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The Little Book of Murder
By Neil R. Storey
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Neil R. Storey
All rights reserved.
NORTH & MIDLANDS
One of the most sensational trials of a woman in the late nineteenth century was that of Florence 'Florie' Maybrick, a pretty American girl from a good family. She married James Maybrick, an English cotton broker, some twenty-three years her senior, in 1881. They made their home at Battlecrease House in the Liverpool suburb of Aigburth. Maybrick was not easy to live with; he was known to take concoctions of drugs and maintained a number of mistresses, one of whom bore him five children. The disenchanted Florie had a few clandestine liaisons of her own, including a dalliance with her husband's brother, Edwin. James heard of her affair with local businessman Alfred Brierley and after a violent row, during which he assaulted Florie, Maybrick demanded a divorce.
In April 1889, Florie bought flypapers that she knew contained arsenic and soaked them in a bowl of water to extract the poison for cosmetic use. On 27 April 1889 James was taken ill, the doctor was called for and he was treated for acute dyspepsia, but his condition declined and he died on 11 May 1889. Suspicious of the cause of death, Maybrick's brothers requested that James' body be examined. Traces of arsenic were detected, not enough to prove fatal, but they were present and Florie was arrested and tried for murder at the Liverpool Assizes in July 1889. The evidence against her was flimsy – there was no way of proving Florie had administered the arsenic to James but it seems her private affairs drew enough condemnation and she was found guilty, more for lack of morals than for direct evidence of murder. Florie was sentenced to death, which was eventually respited in favour of penal servitude. Her case became a cause célèbre, but she was only released – after serving fourteen years – in January 1904. Florie returned to the United States and died in poverty in 1941. Among her few remaining possessions was discovered a tatty family bible, and pressed between its yellowed pages was a scrap of paper which had written upon it, in faded ink, the directions for soaking flypapers for use as a beauty treatment.
The Strange Death of Sidney Marston
Marjorie Yellow and Emily Thay were sisters, one in her late teens the other in her early twenties. Both had already been married and, scandalously for the time, both had separated from their husbands. Emily was spending the weekend with her sister, who was now living with another man named Herbert Gwinnell at Willow Crescent on Cannon Hill in Birmingham. Shortly after 7.30 p.m. on 24 October 1932, Emily rushed out onto the street screaming 'Murder!' Marjorie followed, asking for help to put a man out of their house. As a passer-by ran up, a man stumbled out of the house; he had been stabbed in the chest and with his dying breath gasped, 'I have done nothing,' before he collapsed onto the porch and died.
The sisters were charged with murder but the evidence produced against them was both confusing and conflicting. The dead man was identified as Sidney Marston, who was described as a thickset young man who could look after himself. There was not a trace of a defensive wound on his person or sign of a struggle and in his pocket was the blade of a knife; the handle lay nearby. Yellow said Marston had stabbed himself; there was talk of a missing 10 s note, which was found in Marston's pocket. Yellow denied knowing Marston, but later said she had met him at a dance; other casual remarks she was recorded as making were, 'He's only shamming. He's done that before,' and, most curiously, 'They don't hang women do they?' Even the great Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Home Office pathologist, could not attribute an opinion of blame or guilt to any of the parties, and a verdict of not guilty was passed on the sisters.
Known in the annals of crime as 'Nurse' Waddingham, Dorothea Waddingham had no formal training as a nurse, and what medical knowledge she did have was probably obtained when she worked as a ward maid at an infirmary in Burton-on-Trent. Waddingham had a murky past and had served prison terms for fraud and theft. She gained her appointment as matron only because she and her husband turned their home on Devon Drive, Nottingham, into a private nursing home for elderly and infirm patients. Two patients, a Mrs Baguley and her daughter, both of who had named Waddingham as a beneficiary in their wills, died a short time apart. Suspicions arose and a post-mortem examination was ordered on the body of the daughter – over three grains of morphine were found in her internal organs. Mrs Baguley's body was then exhumed and it was found that she too had died from morphine poisoning. Tried and found guilty, Waddingham was executed on 16 April 1936 by Thomas Pierrepoint at Winson Green Prison, Birmingham.
