Sarah Millson

The Secret of a London Warehouse

Difficult as it is to fathom the motives which lead to the tragedies of Kate Dungay, Jane Roberts, and Maria Clousen, there is at least some scope for the imagination. Love or jealousy, it may be hazarded, had a hand in the matter. But with the mystery of the murders of Mrs. Millson and Mrs. Noel we get no assistance from such a supposition. The first was a widow wanting a few years of fifty; the second was middle-aged and had a husband living. There is not the slightest suggestion in any of these puzzles of a man in the case.

In Cannon Street, in the very heart of the City of London, stands a plain building of stone​—​solid, prosaic, uninteresting​—​the very last place one would associate with crime and romance.

The story begins on a rainy evening in April, when two women were sitting in one of the upper rooms overlooking the street. One of these women, the elder of the two, slender, graceful, fair-haired, and, in spite of her years, retaining much of her girlish beauty, was Sarah Millson, the housekeeper. The other was Elizabeth Lowes, the cook.

They were old friends, acquaintance having begun some ten years before both entering the service of Messrs. Bevington, leather merchants, who owned the warehouse, about the same time.

But though friends, they had never exchanged confidences. Elizabeth Lowes, it was true, was open and frank enough, but then she had nothing to conceal. Sarah Millson, on the contrary, was very reticent, said little about herself, and her past was a sealed book to her companion.

Mrs. Millson’s husband had been dead six years. He too was in the employ of the firm, and had lived with his wife on the premises up to the time of his death. On becoming a widow, life with her, in the sedate prosaic warehouse, so far as one knows, went on in the monotonous routine of an old-established business. In the day time the door of the rooms occupied by housekeeper and cook was kept closed, but at seven o’clock in the evening, after the employees had left, it was thrown open. The two servants had then the run of the house, and their friends seemingly knew this, for it was generally after seven when they came.

Mrs. Millson occasionally had visitors, among them her sister and a Miss Cox. Once a man called, and his appearance excited Elizabeth Lowes’s curiosity.

Mrs. Millson was out when this man came, and Elizabeth opened the door. She saw a short, thickset man, with dark hair growing low down on the forehead. He asked for Mrs. Millson, and when he heard she was not in, with the tantalising reticence which people often exhibit, refused to leave his name.

“He was a little short, dark man,” said Elizabeth to Sarah, when the latter returned.

“Oh, yes!” said Mrs. Millson, with a curious look in her eyes. “I know who he is.” But she said no more. Elizabeth never saw him again.

One evening, about a year and nine months after the appearance of this man, Mrs. Millson went down to the front door of the warehouse, and in a few minutes returned and somewhat agitatedly said to Elizabeth Lowes that a man had called and demanded a sovereign from her.

“Will you lend me one?” she added, and Elizabeth did so.

While Sarah was downstairs Elizabeth looked out of the window and saw the man leave the premises and go away in a cab. Who this man was Sarah Millson never explained.

On Wednesday, the 11th of April, Mrs. Millson let a Mr. Kepps, in the employ of the firm, out of the premises at ten minutes to eight. Mr. Kepps was always the last to leave. She then returned upstairs.

“They’re all gone, Elizabeth,” said she.

Elizabeth was sewing at the table and presently Sarah, unoccupied and restless, wandered about the room, now and again stopping at the window, where she stood watching the drops trickling slowly down the glass. Finally, apparently tired of doing nothing, she went into her bedroom.

At ten minutes past nine the door bell on the ground floor clanged. Sarah Millson came hurriedly from her room and said to Elizabeth, “I’ll go. It’s for me,” and the cook heard her rapid footsteps descending the various flights of stairs until they died away in the distance.

An hour went by​—​an hour of dead silence, broken only by the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece, the subdued hum of distant wheels in the streets, and the pattering of raindrops on the window panes. Sarah was still downstairs.

Elizabeth Lowes went on quietly sewing, when all at once a sickening feeling of terror seized her. Nothing had happened to cause any alarm, yet she trembled from head to foot, and a cold sweat bedewed her forehead. The very vagueness of the sensation, the absence of any cause, seemed only to increase her nervousness. She dropped her work, and her eyes rested on the clock. It was a quarter-past ten.

“I can’t endure this any longer,” she murmured. “I’ll go and see what Sarah’s doing. It’s strange she should be away so long.”

