Jane Roberts of Manchester

The Mystery of a Decoy Letter

The time of the year was January; the hour a little before midday; the place one of two semi-detached houses in Westbourne Grove, Harpurhey, a suburb to the north-east of Manchester. The household consisted of a Mr. Greenwood, an old man past seventy, his invalid wife, and their servant, Jane Roberts, a buxom, fresh-coloured girl of nineteen.

A Mr. Cooper, with whom Mr. Greenwood had business relations, had occasion to call at the hour named above, and the door was opened by Jane Roberts, the servant maid. A letter was lying on the floor, and Mr. Cooper, catching sight of it, said to the girl, jokingly:

“Hallo, Jane, here’s a love-letter for you.”

The girl laughed, and picking up the letter, looked at it and said:

“It’s for Mr. Greenwood.”

This letter had not been delivered by the postman, but had been pushed through the letter slit or slipped under the door. There is no evidence to show that the messenger knocked or rang when he delivered it.

Mr. Cooper proceeded upstairs and saw Mr. Greenwood, to whom the letter was subsequently given by Jane Roberts. The epistle ran as follows:

“January 7th, ’79.

Mr. Greenwood, I want to take that land near the coal yard behind the druggist’s shop, Queen’s Road. I will pay either monthly, quarterly, or yearly, and will pay in advance, and I will meet you to-night from five to six o’clock at the Three Tuns, corner of Churnet Street, and will tell you all particulars. I don’t know your address or would have posted it.

“Yours, etc.,

“W. Wilson.”

Oldham Road.

The letter was addressed simply, “Mr. Greenwood,” and it may be remarked that the writer made a mistake in the year, which should have been 1880. Mr. Greenwood did not recognise the writing, which was very precise and clear, as though great pains had been taken with it; nor did he know anyone named “W. Wilson.”

The offer seemed a desirable one, but somehow it did not strike Mr. Greenwood as altogether genuine.

“It’s no use my going to see this man,” said he to his wife, a little after five, when he had had his tea. “I’d rather not go.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Greenwood, “I would just go round and see. It will be only a short walk.”

Reluctantly the old man kept the appointment at the Three Tuns, and asked the waiter if there had been anyone enquiring for Greenwood.

“No,” was the reply.

“Do you know Mr. Wilson?”

Again the answer was in the negative.

Mr. Greenwood then walked about outside the inn for a quarter of an hour, and going back enquired if Mr. Wilson had come. The waiter told him he had seen no one.

“Then,” said the old man, a little annoyed, “if anybody comes here to ask if Greenwood has been here you can tell them I’ve gone away, and if they want me they will have to come to Westbourne Grove.”

It was then within a few minutes of seven o’clock.

While Mr. Greenwood was away something mysterious had happened in his house. The hand of death had descended swiftly and without warning upon one of the occupants, and upon the tragedy had fallen a veil which to this day has never been lifted.

Up to half-past six everything had proceeded in its customary, uneventful, placid way. Mr. Greenwood’s was a well-ordered household, and rarely did anything go awry. At half-past six the milkman called, and Jane Roberts, smiling as usual, took in the milk. A few minutes afterwards Mrs. Greenwood, who had not long got out of bed, heard a knock at the front door. She heard Jane open the door, close it, and then followed the sound of soft, creeping footsteps. The old lady could not decide whether those stealthy footsteps were those of one or two persons. She was rather inclined to think there were two, but she then attached no importance to the circumstance.

The footsteps went through the lobby, then Mrs. Greenwood heard the kitchen door shut softly, and after this all was still.

Five or six minutes went over. Mrs. Greenwood had forgotten about Jane Roberts, when suddenly the silence was broken by a piercing scream. That scream came from the direction of the kitchen. Mrs. Greenwood had not long recovered from an illness, and the cry sent her vibrating with terror. However, she mustered up sufficient courage to creep to the landing. Leaning over the stair-rail she called out:

“Jane, what’s the matter?”

There was no reply, but the next instant came another scream, less loud, less piercing, less poignant, than the first. The poor old lady was overcome by this second cry. She stood for a few minutes trembling, and then slowly descended the stairs to the lobby. She was afraid to enter the kitchen, so creeping to the front door, she opened it and screamed “Murder!”

