Sunday, 8 June 2014

murder most foul

Although George Orwell’s reputation as an essayist is founded on his longer essays (Inside the Whale; England, Your England; Charles Dickens, etc.), some of his shorter pieces also provide interesting snapshots of life in England between the ends of the two world wars. Decline of the English Murder (1946), for example, laments the changes that had taken place in the nature of murder, from the domestic poisoning dramas of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods to the essentially anonymous murders that had taken place during the Second World War, where the murderer frequently didn’t know the identity of the victim.

In this essay, Orwell lists ten cases from what he calls ‘our great period in murder’ to suggest that there is a ‘family resemblance’ running through them:
Dr Palmer of Rugeley, Jack the Ripper, Neill Cream, Mrs Maybrick, Dr Crippen, Seddon, Joseph Smith, Armstrong, and Bywaters and Thompson. In addition, in 1919 or thereabouts, there was another very celebrated case, which fits into the general pattern but which I had better not mention by name, because the accused man was acquitted.
Although six of the ten cases involved poison, and the victim(s) in seven of the ten cases were either husband or wife of the accused, leading Orwell to construct an imaginary scenario for the ideal murder from the point of view of a typical reader of the News of the World, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the author cherry-picked his cases to support his ‘family resemblance’ hypothesis.

Why else would he ignore one of the most notorious murders of the period, the Camden Town murder? It is notorious precisely because it has never been solved, although the principal suspect was tried for the crime, and acquitted. A brief account of this baffling case follows.

*  *  *

The year is 1907. Emily Dimmock worked as a prostitute in the King’s Cross area of north London and lived at 29 St Paul’s Road, a thoroughfare that runs parallel to the main Midland Railway (MR) line from St Pancras to Leicester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds, with Bertram Shaw, a dining car attendant on MR trains.

Shaw had written to his mother to say that he’d recently married, and at around eleven o’clock on the morning of 12th September, his mother appeared, unannounced, at the house in St Paul’s Road to meet her son’s new bride. In fact, Shaw had promised Emily marriage, but only if she abandoned her previous lifestyle; although they lived together as man and wife, the promised marriage never happened.

The landlady informed Mrs Shaw that her son’s ‘wife’ was still in bed, and the two spent about fifteen minutes in conversation while they waited for Shaw to return from his shift on the railway. When he did return, he knocked on the door of the couple’s apartment but received no answer. He then discovered that the door was locked, and when he had unlocked it, he saw immediately that the parlour had been ransacked. Drawers had been emptied, and their contents were strewn across the floor.

The folding doors leading to the bedroom were also locked, and the key was missing, so Shaw had to break in. The blankets from the bed were in a heap on the floor, while the sheets covered something on the bed from which a trickle of blood had found its way on to the floor. Shaw pulled back the sheets to reveal Emily’s naked body, lying face down. Her throat had been cut so savagely that her head had almost been severed.

Some of Emily’s personal possessions were missing: a gold watch, a silver cigarette case bearing Shaw’s initials, a silver chain and a purse. None of these items was ever found. A postcard album had had some of its contents removed, and the french windows leading into the garden were slightly ajar. However, the likelihood that theft was the motive for the murder was slim, because more valuable items had not been taken.

When the divisional police surgeon examined the body, he estimated the time of death to have been between four and six o’clock that morning, and there were signs that the killer had washed himself before departing. The murder weapon was never found, and police spent the rest of the day trying to piece together Emily’s movements the previous day.

Shaw had been with her until shortly after 4pm, at which time he left to catch the train to Sheffield on which he worked. His employers were able to confirm his movements, meaning that he could be ruled out as a suspect. Under the pseudonym Phyllis, Emily had been well known in the Rising Sun public house in Camden Town, and it was there that the police located their first key witness, a ship’s cook called Roberts.

Roberts had been paid off a few weeks earlier and was engaged in spending the rest of his money before heading back to sea again. He had met ‘Phyllis’ in the Rising Sun four days earlier and had gone back home with her then and on the following two nights. He did not see her on the evening before the murder, because Emily told him that she had a prior engagement, but he provided the police with a tantalizing clue.

On the morning of the day before the murder, he had been dressing when a letter was pushed under the door of Emily’s apartment. She showed it to him, and he was able to tell the police about its peculiarities. In part, it read
Dear Phillis [sic],
 Will you meet me at the Eagle, Camden Town, 8.30 tonight, Wednesday?
It was signed ‘Bert’. Emily then took a postcard from a drawer and showed it to Roberts, who noted that the handwriting was the same, even though the signatory was different:
Phillis darling,
 If it please you meet me 8.15 p.m. at the [a sketch of a rising sun].
 Yours to a cinder,
Emily then proceeded to burn the letter, presumably because it had been signed by a man and would cause her problems if left lying around. The postcard was returned to the drawer. The charred remains of the letter were found in the fireplace by the police, but the postcard did not come to light until Shaw started to pack before abandoning the apartment. It was found under a sheet of newspaper that had been used to line a drawer, and Roberts confirmed that it was indeed the postcard he had seen.

There were four other postcards with the same handwriting in Emily’s album, and it was clear that the writer must have been a regular associate. But who was that writer? The police circulated copies of the postcards to the press, and the News of the World printed a copy of the ‘rising sun’ postcard over the caption: ‘Do you recognize this handwriting?’

