Mrs. Reville

Slough’s Black Secret

Less terrible but more mysterious than the murder of the Marrs was that of Mrs. Reville, the butcher’s wife, at Slough. Nothing could be less suggestive of crime than the unpretending shop in the High Street of a sleepy town, yet within a few minutes the weapon of death descended and the wielder had vanished as though he had never been.

Imagine a shop about 18 feet by 12 feet, in the centre of which stood a chopping block and to the left of the entrance a counter on which the scales were kept. Behind was a fairly large room, between which and the shop was a door and with a window commanding the entire view of the front premises. Immediately beneath this window was a desk at which Mrs. Reville was in the habit of sitting to post and make up the accounts. Behind her and a little to the left in the middle of the room was a table covered by a green ornamental cloth. At the back of the room, also a little to the left, a door led into a yard, which door could be opened from the inside but not from the outside. Close to this door a window looked into the yard. This window was fitted with a blind, but it was not drawn down on the evening in question. A kitchen could be entered from the room just described, the door of communication being just behind where Mrs. Reville would sit. A gas burner was placed close to the small window, immediately to the right of the head of a person sitting at the desk, and a second burner was in the shop; the tap of the latter was half turned down on the evening in question and the light was but dim. There was no access from the back of the house.

It is essential to bear in mind the arrangement of the premises as it shows that no one could enter the room from the rear; while any person coming into the shop from the street would be at once seen by Mrs. Reville. The inmates of the house were Mr. and Mrs. Reville and two children. The assistants in the business were a boy, Frederick Glass, and Augustus Payne, a youth of eighteen. Both had been in the employ of Mr. Reville some two years.

It was the night of April 11th, 1881. Business was over for the day, and at about ten minutes past eight Mr. Reville left the house to pay a few calls and gossip with his cronies after the fashion of the country tradesman. He left his wife sitting in her usual seat at the desk in the room behind the shop posting up her account books, and the lad, Frederick Glass, was helping her. Augustus Payne was in the shop and the two children were upstairs in bed. Mrs. Reville and the boy continued to work until five-and-twenty minutes past eight, when the boy prepared to go. Meanwhile, Payne had come from the shop and had passed through the room into the kitchen. As a rule, Glass and Payne went away together, but on that night Payne told Glass he might be a quarter of an hour later as he had to rub salt into some hams. Mrs. Reville put twopence on the table and Glass and Payne each took a penny. Then Glass took his leave, Payne remaining behind.

The time at which Payne left depends upon his own word. There was no corroborative evidence. He came out of the kitchen, and as he crossed the room Mrs. Reville bade him good night. “I asked her,” said Payne, “if I should shut the shop door and she said ‘No; turn the gas down and leave it open.’ It was 8.32 when I came out of the door. I looked at the clock.”

If Payne’s word as to the time he left the house is to be depended upon, what happened next must have occupied no more than a couple of minutes or so. Mrs. Beasley, who lived next door to the Revilles, was in the habit of looking in every evening to keep Mrs. Reville company after the boys had left, and on the night of April 11th she went in as usual. The shop door was a little way open and the time was, she thought, about half-past eight, but she could not be sure to five minutes. Mrs. Reville was in her accustomed seat, as Mrs. Beasley could see when she looked through the window. There was something strange about her appearance. Her face was of a leaden pallor. The poise of the head was wrong. Considerably alarmed, the visitor went a little nearer. She at first thought Mrs. Reville had fainted. Then she caught sight of an ominous red streak in her neck and she could not go a step further by herself. She ran out of the shop for assistance.

Either before Mrs. Beasley entered or while she was away other eyes had seen the terrible sight. Those eyes belonged to one of Mrs. Reville’s children, a little tot of five years old. She was very thirsty, and not being able to sleep she went downstairs, and while on the staircase heard the sound of a door slamming. She reached the door opening into the room at the back of the shop, peeped in and saw her mother sitting in front of her desk. The child spoke, but getting no answer went a little nearer and then saw blood on her mother’s neck. Trembling with fright she ran upstairs and got into bed, where she lay, not daring to utter a sound, until the next morning when she told her father. She also said she heard a noise as of her mother choking. If so, this would fix the time of the child’s entrance as before the visit of Mrs. Beasley.

