The Peasenhall Murder is one of those historic unsolved cases that doesn’t necessarily get the same coverage as other crimes of its era but it is no less fascinating. Rose Harsent, a young woman with several admirers, is discovered dead and her suspected lover is subsequently arrested and tried for the murder. Did the prime suspect get away with murder? Here Unsolved Casebook looks back at the case.
Tales Of Raunchiness
The picturesque village of Peasenhall located in Suffolk, England was a typical place of its kind in the early 1900s. Everyone knew everybody else in the small community. They also knew everyone’s business, any secrets and affairs were quickly part of the local conversations amongst the gossip mongers.
In the winter months of 1901 and early spring of 1902 twenty-two-year-old servant girl Rose Harsent had often found herself the topic of conversation. Rose, who lived in the servants quarters at Providence House, wasn’t short of male admirers. In fact, she had often encouraged many of them in their pursuit of her. She would openly request they send her love letters, many of which were raunchy and left little to the imagination.
One particular tale relating to Rose Harsent was that she had partaken in an affair with a married man in the autumn of 1901. According to the local gossip she had been caught in an uncompromising position with the choirmaster William Gardiner by a couple of parishioners. William, who was much older than Rose and lived not far from Providence House in a cottage with his wife and six children, was warned about his conduct by the Parish Church despite William’s denial of the claims against him.
The Murder Of Rose Harsent
On May 31st, 1902, Rose Harsent received a letter which read:
“I will try to see you tonight at 12 o’clock at your place if you put a light in your window at 10 o’clock for about 10 minutes then you can take it out again, don’t have a light in your room at 12 as I will come round to the back.”
The following morning William Harsent paid a visit to Providence House to see his daughter following the previous night’s thunderstorm. On entering the property via the back door he was met with a horrifying sight. Laying at the bottom of the servant’s staircase in just her nightdress and socks surrounded by a pool of her own blood and a smashed oil lamp was his daughter Rose.
Rose Harsent had been viscously attacked. The young woman had suffered numerous slash wounds across both her throat and chest. There were also clear signs that her attacker had tried to set her alight. A scorched scrap of paper was found near the body along with a smashed oil lamp and some paraffin. The victim herself was found to have several burns on her arms and nightdress.
William Gardiner – The Prime Suspect
A search of Providence House soon uncovered the letter Rose had received the day before. Although police couldn’t prove the rendezvous mentioned in the letter took place it did give them there biggest lead and so a hunt began for the letter writer.
Police soon homed in on their prime suspect, choirmaster William Gardiner. They had quickly learned of the tales of an affair William had been seemingly having with Rose Harsent and upon examining the handwriting of the letter with Gardiner’s they believed it to be a match.
Additional evidence also pointed towards William Gardiner being behind the crime that would become known as the Peasenhall Murder. The paraffin found near the body was in a bottle which had previously been used for medicine. This same medicine had recently been prescribed to William Gardiners children.
The piece of paper found charred near Rose’s body marked yet another link to William Gardiner. It was determined that it came from a copy of a local newspaper of which nobody within the residence of Providence House was subscribed, however, Gardiner was.
Witnesses also gave credence to William Gardiner being the author of the letter. A neighbour alleged that they had seen William Gardiner at around 10 pm that evening standing outside his house gazing towards Providence House, where the light from an upstairs window was switched on for a brief time – just as the writer of the letter to Rose Harsent had requested she do if she was happy to meet.
A further witness additionally declared that on the day Rose Harsent was found murdered a bonfire was lit in the yard of the Gardiner’s residence, leading them to speculate this may have been how he destroyed items of clothing covered in the victim’s blood.
The final piece of evidence was William Gardiner’s own knife. He owned and carried a small knife on his person and when police inspected it they discovered what appeared to be blood within the hinges.
A Surprise Finding
If the police were looking for a motive as to why William Gardiner would suddenly murder his lover Rose Harsent they soon had one. Upon her autopsy, it was discovered that Rose was carrying a child. They put her pregnancy at around six months, which fit with the timing of the story that Rose and William were interrupted by parishioners in the midst of a liaison.
Investigators now had a working theory. They firmly believed that on the night of May 31/early hours of June 1, William Gardiner paid a visit to Rose Harsent. It was here that she either informed William for the first time she was pregnant or told him she was keeping the child before telling her lover she expected financial support. William Gardiner saw his world collapsing before his eyes and so in a fit of rage, he killed Rose.
