Vere Thomas St Leger Goold was an Irish aristocrat, a Wimbledon finalist, an alcoholic, an opium addict, a slow payer of his gambling debts, and all-round “degenerate”, and in the summer of 1907 he was arrested at Marseille railway station after he was found to have a woman’s naked, headless, dismembered and disembowelled body in his leather trunk.
The legs were inside a valise, the head was in his wife’s hat-box, and the intestines would later be discovered somewhere along the Cote d’Azur near Monte Carlo, hanging from an iron stake. This did not sit easily with Goold’s wish to be seen as a gentleman.
Goold’s talent for the emerging game of tennis had brought him a few days of fame in London when he appeared in the 1879 Wimbledon final, a match he lost to a vicar from Yorkshire, and twenty-eight years later he achieved global notoriety after he and his French wife Marie were convicted of murder at the courthouse in Monte Carlo. Rather than repay a gambling debt to a wealthy Swedish widow, the Goolds had bludgeoned and slashed Emma Levin to death in their rented villa with a pestle, an Indian dagger and a butcher’s knife.
Though Vere would later suggest he had struggled physically and psychologically with the grisly task of severing Levin’s head and legs and ripping out her guts, as “the body looked so horrible that I could not bear to see it”, this was a crime that appeared to be as callous as it was gruesome. The day after they killed her, the Goolds sat down for dinner at their apartment, while at their feet was a bag filled with Levin’s jumbled body-parts.
Soon the world’s newspapers would pore over every ghastly detail of what became widely known as the story of ‘La Malle Sanglante’, ‘The Bloody Trunk’, including how the Goolds had been caught after blood had seeped from their luggage onto the stone floor of the station’s goods office. As the New York Times noted in August 1907: “All other topics have been paled into insignificance by the ‘Trunk Murder’ – the papers have been full of it.” The lurid, extensive coverage of the murder attracted numerous ‘scandal-seekers’, ghouls and gossips, and provoked public and press outrage at a decadent, repellent world which was corrupting “pure English girls”, and leading to “suicides and tragedies”.
For some European and American commentators, this episode demonstrated why the Monte Carlo Casino was a ‘Devil’s Paradise’, a ‘Glittering Hell’, or ‘House of Perdition’, and a letter published in The Times asked: “How long are the nations of Europe going to tolerate the continuance of this plague-spot in their midst?”
‘The Rooms’ at the Casino were never more influential than during the early years of the twentieth century, attracting royalty, industrialists, singers, showgirls, prostitutes and the courtesans known as the ‘Grandes Horizontales’ of ‘La Belle Epoque’. As a contemporary travel report in the influential British publication, Pearson’s Magazine, observed of the scene inside the white-stone building: “A strange congregation of people promenade between the pillars, or rest in the lounges.
The smart, the dowdy, the eminently respectable, the bizarre, all are there.” Smart European society lived vicariously through the tales of misbehaviour on the rock. Visiting the casino for the first time could still be shocking, and the young, newly-wed Duchess of Marlborough was astonished to see so many “ladies of easy virtue”.
The arrival of the Goolds, who had been drawn to the principality by Marie’s belief that she had developed a ‘system’ for playing roulette, added to the number of those untrustworthy enough to be considered ‘adventurers’.
The Irishman and his petit bourgeois French wife introduced themselves as ‘Sir’ and ‘Lady’, maintaining that a baronetcy had passed to him when his older brother died after being thrown from a horse and landing on his head, when the truth was that ‘Sir’ Stephen James Goold was still alive and living in Australia, where he had dropped his title so as not to upset his fellow railway gangers.
The gossip in Monte Carlo was that Marie had been born into a peasant family, that she had worked as a domestic servant and waited tables in a cafe, and, this was perhaps the most damaging of all the allegations, that she had been Vere’s mistress before they were married. There could hardly have been a family under greater scrutiny than the Goolds, as there was suspicion over Vere’s right to the title he had claimed for himself, and Marie’s niece, Isabelle, who had accompanied her uncle and aunt to Monaco, was rumoured to be a prostitute.
The Goolds’ victim was a middle-aged woman who had aspired to lead the dissipated, dissolute life of a ‘demi-mondaine’. Most evenings, after the roulette tables had closed at midnight, Levin was to be found in the cafes around Place du Casino, where she would display her diamonds, drink until the early hours, flirt, smoke cigarillos, and ‘make promiscuous acquaintances’. Levin had had a difficult upbringing – after her father abandoned the family, she was brought up in a children’s home, and by the age of seventeen she was on the police register of ‘loose women’, and by eighteen she had been admitted to hospital with syphilis.
