Charles Augustus Howell



A portrait by Frederic Sandys (1882)

One of my favourite Victorian scoundrels and an inveterate footnote of the period is Charles Augustus Howell. He is actually quite well-known – notorious – but mostly because he regularly features in the byways and footnotes of the biographies of the Pre-Raphaelites and the circle of William Morris. He does have his own biography, Helen Angeli Rossetti’s 1949 Pre-Raphaelite Twilight, which is highly readable and intriguing, though possibly over sympathetic and far from complete. He is definitely worthy of more attention because of the insights he gives to the murkier side of the art world in the Victorian period. Angeli gets to the heart of Howell’s reputation when she writes that “It would be easy to compile a Vocabulary of Vituperation” and then proceeds with a long-list of the highly uncomplimentary sobriquets which were attached to him during his 30 or so years on the margins of fame: arrant rascal, blackmailer, base fellow, confidence trickster, cunning rogue, parasite, stench of hell, vile wretch……

Howell was born in Oporto in 1840 to an English father and a Portuguese mother. Purportedly from an aristocratic background, he arrived in England in his youth, already suespected of being a cheat and also being involved in his friend Orsini’s plot to assassinate Napoleon III. For a while he disappeared but from 1864 onwards he became friend and business agent of both Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Ruskin. According to Rossetti’s brother William Michael Rossetti, Howell was a skilful salesman “with his open manner, his winning address, with his exhaustless gift of amusing talk, not innocent of high colouring and actual blague – [he] was unsurpassable”. Like many scoundrels, he was charming and popular, regarded as a great raconteur and the perfect guest for a social dinner. However, constantly having to slip and slide, he, like most scoundrels, lived on the edge of crisis, condemnation and criminality. He is best known for persuading Dante Gabriel Rossetti to dig up the poems he had buried with his wife Lizzie Siddal.

He divided the people with whom he became involved. Morris, after an initial dalliance, would have nothing to do with him. Edward Burne-Jones described him as “a base, treacherous, unscrupulous and malignant fellow”. Hall Caine called him a “soldier of fortune” and Swinburne said he was “the vilest wretch I ever came across.” Others were more generous. Ford Madox Brown said that though he was “one of the biggest liars in existence” and “half mad”, he was essentially “good natured” and Whistler said he was a “wonderful man… a genius… splendidly flamboyant”. Eventually, however, he would always overplay his hand. As time went by he became more and more desperate, trading off friendships and business deals against each other. His need to always be looking over his shoulder is beautifully captured in Max Beerbohm’s cartoon which shows him listening at the door while his mistress Rosa Corder – he was a complete scoundrel – forges paintings by Rossetti.


Gradually rumours circulated that the lovable rogue was actually a criminal, including accusations of blackmailing as well as artistic forgery. His reputation as a blackmailer inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.”

He died at the age of fifty in circumstances that possibly befitted his lifestyle – dramatic, mysterious, and probably on the wrong side of the law. He was found close to a Chelsea public house with his throat slit, with a coin in his mouth. The presence of the coin was believed to be a criticism of those guilty of slander. The embarrassment of an inquest and police investigation was avoided when his death was ruled to have resulted from “pneumonic phthisis”, the slit throat having been inflicted posthumously. Numerous, carefully filed, letters from high-placed people were found at his home, leading to much speculation. In the words of Humphrey Hare, “Fallen on hard days, Howell did not hesitate to blackmail by the threatened sale of letters which contained the customary puerile indecencies.” However, Helen Angeli was adamant that there was no evidence of blackmail.

Like many true scoundrels, it is difficult to avoid a certain sympathy, even affection, for characters like Howell. He certainly warrants a new biography.

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Cartoon of the Week

Facebook didn’t invent the cute animal and the cat in charge.

