Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Tag: murder (page 1 of 6)

Review: The Murder of Mary Ashford

Mary Ashford spent the last evening of her life out dancing at a local ball, held in a pub near her house in the Midlands. The following morning, her lifeless body would be found in a pond. The year was 1817, and the subsequent trial would see a man widely regarded as being her murderer sensationally acquitted.

This is the case that Naomi Clifford details in her latest book, The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime that Changed English Legal History (Pen & Sword).

As she has previously shown with her earlier books, The Disappearance of Maria Glenn and Women and the Gallows, 1797-1837,  Naomi is always interested in the history of the law, as well as the history of women and crime, and here, she looks at how, when justice appeared to have not been served, Mary Ashford’s brother attempted to use an ‘archaic process’ to prosecute the accused man, Abraham Thornton, for a second time.

The crime in this case is located in Erdington – now a Birmingham suburb, but at the time, still a village in Warwickshire. Naomi conjures up what life was like in this still relatively rural area at this time very well, and sets the scene for the reader, so that you feel you are one of the men who discovers the sodden corpse one morning – even though the event took place two centuries ago.

On every page is evidence of the author’s painstaking research – she has clearly done a lot of preparatory work for the book, locating people, places, and the law, and utilising her knowledge well. On occasion, you may need to reread a section, or have to concentrate to understand it all, purely because there is so much information to take in – but it is clear that this is a methodically researched history, which is always good to see.

It’s also well illustrated and the image are chosen sensitively. There are photos of buildings mentioned, drawings from court, and illustrations of both the murder victim and the accused. Naomi makes clear that the victim’s portraits are idealised (and they are certainly fairly generic), but a contemporary newspaper’s portrayal of Abraham really makes him a flesh and blood creature for the reader.

What Naomi Clifford does particularly well is her placing of Mary Ashford’s murder into its context, but she also shows how its brutality ‘became a marker against which the murders of women were compared’. Comparisons were made in the press between Mary’s murder and subsequent ones; it became something of a cause celebre for the next half century and even beyond. And what happened to the man who was acquitted of Mary’s murder, the unpleasant Abraham Thornton? You’ll have to read The Murder of Mary Ashford to find out more.

The Murder of Mary Ashford is published by Pen & Sword (PB, £14.99)

Murder at Shandy Hall

Women dying of arsenic poisoning were a popular subject for the press – this later example is from the Illustrated Police News

It was January 1888. By the end of the year, Jack the Ripper would have grabbed the public and press attention with a series of brutal murders of women in the East End of London. The Met Police commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, would have resigned, condemned by public opinion after failing to find the killer (although he would agree to continue in his role until a successor was found the following year).

The Whitechapel murders may have occupied the press and public from then on, but they were not the only murders in the UK and Ireland in that year – not by any stretch. In addition, as the year started, it heralded the end of one man’s devious and shocking murderousness – and deeds that had seen his wife betrayed in the worst way possible.

Shandy Hall, home to Philip Eustace Cross (image from Cork Past and Present)

Philip Henry Eustace Cross was born at Shandy Hall, a large house in Dripsey, County Cork. He was an educated, middle-class man who had been surgeon-major with the 53rd Regiment, and who had served during the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. His military career had seen him awarded medals for action in both of these campaigns. In 1888, he was now over 60 years old, a man who should have been looking forward to a pleasant, and more peaceable, retirement.

But Philip was not the kind of man to be happy with genteel retirement, despite appearing to be in a happy, secure family. On 17 August 1869, he had married Mary Laura Marriott. Mary was English, being from Essex and from a good social position, with the prospect of a healthy inheritance – her father was listed in the 1851 census as ‘gentleman and landed proprietor’.

They married at St James’s Church in Piccadilly, Philip leaving the church with the kudos of a younger wife on his arm – at the time, Mary was 28 to her husband’s ‘over 40’ years. Five children duly came along before, in 1874, Mary’s father, Richard, died. No marriage settlement had been given five years earlier, and now, Philip Eustace Cross got his father-in-law’s fortune of £5,000.

Despite now having plenty of money, the marriage was not happy – or at least, Philip ensured it wasn’t. He made clear his desire to end his relationship with Mary, but she stayed with her husband, believing that her marriage was for life and instead tolerating his irritation and bad behaviour towards her in a way that surprised even the most conservative of newspapers.

By the start of 1887, Dr Cross had decided to kill poor Mary. It was no coincidence that the year before, he had met a Scotswoman named Evelyn Forbes Skinner. At that time, aged around 22, she was working as a governess for the Caulfield family, who lived two miles from his own Shandy Hall. In October 1886, Miss Skinner left Mrs Caulfield’s house and became the Cross family governess at Shandy Hall. After three years, in January 1887, she moved to Carlow to become a governess there.

By this time, Miss Skinner was having an affair with Dr Cross. On 28 March, he travelled over to her, and booked them a hotel together. They spent the night together, and the following morning disappeared together. Dr Cross was not seen again until nearly a month later, when, on 22 April, he returned to Shandy Hall, failing to explain to his long-suffering wife where he had been.

A week later, an old school friend of Mary’s, a Miss Jefferson, arrived to see her old friend. She knew that Mary was usually in very good health, but on seeing her, recognised that she was poorly. She was also rather despondent, being very aware of her husband’s adultery.

Yet it was later commented that she ‘appeared to be an uncomplaining creature, not given to insisting on her rights’, and that she ‘preferred to brood over the wrong done her and pine away beneath her load of sorrow.’ So when she became increasingly unwell over the course of May 1887, others believed she was simply responding to her husband’s bad behaviour.

The symptoms of poisoning were present, despite the desire of others to see her illness as psychological. She had heart spasms, cramps, vomiting, and diarrhoea. She had to call on servants during the night to come and help ease her suffering. She was in pain.

Through her month of illness, her callous husband continued to sleep in the same bedroom as her. On at least one occasion, a servant was called by Mrs Cross to their bedroom, only to find Philip fast asleep in the neighbouring bed, oblivious to his wife’s struggles. He appeared not to care, and paid her no attention. On the last night of her life, Philip and Mary Cross were together in their bedroom. He poured both of them a glass of brandy – but added a little something to Mary’s. During the night, the servants heard screaming coming from the room, but as Philip hadn’t summoned them, they stayed in their own rooms. It was only at six o’clock the next morning, when they were already up and working, that Philip came to them and said:

“Get up, ye girls, the mistress is gone [dead] since half-past one last night.”

At six o’clock the next morning, not much over 24 hours since she had died, Mary Laura Cross was buried in a private funeral (you can see images of her grave at Findagrave here).

The marriage allegation for the very recently widowed Philip, and his lover Evelyn (from Ancestry; original document at London Metropolitan Archives)

This was not the end of the grubby story. 15 days after his wife’s untimely death, the impatient Philip Eustace Cross married Evelyn Skinner – in the same church in London where he had married Mary 18 years earlier.

At the end of June, they returned to Shandy Hall – a bad decision, as by this time, the Irish authorities had become suspicious, and ordered the exhumation of Mary’s body. This was done on 21 July 1887, and unsurprisingly, the subsequent examination found symptoms of arsenic poisoning.

On 28 July, Dr Cross was arrested for the murder of his first wife. His comment exposed his ego and his belief that a man of his stature should be above suspicion.

“My God, my God! To think that a man in my time of life should commit murder. There is a God above who will see the villainy of this.”

Despite this arrogance, the law prevailed. On 14 December, Dr Cross  – perceived as ‘cool, self-possessed, indifferent’ throughout – went on trial at the Cork Assizes. There was plenty of evidence against him now, and the defence case was widely regarded as weak. The jury took just an hour to find Cross guilty of murder.

The verdict was a shock to Cross, who had been convinced that he would be acquitted. The day before the verdict was given, he had invited friends to come and dine with him at Shandy Hall in two days time; he had also arranged for his horse and trap to be ready to take him home from the court of the day of the verdict. Subsequently, he tried to get the case reopened, but the judge commented that he was ‘an obnoxious landlord and had been boycotted’, and that, bizarrely, was seen as a valid reason why he did not deserve another chance to prove his innocence.

