Unleashing The Hound of the Baskervilles

Unleashing The Hound of the Baskervilles

Swirling fog, quick sand, an escaped convict and a terrifying hound, my first memory of watching a crime drama as a child, was The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), and it has haunted me ever since. I recently saw an excellent production of this iconic story at The Mill, Sonning (banner above) and it is still my absolute favourite Sherlock Holmes case.   In the first appearance since his ‘death’ in The Final Problem, Holmes investigates the death of wealthy landowner Sir Charles Baskerville, whose horror-stricken face on suffering a fatal heart attack and the presence of the gigantic footprints of a hound near where he fell, led his friend Dr James Mortimer to seek help from the legendary sleuth. Sherlock sends Dr Watson to accompany Sir Henry, the new heir of Baskerville Hall, to Dartmoor to find out more about the previous owner’s death and the sinister family curse which may have caused it. The Hound of the Baskervilles has all the elements of a classic detective story: an isolated and perilous landscape, a confined house of potential victims, and a dark, supernatural force which threatens them all.   The third of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s crime novels, the first episode was published in The Strand in August 1901, with the full-length book being released the following year. The writer’s career had been interrupted by the Boer War (1899-1902), during which he volunteered as a medical doctor and worked at the Langman Field Hospital in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He began his stint in February 1900 and spent the rest of the war trying to save the lives of...
How to Get Away with Murder?

How to Get Away with Murder?

How to Get Away With Murder is one of my favourite Netflix shows, and if the ‘enterprising’ law students had been disposing of bodies in the 19th century, they might have tried quick lime to remove traces of human remains. I mixed crime history and chemistry to find out if this would work…     In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde wrote about the burial of trooper Charles Wooldridge, the subject of his poem:   For where a grave had opened wide, There was no grave at all: Only a stretch of mud and sand By the hideous prison-wall, And a little heap of burning lime, That the man should have his pall.   As was the custom with executed convicts, Wooldridge was buried in the precincts of the prison. He was wrapped in a shroud and placed in a shallow grave, filled with quick lime to accelerate decomposition. Wilde describes how the ‘burning lime eats flesh and bone away’. This method of burial was also used occasionally in an attempt to conceal a murder. Did it work, or was it a myth? Now for the science…     Commonly used in construction, limestone was readily available in the 19th century. When it is heated, limestone (containing calcium carbonate) breaks down into calcium oxide and carbon dioxide. The calcium oxide is the quick lime. This unstable compound is a highly-caustic alkali, which burns yellow when hot and is white when cooled down. It reacts with the carbon dioxide in air to create heat energy, known as ‘limelight’. ‘Slaked’ lime also appears in accounts of criminal body disposal...
A Walk on the Wild Side

A Walk on the Wild Side

On a rain-soaked afternoon, BBC Radio Berkshire presenter Sarah Walker and I braved the elements to uncover the hidden secrets of local town of Reading’s criminal past.     We began our walk at Reading railway station, which was the town’s hub in Victorian times, as it is today. Many criminal acts were committed along the tracks in the nineteenth century, including a sensational fraud. It was also along this rail route that infamous baby farmer Amelia Dyer plied her nefarious trade in child trafficking.     Passing through Friar Street, one of the town’s main roads, we stopped for shelter under the canopy of Sainsbury’s. It was on this site that in 1946 RAF airman Eric Pocock strangled his girlfriend Connie Boothby. The Sweet Shop Strangling was either a suicide pact gone wrong, or cold blooded murder.     Next we made our way out towards the edge of the town to Howard Street, a small row of Victorian terraces where in 1845 the body of 60-year-old Elizabeth Spicer was found in the cellar of number 16. Afterwards, still in the pouring rain, we walked back into the town centre, to Cross Street. On the site of Marks and Spencer’s was a tobacconist’s where, in 1929, shopkeeper Alfred Oliver was brutally murdered. Despite a celebrity arrest and the efforts of Scotland Yard, his killer was never found.   For the second part of our crime walk, Sarah and I followed in the steps of child murderer Amelia Dyer, one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers, whose nefarious crimes came to light in Reading in 1896. We began at...
Investigating the Ilford Murder

Investigating the Ilford Murder

I’ve been enjoying the new series Murder, Mystery and My Family, recently shown on BBC One. I was particularly interested in the case of Edith Thompson who was executed for her husband’s murder in 1922, as some of the drama played out in places I know. I decided to investigate further… On 3 October 1922, Edith and Percy were on their home to Ilford after an evening at the theatre in central London. As they walked through a dark side street, Percy collapsed. His wife called out to passers-by for help and a doctor arrived soon after. Blood was pouring from Percy’s mouth and the doctor thought he’d died of a seizure. However, when Percy’s body was examined later at the police mortuary, it was discovered that he’d been stabbed 11 times.     When the police questioned Edith about her husband’s death, she seemed at first to have been unaware of an attack and could not account for his horrific injuries. Through further interviews with family members, it came to light that she had been having an affair with shipping clerk Frederick Bywaters, and he was soon in the frame for murder. Almost a century after the lovers were hanged for Percy Thompson’s murder, criminal barristers Sasha Wass and Jeremy Dein reexamined the evidence to assess whether Edith’s conviction had been sound. Much of the evidence in this case was centred on the stack of letters, uncovered by police, between Edith and Fred. Their correspondence contained many references of Edith’s wish for her husband’s death, even going so far as to suggest that she had tried to kill...
In the Line of Duty

In the Line of Duty

Police officers faced constant dangers as they patrolled the towns and cities of Victorian England, often leading to serious injury and sometimes even death. I’ve investigated two cases of police murder with astonishing similarities, but very different outcomes. On 1 August 1876, PC Nicholas Cock, of the Lancashire Constabulary, was walking his beat at midnight in the leafy suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester when he was shot. He died of his injuries. Later that same year, on 11 December, two police officers from the Berkshire Constabulary, were also killed during their regular night-time patrol near the market town of Hungerford. Inspector Joseph Drewett was shot and his colleague, PC Thomas Shorter, was bludgeoned to death.     The victims Nicholas Cock was just 21 years old and had joined the police force just eight months before his murder. Originally from Cornwall, he had moved to Manchester for work. Thomas Shorter, aged 24, was from the village of Cookham, Berkshire. Both officers were single and from large families. Inspector Joseph Drewett, also from Berkshire, was 41 years old. He was married with five young children.     The suspects In both cases, the investigating police officers knew exactly who their prime suspects were from the very beginning. In Manchester, Superintendent James Bent arrested the three men he believed were responsible for his officer’s death shortly after the murder. They were brothers John, Frank and William Habron, aged 24, 22 and 18 respectively. Having settled in Chorlton in the 1850s from Ireland, they worked nearby in a nursery garden as labourers. In Hungerford, Superintendent George Bennett arrested his suspects at 7 am...