Kate Dungay

The Dark Drama of Henley Wood

The tragedy which had Kate Dungay as its central figure did not at the time attract the attention it deserved. Not only was it​—​like so many unsolved mysteries​—​a case of police ineptitude, but there were curious and unexplained side issues which, if persistently followed up, might have thrown light upon an enigma which, as it stands, baffles solution.

It was a wild stormy December day. Fierce showers beat against the windows of Lambridge House, a lonely dwelling not far from Henley-on-Thames, and now and again from the adjacent wood came the dismal soughing of the wind through the leafless trees.

About half-past four in the afternoon George Dawson, who looked after the farm work, left the house to go home, but before doing so he entered the sitting room to enquire if Miss Dungay, the housekeeper, had any instructions for him. He found her engaged in knitting. She spoke to him in her customary reserved manner; he bade her good-night, and departed.

Lambridge House belonged to Mr. Mash, a fruiterer in business in Glasshouse Street, Regent Street. He had also a house at Henley, and Kate Dungay had been in his employ at Lambridge House for a considerable time, first as governess and afterwards as housekeeper. Practically she was the only occupant, save at night, when two boys named Froomes, the sons of a neighbour, came in to sleep.

It does not appear that Miss Dungay was at all influenced either by the lonely situation of the house or by her own solitude. She had never expressed any fear​—​indeed it was said that she preferred the quiet farm house by the wood to Mr. Mash’s residence at Henley. Maybe she regarded the two dogs, which (when the boys were not with her) were her companions, as sufficient protection. Of these dogs, one kept in the house was a spaniel, old and almost blind, and the other, a retriever, was generally on the chain outside. It is to be noted, however, that about a fortnight before the tragedy she told Dawson that she felt nervous, but she did not say why.

It was dark as pitch and raining heavily when about eight o’clock the boys arrived as usual and knocked at the door. There was no answer, and thinking Miss Dungay was out, they went to the rear of the premises and crept into the well-house for shelter to wait until she returned. They felt very uneasy, for it was strange that Miss Dungay should be out, and on such a night. What added to their vague fears was a weird melancholy sound they had heard as they were nearing the house. This sound, said one of them, was “like the growling of a cat over a mouse.”

The lads waited until they were tired and then stole out and looked through the glass of the kitchen door. A lamp was burning on the table and they could see the clock. It was ten minutes to ten and, greatly alarmed at the strange absence of the housekeeper, they ran home and told their father. Mr. Froomes acted at once. He and his sons set out for George Dawson’s cottage, and the man, who was in bed, got up and the four went off to Lambridge House.

Dawson’s knocking was futile, and he and the others went to the back of the house. The retriever was on the chain and in its kennel.

“It seemed to be drowsy,” said Dawson in his evidence.

The kitchen door was locked from the inside and all the windows were fastened excepting the bay window of the sitting room. The bottom sash was thrown up and the party entered the house through the open window.

They could see nothing unusual. The chair in which Miss Dungay was sitting when Dawson last saw her was unmoved. Her knitting, a handkerchief and a book were on the table, and the lamp was burning. The table was set for tea and on the tray were one plate, two cups, and one saucer.

They went upstairs to the bedroom, but could not find that anything had been disturbed. They then examined the dairy and cellar, but all was in order. Dawson fetched a lantern from the well-house, and on the wall of the passage leading to the front door and on the handle of the door he saw bloodstains. The door, he told the coroner, was bolted at the top. The key was in the lock but had not been turned. In the porch he found a thick stick broken, with marks of blood upon it.

The boys, remembering the singular noise they had heard, took Dawson and their father in the direction from which it had apparently come, and two yards or so from the wood and about thirty yards from the house the poor young woman was discovered lying straight on her back. By her side was a rammer used for smashing up potatoes for the pigs. It was a formidable weapon some four feet long, one end very thick and massive.

Dawson never looked to see if she was dead. He was “too terrified,” he said. Shutting up the house, he drove to Henley police station, which he entered in a state of nervous terror.

“The housekeeper at Lambridge House has been murdered to-night,” he gasped.

Inspector Keal set out at once to the scene of the murder. A more unfavourable night for an outdoor investigation could hardly be imagined. It was hailing and raining in torrents. Had there been footprints the rain must have long since washed them away. Apart from this it was too dark to make anything like a minute examination of the ground. All that the inspector could see was the rammer, which he said was so close to the body that Miss Dungay’s hair covered it at one end, and there was blood upon it.