At 8am on 10 January 1888, Dr Philip Eustace Cross, a bad husband and undoubtedly a selfish, unfeeling individual, was hanged at Cork, the press commenting that although there were such criminals who merited discussion of the abolition of capital punishment, Cross was not one of them.

Afterword:

Philip Cross’s will left his property to his brother Edward, in trust to two of his children by Mary – Sophia Mary and Henry Eustace. He also asked that the property be bequeathed to his son Philip Richard and financial payments be made to two more daughters – Elizabeth Laura Marriott and Henrietta Emeline. In addition, he asked that £400 be set apart for the use of ‘the male child born of my wife on or about the 23rd December 1887. He is not yet baptised. I desire him to be called John.’ (Waterford Standard, 18 February 1888).

Philip and Evelyn’s son, John, married in 1909, and in recording his father’s details, failed to mention that he was deceased.

Given that Philip only married Evelyn Skinner in June 1887, she must have been pregnant by him at the time of Mary’s murder. Perhaps Evelyn’s pregnancy had made his desire to get rid of his first wife more imperative, in his warped mind.

After Philip was hanged, Evelyn Forbes Skinner moved to England. In 1891, she was living in Hampshire with her three-year-old son, who she had baptised according to his father’s wishes, John Eustace (when John married, in 1909, he gave his father’s name and occupation, without stating that he was deceased, recording rather proudly that Philip was a major; conversely, when his half-sister Sophia had married six years earlier, she had ensured that the fact that her father was dead was recorded).

Philip had left Evelyn a legacy of £60 a year, to be paid in six-monthly instalments. However, the payments would only be paid as long as she remained a widow – if she married again, the money would stop. Philip made it clear that the money was to go towards caring for their son – so if she remarried before he was 21, the money would then go directly to him until he reached that age.

Evelyn did remarry – in 1898, a decade after Philip’s execution. Her new husband, who she wed in London, was a fellow Scot, Patrick James Robertson (BMDs, St Giles, vol 1b, page 1171). Although the 1911 census for Paignton, Devon, records her as being married still, at this time there was no sign of Patrick Robertson. Instead, Evelyn was living with her elderly mother, as well as her and Patrick’s nine-year-old daughter – who was, ironically given the name of Philip Cross’s first wife, called Mary.

Evelyn died in Westgate-on-Sea, Kent, on 30 July 1937, aged 72, with probate being granted to her now married daughter, Mary May. Philip Cross had inherited £500 from his first wife in the 1870s; by the time of her own death, Evelyn’s effects were worth only £93.

The day Jack the Ripper appeared in court

In 1888, a murderer – or murderers – struck in East London, killing several women in gruesome ways. The offender (if, indeed, it was only one) has never been caught, but his murders caught the public imagination at the time, and he continues to be written about, and theorised about.

For years afterwards, the subsequent murders of women would be reported in terms of whether they could be new victims of the same murderer  – for example, in 1890, when Phoebe Hogg was found murdered near Hampstead, it was initially reported that she was an ‘unfortunate’ woman whose death had led people to fear that Jack the Ripper had started a new campaign of terror, but in north London this time, instead of east. In fact, Phoebe – and her baby daughter – had been killed by a woman: the lover of Phoebe’s husband (you can read my article on this case here).

But although the most famous of the Whitechapel Murders caused a panic around the capital, and beyond, others were gripped and excited, even, about the tales of terror, perhaps in the same way that those reading penny dreadfuls were both repelled and fascinated by crime and tales that were far from their own experiences. The fear surrounding the unknown killer also led more unscrupulous men to suggest that they were Jack, in order to instil that fear in others and make them do what they wanted.

A map of the Ripper victims produced by the Glasgow Herald on 10 November 1888. The first two women named here are not now regarded as part of the Ripper ‘canon’.

This was certainly the case in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, in October 1888.  By this time, four of the five canonical victims of the Whitechapel murderer had been killed, discovered, and written about in the national and provincial press – one more, Mary Jane Kelly, was to be killed the following month. No suspects had been identified; no arrests made. There was a very real concern that more women would be murdered.

In light of this charged atmosphere, at the Heanor Petty Sessions, miles away from East London’s gloom, a man was remanded into custody, on charges of drunkenness and robbery. He was asked his name, and in response, said it was ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The magistrates, who decided to charge him in the slightly more pleasant name of ‘John Rip’, heard that he had gone out into Ilkeston the previous Friday night, got drunk, and accosted a woman named Priscilla Bennett as she was on her way home. He then threatened to ‘Whitechapel her’ if she refused to give him money.

Priscilla replied that she had no money, and that if the man didn’t ‘go about his business’, she would scream for help. ‘Jack’ grabbed her, put his hand over her mouth, and took a shilling out of her hand – the only money she had actually had. He then ran off down the town’s Burn Street.

Apparently, the use of such a threat had been common in the Ilkeston area over the previous days – a significant timeframe as two Ripper victims had been murdered just a week before this ‘Jack the Ripper’ appeared in court. Violent men now had a handy phrase to threaten women with – give us your money, or we’ll murder you like the Ripper murdered his victims – and to ‘Whitechapel’ someone became synonymous with a particularly unpleasant death.

And what happened to the Ilkeston ‘Ripper’? He was found guilty of theft, and sent to gaol for three months with hard labour. As he was led to the cells, this pleasant individual shouted, “I’ll do it, and blow her brains out afterwards” – failing, in the process, to understand the methods used by his more famous namesake.

Story taken from the Leeds Mercury of 9 October 1888, the Derbyshire Courier of 9 October 1888, the Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal of 12 October 1888 and the Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal of 19 October 1888, all sourced from the British Newspaper Archive. Press coverage does not give a real name for ‘Jack the Ripper’, and no alias of ‘John Rip’ is listed in the online Derbyshire Calendar of Prisoners.

Book Review: The Murder That Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes

The Great War was still fresh in everyone’s minds when, one snowy night in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, a middle-aged shopkeeper was found murdered in her corner shop, her dog lying dead nearby.

Elizabeth Ridgley, aged 54, was a spinster who lived alone, apart from her pet. She served the local community well, and opened her shop long hours in order to cater for their every need. Who could have wanted her dead?

This is the story that Paul Stickler seeks to explore and analyse in The Murder That Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes, now published by Pen & Sword books. The title is something of a misnomer; there is a tendency to link Sherlock Holmes to all sorts of real-life characters to grab the attention, but the man referred to here, Detective Chief Inspector Fred Wensley, is no Sherlock Holmes, but instead a methodical and effective Scotland Yard man – and that, in my mind, is equally good!

Likewise, the Whitechapel link is somewhat tenuous: perhaps designed to make you think of the Whitechapel Murders of 1888, it is a reference to Wensley having once worked in that area of East London. Yet this book is about small-town Hertfordshire and its inhabitants, and its title should both reflect that and be proud of it. There is no need to try and link it to London: it is not about that, but about a rather claustrophobic Home Counties community.

The murder of Elizabeth Ridgley is significant because it was not originally deemed to be murder at all. The original Hertfordshire police detective assigned to the case rather bizarrely decided that Mrs Ridgley had died in a freak accident, and that her dog had been accidentally killed by her shortly before her own death.

The story, as detailed by Paul Stickler, makes you almost laugh as you read it, for to modern minds, it seems inconceivable that a woman could have an accident that involved her smearing quantities of her own blood all over the downstairs of her house, moving from room to room, and then fracture her beloved pet’s skull, again by accident. Yet that is what George Reed, of the Hitchin police, insisted had happened (as Stickler notes, he was about to retire, and perhaps didn’t want to finish with a nasty murder case).

