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MURDER IN THE PARK . . . The tragedy of Doris and Walter Reeve (2)

DORIS HEADER

SO FAR – The murder-suicide of Doris and Walter Reeve in August 1933 has shocked Fenland and made the national newspapers. The Illustrated Police News – which had been publishing lurid accounts of crime since 1864 –  had great delight in producing an imaginative illustration of the double tragedy.

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Back in Wisbech, the inquest continues to investigate the relationship between Doris Reeve and her husband.

On the Tuesday, Doris’s father went to Upwell to confront his son-in-law. Walter Reeve was aggressive when spoken to, and accused Mr Reeve senior of only coming round to provoke an argument. When Walter Reeve was accused of carrying on with another woman, he replied:

“I know I have, and I shall do again.”

Later, Doris revealed, that in addition to physically knocking her about, Walter had shown her a double barreled shotgun and threatened to first blow her head off, and then turn the gun on himself. Eventually, later in June, Doris left Walter for good. Walter paid several visits to the Clarence Road home and was in turn both threatening, and playing the part of the heart-broken husband. On one occasion, Doris’s father said to Walter:

“You have turned out a rotter.”
Walter replied:
“You will not let her come back, and you will regret this.”

The events of that Saturday evening, 26th August became clear as the case progressed. PC Howard, who had been called to the grim scene in the railway carriage told the inquest that he had been on duty in Wisbech early on the Saturday evening. He had seen Walter and Doris Reeve standing in the High Street. Walter Reeve had his hands in his pockets, and Doris did not seem to be upset or distressed in any way.

May Simpson, of Norwich Road Wisbech, had known Doris as a friend since January. The two were meant to meet in Wisbech at 7.00pm that Saturday evening, but Doris did not arrive on time. Miss Simpson began walking up Norfolk Street, and stopped outside a butchers’ shop to talk to another woman friend, when Doris Reeve came rushing up. This was about 7.10pm. Doris seemed to be in good spirits. The three women then went to the Empire Theatre, and came out at about 10.45pm. They stood outside talking for a while, and Doris still seemed cheerful, and said nothing about any matrimonial troubles. Doris and the third woman, Mrs Read, then walked towards the Lynn Road, going via the cannon on Nene Quay, rather than the dark and rather confined Scrimshaw’s Passage. They said goodnight by Ames Garage, and Doris the walked briskly off in the direction of her own home. That was the last time that anyone – with the exception of her husband – saw her alive.

What had Walter Reeve been up to on that fateful evening? The court was told that he had no history of mental health problems, and was a man of “considerable bodily vigour and health”. On the evening of the murder, he met with some friends in The Five Bells on Norfolk Street. They stayed there drinking until about 10.00pm, when they went to Wombwells, a fish and chip shop next to The Electric Theatre. After enjoying a fish supper, they left about 10.40pm in the direction of Blackfriars Bridge over the canal, where they parted company

One of the men with whom Walter Reeve had been drinking was asked by the court if Reeve had been the worse for wear. He replied that he had been rather quiet all evening, when he was normally quite jolly. The witness said that he knew divorce proceedings had been started between Doris and Walter, and that Reeve had been seeing another woman.

Ernest Martin Henson, a garage proprietor of Cannon Street, Wisbech, said that he had heard knocking on his door between 11.30pm and 11.45pm on the Saturday night. He answered the door, and the man, who gave his name as Reeve, said that he wanted to be taken to Upwell. Henson said:

“I suppose you know what the fare will be?”
Reeve answered:
“Four shillings.”
No, “ said Henson, “it will be twelve shillings and sixpence at this time of night.
In a very offhand manner, Reeve said, “Oh, alright then.

Henson took about five minutes to get dressed, and went and fetched the car. When he drove round to the front of the premises, there was no-one there. Henson waited for about forty five minutes, but when no-one came, he went back to bed.

