Everybody loves a good murder. Everyone that is except the victim, and those attached to him or her. Murderophiles are having a Field Day at the moment, all eyes turned to South Africa, more particularly to Oscar Pistorius. It’s Oscar this, Oscar that, Oscar the other. Did he do it? Didn’t he? It really is Oscartime. The tragedy of the Malaysian airliner has, temporarily taken over public attention on the airwaves, but he will be back, and what of the escalation of the crisis in Crimea, and what of Reeva Steenkamp, the girl who lost her life?
Bizarrely, since childhood, I have had a fascination with murderers, not particularly with the grisly details of the crime, but certainly with the perpetrators. Every Saturday morning, from a really early age, Dad would take me down to Marton Library in Blackpool. There, to the soundtrack of the clanking of the trams, on their way to the ‘Royal Oak’, I would be deposited in the Children’s Section, on the right just after the desk. I loved picking books, I still do. But I couldn’t wait to become old enough to get into the Adult Section, more especially, True Crime. There I could read about George Smith, the ‘Brides in the Bath murderer’ and Louisa Merrifield, the poisoner, both of whom committed crimes in Blackpool, and would be hanged. The names Heath, Haigh, Crippen and Christie all meant something to me. It was the fascination of the ‘normal’ man, for the Ripper, I had no interest whatsoever. He was almost a work of fiction. It all sounds a bit ghoulish to my older self, but it was true life and, thankfully, it wore off.
I have recently reread a Penguin Book that I’ve read for years, ‘The Decline of the English Murder’ by George Orwell. The book has been in my possession for a long time, I was heavily into his ideas when I was trying to make sense of the world, it cost me 3/6d (18p). But Orwell bemoans the lack of style in murders, at the time of writing, in 1947, compared to those of the ‘Golden Era’. He compares a (then) current American, and his moll, who committed the ultimate crime, with little panache, in his opinion, to the murderers of the early years of the Twentieth Century, with their baths, both normal and acid, their burying of the bodies, marital jealousy and greed for small amounts of money. From the distance of 60+ years he might have had a point. But do the events being played out, in South Africa, over the death of Reeva Steenkamp, today, give the lie to that? Not an English murder, if it turns out to be a murder at all, but we are living in a smaller world than George Orwell, and the headline writers, Tweeters and TV moguls are loving this one.
Recently, and quite by chance, on other tasks, I have stumbled on several murders committed between 1914 and 1937. My youthful self has been reawakened. My brother lives in Lancaster where one of the murderers of the ‘Golden Age’ committed his crimes. I had been interested by Peter’s idea of ‘Walks in Lancaster’, so decided to do one myself. Churches, theatres, mills, slavery and shipyards, all the accoutrements of a modern ‘historic city’, they’re all there. I paused for breath in Dalton Square and there, hardly, outwardly, unchanged, was the house of Dr. Buck Ruxton. A classic. A killer of the ‘Golden Age’.
This good-looking, 31 year old, Doctor lived at Number Two, Dalton Sq. A very prestigious site. He had been born in Bombay, in 1899, a Parsi, whose name was Bukhytar Rustonji Ratanji Hakim. This would be a bit of a mouthful for the average Lancastrian, so he anglicized it, to Buck Ruxton, when he arrived in Lancaster in 1930. He had left a wife in India, but lived, in Lancaster, with Isabelle Kerr, who changed her name to Ruxton, as a common law couple. In quick succession they had three children. He was popular and had a good reputation, she enjoyed her status as the ‘wife’ of an eminent doctor, and enjoyed the social life that went with the position.
But Ruxton was a jealous man and there would often be abusive, and fiery, public arguments, invariably based on her ‘alleged’ infidelity. She, in fact, went to the police complaining of his violence. But he was a doctor, a man of position, so nothing was done. This does have a modern ring to it, in both the police attitude to a woman complaining of domestic violence ( current cases too numerous to mention) and taking the word of a doctor (that nice Dr. Harold Shipman, for instance!). So the scene was set for the murder on September 15th.1935. Suspecting his wife of an affair, Ruxton flew into a rage and stabbed and strangled Belle (classic, murdered, wife’s name, Belle Elmore [Crippen]). The Ruxton’s had taken on a maid, Mary Rogerson, who, either saw, or suspected, foul play. Ruxton battered and strangled her. The deed was done.