Luckily, Scotland Yard had its doubts about this accident theory too, and brought in Wensley to reinvestigate. He believed it was murder, identified a suspect, and in due course, saw the case come to court. It’s not quite right to say, as the title does, that this murder case defeated Wensley; instead, I was left at the end of the book believing strongly that he had got the right man, but that the mess left by Reed meant that the jury had little hard evidence to go on. Stickler reaches the same conclusion; and one feels that he is far more of a Wensley than a Reed, detailing the whys and wheres and hows in careful detail.

This is obviously due to Stickler’s background in CID, investigating murders himself until his retirement in 2008. His skill in detailing crime scenes and analysing evidence are obvious in reading this book; although it takes time to get going, you soon get drawn into the events, curious to know more about the victim and her alleged attacker.

Where he falls down slightly is in his storytelling; he is prone to use lots of commas to create very long sentences, for example, where a few judicious full-stops would have made it easier to read some of what he’s trying to say. In addition, some of the characters remain – perhaps inevitably, but obstinately –  two-dimensional, including Reed himself, whose actions appear so peculiar and irrational. Finally, the jumps in time and place, particularly in the early part of the book, don’t quite work.

But these are minor quibbles. Stickler’s professional experience results in a book where you feel he has really attempted to get under the skin of the investigating police – to see what they saw, to analyse the evidence, and to point the reader in the right direction. It hints at issues around class, nationality, money, and the aftermath of war, whilst never detracting from what the book is: a study of a murder, and also of how the police operated at this time. It also, fundamentally, shows that justice is not always served, however hard the Wensleys of this world try.

The Murder That Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes: At Mrs Ridgley’s Corner, by Paul Stickler, is published by Pen & Sword at £14.99. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of the book.

From dreams of Valentino to death on the beach

Rudolph Valentino, heartthrob of 1920s cinema

 

“Why is it so quiet, what are they hiding?” (Sylvia Plath, Berck-Plage)

It was 1934, and a beautiful blonde woman named Rachel Mery was about to die.

Rachel was a romantic, who fell headlong in love, and who loved grand gestures. She was now about to embark on her grandest, carrying out a suicide pact with her lover on the beach at Berck, near Le Touquet in northern France. She was only 23 years old.

She was born in Paris, the ‘youngest and prettiest’ daughter of a wealthy estate broker. She was always a dreamer – a girl whose health was deemed so delicate that she had not been sent to school, but instead kept at home to read and dream, and given an unusual amount of freedom by her doting parents.

It is no surprise that, lonely and in need of romance, she had developed a passion for the cinema, being described as ‘cinema mad’. She became obsessive, not just about the cinema, but about its stars – and in particular, about Rudolph Valentino – as had thousands of others. When he died, prematurely, in August 1926, she had joined hundreds of these other mourning women to burn candles in his memory; she had also built an altar to him.

Valentino – as he was in his films – had shown Rachel an idealised view of men and of love. Having lived her life to date in books and in films, with their often unrealistic view of life and passion, she believed this is what life was really like, and the reality would never be able to match it. For the rest of her life, Rachel seemed to be searching for the dramatic, passionate love affairs that were the mainstay of fiction.

Paris in 1934

However, ‘real’ men failed to live up to her ideals. In 1929, she had fallen ‘violently’ in love again – this time with a well-known orchestra leader, Fernand Heurteur, of the Grand Kinema in Paris. Fernand was regarded as something of a Don Juan, and it is clear that this middle-aged, successful man would never be the soulmate of a romantic young woman.

A year later, then, unsurprisingly, Rachel found out that 41-year-old Fernand had, in fact, been living with another woman, and had never mentioned this fact to her. They had initially argued at his flat, and then, on his agreeing to go for a drive, they argued again.

As they bowled along the Rue de Pyramides, she asked Fernand to leave his lover, but he responded, “Never”. She then took her father’s revolver out from her pocket, showing it to Fernand and saying, “It’s either for you or for me.” An unphased Fernand answered, “I don’t care. You may kill me or kill yourself.” So Rachel chose to kill Fernand – and he had been killed instantly, leaving the car to career along the road and crash into a lamp-post.

The police arrived, and she calmly surrendered to them, saying, “He is dead. I shot him because I loved him too much.” She continued to tell them what happened as she powdered her nose. “He wanted to abandon me – I told him so,” she sighed, before pointing with her ‘daintily-shod foot’ to the revolver on the floor of the car.

She was sent to prison to await trial, but while incarcerated, doctors discovered that she had tuberculosis, which was causing her to lose weight drastically. She was taken to her trial on a stretcher, and, due to her health, was given only two years in prison, as a first offender, and was actually released immediately, on payment of 100,000 francs in damages.

A railway poster for Berck

She then went as a patient to a sanatorium near Berck. Whilst there, a 34-year-old man named Georges Veron was admitted, also suffering from advanced tuberculosis, and fell in love with her. They spent much of their time going for rides in a pony-carriage, and writing romantic verses to each other. On Sunday, 21 January, they went out again for a ride, but never returned.

A coastguard found the lovers’ bodies, still in their pony-carriage, on the sand dunes. Rachel was lying back with her arms folded, looking as though she was asleep. Georges was lying across her body.

It was found that Rachel had first drunk a vial of a sleeping draught, and then, once she was asleep, Georges had shot her in her right temple, before shooting himself in the mouth. Their intention to carry out the pact was set out in a bundle of letters Rachel had written and posted – they arrived with their recipients nearly a week after the bodies were discovered.

Rachel’s death was as romantic as she could have wanted. She had finally found a lover who believed in a big statement as she did; neither of them had anything to lose, as they were faced with death sentences anyway. They died on a windswept beach, their deaths making the headlines just as Valentino’s had less than a decade before.

 

Details taken from British newspaper accounts, 1930-1934, of Rachel’s escapades, found on the British Newspaper Archive.

Super Spooner and the Witchcraft Murder

A unsolved murder in 1945 haunted Superintendent Alec Spooner of the Warwickshire police force for the rest of his life…

Superintendent Alec Spooner (from the Birmingham Daily Post, on the British Newspaper Archive)

Superintendent Alec Spooner, who joined the Warwickshire force in the 1930s after an earlier career as a Staffordshire miner, had conducted many murder investigations prior to his retirement in 1964. However, one stayed with him long after it had been given up as unsolved, and unsolvable. This was the so-called ‘Witchcraft Murder’ at Meon Hill, near Upper Quinton, in 1945, when a crippled hedge-cutter – 74-year-old labourer Charles Walton –  was killed by what newspapers described as ‘methods suggesting a ritual sacrifice’, with a cross carved into his chest.

Alec William Spooner was born in Amington, near Tamworth, in Staffordshire, the son of a hospital labourer. On joining the police, he served in Solihull and Sutton Coldfield, before being appointed as head of the county CID as a detective superintendent in May 1939, based in Stratford. One might expect Stratford to be a nice, gentle, patch for a policeman, but this was not the case.

On 14 February 1945, a cold, misty night in the middle of the muckspreading season, Charles Walton had been found in a field on the slope of Meon Hill, with his throat cut and a pitchfork thrust through his body. The murder weapon, Charles’ own trouncing hook, was still embedded in his neck.

Charles had married relatively late in life, aged 44, but had been widowed just 13 years later, and for the past 18 years, he had been living just with his niece, Edith Walton, in Lower Quinton. He was a harmless individual who spent time talking to the birds and animals he came across, and who was currently employed by Alfred Potter, whose farm, The Firs, had required extra labour.[1] There were signs of eccentric behaviour, for sure; he was once seen harnessing a toad to a toy plough and watching it drag the plough across a field. But that was the strangest thing that happened to Charles – until his death.

However, something odd had happened to Charles as a child. He was living then with his parents, Charles – an agricultural labourer – and Emma, and his siblings – Harriet, Mary, Martha, George and Richard – in Upper Quinton.  As was common amongst labouring families, the children were expected to start work young, and Charles was working as a ploughboy. On nine nights running, he saw a big black dog run across Meon Hill; on that final night, a headless woman walked past him in a silk dress, and the day after that he heard that his sister had died.

