The Mistakes of Murderers

  1. The Mannings
  2. Henry Wainwright
  3. Muller
  4. Lefroy
  5. Hocker
  6. John Watson Laurie
  7. Mullens.

It may be argued, from the many unsolved murder mysteries which have baffled all attempts at solution, that the disappearance of the murderer without leaving a clue behind as to his identity is a comparatively easy matter provided no motive for the crime can be discovered. Motiveless murders, it is true, are the most difficult to fathom, but there are cases where, through some oversight, the guilty hand has been disclosed. Perhaps long deliberation over a contemplated crime deadens the senses and, though every step has apparently been thought out and possible detection guarded against, something unforeseen, either during the perpetration of the deed or afterwards, has upset all calculations and has found the murderer at his wits’ end how to meet the emergency. It is consequently not surprising to find that he either blunders, or is so confident his guilt cannot be brought home to him, that he blindly does the very thing which convicts him. The murder of O’Connor by the Mannings is an example of the first, and that of Harriet Lane by Henry Wainwright an instance of the second.

The Mannings arranged everything to their satisfaction. They enticed O’Connor to their house without a soul knowing that he was going there. Mrs. Manning shot him, the grave in the stone-paved kitchen and the quicklime were in readiness. The body was buried and the flagstone replaced and cemented. They sold their furniture, shut up the house and disappeared, the woman to Edinburgh, the man to Jersey. Five days went over before the police visited the house. They might not have lighted upon the body for some time but​—​fatal oversight!​—​every room was dirty and disordered save the kitchen, and that was spick and span, and the reset flagstone impossible to be overlooked. The body was unrecognisable, the quicklime had done its work well, but​—​another blunder​—​the gold setting of a false tooth remained. Identity was established.

Henry Wainwright, with the assistance of his brother Thomas, was diabolically cunning in the doing to death of his victim and in the concealment of her body. In spite of the hue and cry after the missing woman, her corpse was safely hidden for a whole year beneath the floor of Wainwright’s warehouse in the Whitechapel road. The house was sold and the body had to be removed. This was done by dismemberment, and it is more than likely Wainwright would have succeeded in getting the parcel away without exciting suspicion but he was foolish enough to obtain the assistance of a youth and​—​inconceivable act of stupidity​—​left the lad in charge of the packages while he himself went for a cab! He might easily have done the reverse, but a kink in his brain sent him to his doom. In spite of his craft he was an ignorant blunderer, for instead of using quicklime, which would have destroyed all traces of bodily resemblance, he employed chloride of lime, which acted as a preservative!

Mistakes are not confined to the perpetrators of premeditated murders. It was pure chance which led Franz Muller to travel alone with Mr. Briggs in a railway carriage, though no doubt he had robbery and possibly murder in his mind when he started on the journey. It was chance also which caused him in his hurry to go off with his victim’s hat and leave his own behind. The blunder as it stood was bad enough, but he made it worse when he cut it down an inch and a half and sewed the brim on to the reduced crown. The hatter who had made hats for thirty years for Mr. Briggs identified the hat Muller had been wearing when arrested, cut down though it was, as his manufacture, and furthermore said that the brim was not fastened as by a hatter, but had been sewn on by one accustomed to use a needle. And Muller was a tailor!

This was not Muller’s only error. He exchanged Mr. Briggs’s watch and chain for another, and the jeweller placed the latter in a cardboard box bearing his name and address. This box Muller gave to the little daughter of a cabman in whose house he lodged. He disappeared, and shortly after the cabman saw a description of the hat left in the railway carriage and recognised it by the striped lining as one he had bought for his mild-speaking, soft-voiced German lodger. Nemesis, indeed, pursued Muller from the first. There was not an atom of doubt as to the justice of the verdict, yet people were to be found who believed in his innocence, and among them was Mrs. Carlyle, who, shrewd and exceptionally intelligent as she was, seems to have been adamantine where her foibles were concerned.