Two men, itinerant fruit pickers who had been ‘dossing’ in the park on the Saturday night had an interesting tale to tell. One of the men, called Nesbitt, saw a figure standing by a gate, but the man was doing nothing to attract attention. Then Nesbitt heard groans, and said to his friend:

Come along – there is somebody there badly using a woman.
His friend replied that it might only be a couple in a domestic dispute, and so they decided to let discretion be the better part of valour. The next day, Nesbitt’s colleague said:
There’s been a woman murdered over there..” and Nesbitt replied that he must have been correct all along the previous night.

In the Coroner’s summing up, he said that it was clear that Walter Reeve had murdered his wife and then done away with himself. He raised the question of Reeve’ sanity, but said that there was no evidence of mental health issues with either Reeve himself or any members of his immediate family. He did refer, however, to the testimony of Reeve’s mother, who had said that even as a child, Walter had been possessed of a very violent temper. The Coroner reminded the jury that if they were prepared to say that Reeve was out of his mind when he killed himself, they could then hardly say that he was sane a little earlier when he had plunged the knife into his wife. He said that the reverse was also true.

The jury returned the obvious verdict of murder in the case of Doris Reeve, but asked that the archaic verdict of Felo de Se be placed on record. The Latin term literally translates as “felon of himself”, and in earlier times, English common law considered suicide a crime. A person found guilty of it, even though dead, was subject to punishment which might include forfeiture of property and being given a shameful burial.

If only in the personal column of the local newspaper, Doris and Walter Reeve were united in death.

Obit

Regarding the burials of the two young people, shameful or otherwise, the Wisbech Advertiser had this to say in its edition of Friday 1st September:

FUNERAL 1

Just six miles away, however, a rather different interment was taking place.There will have been tears shed, but no-one sang hymns, and the police were not required to control the crowds.

Funeral 2

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MURDER IN THE PARK . . . The tragedy of Doris and Walter Reeve (1)

DORIS HEADER

On the weekend of 13th and 14th September, 2014, something unusual surfaced on social media. On Facebook, someone reported a mysterious homemade memorial which had been placed on the grass at the edge of Wisbech Park. I went to have a look. It was a simple wooden cross, with a laminated printed message pinned to it.

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Strangely, the sign was only there for a couple of days, but research in newspaper archives led me back over eighty years.

It is August, 1933. The hit song of the year was Stormy Weather, sung by Ethel Waters. In the cricket, England beat the West Indian touring side with ease. Ramsay MacDonald was Prime Minister, while Winston Churchill’s speeches warning of the dangers of Germany’s re-armament had been largely ignored. In Wisbech, meanwhile, the local papers were full of the latest speculation about the health of the forthcoming harvest, while the Advertiser and the Standard were running weekly updates on what looked like being a bumper year for Bramley apples. At The Electric Theatre in town, cinema audiences were preparing to be terrified by the forthcoming feature – The Mummy – starring Boris Karloff. But those Wisbech folk were to have a horror – of a genuine kind – delivered to their doorsteps very soon.

Body Text

Day broke, and as people gathered around the scene of the murder, none of them was to know that within a couple of hours, an equally macabre and disturbing discovery was to be made. Meanwhile, police had driven to the nearby village of Upwell, where Doris Reeve had been living with her husband Walter, aged 26. Getting no answer to their urgent knocking, the officers forced their way in, but found the house empty.

Another Wisbech Bobby, Police Constable Howard was called, at 10.30 am on that Sunday morning, and told that there was a man who appeared to have hanged himself in a railway carriage near Wisbech LNER station. When he went to investigate, he found that the carriage was the middle one of three, standing in a siding. and he was able to access the carriage without going through the station.he found a man hanging from a luggage rack, with a neck-tie and handkerchief used for the job. The man’s feet were dragging on the floor of the carriage, but his whole weight was on his neck. His right hand was resting on the seat, next to a knife, and his body was stiff and cold. He was wearing a pair of light grey flannel trousers, a vest and a shirt. Round his waist was a belt, with a sheath attached to it. His shirt was flecked with blood-stains and there was a knife wound on the left side of his chest. Cast to one side in the carriage compartment were a jacket, waistcoat and hat. In his possession were a wallet, ten shillings in small change, and a driver’s licence in the name of Walter Reeve, Low Side, Upwell.

