True Crime: Five Blunders That Led to the Gallows
Back in the days when a conviction for murder meant a date with the hangman, the prospective murderer was extra careful in his (or her) attempts to avoid detection. Many were undone by brilliant detective work, but others simply lacked the nous to avoid the noose. As these fatal blunders show, some carried out their killings in such an amateurish way that on conviction they may well have laughed all the way to the condemned cell.
This respectable Whitechapel brush salesman’s darker side surfaced in 1872, when he bigamously married twenty-year-old Harriet Lane under the assumed name of Percy King. He set up home with his secret bride in Mile End, giving his occupation as traveller to explain his frequent absences. “Mrs” King had two daughters here.
For three years Wainwright had his cake and ate it, but the extravagance took its toll on his business. He was unable to keep his spare wife in the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed, and she began calling at his shop, demanding money and being disruptive. He took an extreme measure to stop this interference and avoid a major scandal: he shot her and hid the corpse at his warehouse. With the aid of his brother Thomas, Wainwright convinced Harriet’s friends and family that she had moved abroad with a mysterious Edward Frieake, and one condition of the relationship was that she did not contact her past associates. This was reluctantly accepted and inquiries as to her whereabouts ceased.
A year passed and Wainwright must have thought he was in the clear, but dark clouds were gathering. The repossession of his warehouse forced Wainwright into moving the corpse, and during this process he made a very costly error. Having hacked what remained of Harriet into two, he wrapped the pieces in heavy cloth and tied them with cord. He hired the services of a youth named Stokes to carry one of the parcels, which he said contained compressed human hair. Wainwright carried the other parcel himself, their destination being his brother Thomas’s ironmongery shop across town. On the way, Stokes complained that the parcel was too heavy and he couldn’t continue. Wainwright told him to guard the parcels while he went for a cab, a fatal move, for while the youth was alone with the parcels he had a peep at their contents. He almost fainted when he saw what looked like a human hand, but he composed himself enough to tell the police about Wainwright’s grisly packages.
Had Wainwright sent Stokes for the cab (the logical option under the circumstances), he would probably have got away with murder. As it was, he might well have gone down in history as the first person to say, “I’d have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for that meddling kid”. He was hanged on 21st December 1875.
During a Zeppelin raid one night in 1917, Voison’s two mistresses came face to face when they both decided to seek comfort in the arms of the Frenchman. This caused a furious row between the two women that resulted in the murder of thirty-two year-old Emilienne Gerard. Voisin, a butcher by trade, applied his skills to the carcass of the unfortunate woman, wrapping the torso in a cotton sheet and a meat sack. Before removing the package, Voison played what he thought was a masterstroke, but which was really little more than an aid to detection. Hoping to send the police on a false trail, he scrawled the words Blodie Belgiam on a piece of brown paper, which he put in with the torso. Quite why he chose these particular words, or what he had against the Belgians, no one ever discovered. Voison dumped the remains in a garden in Regents Square, where a road sweeper discovered them the following morning.
A laundry mark on the sheet led the police to the home of Mme Gerard, where they found an IOU for £50 that was signed by Louis Voison, who immediately became a suspect. While being questioned about the murder, he was asked to write the words “Bloody Belgium” five times on a sheet of paper. He happily obliged, writing slowly and clumsily, but making the very same mistakes as were on the paper found with the torso. Although this did not prove Voison’s guilt, it did narrow the field of suspects down to one, and a thorough search of the Frenchman’s home was made. A bloodstained towel was found which, on close inspection, was found to have one of the dead woman’s earrings attached. There was also a rug that was spattered with blood and human hair, but the big break came when the cellar was searched. Inside a sawdust-filled cask were found the head and hands of the victim. The jigsaw was complete.
Voison was hanged on March 2nd 1918. His other mistress, Berthe Roche, was imprisoned as an accessory, but she went mad and died after only two years.
Having murdered his mistress after discovering that she was pregnant, Mahon devised a plan that may have succeeded had it not been for an act of extreme carelessness. He killed Emily Kaye in an isolated bungalow on the coast near Eastbourne which he rented using the name Waller. He had cajoled Miss Kaye into writing to friends saying that she was about to leave for a new life in South Africa, so her disappearance would not have caused concern, and there would be nothing to connect Waller in Eastbourne with Mahon in London.
After dismembering the remains and boiling pieces up on the stove, Mahon carried chunks of her body in a leather bag and threw them from the railway carriage as he returned to London, leaving the bag at Waterloo Station in a left-luggage locker. With such a dangerous piece of evidence locked away, one would have expected Mahon to guard the locker ticket with his life, but no. In an act of supreme carelessness, he left the ticket in his trouser pocket where his ever-suspicious wife found it.
