaming from his nose, mouth and eyes, his huge hands red and raw as beef-steaks. He then knelt and began babbling to himself in a language none of us could recognise. It was as if he were speaking in tongues in the manner of some of the extreme Protestant sects.
‘Conrad then turned to the barrister, Jameson, and said with a wry smile: “There is your client, sir. Do you still wish to take his testimony? Or are you now satisfied that his derangement is genuine?”.’
The Leper King’s Legacy
Jameson declined, visibly shaken by all that he had witnessed. The three men left the high security ward, carrying with them the object that Gorenhoff had choked forth, wrapped now in a teacloth.
Once in Conrad’s office, they opened the teacloth to examine the object.
Longden wrote: ‘There on the desk lay a hideous spherical tangle of all matter of undigested filth: crow feathers, rabbit bones, fox teeth, small twigs, pigeon excrement . . . all bound together by wads of vellum. Jameson was disgusted by it and suggested we threw it away. Conrad and I, both men of science, disagreed.
‘Taking each a pair of steel tongs, we began to unpick the foetid mass, and soon noticed that the vellum consisted of a single sheet, and that there was writing upon it.’
After many minutes of careful work, they managed to extricate the sheet of vellum and spread it out upon the teacloth. And there, they found words in English, written in an archaic script:
‘I, Kernan Haustvald, the Leper King incarnate, and faithful paladin of the Pale Saint, do commend to thee the following steps by which thy affliction may be cast aside: first take six children, alive and well; pluck from them their tongues and teeth and wrap each in a strip of clothing; the first of these must be left as a token when the second child is taken, so that all mayst know thou art engaged upon a rite of healing that comes from the Old World; then thou must create an antlered effigy of the Pale Saint and slather this with the rendered fat of the children’s bodies; then, thou mayst make thy obsequies.’
‘Well, I’ll tell you one thing,’ Conrad said after a deep, long silence. ‘That is not Victor Gorenhoff’s handwriting.’