In February 1876, a 45-year-old Liverpool spinster named Elizabeth Corte passed away at her Liverpool home in Aigburth Road. A paraplegic from birth, Miss Corte had been wheelchair-bound all of her life, and had been cared for by her younger brother Frederick and numerous servants.
She had finally succumbed to leukemia. Elizabeth and Frederick were originally from Tranmere but had moved to Aigburth after the death of their father in 1869. Their mother had tragically died in a house fire many years before.
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Frederick – a 34-year-old bachelor – now felt lost without his sister. The only other company he had was the elderly maidservant Jane Siddon and the similarly aged butler Archibald Smith, known affectionately as ‘Smithers’.
Life seemed unbearable without Elizabeth, and Frederick began to take refuge from his sorrows in a bottle of gin. During the drinking bouts, Frederick would wallow in self-pity and rant in a raised voice about the injustices of life. Why did Elizabeth have to die? Why was he alone?
Jane the maid and Smithers the butler would retreat to the basement kitchen whenever the master of the house flew into his drunken rages. This was the state of affairs in the spring of that year, when something took place which was to change the grim outlook of the bereaved bachelor forever.
Consumed with hate in a drunken haze, Frederick was throwing his deceased sister’s wheelchair down the flights of stairs. He barked at the maid to open the vestibule door, and she did. Then she opened the front door, and with an expression more suited to a spoiled child, Frederick Corte got ready to hurl the wheelchair out into the street.
A barefooted girl with the face of an angel stood in his way. She stood on the doorstep, shivering in the March morning wind, cradling a bunch of drooping daffodils.
‘Out of the way!’ Frederick snapped at her. He lifted the wheelchair six or seven inches off the ground and was posed to throw it.
The girl, who was aged about nine or ten, stepped aside and cast him a strange look. It was the enchanting yet condescending look on that young face that began to thaw Frederick’s heart.
Frederick felt more like the child. He refrained from throwing the wheelchair down the three steps onto the pavement, and instead, he smiled and stooped over the diminutive flower seller. ‘What do you want little miss?’ he enquired.
‘I’m selling flowers sir,’ the girl told him, and she looked at the wheelchair then asked, ‘Please sir, if you don’t want that, I know of an old man on crutches who’d be very grateful of it.’
‘Oh, is that so?’ Frederick slurred.
The girl blinked a pair of large green eyes, shiny and watery with the biting wind, and said nothing.
‘I’ll buy them all. Come in, come in.’ Frederick backed up into the hall, pulling the wheelchair. Behind him stood Mrs Siddon the maid, wearing a look of unbridled disapproval.
The little ragged street urchin remained rooted to the spot and was full of suspicion. ‘Come on!’ Frederick’s voice boomed down the hallway, and the maid reluctantly beckoned the child in with a single sideward tilt of the head.
The girl stepped into the hall, and her hard-soled feet treaded the carpet. Frederick treated the malnourished and anemic daffodil-seller to a full English breakfast. She ate with her hands, despite the tutting of Mrs Siddons. Frederick thought it was very amusing. He learned that the girl’s name was Katie Corrigan.
She claimed she was an orphan at first, but later slipped up and mentioned her father. She admitted that her father was a drunken bully who thrashed her, and made her stand on the streets selling flowers she had picked from the park. Katie showed Frederick and the maid the calluses on her rough and dirty soles.
Frederick decided that the unfortunate girl was to be clothed like a princess, and he made a list of items that were to be bought; shoes, dresses, petticoats, and even ribbons to lend a measure of neatness and respectability to Katie’s wild honey-coloured hair. Mrs Siddon measured the girl’s feet and the small circumference of her waist. Smithers scribbled down the measurements, and was afterwards given a small fortune to purchase the clothes and shoes.
Katie, meanwhile, was washed down in a bathing tub in the kitchen. When the girl was stripped, the maid recoiled in horror at the scars and weals that criss-crossed the child’s back. Frederick was informed, and he quizzed Katie about her address, for he wished to inform the authorities of her barbaric father’s whereabouts.
Mr Corrigan resided in a dismal court off Mill Street in Toxteth, but was not there when Frederick Corte called. A neighbour accompanied him to a nearby public house where the brute spent most of his time. Frederick found Mr Corrigan lying unconscious on the floor in the sawdust. Two inebriated women were trying to lift the child-beater.
Frederick knew it would be pointless trying to confront Corrigan in such an intoxicated state, so he returned home. On the way back, he thought about Corrigan’s drunkenness, and it made him fully realise how the horrors of drink had affected himself.
Later that day, the butler returned with the new clothes for Katie, and the girl was transformed from a barefoot specimen of neglect into a pretty, promising young lady of distinction. Katie seemed overcome with excitement when she was brought before a full length mirror.
Kneeling beside her, Frederick tearfully clenched the thrilled girl’s hand and in a broken voice, he said, ‘Katie, if we asked you to stay with us, would you?’
Katie returned a puzzled look, and so did the maid and the butler.
Frederick glanced at them, blinking to stem the tears welling up in his eyes. ‘She could stay here couldn’t she? She doesn’t have to return to – him.’