Mahon was a notorious womaniser who had been caught out in the past, although his wife had forgiven him. Thinking her husband may be having another affair, Mrs Mahon got a policeman friend to accompany her to the station cloakroom, where they examined the contents of the locker. Forcing apart the edges of the locked bag, they saw a bloodstained knife and some similarly stained silk underwear. Mrs Mahon was told to return the ticket to her husband’s pocket and say nothing of the matter.
A watch was kept on the cloakroom, and Mahon was arrested when he opened the locker. He was taken to Scotland Yard, where he was asked to explain the contents of the bag. He couldn’t, so he let the police in on his ghastly secret, pointing out, of course, that Miss Kaye had died accidentally. This was disproved in court, and the game was up for the dapper Mahon, who must have cursed his carelessness as the noose went around his neck on September 9th 1924.
Dr. Buck Ruxton
Dr Ruxton’s turbulent marriage ended abruptly when he murdered his wife. The crime was either witnessed or discovered by Mary Rogerson, the 20 year-old nursemaid to the Ruxtons’ children, so he killed her too. After dismembering the bodies and wrapping the pieces, Dr Ruxton set about his simple disposal plan, which was to dump the remains so far away from his home in Lancaster that they would never be traced back to him. So, after loading up the car one night, he headed north.
Two weeks later the remains were discovered at the bottom of a ravine close to the village of Moffatt, some thirty miles north of the Scottish border. It was here that a major flaw in the doctor’s plan came to light. Some of the pieces were wrapped in a copy of the Sunday Graphic that was only issued in the area around Morecambe and Lancaster (D’oh!). Far from baffling the police, Dr Ruxton simply guided them the hundred or so miles back to Lancaster where it soon emerged that neither Mrs Ruxton nor Mary Rogerson had been seen for some time.
Ruxton denied that the remains were those of his wife and nursemaid, but again his attempt to outsmart the police had only served to implicate him. At every point on the bodies where there should have been an identifying feature, there were none. For example, the flesh had been removed from Mary Rogerson’s right thumb – exactly where she’d had a scar. Similarly, Mrs Ruxtons protruding teeth had been removed, as had the soft tissue from her lower legs where, in life, her calves had been the same thickness from below the knee to above the ankle. There were just too many coincidences.
This so-called ‘negative evidence’ was enough to satisfy the police that the bodies were indeed those of Mrs Ruxton and Miss Rogerson. Charges followed and Dr Ruxton eventually confessed, before booking himself an early-morning fitting for a hemp collar on May 12th 1936.
Harold Dorian Trevor
Trevor was a persistent, though non-violent criminal who had spent forty of his sixty-two years behind bars. He’d had a fairly comfortable upbringing, and was well educated. He had charm in abundance, and was always smartly dressed, often wearing a monocle for effect. When, in 1941, he finally did resort to violence, it was of the most brutal and cowardly kind.
Inside the home of Army Officer’s widow, Theodora Greenhill, Trevor waited while she sat at her desk making out a receipt. Suddenly, he brought a beer bottle crashing down onto her head, and while the woman was senseless he strangled her with a ligature. After ransacking the house, and placing a handkerchief over the dead woman’s face, Trevor fled. One of Mrs Greenhill's daughters found the body some time later.
When the police arrived they were particularly interested in what Mrs Greenhill had been writing before she was struck. On her desk was a sheet of paper on which was written, “Received from Dr H D Trevor the s…” Here the line shot off the page as the blow had registered. The police were cautious, but hopeful; had the killer really left his name at the scene of the crime?
They called in the aid of fingerprint expert Fred Cherrill, who took a print from a bottle fragment and immediately confirmed to the police that Trevor was their man. He was arrested the following day in Rhyl as he left a telephone box.
The old villain was no stranger to the courtroom, and he often made blustering speeches when found guilty. This case was no exception as he boomed, “If I am called upon to take my stand in the cold, grey dawn, I pray that God, in his mercy will gently turn my mother’s face away as I pass into the shadows…” etc, etc. That cold grey dawn arrived for Harold Dorian Trevor on 11th November 1941.
Read another of my true crime hubs here:
- True Crime: The Man Who Confessed to Murder to Avoid a Lengthy Prison Sentence
The harsh prison regime that existed in Victorian England proved too much for one convict. Unable to face the prospect of a fifteen-year stretch, he confessed to a murder that had been committed thirteen years earlier in the hope that he would be han
© 2013 Joe Young