1930s crimes – the Brighton trunk murders

In the 1930s Brighton became notorious for a couple of unrelated but equally grisly murders.

On 17 June 1934 a foul smell in the left luggage office at Brighton railway station led to the discovery of a woman’s torso. A pair of legs was discovered in another trunk at Kings Cross Station in London the following day.

The post mortem by Sir Bernard Spilsbury confirmed that the legs and torso had belonged to the same victim. He found that the woman had been aged around 25 and was five months pregnant. The crime had been committed two to three weeks previously.

Suspicion fell on a well-connected abortionist called Massiah but nothing was proved and no one stood trial for the murder.

During a house to house search police investigating the torso in the station stumbled across another body in a trunk – this time inside a house in Kemp Street. The victim was Violette Kaye, 42, who had been a dancer and a prostitute in London.

Violette Kaye

She had moved to Brighton in 1933 with her much-younger lover, a petty criminal who used the name Tony Mancini. They had a tempestuous relationship and she disappeared after a row over his interest in a young waitress.

Mancini told friends Violette had left him and gone to Paris and her sister received a telegram supposedly from Violette saying she was moving abroad for a job.

At the post mortem Sir Bernard Spilsbury confirmed that Violette had been killed by a blow to the head. Mancini was captured in London. His handwriting was confirmed to match that on the telegram form.

He denied killing Violette, saying he had found her dead in his flat in Park Crescent and assumed she had been killed by one of her clients. Fearing police wouldn’t believe his story because of his criminal record he panicked. He took out a lease for the Kemp Street property and hid the body there.

imageHe was found not guilty.

But in 1976 he confessed to the News of the World, saying that during a row Violette had attacked him with a hammer. He had wrested it out of her hand and thrown it back at her but it had caught the side of her head.

The story may have been the inspiration for a radio drama narrated by Orson Welles called Hammerhead in which the victim’s sister turned out to be the killer.


1930s crimes – the Julia Wallace case

imageThe Julia Wallace case is the first instance in British legal history where an appeal was allowed after re-examination of evidence. But it also achieved fame for being impossible to prove either way.

Was mild-mannered 52 year old insurance salesman William Wallace an innocent man sent on a wild goose chase or a cold blooded mastermind?

Wallace was convicted of the murder of his wife Julia in their home in Wolverton Street, Liverpool. They had been married for eighteen years and lived a quiet life, according to neighbours.

He worked for the Pru and his life revolved around botany, chemistry and chess. He also liked to play the violin, accompanying Julia on the piano.

The case hangs on a telephone message Wallace received at his chess club on 19th January around 25 minutes after the call was taken. In the message a man calling himself Mr  Qualtrough invited Wallace to his house the following evening at 7.30 pm to discuss insurance. He gave his address as 25 Menlove Gardens.

The next evening Wallace set out for the address but although there was a Menlove Gardens North, South and West there was no Menlove Gardens East. He asked several people including a policeman but nobody could help him find the address or the mysterious Mr Qualtrough.

After 45 minutes he gave up and went home. He met his next door neighbours outside the house and told them he was unable to get in. Watched by them, he tried the back door again and found his wife’s battered body in the sitting room.

Her head had been bashed in exposing her skull. The murder weapon, thought to be a long, slender instrument, was never found.

Did Wallace make the telephone call himself and make a point of asking people about the time and address toconstruct an alibi?

They found that the telephone box used by “Qualtrough” to make his call to the chess club was situated just 400 yards from Wallace’s home, although the person in the cafe who took the call was quite certain it was not Wallace on the other end of the line.

The defence maintained there wasn’t enough time for Wallace to have committed the murder and reached the tram where he spoke to witnesses. But there was also a discrepancy over the time of death. It was changed from 8pm to 6.30pm although there was no additional evidence to support this earlier timing.

One of the strange aspects of the case was a Macintosh found under the body. Given the brutal nature of the attack you would have expected Julia Wallace’s killer to have been covered in blood. But the suit Wallace had been wearing on the night of the murder was examined and no blood stains found.

The police believed the Macintosh had been used to shield a naked Wallace from blood spatter during the assault.

Theories abounded – Wallace was sleeping with Julia’s sister, Julia was terminally ill and it was a mercy killing, Wallace killed Julia for the insurance money, Wallace was innocent and the real murderer was Julia’s lover whom she had been blackmailing. But none of these had any evidence to back them up.

Although the evidence against Wallace was only circumstantial he was found guilty of the murder and given the death sentence.

But on appeal it was decided there was not enough evidence and he walked free.

Many people however believed he had got away with murder. He received hate mail and threats and had to move away.

No one else was charged with the murder and it remains officially unsolved. The case has fascinated many writers including Raymond Chandler who said “I call it the impossible murder because Wallace couldn’t have done it, and neither could anyone else. … The Wallace case is unbeatable; it will always be unbeatable.”

PD James is convinced she has solved the crime. She believes the prank call was made by another suspect 22-year old Richard Parry. He sent Wallace on a wild goose chase in revenge for Wallace getting him fired for fiddling the books at the Pru.

BUT…PD James also believes that Wallace was in fact the murderer. Worn down by failure and disappointment he snapped and killed his wife. It was an incredible stroke of luck for him to be lured away that same evening, providing him with the perfect alibi – one which no rational person would think plausible.

