Frank Russell and the Oxford Blackmail Scandal: a "Truth" exposé.
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
When the Oxford blackmailer chose to target Frank Russell in 1889, was it a shot in the dark? Or had he heard rumour of Frank's scandalous sending down from Balliol - one of the University's most illustrious colleges - some four years previously? Certainly, he would have known that the 24-year-old earl was about to take a wife: Frank's engagement to Mabel Edith, the youngest daughter of the third baronet Scott, had been announced and widely reported. Perhaps, then, he'd put two and two together and decided a gentleman in Frank's position might be easily manipulated. He could not have been more wrong.
The missive the blackmailer sent Frank as an opening gambit was not his first. It was one of a series, all sent to aristocrats, all attempting to extort money. Some of his attempts were highly successful: it later transpired that one unnamed gentleman had paid a total of £170 on two separate occasions to be rid of him; another had paid £250. The scam, designed to play on the Victorian gentleman's penchant for extra-marital affairs and simultaneous horror of exposure, was simple, clever and meticulously executed but, like all scams, rather depended on hitting its mark. On 24 December 1891, its method was laid bare in an exposé in the hard-hitting journal Truth entitled
'The Lord, The Law Tutor, The Lady and The Love Letter'.
The 'Lord' in this instance was not Earl Russell, but the Liberal peer Lord Hothfield (1844-1926) who had served in Gladstone's short-lived 1886 administration as Lord-in-waiting - the House of Lords equivalent of a government whip. Hothfield had received his first letter from the blackmailer in February 1888 and, like Frank, had not responded. But when the extortionist then attempted to involve Lady Hothfield in the scam the peer was so incensed that he engaged society solicitor Sir George Lewis to investigate and subsequently handed over all the correspondence and Lewis's findings to Truth's proprietor, Henry Labouchere, to do with what he would.
Investigative journalism was then in its infancy and Truth's speciality was exposing fraud. Lewis's detectives had discovered the identity of the blackmailer. Labouchere was only too happy to reveal that the man was 60-year-old Maitland Francis Morland, a private tutor who lived in Oxford at 23 St John Street with his wife, Ruth, and two daughters. The article concerning Morland's antics was penned by 'Scrutator', extended over three columns and quoted Morland's letters to Lord Hothfield in full.
In his first, Morland posed as 'Mrs Ruth Maitland' - a 'very young widow' in straightened circumstances, having been appointed security for an aged gentlewoman. Mrs Maitland described herself as 'tall and graceful, with a perfect figure' and features like the Princess of Wales. She told Hothfield that she lived in a large house at 23 Alfred Street in the best part of town where his lordship could 'come to me, as often as you liked, without anyone knowing it'. All she asked in return was £50 to fulfil her financial commitments and his 'absolute secrecy' as she was 'highly connected' and had a 'position to keep up'. 'I am very young,' she concluded enticingly.
When Lord Hothfield did not materialise, a second letter was sent saying that Ruth was sorry to have missed him and admonishing him for not telling her he was coming! She wrote that she had now paid all her debts, but hearing that Hothfield had attributes and desires which Truth described as 'unfit for publication' she would still like to see him. 'Do not show this to anyone,' she concluded, 'but come, and love me.'
Still, Lord Hothfield did not bite. So Morland wrote to him under his own name advising him that he would be bringing an action against him in the Queen's Bench to recover a debt of £70 - the £50 which Morland said he had leant to the young widow on Hothfield's behalf and £20 costs. 'Will your lordship allow me to serve the writ quietly upon you in London, or elsewhere, since, if you do, no one will know,' he wrote. When still Lord Hothfield did not reply Morland sent the letter to Lady Hothfield that so incensed her husband, asking her to arbitrate between them. Hothfield engaged Lewis, whose detectives travelled to Oxford and quickly ascertained that Ruth Maitland and Maitland Morland were one and the same person and 23 St John Street and 23 Alfred Street one and the same address - a house that wrapped around the corner of the two neighbouring streets.
There was no doubt, wrote Scrutator, that these letters were 'pure fabrication' and that 'this is no isolated case'. He called on the university authorities to put an end to their association with Morland and the Public Prosecutor to take action.
