As recent unedifying events have shown, conspiracy theories make for a good story. Speculation as to the identity of Jack the Ripper has generated an entire industry for over a century; the continuing uncertainty over who killed JFK has produced endless articles, books, films and TV documentaries since that fateful day in Dallas; and the disappearance of John Bingham, the 7th Earl of Lucan, following a serious assault on his wife and the murder of his children’s nanny in November 1974, has been one of the most enduring mysteries of the last forty years.
Last week, Lord Lucan was officially declared deceased and his eldest son has now finally inherited the title his father tarnished with infamy. There have been no confirmed sightings of the 7th Earl since 8 November 1974, yet unconfirmed sightings have hit the headlines throughout the world ever since. Were Lord Lucan still living, he would now be 81, though the belated issuing of a death certificate, after years of campaigning by his son and heir, acknowledges that he died on or after the day of the last confirmed sighting of him – either by his own hand or murdered. Nobody will probably ever know. In June 1975, the inquest into the murder of the Lucan family nanny, Sandra Rivett, named Lucan as the murderer in his absence, the last such time in British legal history this happened. The new Earl of Lucan has repeatedly aired doubts his father was a murderer, whilst his mother’s unswerving conviction that her husband was the killer of Sandra Rivett has caused a rift that has left her an isolated figure, estranged from her children and family ever since.
John Bingham was a man out of time, somebody who belonged in an imperial age that was already edging towards its natural conclusion when he arrived in 1934. Not that he was brought up to believe the world was changing, however; he inherited all the inbuilt sense of superiority that had been the hallmark of his class and continued to behave as though he was born to rule. During the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the aristocracy’s job was to run the Empire; when the Empire disintegrated rapidly in the years following the Second World War, Bingham and his generation of aristocrats found themselves a breed without a purpose; the colonies no longer required governors now that they were being granted independence and many of the men trained to govern them reverted to the dissolute playboy tendencies of their eighteenth century ancestors, Bingham included.
In 1960, Bingham left his post at a London merchant-bank and decided to pursue his passion for gambling as a career. He was already a member of the exclusive Clermont Club in Mayfair and surrounded himself with a like-minded group of right-wing reactionaries convinced the country was going to the dogs as they both won and lost vast fortunes on the gaming tables in the manner of Regency rakes. Bingham acceded to the Earldom of Lucan two months after marrying Veronica Duncan at the end of 1963 – a union looked down upon by his family, whose characteristic snobbishness regarded their favourite son as having married beneath his rank, treating Bingham’s bride as if she was a mill-girl. This opinion was to colour relations between the new Countess of Lucan and her husband’s family thereafter.
Lady Lucan suffered from postnatal depression following the births of her second and third children, something her husband’s astronomical gambling debts would hardly have helped; his sympathetic response was try and have her committed to an asylum, something she resisted, though she did submit to psychiatric counselling and a course of antidepressants. When the couple separated in 1973, Lucan’s determination to win custody of his children resulted in nefarious attempts to have his wife certified as an unfit mother, while Lady Lucan confessed to close friends she believed her husband would stop at nothing to take away her children, including murder; alleged domestic abuse on the part of Lord Lucan fuelled this belief. When the custody case came to court, the judge awarded the Countess care of the children, despite attempts by Lucan to repeatedly blacken her character.
The court case cost Lucan more than his perilous financial situation could afford and his antipathy towards his estranged spouse increased to the point whereby he hired private detectives to trail her, recorded their telephone conversations and spoke openly to friends about murdering her.
29-year-old Sandra Rivett had only been working as nanny to the Lucan children for a few months when she was bludgeoned to death by an intruder wielding a piece of lead piping as she entered the basement kitchen of the Lucan household on the evening of 7 November 1974. Hearing a commotion, Lady Lucan descended the staircase and was attacked by Rivett’s killer, who attempted to strangle her; after a struggle, she managed to escape the man she identified as her husband and ran into the local public house for help, convinced she had been the intended murder victim and not the nanny. What followed over the next 24 hours as the sensational story broke was a gift for a media who hadn’t had so much fun with a scandal involving the aristocracy since Profumo. Lucan’s disappearance was taken as an admission of guilt and the close-knit Clermont circle were suspected of either aiding and abetting their friend to escape to Africa or enabling him to commit suicide. The only positive outcome of the police manhunt was the capture of runaway MP John Stonehouse in Australia, who had attempted to fake his own death and was initially mistaken for Lucan in his failed bid to avoid prosecution for financial irregularities.
Lucan’s family and friends rounded on Lady Lucan during the inquest into the murder of Sandra Rivett, with her own children eventually joining the chorus denouncing her as a liar and mentally-ill fantasist, something that intensified when Lucan was named by the coroner as Rivett’s murderer in absentia. While the Bingham family continued to be in wilful denial of the 7th Earl’s guilt, the media continued to speculate on dozens of Lucan sightings across the globe, and the gruesome fate of poor Sandra Rivett was almost reduced to a footnote in the dramatic adventures of the playboy Earl.
Rivett left behind a ten-year-old son, another forgotten victim of an arrogant, unpleasant individual who viewed himself as above the law until he broke it in the worst possible way. Only the now-Dowager Countess of Lucan survives as a witness to the truth of the awful events on 7 November 1974 and she has stood by her story to the detriment of her personal happiness (giving her side of the affair on her own website). However, it’s doubtful that even official recognition that the 7th Earl is now a late Lord will kill the speculation that seems set to run and run – much like John Bingham himself…allegedly.
© The Editor