Coverage of the murder, from the following day, 15 February 1945 (Gloucestershire Echo, on the British Newspaper Archive)

Superstition and a belief in ghosts was rife in the area at the time of Charles’ childhood, and it seems to have continued: shortly after Charles’ death, the famous Scotland Yard detective Robert Fabian, drafted in to help the local police with the case, saw the same black ‘ghost’ dog; and a few days later, locals found a black dog, dead, hanged from the branch of a bush by its collar, close to where Charles’ body had been found. This time of the year, it was noted, was the Roman Feast of Lupercalia, when dogs were sacrificed to ensure good crops.

Despite the victim being old and frail – facts one would have thought would make local people want to help the police, and think of clues – they in fact avoided participation; another police superintendent, Bob Fabian commented that when he tried to interview local people, they displayed, “Lowered eyes, [a] reluctance to speak, except to talk of bad crops or a heifer that died in a ditch.” The detectives were ‘baffled’ by this reluctance to speak, and a decided ‘attitude’ on the part of locals.

Mediums were keener to help, however, with several holding séances on subsequent Valentine’s Days in the hope that they might uncover information that would help the police; however, their involvement might help explain the villagers’ reluctance to speak out. Far later on in time, they said that ‘they have never ceased to be pestered by occultists, psychic researchers, writers, the morbidly curious and others’ when all they wanted to do was to ‘live out their lives quietly in one of the most attractive corners of the county.’

Alec Spooner continued to work on other cases – in 1948, for example, he received acclaim for breaking up a nationwide gang of car thieves, who were so numerous that their case had to be held at a special Assize court in Warwick. But the case of the Witchcraft Murder continued to haunt him. In 1954, the Birmingham Daily Gazette reported that Spooner ‘probably saw a murderer yesterday – the man he has sworn to catch for killing an old hedger at Upper Quinton on St Valentine’s Day nine years ago.’

This story focused on a visit Spooner had just made to the village; he spent six whole hours walking round it, talking to men and women he had talked to nine years earlier. “I have sworn to solve this murder, and I am not going to give up,” he told reporters, stating that he intended making such regular ‘sudden’ visits to the village in order to spook the killer, who he suspected lived, and still lived, in the village. He believed the murder was a ritual killing, as it was committed on a day regarded as ‘the witches’ Sabbath’.

The baptism of Charles Walton in 1870, from Ancestry

In 1959, Spooner, who had been in charge of the Warwickshire CID for 20 years, was transferred to Nuneaton as the Divisional Superintendent. This change was ordered by PE Brodie, the fairly new Chief Constable of Warwickshire (a former Scotland Yard inspector, he had become the Chief Constable in 1958), as part of a ‘routine’ personnel change. On then retiring from the police in 1964, Spooner continued to live in Nuneaton, working as a security officer for the National Coal Board. He died in the town’s George Eliot Hospital in December 1970, aged 66 and two months, after an operation.

At his funeral, policemen acted as pallbearers. It sounded like as lovely a service as funerals can be; as it was Christmas time, Sylvia Spooner, Alec’s widow, asked for carols to be sung, and Christmas decorations lit at the location, Nuneaton’s parish church. His obituaries in the Birmingham and Coventry newspapers still recorded him as ‘CID’s witchcraft hunt man’.

Sadly, the ‘witchcraft’ case remained unsolved; in 1975, an article to mark the 30th anniversary of the crime stated that Charles Walton’s murder had ‘passed into Warwickshire folklore’. Was the killer still alive in the village, or elsewhere? ‘Most probably, the vicious murderer’s secrets died, or will die, with him or (less likely) her.’

Today, Charles Walton’s body remains buried in St Swithin’s Churchyard in Lower Quinton, across the road from a large house that was, in his time, a row of old thatched cottages named Meon Cottages – one was his home. In 1975, one female resident of the village had told a Coventry Evening Telegraph reporter that “it’s time they closed the book” – but in 2018, the case of Charles Walton is still very much open.

Sources: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 19 December 1970; Coventry Evening Telegraph, 24 December 1970; Coventry Evening Telegraph, 14 February 1975; and other issues of the Coventry Evening Telegraph and Birmingham Daily Gazette, all on British Newspaper Archive; plus census returns for Upper and Upper Quinton and Tamworth, all on Ancestry.

[1] Although some sources stated that Charles was an elderly bachelor, he was, as his Wikipedia entry states, a widower. His wife had died on 9 December 1927 – this information was taken from Edith Walton’s police interview about her uncle. Charles married Isabella Caroline Walton – perhaps a cousin – in 1914, and FreeBMD records her death aged 45 in October-December 1927 (vol 6d, page 866). The National Probate Calendar on Ancestry shows that ‘Isabel Caroline Walton, otherwise Isabella Caroline, of 15 Lower Quinton’ left effects of £297 4s 3d to ‘Charles Walton, cowman’. Isabella was born in 1882 in Binton, Warwickshire, but her father George, a carpenter, was a native of Quinton; Charles Walton Sr was baptised at Quinton on 28 April 1844, the son of William and Mary Walton; in the 1851 census for Lower Quinton, both Charles Walton, 7, and George Walton, 1, are listed as the sons of William and Mary Walton, so Isabella could well have been the younger Charles’s first cousin.

The 1939 Register on Findmypast also clearly records Charles as a widower. It states that he was born on 12 May 1870, and was living at Lower Quinton with Edith Walton, born 23 May 1911, who later married a man named Goode.

A shorter version of this piece appears in the March issue of the Stratford Herald‘s Focus magazine.

Mrs Bryant’s execution: a study in class, sex and gender

Early coverage of the case in the Sunderland Daily Echo of 1 January 1936

Many murder cases of the late 19th and early 20th centuries continue to be famous – or infamous – today, with books devoted to them, and television programmes salivating at titillating facts surrounding the cases. In many cases, the attraction of these murders perhaps lies, at least partly, in the fact that photographs survive of the protagonists in these stories. Photos of murderers and their victims bring a case to life, helping us picture who these individuals were, and why they might have done what they did.

Perhaps that also helps explain the relative obscurity of one case that grabbed the headlines in 1936. In the case of Charlotte Bryant, the case should have had a lasting impact on our consciousness. She was young – 33 – when she was hanged for murder on 15 July. She was that rare thing, a female murderer, and she had killed her husband after becoming dissatisfied with her marriage and starting an affair with her lodger.

And yet, she does not feature in many books or television programmes today – there is only the odd local newspaper story that occasionally brings up her story, and even Wikipedia remains silent when it comes to her.

In part, I think, that is because there are no photos of Charlotte; during her trial, it was noted that she turned her head away, or covered it up, when she saw the press photographers gathering like vultures; and also, her trial was not at the Old Bailey, but in the relatively isolated south-west, at the Dorchester Assizes, her hanging taking place at Exeter Gaol. There may have been fewer resources, fewer available photographers, or fewer willing to travel to Dorset and to Devon to attempt an image of this murderess than in London.

The other factor in this case that may have affected press coverage then and now was class. Charlotte was an illiterate, working-class woman, married to a humble cowman, and having an affair with a traveller – a gypsy, in the contemporary parlance. She was a mother of five young children, having been married young, and without a decent education.

As a working-class, poorly educated woman from south-west England, she was not a romantic figure, but a rather plain one to the press and public. Unlike Alma Rattenbury, acquitted of her husband’s murder a year earlier, pictured emerging from court in full length fur coat, she was not moneyed or glamorous. She was what she was: a poor woman who had poisoned her husband with weedkiller when the romance – if there had ever been any – had died, and she felt stifled by the monotony and grinding poverty of her life.

*

It was on 5 October 1922 that Charlotte McHugh married Frederick John Bryant in Somerset. She was just 19 years old, a migrant from Derry in Northern Ireland, now making a home in south-west England. Left at home in Derry were her parents, John and Sarah; now she was taking on Frederick’s family, who were based in the Sherborne area of Dorset. Her new husband, born in Sherborne, was a few years older than her, being 25 at the time of their marriage. He would be dead before 40.

