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The Irish murderer of Monte Carlo

MONTE CARLO, was once described as a sunny place for shady people. In the early 20th Century, this pocket-sized principality became one of the most popular and decadent playgrounds in the Mediterranean, a heady ferment of louche grifters, loose women and fallen aristocracy. Dostoyevsky wrote his story The Gambler based on his betting disasters in the city, in which he lost all of his royalties on future works. He and other roulette casualties helped line Monte Carlos's public coffers to the point where it no longer needed to tax its citizens (a situation which still exists today).

Not surprisingly, then, the casino, a shimmering whitewashed palace set in elegant gardens, was the principality's de facto church and its town hall. Inside, behind fringed curtains and in the sultry glow of green lamps, the rituals at the table were as solemn and serious as any mass. Instead of incense the air swam with cheap perfume and crackled with tension -- Monte Carlo's ragged "suicide graveyard" provided a constant reminder of just what was at stake for some. Outside on the terrace the express train from Bologna to Cannes could be heard bringing flowers from the Cote Azur. And in the distance the indigo Italian hills provided a horizon of serenity.

In the early 1900s there cannot have been too many Irishmen with the means of stumbling into this Gatsby-esque vision. Dublin's status as the Second City in the Empire was waning and the public finances were in disarray. Vere St Leger Goold was no ordinary Irishman, however. As detailed in Michael Sheridan's new book, Murder in Monte Carlo, and in Love All, a play held last summer at the Clonmel Junction Festival, Goold was a member, albeit a slightly dubious one, of the Anglo-Irish gentry.

The fifth son of a magistrate in Co Waterford, his grandfather was a baronet and his grandmother was a daughter of the Earl of Kenmare. According to an Irish Times cutting from the time, he settled in Dublin and was appointed secretary of the Municipal Boundaries Commission of Inquiry into the Land Act and he additionally received, he said, an income of £400 a year from the Earl of Cork. He would later preface his name with "sir" -- a title more properly due to his still-living brother -- on the grounds that his acquaintances were clamouring to befriend someone who sounded like he might be a knight.

If Goold's breeding was somewhat less than true blue, he was, nevertheless, a colourful member of the Anglo-Irish social scene in Dublin in the early part of the 1900s. Much of this stemmed from his skill at the newly popular game of tennis. As a pastime for the upper middle classes, it was perfect -- expensive enough to keep it out of the reach of riff-raff, yet not so expensive as, say, polo, which all but the very wealthiest found prohibitive. It was genteel and vigorous, "yet without the temptation for injurious over exertion" according to a contemporaneous press report. And as a sport it was enjoying a boom across mainland Europe and England. In 1877 Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis club was founded -- British military got a discount on membership -- and two years later players came from different parts of the country to stay in the Georgian mansions and hotels around South Dublin for the inaugural Irish Championships.

The atmosphere around the competition was more akin to a race meeting than a modern tennis tournament. Displaying a raw athleticism, Goold dominated the competition that year and became such a star at Fitzwilliam that the "yellow" in the club's crest was said to be "gold" (a play on his name). Goold's chiselled good looks and blonde hair made him something of a heartthrob. He was therefore gustily cheered on when he travelled to England in 1879 to take part at Wimbledon, where his "showy and attractive" style took him all the way to the final. There he was defeated by the Reverend John Hartley, who later described Goold as "a wild and cheery Irishman".

Just how wild would be seen in Monte Carlo later, but in that moment in London the description was believed to refer to the roaring hangover which impeded Goold in his quest for sporting immortality. Further outbreaks of overindulgence stunted a budding rivalry with one of the original tennis legends, Willie Renshaw, and by 1883 booze and drugs had caused Goold to hang up his racquets for good.

He moved to London, where a local journalist would later write of him: "Those who knew him described him as a man of perfect breeding and of courtly, charming manner, cultured and generous. He was wont when coming home late from the club or the theatre to collect stray cats and to bring them to share his supper."

He married a French dressmaker, Marie Giraudin, who, according to the London Times, had wed a man against her parents' wishes but then left him and fled to England. There she met and married a captain in the English army -- her first husband having died in the meantime -- but was made a widow for a second time when the captain died and, sinking into penury, she was forced to sell her jewels. It was around this time, in London, that she met Goold. After marrying, the couple were reported to have taken a large and furnished house in London's West End where they held lavish parties and "lived extravagantly".

