In time for a talk about the Edinburgh-born novelist to celebrate Robert Louis Stevenson day on 13 November, Jeremy Hodges has discovered the writer’s friendship with French doctor Eugene Chantrelle.
However, Chantrelle was later arrested for killing his wife, Lizzie Dyer, so that he could claim a hefty life insurance policy.
Stevenson wrote: “I should say, looking back from the unfair superior ground of subsequent knowledge, that Chantrelle bore upon his brow the most open marks of criminality… if I had not met another man who was his exact counterpart in looks, and who was yet, by all that I could learn of him, a model of kindness and good conduct.”
The pair met at the Edinburgh home of Stevenson’s old French master Victor Richon and became closer after a chance meeting on the street led to a night drinking in the pub, where they discussed a mutual acquaintance’s translation of French playwright Molière.
But the court case which followed the death of his wife and which was followed by Stevenson, who was present in the courtroom throughout the trial, revealed a completely different side to Chantrelle, echoed in Stevenson’s realisation in The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde that “man is not truly one, but truly two”.
Chantrelle was found to have taken out a large insurance policy on his wife’s life and then poisoned her – claiming that she had died in a gas poisoning accident.
But investigators found traces of opium in vomit on her nightgown and Chantrelle was prosecuted and sentenced to death.
He was believed to have committed other murders in France and England, and lawyers said that since his arrival in Edinburgh, “more than four or five had fallen a victim to his little supper parties and his favourite dish of toasted cheese and opium”.
Hodges said: “For Stevenson, present in court throughout the trial of his former acquaintance, it was a traumatic experience. As the evidence unfolded he found himself, like Dr Jekyll, ‘aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde’.”
“Murder Among The Teacups”, an afternoon tea with a talk by Hodges on “The Strange Case of Eugene Chantrelle”, will take place at Stevenson’s Edinburgh home at 17 Heriot Row on Thursday as part of Robert Louis Stevenson Day celebrations.
• To book events of RLS Day by City of Literature Trust visit http://www.cityofliterature.com/rlsday-2016/