I’d like to introduce you to Thomas Napper and his nemesis, Ferdinand Philip Fischel Strousberg. Their story is at the creepier end of plots labelled ‘psychological drama,’ but it was real life and publicly played out in England during the years Americans were tearing themselves to pieces in the Civil War.
It’s not just a ménage à trois. No, make that a ménage à cinq. It’s a tale of an alpha male and inveterate liar on the one hand, whose behaviour included everything from driving dangerously to fraud, embezzlement, bigamy, seduction, paedophilia and possibly running a brothel. On the other side is a retired surgeon from the leafy English town of Dorking, in the most beautiful part of the county of Surrey. Between them are the doctor’s wife and two of his daughters, threats of murder, some bribes and criminal charges a plenty.
First the alpha male. Strousberg was a man for whom the epithet ‘cad’ was invented. He was German by birth, but had lived here so long he spoke English “as fluently as a native”. He dressed flashily and was rich on other people’s money. He rode his horse like a sports car, once nearly knocking a woman down in New Street, Birmingham. He was convicted at the Old Bailey after he sold the freehold of a house he did not own. He was in and out of courts most of his life. It was highly likely this victim of the story which unfolds was not the first high-born woman he had ruined.
Napper was “a member of a well-known Sussex family of respectability and position”, so when in early 1863 he brought a charge against Strousberg for “running off with a young lady” that is to say one of Napper’s daughters, you sort of know whose side the reading public would be on when they saw the case advertised. To their disappointment though, on Valentine’s Day it was reported that all charges had been dropped as family and friends approved when the pair agreed to marry.
Which is interesting in itself as Strousberg was indeed married already and it was pretty much certain that Napper knew this.
What happened through the rest of the year we don’t yet know, until December that is. Now the shoe was on Strousberg’s fashionably expensively shod foot. Strousberg took out a prosecution against Napper for assault after a fight in a London street. Napper had come to the house in Ebury St, Pimlico late in the evening, a place where Strousberg was living “in infamy” with Napper’s daughter. Seeing Napper lurking there on his return home, Strousberg had gone to the local police station and returned with a police sergeant, who witnessed Napper demand his daughter back, brandish a small club and chase Strousberg around his phaeton, eventually to knock his hat off.
At first Strousberg did not show up for his own trial as a number of shifty looking men in the court were bailiffs waiting to nab Strousberg for all his previous dodgy dealing with the Mitre Assurance company, but that is another story. Further confusions were that the magistrate had been himself a victim of Strousberg’s colourful financial past of white collar crime though he didn’t recuse himself — and just for good measure a “respectable looking middle aged woman”, Strousberg’s wife, turned up to see if there was a case for bigamy against her husband.
The story Napper told the court was way more sinister than just a family robbed of a daughter by the seducing Strousberg. No, according to Napper, Strousberg had somehow taken his place and stolen his entire family away. He had persuaded Napper’s wife and his younger daughter as well to move out of the family home and live with him at his country farm near to the Nappers’ Dorking household.
The story that Strousberg gave, when he did show up, adds Pinteresque detail. For a start he showed a propensity for lying and then glibly un-lying. Was he involved in the Mitre Assurance fraud? “No, that was my brother.” (It wasn’t).The judge knew that it was Philip of course. Had Strousberg been convicted of fraud 12 years before at the Old Bailey? Yes, but he served no sentence and the judge commended him. Was he married? “Yes”, but only once to the Napper daughter.
Aha, thought Napper’s lawyer. He pressed Strousberg about his other wife, the one that had turned up in court at the hearing. “Is she dead?” he asked. You can imagine the pause while cunning Strousberg thought over his answer to the impossible question. To say she was dead or indeed that he was not married to the Napper girl would be perjury and to say she was not dead and maintaining that he was married would be admitting bigamy. Like many before and since Strousberg uttered the words of the phrase “I decline to answer on the grounds that it may criminate me.” Though he avoided confirming they were married he did agree that he was living with a Napper daughter.
