Famous Trials: Alex McBride

★★★½

In this set of three bite-sized books, barrister and author Alex McBride presents six cases adapted from Penguin’s Famous Trials. This classic series gave readers the chance to read the transcripts of court cases, to study the evidence and to judge for themselves whether the final verdict was correct. In their newly edited form, these cases are short enough to read on a commute, each offering a glimpse of a notorious murder trial. Penguin and McBride have grouped them thematically. In Unwanted Spouses we explore two crimes motivated by marital strife; Thrill-Killers introduces us to two criminals who developed too much of a taste for blood; and Lucky Escapes shows us two people who were acquitted and walked free. But did they deserve it? While I’m not a fan of modern true crime, these cases are old enough to cast light on a different age – while reminding us that human nature, worryingly, might not have changed all that much…

Nowadays Hay-on-Wye is most famous for its bookshops, but in 1922 this quiet Welsh town became notorious for another reason: murder. Unwanted Spouses introduces us to the man at the heart of the scandal: Herbert Rowse Armstrong, a Cambridge graduate turned solicitor (this case written up by Filson Young). He and his wife Katherine had been married for over fifteen years, with three children to show for it, when she died tragically in 1921. She hadn’t been the easiest person to live with – indeed, to be frank, she was a nag – but she had already suffered a nervous breakdown in 1920 and the locals simply assumed she had been in indifferent health. But then strange rumours began circulating about the health of Armstrong’s business rival Mr Martin; the word ‘poison’ was mentioned and suddenly, in retrospect, the death of Katherine Armstrong began to look rather less tragic and rather more contrived. But did he do it?

If Herbert Armstrong was (potentially) motivated by a desire for peace and quiet, Francis Rattenbury’s fate was dictated by something more traditional: sexual jealousy (this case written up by F. Tennyson Jesse). Rattenbury was 67 when he was murdered in his Bournemouth home in 1935, by the simple method of being battered to death in his chair. His second wife Alma (who had herself been married twice before) was some thirty years younger than him and chafed at the quiet pace of life that Francis desired. She also chafed at the non-existence of a sexual relationship in their marriage (since the birth of their son John in 1929). And so it was, perhaps, with a delightful double entendre that Alma Rattenburg placed an advert in the paper for a ‘daily willing lad’ to come and help her around the house. The successful applicant was George Stoner, aged eighteen, who swiftly became indispensable to the lonely Alma. She indulged him, took him to London and bought him presents… but this wasn’t enough for George. But did jealousy and ambition really lead to murder?

Not all motives are so easy to explain, though. In Thrill-Killers, McBride shares two cases in which murderers became addicted to the power of killing. The first, Thomas Neill Cream (whose case is written up by W. Teignmouth Shore), was born in Scotland but studied medicine in Montreal and Edinburgh. He led a somewhat nomadic existence, moving between Scotland, Canada and Chicago and dogged by unfortunate tragedies: a fire destroyed his student rooms in Canada (though he claimed on the insurance); his new bride apparently died of consumption (he claimed on the life insurance); a girl was found dead in an apparent suicide outside his clinic in London, Ontario; and he was briefly imprisoned on suspicion of murder when a patient in America died. By 1891 he had come to London, England, settling in Lambeth Palace Road. It was around this time that a series of vulnerable girls – many of whom were forced to sell themselves – began to be found dead in strange circumstances. Someone was luring the girls out. But who? And who was sending the strange blackmail letters that began turning up here and there?

If Cream was a confirmed oddball, the Hon. Thomas Ley (his case written up by Jesse again) was powerful and successful. Born in England, he’d gone to Australia at the age of eight and worked his way up from selling newspapers to becoming the Minister of Justice for New South Wales (the irony, the irony). He wasn’t whiter than white, because he was connected with some alleged bribes, but no one quite dared to connect him with the death of a business associate in Australia. By the time he moved back to England, he had acquired a middle-aged mistress and a healthy sense of paranoia. Presently he became convinced that this mistress, Mrs Brook, was unfaithful, and his eye settled on a series of unfortunate men before it latched onto young John Mudie, one of Mrs Brook’s lodgers. It just so happened that this same John Mudie was found, strangled, in a Surrey chalk-pit in 1946. But who was responsible? Ley had a grudge against Mudie – a completely imagined one, as far as we can tell – but would a man like Ley get his hands dirty? How on earth did a man move from suspicion to murder?

Most of the Famous Trials end with guilty sentences; but some of the accused escaped the death penalty – hence the final book, Lucky Escapes. Is this a sign that innocent people are righteously being spared? Or are our criminals smarter than we give them credit for? First in the dock is Madeleine Smith (her story told by Jesse), who was taken to court in 1857 on the charge of murdering her lover, the exotically-named Pierre Emile L’Angelier. In his introduction, McBride makes an interesting point. We can’t know whether or not Madeleine really did murder L’Angelier. The fact is that she slept with him outside marriage and sent him explicit, compromising letters – which he threatened to show to her family if she refused to marry him. She had a motive. But those judging her were not scandalised by the prospect of murder so much as her sexual freedom. Her true crime was to be a sexually liberated woman in Edinburgh in 1857, at a time when women’s bodies were supposed to be controlled by their male relations. It’s true that L’Angelier’s death – showing possible symptoms of poisoning – was convenient for Madeleine, as it freed her for a more eligible suitor – or would have done, obviously, if she hadn’t been dragged into court, thereby ruining herself and her family… but did she do it?

The final miscreant (or maligned innocent?) in this sequence is Robert Wood (his case written up by Basil Hogarth). Wood was accused in 1907 of the murder of Emily Dimmock, a prostitute. Hogarth’s introduction to the case notes that the trial is an important landmark in legal history, as it was the first time that a defendant accused of murder successfully mounted his own defence of ‘not guilty’. And it was a deeply confusing case. The lady in question, who had recently been taken up by a railroad employee called Bert Shaw, was found dead at home by her so-called ‘husband’. Her rooms had been ransacked, though the thief had only taken a few small things, including pages from Emily’s cherished postcard album. Emily herself had had her throat cut, viciously. As the investigation proceeded, it became clear that Emily had not given up her profession on settling down with Bert, as she’d promised. But how could her murderer be found? One postcard offered a tantalising clue: handwriting that could be linked to an artist-engraver called Robert Shaw. But Shaw claimed his innocence. Did it ring true?

The cases are certainly fascinating, each one of them shining a spotlight onto what George Orwell called ‘the golden age of the English murder’. The stories were originally written up by a variety of authors, contracted by Penguin, and so there is variance in the writing styles even after McBride’s editing pencil has cut them down to size. Fortunately these cases are old enough now to feel like history rather than journalism, and they will probably appeal to those who want to exercise their inner Poirot. So, if you’ve been reading the British Library’s recent reissues of crime classics from this same period, you might fancy revisiting some of the true cases of the day – and see if you come to the same conclusions as the judge and jury. Who knows where the truth might lie?

Buy the books: Unwanted Spouses, Thrill-Killers, and Lucky Escapes

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