Scrutator had no qualms about making such a claim and appeal: Truth was already in possession of a letter sent to Frank Russell clearly written by the same person. Further, when following the article a warrant for Morland's arrest was served on him, detectives searched his home and found papers relating to a second Queen's Bench action, this time brought by Ruth Morland against Frank Russell. Was the whole family in on it?
The Bow Street Trial
On 15 February 1892, Morland appeared before Sir John Bridge at Bow Street Police Court charged with attempting to obtain money through false pretences from Lord Hothfield. George Lewis represented the baron. The detective reported his findings at Morland's home and Hothfield gave evidence. The prisoner, described as 'a benign-looking old man', appeared unconcerned as the detective told the court that after his arrest Morland had admitted communicating with Lord Hothfield but said he had done so on behalf of a Mrs Maitland who was a friend and Russian lady of eminence. Her claim was legitimate and Morland claimed he was the victim of a conspiracy perpetrated by Sir George Lewis and Henry Labouchere, against whom he had begun an action for libel (for £10,000 damages!) in consequence of the exposé. Morland was remanded in custody pending further evidence.
By the time he appeared again on 23 February, the case bore a very different complexion. The exposé, the first hearing and the persuasive powers of George Lewis had encouraged other victims to come forward. Waiting to give evidence was Frank's solicitor, Alfred Percy Doulton. There were also present Lords Chesterfield and Ormathwaite, the private secretary to the Earl of Carnarvon, the nephew of Lord Lindsey and the Earl of Aylesford's solicitor, all of whom attested to the receipt of similar letters between January and December that year. Collectively, their evidence revealed the extent of the scam perpetrated, but it was Doulton's that was most damning. Lord Russell, he said, had received no less than thirty letters from the prisoner between 1888 and 1890. Several were read out in court and reprinted by the Press in full. One read:
'You are to be married on Thursday next... What do you think Lady Scott or Miss Scott would think of you if they could read your letters in my possession? Is it altogether without the range of possibility that they may see them before Thursday next? Is it altogether impossible that the £100 you owe me, and of which you have not paid a penny, may so anger me that I may put my letters into my husband's hands, confess my adultery with you, and cause myself to figure in the Divorce Court as respondent, and you as co-respondent?'
This was no idle threat. The £100 had increased from an original appeal for £50 for the return of letters allegedly sent from Frank to Ruth Morland exposing their affair: 'Your Lordship's indiscretion - a fault common to gentlemen, of showing letters to one another, and boasting of their amatory victims - has put some of your friends in possession of our secret,' she had written. 'It may be [that] rivals of yours in the matter of Miss Scott want them... Send me £50... and I will forward your letters by return of post.' When Frank refused to comply another letter was sent that concluded with the not-so-innocent observation, 'Correspondence sounds terribly like co-respondents'. And Mabel, too, had been sent a short note stating that 'Very peculiar letters are in the possession of a lady in Oxford' which she might be glad to see. This one was simply signed 'Balliol' - Frank's old college - and no doubt intended to raise old ghosts.
Collectively, these letters, together with the supporting evidence of a handwriting expert and the Oxford postmaster, left the magistrate in no doubt as to Morland's guilt. Sir John told Lord Hothfield he had done a great public service in coming forward. The magistrate felt certain the DPP would take up the case. But to prosecute what crime? In his opinion the letters to Frank might well constitute attempting to secure money by menaces which was no misdemeanour but a felony. With such a grave charge, the magistrate concluded, he was afraid Frank would have to give evidence in person. Morland was once again remanded in custody to await Frank's appearance.
George Lewis had attempted to shield Frank as much as possible. His USP as a society solicitor was his famed ability to keep his illustrious clients out of court and their indiscretions, therefore, out of the newspapers. So highly regarded was he that Oscar Wilde once described him as 'Brilliant. Formidable. Concerned in every great case in England. Oh, he knows all about us and forgives us all.' He certainly knew all about Frank. Not only had he already seen off a young lady - a maid of Frank's - who claimed that in the course of his seduction of her he had promised her marriage and had threatened to sue when he announced his engagement to Mabel Edith, but he had then represented Mabel when she sought to legally separate herself from Frank less than a year into their short-lived marriage! The action had come to the Divorce Court in early December 1891 - only three months previously - and the whole ugly spectre of what Frank had done at Oxford to deserve his sending down had been raised. Sir George can have had little doubt that Frank would not want his private life sifting through in court again so soon.