Children soon arrived: Ernest Samuel in the winter of 1923; Lily Elizabeth two years later, George Alfred in 1928, William John in 1931, and Edwin Frederick in the winter of 1934.

My sympathies at this point are very much with Charlotte; a girl born in Northern Ireland in the early 20th century, good looking but without an education, who was brought up in a society where women were supposed to look good and get married, raise children, and to not expect much more than that.

She was brought up in an area where British soldiers – who may have represented something ‘exotic’ to local girls – roamed near Republicans; and where a young, attractive girl who got the attention of the soldiers might also cause resentment amongst others.

Modern coverage of Charlotte’s case has focused on her sexuality; Richard Clark, who runs the Capital Punishment UK website, has described her as having capturing the heart of her husband while he was serving as a military policeman in the Dorset Regiment. He is described positively as a ‘simple country lad’, yet Clark describes Charlotte, after their marriage, in the following terms:

Charlotte was very highly sexed and soon became bored with village life [in Dorset], compared to the excitement of life around the Londonderry barracks, with plenty of attentive and free spending soldiers and a good sex life. She didn’t work as such and spent her days drinking and indulging in a little prostitution – one feels as much for the sex as for the money.

This echoes coverage both in the early years of the 20th  century and since in terms of ascribing to any criminal behaviour on the part of women as being due to excessive and thus dangerous sexuality. There is also clearly a double standard; many men of the time would have engaged in casual sex – indeed, they were encouraged to sow their seed young, before marrying – but women were castigated for any similar behaviour, and it is often used later to demonstrate early signs of criminality or deviancy.

Charlotte is here described as spending her days drinking, when authors such as Clark freely admit that social life in a Dorset village at this time would have centred around the local pub, and so drinking would have been a common occupation for both men and women, and certainly not just for Charlotte.

Charlotte’s husband does not seem the epitome of respectability either, in terms of his alleged approval of possible casual prostitution; according to Clark, he told a neighbour that her earnings this way were substantially better than his own wages as a cowman.

And money must have been fairly tight for them (which suggests that Charlotte was not regularly soliciting, if at all); they took in lodgers, and in 1933, a horse trader and gypsy named Leonard Parsons became the family lodger. Charlotte started an affair with Leonard, and the menage a trois caused, unsurprisingly, occasional conflict, and suggestions that the relationship was one-sided, with Charlotte far more interested in Parsons than he was in her.

Headline in the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 27 May 1936

Whatever the truth of this relationship, Frederick Bryant died on 23 December 1935, after several suspicious spells of illness over the course of the previous six months. He was found to have been poisoned by arsenic – a popular ingredient in weedkiller.

Charlotte was charged with murder, whilst she was being housed in the Sturminster Newton Poor Law Institution (workhouse), where she and her children had been taken after Frederick’s death to help avoid public and press attention – although it seems that this move would have been inevitable anyway, given her and her husband’s meagre household income.

Her trial, at the Dorset Assizes in May 1936, saw Leonard Parsons commit the ultimate betrayal of his former lover, detailing their sex life, and encouraging the jury to see her as a woman who had committed adultery and thus was disloyal towards her husband. Two of her children – Ernest and Lily – were also called to give evidence against their own mother; evidence that damned in describing how their mother may have owned and used bottle of poison.

Charlotte was convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. An appeal failed, and she was sent to Exeter jail to await her execution. During the six weeks she spent here, she received more of an education than she had ever been given before, being taught to read and write by female warders. She was finally hanged on 15 July 1936.

There were no winners in her case; she only left five shillings to her children, and they were now left orphaned and destitute. They were taken into the care of the county council, becoming the legal wards of the Dorset Public Assistance Committee. (Sheffield Independent, 18 July 1936) At this time, they were aged between 18 months old and 12 years.

Richard Clark has stated that Charlotte’s ‘lowly status and acknowledged promiscuity’ may have influenced the decision to carry out the death sentence against her, rather than commute it or allow her appeal. But he then goes on to write,

Sadly, Britain was very much a class ridden society in 1936 and Charlotte was virtually at the bottom of the social pile – an illiterate, immoral slut.

No trial report described her as an ‘illiterate, immoral slut’ and I feel this is Clarke’s own interpretation of how he thinks 1930s England would have seen her, rather than actually what did happen. In describing her thus, however unintentionally, he reiterates the view that being interested in sex makes a woman a ‘slut’.

No press coverage of the trial or its aftermath that I can find refers to Charlotte as engaging in promiscuity or prostitution; indeed, the focus is on her status as a mother, desperate to see her children and check that they are being looked after, as she awaits first her trial, and then her execution.

Looking at the coverage of Charlotte’s case from the time, then, there is a more sympathetic, more nuanced, tone than Clarke takes. For example, on the morning of her execution, she was described as making a ‘despairing last-minute plea to the King’ via telegram, repeated in full in the Birmingham Daily Gazette, in which she refers to herself as the King’s ‘lowly, afflicted subject’. Rather than being depicted as a ‘slut’, she is simply ‘Mrs Charlotte Bryant, the 33-year-old mother of five children’. (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 15 July 1936)

Even when allegations were made about Charlotte’s life, it was as a transcription of what someone had said in court – for example, when the Sheffield Independent stated that Parsons ‘was the father of the appellant’s [Charlotte’s] last child’, it was directly quoting Lord Hewart, in announcing that Charlotte’s appeal was being dismissed, when he summed up what the murder case was about. (Sheffield Independent, 30 June 1936) There was a factual tone, rather than a condemning one.

In addition, when, in court, attempts had been made to highlight that Charlotte had been Parsons’ mistress, the Solicitor General had stopped them, ascerbically commenting, “You are not a court of morals.” (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 May 1936)

Although Charlotte’s affair was brought up in court, it was not done so to depict her as a slut, or as an evil woman, but mentioned as part of a prosecution case to suggest that because Charlotte was in a relationship with Parsons, in love with him, and wanted to marry him, she was motivated to kill her husband. Killing him would enable her to marry her lover. This would be a common motive for murder, and thus an obvious approach for the prosecution to take. (see Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 May 1936)

Charlotte’s class is, to me, more of a factor in how she was treated. She was unable to read or write; she had to have it explained to her what an ‘inquest’ was.  During her trial, she had to ask the prison wardresses to help explain procedure to her.

She suffered from a lack of education that gave her no prospects, and yet she was clearly an intelligent woman in that she wanted more than she knew she could get within the confines of Northern Irish or Dorset rural society; when given the opportunity to improve herself in jail, she made the most of it, taking only a short amount of time to learn to write letters; and she surprised the court when she appeared on the stand and gave a coherent, strong account of her actions.

The coverage of her execution in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette made no mention of her sex life, but focused on her lack of education; in the hour before her death, she had received the Sacraments in her cell:

‘During those last moments on earth, this uneducated and illiterate woman, who had never been taught to read or write or spell, recalled the faith which she learned when a child attending the Roman Catholic Sunday School in her native Ireland, and she murmured the responses to the Litanies in a low voice.’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 July 1936)

My conclusion is that Charlotte had indeed killed her husband; she had made comments to friends that she disliked her husband, and was in love with Parsons – but could not face simply running away with her lover because she did not want to leave her children. If her husband lived, he would keep the children; so he had to die, in order for her to have both lover and loved children.

Her honesty and straightforward nature, however, hanged her:  she made it obvious that she was ‘forcing’ her husband to drink poisoned Oxo, at one point, and telling people, “I hate Fred” before bemoaning her plight, saying about another local woman, “She is lucky. She has not got a husband.” (Leeds Mercury, 28 May 1936).

But it’s not true that the jury convicted Charlotte because she was immoral, or a slut, or because they thought she was a prostitute. The most they appear to have heard in court was that she was the mistress of Parsons, who may have fathered her youngest child, if gossip was to have been believed. This appears to have been the only sexually-related gossip about Charlotte that was heard in court.