The police now had two dead bodies on their hands, and people were able to reach their own conclusions about the circumstances of the deaths. It wasn’t until the inquest, however, that the full truth about the tragic events would be made public. The inquest was held at the North Cambridgeshire Hospital in Wisbech on Monday 28th August. By law, the deaths of Florence and Walter Reeve had to be considered separately. We can look at the evidence given in whichever order we choose. Firstly, the grim physical details of the deaths. Dr Butterworth, when he examined Doris Reeve, had found an incised wound, an inch long, over her third left rib, and another wound – of the same shape and size – more round to the side and between her eighth and ninth ribs. The wound over the third rib had been the fatal one, severing the pulmonary artery. The wounds had clearly been caused by a small – but very sharp – knife. Walter Reeve had died as a result of strangulation, but it also seemed that he had tried to inflict wounds on himself with the knife which was found on the seat beside his body. The doctor and the police were able to confirm that this knife was the one which had killed Doris Reeve.

In order to establish the state of the relationship between Doris and Walter Reeve, Doris’s father was called to the witness stand. He said that Doris had married Walter in January 1932, but the marriage was not one made in heaven. By June 1933 Doris had left their married home in Upwell, and moved back in with her parents at 21 Clarence Road, Wisbech. Doris’s father said that he had been largely unaware of events in his daughter’s life, because she was not n the habit of confiding in him. His first intimation that things were wrong was when he awoke from a nap one day to find Doris kneeling on the floor, with her head in her mother’s lap. Doris, however, would not tell him what had happened, but Mrs Reeve senior told him that Walter had knocked Doris down and taken money from her purse. He had only given her £1 for housekeeping that week rather than the usual thirty shillings. Doris returned briefly to Upwell, but she would come home each night to Wisbech, having been given the bus fare by her mother.

The double death in Wisbech made the national newspapers, and the Daily Mirror published this photograph of the murder site, but mistakenly sited Walter Reeve’s death to Upwell.

Murder site

IN PART TWO
Two funerals, and the inquest concludes

THE STRANGE AFFAIR AT NEEDHAM HALL (2)

Continue reading “THE STRANGE AFFAIR AT NEEDHAM HALL (2)”

THE STRANGE AFFAIR AT NEEDHAM HALL (1)

Needham Hall copy

Screen Shot 2021-04-21 at 18.20.35In Wisbech, we are not particularly well blessed with what could be called stately homes. Peckover House is very grand, but the next in line might be Needham Hall in Friday Bridge. The present building is on the site of a much older house which was pulled down in 1804. The last owner of the old house was Dr. John Fountayne, Dean of York, and his daughter Catherine lived in the new house until her death in 1824, at which point it passed to her nephew, Richard Fountayne Wilson, M.P. for Yorkshire 1826–30. The 1861 census records that the house was occupied by Frederick Easton Fryer, his large family and a house full of servants. By 1901 the house – and farm – had been bought by Walter Wooll West (left), and it is with the West family we shall stay.

Montague

Walter Montagu West (above), elder son of Walter Wooll, was killed at Ypres in 1915, and eventually ownership of the farm passed to the younger son, Charles. Incidentally, Walter senior was knighted for public service, and seems to have retired to 75 Harecroft Road (just two doors on from my house) where he died in 1952. It is Charles West who is at the centre of a story which made headlines in many national papers in 1956.

The story, as you will soon see, is not one of the tragedies of which I have written before. Rather, it has elements of comedy about it, and it has at least two of the elements that would have instantly attracted newspaper editors – a blonde, and a gun.