Frank Russell, however, was not your average aristocratic bad boy. He was a self-determined moralist who had been raised by radical parents to think for himself. Though his career was by no means unblemished, the fear of publicity had no influence over him: he was no great respecter of 'polite society' and firmly believed that one should always take the morally correct path over the easy one. He also believed in justice handed down by the law. If a man had done wrong he should be prosecuted. He had no qualms about appearing and gave no truck to any mud that might stick to him for associating himself in any such scandal so long as he personally considered himself on the right side of it. On 1 March 1892, therefore, Frank willingly attended and was duly called.
In evidence he said that the prisoner was a stranger to him when he first received a letter from him in 1888, almost identical to the letter sent to Lord Hothfield. Frank had answered the letter and then destroyed it. What he'd written in his reply he was not asked. When a second letter arrived stating that Frank had sent a man to pay £50 for the return of a bundle of his letters in the lady's keeping, Frank had replied that he had not sent anyone, that he had destroyed the previous letter and would destroy this one also if the lady would destroy any she had of his.
Morland, clearly sensing he had hit near his mark, had then written asking why he would destroy letters that were obviously of some value? He continued to pursue Frank with the letters previously mentioned signed by Ruth. But he had not reckoned with Frank's obstinacy. In the witness box Frank told the court how he had been threatened with an action in the Queen's Bench by Ruth Morland to recover the £100 allegedly owed; how the prisoner himself had then turned up at Frank's London home to serve him with the writ but had refused to give his name; how Frank had opened the writ on the spot, told the man it was no good as the particulars of his address were incorrect; and how he and his redoubtable mother-in-law, Lady Scott, had then given the man a good talking to and sent him red-faced on his way. When the Queen's Bench action had been called Frank had appeared only to find the illusive Ruth Morland was nowhere to be seen. The judge found in his favour by default and that was the last Frank had heard of the matter until he'd read the article in Truth and come forward.
Satisfied, the magistrate handed down his verdict. The DPP had already communicated his intention of taking up the case and Morland was correspondingly charged with demanding money with menaces and committed for trial at the Old Bailey.
Investigative Journalism on Trial
On 11 March 1892 at the Old Bailey Morland pleaded guilty to the charge relating to Frank but denied those relating to Lord Hothfield. On his behalf his barrister said Morland was a respected man in Oxford pursuing an honourable profession. He was not in financial need and therefore his actions could not be accounted for - unless one could suggest he had developed a kind of 'mania' for writing them. Morland wished it to be understood that his wife was in no way connected with the case: all letters sent under her name had been written without her knowledge by Morland himself; and his daughters were 'pure, high-minded girls' against whom nothing could be suggested. In passing sentence Mr Justice Smith condemned Morland's 'outrageous and despicable' behaviour 'not least in his writing to Lord Russell's intended wife'. Such a statement might have been considered ironic given the very public marital squabbles between Frank and Mabel that had only recently played out in the press, but the judge was in no mood for levity. He sentenced Morland to ten years' penal servitude.
'I don't know that it is too much but it is a dreadful sentence to contemplate,' wrote Frank afterwards to his friend, the cosmopolitan philosopher George Santayana. Morland served a little short of eight of them. He was released on 9 September 1899 and afterwards disappears from all records. On the 1901 Census, Ruth Morland appears as a widow, though I could find no record of Morland's death. Had she known what her husband was up to? It is difficult to imagine she didn't; and indeed Truth's Scrutator claimed to hold documentary evidence to the contrary. In all other respects, however, the Scrutator was satisfied: 'I do not think that there is any instance on record of a newspaper article of this character having been more promptly and conclusively justified,' he boasted. Investigative journalism had won the day and was here to stay.