Usually, when it comes to literary detection, the question is ‘who was?’ Most of the time in this line, one is trying to crack open pseudonyms or to discover more about an author, dedicatee or the origins of a character in a roman a clef. However, in my latest case, ‘the mystery of Richard Marsh’, the questions have been a little different.
Richard Marsh was a writer of over eighty novels, in the late 19th and early 20th century, which ranged from crime and detection to horror and the supernatural. He wasn’t the greatest writer of his generation but his breathless, action-packed style and wild imagination have made him something of a cult figure among the cognoscenti of bizarre literature. The one book for which Marsh is remembered, if he is remembered at all, is The Beetle a gothic tale of horror that was issued in the same year, 1897, as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and which outsold it into the 20th century. However, Richard Marsh was, in fact, only a pseudonym. In 1966, Marsh’s grandson Robert Aickman, also an accomplished writer of horror fiction, wrote an autobiography in which he revealed that Richard Marsh was born in 1857 as Richard Bernard Heldmann. As Bernard Heldmann he wrote a number of ripping yarns for boys both in novel form and serialised in boys’ newspapers. He was rather good at it and soon became the protégé of G. A. Henty at The Union Jack where he was quickly promoted to co-editor. Then, suddenly, he drops from view. There is a simple, terse statement in The Union Jack of 1883: “Mr Heldmann has ceased to be connected in any way with The Union Jack”: and Heldmann doesn’t publish another thing for a decade until he turns up as Richard Marsh with an entirely different style and subject matter. So, the question in this case is not Who? but Why?
There has been speculation. Aickman describes his grandfather’s marriage to a young girl named Ada Kate as “slapdash” and mentions the family story that there were “incidents with women”. Richard Dalby in a truly excellent article in The Book and Magazine Collector way back in 1997 suggested that it was some “incident” of this nature which resulted in Heldmann’s fall from grace, even suggesting that Ada Kate may have been attached to The Union Jack and that the relationship might have been seen as improper in some way. It has also been suggested that the scenes of prison life in some of his novels are just a tad too realistic to have been written by someone without real inside knowledge. In fact, this turns out to be correct, Heldmann did get himself into trouble with the law, but it wasn’t because of an incident with a woman. With the growing availability of electronic databases, today it is easier to be lucky when engaging on this kind of research. It is unsurprising that Heldmann’s crimes haven’t been unearthed before now since they seem to have been distinctly provincial in their purview. Although the “incidents with women” appear to have been a false lead, there was actually a clue in Aickman’s memoir of his grandfather’s character. Aickman remembers a man who, once he became successful at the turn of the century, put a lot of energy into enjoying the fruits of his pen. Heldmann/ Marsh travelled abroad at least three times a year, enjoyed luxury hotels and he “would go every day for a week to watch cricket, and watch all day, from stump in to stump out, strengthened only by wine and salmon. Several times in a week he would dine, go to the play or the opera, sup, and proceed to the Covent Garden Ball, which followed the performance”. It transpires that, enjoy this high-life as he might at this point in his life, Heldmann was, in the 1880s, unwilling to wait for success and earnings before plunging into it.
The first indication of trouble comes from the testimony of Arthur Brocking, a clerk at the Acton Branch of the London and South Western Bank. Early in 1883 Brocking opened an account for Heldmann and, although Brocking hadn’t previously known Heldmann, he did know Heldmann’s brother “who had an account and was very respectable” and it seems that a reference from the brother enabled Brocking to issue a cheque book with 100 forms. By May, Brocking was forced to write to Heldmann about the conduct of his account and insist that funds be paid in before any more cheques were written. The charm and slightly blasé tone of a letter from Heldmann to Brocking, also in May, was obviously intended to disarm and might be taken as an indication of what was to come with more people than just the bank: “Dear Sir, I drew a cheque in favour of Mr A. S. Young on Saturday. I have not now my pass-book with me. I have not seen it for some time, and it has just occurred to me that my cash may not be enough to meet it. Should that be so, kindly clear it. I shall not be able to come down to Acton to-morrow, but will pay in cheque for £100 on Wednesday. Yours very faithfully.” Needless to say the clerk did not clear the cheque and the £100 was not paid in.