Then the judge turned to Mrs Napper. This drama gets even better for though she came in with her husband, she appealed to the court for protection from the brutality of her husband who had threatened her with a stick and she was in fear that he would murder her.
So when she was asked whether her daughter was living with Strousberg and she answered “no, she is living with me”, Strousberg looked as if she had made a liar of him once more. So he interrupted the judge to explain that there were two daughters.
Just when it is coming to a head, the hearing against Napper is suddenly called off. Strousberg the complainant does not come to court once more (probably for fear of arrest for debt), so the judge throws out the case. That is not what Napper wants though. He wants the world to know what the serial seducer has done and so he goes about bringing it back to court. This time he becomes the complainant and Strousberg is the defendant.
It’s the New Year 1864. Strousberg has surrendered himself at the Westminster Police Court to face charges of child abduction and bigamy brought by Napper. However Napper’s testimony muddies the waters of injured innocence.
He told how it all began in 1860 when Strousberg came to live nearby the Nappers. They became acquainted when Napper went to buy a carriage from Strousberg. From June 1862 the then just turned 18-year old Napper daughter Frances and Strousberg became an item. From the witness box Napper told the court under oath that he knew Strousberg was married from October 18 1862. He said that after knowing that he locked up his daughter, but Strousberg came and took her by force while he was out. And so that was the point that Napper took out his first case against Strousberg.
But now we know that Napper knew that Strousberg was married when in that Spring of 1863 he ceased that case. Napper said that it happened after a meeting with Strousberg. During that meeting in the Cadogan Hotel, London, Strousberg gave him the news that he had married Frances in Boulogne. So it’s a strange father who was happy to know that his daughter had just married a bigamist. The next twist was the revelation from Napper that at this very same time his next youngest daughter Grace also ran away to live with Strousberg and Frances.
Napper went to Strousberg’s farm to get his daughters but, as he told the court “he laughed at me and behaved to me in a very offensive and insolent manner, as he usually did.”
Thereafter Napper said that he “sent” his wife repeatedly to get the girls, without success. In September he turned up once more telling Grace to get her things. Strousberg restrained him. Brave after the event, Napper told the court “I could not resist. I had the gout very bad, or I should have given him a good sound thrashing”.
When cross-examined a letter in Napper’s handwriting was put in front of him. In it he was asking Strousberg to give him £800. Why? Because Strousberg had dishonoured his daughter. Napper said he had only accepted £200 and used it “to pay expenses”, including private detectives.
So you would imagine that there existed a state of hostilities between the two families; but no. Back in Dorking now two of the younger daughters and even the Napper’s wife were staying with the “Strousbergs”. Napper himself was planning to rent a cottage on Strousberg’s estate and even though Napper felt that Strousberg had eyes for Grace as well as Frances, he did nothing. He told the judge: “I could willingly have removed Grace from the house while Strousberg was absent in London and I suppose I ought to have done so.”
Maybe it was the fact that he was asking for shooting rights, a horse to ride and a whole lot more from Strousberg by way of blackmail that kept him from pinching back his daughter.
In any event he did not have to wait long before his wife too deserted him for the usurping Strousberg. On November 4 1864 she packed her bags. In summing up the judge asked two simple questions of Napper to solve the charges of abduction of a child under 16 and bigamy. Letting the air out of the balloon, Napper said Grace was definitely over her 16th birthday when she left and that he did not now believe that Strousberg had married his daughter.
And so Strousberg was free to go — and he did. He took to his heels out of a side entrance and across the garden, pursued by bailiffs with writs of judgement against him. They intercepted him and ‘escorted’ him by taxicab to Whitecross St debtors’ prison… but that’s another story.
Suffice it to say that Strousberg lived on to the age of 70 and just kept on playing the system. He was a cad till the end. In 1892, eight years before his death, when he was bankrupted for the umpteenth time, one of his partners bilked in one of his many deals came along to the bankruptcy court and asked the chairman’s permission to kick the debtor.