Murders in the Fens
As I mentioned on Friday, the talk that I gave at Sleaford Library was the last in my series of six talks about Murder in the Fens, four of which were prepared to celebrate National Crime Reading Month (NCRM). As I don’t like giving the same talk twice – I don’t believe it is ever possible to replicate the momentum if you deliver the same words again – for each of these talks I researched a different Lincolnshire murder that, in the eyes of the police, remains unsolved. This post offers a brief account of each of these ‘murders’ – though I think that only three of them deserve to be so called.
John Bailey was a country doctor who lived in Long Sutton and was murdered in April 1795. On Tuesday 21st April he went to Tydd St Mary, a village about four miles from Long Sutton, to visit a patient. Early the following morning, his horse returned home without him. Following a report by a servant girl that she had seen a man lying in the grass on the side of the road, a group of local residents went to look for Bailey and found him where the girl had indicated. Alive, but with horrific head injuries, he tried to write something in the silty soil, but could not do so and shortly afterwards died. The motive appeared to be theft, though only the doctor’s watch was missing. There was a nationwide search for his killers and several people were arrested, but no charges were brought. Arrests, incidents of mistaken identity and false confessions continued to plague his wife and son for many years afterwards.
In 1979, Gordon Snowden, a sixty-year-old petrol pump attendant at Sutton Bridge Motors, was attacked at 2 am on 17th April. The motive appeared to be robbery – the cash till with all the takings was stolen. The police made no headway with solving the crime and never announced any suspects. No longer even regarded as ‘cold case’, it has now been archived. In other words, however tragic Gordon Snowden’s murder and however outrageous, it has become a statistic. It will never be reopened.
On May 22nd 1934, Mrs Ethel Major, of Kirby-on-Bain, near Horncastle, made her husband Arthur his customary ‘tea’ of corned beef, bread and butter. Shortly afterwards, he became ill and was soon unable to stand or speak. Two days later he had a seizure and died. The police discovered that Ethel had received anonymous letters telling her that her husband was having an affair with Rose Kettleborough, their neighbour. Police eventually concluded that Ethel had poisoned her husband, using as their main source of evidence an anonymous letter from the same person who had written to Ethel about the affair – which might have been Rose Kettleborough herself. Ethel pleaded not guilty to murder, but was hanged on December 19th 1934 by Albert Pierrepoint, the crown executioner famous for the compassion with which he treated convicted prisoners. Ethel Major was the last Lincolnshire woman to be hanged. Today the evidence against her would be deemed insufficient – and there are many people living in the Horncastle area whose ancestors always doubted her guilt. Horncastle people apparently divided into ‘Rose’ and ‘Ethel’ camps – though there was only circumstantial evidence that either was to blame for Arthur’s death.
Beatie Simpson, who was twenty, and a nineteen-year-old girl who was not named by police were both employed at a tobacco factory in Nottingham. In 1922, they travelled to Mablethorpe for a fortnight’s holiday, which they rashly extended by one week, even though they knew this would result in dismissal from their jobs. According to the girl who survived, they made a suicide pact because they could see no way out of their dilemma and both took Lysol while they were still staying in their seaside boarding house, which was owned by a blacksmith and his wife. Beatie Simpson was badly burned in the mouth and stomach by the corrosive liquid, but the doctor who carried out the post-mortem said that it would have been the effects of the poison on her heart and nervous system that killed her. She left a suicide note. It is not clear why the nineteen-year-old girl survived, although when the girls were discovered attempts were made to force them to drink salt water to cause them to vomit, and apparently Beatie’s mouth was clamped so tightly shut that she could not be made to swallow it. The coroner ruled that the girl who did not die was guilty of murder, as suicide was illegal at the time. The logic of this is hard to understand today: the coroner’s rationale was presumably that if a crime had been committed and someone could be made to pay for it, they should. However, the nineteen-year-old girl was eventually acquitted.
Barbara Grice died from a ruptured liver following a trip to Billinghay Feast (a kind of fair held annually near Sleaford) on 17th October 1956. Tantalisingly, I can find nothing more about this crime – I don’t even know why the police classified it as a murder. Was Barbara Grice pushed from one of the fairground rides or attacked by someone? In any event, no one has ever been charged with her murder.