The Green Bicycle Case
On the evening of 5 July 1919 Joseph Cowell was driving his cattle along Gartree Road in the Leicestershire village of Little Stretton. He came to a small dip in the road and saw a young woman on the ground, with a bicycle beside her. Concerned she had come off her bike and been hurt, Cowell went to inspect more closely and found to his horror that she had been shot just below the left eye. Matters were reported to the police and she was soon identified as Bella Wright, aged twenty-one, a nightshift worker in a Leicester factory. Investigations revealed that earlier in the evening she had biked over to see her uncle in a nearby village and with her was a man she had described as a stranger, but when she left, her uncle noticed that they rode off together. Despite a high-profile police investigation, the only clue was that the man had ridden a green bicycle.
No further clues emerged until 23 February 1920, when a canal boatman, taking a load to the factory where Bella had worked, dredged up a green bicycle. A subsequent search of the canal found a revolver holster and bullets.
Green bicycles were rare in those days and this one had certain features which led police to identify the owner as Ronald Light. Light was brought to trial in a classic case where legendary counsels Marshall Hall (for the defence) and Norman Birkett (for the prosecution) were to meet for the first time. Light made a good impression in the witness box, and much was made of the shell shock he suffered during the First World War. He admitted he should have come forward earlier – he convincingly argued that anyone in his position may have reacted similarly in the same situation, but swore that he had turned off the road at the junction before the murder site. He was acquitted, to popular acclaim, and the question of whether Light committed the murder remains one that is still hotly debated among criminologists and crime historians today.
The Richmond Poisoning
In 1858, Dr Thomas Smethurst of Richmond, Surrey, and his wife took in a lodger, a spinster named Isabella Bankes. When he discovered her wealth, Smethurst declared his love for Bankes. They soon moved out together and bigamously married. In March 1859 Isabella was taken ill and Smethurst called in medical help. Samples from one of her evacuations were sent for tests and arsenic was detected. Meanwhile, Miss Bankes drew up a will leaving everything to Smethurst; however, when she died, Smethurst was arrested for her murder.
Small quantities of antimony were found in her body during the post-mortem, but she had recently been administered a variety of medicines which could have contained that particular element. Smethurst was found guilty but was not given the death sentence; the medical evidence conflicted, the evacuation contained the arsenic but none was actually found in her body, and medical experts argued that Miss Bankes had been ill for quite some time before her fatal illness. Smethurst was granted a pardon, only to be jailed for bigamy. He was, however, successful in proving Isabella's will in his favour!
Murder at the Metropole
Sidney Harry Fox had been a petty swindler since boyhood and by the 1920s had already served a prison sentence for theft. Fox and his mother appeared affluent and lived well, travelling around Britain and staying in high-class hotels before flitting without paying their bills. In April 1929 Fox persuaded his mother to make her will, of which he would be the main beneficiary, and the following month he increased the accident insurance policy on her life. The pair checked into the Metropole Hotel in Margate, Kent, in October 1929. On the night of 23 October Sidney Fox raised the alarm after discovering his mother's room on fire. Mrs Fox was removed from the room, but had died in the fire. The doctor initially certified her death as one of suffocation and shock and her funeral went ahead, but insurance assessors were suspicious and had her body exhumed. The post-mortem was conducted by Home Office pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, who discovered a bruise on her larynx and no soot in her lungs, therefore concluding that she had been strangled before the fire had started. Thirty-one-year-old Sidney Fox was arrested and charged with the murder of his mother. He was found guilty and hanged at Maidstone Prison by executioner Robert Baxter on 8 April 1930.