She was convicted, though, because the evidence against her was overwhelming. She had talked about her hatred of her husband, and her wish to not be married to him. She had spoken of her desire to run away with Parsons; she also feared that his feelings towards her had cooled. She was known to have had bottle of what could be weedkiller and arsenic; even her children said so. And she had been insistent on her husband drinking and eating certain food and drink even when he was ill and reluctant to do so. It was evidence such as this that convicted Charlotte, and the jury had even been warned not to act as a court of morals, but as a court of law.

Charlotte’s case frustrates me, because it seems that where it is written about in recent times, it focuses on rumours or speculation about her sex life, and assumes bias or prejudice on the part of her contemporaries towards her sexuality. In fact, in looking  at press coverage from the actual time, it appears that her life may not have been as salacious as some sources might suggest, or if it was, then that was not something that was brought up in court, covered in the press, or used to convict her of murder. It was one specific relationship that was focused on, and that was in order to build a convincing motive as to why she might have killed.

So it seems that some of the biases against female murderers such as Charlotte are not necessarily of their time, but of our own; we assume that our forebears must have demonstrated prejudice against certain lifestyles, and we assume that those convicted of crime must be more interesting than, perhaps, they were. Charlotte may have been a working-class woman who took a drastic, ill thought out action because she thought she was in love; but that did not make her a slut or a prostitute, then or now.

 

CHARLOTTE’S CHILDREN

The wealthy London anti-capital punishment campaigner Mrs Violet Van Der Elst was reported as being keen to adopt all five children, although it seems that she only wanted to send them to a convent abroad for their education. She was concerned that going into council care would condemn the children to the same lowly life as their mother: ‘The County Council have no right to take these children. They are going to be taken to awful homes, and there is nothing worse.’ (Sheffield Independent, 18 July 1936).

She later told a reporter that she would find the children foster parents, and would pay for their maintenance and education; in addition, she would start a fund, giving it an initial £50,000, to ‘provide for the children of people who have been murdered or executed’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 July 1936).

Before Charlotte had been executed, there had been an attempt by the NSPCC to take the children to one of their homes, but Charlotte had refused permission via her solicitor, wanting them to stay near to her geographically. She had presumably hoped, at this point, that she would be freed to take back the care of her family. (Gloucestershire Echo, 11 February 1936)

After Charlotte’s death, an inquest was carried out to ensure that she had been ‘judicially and humanely executed’. The prison governor had suggested that the coroner’s jury might wish to donate their fees to the Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society; when the jurors expressed a wish, instead, to give their fees to Charlotte’s five children, they were discouraged; the coroner stated that the fees were only small, and that ‘provision had already been made for the care of the children’. (Northern Whig, 16 July 1936)

Mrs Van Der Elst had stated that she wanted the children to be educated abroad ‘to that the circumstances of their parents’ death with never be known to them’, although the eldest children must have known about what had happened; especially as Charlotte had requested to see them whilst being held in prison, and that request had been granted.

 

 

Sources:

Marriages, 1922, 5c 971; deaths Jun 1936, Sherborne – Frederick J Bryant, 39 – 5a 367; born Dec 1897 Sherborne, 5a 319).  [births for Ernest S Bryant, Frome, Dec 1923, 5c 585; Lily E Bryant, Frome, 5c 533; George A Bryant, Sherborne 5a 474; William J Bryant, Sherborne, 5a 467; Edwin F Bryant, Sherborne, 5a 426, all listed as having a mother whose maiden name was McHugh or MacHugh).

The Mysterious Murder of Florrie Little

Another 1920s murder case this week; and although all murders are upsetting, this one is particularly so, as it involves a young girl from Wales, and her killer was a boy who was himself still a child. I originally found this case in an issue to the Nottingham Journal (22 July 1921), that headlined its story ‘The Mysterious Murder of Florrie Little’.

**

Harold Jones, aged 15 (from the Dundee Courier, 22 July 1921)

Florence Irene Little, 11, was from Abertillery in Wales, and known as Florrie. Born in the early months of 1910, she disappeared on the night of 8 July 1921, and her body was later found in the attic of a neighbour’s house. She had been hit over the head, and her throat had been cut.

Her funeral was held less than a week after her disappearance and murder, on the afternoon of Wednesday 13 July. The funeral was said to have been the ‘largest ever seen in Wales’, with hundreds of schoolchildren following the small coffin tots grave. The entire student body from Florrie’s school had gone to the funeral.

The inquest  into her death was opened on 21 July, and adjourned until the following day. On its opening day, it was an unusual inquest, for in the coroner’s court sat a boy, wearing a brown tweed suit and an open-necked shirt, concentrating hard, taking notes of the witnesses’ statements. This boy was not just interested in crime and coroners – rather, he was suspected of committing the murder.

Harold Jones was a 15 year old boy who had a chequered past. In February 1921 he had appeared in court charged with the murder of a little girl named Freda Burnell, aged eight, who had been found strangled in a lane in Abertillery. Her screams had been heard coming from a nearby shed the night before.

Harold had been working in a poultry shop at that time, and Freda had been sent by her father, a popular member of the Salvation Army, to buy some ‘poultry spice and grit’ on the morning she disappeared. That evening, Harold had called round to the Burnell house, and asked her father if she had been found; Freda had been known to go to the Jones house to play.

Although Harold had admitted lying about various aspects of the evidence he had given, at the next Monmouth Assizes, he was acquitted of Freda’s murder, emerging from court to a hero’s welcome by locals. However, by that summer, he was at the Abertillery police court, being accused of another girl’s murder, before being remanded to Usk Gaol.

**

The 1911 census entry for the Little family in Abertillery

He now sat in on the inquest, and heard Florrie’s father, Arthur George Little, detail how on the night of Florrie’s death, the Little family had sat down to supper together late, finishing around 9.20pm. The children then went out of the front door to play.

At 9.45, Florrie’s mother, Elsie, had called out to her children, asking, “Where is Florence?”, but got no response. She then went to her neighbours, at number 10, as the girls had been seen playing on the pavement opposite that house, and another daughter Lillie, then aged eight, believed that was where Florrie had gone – but she returned without her eldest daughter.

Elsie Little gave evidence at the inquest that when she had gone to the Jones house, the door was, unusually for the place and time, locked, and it took a full two minutes for Harold to answer the door. When he did, he was wearing just his navy serge trousers, with his braces hanging down. He was holding a hairbrush in his hand, and told Mrs Little that he had been having a bath when she called. Smiling, he said to her, “Florrie’s been here, but went through the back way.”

Mr Little then started to search the streets, and at 10.35pm he had talked to Jones’ parents and sisters, who said they had not seen Florrie. Then Little and his friends and neighbours took their Davy lamps up into the mountains, searching the area until daylight.

Coverage of the murder in the Leeds Mercury, 12 July 1921

This was a close-knit community, where the local children were in and out of each other’s houses, and where families had relatives living close by – one child witness at the inquest, Ivy Davey, referred to visiting her ‘granda’ at number 13; her mother, Mabel, knew the Jones family well and had been to see Mrs Jones before it was known that Florrie was missing. The Jones’ had a lodger, William Greenway, who stated that “usually, if there was anyone in the house, the door was not locked.”

The children therefore had quite a lot of freedom, for their parents believed the community to be safe – and that other parents would help keep an eye out for them. The children also acted in ways that, to us, are rather adult; they kept late hours, they wandered around on their own – Harold Jones’s eight-year-old sister, Flossie, stated that she had gone to buy ‘some “pop” and cigarettes’ on the way to meet her parents on the evening in question.

But it wasn’t a wealthy community either, and families shared resources. Many of the local men were miners, and it was stated that in 1921, many of them were ‘idle’ – the context being that work was rather slack at that time, rather than it being meant in the more pejorative sense of being lazy. Florrie’s father was, like most of them, employed  at the local Vivian Pit – in 1923, there were nearly 900 men employed there.