Charles West (59) was divorced, and lived with a woman – Ella Grundman – who had been cited as “the other party” in the divorce case. His father, Walter Wooll West was a farmer, yes, but also someone of substance in the county, and kept a large household and employed dozens on the farm, as the photo below (copyright Wisbech & Fenland Museum)  reveals. It was taken on the occasion of Sir Walter and Lady Grace’s Golden Wedding anniversary in December 1940.

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It seems that by 1956 social niceties at the Hall were not so much Upstairs Downstairs as Kitchen Sink. One evening in late April, Charles West was having drinks in a downstairs room with his cowman and a gardener. They were apparently celebrating a very pleasing evaluation of the Hall, farm and estate. Things, however, went rather pear-shaped. The emerging story tickled the fancy of more than one newspaper editor, and The Birmingham Mail reported:

A wealthy Fenland farmer was threatened with a shotgun and a carving knife by his 38 year-old lover a court was told yesterday (Friday 27th April). It happened in a tiff over cigarettes at his family seat said the prosecution at Wisbech.

The farmer, 59 year-old Charles West, of Needham Hall, Wisbech, said that he had accused her of stealing cigarettes. Afterwards, they were found in his desk. I would like to apologise,” he said.

But Mrs Ella Grundman, smartly dressed in a pink grey-dotted suit, did not glance at him as he gave his evidence.

She is accused of shooting with intent to murder, and of causing Mr West grievous harm. Mr David Hopkin, prosecuting, said that the couple were celebrating with a gardener and a cowman at the Hall.

A quarrel began over the cigarettes.Mrs Grunman asked West to open a roll-top desk. He refused.

She fetched a carving knife, put it to his back and pushed him round the room until one of the men took the knife away. Ten minutes later, she was back with a shotgun. She pointed it at West and said:Now you’re going to give me the keys, or else.”

One of the men struggled with her, but the gun went off, peppering the wall and telephone with shot. Mr Alec Whitwell, the cowman, said that later he found her scratching his employer’s face, holding him by the hair, and banging his head on the sofa. Mr West, son of a former High Sheriff, said he could not remember much of what had happened –I wasn’t drunk, but I had a lot more to drink than was good for me.

Haltingly, he said,In the washroom I was being hit by Mrs Grundman with either the candlestick, or the ash tray stand, or both.”

Mr West told Kenneth Land, defending, that he had known Mrs Grundman for two years. She had lived at the Hall since last December and before that had lived in his houseboat at Hilgay, Norfolk.

Mr Land said,She is a hefty woman and strongly built. If she had really wanted to do him harm, she could easily have done so. Neither knew the police had been called, and as far as they were concerned, the quarrel was over, and they were all tucked up for the night.

As, inevitably, Wisbech magistrates decided that Ella Grundman must be tried at the next Cambridge Assizes, the Sunday Mirror couldn’t resist a bit of fun.

Headline

THE MURDER OF MINNIE MORRIS . . . The Walsoken Outrage (Part three)

Header

THE MORTAL REMAINS OF MINNIE MORRIS were laid to rest in Walsoken Cemetery on the afternoon of Friday 19th July 1912. The newspapers reported:

The officiating clergyman was the Rev. G. A. A. Finch, of Loughborough, who is in charge of the parish whilst the Rector (the Rev. J. Young) is on his holidays. The first part of the service was conducted in the church. The funeral was largely attended, it being estimated that there were quite 300 fruit pickers -from all parts of the district present.

The scene was a very impressive one, for many of the pickers, who are generally so light-hearted, were greatly touched by the solemn ceremony, and numerous were those who were moved to tears as the coffin was lowered into the grave. The chief mourner was the mother of the girl and for her much sympathy had been shown in the parish, a collection on her behalf amounting to £1. The girl’s sweetheart, a London bricklayer, came down to see her body, but was unable to wait for the funeral. There were nearly a dozen floral tributes, one from the mother, and the others, from pickers. Most of the wreaths were made by a Mrs. Love, wife of the copperman at Mr. J. S. Batterham’s farm, where the girl had been working.