Lastly, a twenty-six-year-old man named Charles Trier died in Gainsborough in 1995 during a game of Russian roulette. The police charged one man with his murder, then released him owing to lack of evidence. From my perspective, this barely counts as an unsolved murder, although it raises some interesting questions: for example, if you play Russian roulette of your own free will and die as a result, is the cause of your death murder, suicide or an over-developed gambling instinct? If you were coerced into playing, that of course is a different matter. Lovers of ‘The Deer Hunter’ will no doubt have a view!
Of these six deaths, I think that only John Bailey’s, Gordon Snowden’s and, probably, Arthur Major’s – although forensic science was not as conclusive in his day as it is now – would today be classified as murders. Beatie Simpson’s suicide certainly would not, unless it could be proved that her faculties were weak and the nineteen-year-old girl had unduly influenced her; the circumstances surrounding Charles Trier’s death are too uncertain to determine whether he pulled the trigger of his own free will; and Barbara Grice’s demise, as I have indicated, remains shrouded in mystery.
Very sunny Sleaford
The first thing that strikes you about Sleaford is that it is a lovely old town with lots of characterful buildings and monuments. I was particularly taken with the Carre’s Hospital Almshouses, also known as the ‘Bedehouses’, off the Market Square in Eastgate and the lovely old redbrick buildings adjacent to the town centre car park. The next thing that strikes you is that it is a town packed with traffic. In every road and small lane, there is a queue of cars – at least, there is at midday on a summer’s afternoon on a Friday! The volume of traffic may explain why Sleaford can also boast an extremely friendly traffic warden who, when we eventually found a baking hot car park quite a long way out of town, directed us to one that was closer to the library.
The library itself is spacious and extremely well kept by Kay and her assistant librarians – I met Angela and June and I know there are others, too. She was also assisted by James, a work experience boy, who told us he had just enjoyed a stellar week in the library. I’m not surprised – Kay and her team thought of everything. They set out tables with lace cloths, served tea and biscuits twice – at the beginning of the talk and before it ended – and gave me a beautiful bunch of flowers before I left. They also secured one of the largest audiences I have had on this series of talks. They told me this had been achieved by putting flyers in the boxes of books they send out to reading groups – a useful tip for other librarians, if any are reading this post.
As always, the members of the audience came from diverse backgrounds and each had an interesting backstory to tell. There was an Australian couple searching for information about the husband’s ancestors; the widow of the former County Archaeologist of Northamptonshire, with whom I had a fascinating exchange about Anglo-Saxon graves that contained valuable grave goods – and the ones that didn’t; a teacher of English literature; and a lady whose parents had known Ethel Major, the last woman to be hanged in Lincolnshire (more about her in a later post) and were adamant that she wasn’t guilty. Various lawyers have recently come to the same conclusion, if more tentatively expressed.
All my audiences have asked different kinds of questions. This audience – made up of avid readers – wanted to know what sparks the idea of a plot in the first place: what triggers the gleam in the author’s eye? I much enjoyed talking with them and was grateful to them all for turning out on such a hot day – it was thirty-one degrees outside, though the library – uniquely among the libraries I have visited – boasted some very effective air conditioning. I was impressed that every person who booked a ticket turned up.
The talk at Sleaford was the last of the series of talks in Lincolnshire libraries arranged to celebrate Crime Readiing Month. I felt that, owing to the amazing efforts of Kay, Angela, June and the rest of the team, the series ended on a real high. Very many thanks to them and to all the wonderful Lincolnshire librarians I have met this June. I am not planning any events for July and August, but I shall be back in the autumn, setting up some writing workshops and giving more talks. I will keep the readers of this blog posted.
And the posts will, of course, continue until the end of the month – possibly beyond, if I can summon up the time! Tomorrow’s post will be by Kev, a Lincolnshire police officer responsible for the drones the police service uses – to catch criminals, of course, but for other purposes, too. Kev has sent me some great photos to accompany it. I think you’ll find it well worth reading.