The rage abated, and the problem of the disposal of two corpses, from a house in a busy, city centre, in a fashionable square, was addressed. He dismembered both of them, in the bath, and wrapped the bits in newspaper. The house is still there, not lived in, but offices, and the bathroom no longer exists, as a bathroom, but I’ll bet the people who work there know which room it was! And the bath? Well, it became a horse trough at Lancashire Police’s, Hutton, HQ. How sensitive is that?
Ruxton’s solution? Take the parts to a remote border location and scatter them. He chose a deep, rarely-frequented, ravine, near the town of Moffat, in the Borders. When I told a Scottish friend this, she immediately responded, “Ah, yes. Ruxton’s Dump. I know it.” So eighty years after the crime, the place is still known and notorious.
Isabelle was reported missing, as was the maid. “Ah. Mary was pregnant and my wife has taken her to Edinburgh, to ‘sort it out'” Unfortunately Belle’s clothes had not been touched, they were still in the house, and her car was still outside. Careless.
Worse was to follow. On the way back from disposing of the two women, he had hit a cyclist, in Kendal, and not stopped. The man with a modern cyclist’s sense of ‘who does that car driver, with the low slung, swanky, car, think he is?’ took down the car registration and reported it to the police. An observant ‘Bobby’, in nearby Milnthorpe, stopped the good Doctor, and asked him to produce his documents at Lancaster Police Station, the next day.
It was starting to get progressively worse for Dr. Ruxton. He had been seen trying to clean up his mess in Dalton Sq. Worse still, his choice of wrapping paper. He had used a ‘Daily Herald’, a ‘Sunday Graphic’ and, most tellingly, a ‘Sunday Chronicle’. The ‘Sunday Chronicle’ had been a special Morecambe supplement, only distributed in the nearby seaside town. Whoops! Everything was leading the police, unerringly, to Ruxton. But, for the first time the ‘Silent Witness’ approach came into play. He had tried to disguise the remains. The finger ends were removed. No fingerprints. His ‘wife’ had prominent teeth, these were disfigured. But, a pathologist transposed images of the two skulls onto photographs of the two women. They matched. Gotcha.
He was arrested in October 1935 and tried at Manchester Crown Court in March 1936. This was an Oscar Pistorious moment, as there were queues of women outside the court, each day, to watch the handsome doctor being tried. It was a star-studded event. Ruxton had sold his account of the story to a Sunday newspaper for £3 000, a considerable sum in those days, on the proviso that it would not be opened, or published, unless he was found guilty. He was. It was. It contained a full confession. The money was used to hire a top lawyer to defend him. He chose Norman Birkett, later to become a presiding Judge at the Nuremberg Trials. He was prosecuted by Hartley Shawcross, later to become the British Prosecutor at Nuremberg, and prosecutor of Haigh, the ‘Acid Bath Murderer’ and Klaus Fuchs, the Atomic Spy. The money was spent to no avail, he was found guilty, and executed at Strangeways in May 1936. Murder to execution in eight months.
Surprisingly,for such a violent crime against women, a petition, asking for clemency for Buck Ruxton, raised over 10 000 signatures. The crowds outside Strangeways, that morning, were of football crowd proportions, and newspaper photographs show policemen struggling, manfully, to keep the throng under control. It is, almost, reminiscent of the crowd one would imagine at a public hanging (many of which were carried out in Lancaster). Why such a macabre interest in an execution behind ‘closed doors’? Different days? With today’s interest, via the media, in Oscar, perhaps those scenes would be repeated today, given the same circumstances. Everyone loves a disaster, someone else’s disaster!
The live broadcasting of the trial in Pretoria, eighty years later, perhaps gives a clue. Sky News must recognise that there is a worldwide interest in sensational murders, or, as yet, in this case, alleged murders. This would have heartened George Orwell, the ‘classic’ killing is alive, and well, and still attracting massive media attention.
As an aside, I have just finished reading ‘Midnight in Peking’ by Paul French. A story of a wartime slaying in Peking, a vicious assault on a woman. Orwell knew nothing of this case, which happened in a city about to be invaded by the Japanese. A city fully expecting the worst excesses of Japanese barbarism. The story paints a picture of an ex-pat, diplomatic, community, living a surreal life, in China. A young girl, Pamela Werner, daughter of an English diplomat, is found, butchered, underneath the Peking City walls. We have only moved on eight months from the hanging of Buck Ruxton, in Manchester, but we are in another world. There is no ‘romance’ here. This is murder most foul. Ripperesque. In this whirlpool of a city, stuck between an imperial past and violent modern future, a solution to this crime is virtually impossible. Neither is a solution found, notwithstanding the extraordinary efforts of her father, at the time, and the modern detective work, albeit at a distance, by the historian Paul French. Nobody pays the ultimate price, with the exception of Pamela and her father.