On the spot where the body of Morris was found, a cross has been cut in the turf and flowers have been laid on the cross. On Sunday hundred, of people visited Burrett Road to see the spot. The charge of murdering Morris which has been preferred against Robert Galloway. – of No. I Angola Mews, Babington-road, North Kensington, to be investigated at a special sitting of the Marshland Magistrates at Wisbech today (Friday).

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Headline2The inquest on the body of Morris was conducted at the Bell Inn, Old Walsoken, on Wednesday 24th July. Presiding was  the District Coroner (Mr. R. A. Wilkins). Supt. Powles represented the police. The morning was to be dramatic. The victim’s mother. Mrs. Springfield, was the first witness to be recalled, and when she entered the room she looked at Galloway, gasped for breath, and then crying said between her sobs:
“That is the villain.” Stating that her husband was outside ill. she signed the deposition. As she was rising from her seat she said:
“My sister said she would look after her; What this man wanted to kill my daughter for. I don’t know. She never did anyone any harm. He got into the company of the girl, and I quite understand he got jealous. Oh God love her.”
The Coroner: “Do not get excited.”
Mrs. Springfield: “It is cruel. Look at the man. (Then to Galloway): Look at me – look at her mother. (Lifting her hands as a warder stood in front of her, and between her and Galloway): I would if I dare. You scamp, you dirty dog, you villain.”

The witness, who was crying as she was speaking, then left the room. It transpired that the man who cut the cross on the spot where the body was found, and filled the cross with flowers, was James Long, an employee of Mr. Blunt. The Coroner said it was a very nice idea. and quite refreshing after the brutal things they had been listening to.

The grim wheels of the legal process ground ever onwards. The next stage in the process was the police court in Wisbech on 1st August. The findings were never in doubt, but Galloway’s behaviour remained bizarre. He had now decided to opt for an insanity plea.

Police Court
Mr Justice DarlingGalloway remained under lock and key for the next three months, but in October he had to face the finality of justice. At the Norwich Assizes in October his belated attempt to plead insanity cut no ice with either the jury or Mr Justice Darling (right). He was sentenced to death and on the morning of Tuesday 5th November he had no option but to keep his appointment with Thomas Pierrepoint and his assistant George Brown. Newspaper reports said:

“He walked firmly to the scaffold, and death was instantaneous.”

Prior to 1887, Norwich prison – and its gallows had been within the walls of the castle, but Galloway’s last days would have been spent in the institution on Knox Road, and his remains presumably lie therein.

Minnie Morris’s body lies in a quiet corner of Walsoken cemetery, forgotten, unmarked and unvisited. Her family were poor, and unable to afford a headstone. Thanks to the efficiency of the District Council we know her last resting place, and I was able to put some flowers on the spot. If you click on the media player at the bottom of this feature, you will hear a lovely old hymn, written by Ira D. Sankey, which reminds us of our mortality.

Grave

Plaque

THE MURDER OF MINNIE MORRIS . . . The Walsoken Outrage (Part two)

HeaderTHE STORY SO FAR . . .  July 1912. Wisbech, Cambridgeshire.Two Londoners in their 20s – Minnie Morris and Robert Galloway – have come to the Fenland town for the fruit-picking season, and are working for a local farmer. J.S. Batterham. They are in a relationship, of sorts, because Minnie is very attractive and enjoys male company. Sadly, Robert Galloway is prone to jealousy, and every word Minnie exchanges with other young men is a dagger in his heart.

On 16th July both had been drinking. Licensing restrictions were only to be introduced a few years later, as part of the effort to boost munitions production in WW1, and both The Black Bear and The Bell Inn in Walsoken were “open all hours”.

The pair went for a walk after a lengthy session in the pub. They followed Lynn Road. and then turned right into Burrett Road. At some point, Galloway’s jealousy and – perhaps – Minnie’s indifference triggered a violent response. Galloway throttled Minnie, using a handkerchief she had been given by another admirer to make a fatal tourniquet around Minnie’s neck. It seems that Galloway then headed back to seek solace in alcohol.

