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...
The Murder of the ‘Little Bobby’

The Murder of the ‘Little Bobby’

  The man at the heart of my latest true crime investigation is PC Nicholas Cock, the victim. He was patrolling his regular beat in the vicinity of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, when he was shot dead whilst pursuing a suspected burglar. I have pieced together his story, which came to such a tragic end. Nicholas Cock was born in 1856 in Cornwall. He was the youngest of nine children, with four brothers and four sisters. By the time he was born, his brother, also named Nicholas, had died aged eight, of ‘brain disease’, which could have been meningitis. His father, Nicholas senior, was a lead and copper miner, and both he and his wife Elizabeth were illiterate. The Cock family lived in the villages near St Ive, not far from Liskeard. In 1861, the two oldest sons were both working down the mine and a daughter was employed as a copper dresser. Six years later, 59-year-old Nicholas senior died of dropsy, swelling caused by kidney or heart disease. Young Nicholas was just 11 years old.     By the beginning of the 1870s, teenage Nicholas was also working as a copper miner. As the decade wore on, many Cornish mines closed and, like thousands of other miners, Nicholas lost his job. He then moved to Durham, where he found employment as a collier with a large mining engineering firm. Just before Christmas in 1875, at the age of 20, he joined the Lancashire Constabulary. He was stationed at Chorlton police station, in a quiet suburb of Manchester. The young police officer was 5 feet 7 1/2 inches tall. He had grey...
The Mind of a Murderer

The Mind of a Murderer

One of the mostly frequented asked questions at my talks is whether the notorious Victorian baby farmer Amelia Dyer was mad or bad. One hundred and twenty years after her conviction, it’s difficult to comprehend her motivation for killing so many infants in her care. It was also hard for contemporary observers to understand what drove her to profit from the wholesale trade in infants and ultimately to be able to murder them with her bare hands. Her trial at the Old Bailey, held in May 1896, discussed this central issue in detail. On 21-22 May, Amelia Dyer was tried for the wilful murder of four-month-old Doris Marmon, one of the two babies found in a carpet bag submerged under the Clappers footbridge at Caversham, Reading. Her defence was led by Sharporji Kapadia, an experienced barrister and a qualified medical doctor. Mr Kapadia entered a plea of insanity and began by calling witnesses to testify to Dyer’s suicidal and homicidal tendencies.     During the early 1890s, life had begun to unravel for Dyer. A governess whose child she had fostered, returned to reclaim her baby after marrying the father. As was the case with most of Dyer’s nurse children, the infant was not to be found. The governess and her husband persisted in trying to track down their child, returning repeatedly to Dyer’s home, sometimes with a police officer. Each time, Amelia Dyer had a mental breakdown, was certified insane and detained in an asylum. Three doctors, who treated her at these ‘moments of madness’ gave their testimonies in court. Frederick Logan had attended Dyer on 24 December...
The Whitby Hand of Glory

The Whitby Hand of Glory

On a recent trip to Whitby I encountered one of the most fascinating and gruesome artefacts I’ve ever seen in a museum. There is a clue to what lurks in this eclectic collection on the signpost, which draws you in to its sinister attraction: Whitby Museum has the only known surviving Hand of Glory.     A Hand of Glory was a charm made from the hand of a hanged man (not sure about women too). If the executed man was a murderer then his hand could be used, when combined with fat from the same corpse, as a magical tool. The instructions were published in a French grimoire, Petit Albert, in 1722. It was vital to use the hand that committed the crime, which was then dried and preserved in an earthenware pot, with nitre, salt and long peppers. Next you had to make a candle out of the felon’s body fat, using virgin wax and sesame. When the candle was placed in the hand it cast a sleeping spell over other people in the vicinity, with the exception of the carrier, which meant that burglars could use it to enter a property to steal household goods, while the occupants were ‘sleeping’. The only antidote was to extinguish the candle with bloodied milk.     The name ‘Hand of Glory’, or ‘Main de Gloire’, in French is probably a corruption of ‘mandragore’, also known as ‘mandrake’, which is a deadly poisonous plant associated with magic. A relative of Deadly Nightshade, it was used in tiny quantities to induce sleep or relieve pain, but too much would be fatal. As...
To Catch a Child Killer

To Catch a Child Killer

When a carpet bag was found in the Thames at Caversham, Sergeant Harry James of the Reading Borough Police, was the first officer on the scene. After 15 years of policing the relatively quiet streets of Victorian Reading, he set out to catch a child killer in a case that would shock the nation. On 10 April 1896, Sergeant James was supervising the dragging of the river, following the discovery of three infant corpses near Caversham Weir. The first child had been found on 30 March and in the following week, there were two more. The sergeant was in the lock house when labourer Henry Smithwaite raised the alarm and he rushed to the Clappers bridge, which was adjacent, to see what he had recovered from the water. Pulling away the cloth at the opening of the sodden bag, Sergeant James revealed the body of baby girl, who was later identified as Doris Marmon, aged four months. The police officer then took the bag to the police station where a second body was found underneath; 13-month-old Harry Simmons. This significant event would form the key evidence in the case against notorious baby farmer, Amelia Dyer, whom Sergeant James had arrested the week before with his colleague, Detective Constable James Anderson, after the first gruesome discovery was made in the river. Harry James, originally a hotel porter from Holdenhurst in Hampshire, joined the Reading Borough Police Force on 29 January 1881, at the age of 24. He was 5 feet 8 1/4 inches tall, with a fresh complexion, brown hair and grey eyes. All photographs show him sporting a particularly...
Pickpockets in the Park

Pickpockets in the Park

The August Bank Holiday is the ideal opportunity for a picnic in the park – providing the weather holds out – and Victorian day-trippers loved an outing as much as we do but, as is still true today, picnickers could easily become victims of petty crime. One of the most popular venues for outdoor entertainment in 19th century Manchester was Belle Vue, which offered exotic animals and genteel high teas. There were also plenty of pickpockets and exciting police chases. Belle Vue opened first as a tea garden in 1834. It was later extended to include a lake and a Natural History Museum. When the first guidebook was published in 1847, a maze and a racecourse had been added to the site. By the time of my childhood, the tea gardens at Belle Vue had developed into a major tourist attraction comprising a zoo, a miniature village, bowling alley and fun fair. I have a vivid memory of entering the park through the metal turnstiles, giddy with excitement at the thrills that lay just ahead. In 1875, Detective Sergeant Jerome Caminada pursued two thieves through the pleasure gardens at Belle Vue. He had been trailing his suspects on an omnibus and followed the pair as they pushed their way through the crowds at the park. First the pickpockets slipped into the monkey house (pictured above) where they attempted to steal from a party of ladies. As Caminada watched, one of the men tried to slip his hand into the pocket of a lady’s dress. After that, they made their way over to the parrot house where the detective questioned them...