The loopholes for escape given to some criminals and denied to others are not the least curious of unsolved murder mysteries. Fate dogged Muller to the end and turned all his mistakes against him. Lefroy, Muller’s fellow in railway assassination, had, on the contrary, all his blunders overlooked, and had not his penniless condition at the last compelled him to throw up the sponge he might have gone scot free. But he had a mentality and temperament totally different from the German’s. Muller was dull-witted, Lefroy imaginative and fertile in expedients. Muller succeeded in escaping while the murder of Mr. Briggs was undiscovered, and some days elapsed before the identity of his assailant was established. What followed the deed itself did not trouble the murderer. But Lefroy had to be alive to every emergency, no matter how unexpected, and it is only due to his ingenuity to say that he was equal to the occasion. Fortune, however, was kind to him.

He was favoured from the first by chance​—​for, in default of a better name, so it must be called. But for the accident of a railway official being near on the London Bridge platform while he was fumbling at the stiff handle of the carriage door he might have gone to another compartment and, circumstances not being favourable, his murderous intent might have been abandoned. But the official came to his rescue, turned the handle, and he found himself with only one fellow traveller, Mr. Gold.

Gold was attacked as the train was passing through Horley. A woman saw a struggle going on in one of the carriages but she put it down to a couple of Brighton trippers larking. A passenger in the train heard the sound of pistol shots, but it did not suggest anything to him and he took no notice. Seven miles further on was Balcombe tunnel and here Mr. Gold’s body was thrust on to the line. Lefroy imagined the train was express to Brighton, where he would be able to escape among the crowd before the bloodstained interior of the carriage was noticed. He did not know that it was the rule for express trains to stop at Preston Park to collect tickets, and when he found the train slowing down he had to invent a story at a moment’s notice.

It is about a twenty minutes’ run from Balcombe to Preston Park. Lefroy, of slight physique if wiry, had gone through a life and death struggle, he had dragged a heavy man to the carriage door and had flung him out. In such a reaction of mind and body as must have followed, time was annihilated. Yet on finding himself face to face with discovery he contrived to formulate a plan. White-cheeked and dishevelled, with a cut or two on his face, he presented himself at the window and called to the ticket collector that he had been murderously attacked. The collector thought he was a lunatic, for the train being an express, how could the fellows get away? The young man could only say he became insensible and did not know what had happened. Then the collector caught sight of a strange thing​—​an inch or two of gold chain was dangling from the man’s boot. The collector tugged at the chain and found there was a watch at the end of it. The singular circumstance made the collector think that the passenger was a lunatic and had tried to commit suicide, although there was far more blood on the carriage than the madman’s slight cuts warranted.

The collector went on with Lefroy to Brighton, and from the station to the Sussex Hospital. The surgeon could only find a bruise on the temple and a few trifling cuts semi-circular in shape. He suggested a night in the hospital, but this Lefroy would not hear of. The police and the railway officials were most obliging. He was put in a cab and taken back to the station, the constable in charge buying him a collar (14½ inches, just a boy’s size!) and scarf. The ticket collector considerately held his tongue and said not a word about the gold chain hanging from the boot, nor that he had found two flash sovereigns in the carriage, remaining silent even when the chief constable discovered bogus coins of the same description in the injured man’s pocket.

Lefroy lodged at Wallington, and a couple of constables were detached to see him safely home. By the time the train reached Three Bridges on the return journey the news had arrived that the body of a man had been found in Balcombe tunnel and the station master whispered to the constable not to let Lefroy out of his sight. But the constables were superior to advice. They left their charge in the care of his landlord and went away. When they came again after further information the bird had flown. Days went over before Lefroy was run to earth in an obscure lodging in Stepney, but it was not due to any astuteness on the part of the police. Lefroy had the luck to lodge with a woman who rarely bothered about reading newspapers. She knew nothing about Lefroy and the murder, and when she went to the police it was to ask what she was to do as she could get no money out of her lodger, who never went out to work. Then the game was up.

