Mrs. Noel

The Mystery of a Ramsgate Kitchen

It was a hot May and the Ramsgate season had begun early. Whitsuntide was just over, and for the time of the year the favourite Kentish watering-place was fairly full. For reasons which will be apparent later on, this fact added to the mystery of the grim tragedy which was enacted on the 14th May 1893.

Mr. William Noel, a butcher carrying on business at 9 Adelphi Terrace, Grange Road, on this particular day​—​it was Sunday​—​dined alone with his wife, and Nelly Wilson, who waited on them, noticed nothing out of the way in the manner of either. They had been married some years, were past middle age, and were regarded as a very happy couple.

The Noels were Wesleyans, but did not attend the same place of worship. Mr. Noel was a Sunday-school teacher at the chapel at St. Lawrence, and left the house at about twenty minutes past two to go to his class. Nelly Wilson, whose parents lived at St. Lawrence, went home some twenty minutes before this, and from two o’clock to twenty minutes past, Noel and his wife were alone in the house. If anything took place then, other than contained in Noel’s own narrative, it will for ever remain untold.

Noel’s account of what happened during this brief space was this:

“We both sat down to dinner about twenty minutes past one. After dinner we had the usual family prayers and I next went up to the back sitting room, leaving my wife in the kitchen. I got my books together in preparation for afternoon’s school, and my wife came up to me while so doing. She wanted the collection money on the table and remarked that there was just ten shillings. She went to the front sitting room and returned with a china bowl into which she put the money and took the bowl away with her to the front room. I did not see her alive after that. I left the house about five minutes afterwards, it being then between fifteen and twenty minutes past two. I left the house by the front side door without speaking to my wife, and was at the school at about 2.25.”

Noel appears to have returned to the house about 4.20 and found the front side door (which opened into a passage) fastened. When he went out he left it unfastened. He then tried the scullery door but this was bolted, and thinking his wife had gone out for a walk he strolled about for a little time. On his return the side door was still locked, and on knocking a second time the dog barked. Noel then went round to the back, and getting a pair of steps pulled the window down (the window was closed but unhasped), the dog barking furiously.

“I put my head through the window to speak to the dog, and on doing so saw my wife lying on the floor with her shoulders and head against the kitchen door. I called to her but received no answer. I thought perhaps she had gone into a swoon with no one near to help her​—​she was subject to sick bouts and so it did not surprise me at seeing her in that position.… After standing on the steps and looking at my wife I went for Mr. Harman” (his next-door neighbour).

Harman came, mounted the steps, called Mrs. Noel by name, and as she did not answer said he thought she was dead, and suggested that Noel should go for a policeman and he (Harman) would go for a doctor. Noel accordingly tried to find a policeman, and while so occupied met a friend named Sanders.

“Noel,” said Sanders, “came and touched me on the shoulders and said, ‘I believe my wife is dead in the house.’ I said, ‘Never.’ I said, ‘Do you think she has fainted?’ He replied that he did not think she had. Mr. Noel looked rather upset and was very pale. I followed him round to the back of the house; there were some steps standing by the window, the top sash of which was down. Mr. Noel went up the steps first and said, ‘There she lies.’ I said, ‘Come down and let me look.’ I went up the steps, and on looking in at the window I saw deceased lying there. I said to Mr. Noel, ‘For goodness’ sake get in as quickly as you can.’ He then got in over the sash. I told him to undo the scullery door, which he did. I went to the body first. I rushed in past Mr. Noel. I said, ‘Good God, she’s shot!’ He said, ‘What shall I do?’ I said, ‘Send for a policeman.’ The dog,” added Saunders, “was standing or sitting by the body looking at it.”

Noel then took Sanders through the house, remarking that the motive was robbery, despite the fact that his wife had five rings on and a watch and chain, all of which were untouched, and showed Sanders the condition of the rooms as a proof.

In the sitting room a writing desk was smashed; in the back bedroom a cash box had been broken open and the contents (believed by Noel to have consisted. of about £9, an old cheque for £2, and a post office savings bank book) taken. A chest of drawers in a bedroom had been opened and the linen in one drawer disturbed; in the shop were two bowls, one containing about 13s. in silver and the other copper, but these had passed unnoticed.

In the course of this search it is to be noticed that Noel omitted to take his friend into the best room on the first floor over the shop, and it was all the more singular because in this room Mrs. Noel had placed the collection money in a china bowl. This money was intact.

