Sex, Scandal and Suicide – the story of Leonora Mitchell’s lover Mr Lardner.
by Rowan Lennon
This story is a follow up to the suicide of a young woman on a Midland train travelling from Leeds to London in August 1891. (See ‘The Bedford Railway Mystery‘). It has a link with one of the most popular actor managers and playwrights of the Edwardian age. Leonora Mitchell, a well-dressed young woman of considerable personal charm, was found in a first class carriage, dying of a gunshot wound in her left breast when the Midland train arrived at Bedford Station. At first she claimed to have been shot through the train window. After her removal to the Bedford Infirmary, she admitted she did it herself. It had been too dangerous to remove the bullet and she died of blood poisoning twenty one days later on the 27th August.
The inquest was held in Bedford. However, the two men known to have been involved with her, the mysterious Mr Mitchell whom she lived with and Captain W.M Menzies, the gentleman who accompanied her as far as Sheffield on the train and with whom she appeared on affectionate terms were not called to the inquest. So who was she?
Her age in the newspapers varies from 20 to 28. She is referred to as an actress of American extraction from Kentucky. She may have been married or not. She had stated her parents were dead. She had been in England for some time. From the evidence presented at the inquest in Bedford by Elizabeth Howlett, we are presented with a window into her life. We know she had been living as the ‘wife’ of a married man in an expensive lodging house. She was certainly a lady of the demimonde, that is, a lady of doubtful social standing and morality by Victorian standards, often a kept woman, the mistress of a wealthy man or a woman who had lovers. Such women were often described as ‘actresses’ as the theatre was regarded as morally lax; many performers enjoyed a sexual freedom outside the constraints of conventional morality. Mrs Elizabeth Howlett kept a fashionable lodging house at 5 Bennett Street, St James, Piccadilly. At first Mrs Howlett was reluctant to give evidence to the inquest as she was worried about the ‘reputation’ of her house, which was described as a ‘gentleman’s lodging house’ In spite of claims of respectability, such a house was used by men to engage in illicit liaisons. It seems she was a former brothel keeper, according to newspaper gossip from the 1860s. Mrs Howlett claimed to have known Leonora for two years. In spite of her anxiety about her house, the voluble lady was quite happy to spill the beans on her dubious lodgers. She knew they were not married. She states that ‘Mr and Mrs Mitchell or Lardner stayed with her for six weeks; they appeared to be well off and had a valet. During that time he never left her side but they both drank and indulged in opium smoking. Leonora drank around a bottle of brandy a day with a lot of soda but never appeared drunk. Opium pipes and other paraphernalia were found after they left. Mr Mitchell left Mrs Howlett eight or nine days before Leonora to go to Scarborough. Leonora went to join him at the Grand Hotel.
So who is the mysterious Mr Mitchell ? His real name was Lardner, John Joseph Lardner, born in Dalston, Hackney in 1859, and the son of a military store clerk. He was a scoundrel who had married a widow whom he cheated out of her inheritance. The character of Lardner is exposed in a scandalous divorce petition of 1898.
Grace Gertrude Seymour had married Major Edward Percy Hicks of the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment, Black Watch in St Helier, Jersey in 1870. They had three sons Edward, Percy and Stanley. After her husband’s death, she married John Joseph Lardner in Guernsey in 1885 who was in the wine trade. In the 1891 census Grace, now aged 40 is living in Victoria Street with her husband John Joseph Lardner aged 33, her sons Percy aged 19 and Stanley aged 14. Later that year Lardner had his liaison with Leonora Mitchell. In 1898 in the Divorce Court Mrs Grace Gertrude Lardner sued for divorce from her husband John Joseph Lardner on the grounds of cruelty and adultery. The divorce Petition was reported in all the papers. The evidence given was of a medical nature, which suggests that Grace was infected with a sexually transmitted disease. She became ill and Lardner had told her she was suffering from blood poisoning. She was treated by a Dr Timms of Wimpole St. In 1894 Grace left him to live with her Mother, and Lardner surrendered bail to answer charges of stealing ten packages containing pictures and other articles, value £30 , the property of his wife, Grace Gertrude Lardner who resided at Stanhope Gardens, Kensington. There being legal difficulties with the case the magistrate allowed it to be withdrawn.
The adultery charge was that Lardner had lived with a young woman, Leonora Mitchell who had committed suicide on an express train. Grace also claimed that Lardner had embezzled between £6000 and £8000 pounds from her and her sister that was meant for his business. The Petitioner, Grace Lardner was left without means, so her petition was paid for by her son, Edward. The petition was granted. It was extremely unusual for women to obtain a divorce in the 1890s, and very expensive. A woman had to prove adultery and cruelty. Unusually, both Lardner and Grace were Catholics. After the divorce, Lardner married a young woman, Elizabeth Lillie Urie, in Lambeth in December 1900. In the 1901 census they are living in Kennington and Lardner is described as a Commission Agent. He seemed to have settled down and become respectable in middle age, becoming a father to two children. In the 1911 census he and Elizabeth are living in Streatham with two children, John Joseph aged 8 and Violet Lillian aged 5. He is an Insurance Agent. Unfortunately there appears to be no trace of them after this time. Edward Seymour Hicks was knighted by George V in 1934.
Grace’s son, Edward Seymour Hicks, born 1871, was one of the most important figures on the English stage in the first part of the 20th century, as actor, playwright and producer, and later film actor. He was also responsible for giving Alfred Hitchcock his first big break as a film director. He formed a successful theatrical and romantic partnership with his wife, Ellaline Terriss, whom he married in 1893, He died in 1949. Ellaline was the daughter of a popular leading man William Terriss, who had worked with Henry Irving at the Lyceum. By a terrible stroke of fate, Ellaline Terriss’ father, William, was stabbed to death at the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre in December of 1898 by Richard Archer Prince, whom he had been helping with some work.
Edward Seymour Hicks was knighted by George V in 1934.
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