Witness reports in subsequent court hearings tell their own tale:

Bertie Ash, labourer, Walsoken, said that on Tuesday afternoon, 16th July, he was cycling along Burrett Road,. towards the Black Bear, and his attention was attracted by a woman lying flat on her back on the grass with a man kneeling over her. They were on the left-hand side of the road. He did not know what the man was doing. The man’s left hand appeared to be on the woman’s mouth or breast, and a cap was over the woman’s face. He did not stop, but proceeded to Mr. J. S. Batterham’s farm, where he stayed 10 minutes.

He returned the same way on his bicycle and that the woman was lying in the the same position, but the man had gone. She was not moving, and was alone. He did not stop. He thought they were a young couple courting, and that the woman was asleep. When he first passed the couple they did not appear to be struggling at all.

William Frusher, labourer, Old Walsoken, said that on Tuesday, 16th July, he was walking along Burrett Road in the direction of his home, which was away from the Black Bear. It was 5.10 p.m., and he saw woman lying on the left-hand side of the road. She was on her back, and was not moving. He stood for a moment and looked at the woman. He could not see her face as a man’s cap was over it. He felt her hands, and they were cold. He removed the cap and saw there was a lot of brown froth around her mouth. She was not breathing. He did not move the body, and left it just as it was.

He went away and returned with a sack to cover the woman. That was about ten minutes after he first saw her. He returned with a man named Lankfer and remained by the body until the police arrived. He did not notice a letter until P.C. Taylor came. It was in the waistband of her skirt. The woman’s head was bare and her hair was light coloured.

Galloway was either drunk or obsessed. Having walked into Wisbech he spoke to the first policeman he found:

PC. Jacobs, of Wisbech, said that at 6.45p.m. on Tuesday, 16th July, he was on duty on Wisbech Market Place, and the prisoner came up to him and said: “Have you heard of a murder on the Lynn road, Walsoken? I have strangled a woman. I thought you were looking for me. 1 am ready to suffer for what I have done.”

Galloway was arrested and secured in police cells, and at no time did he deny what he had done. In fact, Police Sergeant Arthur Webb, of Walsoken, stated that when he received the prisoner into custody, Galloway said: “Is she dead? I hope so. You can take that down.”

IN PART THREE

A Burial
A Trial
An execution

THE MURDER OF MINNIE MORRIS . . . The Walsoken Outrage (Part one)

HeaderThese days when Fenland fruit needs picking, the hands that do the work will belong to people who come from places like Vilnius. Klaipeda, Varna, Daugavpils, or Bucharest. Back in the day, however,the pickers came from less exotic places like Hackney, Hoxton or Haringey, and the temporary migration of Londoners to the Wisbech area was an established part of the early summer season. In the autumn, the same people – predominantly women and children, might head south to the hop fields of Kent, but in the July of 1912 the Londoners were here in Fenland.

One of the farms in the area which welcomed the London visitors was that of John Stanton Batterham, of Larkfield, Lynn Road, Walsoken. His house still stands:

Larkfield

He was to play no direct part in the tragedy that unfolded on the afternoon of 16th July, 1912, but some of the people who worked for him – and two in particular – were key players.

Minnie Morris has been hard to trace using public records. Her mother, Minnie Gertrude Morris had married (a re-marriage) John M Stringfield in the autumn of 1911, but the 1901 census has her living with a Henry Morris (who was almost twice her age) in Grays Inn Buildings, Roseberry Avenue, Holborn. Also listed is a daughter, also called Minnie, born in Hoxton in 1891.