The inspector and Dawson carried the body into the house, and the former, searching the rooms, confirmed Dawson’s statement that nothing had been disturbed. On examining the passage he found Miss Dungay’s brooch, some hairpins, and a broken night-light glass. There were scratches on the ceiling which he thought had been made by the jagged end of a stick. The inspector does not seem to have noticed the teacups nor a handbag, nor two unopened letters on the table. At any rate, he did not mention them in his evidence.

On the following morning the inspector searched the ground where the body had been lying and found another portion of the stick which Dawson had picked up in the porch, and a poker. He also discovered a footprint on the flower bed near the bay window.

Inspector Keal appears to have placed an amazing trust in Dawson. It would seem also that he had very hazy ideas of investigating a mysterious murder. It is true he locked the body in a room, the key of which he kept, but the house itself he left in Dawson’s charge and he allowed the key to be in the man’s possession a whole week. He did not take care that nothing should be disturbed in the room where Miss Dungay had been sitting, and no wonder the chairman of the bench of magistrates expressed his inability to understand such laxity.

Mr. Mash, his wife, and Miss Julia Dungay, the sister of the murdered woman, came down the following day and went through the house. Mr. Mash could find no traces of robbery. On the table he saw the two unopened letters which the inspector apparently overlooked, and these Miss Julia Dungay took away. Miss Julia Dungay also possessed herself of her sister’s handbag.

“I read part of one of them,” said Mr. Mash, but what it was he read he did not say.

These two letters may not have had any bearing on the mystery, but it is extraordinary that they should have been left by the police for Mr. Mash to find. It may also be remarked as singular that in the report of the inquest there is no mention by Mr. Mash of the discovery of the letters, and but for the fact that subsequently a man was apprehended and brought before the magistrates, when Mr. Mash gave evidence, and then mentioned the letters, nothing would have been known about them being found. It is singular also that the magistrates should not have asked what these epistles contained.

The reporter of the Henley Advertiser, whose business it was to pick up what he could concerning the murder, writing before the inquest, said:

“Four or five sovereigns were found in a handbag. The lady’s pocket had been rifled, and this it is suggested would go to show that the murderer wanted something which Miss Dungay possessed, and that after a struggle he killed her.”

Whether this statement as to the money or the rifling of the pocket was correct we have no means of knowing. The matter was not alluded to, as it should have been, either at the inquest or the police court. If it were true, where did the reporter get his information? Was it given him by Dawson, by Inspector Keal, or by Mr. Mash? So far as the public investigation went we are left in doubt as to the contents (if any) of the bag, and the responsibility of this omission rests on the police.

Another singular point hinges upon the reporter’s statement that Miss Dungay’s pocket was rifled by the murderer, who wanted her to give up something in her possession. There is not a word in Inspector Keal’s evidence (as reported) to show that he searched the deceased. Why did he not do so? One would have thought that this would have been the first thing to occur to him after the removal of the body to the house. One would like to know also how the reporter formulated his theory? Did he evolve it himself, or was he assisted by anybody? There are no answers to these questions.

Mr. Mash did not, or could not, throw any light upon the mystery. All he said was that Miss Dungay must have had money in the house; but if so, what became of it? He added that she was not engaged to anyone, nor were strangers (strangers to Mr. Mash, it may be presumed) in the habit of visiting her. He remarked that “she was too happy to have any mental trouble.”

The evidence of the surgeon, Mr. George Smith, showed that the assault was of a most determined and brutal character. There were no less than twenty-four wounds, some inflicted by a blunt weapon, and others by a cutting instrument; the most serious injury, the one causing death, being a deep cut on the neck severing the jugular vein and reaching down to the backbone.

The importance of this wound lies in the fact that the blood must have spurted out, said the surgeon, some two or three feet; that the murderer must have been close to his victim when he stabbed or hacked her (the surgeon could not say it was done by a single stab) and that blood must have gone on his clothes.

It was Mr. Smith’s opinion that the poor woman might have lingered quite two hours, and this opinion was borne out by the fact that a Mr. Liliwhite, a pheasant farmer living a little distance from Lambridge House, heard a “long scream” at about a quarter-past six. If this was her last effort before the final and fatal blow was given, she lasted until eight o’clock, when the boys heard the weird growling sound.

The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown. Mr. Mash offered a reward of £100 for the discovery of the murderer, and the police set to work. They had their eye on a man named Rathall who had been employed on and off at Lambridge House, and they had no difficulty in running him to earth. He was arrested at Daventry.