Early in 1902 the pair ran into serious financial problems. They fell into arrears on the rent and when the landlord called to the house he found it had been cleaned out, but not in a good way -- the furniture had been sold.

From London, the Goolds fled to Canada, where Marie resumed her business in Montreal. The shop prospered but the profits were squandered on gambling -- a foreshadow of the troubles to come -- and on poor investments. They then shuttled between Montreal and Liverpool -- where Goold set up a laundry business. By then, the couple had re-invented themselves as "Sir Vere and Lady Goold".

Vere, meanwhile, plotted a scheme to break the bank of the casino in Monte Carlo. It had been done only a very few times in the past -- once by an English actress who was said to have entranced Oscar Wilde -- and Goold was determined that he would turn his fortunes around. A friend had advised him of a secret system of winning, which, he said, was "infallible".

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Upon arriving in the sunny centre of sin, they rented for £100 the fourth floor of a well-known local villa.

According to the Irish Times, "They mixed with the best society and were frequently seen at the tables in the casino." Goold himself was "quiet, unassuming and soft spoken" while his wife was invariably depicted as a domineering battleaxe. They were "on visiting terms with people of note in the resort and were always well dressed and paid their bills regularly". Their niece, Isabelle, who stayed with them, was "one of the belles of the season" and had English doctors pursuing her across ballrooms.

Behind the scenes, however, things had begun to unravel. Although Vere himself would later deny this, the Goolds were running out of money and by midsummer their respectability was increasingly threadbare.

Their solution to these problems was to befriend a rich Danish dowager by the name of Emma Levin, whose Swedish merchant husband had left her a fortune. She was, in Michael Sheridan's words, "one who revelled in the atmosphere of Monte Carlo, the lure of the roulette wheel and the fun of attracting men from 18 to 80 -- anyone who could remove the money from her account or the jewels from her back". According to one newspaper report, the Goolds appeared "anxious to cultivate her". Their plan worked and Levin, who had a reputation in Monte Carlo for being profligate with her money, reportedly lent the couple 1,000 francs.

The Goolds were jealous of anyone else sucking Ms Levin's blood, however, and got into a public dispute with one of her other hangers-on. This seems to have soured the relationship and apparently prompted Levin to leave Monte Carlo. But before doing so she visited the Goold's villa, at their invitation, in an attempt to get the money owed her. Late in the afternoon a neighbour heard a woman scream, "leave me alone" but didn't pay any attention, assuming that it was a domestic quarrel. Isabelle, it was later learned, had been sent out that very morning, with strict instructions not to return until evening. When she did arrive back she noticed the box room in the apartment was locked and was told its contents were none of her business.

It would be some days before a porter at Marseillaise Railway station noticed a sinister ooze of what looked like blood coming from a trunk, which had just been left by a rich-looking English couple who had left it with instructions for it to be forwarded to London, while they went for breakfast in a local hotel. The porter chased after the couple and by the time he had caught up with them they were on their way back to the railway station. They talked airily of freshly slaughtered chickens. He insisted on travelling with them by car and when the woman haughtily offered him money to go away it only made him more suspicious. He called the police.

What they found would eventually make headlines all around the world and lead to one of the biggest continental scandals in the first decade of the century; a woman's torso, with the head and lower parts of the legs severed and missing. The intestines had been removed -- it would later be speculated that this had been done to prevent putrefaction.

The sight nauseated the investigating officer but it was merely a prelude to the horror to come: for inside Vere St Leger Goold's bag were the missing pieces of the corpse -- her severed, bloodied head and her legs.

The Goolds were promptly arrested and clapped in separate prison cells. Vere was heard to morosely remark that he regretted that he hadn't already committed suicide. He would later write incomprehensible notes to Isabelle, who now had to make her way in life alone, her marriageability tainted by association.

News of the crimes spread like cholera across Europe -- there were frequent reports in the Irish Times -- and to the United States.