Meanwhile the doctor fetched by Harman declared that the poor woman had been shot dead. His first impression was that she had committed suicide, but as no pistol could be found he altered his mind.

Had there been a struggle? Noel’s impression was that there had, but the doctor thought not. One of the eyes was blackened; but this was due to the natural discolouration after death. Near the body were Mrs. Noel’s gold spectacles, the frame bent and the glasses broken.

Mystery seemed to follow mystery. Noel said that when he went out of the house he left the door unfastened and the key in the lock. But no key was to be found. The inference was that the murderer, finding the door unfastened, had entered, committed the murder, laid his hands hurriedly on whatever he could, and had left by the same door, locking it and taking away the key. But there were reasons why this theory is not tenable.

The argument that the motive was robbery is not convincing. It is hard to see how the jewellery Mrs. Noel was wearing escaped the robber’s notice. When his victim was dead he was at liberty to roam through the house. Why did he not go into the best room and into the shop? In both of these places there was money exposed to view. What also of the dog?

As if to baffle enquiry, a key, together with Mrs. Noel’s bonnet and parasol, was lying on the bed when Sanders went through the house. About this key, declared by Noel to be a duplicate of the one belonging to the side door, Noel said he knew very little. He had seen it once in a basket on his wife’s dressing table, but he could not say that it was ever used and he did not know where it came from.

But the puzzle of the dog was the most bewildering of all. The animal was a retriever and said by several witnesses to be very savage. It was, however, attached to its master and mistress. Presuming the motive was robbery, what was the dog doing when the thief entered the house? One would expect it would have attacked the intruder, but it did not even bark. Noel suggested to the police inspector that he might have shut the dog in the lobby when he went out. “Yes,” said the inspector, “but the thieves would have to pass him in going upstairs.” This, of course, is obvious. There is also the difficulty of accounting for finding the dog by the body. If it had been shut up, how did it get into the room? The police, without doubt, had a hard nut to crack, and it must be confessed that they adopted the very worst method of cracking it. They first formulated a theory and then proceeded to find evidence to fit it. They could only account for the silence of the dog by the assumption that the murderer was well known to the animal. Now the only person who fulfilled their requirements was William Noel, and they started on their task of proving that he was the guilty person by boldly stating that, in their opinion, the robbery was a “got-up” affair​—​that in spite of appearances there had been no robbery at all!

To establish their case it was necessary to prove that the woman had been shot between two o’clock and twenty minutes past, and they laboured the point for all that it was worth. Several persons had heard noises at different times. Mrs. Dyer, a neighbour, put the time at about three o’clock, but “it might have been earlier or later.”

Alice King, the servant of the Harmans next door, heard a noise about five minutes past two, but it did not occur to her that it was the report of a pistol. She was not particularly precise as to the time, and could only fix it by declaring that her household duties occupied her up to five minutes past two, when she was in her bedroom and heard the noise. At 2.15 she heard the Noels’ side door shut and she said to herself, “There goes Mr. Noel,” because she had heard him go out on previous Sundays at that time.

Miss Susanna Miller, when passing Noel’s house at heard a noise like a door being slammed, while Mrs. Dalton, a neighbour; heard a sound at 2.45 which she was positive was a gun or pistol being fired. Here then were four different times stated at which noises​—​each of which might or might not have been the report of a firearm​—​were heard.

To test both the disposition of the dog and the accuracy of Alice King’s testimony, the police on the following Sunday fired a pistol in Noel’s house about one o’clock. The dog was in the room at the time and it only slunk away. The same result followed when a bottle of soda water was opened. But the absence of any demonstration might have been because it knew its master was in an adjoining room. As for Alice King, who was at dinner with her master and mistress when the pistol was fired, she remarked, “That’s like the noise I heard last Sunday.” It may have been so, but whether or not, the experiment was of little value.

The medical evidence as to the time of the murder was equally uncertain. Dr. Fox saw the body at 4.27 and, though death had taken place quite two hours before, he would not have been surprised if it had been three hours; he certainly would have been surprised had he been told she had been dead only one and a half hours. Another doctor was of much the same opinion. Mrs. Noel, it appeared, had been shot at the side of the head: the bullet took a slightly downward direction, came out at the other side, struck against the panel of the door, and was deflected into the next room, where it was found. From the expression of the woman’s face, Dr. Fox did not think she saw her murderer.