Though her husband, a successful Stockholm merchant called Leopold Levin, had been taken by her “handsome figure, and better appearance than most girls of her position”, they had an unhappy, childless marriage. After Leopold’s recent death, now was the time for Emma Levin to indulge herself with his money.
The Goolds had such a poor run at the roulette wheels in 1907 that Vere broke down back at the villa – their financial situation was so desperate that he could hardly afford another bottle of whisky. Soon enough, the Goolds had also lost all the money which they borrowed from Levin, too. An unsigned letter was slipped under the door of Levin’s hotel room, informing her that Vere and Marie were fraudsters and he had no legal right to a title. Levin demanded immediate repayment of the loan. On Sunday the fourth of August 1907, Levin accepted an invitation to collect her money from the Goolds’ rented apartment.
It was as Levin sat in a high-backed armchair in the drawing room, sipping from a glass of cherry liqueur, that Vere struck her on the back of the head. There was an almighty struggle, and Levin’s blood spurted over the walls, ceiling and furniture, and a post-mortem would later determine that she had been stabbed sixteen times with the dagger and knife, with wounds to her stomach, chest, back, neck and face.
Too drunk that night to cut through bone, even with the help of butcher’s saws, Vere waited until the morning to dissect Levin. After removing Levin’s clothes and diamonds, Vere amputated the legs. On a number of occasions during the long and difficult job of severing the head, Vere felt as though he was about to vomit, and he walked away from the cadaver, left the room, and poured himself a whisky. Concerned that the guts would quickly putrefy, Vere disposed of them on a beach.
The next evening, the Goolds caught the overnight train to Marseille, and on their arrival the next morning, they asked for their trunk to be placed in storage. When one of the porters walked to the Goolds’ hotel, to tell them that a pool of sticky blood had formed around the trunk, he was not satisfied with Vere’s explanation that they were transporting “dead chickens”, and he alerted the local police of his suspicions.
As soon as the trunk was opened, the denials began. Though the Goolds admitted cutting Levin’s body, they denied murder. According to Marie, one of Levin’s young lovers had bounded into the room and killed the widow, and they had been trying to dispose of the body to avoid being implicated in a crime they had not committed.
Marie then changed her account to suggest that her husband had indeed murdered Levin. In his Marseille prison cell, a distressed Goold screamed out in his sleep every night because of a recurring dream he had in which his own legs were sawn off, and then casually discarded in a sack. In a letter to his wife, Goold asked: “I wonder if all these horrors are a bad dream?” When the police brought the Goolds back to Monte Carlo, a large crowd collected at the station to barrack, “death to the murderers, death to the murderers”, and a few made an unsuccessful attempt to break through the line of police and carabineers to lynch the pair.
Without exception, the British and American observers in Monaco’s Palais de Justice were astounded by the theatrical feel to the murder trial in December 1907, with the sneering, laughter and heckles from the galleries. An animated prosecutor was said to have mounted “a passion of abuse”, and doctors testified that Vere was “a moral idiot and a degenerate”, whose ability to reason and make judgements had been weakened by his addictions to alcohol and opium.
For much of Marie’s adult life, she had been a criminal: there was little doubt that she had been an occasional thief and con-woman, and perhaps she had even killed, as there was some suspicion surrounding the death of her first two husbands. Throughout the trial, Marie veered between bravado and self-pity when she shrieked, howled, sobbed and threatened to faint. It was her husband’s fault, it was the whisky’s fault. Vere and Marie were found guilty. Vere was sentenced to ‘penal servitude for life’; his wife was condemned to death, with a judge telling her: “You deserve two death sentences.”
At the time they stood trial, it was extremely rare for a woman to receive a heavier punishment than her male accomplice. The fact that Marie was sentenced to death, and Vere was not, indicated the strength of the court’s feelings towards her. It was the right of the condemned to choose where they were to die, and Marie horrified Le Beau Monde when she said that she wanted to be executed in Place du Casino.
Yet, the Monegasque government did not have a guillotine or an executioner, and neither did they have the inclination to put on such a horrendous spectacle. Marie’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and she was transferred to a French prison, where she died in 1914 from typhoid.
Vere had been put on a boat to Ile du Diable, the ‘Devil’s Island’ penal colony off the coast of French Guiana, where he continued to lose his sanity. According to a reporter for ‘Paris Matin’, who met Vere on the island, the former tennis player had become “a mere wreck, who takes solitary walks along the banks of the River Maroni, where for hours together he recites the memorials that he drew up for his defence, while the crocodiles doze in the water”. Deprived of whisky and opium, and feeling great remorse, Vere Goold committed suicide on the eighth of September 1909. He was 55.