The Last Resource

  1. Greenacre
  2. The Carpet-bag Mystery
  3. Gardelle
  4. Cook of Leicester
  5. Kate Webster
  6. Dr. Parkman
  7. Box Murders
  8. The Harley Street Mystery
  9. Elizabeth Rainbow
  10. William Huntley
  11. William Deeming.

It is quite clear, when identity of the victim would be fatal evidence against the murderer, that the only course open to the latter is to get rid of the body. Four ways have been adopted​—​dismemberment and distribution of the fragments, burning, concealment in a trunk or chest and burying beneath the earth.

The cases of dismemberment are not so numerous in England as on the Continent, although, according to one student of criminology, the method was first brought into prominence by Greenacre. He cut up the body and distributed it, the first discovery being made in some osier beds which then existed in the neighbourhood of the Camberwell New Road. The head which, wrapped in a coloured handkerchief, he is said to have carried resting on his knees in an omnibus, he threw into the Surrey Canal, a great mistake, as its passage was impeded by a lock-gate and so was brought to light.

The case of dismemberment which excited the most interest in London was that known as the “Carpet Bag Mystery” in 1857. The story is simple enough. Two lads rowing on the Thames saw a carpet bag on one of the abutments of Waterloo Bridge. The bag was found to contain mutilated fragments of a human body, and garments bloodstained and cut with what looked like dagger thrusts. A dozen theories were put forward as possible explanations, but the mystery was never revealed. Years after, Sir Robert Anderson, Assistant Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, writing in Blackwood’s Magazine, put forward a solution of the problem, to the effect that the body was that of an Italian police spy whose mission in this country being discovered, the men who were implicated in his instructions murdered him. Sir Robert did not speak from his own knowledge, but from what was told him by an agent of the French Secret Service. The thing reads like a fairy tale and cannot be accepted.

Still more preposterous is a statement by a writer in an evening paper who, in commenting on Sir Robert Anderson’s story, said that he had been told by a veteran journalist that the “mystery” was a concoction of Butterfield, a well-known penny-a-liner, who prepared the contents of the bag and placed the latter on the bridge simply for making money out of paragraphs relating to the gruesome find. Butterfield, whom the writer of these records knew personally, was the most audacious and enterprising penny-a-liner of his day, but truth was not familiar to him. Moreover, he was an impudent boaster of his exploits. His word was not to be taken seriously on any subject.

Another case of dismemberment was that of portions of a human body found in the River Thames off Battersea. Murder was assumed to be at the bottom of the mystery, but more than this cannot be said.

Dismemberment is obviously the precursor of destruction by fire. The atrocity in this direction of Theodore Gardelle in 1761 is too revolting to be recalled further than the bare facts. He murdered a woman named King in a house near Leicester Square. He was by himself at his hideous work for two or three days, but he found, as his imitators have found, that the entire incineration of a human body is one of the most formidable tasks that can be attempted. Burn as fiercely and as long as one may, some perverse power delights in preserving relics to bear witness to the nature of the holocaust.

Cook, a bookbinder of Leicester, was perhaps better equipped than Gardelle for the same frightful purpose. He murdered and robbed a Mr. Pass to whom he owed money. The deed was committed in Cook’s workshop built over a cowhouse, and the murderer set to work to burn the body. He started doing so in the afternoon and kept up a huge fire until eight o’clock when he went out, had a game of skittles, and returned at half-past ten. The fire blazed through the night, and at half-past four the next morning he went out with the owner of the cowhouse and helped milk the cows. He was in his workshop the whole of the next day, and at night the fire was burning more fiercely than ever. The blinds were drawn and it struck some of the observers, who were attracted by the bright light, as curious that no shadows should be thrown on the strongly illuminated blind. Was Cook at work inside? was the natural question of a man named Timson. At that moment a neighbour came along who said that he had just met Cook going to his house. “Then,” cried Timson, “the place must be on fire!” Timson broke open the door and the horrible mystery was revealed. The head was missing, and the doctors thought it could not have been burnt but had been otherwise disposed of. Cook, however, maintained the contrary.