Later in the year it becomes clear what kind of life young Mr Heldmann has been living. Calling himself, Captain George Roberts of the Indian Army, or Doctor Green, or Henderson, Or Captain Martyn or Doctor Wilson, etc. Heldmann had been travelling around the country and gaining credit on the face of his outward respectability, living well, socialising, ordering food and goods, all against a promise of a cheque or against cheques he had written which he had to know would never be honoured by his bank. Things began to come apart at the end of the year. On December 21st Heldmann turned up in Tunbridge Wells and presented himself at a lodging house run by a Mr and Mrs Thrift (yes really!) He told them that he was Captain George Roberts, a military man on leave whose luggage had been detained at Dover. He took rooms for a week and left them on the 28th. During that time he was fed and watered and even on one occasion he asked for a room to be made for a visitor he was to have, a Captain Crow, who never appeared. Heldmann even pointed up his need for a hard bed as military men do not like soft beds. At the end of his stay in Tunbridge Wells Heldmann, as Roberts, managed to convince a local butcher, who had already supplied him with meat on credit, to cash a large cheque, and take his bill out of the balance. Things being about to become a little too hot in Tunbridge Heldmann then fled, probably via other towns en route, to Llandudno where he acted in much the same way:
This kind of fraud is only good for a week or so of course, until people begin to realise that cheques aren’t being paid. So Heldmann skipped town, but Sergeant Morris of the Llandudno police was on his tail and followed him to Barmouth, then on to Tenby. By the time we get to Tenby the gig is most definitely up because Sergeant Morris arrived to arrest ‘Captain Martyn’ at almost exactly the same time as the even more tenacious police from Tunbridge Wells. When challenged, Heldmann admitted his real name and went quietly into custody. He was transported back to Tunbridge Wells and the whole story was thrown into the courts where it transpired he had, in the course of the year, written cheques to the value of nearly £2,000. He was charged with and found guilty of two counts of obtaining goods and money by false pretences and was sentenced at the Kent Quarter Sessions on the 9th April 1884 to 18 months imprisonment. It seems quite likely that this lifestyle had been going on for some time and that he had defrauded a great number of people in a great number of towns.
“The gossips of Llandudno have had a rare time of it recently recounting the
adventures of a swindler of the “high-toned” sort. It appears that about a week
ago a fashionably dressed, good-looking young man arrived at Llandudno. From the
hour of arrival he put on the airs of a gentleman; by general deportment, not
less than by elaborate get-up, seeking to impress upon the public that he could
behave as one “to the manner born”. He went to the Imperial Hotel but
subsequently engaged apartments for a time at a very respectable house in Chapel
Street. Having made sundry enquiries he intimated the fact that “my luggage will
come over from the Imperial – aw, and please give the portah this shilling.
Where can I purchase the best wines?”... his custom was to take breakfast at
eleven in the morning and dine at 6.30pm. For several days he “lived like a
Lord”, ordering in plenty of “stuff” from various tradesmen and had dinner
parties ad libitum as some of the young gentlemen in the town can testify.” –
North Wales Chronicle, February 23rd 1884.
And that is why Richard Marsh was born. It may also be of interest to those who read his many, many books which are choc full of people living with dual-identities. As Richard Dalby put it, “ranging from the cross-dressing homicidal (female) psychopath in The Mask (1900) to the hero of A Metamorphosis (1903), in which ‘the ingenious Mr Marsh manages to transform a millionaire into a penniless and hunted vagabond, and in nearly 400 pages of close type gives us a wonderful medley of sensational adventure,’(TLS)” The rags and riches theme is also a recurrent one and it is clear that money was an almost overwhelming motivation in his life and literature. In A Man With Nine Lives (1915) his main character has been plucked from near destitution and made clerk to a mysterious business man who then dies and wills an unthinkable fortune to him. In Marsh’s best known book, The Beetle, one of the narrators is a man who has fallen into destitution from a respectable job and finds himself walking the streets of London, penniless and alone. Marsh even wrote a novel titled, A Master of Deception (1913). Courts and prisons also feature quite heavily in his work and as had already been noted by others, the knowledge displayed is clearly detailed and from first-hand experience.
Marsh’s books are not uniformly good. The Beetle is perhaps his best, (although I can’t claim to have read all 80) and deserves to be much better known, but it is a quintessentially late Victorian book with late Victorian concerns that do not translate easily outside that milieu, which is clearly why Dracula, so similar in many ways, stood the test of time much better. Marsh’s first editions in good condition will now cost you anywhere from £40 to £200, with a hefty premium for those which can be classed as horror or occult fiction. The Beetle is in a price category of its own. An immaculate copy went up for sale on Ebay some months ago (pictured above) and was sold within hours at the bargain price of £1500: it would easily fetch twice that at a good book auction.
Dalby, Richard. ‘Richard Marsh’ The Book and Magazine Collector No. 163 October 1997, pp.76-89
Vuohelainen, Minna. ‘ Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897): a late-Victorian popular novel’
The North Wales Chronicle, February 16th 1884 and February 23rd 1884
The Western Mail, February 12th 1884
The Tunbridge Wells Journal, 14th and 21st February 1884
The Kent and Essex Courier, 20th and 22nd February 1884