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Minnie junior is hard to locate in 1911, but on the other side of town, in North Kensington, a young man named Robert Galloway was living with his large family in Angola Mews:

Galloway census

To call Robert and Minnie “star-crossed lovers” is probably pushing the Shakespeare analogy a step too far, but their paths crossed in the summer of 1912. Both turned up, from different parts of the country, to pick fruit for Mr Batterham. It seems that the hours were flexible, and there was money to be handed over the bar in The Black Bear, and the Bell Inn. The Black Bear still thrives, despite the curse of lock-down, but the Bell Inn is long gone. (below)

Old Bell

William Tucker, labourer, Old Walsoken, said he came from London in May last for fruit-picking. He knew Minnie Morris for a few months, and he met her in London. He saw her in the Bell Inn Walsoken, in June. He used to meet her about four times a week and was fond of her. He used to give her grub and spend evenings with her.”

Galloway was described as a seaman in contemporary reports, but there is no evidence to support this. Perhaps the term suggested something exotic and dangerous, and journalists at the time would be as aware of ‘clickbait’ as we are today, even though they might have used a different term. He was clearly violently jealous, and anyone paying court to Minnie Morris was regarded as a mortal enemy.

On 11th July there was a clashing of heads in the Black Bear inn.

Galloway saw William Tucker and Minnie Morris drinking together in the Black Bear inn. Galloway said: “Minnie. I want to speak to you.
She replied: “I’m all right where I am.”
Tucker and Minnie Morris then went out of the inn and stood talking. Galloway said the girl:

“If I don’t find you I’ll find him”, meaning William Tucker.

Over a century later, it is hard to come to any other conclusion other than that Robert Galloway was obsessed with Minnie Morris, and his feelings were that if he couldn’t have her, then no-one could.

IN PART TWO

A fateful stroll
A case for the police












TRUE CRIME . . . The Easter Monday Murder

Header1953 had not begun auspiciously for East Anglia. Overnight on 31st January a fierce storm had brought devastating flooding to the coast from Lincolnshire to Norfolk. Amost exactly a year earlier, King George VI had died at Sandringham, and the preparations for the June coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth were well advanced. Wisbech Town were struggling in the Midland League, but did manage to beat Gainsborough 5-3 on Easter Saturday, 4th April.

On Thursday 2nd April, Claude Butter arrived at his mother’s house in Wisbech, having traveled down from his lodgings in Church Street, Blackpool. The 51 year-old was a civilian instructor at RAF Weeton, in Lancashire. He had been away from home since he was 16. When his father died he was abroad but in a later statement he said:

“I tried to get home, but I understand that the then Superintendent of police said my presence was not necessary. That sort of gave me the impression that I was not really wanted.”

81 year-old Susannah Elizabeth Butter lived on Summerfield Close, in a modest 1930s council house in a set of terraces built around a circular green. Her other son, Charles, lived either in Milner Road, Wisbech, or with his mother – newspaper reports differ.

That Sunday, 5th April, was Easter Day. On Easter Monday, Mrs Butter and her sons sat down to supper. It was to be her last meal. At 7.45am the next day, Mrs Butter’s next door neighbour was roused by a frantic knocking on the door. When he answered the door, he saw a dishevelled Claude Butter, who said:

Fetch the police. I have killed my mother. I am mad.”

Mr Jackson and his wife went into number 74, and found Mrs Butter slumped at the foot of the stairs, her head a bloody mess. Claude, meanwhile sat slumped at the kitchen table, muttering:

“To think I should have done this.”

Several times he also said,
“I sent her to heaven. God rest her soul.”

When the doctor arrived, Mrs Butter was pronounced dead. The police had found a poker near to her body, and subsequent tests revealed that it was stained with the old lady’s blood.

When Butter appeared in Wisbech Magistrate’s Court on 22nd April, the national press were preoccupied with the misdeeds of a certain John Christie, who had been arrested on 31st March. While the full horror of what Christie had done would only emerge over the next weeks and months, Butter’s crime was relatively cut and dried, the only question being “why?”.

Being a trial for murder, business was transferred to Cambridge Assizes, and on Tuesday 20th May, Claude Butter was found guilty of his mother’s murder, but declared insane, and sentenced to be detained “until The Queen’s pleasure be known.”