The evidence against Rathall was of the most flimsy character. The only point of implication was a surmise by Inspector Keal that the footprints on the circular flower bed in front of the sitting-room window bore some sort of resemblance to the boots Rathall was wearing. As the rain must have altered the shape of the marks, and as Rathall had been wearing the boots for quite a month after the murder, the surmise was worthless. Apart from this there was nothing to connect Rathall with the crime; nothing to suggest a hypothesis that he might have committed the murder.

He was a needy man with a wife and family living in a common lodging house, and supposing he was the murderer, his only motive would have been robbery; but, according to Mr. Mash, nothing had been taken, so that any supposition of this kind falls to the ground.

The evidence of Mrs. Ayers, the lodging house keeper, was sufficient to prove an alibi. The man (a connection of Rathall’s by marriage) who gave information to the police admitted that he expected the £100 reward. Most important of all was the fact that there was not a spot of blood on Rathall’s clothes​—​an impossibility, in face of the surgeon’s statement as to the spurting of blood, had Rathall been the man who so brutally attacked Miss Dungay.

Remembering all this, it was only reasonable that the magistrates should declare that there was no evidence against the man, and he was accordingly discharged. Clearly the police had committed another blunder and had wasted time in following up what was obviously from the first a false clue.

In whatever way one may review the points in this bewildering case, puzzles present themselves at every turn. Certain things, however, suggest that the murderer deliberately laid his plans. The stick, one portion of which was found in the porch and the other near the body, had been partly cut and partly broken from a stake under a hay rick. How near this hay rick was to the house does not appear. The detective who found it was not asked the question, but it may be assumed that it was not far. Possibly the miscreant did not anticipate using his knife, and as a sort of afterthought provided himself at the last moment with the stick, and must have had it with him when he entered the house.

His possession of the rammer is not so easily accounted for. It is hardly to be supposed that he took this clumsy weapon with him also. But at what stage of the tragedy did he become possessed of it? How did he know that such a thing was in the copper in the well-house? Was it by accident that he found it, or was he acquainted with the premises and knew where it was kept? However this might be, it does not answer the question why it should be near the body.

It is by no means certain that injuries were inflicted with the rammer. It was four feet long, but we are not told its thickness​—​one of the many omissions with which the official examination bristles. If it were used, one would imagine that a blow from it would have resulted in something more than a surface injury. The doctor does not appear to have discovered broken bones or a fractured skull. He speaks only of cuts; and injuries caused by a blunt weapon. One expression he employed is curious. “The murder,” he said, “need not have been committed by a strong person.” What led him to this opinion he did not explain. Hence the puzzle of the use of the rammer becomes more profound.

The “reconstruction” of the crime would defy the ingenuity of an Edgar Allan Poe. The undisturbed state of the sitting room is a convincing proof that the struggle did not commence there. The two teacups would suggest that Miss Dungay was acquainted with the stranger, and could it have been said that both cups were used, this point would have settled much. But it was overlooked. Dawson was asked if he had noticed whether two chairs had been used. He said he had not.

There was undoubtedly a struggle in the passage. But what led up to it? Did the assassin enter the sitting room and confront his victim, and did she follow him into the passage, or was he lying in wait for her as she passed into the kitchen? No one can say.

How did the miscreant enter the house and how did he leave it? Dawson’s story was that the bay window was unlatched and the doors fastened, the front door being bolted at the top. The supposition of the police was that Miss Dungay had run out by the front door and that the murderer had pursued her by jumping out of the window. Why he also should not have gone out by the door the police did not explain, nor did they attempt to reconcile their version with the puzzle of the bolted front door. Nor had they anything to say as to how he entered the house.

The theory of Mr. Woods, who defended Rathall, was more feasible. He thought that the fellow entered by the kitchen door (this of course presupposes that the door had been left unfastened), locked it after him, and then bolted the front door. If this were so, his purpose was to imprison the woman so that he could compel her to give up whatever it was that he wanted. Then came the struggle, and she must have sought escape by the window and he followed. The tragedy of the wood completed the story.

Allowing this to have been something like what occurred, several questions remain unanswered. What about the rammer? Was the murderer holding it when he jumped out of the window? What of the poker? Was it snatched up by Miss Dungay to defend herself with? From what apartment did it come​—​the kitchen or the sitting room? When and how were the two unopened letters delivered? Through the post or by hand? Who were the writers? None of these questions seem to have troubled the authorities.

The unravelling of the tangled threads of this most singular case would have delighted the born detective. But Henley-on-Thames does not appear to have possessed one.