‘But sir, we have no right to take her. We should inform the police about her father.’ Mrs Siddon said.
Smithers said nothing, but his sympathetic eyes spoke volumes as he surveyed Katie, who stood there, studying her shiny buckled shoes as if footwear was a novelty.
‘Katie, please stay,’ Frederick pleaded again. This time a tear escaped and rolled down his face. ‘You can have anything your heart desires.’
The girl agreed with repeated nods. Frederick hugged her, and she hugged him back. This was the daughter he had longed for, for so many years.
Tutors were hired to teach the girl, and she showed a remarkable talent for the piano. Within a fortnight she was playing Fur Elise. She also performed elaborate dances which melted the hearts of her substitute family. Whenever Katie became excited, she would perform one of her comical dances or play Fur Elise. She was also an inquisitive youngster, eager to know all the details of Frederick’s life.
Why wasn’t he married? Was he in love with a woman? The harsh circumstances the girl had been raised in had robbed her of a normal childhood and left her with an old head on young shoulders. Frederick often forgot how young Katie Corrigan was, and would often find himself confiding in her. He disclosed that he had feelings for a widowed woman named Gloria. Katie asked him if he had expressed his feeling towards the widow.
‘That just isn’t done Katie,’ Frederick had told her, ‘She lost her husband not more than six months ago.’
Katie urged him to bring flowers to Gloria, but Frederick’s reply was the same as before: ‘That just isn’t done.’
‘A faint heart never won a fair lady.’ Katie had told him, which made him laugh. Where had the girl heard that? The old adage also made the bachelor ponder on the lonely course he was taking through life.
Katie was soon reported missing by her father, and the police surmised that the worst outcome had taken place. Weeks elapsed without a word, and Frederick Corte made preparations to move to a residence in the north of the city. However, things went terribly wrong. Katie became homesick and sneaked out of the house one afternoon.
Her father was astounded when he saw the girl ‘dressed up to the nines’ and he interrogated her about her three-week absence. Knowing that the kind gentleman of Aigburth Road would get into a lot of trouble if she gave any details about her unplanned sojourn, Katie claimed she had been staying with a generous old lady in Birkenhead.
Corrigan took his daughter round to the pub and pretended to cry with relief. This elicited people to buy him a drink for a while, but the act wore very thin. The clothes were soon pawned, and it wasn’t long before Katie was collecting wood, which her father would saw up and sell as firewood.
On Christmas Eve of that year, Frederick Corte saw Katie in Bold Street with her father and older sister. Mr Corrigan was singing, and Katie was gazing into a shop window, looking at the fine lace dresses that she had once worn, probably reflecting on the vastly different life she once led for a short while.
‘Katie.’ Frederick gasped, when he saw his lost ‘daughter’.
The girl turned, and her mouth opened with surprise. She remembered him.
Oblivious to Corte’s presence, Mr Corrigan turned and grabbed Katie by the wrist. ‘Come here you dawdler!’ He said, and dragged her down Bold Street.
Frederick tried to utter the girl’s name again, but was so choked up, the words died in his throat. He felt his heart burn with sadness as he watched the girl who had been a shaft of sunlight in his grey world walking away from him.
Until the Corrigans vanished into the crowds of seasonal shoppers, Mr Corte could see the pale face of Katie periodically turning back to him.
Back at the house which seemed so empty and lifeless, Frederick tore down the Christmas decorations and had the tree thrown out. The worse was to come. A month later in January 1877, Frederick Corte donned an anonymous Ulster overcoat and put on a flat cap. He walked to the dingy court near Mill Street. Two men were transporting a small wooden box to a cart. The box looked like a child’s coffin. Moments later, Mr Corrigan emerged from the court with just one daughter, and she was not Katie.
‘Who has died?’ Corte asked a bystander.
‘His daughter, Katie.’ came the reply.
‘Cholera.’ Said an old woman behind Corte.
Frederick Corte felt numb. He didn’t even feel the tears pouring from his eyes as he watched the little wooden box being shoved onto the back of a horse drawn cart.
For weeks, Frederick Corte hid once again in a bottle of gin. Salvation came his way one spring day when he saw the daffodils in Sefton Park. He thought of little Katie, about her hardships, and about her advice regarding Gloria. That little golden-hearted girl had wanted him to be happily married for some reason. The least he could do was to attempt to make his and Katie’s wishes come true.
So Frederick Corte paid a visit to Gloria one evening and laid open the contents of his heart. He expected rejection, but Gloria was flattered, and after a brief period of courtship, she became engaged to marry Frederick. The couple tied the knot and honeymooned in Paris.
On the night of their return from Paris, something strange occurred. Frederick kissed his wife goodnight in their bed, and was about to fall into a much-needed slumber, when he heard a sound. Gloria heard it too. It was the faint strains of a familiar piano piece which Frederick Corte recognized as Beethoven’s Fur Elise – the piece of music Katie would play when she was happy.
Author: Tom Slemen, who is a Liverpool writer, known foremostly as the author of the best-selling Haunted Liverpool series of books which document paranormal incidents and unsolved or unusual crimes. Check his Books on Amazon here.