Neill Cream and Christiana Edmunds, as we have seen, convicted themselves when they put pen to paper, and to the list of such blunderers must be added the name of Thomas Henry Hocker. Hocker was a friend of a music teacher named Delarue, and laid a scheme to rob and murder the latter. This scheme might have been conceived by a writer of murder detective fiction. One February evening a baker delivering bread in Belsize Lane, at that time a lonely spot but now covered with houses and known as Belsize Park, heard repeated cries of “Murder!” He told a couple of policemen, who searched the border of Hampstead Heath and found a man with a terrible wound in his throat lying near the wall of Belsize House. The policeman went for a stretcher and the other remained on watch by the body, and while so doing there came up to him a young man in a jovial mood, having, in fact, been singing as he walked. He asked the policeman what was the matter, and the constable telling him that he thought the man had cut his throat, the stranger bent down and felt the man’s pulse.

The constable arrived with the stretcher and was accompanied by a tradesman named Satterthwaite of Heath Street. Satterthwaite was more curious about the jovial young man than were the constables and asked him a good many questions. They parted in Belsize Lane, where the young fellow lighted a cigar at the policeman’s lantern and went on his way.

The dead man was identified as James Delarue, who sometimes was known as Cooper. It was shown that when Delarue left his lodgings on the evening of the murder he was wearing a watch, but no watch was found upon him, nor was there any money. Apparently the motive was robbery. In one of Delarue’s pockets was, however, a letter signed “Caroline,” upbraiding him for his faithlessness. It was dated the previous day and the writer implored him to meet her at the place where he had always made her happy. The letter was written in blue ink and the envelope secured by a wafer marked with the letter F. The envelope was addressed, “By Miss F. James Cooper, Esq., Hampstead Road.” The inference was that Delarue had been stabbed as an act of vengeance.

No clue could be found to “Miss F.” and as the days went on suspicion was attached to Thomas Hocker, who turned out to be the jovial young man who made himself so conspicuous on the night of the murder.

How it came about that Hocker was arrested need not here be detailed. There were many fragments of circumstantial evidence against him, but they might not have proved conclusive but for one startling discovery. In his room were found a bottle of blue ink, paper corresponding to that on which “Caroline” had written her despairing appeal, and wafers marked with the letter F. This left him without any hope of escape and he underwent the penalty he deserved. It may be asked why he went back to the scene of his crime and so risked identification. The answer is obvious. He must have known that if Delarue was not dead, the consequences would have been very awkward for him, and he was anxious to satisfy himself. He had not reckoned upon Satterthwaite’s curiosity.

John Watson Laurie, who murdered his fellow tourist, Edwin Rose, with whom he was travelling in Scotland, deliberately put his head in the noose through his handwriting. Rose’s body was found under a heap of stones in a lonely spot in the neighbourhood of the Goatfell mountain, and as it was known that Laurie had been his companion, Laurie was naturally sought for but without avail. While the mystery was at its height, a letter purporting to be from Laurie, posted from Liverpool, but giving no address, appeared in the Glasgow Mail stating that though the writer had been with Rose, he had left him on the mountain with two men, and that he had had nothing to do with his death. This letter was looked upon as a hoax. A fortnight later another letter to much the same effect, signed “Laurie” and posted from Aberdeen, was received by the Glasgow Herald. The Herald had the letter photographed and published a facsimile.

Despite these aids the police were helpless. The whereabouts of Laurie could not be ascertained, and probably the affair would have died down but for the sharp eyes and good memory of the landlord of an Aberdeen hotel. The letter in the Herald was dated August 27th, and the landlord recollected that on the day in question a young man had asked for writing materials with which he was supplied, a fresh sheet of paper being inserted in the blotting book at the same time. The landlord compared the blotter with the published letter, and on the former among other traces of writing were the words “left Glasgow” which were the exact counterpart of the same words in the facsimile. The clue was sufficient. Laurie was ultimately captured in Glasgow, tried in Edinburgh and found guilty, but only by a majority of the jury​—​for which reason presumably, but for no other, the capital sentence was commuted to one of penal servitude for life.

