by ZJ Czupor

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

In the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, late one Thursday night in Melbourne, Australia, a drunken gentlemen wobbles down a dimly lit street. Another gentleman sees the drunken man and hails a cab for them both. While in passage, the sober man kills the drunken man with chloroform, hops out of the cab, jumps into another cab, and vanishes.

Thus begins the novel, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, (1886), which became the best-selling mystery novel of the Victorian era. John Sutherland, a British journalist and author, called it “the most sensationally popular crime and detective novel of the century.” (1990). It was so popular, it inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write A Study in Scarlet, (Ward Lock & Co.,1887) which introduced the world to his famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was written by Fergus Hume (1859-1932) who self-published his novel in 1886. The city of Melbourne is also a character in the murder plot in which Hume describes the class divide between the wealthy and less fortunate, the city’s slums and places frequented by prostitutes and criminals. In addition to the crime, we learn about a wealthy family and their secret, an illegitimate daughter living on the streets. The protagonist is a detective named Gorby who tries to solve the mystery.

After he completed his novel, Hume sold the British rights to a group of investors for 50 pounds. They launched the book in London in 1887 where it sold 340,000 copies in the first six months of publication. Fifty pounds in 1886 would be equivalent today to more than 6,000 pounds or about $8,255 in U.S. currency.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab gave Australia its first international bestseller, where it sold 25,000 copies in its first print run, and 100,000 copies in subsequent print runs. Those numbers grew to more than 500,000 copies sold in Britain (Jarrold) and another 500,000 copies sold in the U.S.

George Munro, who owned the publishing house Irwin P. Beadle and Company, published the novel in the U.S. in 1888. A year later, Hume wrote an introduction to a revised edition. The novel was re-published in 1976 and 1982 and a new Australian edition in 1999, which has since seen several reprints. When the novel first appeared, it outsold Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet. Despite the novel’s success Hume reaped little financial benefit.

In 1888, the novel was adapted as a stage play and later as a film five times (1911, 1915, 1925, 1935 and 2012), and as a TV play in 1962. The BBC produced a six-part radio serial in 1958.

Hume was born in Worcestershire, England in 1859 but at the age of three his family emigrated to New Zealand. He studied law at the University of Otago and was admitted to the New Zealand bar in 1885. He then moved to Melbourne and worked as a barrister’s clerk.

His first writing venture was a stage play entitled The Bigamist, (1887). Again, his better judgment failed him. He gave the script to a fraudster named Calthorpe Mallaby, who retitled the play as The Mormon and presented it under his own name where it played at the Vaudeville Theater. Undaunted, Hume turned his attention to writing novels.

He claimed to have read and studied a set of popular mystery novels by the French author Emile Gaboriau, who was popular in Melbourne. Gaboriau (1832-1873) is considered a pioneer of detective fiction. But Hume decided he could write just as well.

After the success of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, he wrote Professor Brankel’s Secret (1886) about a German professor who discovers a secret formula enabling time travel; and Madame Midas based on the life of Alice Ann Cornwell, a British industrialist, who made a fortune goldmining in Australia and owned the British newspaper The Sunday Times. The novel explores a budding romance and murder.

Hume was a prolific author, for in his lifetime he published 130 novels, plus several collections—most of them mystery stories. Unfortunately, he never recaptured the lightning-in-a-bottle success of his first novel.

He was reputed to be deeply religious, intensely private, and shunned publicity. However, in his later years, he graciously lectured at young people’s clubs and debating societies.

In 1932, when Hume died in England he was nearly broke. All he left in his will were a horse blanket and a pipe. His estate was valued at 201 pounds. Today that would be worth a little over 14,000 pounds or about $19,000 in U.S. dollars. He lies in an unmarked grave.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.

Author’s Notes:

In his novels, Emile Gaboriau introduced the detective Monsieur Lecoq, based on the real-life thief turned police officer Eugene-Francois Vidocq (1775-1857). In Doyle’s novel, A Study of Scarlet, Dr. Watson asks Sherlock Holmes what he thought of Gaboriau’s work. Holmes disparaged Lecoq as a “miserable bungler.”

Vidocq’s life story inspired several writers, including Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe,and Honoré de Balzac. Interestingly, this former thief founded and served as the first director of the French National Police, formerly known as the Sûreté nationale, where he became known as the “father of modern criminology.” Furthermore, he headed the first known private detective agency and is regarded as the first private detective.

The “Hansom Cab” is named after its inventor Joseph Hansom, an architect from New York, who designed a horse-drawn carriage on two wheels.

“Cab” is a shortening of the French word, cabriolet, in which the carriage has a folding hood to cover its occupants. Cabriolet is another term for convertible.

One who drives a horse-drawn cab for hire was known as a “cabdriver.”

When mechanical clockwork taximeters were introduced to measure fares, the name became “taxicab.”

At the height of their popularity, there were 7,500 Hansom Cabs in use in the United Kingdom, Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and later New York City. Arthur Conan Doyle often mentioned Hansom cabs in his Sherlock Holmes’ stories.