Guest Post

This is a contribution from Dave George, an Australian historian who wrote a PhD thesis on a now forgotten English radical John Baxter Langley. In this post he introduces one of my favourite types of characters, the Victorian Scoundrel

Count Alexander Vitaliamo Borromeo

The story of Count Alexander Vitaliamo Borromeo was heroic, romantic and inspiring. An exiled Italian aristocrat – descended from the owners of the Borromean islands in the Lago Maggiore – he was also a veteran of the Crimean war (it was said his limp was the result of a Russian bullet) and had fought for the revolutionary Risorgimento regime in its doomed defence of Rome. Wanted by the Austrian police he sought sanctuary in England and founded a clandestine alliance of Italian nationalists, ‘exiles from their native lands, driven out of it by the oppression of its tyrants.’ Unlike the radical groups inspired by Mazzini and Garibaldi, members of Borromeo’s group were wealthy, educated and respectable patriots. Regular conferences were held in the capital with delegates attending from across Europe. The Count had sworn never to divulge their location, as ‘the police spies of the hateful Italian potentates were everywhere, even in London’ but he offered to relay details to British journalists for a small financial recompense. Such inside information on the Italian underground was valuable and many newspapers, including The Times, Morning Advertiser, Morning Herald and the Morning Star immediately accepted his offer. The arrangement went well. Reports were delivered on time and in person and newspapers gave their readers details of the new movement’s achievements. For Borromeo the regular press coverage allowed him to petition sympathetic industrialists and members of parliament to secure further pecuniary support. Liberal MP and future Viceroy of India, Viscount Goderich and the ‘Dandy Demagogue’ Thomas Duncombe, member for Finsbury, both publically endorsed his organisation.

But then things went wrong. An Irish sub-editor at the Star remarked that – for an Italian – the Count spoke with a surprisingly strong Cork accent. It was also pointed out that Signor Correnti, a prominent conference attendee, could not have been present as he was addressing the Turin parliament on the day in question. Furthermore, several would-be delegates complained to the paper that they had tried to locate the meetings and found only an empty building. In truth, the conferences did not exist and Count Alexander Vitaliamo Borromeo was an Irish swindler named Charles Tucker. Challenged by the manager of the Morning Star, Baxter Langley, Tucker/Borromeo made excuses, promised to escort his accuser to a conference, failed to do so and disappeared. When he was eventually tracked down it was not as an Italian nobleman but as ‘Dr Tucker – Electro-Biologist’ performing on stage at the Theatre Royal in Reading. According to a handbill he promised to ‘deprive his audience, at their will, of their hearing, speaking or acting’ and even ‘forget their own names.’ A police officer accompanied by Langley apprehended the fraudster mid-show. On May 12, 1858 he was found guilty of obtaining monies under false pretences at the Middlesex Session and sentenced to a year in prison. This was to be only the beginning of his travails.

During the trial Tucker was confronted by a man named Charles Sadler. Sadler reported to the court that Tucker had married his sister Mary Anne 16 years previously. He had been known at this time as Charles Tucker de St Hilaire. After four years of living as man and wife ‘St Hilaire’ had mysteriously disappeared. Also present in court was a woman named Anna Maria Frogett. She had met Tucker in Preston in 1846. At this time he had claimed to be a French exile named Marco Emile de St Hilaire. After a whirlwind romance they had eloped to Gretna Green. Five years later Tucker had again vanished leaving her to care for their young daughter Madelina. A third wife, named Margaret Murray also gave testimony. She knew Tucker as Alessandro Jiriano Borromeo and had married him in Sligo, Ireland, in 1853. Evidence of a fourth wife named Henrietta Amelia Shelley was also provided. Tucker had conducted their marriage ceremony himself in the family’s living room. This, he had assured her, was an established custom in his Italian homeland. Faced with overwhelming evidence Tucker was convicted on two counts of bigamy and was sentenced to a further four years in prison.

I have been tracking Tucker’s exploits for several years but there is a good deal more for me to discover. He worked as a Chartist lecturer for a time, a fact that caused fury when mentioned to the movement’s leader Ernest Jones. In Bradford he established ‘The Educational Band of Brotherhood’ to improve the lot of the working classes. The ’Brotherhood’ failed to survive Tucker running away with its finances. As Henry Charles Smethwick he was again arrested in 1865, which presumably came as a surprise to the 16 year-old girl he was engaged to. As for the wound received while serving in the Crimean War, the Penny illustrated Paper suggested a rather more pedestrian explanation. He had been caught cheating at cards and a disgruntled player had taken him outside to inflict retribution. ‘It was’ the paper reported, ‘not the first time he had cheated’.

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7 Responses to Guest Post

  1. Richard Axe says:

    Thanks for highlighting part of the life of Alexander Charles Tucker aka Borromeo et al. Tucker/Borromeo was my great-great grandfather by Anna Maria Frogatt abovementioned. His life through to 1869 – the last we know of him – is even more colourful than the synopsis provided here. Furthermore, research carried out in the last six months suggests his siblings were equally interesting, albeit in different ways: married into aristocracy, serving with Garibaldi and finding death in Italy, and as artists. Their father appears to have been Captain John Tucker, combatant at Waterloo, later twice court-martialled, and later still a writer and author.