What’s your theory?




1930s crimes – the blazing car murder

Alfred Rouse

As part of my research for my novel Lies, Mistakes and Misunderstandings I looked at some real crimes which took place during the era in which the story is set – the 1930s and 1940s. The first in this series is a case that made legal history because the murderer was convicted even though no one knew who the victim was.

It also shows that with modern techniques evidence can remain many decades after a murder.

On 6th November 1930 psychotic travelling salesman Alfred Rouse faked his own death by smashing his victim’s head with a mallet, bundling the body into his own Morris Minor and setting light to it.

His plan went wrong when he was spotted running away from the scene. He was hanged for murder but took the identity of his victim to the grave with him.

Thirty-six year old Rouse suffered from a personality disorder due to a head wound sustained in the First World War. He had fathered two illegitimate children and was heavily in debt.

Tissue removed at the post mortem and archived in the Royal London Hospital Museum included a sample from the prostrate to confirm gender and one from the lung to determine whether the victim was already dead before the fire started.

Researching into their family history a few years ago, relatives of William Briggs who went missing at the time, suspected he was Rouse’s victim.

imageDuring an investigation by a forensic team from the University of Leicester and Northumbria University, the Northamptonshire police and the Royal London Hospital Museum a full mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) profile was obtained from the victim’s tissue to compare with the maternal line of the family.

MtDNA is genetic material transmitted in the womb and can only be passed through the maternal line. People have much more mtDNA than nuclear DNA and it remains in the body much longer so mtDNA testing can be used in cases where the victim has been dead a long time.

Disappointingly for the family the analysis ruled out William Briggs as the victim so the mystery remains.

But with the profile obtained by the investigation there is still a chance the true victim will be identified in future.


coming next: the Julia Wallace case – was it the perfect crime?

If you were a fly…which wall would you choose?


During August my writing room relocated to Italy. On the journey down through Europe I’ve come across so many inspirational places, each with a story to tell.

First stop – Amsterdam. A visit to the Van Gogh museum got me thinking – if I were able to be a fly on the wall at any time in history the moment I would choose would be in Arles on December 23rd 1888 – the night of the row between Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gaugin that led to Van Gogh’s ear being cut off.

Who said what to whom? What led up to the disagreement? Who ended up cutting off Van Gogh’s ear?


Did the tortured genius inflict the injury on himself because he was having a mental episode or did Gauguin, a fencing ace, swipe the ear with a sword during a fight?

The traditional view – and one that the curators at the Van Gogh museum still stand by – is that Van Gogh who had been suffering from epilepsy and aural disturbances sliced off his own ear with a razor. It’s easy to imagine being so upset by voices in your head that you would want to rip off your ear in the hope you would not be able to hear them any more.

But in 2009 German art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, having studied letters and witness accounts came up with a theory that Gauguin inflicted the injury – either by accident or as a deliberate act – during a fight and the pair entered a pact of silence to cover up the crime to protect Gauguin from prosecution.

When Vincent moved to the yellow house he hoped to turn it into an artists’ colony and invited Gauguin to stay with him. The two men spent the Autumn of 1888 painting, cooking, eating and drinking together. It was an intense and turbulent relationship.

Initially they initially worked well together but Vincent told his brother Theo in his letters that they fell out over their different approaches to art among other things.

In December Gauguin wrote to a friend that Van Gogh was very difficult to live with and that he was ‘poised to leave.’

He told police he had left the house after supper only to go for a walk after a row in which Vincent had thrown a wine glass at him. Vincent came after him with a razor in his hand but retreated when he saw him. At some other point when Gauguin wasn’t present Van Gogh cut off his own ear.

But Kaufmann and Wildegans contend that Gauguin packed up and left the house with his luggage and fencing sword. He was pursued by Vincent and they ended up fighting, possibly over a prostitute called Rachel or over Gauguin’s decision to leave.

Why would he have covered up for Gauguin? Because when Gauguin left he knew his dream of creating a studio was wrecked? Because he adored him and couldn’t risk losing his friendship? Because he was in love with him? Or because he felt guilty for provoking him?

Afterwards Vincent wrapped up the ear in newspaper, pulled a hat down over his wound and went to the brothel where he presented the parcel to Rachel, saying “Guard this with your life.”On opening it she fainted and the police were called. They found Vincent in his blood-drenched bed.


It was the first of several breakdowns which would eventually lead to his suicide a year and a half later.

The two artists never saw each other again. Vincent’s neighbours insisted he be transferred to a mental hospital and Gauguin left the country, spending the next 15 years in Tahiti.

In his final letter to Gauguin Van Gogh wrote “You are quiet. I will be too.”

In a letter to his brother Theo Vincent said “Luckily Gauguin….is not yet armed with machine guns and other dangerous weapons.”

In another possible hint about the incident he referred to a French novel in which the narrator who thinks he has killed his friend says “nobody saw me commit my crime and nothing can prevent me from inventing a story which would hide the truth.”

Kaufmann also points out that one of Van Gogh’s sketches of the ear contains the word ‘ictus’ which is a Latin term used in fencing to mean a hit.

We’ll probably never know for sure what happened on that night.

If you had the chance, what moment in history would you like to have witnessed?