Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Newspapers

A Ghost Story for Christmas – the real murder hidden in Dead of Night

UK Poster for Dead of Night (1945)

I don’t know about you, but Christmas is the time of year when there is nothing better but curling up warm and reading ghost stories. We have a tradition in our house of watching the Amicus compendium horror films written by Milton Sabotsky and directed by Freddie Francis starting with Tales from the Crypt (1972) – well, it’s practically a Christmas movie judging by the Joan Collins story. However, great as they are Milton Sobotsky’s brand of compendium won’t do for this kind of blog post as none of the stories are based on real-life crimes – at least I hope they aren’t.

So to keep in the spirit of my intermittent series of real-life crimes behind famous films I’m going back to the compendium film that started the sub-genre – the 1945 film Dead of NightA rare example of horror from the first half of the 20th century, Dead of Night is about a group of strangers who find themselves together in a country house. One of the group, architect Walter Craig confesses that he has had a recurring dream of them all gathered together and the group start telling the stories of their own brushes with the supernatural. Now for the purposes of this blog post, I’m not interested in the most famous segments, including the ventriloquist’s dummy story with Michael Redgrave which scares me to this day. The section I’m interested in is the actual Christmas ghost story that makes up the second segment. This story is linked to a very famous real-life crime and that’s what I’m going to look at in this post.

The murder of little Francis Saville Kent at his father’s house in Road in Wiltshire was a sensation in its day. The gruesomeness of the crime – the child was found stuffed down the privy with his throat cut – the middle-class status of the family, and the succession of suspects with a sensational reveal of a teenage killer after many years guaranteed column inches at the time and it was a case that stuck in the memory. We don’t know why writer Angus McPhail picked the case for his Dead of Night segment. McPhail was a frequent scriptwriter for Ealing films and also worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Spellbound (also 1945) and The Wrong Man (1956) as well as the classic Whisky Galore! (1949). His segment Christmas Party involves a little boy who is afraid of his older sister because she wants to kill him. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Road murder is being referenced as there are name checks and a lot of biographical details are given. The fact that it’s a real murder though is completely incidental, it just gives an extra dimension to the horror and this may well have been the intention in including the details.

The Road murder has been well explored in recent times thanks to Kate Summerscale’s incredibly successful The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2009) so I won’t go into too much detail about the ins and outs of the case. On Sunday 8th July 1860 Lloyds Weekly Newspaper quoted the Bath Chronicle to give its readers’ the terrible details of the case. They were baffled by the mystery.

Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, July 8th 1860

It wasn’t long before a suspect emerged. Inspector Jonathan Whicher, who had been investigating the case was convinced from fairly early on that the murder had been committed by Saville’s half-sister Constance. On Monday July 23rd 1860 The Standard reported on Constance’s appearances in court with Inspector Whicher setting out the case against her.

The London Evening Standard, Monday July 23rd.

But Whicher’s suspicions against Constance proved difficult to prove. Then someone else confessed to the crime. On Thursday, August 16th the London Daily News reported on the court appearance of a John Edmond Gagg who claimed he had killed the child. However, it soon became apparent that Gagg had not even been in the vicinity at the time of the murder and could not have committed the murder. The Daily News was not impressed.

London Daily News August 16th 1860Constance finally confessed to the murder in 1865. The London Daily News carried the story as did many other papers. The Road Hill House murder had certainly captured the public imagination.

London Daily News April 27 1865

The story of little Francis Saville Kent and his sister Constance still has a draw today and I would recommend a read of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher for the full details. But for a Christmas ghost story take a look at Dead of Night – be scared by the ventriloquist’s dummy but remember the sad, sordid tale behind that innocuously creepy Christmas party segment.

All newspaper snippets copyright The British Newspaper Archive.

It’s in the trees…it’s coming…

Nightofthedemonposter

I thought it was time for another look at real cases that have their echoes in classic films. Last time I wrote about lost Lon Chaney film London After Midnight  and it’s connection to the rather tragic case of Julia Mangan, killed by the obviously disturbed Robert Williams. This time we’re sticking with a horror film but the story has more than a whiff of the supernatural – the link might be quite rather tenuous but I’m going with it. It’s a great film and the cases that echo through the story are fascinating ones.

Night of the Demon  was Jacques Tourneur’s version of the classic M.R. James short story Casting the Runes. Released in 1957 it tells the story of the sceptical psychologist played by Dana Andrews who comes up against the charismatically devilish Niall MacGinnis. It’s a tremendously creepy film that has all of James’ hallmarks – intellectual arrogance coming a cropper against older, darker forces – but for the contemporary audience it was a story that carried a particularly plausible shiver thanks to a couple of strange war time murders. Even though there’s no direct link, there’s a very good chance that screenwriters Charles Bennett and Hal. E. Chester were influenced by what they read about these cases when they were updating James’s earlier story.

In 1943 four small boys were poaching in Hagley Woods near the village of Stourbridge in Worcestershire. They came across a large Wych Elm near Wychbury Hill and it was there they made a shocking discovery. Looking for birds nests they climbed the trunk and peered into the hollow. Below them was a human skull still with traces of hair attached.

Local papers appealed for information about the identity of the deceased – a woman believed to be aged between 35 and 40.

Gloucestershire Echo 24 April 1943

Gloucestershire Echo, 24 April 1943

No one came forward to claim her. But someone didn’t want her to be forgotten. As the first anniversary of the discovery approached, the Sunday Mirror took up the story.