The feverish press interest brought a world of pressure on the investigating police force. "The Monte Carlo Trunk Murder", as it became known, provided fresh morsels of intrigue on an almost daily basis. When interrogated, the Goolds seem to first have claimed that a man named Burker (or possibly Barker) had killed Ms Levin in their suite while they were absent, and they had merely dismembered her body to prevent a scandal taking place in their temporary home.

Their accounts didn't match, however. The French police decided to let the prisoners stew or "cook" for a few more days. Vere was by then suffering from "profound depression" and had attacked a guard, while his wife had come under intensified suspicion as it was noticed that she had bruises on her arms and legs -- possibly caused in a physical struggle.

Worn down by inquisition, Vere now seemed prepared to take the blame. He confessed that Emma Levin had visited the suite to borrow money from him and, when he refused, they had a bitter argument and, addled by drink and rage, he stabbed her.

Marie, who was thought to keep both her husband and niece on the shortest of leashes, said that she had witnessed part of this altercation but " ... naturally I thought it better to leave them alone while they discussed the transaction. Suddenly I heard piercing cries and the sounds of a struggle". When she had returned to the room she said she fainted but quickly recovered consciousness and came up with the idea that the body should be cut up. Vere was too drunk to do any such thing so they dumped their dead widow in the bath until the next morning at which point he took a saw to the dowager's neck and limbs.

The court, however, was convinced that Vere was henpecked to the point that he hardly did something as bold as murder someone without Marie's express say-so. The magistrate screamed at her to "confess your crime". She went into hysterics and the Goolds were hauled from the court to a chorus of cries of "lynch them, lynch them" from the mob gathered outside.

Professor Lacassagne, a criminal profiler hired by the state, gave evidence which shed some more light on Vere St Leger Goold's flawed character. He dissected the Anglo-Irish aspects of the Goold family history and saw the collaboration with the British as a kind of betrayal. Goold's mother, he pointed out, had died when was only 17, meaning he was without a maternal presence at a crucial point in his life and his father passed away in 1879 -- the year of his promising Wimbledon showing.

He showed the court two photographs -- one taken during the Irish championships and the other from Wimbledon. In the first Goold appeared alert, handsome and determined, in the second he was hollow-eyed and bereft, a ghost at the foggy scene of his famous defeat. He said it was the turning point at which Goold threw away his life and abandoned skill for chance. Lacassagne saw him as a sort of "murderer as victim".

The trial, when it came, was mercifully brief. The headline in the Daily Globe, a New York newspaper, screamed of "Lady MacBeth Reborn". And indeed the court did see Madame Goold as the more guilty party, the instigator and controller of her husband. The advocate general, one local paper reported, seemed to view Goold with "contemptuous pity, as a drink and drug- debauched creature".

The court ruled that Marie was to pay for Ms Levin's head with her own: she would face the guillotine. Goold, due to his drunkenness, would merely be sent away for a lifetime of backbreaking labour. The verdicts were met with rapturous applause. The crowd had watched this tawdry piece of pulp fiction brought to life before their eyes; for closure's sake they needed to see the blood flow.

But in the end they were to be disappointed. By January 1908 both of the Goolds were in the midst of ultimately unsuccessful appeals.

However, a month later Marie's death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. She was sent to Montpellier Prison while her hapless husband was eventually put on a convict ship bound for the hell-on-earth of French Guiana, a fate probably not mitigated by the thought that he was bound to make an interesting footnote in tennis history.

He died by his own hand on September 8 1909 -- a telegram to Paris confirmed the fact. Marie, as could be expected, was a little more resilient and it was 1914 before she succumbed to typhoid fever and passed away in Montpellier Prison.

The world, meanwhile, was left to get on with the dismal business of the 20th Century. Casting a rueful backward glance over the breathless reporting of the period around the trial the New York Times expressed a hope that one day there would be a novel, a fiction, that lived up to the sensational facts that a newspaper could now serve up, the Goold case, by implication, being almost beyond the imagination.

Only a yellowing photograph of a tennis player, glum in his whites, provided proof that they had not dreamt the whole thing up. There would be more Irish champions for sure, and many of them eclipsed Vere St Leger Goold in terms of pure achievement. But as one Fitzwilliam wag noted, not one of them had quite his killer instinct.

'Murder in Monte Carlo by Michael Sheridan is published by Poolbeg, €12.99

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