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Cartoon of the Week

This Puck cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt – the Political Janus – is from just outside of the Victorian period, and Roosevelt is hardly a footnote, but I couldn’t resist it as I sit reading reports of President Trump at the G20 (or is it G19) meeting . It is from the Library of Congress site at:

It is one of 2,500 color cartoon illustrations from the fascinating Puck magazine between the years 1882 and 1915. As the site notes: “To see the past through the window of editorial cartoons is to get caught up in the events of the time and to plot them on the wheel of history that relentlessly rolls forward into the future.”

The political Janus

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Cartoon of the Week

Something else from the endlessly fascinating Public Domain Review site, this time from the 1850s. For more information about the book, go to of-rome/

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Book(s) of the Month

Since my earlier post on Phrenology, I have been reading a couple of books about similarly obscure causes which would have been part of the package of most self-respecting radicals of the the Victorian period. Both involve challenges to medical science and concerns about the rights of private citizens in the 19th century.

Lunacy and Liberty

The first is Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England by Sarah Wise. The publishers promise us “Gaslight tales of rooftop escapes, men and women snatched in broad daylight, patients shut in coffins, a fanatical cult known as the Abode of Love…” and we get our money’s worth. It deals with the regular panics about sane people being locked away in lunatic asylums in the UK. For many, the newly emerging profession of the ‘mad-doctor’ threatened the whole idea of English liberty. Using twelve detailed case-studies – not unreasonably described as ‘shocking’ – and covering issues of sexuality, inherited madness, financial greed and fraudulence, it “chillingly evokes the black motives at the heart of the phenomenon of the ‘inconvenient person”. Beautifully written, absolutely full of the forgotten and the footnoted, the book brings the Victorian period vividly to life.



The second book continues my theme within this blog of history rhyming if not repeating. There has been an upsurge over the last decade in the anti-vaccination movement around the world. Here in New Zealand, a film and a documentary series on anti-vaccination have both been partially banned from public showing. Much of the furore in recent times has been caused by the fraudulently produced work of Dr Andrew Wakefield, who made completely unfounded claims about links between autism and the MMR vaccine, which led to him being struck off the medical register in the UK. But in the 19th century the anti-vaccine movement – mostly battling against the introduction of compulsory smallpox vaccination – was a substantial part of a package of causes tackling the burgeoning science and health professions. Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England ((1853-1907) by Nadja Durbach is a very insightful look at this earlier occurrence of concerns over vaccination, but considering it within the much broader context of concerns about the safety of the body and the role of the modern state, and specifically issues of government intervention in the private lives of its citizens. An excellent analysis from the past with great relevance to the present.


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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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You need your brain examined

Looking back to the 19th century, there were many social and political causes that now seem, at best, curious and at worst bizarre and ridiculous. As science and capitalism progressed, they brought all sorts of questions, debates and answers. With a further 100 years of ‘progress’, it is easy to look at the answers with disbelief, contempt or self-satisfied humour. One of the most obvious is Phrenology.


Phrenology focused on measurements of the human skull, based on the notion that certain areas of the brain – about 40 in total – have localized, specific functions. Furthermore, it proposed that these functions could be ascertained by measuring the bumps and indentations in your skull. First developed by Franz Joseph Gall, a German physician, in 1796, it was very popular in the UK and the US throughout the 19th century, even though it had been scientifically discredited by 1840. For an interesting summary, see:

As I research popular politics in the latter part of that century, I keep bumping into phrenology in the most unlikely places. In 1850 the radical Wilhelm Liebknecht arrived in London, became a member of the German Workers’ Education Society, and was vetted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Liebknecht claimed that, when he was interviewed by Marx, “he not only examined me with questions, but also with his fingers, making them dance over my skull in a connoisseur’s style. Later on he arranged for a regular investigation by the phrenologist of the party.” I have also uncovered detailed phrenological reports on Charles Bradlaugh (the secularist MP for Northampton), Henry George (the radical American political economist), and the founding post of this blog, John De Morgan.