Pamela’s mother is dead, and she has spent time at a private school, Tientsin Grammar School. She seemed to be a precocious girl, if not a little sullen, and the school photographs show the normal netball/hockey life of a private school. Gym slips et.c. In her life in Peking she showed a liking for both the life in the European Quarter and in the teeming Chinese city. She spoke fluent Mandarin. But another photograph exists, of an attractive, young, urbane woman, fashionably dressed, taken at, roughly, the same time as the, almost dowdy, ‘school photos’. She attended adult parties, as well as going skating with her, younger, friends. She was seen entering casinos which were flimsy fronts for other activities.
There existed, in the European life of the city, a more sordid face. The city was not only one of diplomats, but of White Russian émigrés, terrified of return to ‘Mother Russia’, and of the flotsam and jetsam from the four corners of the Earth. The dark underbelly of Peking, the brothels, the casinos and the drug dens, was their world. French describes this, dying, China beautifully. A world of European sex parties, naked women and debauchery. Of European ‘nudist colonies’ in the nearby hills. Of drugs and violence. Pamela, it appeared, was part of all this. Paul French arrives at a perfectly plausible conclusion, based on Pamela’s father’s investigations. His historian’s approach makes for a cracking read. But this was not a ’cause célèbre’, in London, or one which made a mark on pre-war England, or anywhere, it happened a very long way away, from Fleet Street.
To find a murder of the ‘Golden Age’ which bears a close resemblance to the Pistorius trial, we must travel back to the Paris of 1914. This time it is not the victim, but the killer who is a woman. Madame Henriette Caillaux. And there is no mystery. No complex detection methods. No careless slip by the killer. When the police arrived at the scene, the killer was sitting calmly, unrepentant, demanding to be conveyed to the Police Station, in her own chauffeur driven car, rather than a police vehicle. Her wish/demand was granted. Her trial would become, throughout France, the biggest thing since Dreyfus.
We are in the Paris of 1914, a Paris of political ferment. The President is Raymonde Poincaré. Newspapers are taking sides. ‘Le Figaro’ is firmly on the right of the line, led by its editor, Gaston Calmette. But, as with modern day politics, there was no compunction with the use of the ‘Dept. of Dirty Tricks’, and M. Calmette was not ‘behind the door’ in that department.
The Minister of Finance, Joseph Caillaux, a Centre-left politician, was opposed to some of the President’s measures, in terms of the army, he felt that they may aggravate the delicate situation with Germany. The French government was still smarting from the ‘Debacle’ of 1870 and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine. Revenge was always in the air. Caillaux was seen to be in some sort of a loose, pacifist, alliance with the Socialist leader Jean Jaurès. So ‘Le Figaro’ began a smear campaign against him, they were ‘for’ French belligerence. The newspaper printed evidence that whilst, publicly, supporting an Income Tax Bill, when Minister of Finance, he had , secretly, been organising the opposition to it. This revelation seriously harmed Caillaux’s reputation. But the smear campaign went on. Calmette threatened to publish copies of telegrams, purporting to show that Caillaux had pro-German sympathies. Caillaux took action. He went to President Poincaré, and asked him to come out, and publicly support him. As an ‘Insurance Policy’ he told Poincaré that if he didn’t, he would make known secret telegrams that had passed from the President, himself, to the Vatican. This would have riled Poincaré’s Republican and anti-clerical supporters. Unsurprisingly the support from the President was forthcoming, and the damning telegrams were not published.
But Gaston Calmette was nothing if not dogged. He now threatened to print some love letters sent by Joseph Caillaux, which he’d picked up, from a disgruntled servant. In 1907, 51 year old, married, Caillaux had started a romantic affair with the 33 year old Henriette Claretie, a, married, mother of two. The ‘fin de siècle’ equivalent of the twenty first century imprudent text, was the love letter. Calmette had got hold of some excellent material, from Joseph to Henriette. Hot stuff! They had been sleeping together, both married, when he was, briefly, President of the Republic in 1911
‘A thousand kisses, all over your adorable body . . . ‘
Henriette became the second Madame Caillaux in 1911, and their combined fortunes made them one of the wealthiest couples in France.
Joseph had been very indiscreet and Henriette had kept his, written, indiscretions. All grist to the ‘smear mill’.
Henriette was furious that Joseph was letting Calmette get away with his threats. She wanted him to challenge the Editor to a duel. He would not, he didn’t have the nerve. She did, she was not a woman to sit down and let events dictate to her, and if he would do nothing, she jolly well would. Calmette could not be allowed to get away with this blackmail, with these smears and innuendo.
