Sunday, 6 October 2013

Penguin no. 2160: Famous Trials 10
Edited by James H. Hodge

Cover by Romek Marber
Here came the turning point in Crippen's life, when, from being a much-tried and much enduring man, encoiled by circumstances and consequences of his own actions, he became a criminal. It is a deep and unfathomable chasm that divides the two conditions, but it may be a very narrow one. Upon what plank he crossed or what exasperating word or deed goaded him to make the leap, I do not know or ever expect to learn. But from that moment he never wavered. He went and bought the hyoscin - always considerate, you see, even in the weapon he used to kill his wife. He had decided it would be better that she should cease to exist; and his ingenuity and consideration combined to hit upon what was at once the most merciful and the safest poison he could have used.

Famous Trials 10 is a compilation volume of four essays selected from earlier volumes of the Penguin Famous Trials series which were no longer available in 1964. Those written on the accused murderers Madeline Smith, Oscar Slater, and Hawley Harvey Crippen were taken from the first book in the series, while the essay discussing the case of Buck Ruxton had first featured in Famous Trials III. Every case featured in the series had in turn been taken from Harry Hodge's Notable British Trials series*, with the Penguin essays abridged versions of the originals. Despite the name of the series, the trial is not always the main subject of these essays, and notoriety does not appear to be the only reason for their inclusion: while each case caused a sensation in its day, they all also feature some novel aspect of additional interest.

The murders of which Crippen** and Ruxton were convicted were particularly gruesome. Both were alleged to involve dismemberment of their victims, and Ruxton had also mutilated the bodies of both his victims in an attempt to hinder the identification of their remains; both men were sentenced to death and hanged within weeks of their respective trials in 1910 and 1936.

The murders for which Smith and Slater were tried were committed in Glasgow, within a mile of each other but more than 50 years apart (in 1857 and 1908), and Smith and Slater faced Scottish juries comprising 15 jurors. Madeline Smith was given the Scottish verdict of not proven to the charge of murder; she was probably guilty of bringing about the death of her lover Pierre Emile L'Angelier with arsenic administered in a cup of cocoa, but the prosecution failed to make the case. Oscar Slater was convicted of murder by a majority verdict and sentenced to death, but had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. After he had served 19 years in prison, the sentence was overturned and he was given £6000 in compensation.

Oscar Slater claimed to have no knowledge of Miss Gilchrist or her collection of jewellery, and no evidence was produced at his trial to contradict his claim. Marion Gilchrist had been bludgeoned to death in her upstairs flat at 15 Queen's Terrace, Glasgow in December 1908 during the few moments that her servant was away from the flat purchasing a newspaper, but as she had lived in fear of a murderous attack and kept her home securely bolted in consequence, it seems probable that her attacker was someone known to her. Her bedroom was ransacked, and though most of her jewellery remained, one diamond crescent brooch was reported to be missing. It was later suggested that the murderer was probably in search of some document, but the police fixed upon the missing brooch as the motive behind the murder.

It was Slater's misfortune that he planned to sail to America a few days after the murder, and to have been observed hawking a pawn ticket for a diamond-studded brooch in preparation for his departure. The pawned brooch was entirely dissimilar to the one allegedly taken from Miss Gilchrist's flat, and it had already been in the possession of the pawnbroker for five weeks by the time of the crime, yet the police decided to fix upon Slater as their prime suspect; when they found  a small hammer and a rain-splattered mackintosh in his luggage they were sure they had their man. The prosecution assisted in his conviction by keeping from the jury any evidence at odds with the police case, including the testimony of the doctor who attended the murder scene, and by coaching at least one of the witnesses who claimed to have seen the fleeing murderer and whose identification of Slater was the basis of the case against him. The essay outlines the steps taken by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, amongst others, to redress this miscarriage of justice.

The story of Buck Ruxton would be farcical if it wasn't so tragic. He seems to have been an excitable man obsessed with the idea that his common law wife was having an affair, and he murdered her one Sunday morning while their three children were in the house, and then murdered the maid as well, presumably because she had witnessed his initial crime. He dismembered both bodies, removing every physical attribute which may have served to identify them, and then assembled the body parts into a series of newspaper-wrapped bundles which were dispersed into a river some distance from his home.

But he hit a cyclist during this drive to discard his wife's remains, and that was only one of the missteps which dogged his attempts to shield himself from the consequences of his crime. He committed the murders on a Sunday when his home seems to have been besieged with callers who were given different explanations of his wife's absence and also ample opportunity to observe the blood-soaked carpets, clothing and sheets, and to learn of his sudden decision to strip his home of its fitting and renovate the interior. He had inadvertently wrapped the bodies in a special edition of the newspaper which identified his locality, and had also included mended secondhand clothes which could be traced to his home. And he put so much effort into removing traces of his victims' identities that the correlation between physical markers and defacement virtually identified them by default. The essay discusses the novel forensic techniques which were used to determine the identities of the murdered women.

These are all well-written essays, each by a different author, and the contrasting styles are as interesting as the stories they relate. Each essay gives an outline of the circumstances which led to the crime, a survey of the evidence and how it was gathered, and an analysis of the character of the putative murderer, attempting to understand the reasons for the crimes in the cases of Smith, Crippen and Ruxton, and how things went so wrong in the case of Slater.

*The Notable British Trials series began in 1905 and eventually comprised 83 volumes, each devoted to a single case. It grew from the hobby of Harry Hodge, managing director of William Hodge and Co., publishers and shorthand writers, of attending Scottish trials. Seven books in the Penguin Famous Trials series were edited by his son James; Famous Trials II was edited by Harry Hodge; Famous Trials 7 & 9 were written by H. Montgomery Hyde.

**It is taken for granted here that Crippen is guilty, his guilt manifest in his flight from London in the company of Ethel Le Neve. Modern forensic examination of a slide of the abdomen skin found beneath the bricks lining his cellar is less conclusive, with mitochondrial DNA analysis suggesting that it may not have been the abdomen skin of Cora Crippen, and additional analysis suggesting that it may not even have been the abdomen skin of a female. 


  1. I've not read the Buck Ruxton one - it sounds as though he was totally the wrong sort of person to carry out a complex crime! I

  2. This is one of the best collections of trials in my opinion. I've always been fascinated by Crippen, and the Ruxton case is also quite astonishing and of great forensic interest.



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