Kate Webster, who murdered her mistress, Mrs. Thomas, at Richmond, attempted to combine three methods. After dismembering the body she started to boil and burn portions in the copper. She probably found this process too long and too risky, and putting the head in a leather bag weighted, she dropped the bag in the Thames. She deposited a foot at Twickenham and placed the rest of the remains in a box which she corded, and after getting a boy to help her she carried the box to Richmond Bridge, over which she let it fall. The bag was never found, but the box was and led to her being hanged.

Nothing could demonstrate the insuperable difficulty of destroying a body by burning than the attempt of Dr. Webster to get rid of the corpse of Dr. Parkman in this fashion. Webster was the professor of chemistry at the Medical College, Boston, and Parkman one of the professors at Harvard College, the site of which had been his gift. Parkman was an eccentric man and his figure was as eccentric as his ways. His lower jaw projected beyond his upper one and his teeth were false with gold settings. This peculiarity played an important part in the sequel to the tragedy. Strictly fair and honourable in all his dealings, he could not forgive any laxity in the fulfilment of obligations towards himself by others. Webster, impulsive and extravagant, had borrowed money from Parkman which he failed to repay, and relations between the two were strained in consequence.

On Friday, November 23rd, 1840, Parkman did not come home to lunch. The family were at first puzzled and then alarmed, the Professor being extremely regular in his habits. For two days search for him never ceased, and on Monday a reward was offered. Meanwhile Dr. Webster called on Sunday on Dr. Parkman’s brother and told the latter that the doctor had visited him on Friday afternoon at the Medical College. He added that on that occasion he had paid Dr. Parkman £90 that he owed him. This was a piece of gratuitous information which led the police to call on Webster at his rooms at the Medical College and make a search. They had no suspicion that Dr. Webster was in any way implicated, and the visit was simply one of duty. The search was purely superficial and nothing was found. This was on, Tuesday, November 27th.

Soon after Dr. Parkman’s disappearance the movements of Dr. Webster began to excite the curiosity of the janitor of the Medical College. Webster was shut up all day in his rooms. When he left, the door of the laboratory was always locked, a most unusual thing. Finally, the janitor noticed that the wall of the lower laboratory was hot, indicating that the stove was being kept continually alight. At last the man could contain his curiosity no longer and, descending into the drain in the basement, he commenced boring a hole in the wall of the vault in which the lower laboratory was situated. When this was effected he looked through, and by the aid of a light he saw portions of a human body.

The secret was out. Besides the evidence in the vault, fragments of human bones were found in the lower laboratory stove, and others in a box filled with tan. Webster was arrested and duly took his trial, which lasted eleven days. Strong as the presumptive evidence was, it would have failed to prove that the remains were those of the missing man but for one thing​—​the false teeth. Not only was melted gold found in the ashes, but also a portion of the jaw with its peculiar formation. So peculiar was it, that the mould which the dentist made fitted the fragment of the jaw found, and the dentist unhesitatingly declared that this jaw was Dr. Parkman’s and no other man’s.

After this there could be but one end. Webster was found guilty and sentenced to death. Then Webster made a long confession asserting that Parkman had irritated him beyond endurance, and that in a moment of passion he struck him with a heavy stick. Parkman fell senseless, and to his horror his assailant found he had killed him. He had never intended to commit murder, and in his agitation of mind, not knowing what to do, he resolved to conceal his crime. A curious drawing of Dr. Parkman’s skeleton, reconstructed from the fragments of bone discovered, is given by Dr. Quain in his Principles of Forensic Medicine.

We now come to the box method. Here indeed is a long list of conspicuous failures from the murderer’s point of view. At first sight the hiding of a body in a box would seem to be an easy and ready mode of disposal, but in practice it has proved of no avail, whether on the Continent, in the United States, or in England. In Paris, in the year 1832, a bank porter named Ramus was poisoned by his friend, Regey. The head was placed in a box and thrown in the Seine, to be fished up almost immediately afterwards by a party of boatmen.

In 1850, a well-known dealer in art bronzes, named Poirier Desfontaines, an old bachelor, was murdered by his servant, one Vion. Desfontaines’ assassin sent the evidence of his crime in a trunk to Châteauroux, “to be left till called for.” There was no trace of Vion to be found, and he was only captured by an ingenious use of the public journals, devised by the celebrated detective, Canler. Canler had a paragraph inserted to the effect that all search for the criminal would be useless, seeing that he had managed to escape into Spain. Believing that the police had abandoned pursuit, Vion imprudently showed himself in Paris, and was apprehended.

