The Irish Gentleman Convict Who Nearly Won Wimbledon

Library of Congress
Lawn tennis in the United States, an 1887 print. Click on the image to see a larger view.


By James Doherty

WATERFORD CITY, Waterford, Ireland   — As the Wimbledon Championships celebrate their 125th anniversary this year, one of the most interesting characters to have ever graced center court was an Irishman impressively named Vere Thomas St ledger Goold. Goold was born in Waterford, Ireland, in 1853 to a respectable family. As a member of the gentry, he could have expected a life of comparative ease, and like many wealthy young men he took up the new sport of lawn tennis. Goold showed that he had a natural talent for the sport, and in 1879 went on to become the Irish champion.

The sport of tennis was originally played indoors on a wooden-floored court. The court was hour-glass shaped, with the net being higher at the poles and dipping toward the middle. Lawn tennis developed in the 1870s, with the first Wimbledon championships played in 1877. The new outdoor version of the game was hugely popular with young socialites, with the first American championships being played in 1880. Soon there were major tournaments for men, women and doubles. The rules of lawn tennis varied slightly from tournament to tournament until the international Lawn Tennis Association standardized them in 1924.

Rev. John Hartley

Then, as now, one of the major events in the tennis calendar was the Wimbledon Championships, and in 1879 the Irish champion Goold travelled to England to compete. He progressed well through the competition until the finals, where he was defeated by the Rev. John Hartley. After his win, Hartley described Goold as a "cheery wild Irishman." After his defeat in the Wimbledon final, Goold's fledgling tennis career fell apart. Despondent with his failure, Goold turned to drink and drugs, and his life spiralled out of control. Goold's family in Ireland distanced themselves from the young man as he squandered his inheritance in ale houses and gambling halls.

In 1883, Goold met a lady that would change his life. Marie Giraudin was a widower twice over whose previous husband's had met an untimely end. Much has been speculated about the fate of Madame Giraudin's previous husbands, but little is known. Giraudin was attracted to Goold's social standing, and they were soon married. Giraudin ran a dressmaking shop and had run up substantial debts, but she mixed in the best company and survived by borrowing money from freshly made acquaintances. The young smitten couple both enjoyed the finer things in life and they ate in the best restaurants and were seen at the most popular parties. The couple borrowed heavily as they lived way beyond their means.

Having exhausted their welcome in London and leaving a trail of useless promissory notes behind, the couple headed for Montreal. Now calling themselves Sir and Lady Goold, they again became involved in the dressmaking business, aiming their wares at a wealthy clientele. "Sir Goold" and his wife were soon a common sight at the gaming tables of Montreal, as they pursued their dream of making it rich. Once again, the couple soon started to exhaust their credit and their welcome in Montreal. Goold announced that a family member in Ireland died in a horse-riding accident and that he was set to inherit a fortune. The couple gained a timely, albeit temporary, reprieve from their creditors.

Library of Congress
A 19th century postcard of Monte Carlo Casino. Click on the image to see a larger view.

The Goolds knew they would soon have to leave Montreal and prepared to move abroad once again. They worked out a scheme they felt could "break the bank" and decided to head for the casinos of Monte Carlo. The Goold's "system" failed, and what little money they had was quickly exhausted. As in London and Montreal, the Goolds were spending prodigiously with little to show for it. "Lady Goold" befriended a wealthy heiress called Madame Liven, a widow described in contemporary accounts as Òyoung,Ó who was impressed with the couple's titles and apparent social standing. The Goolds soon borrowed substantial sums from the gullible Liven. Perhaps with the realization of what the couple were really like, Liven went to their room August 4th, 1907, looking for repayment of her loan, but she was never seen alive again.

The Goolds fled Monte Carlo, as friends of Liven alerted the authorities that she was missing. When the Goolds arrived in the Marseilles train depot, they requested that their large trunk be forwarded to London for what they hoped would be their imminent departure. At this point, someone noticed that blood was seeping from the case, and when questioned Goold lamely stated that it was full of freshly slaughtered chickens. The understandably wary French authorities demanded that the trunk be opened, and, once it was, found the dismembered body of Liven.

The subsequent trial was international news, and on August 6, 1907, The Times of London ran a story with the headline, "A Woman's Body in a Trunk." The Times reported: "When interrogated by the examining magistrates, the prisoners said their name was Gold and that they were husband and wife. They came from Monte Carlo. They denied having murdered the woman. According to their story, they only knew her through having met occasionally in the gaming rooms at Monte Carlo. On Sunday last she came to see them to ask for money."

"Le Petit Journal" featured the murder on its cover.

The couple tried to maintain that Liven had come to their room looking for a loan of money and, while there, she was shot dead by a jealous lover who had burst into the room. The couple stated that they were afraid their story would not be believed so they dismembered the body and hid it in the trunk.

The prosecution attested that the body had no bullet wounds, only a gruesome collection of stab wounds, putting the lie to the unlikely story of a jealous lover. The prosecution went on to state that it would have been physically impossible for one person to carry out the gruesome dismemberment and that the grisly murder was the work of two people. The game was up, and when, questioned further, Goold admitted responsibility. In an attempt to save his wife, Goold stated that he had acted alone and his wife had not been involved. But the judge refused to believe the claims of innocence, and both he and his wife were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Despite their respectable backgrounds, or perhaps because of them, the French authorities showed little mercy. Marie Goold was sentenced to life imprisonment, to be served in Montpellier prison, where she died in 1914. An even more terrible fate awaited Vere Thomas St. Ledger Goold—he was sentenced to the notorious Devil's Island penal colony in French Guiana, a colony of France, 500 miles north of the equator, in South America. The Cayenne penitentiary, popularly called Devil's Island, was opened by Emperor Napoleon's government in 1852. The colony consisted of prisons on three small islands and on the mainland of French Guinea, and remained in use for nearly 100 years.

The colony consisted of prisons on three small islands and on the mainland of French Guiana, which remained in use for nearly 100 years. Opened by Emperor Napolean's government in 1852, the prisons were known collectively by the French as the Cayenne penal colony, named after the main city of French Guiana. But they became known in the English-speaking world as Devil's Island, which was made famous by the 1973 film ÒPapillion,Ó starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. The film depicted the horrendous conditions on the island, where prisoners were forced to endure hard labor in a tropical climate rife with disease. Only a small percentage of prisoners survived their sentences. One can only imagine the shock and horror Goold would have felt when he arrived. Used to the finer things in life and fresh from the hotels of Monte Carlo, Goold would have found it impossible to adapt, both mentally and physically. Within a year, Goold had succumbed to the hellish conditions on the island and died at 56 years of age. His death in 1909 ends the tale of the Irish cad who, with a bit more Irish luck, might have won Wimbledon.WGT


James Doherty is a Waterford-based writer who focuses on the preservation of the history of the Irish worldwide.

This feature was edited by Gerry Regan and Doug Chandler and produced by Joe Gannon.

Copyright © 2011 by James Doherty and GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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Tags: Ireland, Marie Giraudin, Sports, Vere Goold, Vere Thomas St ledger Goold, Wimbledon, tennis


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