Elizabeth had heard not a sound, but there was a good reason for this. The street door opened into a lobby which was shut off by swing doors from the counting house and from the stairs by a passage. The room where Elizabeth had been sitting was on the second floor, and only a loud noise from the passage or lobby would there be audible.

Elizabeth lighted a candle and descended the stair case, her fears growing, though she knew not why. Suddenly she stopped. Her blood seemed to turn to ice. At the foot of the stairs lay some object, its shape indefinable in the gloom. Elizabeth forced herself to go down half a dozen more stairs, and then the dim shadowy object resolved itself into the form of a woman, her feet towards the stairs, and the head in the direction of the swing doors.

“I knew something had happened,” exclaimed the frightened woman.

She stooped and took hold of Mrs. Millson’s hand. The feel of that hand so cold struck a chill to her heart.

“Sarah! Sarah!” she cried.

There was no answer.

Then she held the candle close to the prostrate woman’s face. A frenzied shriek of horror burst from her pallid lips. She saw a mass of fair hair lying dabbled in a crimson pool already beginning to congeal.

Elizabeth sprung to her feet, and rushing to the door, opened it. Heavy rain was falling, and a young woman was standing in the doorway for shelter.

“Will you come in?” implored Elizabeth. “I’m afraid someone has fallen down in a fit!”

The young woman made a step forward, and then, suddenly seized with fright, exclaimed:

“Oh, I can’t, I can’t!” and ran away.

Elizabeth dared not go back, though no suspicion of the terrible truth had entered her mind. She waited on the doorstep till a policeman went by.

The constable looked at the body, said nothing, but rushed for a surgeon. The surgeon’s trained eye saw the nature of the case in a moment.

“The woman is dead. She has been murdered!” said he curtly.

It was true. Poor Sarah Millson was lying with her face turned to the right, and with the right arm extended. The head was frightfully battered, and she must have fallen directly she was struck, for her dress was not in disorder, and there was no sign of a struggle.

The police were face to face with an impenetrable mystery. The murderer had not left a single clue behind him. A small crowbar, used in packing goods, with a hammer at one end and a chisel at the other, was found on a board near the body; but this gave no assistance. It belonged to the house, and was perfectly clean. Whatever weapon the assassin had employed, it was not the crowbar.

The motive? It was not robbery. The key of the safe, with which the housekeeper was entrusted, was found in her pocket; so also was seventeen shillings, her own money. Not a thing in the warehouse or counting house was disturbed.

When the police came to examine Mrs. Millson’s box they thought they had made a “find” in the following letter:

“Dear Mrs. Millson,​—​The bearer of this I have sent to you as my adviser. I have taken this course as I have received so much annoyance from Mrs. Webber that I can put up with it no longer. He will propose terms to you which you can accept or not at your pleasure. Failing your agreeing to this proposal, he is instructed by me to see Mr. Bevington or Mr. Harris and explain to them how the matter stands. You know yourself what reasons you put forth for borrowing the money (doctor’s bills and physicians for your husband), which you know was not so. I shall also have him bring your sister before Mr. Bevington if necessary, or your obstinacy compels my adviser to go to that extreme.​—​George Terry.”

On the back of this letter was written:

“Received of Mrs. Millson £1​—​W. Denton, for George Terry, 26 Old Change.”

The police soon got on the track of Terry; but it was at once made clear, from the evidence produced, that he was not the murderer.

Terry, it appeared, was an old acquaintance of Mrs. Millson, who, wanting some money, was introduced by him to a Mrs. Sarah Webber, of whom she borrowed thirty pounds, part of which she paid back. Mrs. Webber looked upon Terry as partly responsible for the debt, and when Sarah Millson got into arrears, she worried Terry for the balance. Terry, however, was in low water, and making the acquaintance of Denton (whose real name was Smith), this man undertook to squeeze some money out of Mrs. Millson. Accordingly the above letter was written; Smith, alias Denton, called upon Sarah Millson and obtained a sovereign from her as the endorsement on the letter indicated. Smith was a lazy ne’er-do-well sort of fellow, a hat maker by trade, whose mother said he had always been a trial to her.

With the fatuity the police sometimes show, they chose to make up their minds that Smith was the murderer, and to twist their theory into facts they entered upon a series of blunders.