A few years later, Victor Domby imitated Vion’s exploit, for he also despatched his victim in a trunk, “to be left till called for.” This time the burden went to Lyons, and when the body was found suspicion fell upon Domby’s friend, Calloux, who had brought the wooden case and had trundled it to the railway station, not knowing what it contained. Domby’s guilt was brought home to him.

A terrible example of callousness is that of a young man named Vitalis and a girl Marie Boyer, who killed the former’s mother and remained seated on the box containing their victim the whole of the day.

The murder of Gouffée by Jean Eyraud and Gabrielle Bombard was one of the most deliberately diabolical conceptions that can be cited. But, in spite of their elaborate precautions and the use of a trunk, the guilt of the assassins was established.

America can claim two notable instances of box crimes. In 1841 a man named Samuel Adams was murdered by John C. Colt, a book-keeper and teacher of ornamental writing, in an office in the Broadway. The remains were placed in a box and shipped on board a vessel bound for New Orleans. But Nemesis followed as with other crimes of the same kind. The vessel was unexpectedly delayed for a week, and the nature of the hideous contents of the packing case was revealed.

The other instance is that of Alice Augusta Bowlsby, a charming and beautiful young woman, in whose death a doctor was implicated. There was a good deal of mystery in the affair. A woman, accompanied by a big trunk, alighted from a cab at the terminus of the Hudson River Railway and asked to have the trunk sent to Chicago. When she found that there was no train that night she instantly fled, leaving the trunk behind her. The murder was speedily discovered, and the doctor in question apprehended through pieces of the victim’s garments marked with her initials being discovered by the authorities in his house.

America can also boast of a terrible use to which a trunk was put by the stupendous villain Holmes, who murdered wholesale. He utilised a trunk not merely to conceal the bodies of his victims, but actually to take their lives. They were first drugged, then placed in the trunk, attached to a tube connected with an ordinary gas-pipe, and thus poisoned.

The box crime in England was revived in 1872 by the Rev. John Selby Watson, who, in a fit of passion, murdered his wife and purchased a trunk to conceal the deed. He subsequently attempted to commit suicide, and confessed. what he had done. He was judged insane, and he ended his days in Broadmoor.

Arthur Devereux, the chemist, who murdered his wife and two children, introduced a new feature to get rid of the obvious risks of discovery. He filled the trunk with cement, and, in addition, took the most elaborate precautions. Underneath the box lid was another covering of wooden sections, neatly fitted together, and with cross-bars screwed, the whole being glued, sized, and varnished. Notwithstanding all these precautions, Devereux’s guilt was brought home to him.

The crime of Edgar Edwards was particularly crafty and atrocious. He entered into negotiations with a Mr. Darby to purchase the latter’s grocery business in Camberwell, murdered him, his wife and child, and removed their bodies in two wooden boxes and a tin trunk to Leytonstone, where they were buried in the garden of a house which Edwards had just taken. At this house he attempted to murder a man named Garland under similar circumstances, and the matter coming into the hands of the police, they searched the house, and found business cards bearing Darby’s name. This led to the conviction of the miscreant.

It was an American who was responsible for the Saratoga trunk netted by accident in Lake Como by some fishermen. The trunk contained the body of a handsome young woman, who was identified as a Mrs. Charlton on a honeymoon tour with her husband. Charlton was captured in New York and confessed to the crime, which he said was due to a violent quarrel he had had with his wife. He declared that after the murder he packed the body in the trunk at midnight and carried the trunk on his back to the lake. Charlton was a slightly-built man and the police doubted his capability of bearing such a burden. It was never proved, however, that he had any accomplice.

