Discovered in a Garret in Naples: The Case of Jephson v Brenon, 1909, Pt 1

The Bay of Naples, by Olaf Arborelius, 1872. Image via

From the Daily Mirror, 18 June 1909:



The hearing of the strange case of Jephson v Brenon, described by counsel as one of the saddest tragedies ever told in a court of justice, was continued by the Master of the Rolls in the Four Courts, Dublin, yesterday.

The plaintiff, the committee of John Boyce, a man of infirm mind, seeks as against Edward St John Brenon, of 21, Airedale-avenue, Chiswick, London, to set aside a deed of 1875, whereby Boyce conveyed lands in Waterford and Cork on trust for Brenon, as fraudulent and void.

He also seeks an account of rents and profit received by Brenon.

Boyce is now seventy years of age, and the plaintiff alleges that he was purposely induced to remain for forty years in Italy, where he was recently discovered, destitute, sick, and almost an imbecile, in a garret in Naples, while the moneys of his estates were being misapplied.

Mr. Browne, K.C., resuming his address for the plaintiff, said that, owing to infirm health and mental weakness Mr. Boyce was never sent to school.

He was forty years in Italy, and up to the day he left he could hardly speak a word of Italian.  He was unable to transact any business without assistance, and he could not even do his own shopping.  He had no initiative or will of his own, and yet he was not an imbecile or a lunatic.

He was entitled in 1859 to a life interest in lands producing £310 a year.  These lands were the subject of the deed impeached.

Besides this, he was entitled to other property, making his income altogether between £750 and £800.

Into whose hands did he fall?  He was guarded and watched by Brenon, an extraordinarily clever and attractive man, who had a gift for music, and had been a choir boy in the Chapel Royal, Dublin.

This Brenon was a Bohemian and had a brilliant and frequently vitriolic pen.  He made two unsuccessful attempts from different platforms to enter the House of Commons, and he was the editor of a periodical known as ‘Piccadilly,’ and author of a production entitled ‘the Morals of Merrion Square.’

In the hands of this extraordinarily clever individual John Boyce would be like wax.

Brenon was divorced from his wife in 1894, and he had a very variegated career.  Poor Boyce described this man in one of his letters ‘his only best friend next to God.’

John Boyce unfortunately left the care of his family in the sixties, and until he was found in Naples in 1907, he had no friend at all, and no intimate but Brenon.

From the time Boyce left his family Brenon never let him out of his control.  In Italy and elsewhere Boyce was deliberately kept from friendly communication with his family, and when he was found in a garret in Naples in 1907 and brought to Ireland, all the documents and papers that had come to him in these forty years were found there also.

Counsel then proceeded to read a vast amount of correspondence that had passed between Boyce and Brenon. 

In this Boyce exhibited an utter inability to spell properly.  ‘Fated’ was spelled as ‘fatted,’ and ‘criticised’ as ‘cristed.’

Continuing, Mr. Browne said that in 1873 Brenon conceived the idea of getting the entire property of Boyce into his hands, and that design he carried out.  The hearing was adjourned.”

The saga continued in a subsequent report in Reynolds’s Newspaper of Sunday 4 July 1909 which detailed interchanges between Mr Longworth, on behalf of Mr Brenon and Mr Tim Healy, on behalf of Boyce’s committee:

‘Mr Longworth… had one of Boyce’s letters from Naples and analysed it with the object of showing that Boyce was not a weak-minded man, but a man of very great mental power.  Counsel read this letter, written in Boyce’s queer phonetic spelling, and represented it as the description of a dream, in which the illusion was kept up with great power. 

Mr Healy said it was a nightmare. 

Mr Longworth read an extract in which Boyce dreamed of refreshments – counsel said this was like a picture of still life by a painter – and helped himself to ‘lostor’ (lobster’)

Mr Healy – Ham and eggs!

Mr Longworth continued to read from Boyce’s letter a description of a rat in the dream he was describing.  Boyce killed the rat, and his meaning for that was that he was crushing the baser passions.

Boyce killed the rat, and his meaning for that was that he was crushing the baser passions.  Boyce also described a steam-engine ‘with a green eye at the end of her tail’ (Laughter.)

It was impossible (said counsel) to conceive that Boyce was ever a man of weak intellect after reading that letter.  It was merely an attempt at weird or sensational writing.  Boyce wanted to benefit the man whom his friends had pursued for years with slanders. In order to do that he did two things – he remained himself nominally the owner of the land, and he at the same time acted as trustee for the defendant, handing over the rents and profits.

The Master of the Rolls: This is the most astounding thing one ever heard of.  Did you ever hear of such a case?

Mr Longworth: It is an astonishing thing, and extremely difficult to express in legal language, but that is what happened.

Mr Healy, on behalf of the plaintiff, said Mr Longworth had said that they must admire Mr Brenon’s courage.  The courage of Mr Brenon he (Mr Healy) regarded as the courage of a rat in a trap, snarling and biting when driven to bay.  The defendant, a man of great shrewdness, had for over forty years had entire possession of the plaintiff Boyce, body and soul.  The plaintiff was a lunatic, a defenceless lunatic, defenceless but for the providentiall circumstance that after forty years there was found in Brenan’s box in Boyce’s’ room in the Naples garret, letters that the defendant would have destroyed if he had had an opportunity of doing so.”

What was in those letters? 

And what exactly was the relationship between the handsome and charming former choir boy Brenon (now best known as the father of a famous early Hollywood actor, director and producer) and the dyslexic Boyce claimed by one side to be a lunatic, the other a genius?

And would the deed be set aside?

Part 2 here!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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