She bought a Browning pistol and, on March 16th. 1914, set out to rid her husband of this embarrassing irritation. She went directly to Calmette’s office at ‘Le Figaro’ and asked to see him. His secretary said that he wasn’t there.
And wait she did for an hour. When Calmette finally returned, she asked him if she could have a word with him. He agreed and took her into his office. She was wearing a fur muff, not just to keep her hands warm, but to hide the pistol.
“You know why I’m here.”
She took out the gun and fired all six shots. Four of which hit him, one of which killed him. Calmette was dead. Her husband’s torture was over. Did she flee in panic. No. She waited for his stunned employees to summon the police. There was no mistaken identity. No, I did it in a fit of rage. No I didn’t mean to kill him. She calmly sat and waited for the police. Then asked to use her own car to go to the police station. Cool, calm and collected. A woman with courage.
The trial took place in June 1914, lasted seven days and captivated Paris. Just like Ruxton’s trial there was a star-studded cast. Maître Labori, defending Henriette, and Maître Chean, prosecuting, had both been major players in the Dreyfus Trial. The stage was set for a showcase. This was to be a trial of high emotion, political chicanery, celebrity witnesses, hot tempers and romance. Wouldn’t modern English papers have just loved it, as did the French newspapers of the time? The trial was a useful diversion, to deflect the French people from the dark clouds, emanating from the Balkans, that were about to engulf them. The events in the Ukraine, and their importance seem to have taken a back seat to Oscar, in much the same way.
Joseph Caillaux’s first wife, the wronged Berthe, gave intimate details of the affair, and of Joseph. Henriette had fainting spells, in the dock. At the difficult passages when the ‘lettres’ were read out she appeared pale, in shock, and the court had to be suspended whilst she regained her composure. That appears familiar!
Joseph would rush up to the railings of the dock and leap up to comfort his wife. There was one heated exchange, between M. Caillaux and a supporter of Calmette, Henry Bernstein, which resulted in ‘ uproar and disorder’ which took a suspension of proceedings to cool down. This was as much a political battle Left v Right as a murder trial. Even the judge’s opening question, to Henriette, showed where the trial was going, it wasn’t about the killing, it was about her divorce. She made no bones about the fact that she had killed Calmette, “. . . since there is no more justice in France . . . I resolved that I alone could stop this campaign.” She was clear about her purpose. “I feared the publication of the ‘lettres intimes’, I feared for my husband, for myself and for my daughter. It was all to be flaunted, my intimacy, my most dear secret, but also, the most hidden, my womanly honour was to be laid bare.” So there we have it this is a story of the faithful love of a woman protecting her family and her husband’s honour.
In a rigidly ‘macho’ world Henriette was about to reap the results of the dominant, male ego. The position of the male, and female, in that society, had to be protected, at all costs. The case was laid for a woman, with ‘unbridled female passions’, her pursuit of love and her desire to protect her man, whatever the personal cost.
She was portrayed as a woman who was subject to her own emotions, who, despite all efforts, was unable to master (sic) the emotional distress that the public exposure of her scandalous affair caused her. It seems that her ‘weak, frail, nature’, the antithesis of masculine ‘strength'(?) would save her. Although her weak, frail, nature did not save Gaston Calmette! It took the, all male, jury an hour to acquit her, her’s was a ‘crime passionel’. She was only a woman, and couldn’t be expected to have the strength to counter her emotional urges. Gavrilo Princip’s, male, emotional urges were, also, about to turn Europe in an altogether different direction, but that was not uppermost in the thoughts of the Parisians, that space was reserved for Henriette Caillaux.
On the same day that Henriette Caillaux was acquitted, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Three days later Jean Jaurès, the French, pacifist, Socialist, was assassinated in Paris. On August 3rd. Germany declared war on France. Madame Caillaux became yesterday’s news.
The subject of murder, and, more particularly, the people who commit it, still fascinates people. Trials of high profile murders still have the power to magnetise people. Did they do it? Didn’t they? The same questions that people asked in the ‘Golden Age’ are still asked now. Crime thrillers on TV, or books by famous authors, still attract. Be it Poirot, Maigret, Hole or Rebus, they can still fascinate. But when a real ‘un comes up, when the accused is a person, not a figment of a writer’s, fertile, imagination, the universal, salacious, juices begin to flow. Would the crowds still turn out for a public execution? I think that they just might. Just for the ‘crack’!