Belonging in its elements to detective fiction, the story of James Mullens presents an example of the super-bungler in a fashion difficult to parallel. In the Grove Road, Bow, lived a miserly, avaricious old woman named Elmsley. Not having been seen or heard of for some days, Walter Emms, the old woman’s collector of rents, who had called several times to no effect, gave information, and the police entered the house. Here in a small room on the top floor they found the old woman lying with her skull battered in. She had been dead nearly a week.

The house had not been broken into, nor were there any signs of disorder in any of the rooms. No money was found, and as Mrs. Elmsley had no confidence in banks but hoarded up her wealth and was believed to have a large sum secreted somewhere, it was assumed that the murderer was also a thief. Skilled detectives set to work, a reward Of £300 was offered, but very little progress was made. Then unexpectedly a man named James Mullens, who was employed by Mrs. Elmsley to do odd jobs, and who had been connected with the police until incapacitated for duty, volunteered to give the police some information.

Mullens’s “information” was that he suspected Emms had something to do with the murder and had kept watch upon him in consequence. That very morning, he said, he had seen Emms come from his cottage holding a parcel which he took into a shed on the brickfields near which he lived, and in a short time came out without. Mullens was quite sure there was something in the parcel which would put the search on the right track.

Early on the following morning the detectives and Mullens met at the shed. Mullens was told to remain outside while the interior was being examined. Nothing was found, at which Mullens was much surprised, and he volunteered to help in the search. He was allowed to do so and he at once pointed to a stone slab resting against the wall and asked the detectives to look behind it. They obeyed and found a small paper parcel tied round with a bootlace. It contained a few articles of no value, but they did not tell Mullens this and he wanted to know if any money had been found. The detective’s answer was that if there was anything in the information he had given, he would be entitled to some advantage. Mullens appeared very pleased and said that he should give the detective some of the £300 when it was handed over. Meanwhile one of the detectives had quietly pocketed the bootlace​—​after glancing at Mullens’s boots, one of which had no lace, while that in the other corresponded to the lace used to tie up the parcel.

Emms and his wife strongly denied all knowledge of the parcel, but the former was taken to the station, as also was Mullens. Both were charged on suspicion, greatly to the indignation of Mullens. Then the lodgings of the latter at Chelsea were searched and here was found property proved to belong to Mrs. Elmsley, and a stonemason’s hammer which fitted the wounds on the skull of the murdered woman.

Emms was released and Mullens stood his trial. He had not a dog’s chance. His attempt to fix his guilt on an innocent man to get the reward excited universal disgust, and the uproarious scene outside Newgate on the morning of his execution was such as would have frozen the heart of the most hardened criminal.

James Mullens can claim the distinction of figuring as one of the types selected by Desbarolles, the pioneer of palmistry, to exemplify his theory of the possessors of the “scaffold mark” and the “murderer’s thumb.” The “scaffold mark,” according to Desbarolles, foreshadows a violent death, and a drawing of this mark as it appeared in Mullens’s palm​—​a network of broken lines between the fleshy part of the thumb and the bases of the first and second fingers​—​is given in his voluminous treatise. The “Murderer’s Thumb,” or pouce en bille, has a broad spatula tip, the nail embedded in the flesh which borders it in a very pronounced fashion. Desbarolles gives the names of several malefactors who owned this unenviable thumb, but it is impossible to say whether a reliable theory can be deduced from a few examples. Desbarolles omits to mention how he came to see the hand of James Mullens, and in the absence of satisfactory evidence considerable doubt must rest on the philosopher’s statement.