In the meantime, Mrs. Beasley had poured a somewhat incoherent tale into the ears of a neighbour, a Mr. Light, who at once started for the Revilles’ shop. He could not tell the exact time, but his wife put it at twenty-five minutes past eight, but the clock it turned out was slow. When Light saw Mrs. Reville he knew she was dead. Within a few minutes Police-sergeant Hobbs was on the scene, and it was then a quarter to nine. Hobbs saw a large wound on the side of the neck and two wounds on the front of the head. On the table were some papers, a chopper and some bread and cheese. The handle of the chopper was from the dead woman nearest the back door. Both the back doors were shut, but he could not say whether they were fastened. Seeing no blood on the upper part of the chopper, he took it up and found the underside covered with blood, wet and running and with hair upon it. Some pieces of money​—​a penny, a halfpenny, and a shilling​—​were lying partly on Mrs. Reville’s dress, and her handkerchief was partly in and partly out of her pocket.

What the surgeon found pretty well told how the murderer went about his work. Mrs. Reville was sitting on the forepart of the chair and leaning back. The two severe wounds on the forepart of the head were probably caused by blows from someone standing behind, and by such an instrument as the chopper. The blows had been delivered from right to left. It is important to note that no blood was found on the floor where anyone would have been standing, so that the assassin might have escaped without having any blood on his clothing.

A singular piece of writing was found on the table. On a half sheet of notepaper was the following:

Mrs. Reville​—​You will never sell me any more bad meat like you did on Saturday. I told Mrs. Austin at Chalvey that I should do for her. I have done it for the bad meat she sold me on Saturday.​—​H. Collins, Colnbrook.”

If this paper was intended to throw the police off the scent the method adopted was palpably absurd. Enquiries, of course, were made, but as might be expected they led to nothing. At the same time it was significant that whoever wrote the words must have known something of the Revilles’ business. It turned out that though H. Collins was not known at Colnbrook there was a Robert Collins living at Chalvey, and Robert Collins was one of Reville’s customers. He, however, had not written the note nor did he know anything of any bad meat. It was true also that at Chalvey lived a Mrs. Elizabeth Austin, but she knew no H. Collins and no one of that name had complained to her of bad meat.

So much for the alleged motive. The police could find out no one who had a grudge against Mrs. Reville, and though it was not proved that Mrs. Reville had much money in her pocket at the time she was attacked, whatever was the amount it was gone. Murder for the sake of robbery was hardly likely, though, of course, it could be urged that a stranger would not know what money the poor woman had about her and might be tempted to take his chance. But there were powerful objections to this supposition. The shop door it is true was open, but no one could enter without being seen by Mrs. Reville from her seat at the desk. Moreover, the murderer when he struck the fatal blows was behind his victim. Is it conceivable that a strange man could enter the room without some protest from Mrs. Reville and could swiftly leap behind her and not be seen? If she did see him her natural instinct would have prompted her to get up from her chair, either to call for assistance or to escape from some threatened danger. But when discovered dead the attitude of her body was unchanged from that of life. Nor was there the slightest sign of a struggle.

The distinctive features of this singular case are firstly, the amazing swiftness of the murderer, and secondly, that he should have escaped without bloodstained clothing. Payne was the last to leave the shop and he fixed the time at 8.32. Shortly afterwards he was met in the street by one witness who thought the time was about five-and-twenty minutes to nine. Mrs. Beasley went into the shop at half-past eight or thereabouts. Obviously, the difficulty of fixing by the memory alone the exact moment of every particular occurrence is insuperable. All that can be said is that these three times probably ranged within the limit of five minutes, and one is justified in assuming that the entry of the murderer, the attack, the robbery and his escape, did not occupy more than this brief interval. It was probably less, for although the child who crept into the room while outside the door heard a noise as of someone, she saw nothing when she peeped into the room but the sight of her mother and the blood on her neck. By this time the deed was done and the murderer had fled.

The second feature of the crime​—​the absence of any clue from bloodstained clothing​—​is equally puzzling. The miscreant had inflicted upon his victim four terrible wounds and one appeared to have received two blows. The surgeon was of opinion that the wounds at the back of the head were first delivered and the effect would be to cause immobility. The head being thrown back the other blows were more consistent with being given from behind than from any other direction. He thought it was quite possible there was not much spurting of blood, but if the person were standing behind he should have expected the person would have been covered with blood. Still he could have rifled the woman’s pockets and yet be free from blood had he proceeded very carefully.

No doubt, but this presupposes deliberation, and the murder was consummated so rapidly that there could have been no time for deliberation. Considering that the crime was determined upon, it is possible, however, that the murderer, finding the woman was made unconscious by his first blow, robbed her and finished his appalling work afterwards. The deed was no haphazard one and hence the perpetrator had an eye to the avoidance of bloodstains.

