The Peasenhall Murder – Who Killed Rose Harsent?

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.

A picture of Rose Harsent.

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.

William Gardiner was the prime suspect for the murder of Rose Harsent.

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.

The Verdict

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.

Further Reading And Sources

Wayback Machine – The Peasenhall Murder By Edward Packer

The Trial Of William Gardiner

Julian Fellowes Most Mysterious Murders (VIDEO)

The Brighton Trunk Murders

The Brighton Trunk Murders
The Brighton Trunk Murders

The Brighton Trunk Murders were a set of murders which occurred during 1934 in the English seaside resort. Two bodies were discovered decaying inside large trunks. Bizarrely, however, the murders were completely unrelated to one another. Here Unsolved Casebook takes a look at the crimes, one of which remains unsolved to this day.

A Foul Stench

At around 4 pm on June 17, 1934, William Vinnicombe and James Lelliot were enjoying the lull. The busy afternoon period had ended and the early evening peak yet to begin. The pair were attendants in the left luggage room at Brighton Railway station. They both worked the 2 pm to 10 pm afternoon shift.

Whilst enjoying the quieter period the men couldn’t help but notice the foul stench which consumed the room. Vinnicombe and Lelliot traced the smell and both agreed it was emanating from a plywood trunk.

The trunk, which appeared to be brand new, had been left eleven days prior on June 6. After eleven days and with the weather becoming only warmer the two attendants knew the smell would only become more pungent and revolting.

A Grim Discovery

Opening property left by a passenger, however, was something the men were not permitted to do. Nor did they wish to, as both feared what they would find. Vinnicombe took the decision to leave his colleague with the trunk. He himself went to report the suspicious smell to the railway police.

William Vinnicombe arrived back to the left luggage room with a railway police officer and a Brighton constable. The two members of law enforcement were quick to take in the atrocious stench coming from within the trunk. The constable took the decision to contact his superiors. Shortly after DC Edward Taylor arrived on the scene.

DC Taylor wasted no time. He grabbed the constable’s truncheon and proceeded to break off the two locks keeping the trunk sealed. The smell released once the lid was pried open was unbearable. DC Taylor had to retreat briefly for a gasp of fresh air due to the foul odour.

At that moment DC Arthur Stacey also arrived at the scene. Together Taylor and Stacey entered the left luggage room. They discovered inside the plywood trunk a brown paper bag tied with cord. Upon ripping away a section of the paper bag the DC’s were sickened to see the remains of a female torso.

The Brighton Baby Mystery

DI Arthur Pelling was quickly sent to the scene to head up the investigation into the gruesome find. The Trunk and the female torso were removed and taken to the nearby mortuary. Meanwhile, DI Pelling ordered the search of the remaining items held in the left luggage area.

During the search of the left luggage area, no other body parts remaining to the woman were discovered. However, another horrific discovery was made.

A locker was found to contain a Moses basket. The basket, which was in poor condition, had a lid with the initials VP barely visible. The lid was removed, Inside lay the remains of a young baby girl.

Further analysis stated the baby girl was no more than a few days old at the time of her death. In fact, it couldn’t be proved with certainty that the child had lived at all.

The investigation found that the Moses basket containing the child’s remains had been left towards the end of February. For this reason, DI Pelling was of the belief there was no connection between the female in the trunk and the baby girl. It was merely a sad and tragic coincidence.

It wouldn’t be the only coincidence in the Brighton Trunk Murders.

The identity of the baby girl found that day was never uncovered nor any person found to be responsible.

The Evidence Examined

At the mortuary, the surgeon on hand examined the contents of the plywood trunk. The torso appeared to reveal no significant injuries other than the ones created by the dismemberment of the body. The only identifying feature found on the victim was a small pimple underneath the left breast.

It was discovered that the cord used to tie the bag was cord used for Venetian blinds. Unfortunately, there was nothing remarkable about the cord. It was the sort found in any number of stores and easily available.