Sweet Fanny Adams
On 24 August 1867 the sun was shining down and it was a beautiful day for children to play outside. In the early afternoon three young girls, Minnie Warner, aged eight and sisters Lizzie, aged seven, and Fanny Adams, also aged eight, were walking up Tanhouse Lane towards Flood Meadow in Alton, Hampshire, when they encountered solicitors' clerk twenty-nine-year-old Frederick Baker. He was friendly to the girls and gave Minnie and Lizzie three halfpence and sent them away for sweets. He then offered Fanny a ha'penny to go with him. When she refused he picked her up and carried her away towards Shalden, out of sight into a hop field. He then butchered the poor girl; he cut off her legs and cut open her torso, before ripping out most of her internal organs and scattering them about. Next, he cut off her head and gouged out her eyes, which he threw into a nearby river. He then cleaned himself up and walked off as if nothing had happened.
By 4 p.m. the other girls had returned home but there was still no sign of Fanny, so her mother and neighbours went to look for her. At 5.30 p.m. a neighbour, Mrs Gardiner, saw Baker and asked him what he had been up to. He admitted giving the girls money but claimed that Fanny had left him to join the others. Gardiner was not entirely happy with his answers but she respected him as a clerk and thought him to be honest. Baker then went for a drink at the Swan Inn. A short while later Fanny's remains were discovered and the town went into uproar. The police traced Baker to the solicitor's office where he worked, and when he was removed from the building he had to be protected from the mob which had gathered outside.
When the police searched Baker's office a couple of days later they uncovered his diary, which contained the chilling entry for Saturday 24 August – '... killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.' On examination of his clothes, traces of blood were found, along with two small knives, one of which showed traces of bloodstains. At his trial, attempts to mitigate Baker's actions were made by arguing for insanity, but the jury were unconvinced and after deliberating for just fifteen minutes returned a verdict of 'guilty'. The case had drawn massive public interest and Baker was hanged in front of a crowd of 5,000 outside Winchester Prison on 24 December 1867, the prison's last public execution. A short while after these horrific events, rations were changed to include tinned mutton for British sailors; they were unimpressed, and the derisory joke arose that the meat must be the chunks of 'Sweet Fanny Adams'. The term, meaning as good as useless or nothing at all, has been in parlance ever since.
The Burnham Poisoners
Two sudden deaths, initially blamed on a mystery 'sickness', occurred in quick succession within the Frary household in early March 1835, leaving poor Catherine Frary, aged forty, a widow and mourning the loss of a child. Two weeks later neighbour Mary Taylor, wife of forty-five-year-old Peter Taylor, a journeyman cobbler, was taken violently ill and died in the course of the afternoon and evening of 12 March. Mr Cremer, the local surgeon, had attended Mary in her dying hours and his suspicions were aroused. The contents of Mary's stomach were analysed and found to contain arsenic. At the inquest it was suggested that Peter Taylor had been 'associated' with Frances 'Fanny' Billing, aged forty-six, who was described as 'a woman of loose character'. Investigations revealed that Frary and Billing had entered into a pact whereby each would murder the obstacle to their happiness and love.
Brought before the county assizes, Frary was charged with administering poison to Mary Taylor with Billing as an accessory before the fact. The second indictment charged them both with murdering Robert Frary. The death of the child was not mentioned in the charges. It was proved both women had purchased poison and their motives were suggested. Neither prisoner said a word in their defence nor called any witnesses. After a short deliberation the jury found both women guilty. Frances Billing and Catherine Frary dictated their confessions in their condemned cells, adding that they had not only mixed arsenic with Mr Frary's porter and gruel but with his pills, and that it took four doses of the poison to kill him. Their execution, conducted in public in front of Norwich Castle on 10 August 1835, proved to be the last public double execution conducted in the county and they remain the last women to be hanged in Norfolk.