Smith was traced to Eton, and at once arrested on suspicion. So far, at all events, they were justified, as, in his mother’s house, where he lived, they found a coat, waistcoat and trousers, all apparently spotted with blood. To the question put by the officer to the mother, “What time did her son come home on the night of the murder?” she could give no definite answer, as she was in bed at the time.

Smith never attempted to deny that he had been on two or three occasions to Cannon Street, and that Mrs. Millson had paid him money, but he emphatically declared he was not there on the night of the murder, but had spent the evening with friends at Eton. He swore he had not been in London since February 1st, but admitted that he had called on Mrs. Millson at Terry’s instigation.

“Did you write the receipts signed ‘Denton’ on the back of the letter?” asked the detective.

“Yes,” said Smith, “I sometimes use that name. I called three times at Cannon Street. Mrs. Millson paid me two sovereigns and I wrote her a receipt each time. I know it was all wrong about the money, and I knew Terry was not entitled to it. That is the reason I did not sign my right name.”

It was awkward for Smith that his coat, waistcoat and trousers should be spotted apparently with blood, for these spots made the police cocksure that they had tracked down the murderer. So certain, indeed, were they, that they did not trouble to look further, but set to work to get up evidence against him. The method they adopted was unscrupulous, unfair and stupid.

It was most important to show that Smith was in London on the night of the murder, and to prove this the prosecution brought forward a Mrs. Robbins, housekeeper at No. 1 Cannon Street, next door to Messrs. Bevington.

Mrs. Robbins said she returned home on the night of the murder about ten minutes past ten, and as she rang her bell, she heard a violent slamming of the door at Messrs. Bevington’s and saw a man leave the house. He gave her a side look as he passed, the light of her hall lamp shining on his face. She believed Smith was the man. Mrs. Robbins’ servant was also produced. The servant did not see this man on the night of the murder, but thought she had seen him coming out of the house on another night.

This evidence might or might not be important, but the method the police adopted to secure identification was, to say the least, peculiar.

The inspector, having previously warned the two women to be at their door so as to see if they could recognise anyone, sent the prisoner walking between two plain-clothes men, three other plain-clothes men following behind; and by doing this the innocent inspector thought the women would never imagine the man was a prisoner, but would take him for one of the crowd. Of course Mrs. Robbins picked Smith out.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Robbins proved too much, for she also recognised the alleged murderer in somebody else who was riding past her in a cab at the very moment she was trying to identify Smith. The fact was, the police, to deceive the crowd which was waiting at the station to see the prisoner taken before the magistrate, put handcuffs on a constable and sent him in a cab while the real prisoner was walked along in the manner just described. Hence, to say the least, Mrs. Robbins’ “identification” was very unsatisfactory.

Meanwhile it was clearly established that, in the early part of the evening of the murder, Smith was seen walking in the direction of Slough station, while it was equally certain that he was at Windsor at a late hour. What had he done between these times?

The police answered the question by asserting that he had caught the 7.43 train from Slough to Paddington, arriving there at 8.40, that he had reached Cannon Street at ten minutes past nine, committed the murder, and had rushed back to Paddington in time to catch the last train to Windsor. Quick work with a vengeance, for the police had to admit that Smith was at Windsor between eleven and twelve.

However, this theory was knocked on the head by the evidence for the defence. Some eleven or twelve witnesses were called, who conclusively proved that Smith was in their company the whole of the evening of the 11th playing cards, and if ever an alibi was distinctly established, it was in the case of William Smith.

A small, but not unimportant, point was that the spots and stains on his garments, which the police were so sure were blood, turned out on examination by a medical expert not to be blood at all, but “cogging,” some material used in hat-making, Smith being a hatter by trade.

The opinion of the jury was emphatically expressive. After the judge had summed up, they did not wait to be asked the formal question whether they had agreed upon a verdict, but pronounced the prisoner to be “Not guilty.” The judge, too, went out of his way to suggest that something more than this was due to the accused​—​he ought to be declared to be innocent.

“My lord,” said the foreman, “we think so, too.”

The police, either exhausted or disgusted by their abortive attempts, made no further efforts, and from that day to this​—​fifty-eight years​—​nothing more has been heard of the murder in Cannon Street.