Blood soaked cotton wool and a face flannel were also found in the trunk. Again, little to help the investigation could be garnered from the items.

One item of interest was the brown paper bag in which the torso was wrapped. Several letters could be seen on the bag but they were not clear enough to make out with certainty. The item was sent off to the lab in London. Despite testing with the most up to date tools of the time they failed to reveal the wording of the letters.

Who Left The Trunk?

Investigators spoke with attendant Harry Rout. Rout had been the person on duty in the left luggage room on June 6, when the trunk was left. Rout recalled remembering how heavy the trunk was but little else.

He stated the man who left the item had no real discernible features. Although he would try he wouldn’t be certain that he could identify the individual if he saw him again.

The Remains In The Suitcase

The search for the remaining body parts was spread to other stations. On Monday, June 18 a further discovery was made at King’s Cross station. Attendant William Cope made the gruesome finding.

Cope opened a foul-smelling suitcase he had come across. The suitcase contained four separate packages wrapped in newspapers or placed in brown bags. A nearby officer, who William Cope had called for, opened the items. He discovered the legs and feet of a female.

The Girl With The Pretty Feet

The legs and feet were quickly determined to be a match to the torso found at Brighton railway station. A further examination determined that the victim fit the following description:

  • Approximately 5 foot 2 inches
  • Between 21 and 28 years-old
  • Blonde
  • Weighed approximately 8 and a half stone.

The examiner also revealed that at the time of her murder the woman was pregnant.

The condition of the victim’s feet was also noted. They were almost immaculate – no blemishes, no corns, no dry skin, perfectly trimmed nails. In fact, the condition they were in led the examiner to note his belief that the victim had visited a chiropodist regularly, including a trip shortly before her death.

Once this detail was released to the press the victim became known as “The Girl With The Pretty Feet” in the media.

The victim’s feet, along with how well-nourished the victim appeared, steered the examiner towards the opinion that the woman belonged to the middle-classes.

A final set of clues was gathered from the items in which the legs and feet were found. The newspapers had two dates on them – Thursday, 31 May and Saturday 2 June – narrowing the possible date of death. It was also discovered that the editions of those newspapers had only been sold within a fifty-mile radius of Fleet Street.

The Investigation Continues

The investigation, now been led by Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Robert Donaldson, continued unabated. Missing person files were vigorously examined (amazingly over 700 missing women were traced during the investigation). Hospitals were checked out and members of staff, especially midwives, were questioned. Unfortunately, this took the investigation no nearer to identifying the tragic victim.

Several cranks and loonies confessed to being behind the Brighton Trunk Murders. This is often the case in such crimes, but all were easily proven to be making up such abhorrent claims.

Police tried there best to trace individuals who had been at Brighton railway station on June 6 when the trunk was left. The problem was this also happened to be Derby Day. This meant thousands of visitors from all areas of the country were in the area on the day. It proved virtually impossible to trace them all.

Tony Mancini

Tony Mancini Brighton Trunk Murders

During the investigations into various missing persons, police spoke to a 26-year-old man by the name of Tony Mancini. His partner Violette Kaye (also known as Saunders), a prostitute and dancer, had been reported missing by a customer.

Under questioning, Mancini claimed Violette had left the country. He stated she had gone to Germany or France, to try and start a life somewhere new. Mancini also pointed out that Violette, who was 42, was much older than the woman found in the trunk.

Tony Mancini was telling the truth. The woman found in the trunk at Brighton railway station wasn’t Violette Kaye. Violette Kaye was, however, very much deceased.

The Gruesome Discovery At 52 Kemp Street

Police received a call from a decorator who reported a foul stench coming from within 52 Kemp Street. He told them how he and his crew had all taken to wearing gas masks whilst working on the property.

Upon arrival at the property, the detectives could garner no answer from its occupants. With the stench of decay so potent it was decided they urgently needed to enter the premises. The door was broken down. Inside the smell took them down towards a basement flat.