A third puzzle​—​that relating to the chopper​—​must not be overlooked.

The weapon used to commit the murder was undoubtedly the butcher’s chopper. This chopper was always kept on the block in the shop. How came it into the room? Did the murderer catch sight of it as he passed as a ready instrument for his purpose? Was it by accident, or had he planned out his deed beforehand and noted where the chopper was kept? Frederick Glass did not notice when he left the house at twenty-five minutes past eight whether the chopper was in its place. Alfred Payne, his fellow assistant, told the coroner that when he left at thirty-two minutes past eight the chopper, with other tools, was on the block, except the knife, and that laid against the weights close to the scales. Save Payne’s, there was no other evidence relating to the chopper.

For certain reasons which will be gone into presently, the police came to the conclusion that the murder was committed by someone well acquainted with the business. The boy Glass was at once eliminated from their conclusions and so also was Mr. Reville, who was at a neighbouring tavern at the time of the murder. There remained Alfred Augustus Payne. Now, some curious discoveries were made in regard to the note signed “H. Collins” which seem to direct suspicion towards Payne, so much so that, while the coroner’s inquest was being held, the police kept the youth under a species of surveillance.

This suspicion rested upon more grounds than one. When Mr. Reville went out at a quarter to eight, he left Payne in a corner of the shop writing on a sheet of paper. On searching the shop and room the police superintendent found a piece of notepaper which, on being compared with the letter addressed to Mrs. Reville left on the table, was found to correspond. A notch on the side of one fitted into the side of the other. This coincidence suggested that, in addition to doing the woman to death, the murderer found time to write the note in question. The watermark also corresponded.

The important point was to establish whose was the handwriting. Asked for specimens of his handwriting Payne gave them willingly, and these specimens, together with the letter signed “H. Collins,” were submitted to Mr. Chabot, a well-known writing expert. But the expert’s evidence was like the evidence of most experts in such cases, very unsatisfactory. He found more similarities in handwritings which were proved not to be Payne’s than in those that were. Before the coroner Mr. Chabot was much more positive that the handwriting of the letter addressed to Mrs. Revile resembled that of Payne than he was at the assizes.

The question of the handwriting was left unsettled at the inquest, and left as it was, it tended to cast a shadow over Payne’s protestation of innocence. This shadow was deepened when it was inferred from certain evidence given by Mr. Reville that Payne might have nursed a grudge against Mrs. Reville. The latter, it appeared, had some weeks before told her husband that there was something wrong in regard to some money being missed and that if he did not get rid of Payne she would. “She calculated,” said Reville, “that he was robbing us.”

Much was made of the superintendent’s statement that when Payne was taken to the scene of the murder he showed no emotion, but as every student of psychology knows, the absence of outward emotion proves nothing. In such a case as Payne’s it tells as much in favour of innocence as of guilt. However, the cumulative effect of all that told against Payne was that thirteen of the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against Payne and he was committed to the assizes.

The trial disclosed nothing more than has already been related. The right of a prisoner to give evidence if he wished to do so had not then been established, and Payne’s mouth was closed. What he told the coroner, however, may be quoted, as it tallied exactly with his statement to the police superintendent. It ran: “I am innocent of the crime and knew nothing in the least about it till Mr. Dunham came to my house. He asked me to go to Mr. Reville’s to see whereabouts Mrs. Reville was sitting when I left her. From what I left her at thirty-two minutes past eight she did not seem to have moved an inch. Mr. Reville says I had some ill feeling against Mrs. Reville and I had not the least. Two never could agree better than me and Mrs. Reville. Mr. Reville says I have been in the habit of going to public houses for the last two months and I have not. I gave it up ever since he told me. I should not have gone then had it not been for Mr. Reville. I don’t see why he should put upon me, calling me such a bad boy after giving me so many presents as he has. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

He never went from these words; he was never confused, and throughout the trial he maintained-his self-possession. The police tried to make out that when Payne was taken to the scene of the murder he showed no sign of emotion, but this he strongly denied. He nearly fell down at the sight, he said, and would have done so but for his supporting himself by laying his hand on the block.

The jury were not long in finding Payne not guilty, and it is difficult to see how they could come to any other conclusion. The whole tragedy was so inexplicable and so motiveless​—​in spite of the self-implicating letter​—​that one can discover no point to start from even to piece out a theory. The Slough shop murder must in the absence of any belated confession​—​a most unlikely thing to happen now that over forty years have passed since the deed was committed​—​for ever remain one of the darkest of Unsolved Mysteries.