No theory was advanced either by the police or by the doctors as to the position of the woman at the time she was shot​—​a curious omission, as this was a point which, could it have been determined, would have been of considerable significance. The course taken by the bullet shows that the door was open at the time, and this disposes of Noel’s suggestion concerning the shutting-up of the dog. But it does not explain the passiveness of the animal. If Dr. Fox’s opinion that Mrs. Noel did not see her murderer be correct, he could hardly have entered by the door unless he crept softly in and stole round to the other side of his victim, a difficult opinion to accept, as he could hardly have done so without being seen. An entrance by the window is even less feasible for the same reason. Nor could the shot have been fired through the window; the fact that the pistol, when fired, was not more than a yard from the woman’s head puts this hypothesis at once out of the range of probability.

The coroner had no other evidence than what has been here epitomised, and the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown. At the termination of the proceedings Noel was arrested on the capital charge.

The examination before the magistrate was a very tedious affair. The police had but little additional evidence to offer and they set to work to bolster up their case by innuendo. They put forward all the gossip adverse to Noel’s moral character they could rake up, and a mass of tittle-tattle it proved to be. It had no relation to the murder and did the prosecution more harm than good.

The only fresh fact in the possession of the authorities added to the never-ending puzzle. After Noel’s arrest the police searched the bedroom, and they conducted the operation in a very comfortable fashion, the inspector sitting on the bed and two constables drinking bottled beer and smoking pipes. They went through the contents of a chest of drawers, but found nothing to help them. Two or three days afterwards Noel’s cousin, a Mrs. Keane, going through the same drawers, found a purse (which Noel thought had been in the cash box) inside the folds of some linen. Noel immediately wrote to the police concerning the discovery, and their view of the matter was that if the purse had been in the drawer when they searched the latter they must have found it, and consequently the purse must have been placed in the drawer afterwards. But who placed it there and for what purpose they did not venture to suggest.

Another point the police tried to make arose out of the condition of the cash box. The inspector thought that the box had been broken open by a boot and that the boot was Noel’s. The official supported his opinion by asserting that the marks on the box corresponded with certain nails in Noel’s boots. The accuracy of this opinion was not tested, Noel’s solicitor probably thinking it was simply dragged in to strengthen the police theory that Noel had “arranged the robbery” in order to disguise his crime. The chairman of the magistrates remarked that the Bench had made up their minds about the marks, but whether in favour of the prisoner or not was not announced.

This was as far as the prosecution could carry the case. The magistrates decided that there was ground for a committal, and Noel accordingly was sent to. stand his trial at the assizes.

In his charge to the grand jury, Mr. Justice Grantham made short work of the indictment. He declared with much warmth that the conduct of the police was marked by “impropriety, incompetence, and illegality.” He denounced their attempts to rake up Noel’s past. He pointed out that the pistol had not been found. The reason why, according to the inspector, was that “he supposed it had been put down the drain with the blood,” but he (Mr. Justice Grantham) could not find in the evidence that any blood had been so put down, and he did not think any murderer would stop long enough to do that. The police had never searched for people who had bought pistols, and it was left for the defence to discover that the day before the murder a pistol had been bought and bullets of a large size corresponding to the one which had been found. After some scathing remarks on the searching of the house and the bottled beer incident, his lordship wound up with these emphatic words: “There is not enough evidence in the case upon which I would like a dog to be whipped, much less than a man to be hanged, and the case ought not to have been sent for trial.”

The result was that the grand jury were directed to throw out the bill, as if further evidence were found against Noel he could again be indicted, whereas if he were declared not guilty nothing could be done.

And so William Noel was set free, not indeed with the rope around his neck, but with the chance of the police making another attempt to fling it about him. Looking at the mystery in whatever way one chooses contradictions spring up. All that can be said in regard to Noel is that his course of action was as puzzling as everything else. When he saw his wife lying on the floor, why did he not climb through the window (as he subsequently did when urged to do so by Sanders) and go to her assistance, especially as he knew she was “subject to sick bouts”? He did not suspect anything serious, for “it did not surprise him to see her in that position.” He went instead for his next-door neighbour, and in company with the latter looked at her a second time and still did not do anything. Whatever may have been the reason, he seems to have been singularly helpless. When under suspicion he told the police an extraordinary story to the effect that he “felt” that the murder had been committed by his wife’s sister. But the two had not seen each other for some years and he could furnish no reason why she should kill her sister. All through he seems to have shown nervousness almost to the point of hysteria, and of course this may have accounted for his actions.

The police had some justification for thinking that the robbery was “got up,” but supposing their theory was correct, it furnished no clue to the murderer, and their efforts to find a “motive” were futile.