The Harley Street Mystery can hardly be called a box crime, yet in a way it is, as well as appertaining in another aspect to the case of Matilda Hacker. The house had been in the possession of a Mr. Henriques for some years. Servants had come and gone, but the establishment was always well ordered, and the house was not, as that in the Hacker Mystery, left to take care of itself. It appears that in 1878 the butler left, and his successor had been in his post a year and a half when he noticed a disagreeable smell in one of the cellars in the front of the house. These cellars were three in number and were built under the pavement, an area separating them from the house. Eventually search was made, and in a recess in one of the cellars was found a cask apparently filled with old bottles. On removing the upper layer, the body of a woman was discovered rammed into the cask. The doctors decided that she was middle-aged, poorly dressed, and had been in the receptacle quite a year. And this is all that can be said. From that day to this the secrecy surrounding the gruesome find has never been penetrated.

Attempts to hide bodies in places other than trunks have proved equally abortive. Some of these attempts are fixed in the public mind, such as the cases of Eugene Aram, William Corder (of Red Barn fame), the Mannings, Henry Wainwright and in our own day, Crippen. Among other instances of disappointed ingenuity in this direction may be mentioned that of Captain Bolton, a gentleman farmer of Bulmer, a village near Castle Howard, Yorkshire, who strangled Elizabeth Rainbow, a young maidservant in his employ, and buried her body in a cellar which he filled with earth. It was of no avail. Elizabeth had been missing a fortnight when search was made, and owing to Bolton falling into Wainwright’s blunder of employing assistance, his crime was brought to light. The ghastly story of John Holloway, his wife’s murderer, is not yet forgotten by some of the older residents at Rottingdean, near Brighton. The woman was strangled in a little house in a lonely place called Donkey Row. Her body was cut up, a portion buried in the Lovers’ Walk, a picturesque spot in the outskirts of Rottingdean, and the head and the remainder of the body beneath the floor of an outhouse at Margaret Street, where Holloway was living. The discovery was not made until nearly a month after the murder, and many more months might have gone over but for the wretch’s carelessness in leaving a fragment of a red stuff gown protruding above the soil in the Lovers’ Walk.

The body of William Huntley, murdered in a wood near Yarm, Yorkshire, remained undisturbed for eleven years, and was discovered by some workmen making some alterations in the course of a brook in the wood. The position of the bones was very singular. A hole had not been dug in the horizontal surface of the ground but the side of the brook was excavated, the body thrust in and the excavation closed. As with Dr. Parkman and O’Connor, identification was furnished through the teeth, a long projecting tooth in the lower jaw being at once recognised by Huntley’s friends. A man named Robert Goldsborough was arrested and tried for murder, but though the evidence was very strong against him it was not sufficient to prove his guilt. “Can they try me again, lad?” Goldsborough, after he was found not guilty, whispered to the officer at his side. “No, thou’st clear of it altogether,” was the reply. Goldsborough drew a long breath and said “If they’d put me on trial eleven years ago I’d ha’ got plenty to coom forrard and clear me,” which, under the circumstances, was a remarkably safe thing to say. Whether it was true is another matter. By the side of the above notorieties, Daniel Good, who concealed the body of his murdered wife for days in a stable at Roehampton, is but a commonplace person. Of more dramatic interest is the discovery of the body of Miss Matilda Hacker in a coal cellar beneath a house in Euston Square, but the story has been often told and need not be again detailed.

The list is fittingly ended by that super-monster, William Deeming, who made sure he had hidden his two wives from mortal ken when, after murdering them, he buried them​—​one in England and the other in Australia​—​in the basement of his house and secured these graves with a covering of cement. He was wrong.

If any general principle can be deduced from the foregoing classification of murders, it would seem that for the murderer greater safety lies in simplicity than in elaboration. The trite saying, “Murder will out” is mostly used in a wrong sense. “Murder” itself, it may be admitted, will “out,” as a rule, but this is nothing. It is the murderer which counts. As will be seen from the examples cited in these pages. he frequently refuses to “out.” It may, however, be said that, to ensure the success of an unpremeditated murder, chance or luck must favour the perpetrator. Obviously, chance or luck cannot be depended upon in murders more than in anything else, and by this uncertainty the murderer is considerably handicapped.

Luck or no luck, there remains the puzzle that, while in some murders everything may conspire to help the murderer without his connivance, in others, the slightest attempt to throw his pursuers off the scent brings about his detection. There may be a law which governs these matters, but until this law is discovered, so long shall we be faced with “Unsolved Murder Mysteries.”