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’.