    Happy to share information and learn more.

    Richard Axe

  2. Dave George says:

    Hello Richard,

    I’m very glad to hear from you! Your research sounds fascinating and I would love to hear more. You mentioned one of his siblings fought with Garibaldi? John Baxter Langley – who brought Borromeo to justice – was actually tried for breaking the Foreign Enlistment Act as ‘it is illegal for an Englishman to ‘hire, retain, engage or procure any person to enlist….’ In a foreign army’ and Langley had done just this in the pages of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle. It would be an interesting twist of fate if two years after seeing Charles Tucker imprisoned, Langley was responsible for inspiring his brother to fight for Italian independence. You also mentioned his father was an author, and veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. Would this be the same John Montmorency Tucker who wrote ‘The Life of the Duke of Wellington’?

    I’ve been in touch (through I British genealogy site) with another descendent of Anna Maria Froggett named Pat Hilton. Are you aware of each other? If not I’d be happy to provide her details. My own email is davemgeorge@yahoo.com.au . I look forward to communicating further.

    Dave George

  3. Richard Axe says:

    Hi, Dave.
    Thanks for the reply and extra information. I replied to your email address in August but you might not have received it. As Pat has replied to this post in the meantime, the gist of my email is below.

    It’s possible to reconstruct much of Tucker/Borromeo’s fraudulent and extra-marital activities between 1842 and 1869. Pat is the one that has done quite a lot of work around Borromeo’s prison history in the 1850s and 1860s. The other person that has been of great assistance is a lot nearer to you! Ann Collins had been researching John ‘Montmorency’ Tucker from the Colenso perspective (the surname of his second wife) and I saw (and read) one of her articles on Tucker when I noticed the Montmorency in the title – used by Borromeo. We’ve corresponded this year and the three of us have done some digging around on possible connections between the two by starting at opposite ends of the puzzle. We’re of the opinion that Borromeo is very likely to be a son of Captain Tucker, which adds a whole series of extra dimensions to the story. Captain Tucker is a big story in his own right….Ann has published a couple of articles on aspects of his life, especially in relation to his two court martials.

    Much of the ‘evidence’ behind the construction comes from Baxter Langley’s sources and his mini-crusade against Borromeo. I’ve always been interested in the description of his family connections without getting very far in exploring them; the recent collaborative work has been invaluable in breaking barriers. Piecing together Borromeo’s history has also been aided immeasurably (and speedily) by the increased volume of original documentation now available online in various places. From your note I hope that we can find out much more, perhaps in a wider context as well. Langley (and his audience) & Borromeo had an interest in events in Italy but it makes me wonder if Langley would have known at least one of Borromeo’s putative brothers, Barff Tucker, cartoonist, illustrator and Italian adventurer, personally. Some of his work was for the London Illustrated Times.

    As you know, The Morning Chronicle of 23/8/1858 (Borromeo the bigamist) provides family details that appear to be broadly accurate without giving away names – deliberately, I suspect. Some of the names can be filled in, I think.

    • Father an impoverished army officer of an Irish regiment = Captain (Colonel in Spanish Army, Peninsular campaign) John Tucker – 27th Enniskillen.
    • Mother the daughter of a major in the British Army = Letitia Tucker (Smith), daughter of a surgeon in the same regiment and sister of two officers
    • Sister the wife of a high dignitary in the Church = Eliza Julia Tucker, wife of Canon Ryder of Lichfield (of the Ryders, earls of Harrowby)
    • Brother serving in a despot’s army seems likely to be Barff Tucker – married to the daughter of Baron Ongley and killed in Italy in 1860
    • Brother a professional gambler = ?
    • Third son in a family of five, all living in 1858.Our research seems to indicate seven children, one of whom probably died young. They were: Mortimer Mansell, St Felix Treves Mansel, Eliza Julia, Alexander Charles (Borromeo), Barff, Frederick Ballestrini & Raymond. Barff, Frederick and Raymond were all artists, St Felix a customs officer. Alexander Charles, Frederick and Raymond seem to have been born in Italy or what were parts of one of the Italian kingdoms in that period.

    Happy to discuss in more detail. Your further thoughts would be of interest, especially given the extra newspaper and Italian dimensions (political, literary and others). It isn’t clear whether Barff’s enlistment was a spur of the moment decision, but perhaps not if he was acquainted previously with Garibaldi and/or the family had previous connections with Italy. Actually, literary and artistic leanings appear to run throughout this wider family nexus: Captain Tucker’s own family seems to include the actors Robert and Elizabeth Mansel (his half-brother and half-sister, we think) and her husband, the dramatist Frederick Reynolds.

    My email address is richardaxe@btinternet.com.

  4. allennz says:

    Thanks Richard. This gets more and more interesting.

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