Police and solicitors struggled to find a motive for Butter’s senseless act. Defending Butter in court, Mr George Pettefar called Charles Butter to the stand. Butter said:

“The accused man, my brother, was a bachelor whose life had been centred round our mother. The relationship between them was of the highest and there was genuine affection on both sides.”
(Pettefar) “Would you agree he would not have killed her had he not had a brainstorm of some kind?”
“Yes.”

“What he did that morning was to kill the nearest and dearest person to him on this earth?”
“Yes.”

There was little for the police to do except take Butter to a secure place and try to fathom out what had possessed him to kill his mother.

It was disclosed in court that Claude Butter had made the following statement to police:

“I was not the fellow she thought I was or who anyone thought I was. I didn’t want her to know. I do things on mad impulse. All my life I have been bewitched by the devil.”

Summing up the case for the prosecution, Mr Jardine reminded the jury:

“One thing you may think is lacking in this case is any evidence of any motive for the crime. It is not essential for the prosecution’s case to prove motive, and in this case I am unable to produce any evidence of motive.”

The inner torment which drove Claude Butter to kill his mother can only be guessed at. His death was registered in the St Pancras district of London in the summer of 1960, which suggests he spent the final years of his troubled life in one of the capital’s longest established mental health institutions, St Pancras Hospital.

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THE WISBECH TRAGEDY . . . Part Two

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It was also alleged that after the woman was in this fearful condition, Day did nothing to help extinguish the fire except to pour some water on the woman from a small teapot. He was also said to have threatened do the same for a man who was trying put out the flames if he made fuss about it. There was no other possible conclusion at the inquest other than that Frances Parlett had met her painful end through the violent actions of John Day, and that Day must face trial for murder.

The past is never far away, and it is interesting to note that the initial defence for John Day was conducted by Mr TR Dawbarn – a distinguished Wisbech name. One of the chilling things about this case is the fact that, before she died, Frances Parlett was able to give a lucid account of events. At the trial of John Day, she spoke from beyond the grave:

“I live in Wisbech with the accused. About one o’clock this morning I and accused were alone together downstairs. I woke him up as he had fallen asleep. We had no words during the evening. He said “You ….. cow. 1 will blind you.” He then took the lamp up off the table, which was alight, and threw it at me. I caught fire, and everything I had on was burnt. I was burnt, too, almost all to pieces. I screamed and ran out. but he has knocked me about so that the people took no notice it. He is always at it. The accused did nothing, not even attempt put the fire out. Mr. Brightwell, the next-door neighbour, put it out. The accused threw some buckets of cold water over me, but not before my clothes were burnt off me. I cannot remember anything else. We have been living together nearly two vears.’’

Mr-justice-bucknillAt Day’s trial in June 1905, presided over by Mr Justice Bucknill, (left, as caricatured by ‘Spy’) much was made of the fractious and often violent relationship between Frances Parlett and himself. The poor woman did not die until the next day, and in the immediate aftermath of the attack initially defended Day, but then the following exchange was relayed to the court. Sergeant Watson took the prisoner upstairs to see the deceased, and they had a conversation.
Day said,

 

“Frances, did I do it ?”
She answered,
Yes, you bad boy, you know you did it,”
Day said,
“It’s false.”
Frances repeated,
You did, you bad boy, you know you did.”
She was also heard to say,
You murderer, you have done it this time. You have had a good many tries, and you have done it this time.”

BarristerIn the event, the defence barrister for Day made great play on the grave responsibility that the jurors held. If they found Day guilty of murder, he would surely hang. In the words of the newspaper report, Mr Stewart, for the defence, remarked that the punishment for the crime with which the prisoner was charged was death, and it was not necessary to say more than that to bring home the jury the great and terrible responsibility that rested upon them. The onus of proof against the prisoner lay with the prosecution, and it was for them to satisfy the jury beyond the possibility of reasonable doubt that the prisoner was responsible for the deed. He contended that this had not been done. The statement of the woman was not in nature of a dying declaration, and it ought not to regarded as more important, or have more credence attached to it than was attached to any of the evidence called before the Court during the day.

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