The Suffolk Tragedy
When thirty-nine-year-old John Smith married his second wife Elizabeth, aged twenty-seven, she became stepmother to John's three children – a role which she did not much care for. In mitigation, John worked hard and probably had little time or patience for his children; even so, no caring parent would have stood by as his children starved and bruises and wheals appeared on their bodies. It emerged from the witness statements of family members and neighbours that the children were locked in sheds, hung up by their feet or hoisted by a rope around their middles – it was by this treatment that the eldest child, eight-year-old Mary Ann died. Her tiny, starved body could take no more hoistings and she died through lack of food and mortification at the hands of John and Elizabeth. John Wright, the Constable of Halesworth, was summoned; the evidence was all too clear and the couple were taken into custody. At the assizes the jury was out for barely five minutes before finding John and Elizabeth guilty. The Smiths were hanged together at Ipswich Gaol on 23 March 1812.
The Blazing Car Murder
Alfred Arthur Rouse was a commercial traveller, with what he liked to refer to as a 'harem' of women dotted across the country, one of whom he had bigamously married. This situation was not cheap, especially when one of his 'harem' presented him with a child – a result of their relationship – and a child support order was granted, with another case pending, and another woman expecting him to make good on his promise to marry her. Rouse wanted to disappear and struck upon the idea of faking his death by torching his car and putting the body of a transient, who would not be missed, inside it to take his place. He committed this act in the small hours of 6 November 1930 on Hardingstone Lane, about three miles from Northampton. Despite fleeing from the scene, Rouse was soon traced and arrested.
In his statement, Rouse claimed that he had picked the stranger up during a drive to Leicester. He had stopped the car to relieve himself and while doing so, the stranger lit a cigarette and the car burst in flames. His story was not believed and his antics with his 'harem' did not endear him to anyone. The forensic evidence was against him as well; the nut that controlled the flow of petrol in the car had clearly been forced to allow petrol to flow dangerously into the motor. With prosecution for the Crown led by Norman Birkett, the evidence was eloquently presented against him and it came as no surprise when Rouse was found guilty. He was executed at HMP Bedford on 31 March 1931. Rouse confessed to his crime shortly before his execution, stating that he had got the stranger drunk on whiskey, strangled him, doused him in petrol and then set the car on fire by a petrol trail from ten yards away. The unfortunate man who was so horrifically burned in the car remains unidentified.
The case of Priscilla Biggadyke remains one of the most notorious in the annals of Lincolnshire criminal history. Richard Biggadyke, aged thirty, was a well sinker living in Mareham-le-Fen with his wife Priscilla. Although low in station they had a tolerable standard of living and shared their house, although there was just one room for sleeping, with three children and two male lodgers, one of which was Thomas Proctor, a rat catcher.
Richard was in the habit of leaving his wife in bed when he went to work and was suspicious that she had been unfaithful with Proctor; he had even begun to think that their youngest child was, in fact, the result of a liaison between Proctor and his wife.
On 30 September 1868 Richard sat down to a meal of mutton followed by shortcake, which had been made by Priscilla. Within ten minutes he was stricken by retching and excruciating pain in his stomach; he died in agony the following morning. Analysis of his stomach by Professor Taylor revealed a large quantity of arsenic. When suspicion fell upon Priscilla, who had made comments to the effect that she wished her husband dead, she immediately tried to deflect them onto Proctor. She said that she had seen him put a white powder into a teacup and the medicine ordered for her husband and he was taken into custody. Confusing statements given by Priscilla did not help her case and she was placed in the House of Correction, and it was not long before both Proctor and Priscilla were brought before the assizes. The case against Proctor did not hold up and he was acquitted – the main thrust of the prosecution was now turned upon Priscilla. She was found guilty of the murder and was sentenced to death, all on quite circumstantial evidence.
Excerpted from The Little Book of Murder by Neil R. Storey. Copyright © 2013 Neil R. Storey. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Murderous Britain,
2. Poisoners – Masters of the Silent Killer,
3. Dismemberment and Trunks,
4. Infamous Murders,
5. Serial Killers,
6. Murder Mysteries,
7. Murder not Proven,
8. The Black Museum,
11. Last Words,
12. A Date with Murder,