Someone did. Ruby Young was also a prostitute, and she wrote a letter to the newspaper identifying the writer as ex-lover Robert Wood, a young artist and engraver whose work had impressed William Morris. However, before she could post it, she was visited by Wood, who asked her to say, if asked, that they always met on Monday and Wednesday evenings (the night before Emily’s murder was a Wednesday).

Having convinced Ruby to do as he had asked, Wood then asked an old friend, who had seen Wood in the Eagle public house on the evening before the murder in the company of a young woman, not to mention the woman if questioned (Wood was not a regular in the Eagle). Wood explained that this was necessary to prevent his father from hearing about his consorting with prostitutes.

Although Ruby Young had agreed to Wood’s request, she was worried, and she confided her anxieties to a female friend, who breached Ruby’s confidence by repeating the story to a journalist. The reporter’s newspaper immediately informed Scotland Yard, and a senior detective was sent to interview Ruby, who was asked to arrange a meeting with Wood. The detective would be present. Wood was arrested as he shook hands with his former partner.

Following an identity parade in which several people picked out Wood as having been in the Eagle on the evening before the murder in the company of Emily Dimmock, Wood was formally charged with murder. It was Wood’s good fortune, when the case came to trial, to have secured the services of the leading defence barrister of his era, Sir Edward Marshall Hall.

Hall was convinced of Wood’s innocence, but the challenge of constructing a credible defence was made more difficult than it might otherwise have been by Wood’s attempts to establish an alibi. There was also the problem of Wood’s strange personality: he was utterly incapable of understanding the dire predicament in which he found himself, and his affected manner would not endear him to a jury.

Most of the background research for the defence was done by a junior colleague of Hall, Wellesley Orr, who believed the evidence of the ship’s cook to be of critical importance. Orr also considered it essential that Wood be called in his own defence; if this was not done, Wood would certainly hang. However, Hall opposed this, mainly because Wood’s personality would make him an unreliable witness. Nevertheless, he allowed himself to be overruled.

The prosecution case was strong: the attempts to construct an alibi; the burnt letter seen by the ship’s cook, which had been written by Wood; the ransacking of the apartment in search of the ‘rising sun’ postcard; and, most damning of all, an eye-witness who would testify to having seen Wood in the vicinity of St Paul’s Road around the time established for the murder.

Hall scored his first point for the defence with his cross-examination of the policeman who had drawn up a street plan of the St Paul’s Road area. The eye-witness who claimed to have seen Wood had done so at 5.05am, but Hall forced the policeman to admit that the street lights had been switched off at 4.37am, which meant that the visibility at five o’clock would have been poor, especially given the light drizzle and muggy atmospheric conditions at the time.

When cross-examining Roberts, the ship’s cook, Hall was able, by subtle questioning, to manoeuvre the witness into a position where he was forced to concede that he may have invented his story. For example, the alleged text of the letter, written on a Tuesday, had used the word ‘tonight’ in reference to an assignation on Wednesday, which Hall pointed out was not usual practice and which Roberts was unable to explain.

The aim of the defence in a criminal trial is not to ‘prove’ that the defendant is not guilty but to point out the ambiguities in the evidence. The eye-witness originally testified to having seen Wood ‘walking away from the house’ (no one saw anyone actually leaving the house), but Hall forced him to concede that whoever he saw, that person was merely ‘walking down the street in a direction away from the house’ and that this was consistent with ‘passing by’.

Hall was able to cast doubt on the testimony of almost all the prosecution witnesses, but his biggest challenge still lay ahead: the testimony, on his own behalf, of Robert Wood. He opened with the big question:

“Did you kill Emily Dimmock?”

Wood smiled but said nothing.

“You must answer!”

“I mean, it is ridiculous,” replied Wood.

“You must answer straight.”

“No, I did not.”

Even the prosecuting barrister could do little to penetrate Wood’s apparent intellectual detachment. The defendant seemed to be viewing the trial as an observer rather than as a participant, and, when not in the witness box, he spent a lot of his time sketching other participants. Despite Hall’s heroic efforts, Wood appeared to be doomed, and the judge was expected to sum up in favour of the prosecution. However, the crucial sentence in that summing-up meant that the jury would have no alternative but to acquit:
In my judgement, strong as the suspicion in this case undoubtedly is, I do not think the prosecution has brought the case near enough home to the accused.
So who did murder Emily Dimmock? As already noted, Marshall Hall was absolutely convinced of Wood’s innocence when he accepted the brief to defend him, but many years later he confided to his daughter that he had changed his mind. His reasoning is not on record, but the attempts to cobble together a convincing alibi for a time that was not relevant to the time of the murder may be more important than the above account suggests. After all, forensic pathology was in its infancy as a scientific discipline, and the night of the murder was warm and muggy, so it is possible that Emily had been dead for much longer than the police surgeon who examined the body had deduced.

Schizophrenia was not a recognized condition in 1907, but there is evidence that Wood was a sufferer: his emotional detachment is certainly suggestive. And then there are the sketches and drawings made by Wood in court and while on remand in Brixton Prison, two of which I reproduce here:

Despite the small sample size, it is possible to conclude that Wood was obsessed with the motif of the rising sun, except that in the second picture the sun appears to be setting. What state of mind does this picture suggest? An old man, apparently dying in the snow, the shivering dog, and the enigmatic caption ‘Silence’; what would a modern-day psychologist make of it? There were no such experts in 1907, which is probably just as well for Robert Wood.

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