In the meantime, Mrs. Cadman, who lived next door, had also heard the piercing cry from the Greenwood’s kitchen, and at first thought that something had happened to her own daughter. She soon found this was not the case, and then she was alarmed a second time by Mrs. Greenwood’s scream and ran to her.

The two frightened women compared notes and, emboldened by each other’s presence, went into the kitchen, and there they found Jane Roberts lying face downwards on the floor, her head terribly bruised and battered. The poor girl was alive but unconscious, and she died before the doctor arrived, taking her secret with her.

The murder and the circumstances attending it presented one of those puzzles which baffle even speculation for its solution. There was not a sign of a struggle. The assassin had not left behind him the slightest clue. Conjecture could not supply the weapon with which he had done the poor girl to death. Motive was entirely wanting. No one could say, even, how he had escaped.

This last point was an important one to decide. As Mrs. Greenwood had not heard the front door open, it was reasonable to suppose he had escaped by the back. But whether he ran from one exit or the other, the situation of the house assisted him. Westbourne Grove in those days was only partly built upon, and Mr. Greenwood’s house was at the extreme end farthest from the high road. There was a quantity of vacant ground, and in the darkness anyone could easily get away unobserved.

The medical examination showed that the girl had been savagely attacked, and that before the murderer judged he had completed his work some little time must have elapsed. Expert opinion gave it that she was felled by a blow which caused a terrible wound over the right eye, and that while lying unconscious the miscreant beat her about as she was lying on the floor. She had hardly time to struggle. She uttered her two despairing screams, and so far as resistance was concerned, all was over.

But the blows of her assailant​—​how came they not to be heard? This is one of the riddles connected with the case, for it was said that the walls between the Greenwood’s kitchen and that of the Cadman’s was so thin that the sound of voices in one could be heard in the other. The murder, save for the screams of the victim, was a silent one.

What was the motive? If that could be settled the murderer might be traced, but there was nothing definite for one’s guidance. The probabilities against robbery were strong. Jane Roberts was a well-conducted girl and not likely to have acquaintances who were thieves, for one of the points beyond dispute is that she knew the individual whom she admitted. Mr. Greenwood was not in the habit of keeping large sums of money in the house, and at the time of the tragedy there was not more than eight to ten pounds on the premises. Nothing was taken, and it is hardly likely that a thief capable of such violence would proceed to attempt a robbery without being sure of his plunder.

All that was really definite was the curious letter which drew Mr. Greenwood from home. Was it not a lure to get him out of the way? If so, who was the writer? Obviously this was a clue which the police were bound to follow as closely as possible.

As to the letter, several questions suggest themselves. Was “W. Wilson” known to Jane Roberts? There was no evidence that he was. Yet supposing the reverse was the case, he might have written in a feigned hand to deceive her.

Jane was a Welsh girl, and had been with the Greenwoods some ten months. She was much liked by her master and mistress, and she had the reputation of being steady and industrious, while nothing was known about any “followers.” But she might have had a sweetheart and nobody be the wiser, especially if it be true that she was “close,” as according to Mrs. Greenwood, she was inclined to be. She used to have a good many letters, but when her box was searched, all the correspondence found was with relatives. In no case did the writing resemble that of “W. Wilson.”

Naturally it was of great importance to find out all that was possible concerning Jane Roberts and her doings. Here the police drew a blank. Mr. Williams, a reliable man, who knew her before she went to the Greenwoods, and whose wife, indeed, recommended her to them, was emphatic in regard to her having no love affair of any kind.

“During the whole of my acquaintance with her I never knew her to be accompanied by anyone, or to allude in the slightest and most casual manner to a sweetheart, although in all matters, as far as I believe, she admitted us to her full and unrestrained confidence. I am convinced that the lover theory is utterly baseless. The girl was, if not intensely spiritual, at least conscientiously religious; she was incapable of harming anyone, her demeanour was quiet, modest, irreproachable.” And she may have been all that Mr. Williams thought she was, and yet confide to him nothing about her love affair. Why should she?

It will not fail to be noted that the murder was a matter of a few minutes. In this connection, what Mrs. Greenwood told the coroner is of importance.

In consequence of her illness Mrs. Greenwood did not get up until the evening, and Jane assisted her to rise about ten minutes to six, the girl remaining in the bedroom some ten minutes. Then, remarking that she would wash the tea things, Jane went downstairs. This would go to show that Jane did not expect a visitor, or if she did, the washing of the tea things was but an excuse to get away, so as to be in readiness to open the door without attracting Mrs. Greenwood’s attention.