When confronted with the theory the police had come up with William Gardiner was having none of it. Despite his protestations that he had neither composed the letter Rose Harsent received the day before her murder or been the father to her unborn child the police charged him with the murder.
The Trial Of William Gardiner
The trial would begin on November 7 and last three days. It began with William Gardiner insisting he was innocent and played no role in the murder of Rose Harsent. He informed the jury that he had spent the whole evening at home and at the time of Rose’s death he was fast asleep in his bed. The statement was vehemently supported by his wife Georgina.
Georgina Gardiner And The Defence Of Her Husband
Georgina Gardiner also explained away the bottle located near Rose Harsent’s body at the scene of the Peasenhall Murder being from the Gardiner residence. She claimed that after her children were feeling better after a short illness she handed the leftover medicine to Rose as she had been feeling under the weather. Rose herself must have used the empty bottle for paraffin at a later date according to Georgina.
Georgina then gave the jury reasons as to why blood was found on her husband’s knife and the bonfire was seen lit the day Rose’s body was discovered. Both were perfectly innocent and unconnected occurrences according to Georgina Gardiner. She stated the blood was from a rabbit that William had caught and killed with the knife. The bonfire, Georgina stated, was simply lit with the purpose of boiling a pot of water.
A neighbour was also keen to defend William Gardiner. Amelia Pepper stated under oath that she had been awake all night long. She was adamant she would have seen or heard anyone leaving the Gardiner residence that night, which according to her no one did.
It was also a key point of the defence to show Rose Harsent in an unflattering light. They revealed numerous copies of the raunchy love letters, drawings and poems Rose had been sent in order to call her character into question. Their argument was basically that anyone could have been the father to her unborn child but it was not William Gardiner and therefore he lacked motive.
A Ludicrous Suggestion?
Placing the murder at the hands of one of Rose Harsent’s other lovers, however, wasn’t the defence teams only offering of an explanation. Could Rose Harsent’s death have been the result of a tragic accident? The defence offered up such a proposal.
William Gardiner’s lawyer contemplated the possibility to the jury that Rose had tripped whilst rushing down the stairs in the early hours to meet her unknown lover. In the act of falling, he theorized the oil lamp broke and Rose was cut viciously by the broken shards whilst the paraffin bottle she was carrying led to her been scorched.
As unlikely as the occurrence may sound it did its job of sowing the seed of doubt into at least one of the juror’s minds.
On returning with their verdict the jury failed to come to a unanimous decision. Although just one juror, a man named Evan Edwards, found insufficient evidence to find William Gardiner guilty it was enough in 1902 to secure a retrial instead of a guilty verdict.
The Second Trial
Just two months later on January 20, 1903, William Gardiner faced a jury for the second time accused of murdering Rose Harsent. In the weeks separating the trials little in the way of new evidence or information had been uncovered with much of the trial been a repeat of its predecessor.
However, one thing had changed, the mood of the jury. In a complete swing from the original verdict, the jury voted eleven to one once more only this time in favour of William Gardiner’s acquittal. The requirement of a unanimous verdict in Britain at the time meant William Gardiner wasn’t exonerated of committing the murder of Rose Harsent but he was now a free man.
Who Killed Rose Harsent?
And with that verdict, the Peasenhall Murder faded into the archives of unsolved cases. Rose Harsent’s killer never faced the justice they deserved. Did William Gardiner get away with murder? The general consensus amongst crime historians and researchers is that he did but other theories as to the killer’s identity have been proposed.
Most noticeably amongst the other possible suspects is the prime suspect’s wife Georgina Gardiner. Was it possible she found out about the affair with her husband and killed Rose in a jealous rage? It certainly cannot be totally ruled out completely but likewise, there is little in the way of evidence to back up the theory.
Another name often brought up is that of a young neighbour called Frederick James Davis. At the trial, Davis admitted to lusting after Rose Harsent and been the author of a number of raunchy poems and letters he had sent at her bequest. Alas, no evidence or realistic motive has ever revealed itself to implicate Frederick James Davis with any real merit.
After the Peasanhall Murder, the Gardiner family left the small once tranquil village and moved to London. They would never be newsworthy again until William Gardiner passed away in 1941, possibly taking his dark secret to the grave with him.