When Harold Jones shouted to his mother on the evening of Florrie’s disappearance, claiming that his shirt had fallen in the bath, got soaked, and so he needed a clean one, Mrs Jones responded, “I’ve not got another one. You will have to have one of mine.”

When it was known that Florrie was missing, Harold tried to go out. His mother tried to prevent him, but Harold responded, “Give me a scarf and let me go out. We have had enough trouble lately.” Meanwhile, his father, Philip, was out drinking at the Bell Hotel; he claimed to have returned home by 10pm, and to have been home when Mrs Little called at the door, but she believed he was not there by that point.

**

Gaol records show Harold’ being accused of Freda Burnell’s murder in February 1921 (via Ancestry)

After Florrie’s funeral, police had dug up the back garden of the Jones house, but found ‘nothing of importance’. Despite this, however, on Thursday 28 July, after a two day hearing at the Children’s Court in Abertillery, Harold Jones was committed to the Monmouth Assizes to stand trial for Florrie’s murder. At the hearing, when asked if he wished to say anything, he ‘sprang to his feet, and stood erect. “Not guilty,” he said loudly and clearly.’

The facts, however, were against Harold. Florrie’s body had been found in his house, and she had been hit over the head with a piece of wood, before being stabbed with a knife that Harold had been given by his own brother. He had last used it, he said, to ‘kill a chicken’. Whilst doing this, he had cut his finger, and the blood had got on the knife. He had tried to clean it, but the blood wouldn’t come off. Or so he said.

There was blood both on Harold’s clothing, and on Florrie’s. The stains were fresh, and looked similar. There were bloodstains on the knife blade that were not from a chicken; on a saucepan in the kitchen; and on a wall of a passage in the house. Florrie had, in fact, died from a loss of blood.

**

By the time Harold arrived for the first day of his trial, in November 1921, he had realised that the evidence against him was overwhelming. His plea now changed from not guilty, to guilty. Not only that, but he now admitted that he had also killed the little girl whose murder he had been acquitted of – Freda Burnell.

After his acquittal for that crime, public opinion had made ‘some sort of hero’ out of Jones; it was now felt that this had given Jones such a sense of vanity that he killed Florrie in order to maintain that ‘fame’ he had experienced at the start of the year.

His father stated that at the time of his arrest, Harold had been about to “start writing the story of his life, with a view to selling it… Only a week ago, he had a photograph taken, which was intended to be used as an illustration” (presumably the illustration used at the top of this blog post). Jones, however, simply said he killed out of a simple “desire to kill”.

Jones, whose desire to kill and become famous resulted in the tragic deaths of two young girls – girls who trusted him as a local and as a friend – was ordered to be detained during His Majesty’s pleasure.

The charge against Harold Jones in the Freda Burnell case (from Ancestry’s gaol records)

Other sources used: Londonderry Sentinel, 12 February 1921; Nottingham Evening Post, 24 February 1921; Western Times, 26 February 1921; Derby Daily Telegraph, 11 July 1921; Birmingham Daily Gazette, 13 July 1921; Motherwell Times, 15 July 1921; Dundee Courier, 22 July 1921; The Scotsman, 29 July 1921; Lichfield Mercury, 4 November 1921; FreeBMD births, Bedwellty district, Jan-Mar 1910 (vol 11a page 93); deaths, Bedwellty district, Jul-Sep 1921 (vol 11a page 69). Newspaper reports list Harold Jones’s first victim as Freda Burnell and Freda Burnett; gaol records list her as Elsie Maud Burnell; however, FreeBMD shows that her full name was Freda Elsie Maud Burnell (FreeBMD deaths, Bedwellty district, Jan-Mar 1921 (vol 11a page 104).

*At least one paper referred to May Little as being older than Florrie; but the 1911 census for Penrhiw Garreg, Abertillery, lists Florence Irene as being the only child of her parents, aged 1; Arthur George Little and Elsie Jane Weeks had only married in 1909 (1911 census on Ancestry; FreeBMD for Bedwellty, Apr-Jun 1909, vol 11a page 206). Her other siblings were, as the birth records for Bedwellty show, younger – Cyril was born in 1912, Lillie in 1913, Harold in 1915, and Elsie in 1918.

Watched: The Unsolved Murder of Frances Buxton

Coverage of the case from the Sheffield Evening Telegraph made explicit the unlikelihood of the perpetrator being found

On 17 January 1920, Mrs Frances Buxton, landlady of The Cross Keys pub in Chelsea, was murdered.

Two days before, Mrs Buxton, aged 53, had been ‘pestered’ by a man at the bar. He was quite tall – between 5’10 and 6 foot, with a long, clean-shaven face, light hair and ‘very piercing’, close-set black eyes. He seemed respectable; he wore a bowler hat, was aged about 40, but spoke with quite a high-pitched voice for a man.

But what he said in that high-pitched voice disturbed her. He asked her intrusive questions about her love life, requested that she have supper with him, and then finally asked her if she lived at the pub on her own. She answered ‘yes’ and then immediately realised how stupid she was to do so. The man had then tried to walk into her private parlour, at which point, she pushed him out.

The incident bothered her so much that the following day, 16 January, she asked a local timekeeper, named variously as Briscoe Hervey, or Detley Driscoll Harvey, if he had noticed the man when he had been in the pub that day, but unfortunately, Hervey had not noticed him. However, he realised how concerned she was; she felt that she, and the pub, were being watched, but thought perhaps it was the police, monitoring the premises for evidence of improper conduct.

The London electoral register for 1919 records Frances in Chelsea (from Ancestry)

Frances was a married woman – but separated. She had lived apart from her husband, Frank, since about 1908, and they had not seen each other since the previous summer. Frank had relocated to Sussex, where he ran the Sussex Hotel in Bexhill-on-Sea.

Frances was not a drinker, but she had seen other men since she and Frank had separated; one of her barmaids, a Mrs Mitchell, believed that she had been seeing two men ‘at times’.

Then, on the morning of 18 January, Frances Buxton was found dead in the cellar of her pub; she had died shortly before midnight on the night of the 17th. That evening, Mrs Mitchell and her daughter had been working at the pub – the daughter was engaged to wash glasses – and had left at 10.30pm, Frances saying goodnight to them before Mrs Mitchell closed the door. Frances may then have had a late meal – in a small room behind the bar, the remains of a meal were later found, with it looking like she had been disturbed whilst eating.

Happier days? The 1891 census records Frances living with her husband Frank at 64 Fetter Lane, in the City of London

Whatever happened just before midnight that night involved violence. There was a smashed bottle and a pool of blood in the passageway, and Frances’s body had been placed on a pile of burning sacking, and covered in sawdust, with a spade lying nearby. She had not been dead long when the police found her. She had been killed from head injuries caused by the broken beer bottle, including a fractured skull – but her nose had also been broken by a blow, and it looked as though someone had attempted to strangle her with a cord of wire.

There were clues found by the police; fingerprints on Frances’s dress and the walls; two Treasury notes dropped by the perpetrator; missing money and jewellery belonging to Frances. All except the missing items (obviously) were photographed by the police, who suspected that two individuals – men – must have committed the crime.

The National Probate Calendar entry for Frances, from Ancestry. Although the date she died is given as 18 January, she was attacked the night before.

The inquest into Frances’s death had to be adjourned, but on Tuesday 3 February, it was resumed, with the coroner, HR Oswald, stating that ‘as there was no immediate prospect of the arrest of any suspected person, the jury could not in fairness continue to adjourn the inquiry on the chance of one taking place.’ The coroner’s jury soon, therefore, returned a verdict of wilful murder ‘by some person or persons unknown’.