From five to ten minutes elapsed before Mrs. Greenwood heard the knock, the door open and close, the soft footsteps, and the shutting of the kitchen door. Five or six minutes of silence followed; then came the first scream, and the old lady had just time to get on to the landing when the second scream was heard. Allowing for the preliminary talk between the girl and her assassin, the actual murder could not have taken more than a few seconds. The murderer no doubt escaped while Mrs. Greenwood was shrieking on the front doorstep.

The coroner had nothing before him to throw light upon the mystery. The milkman, who seems to have been the last person besides Mrs. Greenwood who saw the girl just before the murder, could only say that Jane said “good night” to him in her ordinary manner, and that he saw no one in the road. The police had found out nothing concerning the decoy letter, and the inquest was not prolonged beyond two days. The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown, and the police were left to deal with the affair.

A reward was offered for information which would lead to the capture of the murderer; the letter was lithographed and copies circulated, and a lantern slide was even made of it and exhibited in the public streets. But no results followed, and finally it was suggested that the dead girl’s eyes should be photographed, as it was possible the retina might have retained an image of the assassin. This latter suggestion, however, was regarded as preposterous by the scientific experts, and no more was heard of it.

Two or three days after the inquest had closed came the news that an arrest had been made at Plymouth, and at first it looked as if the police were on the right line, for the man, James Heald by name, had lived at Harpurhey, and it was stated that his arrest was through a resemblance between his writing and that of “W. Wilson.”

It turned out that Heald was “wanted” on a charge of perjury, and this was the offence brought against him when he was taken into custody. As a matter of fact, the police did not care whether he had or had not perjured himself. All they wanted was to keep him in their hands while they tried to discover if he had had anything to do with the Harpurhey mystery.

Before long the whole thing crumbled into dust. The authorities had to confess that they were on a false trail, and Heald was discharged, after having been brought to Manchester and hauled several times before the magistrates.

Meanwhile there was great public dissatisfaction. The police were found fault with for having wasted time over an abortive arrest, and it was held that the inquest ought not to have been closed summarily. Various theories were advanced to picture what happened, and, among others, it was suggested that in spite of Mrs. Cadman hearing nothing but two screams, there might after all have been a struggle, as the Greenwood’s kitchen was covered with coconut matting, which would have deadened any noise. Moreover, the girl’s hair, which was described as “beautifully dressed” only a few minutes before the crime, when she waited on her mistress, was dishevelled, and her collar was found beneath the kitchen dresser.

None of these statements was, however, made at the inquest, and their absence supports the charge that the duties of the coroner were performed somewhat perfunctorily.

It was inevitable that all the theories should go back to the starting-point​—​the decoy letter. One of the questions which had not been answered was: “Who placed it where it was found by Mr. Cooper?” One ingenious theorist suggested that it might have been the girl herself. Might it not, he asked, account for her affecting not to have seen it until Mr. Cooper pointed it out to her? Was there not ground for the suggestion that possibly Jane herself​—​all unwittingly conniving at her own death​—​had agreed to receive a visitor clandestinely, and that in order to insure an undisturbed visitation (Mrs. Greenwood being ill upstairs) she was a party to the letter being written, and that she placed it behind the front door herself, possibly at the time when she heard Mr. Cooper knock?

There is one objection to this part of the theorist’s argument. It assumes that Jane knew Mr. Cooper was coming. We are on firmer ground when it was asserted that the visitor not only knew something of Mr. Greenwood’s business and domestic life, but also of his premises. He also knew that Mr. Greenwood owned a plot of land off the Queen’s Road, and that there was a coal yard close to it. But we are hardly prepared to admit in regard to the miscreant’s escape that, as one theorist suggested, “it was carefully considered beforehand.”

The “reconstruction” of the crime adopted by the same speculator is as good probably as any other. He held that there was conversation between the two, and that the visitor laid some proposition before the girl which did not meet with her approval. That the man intended murder was apparent from the number of serious wounds inflicted. Any one of these injuries would have sufficed if he merely desired to prevent her interfering with his escape, but he wanted to make himself safe, and so silenced his victim.