The reports are all reasonably insightful on the virtues and flaws of these individuals, offering advice on self-improvement. To the 21st century eye, they look suspiciously like the reports of a coach or mentor (or even a counsellor), rather than scientific studies of the head and brain. John De Morgan’s report is a good example. Done by someone who was also a political ally and who knew De Morgan well, the report concluded that his physical power was limited while his mental power was above average; that he had a restless brain and preferred subtlety to brute force; that he had too little of the Scotchman to become rich; was large in self-esteem, fond of praise, and high in the organ of Hope; but had too much imagination, was too easily effected by public opinion, and used his heart rather than his head. Surprisingly for a man who spent much of his life in the public gaze, the report concluded that he was fitted by nature for the studio or cloister, but more realistically that he was an initiator rather than a follower. Much of this makes sense in terms of what we know about the man.

Phrenology also attracted such notable figures as Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, President James Garfield,  Honoré de Balzac, Charlotte and Emily Bronté, George Eliot, and Otto von Bismark. Queen Victoria employed a phrenologist to look the royal children’s cranial bumps.

The successful popularization of phrenology was partly due to the idea that scientific knowledge was important and that embracing it was a sign of sophistication and modernity. It became popular with the masses because of its simplified principles and wide range of social applications that were in harmony with the liberal Victorian world view. It was also seen as a tool for self-improvement and upward mobility, while providing fodder for attacks on aristocratic privilege through reformist rather than revolutionary action. As its later critics noted, however, it was also underpinned by racist assumptions.

Phrenology was particularly popular in the U.S. fitting in well with the emergent view of the American dream, and the belief that a humble past did not preclude future success. The brain was portrayed as something like a muscle that could be exercised and which offered the opportunity to improve your life through simple solutions. By the second half of the 19th century it had become a commercial success, spreading throughout people’s lives. Phrenologists would test couples for compatibility, potential suitors for marriage, and job applicants for different positions. Lorenzo and Orson Fowler dominated the business, successfully marketing the idea, setting up phrenology clinics, selling phrenological pamphlets and supplies and, and establishing the American Phrenological Journal which ran from in 1838 to 1911. As a result phrenology’s popularity outlasted its scientific credibility by 60 years or more.

In the 21st century, the ridicule that eventually led to phrenology’s demise, has been tempered by an acceptance that – in its assumption that character, thoughts, and emotions are located in specific parts of the brain – it was both influential in the development of 19th-century psychology, and , an important historical advance toward 21st century neuropsychology. As Erika Jarika commented in The Atlantic in 2014:

“The 19th-century fascination with the brain isn’t all that far removed from our modern obsession with the mind. We have once again elevated the brain to cultish status, celebrating and perhaps even aggrandizing its power and purpose to shape the world and ourselves. Many of us continue to hope, as the phrenologists did, that mapping the brain will reveal the secrets of human nature that, once known, will allow for personal improvement and transformation….And once known, this information will allow us to manipulate and transform ourselves into something better. We just call it “neuro” this and “neuro”…. a transmutation of language strikingly similar to what occurred in the 19th century as phrenological terms (high brow, low brow, shrink, well rounded) passed from the lab to daily conversation….It seems to me that popular brain science is the phrenology of the 21st century, and we’re just as ravenous for that knowledge today as they were in the 19th century.”

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Cartoon of the Week: Cartoon Characters


In the UK in the late 19th century, political cartoons were prolifically pasted around a constituency during an election. This is one of 270 in a spectacular collection held by Leeds Public Library. It shows a third party candidate – John De Morgan (whose biography appears on this blog) – being supposedly offered money by the Conservative candidates to split the Liberal vote. The election went so badly for De Morgan (he withdrew) that, within a couple of months, he emigrated to the US. For some excellent insights to these cartoons by Anthony Ramm, see:



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Cartoons of the Week: US Immigration in the 1890s

Image result for judge magazine 1890

The Proposed Emigrant Dumping Site, from Judge magazine 1890.


Above a group of prosperous Americans refuse entry to a new immigrant, while the shadows of their own immigrant past watch over. From Puck magazine 1893

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And finally, entitled “Who is to Blame”, from Judge magazine 1891


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Cartoon of the Week: Going to the Opera in 2000 (a view from 1882)

Source: The Public Domain Review. This is a great site, see


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