New book takes fresh look at murder of servant Rose, 22
- Credit: Archant
Father found daughter with her throat cut. Rose Harsent’s killer escaped justice
Human nature has always found grisly murders irresistible - particularly when there's a whiff of a scandal and the prosecutor in court is one of Charles Dickens' sons. Newspaper coverage about the killing on a stormy night of servant Rose Harsent - six months pregnant and her throat cut - was devoured avidly by the post-Victorian public. That fascination continues.
Even Julian Fellowes (now known for creating Downton Abbey) got involved 14 years ago. A recreation/dramatisation of the Peasenhall crime was the opening story in BBC TV series "Julian Fellowes Investigates a Most Mysterious Murder".
The awful happenings of June 1, 1902, are looked at anew in Kevin Turton's book "Britain's Unsolved Murders", where The Peasenhall Mystery is one of the 13 chapters. The author's got his opinions about what might have happened. More on that later. First, a look back at the story of the 22-year-old.
A shocking discovery
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It was an early summer's day in 1902 when William Harsent walked up to Providence House. It was (is) a large building in the village of Peasenhall, north-west of Saxmundham.
William brought clean linen for his daughter, who lived there because of her job as a housemaid to Baptist elder William Crisp and his wife.
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The father found Providence House unexpectedly quiet… and then discovered the lifeless body of Rose on the bloodied kitchen floor.
The front of her nightdress was burned away and her throat cut from ear to ear, according to village constable Eli Nunn, who was summoned by neighbours.
A broken medicine bottle lay next to the corpse - prescribed for the children of neighbour Mrs Gardiner. The bottle, and the room itself, smelled of paraffin.
Pc Nunn found three letters in her bedroom, and some obscene verses. One unsigned note seemed to have organised a midnight meeting the previous night. It read: "Dear R, I will try to see you tonight at 12 o'clock at your place. If you put a light in your window at ten for about ten minutes, then you can put it out again.
"Do not have a light in your room at 12 as I will come round the back way."
Kevin Turton writes that father-of-six William Gardiner, who lived about 200 yards away, was "the man police believed from the outset had written the letter and committed the murder". He was "a devout, respectable Primitive Methodist and member of the nearby Sibton congregation; as was, it transpired later, Rose Harsent".
Gardiner, in his mid 30s, had also been a foreman for local agricultural engineering company Smyth & Sons for four or five years. He was arrested before the end of the Tuesday.
Apparently, rumours had done the rounds about a year earlier after two young men claimed to have overheard Rose and William Gardiner talking at a local chapel.
"Exactly what they heard has never really been clarified, but the pair (the eavesdroppers) certainly let it be known that whatever had happened inside was of a sexual nature," reports Kevin.
"This had been enough in 1902 to cause Gardiner to lose his good name within the church and place a burden on Rose that she probably never deserved."
It also seemed that Gardiner wrote to Rose, perhaps often, and that they had met from time to time over the past few months.
Wife: Claims are rubbish
A post-mortem examination showed Rose had also been stabbed in the chest, had a bruise on her face and jaw, and had hand injuries that suggested she'd tried to fight off a knife attack.
Importantly, in the eyes of the police, Rose was six months pregnant. "The motive for murder, in their opinion, had been found and the noose around Gardiner's neck began to tighten," suggests Kevin.
He also talks about the time of death. Between 2am and 4am, reckoned the doctor.
William Gardiner's wife, the author points out, told police she'd known about the allegations of an affair and rejected them as rubbish. Her husband had been cleared by an inquiry carried out for the chapel.
Rose had continued to visit her neighbours - she'd known them for more than seven years - despite the gossip.
Witnesses could say where Gardiner had been. At about 10pm, for instance, he'd stood outside with neighbour Harry Burgess, discussing a thunderstorm heading their way.
The storm hit at about 11.30pm. The Gardiners called next-door on neighbour Rose Dickinson, leaving when the storm was dying down a couple of hours or so later.
William Gardiner had apparently slept until about 8.30am. His wife said she hadn't been very well and had been awake and up in the early hours - a neighbour heard her, through the paper-thin walls - going back to bed at about 4am.
The trial starts
After being held for nearly six months, William Gardiner appeared at the autumn assizes in Ipswich. He denied murdering Rose.