There had, in the three weeks or so since the murder, been no arrests, and there was, as the coroner noted, no sign of there being any in the near future. This increased the fascination with the case by the press; the Globe employed a ‘special representative’ to give a gushing account of an interview Frank Buxton had with the police, together with a list of jewellery that was missing from the pub. This correspondent had made ‘inquiries from neighbours’ who frequented the pub, to build a picture of what it had been like on the night of the murder: ‘there were several couples playing dominoes’ was one of the earth-shattering things he found out.

More significant, perhaps, was the reporter’s suggestion that as Frances’s ‘exceptionally good’ watch-dog had failed to bark (or at least, was not heard to bark) when Frances was attacked, ‘the crime was probably perpetrated by someone familiar with the premises and known to the dog’. Given that the murder occurred in a popular pub, where many people would have been ‘familiar’ to the dog, though, this might not narrow the list of suspects down very much.

And so it proved. Nobody was arrested or charged with the murder, and five years later, it was being described in the press as ‘one of London’s unsolved crimes’.

 

NOTE: Five years after Frances’s death, in 1925, the case made headlines again when a man at the Tottenham Police Court suddenly declared that his niece could solve ‘the Chelsea murder mystery’. Another man had been charged with stabbing his nephew, following an argument where he had made allegations about his nephew’s wife. In court, another of the nephew’s uncles – so probably the defendant’s brother – commented about the nephew’s wife, “Our niece doesn’t want it known that she can give the information the police want to solve a Chelsea mystery of four [sic] years ago. The proprietress of a public-house was found murdered and her jewellery stolen.”

The defendant in this case was discharged, and immediately turned to the reporters in the police court, and asked them to print the family’s allegations against the nephew’s wife. Was this a baseless vendetta against the woman, or was there really a witness who could say what had happened? We don’t know, and all subsequently went quiet again – until the summer of 1926, when a Mr Creed was murdered in a Bayswater provision shop, a crime that resulted in anonymous letters being written to the police by a woman.

In coverage of this crime, it was noted that ‘the circumstances of the murder of Mr Creed are very similar to those in the case of the murder, in 1920, of Mrs Frances Buxton.’ Then, the following summer (1927), an ex-convict provided a statement to Scotland Yard that whilst serving a sentence in a French prison, he got talking to another prisoner who confessed that he had ‘taken part’ in the Chelsea crime.

Although Scotland Yard were stated to be trying to track down this confessing prisoner, there was doubt as to whether the ex-convict was telling the truth, for he was, after all, ‘well-known to the police in this country, and one who has many aliases.’

Sources: Western Daily Press, 21 January 1920, p.6; Nottingham Journal, 4 February 1920, p.5; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 4 February 1920, p.9; Globe, 19 January 1920, p.1; Daily Herald, 25 June 1925, p.5; Lancashire Evening Post, 25 June 1925, p.6; Nottingham Evening Post, 30 August 1926, p.1; Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 25 July 1927, p.5; Nottingham Journal, 25 July 1927, p.1; Northern Whig, 25 July 1927, p.9. Records relating to the murder of Frances Buxton are also to be found in The National Archives (ref MEPO 3/268B).

Mr Dumpig the butcher and his New Year murder

With a surname like his, it was perhaps inevitable that Adolf Dumpig would grow up to be a butcher. There was no reason, though, why he had to be a butcher of people – and, in particular, of his baby son.

However, in January 1904, Mr Dumpig, a 28-year-old German immigrant to London, was charged with the murder of eight-month-old Walter Dumpig. On the evening of 2 January, he appeared – flanked by two warders – in Islington Coroner’s Court, to hear the inquest into his son’s death. Unable to speak English – or not well enough to understand the coroner – a German-speaking Met Police officer, Constable Schneider, acted as his interpreter.

The records indicate that the Dumpigs were recent immigrants to Britain, for less than a year before the awful events of New Year’s Eve, 1903, they had married back in Berlin; Adolf Otto Louis Dumpig, aged 27, had wed Selma Ida Antonie Knobel (known as Antonie) on 2 February 1903. Antonie was then just 21 years old.

11 months after that happy even, Walter Schroeder’s poor, mourning, mother, Antonie Dumpig, was called on to detail what had happened on New Year’s Eve, 1903. She said that Adolf was generally a sober man, but on New Year’s Eve, he had been out drinking, ‘to keep up the New Year’. Antonie had been left at their home at 295 City Road to celebrate on her own, as she had to look after the baby – obviously, Adolf had not thought to stay with her and mark the night together.

The couple rented just two rooms in the building on City Road, from a clerk named William Woods. One room was on the first floor, and the other in the basement. Woods lived in other rooms in the same building.

Adolf returned home just after midnight, and made some hot rum for the couple to drink together. Combined with his earlier drinking, though, this made him very drunk – and he rapidly became violent, scaring Antonie so much that she ran from the kitchen into another room. Adolf followed her and locked her in that room, before returning to the kitchen. Their baby son Walter – asleep in a bassinet – was left in that room with his drunk, violent father.

Imagine Antonie’s desperation. She was locked in a room, unable to get out and get to her child. Meanwhile, she could hear Adolf drunkenly breaking windows, shouting, and heard signs of violence. The noise was so great that at one point, around 1am, their landlord William Woods ventured out of his room to see what the matter was; he saw Antonie crouching in a corner of the hall, outside the door, with dripping-wet clothes, while her husband stood over her, talking to her angrily in German, before hitting her as she stood to go into the room.

Woods had the courage to try and intervene, but was then himself hit by Adolf. Instead of trying to reason with this drunk, angry, butcher, he did the sensible thing and ran out to fetch a policeman (other reports, however, state that it was Antonie who herself summoned the attention of a passing policeman, by shouting out from her locked room).

Antonie managed to get out of the room before the police arrived, and headed straight back to her kitchen. There, she discovered the body of her son. His throat had been cut.

The policeman who attended the scene, Sergeant Walter Lane, said that on approaching the backyard, he had found Adolf Dumpig sitting on a wall, so drunk that he appeared asleep. His hands had been covered in blood, and Sergeant Lane’s fears had immediately been roused (apparently, he was suspicious as soon as he noticed that Dumpig was not wearing either a hat or an overcoat…). Dumpig was not coherent; he was still very drunk, vomiting, and reeked of rum.

Soon after, Inspector Laban Lynes of G Division discovered a butcher’s knife in the yard. Adolf Dumpig – a journeyman butcher, but who had been unemployed for some time – had killed his own son with his work tool. He was taken to the City Road Police Station and charged with murder; his reply, which was translated by the Worship Street Police Court’s interpreter, Aaron Lichenstein [sic] was to his wife:

“Did I do this, or did Antonie? Speak the truth, say what you did to the child; I was out last evening, I never done it; should it come that I should murder my child that I love so dearly?”

By this time, it was 4.45am, and although he was still a little bit drunk, it was thought that he had ‘recovered’ a lot from earlier, to the extent that he could understand what was being said to him.

Not surprisingly, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against Dumpig the Butcher, and he was committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court. On 11 January 1904, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Somewhat surprisingly to modern readers, the jury ‘strongly recommended’ him to mercy. This may have been because of contemporary concerns about how drink could affect even the most law-abiding of people; or sympathy towards his unemployed status, which may have led to stress and therefore a desire for drink.

Yet this remained a man who abused his wife; who tried to shift the blame for his son’s violent death onto her – the ultimate betrayal of trust by a man towards his spouse. Dumpig was a butcher in more than one way; he killed animals for a living, his son because he was drunk; and he tried to hang his wife by accusing her of killing her child.

 

Sources:

Portsmouth Evening News, 4 January 1904, p.1; The Salisbury Times, 8 January 1904, p.2 (both via British Newspaper Archive); Berlin Marriages, 1874-1920 on AncestryOld Bailey Online, ref number t19040111-131. CapitalPunishmentUK does not list Dumpig as having been hanged in 1904, and, as this suggests, the jury’s plea for mercy was successful. The 1911 census for Dorset shows that Adolf Dumpig, born 1876 in Berlin [and described as a stone dresser], was at that time a prisoner at Portland Convict Prison.

 

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