His killer backhand brought him fame on the tennis court, but it was a gruesome murder that earned Vere St. Leger Goold real notoriety—this time in the court of law. A Wimbledon finalist in 1879, the Irish aristocrat made headlines around the world when a rich dowager’s dismembered body was found inside his luggage. The ensuing trial would be dubbed “The Monte Carlo Trunk Murder.”

Blue bloods playing on green grass were a common sight in the British Isles during the 1870s as the new sport of lawn tennis became a fashionable pastime among well-heeled aristocrats such as Vere St. Leger Goold. The son of an Irish baron, Goold was born in County Tipperary in 1853 and by the end of the 1870s, there was no one in Ireland more skilled at wielding a racket.

Blessed with a killer backhand and a rapier-like volley, Goold flourished on the grass. During the summer of 1879, the 25-year-old captured the first-ever Irish tennis championship in Dublin before crossing the Irish Sea to join 44 other players at the nascent tennis tournament staged by the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club (known today as the Wimbledon Championship).

John T Hartley, winner of the Wimbledon men's singles title in 1879 and 1880
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John T Hartley, winner of the Wimbledon men’s singles title in 1879 and 1880.

The blonde-haired Irish aristocrat exhibited an aggressive approach, rushing the net rather than rallying from the baseline, as he dropped only two sets on his march to the Wimbledon final. Goold demonstrated a hard-charging style off the court as well. While his opponent in the final, Reverend John Hartley, spent the day before the match preaching at Sunday services, Goold soaked up the London party scene and drank the day away. Although he returned to London only hours before the match, Hartley easily defeated Goold, who according to some reports was still hungover, to win the third edition of the Wimbledon Championship before a crowd of 1,100 fans.

The following year, Goold lost in the final of the Irish Open to William Renshaw, who would go on to become a seven-time Wimbledon champion. Goold faded from the tennis scene as he grew addicted to alcohol and opium. He ran up gambling debts and invested in unsuccessful business ventures.

In 1891, he married twice-widowed Marie Giraudin, a dressmaker three years his senior with expensive tastes. Relying on large loans from wealthy customers, the couple opened a dress-making business in Montreal. The couple struggled with debt as they used the profits from their business to fund European excursions and their drinking and gambling habits.

Marie constantly sought to move upward on the social ladder, and in 1902 the couple began to introduce themselves as “Sir and Lady Goold” as they traveled across Europe. Goold maintained that he became a baron after his older brother died following a fall from a horse, but his brother was alive and well in Australia.

Cover of French Journal Le Petit Journal, No. 875 from August 25, 1907, about the murder case around Vere St. Leger Goold, Irish tennis player. Goold was later convicted of murder and sent to Devil's Island, French Guyana.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Cover of French Journal Le Petit Journal, No. 875 from August 25, 1907, about the murder case around Vere St. Leger Goold, Irish tennis player. Goold was later convicted of murder and sent to Devil’s Island, French Guyana.

Always in search of easy money, Goold bought a roulette wheel, studied the device and believed that he had created a foolproof method of winning. In 1907, the couple traveled to Monaco where they rented a villa and rubbed elbows with the highest of high society in Monte Carlo’s glamorous casino. A playpen for kings and czars, Monte Carlo’s gambling palace also crawled with con artists such as the Goolds.

When their system for beating the house failed, the Goolds lost all their cash. Luckily for the couple, they befriended Emma Levin, the widow of a wealthy Swedish merchant regularly seen flashing her diamonds inside the casino. The Goolds borrowed 1,000 francs from the rich dowager but managed to squander that money as well.

On August 4, 1907, Levin paid a visit to the couple’s villa to collect her debt before leaving Monaco. It was the last time she was seen alive.

Two days later, the Goolds stepped off a train in Marseilles as they journeyed home to London. A porter, who took their luggage at the station while they hired a cab to eat breakfast at a nearby hotel, soon noticed a putrid stench coming from the couple’s trunk. If that didn’t sufficiently raise his alarm, the blood oozing from the luggage certainly did.

The porter followed the Goolds to the hotel to inquire of its contents. Skeptical of the former Wimbledon finalist’s insistence that his luggage contained dead chickens, the porter demanded the couple go to the police station with him. The Goolds refused and unsuccessfully tried to bribe the station worker, who summoned the police.

The authorities opened the suspicious luggage and were horrified at the contents. They found a woman’s naked, disemboweled torso in the trunk and Levin’s severed head and legs inside a valise. Levin’s jewelry was found inside Marie’s handbag.

The final round of a tennis match at Wimbledon, 1879. An engraving by Swain.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The final round of a tennis match at Wimbledon, 1879. An engraving by Swain.

The couple initially told the police that although they had dismembered Levin’s body, they hadn’t murdered her. They claimed that Levin’s lover had burst through the door and killed the dowager as she sat in their villa. Fearing they would be implicated in the killing if they alerted the police, they decided to dispose of the body. If the story wasn’t flimsy enough, bruises on Marie’s body bore evidence of a recent struggle.

Within days, Goold decided to take the blame. He told police that, following an argument about the unpaid debt, he had approached Levin as she sat in the couple’s villa sipping cherry liqueur. With an overhand worthy of a Wimbledon finalist, Goold smashed a pestle on her head and then a struggle ensued. Goold said he then stabbed Levin repeatedly with a knife. Knowing that her stomach and entrails would decompose first, Goold disposed of Levin’s innards on the beach and then cut up the body in his bathroom.

The authorities, however, suspected that the Irishman was covering for his wife. Given Goold’s aristocratic upbringing and his prowess in a genteel sport such as tennis, the police believed the murder was likely Marie’s idea and that she had manipulated her husband. Suspicions were even raised about the untimely demises of Marie’s first two husbands.

The ensuing trial for what the press dubbed “The Monte Carlo Trunk Murder” was an international sensation. The gruesome nature of the killing and its connection to high society made it a fascinating draw. As a result, Goold gained much greater fame from his appearance in a trial court than he ever had on a tennis court.

The court found Goold and his wife both guilty of murder. Having determined Marie the instigator of the crime, the court gave her the harsher sentence—death by guillotine. Already uneasy at the prospect of executing a woman, Monacan officials had even further second thoughts when Marie demanded to be guillotined right in front of Monte Carlo’s casino. Knowing that such an execution would not be good for business, authorities commuted her sentence to life in prison. Marie Goold would die in a French prison in 1914.

For his role in the murder, the former Wimbledon finalist was banished to Devil’s Island in French Guyana. The Irish aristocrat who once dined with the upper crust now shared meals with thieves, political prisoners and fellow murderers. Unwilling to live another day in the penal colony, Goold committed suicide on September 8, 1909.