Detectives noticed a black trunk in the room. With a somewhat knowing look, DC Edward Taylor was ordered to open the trunk. DC Taylor did as he was asked (in another coincidence Taylor had also opened the trunk at the railway station). Inside the case, badly decayed and covered in maggots, lay the remains of a female victim.

It was quickly discovered the woman found at 52 Kemp Street was Violette Kaye.

Violette Kaye Brighton Trunk Murders

An alert was swiftly put out for the arrest of Tony Mancini. Mancini, however, had gone on the run shortly after his initial interview about Violette’s disappearance.

His escape act only took him as far Lewisham, however. On July 18 he was arrested and charged with the murder of Violette Kaye.

The Trial Of Tony Mancini

Tony Mancini’s trial for the murder of Violette Kaye, known as Brighton Trunk-Crime No. 2, lasted four days.

During the trial, Mancini claimed he had come home on May 10 to find Violette dead in their flat on Park Crescent. Believing no one would think he wasn’t responsible due to his criminal record Mancini bundled Violette’s body into the trunk and left the premises, moving to 52 Kemp Street along with the trunk.

The story seemed far fetched at best and there were several parts of Mancini’s that could be disproven. A guilty verdict would have seemed inevitable if not for the brilliance of his defence Norman Birkett. After two hours deliberation, Tony Mancini was found not guilty.

A Confession

In 1976, forty-two years after the 1934 not guilty verdict, Tony Mancini revealed that he had gotten away with murder all those years. Close to death and protected by the U.K’s double jeopardy law Mancini told the News Of The World newspaper he did kill Violette Kaye.

His story was that he returned home from a days work at Skylark Cafe. Violette was drunk and the two got into a raging argument. During the row, Mancini picked up a nearby coal-hammer in rage and launched it across the room. The hammer smashed Violette Kaye in the skull and she dropped dead.

But Who Killed The Girl With The Pretty Feet?

Sadly, no such solution would ever be forthcoming for the first of the Brighton Trunk Murders. The Girl With The Pretty Feet would never be positively identified, her arms and head never located.

One suspect that emerged for the first of the Brighton Trunk Murders was a doctor by the name of Edward Seys Massiah. Massiah, originally from the West Indies, was a medical practitioner who was also suspected of running an illegal abortion clinic.

Chief Inspector Donaldson theorized that the victim was the result of a botched abortion. Rather than face the consequences of his actions Edward Seys Massiah instead dismembered the woman.

Despite gathering numerous pieces of evidence against Massiah it was all circumstantial. There just wasn’t enough to make an arrest.

When Massiah found out about the suspicion surrounding him and his illegal clinic he was swift to act. The doctor let it be known that his many rich and powerful friends would do their utmost to protect him from the scandalous accusations made towards him. It was believed they would do so as Massiah had information on many of them.

Further Information On Edward Seys Massiah

Shortly after he fell under the suspicion of Chief Inspector Donaldson Massiah moved to London. Here he was embroiled in yet another scandal.

Whilst performing an illegal operation a female patient died on the operating table. Massiah, however, went unpunished for the incident, seemingly backing up his claims that he had friends in high places.

Not long after the incident in London Massiah left the country and moved to Trinidad. Despite the death of a patient during an illegal procedure, Edward Massiah remained on the medical register until 1952. As far as I could find Massiah was never officially interviewed about the first of the Brighton Trunk Murders.

One final note on Edward Seys Massiah is his link to another missing person case. On April 16, 1935, Winifred Cramer informed police she was concerned about the whereabouts of her friend Olive Taylor. Edward Seys Massiah had been Taylor’s employer, she worked for him as a cook-housekeeper.

No link was ever made between the Brighton Trunk Murders or the baby girl in the Moses basket. The three cases were all seemingly just an amazingly macabre coincidence.

Further Reading And Sources

Coincidence Of Corpses (The Mammoth Book Of Unsolved Crimes)

Foul Deeds And Suspicious Deaths Around Brighton