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The Human Glove Mystery

Updated on September 14, 2011
The desolate area where the body was found
The desolate area where the body was found | Source

One of the most bizarre murder cases in Australian history began on Christmas Day 1933, when fishermen on the Murrumbidgee River at Pomingalarna Common, a remote area five miles west of Wagga Wagga New South Wales, found a chaff sack snagged on a tree. When they opened the sack they reeled back. Inside was a heavily decomposed body. An autopsy determined that the corpse was male, strongly-built, aged between 45 and 50, had received several crushing blows to the back of the head, possibly with an ax, and had been in the water for several weeks. Identification would not be easy. The features were unrecognizable and there was no chance of fingerprints: the right hand was missing completely, while the left had been badly mangled.

Nor was there any guarantee that this was some local murder. Two recent floods meant that the body could have been carried for 100 miles or more downstream before coming to rest where it was discovered. Without any great optimism, detectives from the Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB) began combing the riverbank for clues. Before long one of them noticed something brownish and shriveled-looking caught in the bushes. Wading into the water, he retrieved the object and held it up for closer examination. It took him a few seconds to realize what it was. Back at the laboratory, a pathologist confirmed the find – human skin with a thumbnail still attached. Actually, it was the outer skin of a right hand and wrist, all of the flesh having been eaten away by maggots. What remained looked like a dirty glove. Which gave the lab an idea.

A simulation of how the experts made the 'human glove'
A simulation of how the experts made the 'human glove' | Source

Gruesome Experiment

If properly treated the skin might yet yield a usable fingerprint; but they had to find a way of taking that print. The answer was gruesomely simple. First, they needed someone whose hand-size roughly conformed to that of the skin. The officer who most closely met this requirement then donned a surgical glove and slid his own right hand into the dead man's skin. It was a delicate operation; one careless move might tear the skin apart and destroy any chance of success. Once the officer's fingers had filled out the limp skin, he pressed the digits upon an inked pad and then onto a fingerprint card. The result was a surprisingly clear set of prints with identifiable loops, whorls, and arches. Heartened by this success, Sergeant J. S. Walkom, chief of the fingerprint section at the CIB, managed to peel the skin off the mangled left hand and obtain a second set of prints. Now began the laborious task of searching thousands of fingerprint records, with no guarantee that his target was among them.

Walkom got lucky. The dead man had a criminal record. In March 1931 Percy Edward Smith, a middle-aged itinerant who roamed the Wagga Wagga region in a dilapidated wagon, taking odd jobs wherever he could, had been convicted of making a false claim for food relief and sentenced to one month's imprisonment. When detectives visited Smith's known haunts, locals confirmed that he had been missing for several weeks. They also mentioned that Smith and fellow hobo, Edward Morey, 38, had been seen together in early December, close to where the body was found; and that later Morey had sold the dead man's horse and wagon, along with some tools.

Edward Morey at the beginning of World War One
Edward Morey at the beginning of World War One

Manhunt

Immediately, an APB was put out for Edward Morey. A widespread manhunt was abruptly halted when officers learned that Morey was already in jail on vagrancy charges. His angry denials of complicity in Smith's death rang hollow when confronted by the evidence. Besides the horse and wagon and tools, he had also sold Smith's monogrammed gold watch; and when investigators searched his camp they found a bloodstained ax that he attempted to conceal from them.

But it was the sensational 'human glove' evidence that caused all the fireworks when Morey's trial opened on May 8, 1934, and it dominated every headline until, five days later, when chief prosecution witness, Moncrieff Anderson, was suddenly gunned down alongside a trough at the Wagga Wagga stockyards. This sensational development in no way affected Morey's fate; the next day a jury took just 10 minutes to find him guilty and he was sentenced to hang. In the meantime, Anderson's 26-year-old widow, Lillian, blamed her husband's death on intruders, until the police found a .22 rifle and an expended cartridge case in the trough next to the dead man. Ballistics proved this to be the murder weapon and it was known to have been owned by the dead man. But the clinching evidence against Lillian came with the discovery of some love-letters found in Morey's possession. They purported to come from a 'Thelma Smith,' but experts noted that the handwriting bore an uncanny resemblance to that of Lillian Anderson, and she, too, was arrested on a charge of murder.

Betrayed By The Man She Loved

Put on trial for her life, Lillian Anderson cut a confused and tragic figure (a psychiatrist put her mental age at fourteen). When called to testify, Lillian claimed that her dead husband and not Morey had killed Smith. According to the prosecution, she had shot her husband and named him as Smith's murderer in order to save her lover. Morey showed no such loyalty. Brought from the condemned cell to testify, he turned his back on the woman who had risked the gallows to save him, denying that he even knew her. After two hung juries, Lillian Anderson was tried for a third time and found guilty of manslaughter. She received a 20 year sentence. One month later, on October 8, 1934, Edward Morey's death sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. After serving 20 years he was freed on health grounds and, shortly thereafter, died from tuberculosis.

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    • profile image

      little 

      6 years ago

      their my grandparents your all talking about!!!

    • profile imageAUTHOR

      ccbrookes 

      7 years ago

      I've checked around, HB, and unfortunately I can find no record of how long Lillian spent in jail. (Incidentally, her husband was a witness, not a prosecutor.) Glad you liked it.

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 

      7 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      This is a sad and tragic story. That photograph of Morey presents a young man with great potential and he became a hobo and murderer. The whole Lillian involvement just sounds off. Why would the wife of a successful attorney consort with a hobo? And why would she blame intruders when Anderson was killed outside the home?

      I think she pulled the wool over the eyes of the psychiatrist. Do you know how many years she actually served? I would not be surprised if she got off very early.

      You did great on this one ccbrookes. It is fascinating.

    • profile imageAUTHOR

      ccbrookes 

      7 years ago

      Thanks for the comment, JG. This is the first recorded case of this technique that I can find, but if anyone knows of an earlier instance I would love to hear from you.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      The human glove technique is now common in obtaining fingerprints from decomposed corpses or dismembered hand(s). Personally I don't think I could put my own hand into the skin of another, but it's interesting to learn about one of the first times (if not *the* first) it was used. Thanks for sharing! ;D

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