Hunted Down – 1859 – a short story
The story provides a first-person narrative of poisoning and life insurance fraud. It was influenced by Wilkie Collins.
It was perhaps prompted by an infamous case of the time, ‘The Rugely Poisoner’. Dr Palmer was a respectable professional man who poisoned his family for the insurance monies.
The story is most remarked upon for the large fee earned from the New York Ledger and it first appeared in three instalments across Aug/Sep 1859, It was later reprinted in All the Year Round.
Some see similarities between this piece and the character Rigaud Blandois in Little Dorrit.
The story is narrated by a retired manager of a life assurance office, he has had thirty year’s experience of claims. He bemoans how many times he has been misled, often by friends.
The manager recalls seeing the individual in his office to collect a proposal form, He is later introduced to him at a dinner, when Slinkton explains he was getting the form for a friend.
They talk of a thirty-something man, Meltham, who has clearly unwell, Slinkton assigning it to a broken heart. Sampson confirms the object of his affection had died. Slinkton mentions the death of a niece, and Sampson becomes more open to him. The dinner’s host mentioned he had been introduced to Slinkton by a celebrated painter who had met him while travelling with his nieces in Italy. Slinkton was apparently preparing to take orders in the clergy.
Two days later. Slinkton was back at Sampson’s office, bemoaning the inaction of his friend, or he had been charged by the man’s mother and sister to get him to effect the insurance. He returned the next day checking that his friend had actually complied and submitted the form. Sampson gets Adams to check and does find a £2,000 proposal form for Alfred Beckwith.
Slinkton announces that Beckwith, who shared the same staircase at the Middle Temple, had asked that he be his reference, He completes the form there and then and signs it. A second reference form is posted to Norfolk and received back by post. The proposal was accepted and the premium was paid for one year.
Six or seven months pass, Slinkton had once called at his home to invite him to dinner but he was engaged. Sanders then meets Slinkton at Scarborough with a young lady, introduced as his niece. She was dressed in mourning and very pretty.
They spot wheel tracks and she mentions she is being shadowed by an invalid gentleman. They encounter her ‘shadow’ and Sampson learns he is a friend of their mutual friend where they had met. He is Major Banks and old East India Director, very old and very crippled. He mentioned that he had noticed the affection between uncle and niece. Slinkton explains the affection was due to their mutual loss of his other niece. Miss Niner praised Slinkton for his devotion to her sister through her illness.
The next time they met was a few months later in London at Middle Temple. Sampson was calling to the chambers of Beckwith and Slinkton, they were unwholesome and dirty. Beckwith, apparently drunk, calls Slinkton to his chambers, where Sampson is invited to breakfast.
Sampson is openly suspicious of Slinkton who has split with his niece. Beckwith, suddenly compos mentis, announces that he deliberately posed as a drunkard to trap Slinkton, and the £2,000 insurance was the bait.
Beckwith had avoided drinking the poisoned brandy that Slinkton gave him. He had been hunting him since he had killed his niece, he was the shadow of the other niece in Scarborough. He had frustrated his plans to poison the other niece. He explains how he has secured Slinkton’s journal. He explain how Meltham was in love with the niece.
Beckwith was Melthem and once he had exposed Slinkton he committed suicide declaring he had ‘no hope and no object’. He left everything to Miss Niner, who became a happy wife and mother.
Adams, Mr – clerk in the office
Beckwith, Mr Alfred – the insured person
Niner, Miss Margaret – Slinkton’s niece
Sampson, Mr – the assurance company manager
Slinkton, Mr Julius