Sunday_Mirror_02041944

Sunday Mirror, April 2 1944

The piece explained that shortly before Christmas the previous year the words “Who put Luebella down the wych elm?” were written in chalk on the wall of a house on Hayden Hill Road, Old Hill. The following week the words appeared again on the wall of an empty premises in Upper Dean Street, Birmingham. A few days later, the mysterious writer was obviously getting frustrated that no one was answering them so the words “Hagley Wood Bella” appeared several times near by. Bella has never been formally identified. One theory said she was part of a war time spy ring. The file remains open.

The following year a gruesome murder in nearby Warwickshire dredged up old suspicions and paranoia. On Valentines’ Day, 74-year-old hedge cutter Charles Walton was slashed to death near the village of Lower Quinton with a pitchfork and a slash hook. Initial reports such as this one from the Gloucestershire Citizen the following day made no mention of any supernatural link but that would soon change.

Gloucester_Citizen_15_February_1945

Gloucester Citizen, February 15, 1945

However the case soon became synonymous with witchcraft, largely thanks to the later accounts of the famous Chief Inspector Robert Fabian, who arrived from Scotland Yard to investigate. In his 1950 memoir, Fabian of the Yard, he would write.

“One of my most memorable murder cases was at the village of Lower Quinton, near the stone Druid circle of the Whispering Knights. There a man had been killed in a reproduction of a Druidical ceremony on St Valentines’ Eve”

Fabian suggested that the case had marked similarities with a murder that had happened nearby a generation ago, a murder where witchcraft actually had been a very real part of the story. It’s rather unlikely that the Walton case had anything to do with the occult even if it did make one hell of a good story. The earlier case on the other hand really did seem to arise from good old fashioned superstitious paranoia.

In December 1875, the the trial of James Haywood at the Warwickshire Assizes was covered by the Warwickshire Journal. All the witnesses described Haywood’s preoccupation with witches, leading to a brutal attack on elderly Ann Tennant, who he had attacked with a pitchfork and killed in the village of Long Compton.

Haywood had apparently said that there were 15 or 16 witches in the village and that they were making it impossible for him to work. He said that he would kill them one by one. When the victim’s daughter took the stand, he got agitated in court.

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_1

Worcestershire Journal, 18 December 1875

According to the superintendent of the county lunatic asylum Haywood was insane.

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_2

Haywood was found not guilty by reason of insanity and would spend the rest of his life in the asylum. However it is worth noting the words of an earlier witness, local farmer James Taylor…

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_3

It’s impossible to know how much influence these cases had on the writers of Night of the Demon but it is very reasonable to assume that they were were in the mix somewhere. Fabian’s memoires were adapted by the BBC in the 50s and  the Lower Quinton case in particular was a notorious one. The film is a quintessentially English horror firmly rooted in a world where belief in witchcraft had never fully died out. In fact, in the 50s it was rather a fashionable subject. The founder of modern witchcraft, Gerald Gardiner, had published his book Witchcraft Today in 1954 and Hammer Films were helping horror films back into the spotlight after the war. These three cases undoubtedly formed part of the national psyche and have not lost their resonance today.

All newspapers available on Findmypast.co.uk

An Exciting Couple of Days

GreyfriarsBobby

The Edinburgh statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog who stayed by his owner’s grave for years, His nose has been rubbed bright by luck seeking tourists.

There have been a lot of changes in the past year. One of the biggest is that I’m finally starting to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to the academic side of things. When I started working on the Kirwan case five years ago I was looking for the subject for the next book. I stumbled across the case doing a broad sweep of the National Library catalogue and knew instantly that there was something there. If William Kirwan came up in the courts list while I was on the beat there would be no question it’d be a case to follow. It’s got everything – middle class killer, attractive victim, sexual impropriety. I don’t think there was ever a period in history when that wouldn’t have made headlines.

So I told my agent that I’d found the next subject and started digging.

The one thing I could never have guessed is how much that case would take over my life. I usually get rather buried in my research but this was something else. Where ever I dug I kept discovering more. If I’d been in a certain type of film we would have been stumbling into a new hidden cavern filled with priceless golden artifacts every couple of days. Pretty soon it became clear that the research was too large for one book. There are so many angles to approach it from, so many side branches and interesting avenues to go down as my cast expanded and my timeline grew. This was no longer a single case to study – this was a field. Kirwan wasn’t an end in himself but a door into something so much bigger. I’m still finding stuff and I don’t intend to stop looking, it’s odd to look back these days and see that this whole change of direction came from one rather thin case (when you actually look at the evidence).

It became clear fairly early on that this research was more than just the book. The book will still get written (although it’s evolved rather from that early agent conversation) but things have grown quite a bit. I’m now hoping to start a PhD next year (more of that another time) and I’m working on proving myself academically. So that’s how I met little Greyfriar’s Bobby (in the picture) earlier this week. I was over at Edinburgh University delivering a paper on 19th century newspaper coverage of the Dublin Insolvency courts (and yes, Kirwan did get a mention). It was a fabulous conference. So much fun to get to meet so many people equally nerdy about 19th century newspapers and to so many expert views on a huge range of subjects. I learned that the paper I’ve often turned to for illustrative purposes, the Illustrated Police News, degenerated into a Victorian lads mag by the end, or that Harriet Martineau wrote extensively on the Irish Famine, or that Dicken’s speeches were his form of profile management. Here’s the programme of the full range of talks, with links to all the abstracts if you want to know more about each subject. Also here’s the Storify put together by organiser Dr David Finkelstein, to give a flavour of the couple of days.

I’m planning on putting my paper up on Academia.edu, or even looking into getting it published elsewhere but I’ll keep you posted. The Edinburgh trip was eye opening. Academic presenting is very different from anything I’ve done to date. It’s a specific skill that I want to grow but the experience – stimulating, intense and exhausting – was definitely one I want to get used to.

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