There wasn't, Kevin suggests, much new to say. Frederick Davis, a 20-year-old living next-door to Rose, had been identified as the writer of the obscene verses found in her room. He insisted he'd penned them only because she'd asked him to.
A gamekeeper's claim about a trail of footprints between Providence House and the Gardiners' home wasn't checkable. Even experts on handwriting couldn't agree if the "midnight meeting" letter was the work of the defendant.
All but one juror believed Gardiner was guilty, apparently. The judge ordered a retrial. It began early in 1903 and was reported widely - this tragic Suffolk murder case gripping the nation.
The prosecutor was Charles Dickens's son Henry… handicapped by a continued lack of firm evidence. The jury again failed to reach a verdict, and another retrial was ordered.
Fortunately for William Gardiner, those in charge of the prosecution decided there was no point. He was set free and the Gardiner family headed for a fresh start in South London.
The wrong man?
Kevin Turton has written a number of books about murders, foul deeds and suspicious deaths. He read about Rose some years ago and always thought he'd write about her someday. "To me, it was fascinating - the fact they never solved it."
After going over the details, he's convinced William Gardiner was innocent.
"Based on the available evidence, and provided everyone's telling the truth in court, he couldn't have done it - because we know where he was in the early hours of the morning. When I read that, I thought 'This guy's got one of the best alibis you can have.'"
With those already-swirling rumours about an affair between the servant and her married neighbour, it's likely many villagers had already tried and convicted him in their minds.
Kevin also feels police constable Eli Nunn's initial observations (and conclusions) set the tone of the investigation. "I felt sorry for the guy. He'd probably never handled a murder in his life."
In the 21st Century, I expect, it would end differently - with the net cast much wider for potential suspects and forensic science well-developed.
"There's no doubt in my mind that, if this was today, they'd have got the killer within probably 24 hours - using modern methods. It's 100 years ago. The crime scene was never secured initially. All sorts of things… Difficult one for the police, then. We're far more knowledgeable today."
Kevin's hunch is that Rose's lover, the father of her unborn child and her killer was someone other than William Gardiner.
The author visited Peasenhall two or three times, to get a sense of the geography. He reckons the relationship of the Gardiners' cottage to Providence House meant the accused would have had only a 45-degree view of Rose's window. To spot a candle in the window of what was likely to have been a decently-lit room, you'd have had to be in front of the house, and close to it.
"From where he lived, he couldn't clearly identify that she'd put a candle in the window. So it does suggest there was another man."
Oddly enough, I find myself in the company of Julian Fellowes and pointing a questioning finger at William Gardiner's wife.
I've read that, in 2005 TV series Julian Fellowes Investigates, he suggested she did the deed - probably because of jealousy - and would have owned up if her husband was found guilty.
We do know, if a neighbour's evidence was true, that she was up during the night.
Two thoughts cross my mind: That husband, or wife, or both was involved. If William fathered the child, that might become clear - and therefore threaten the Gardiners' world. Getting Rose off the scene would erase that risk.
Or it could have been wifely jealousy. Or William might have murdered Rose in a fit of passion or anger. Mrs Gardiner doubtless wouldn't have wanted to lose his earning power, whatever his trangressions. Whether it was true or false, she gave her husband an alibi.
Kevin says it's a fair point, but doesn't really buy it.
"She would have been in a situation, had he gone to prison, that she could have become homeless. The other side of the coin is that she could have done it. She would have had, in some ways, more reason than him. But they're off the hook, both of them, because of their neighbours, who gave fairly strong evidence that they knew where they were."
'Voices should be heard'
Kevin looks in his book at 13 unsolved murders around Britain, from the mid 1800s to 1957.
There's the death by arsenic poisoning of Channel Islander Pierre Emile L'Angelier, for instance. He moved to Scotland and fell for architect's daughter Madeleine. Did she do it? She'd bought arsenic, claiming it was for killing rats.
There's also two-and-a-half-year-old Rees Brandish. Did his mother, a district nurse, strangle him on a train and bury his body in a cabbage patch? There was overwhelming evidence, but it was circumstantial.
And, of course, Kevin has more details of, and thoughts on, the Rose Harsent mystery than we've covered here.
Why does he believe it's worth re-examining all these historic murder cases that have confounded and frustrated police and lawyers?
"The victims of murder, regardless of time past, still deserve justice," he writes. "I believe their voices should still be heard…"
Britain's Unsolved Murders is published by Pen & Sword True Crime at £12.99