Archive for April 22nd, 2011

1930: William Henry Podmore, inculpated

Add comment April 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1930, criminal forensics claimed an apparent — albeit controversial — victory with the hanging of William Henry Podmore.

Podmore was noosed by a chain of circumstantial evidence investigators used to connect him to a murder scene — that, specifically, of his former employer Vivian Messiter, whose badly decomposed corpse was found tucked in a garage nine months after it went missing.

The ensuing investigation went like a Roaring Twenties version of CSI.

First, famed pathologist Bernard Spilsbury established a cause of death: blunt force to the skull, apparently delivered by a bloodied hammer found nearby.

After that, it was a matter of connecting some malefactor to the handle of the hammer.

[A] scrap of paper, about two inches square, which was found behind a barrel in [the] garage … led ultimately to the conviction of the murderer. This fragment was caked with dirt and soaked in oil, and had been repeatedly trodden under foot, and the problem was to remove the dirt and oil, without also removing the pigment of the copying ink pencil.

After numerous experiments with various makes of copying ink pencil, petroleum spirit was found to be suitable for the purpose, and a message from a man calling himself “W. F. Thomas” was left upon the paper. Until then, it was not known that anyone of the name of “Thomas” (an alias of Podmore) had been in any way connected with the victim.*

This was still very far from placing a fellow on the gallows until a further bit of investigative prestidigitation produced an apparent motive:

a leaf from a note-book showing indentations which had, presumably, been made by the pressure of a pencil on another leaf of the book subsequently torn out. By means of photography with the use of oblique lighting to illuminate the edges of the indentations, words relating to bogus orders, with the initials of “Thomas,” were rendered visible.*

From such paper was the crown able to craft a case which the reader will readily discern: Podmore, a mechanic only temporarily in Mr. Messiter’s employ, had entered some fraudulent transactions upon which he claimed a commission, and a fatal altercation presumably ensued upon Messiter’s discovering the con. The fact that Podmore was already wanted for fraud and robbery elsewhere did not help the defendant’s situation.

The “Garage Murder” investigation played out for months throughout 1929, much of which Podmore spent in jail on the other larceny charges while the cloud of suspicion gathered over him. In early March 1930, trial bulletins on counsels’ disputes over this novel evidence — its admissibility, its weight and application to the theory of the crime, and the sleuthing techniques employed to gather it — filled the papers almost daily.


The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks agrees. (Headline from London Times, March 10, 1930)

Evidence that fit “like a crossword puzzle” (in the summing-up of the state’s attorney) nevertheless did not amount to anything so ironclad that Podmore wanted for public support: in the couple of weeks between a rejected appeal and Podmore’s execution, 12,000 people signed a petition for his reprieve, including 79 Members of Parliament.**

(Those crossword forensic clues had been buttressed by that classic recourse of the prosecutor, dubious jailhouse-snitch testimony as to the convenient spontaneous confession of the accused allegedly delivered to perfect strangers in the most injurious possible situation: that such specious evidence might have proved decisive in a matter of life and death seems to have moved a lot of signatures to the clemency petition.)

Given the circumstances, the Home Secretary took the unusual step of issuing a statement on its denial of this measure to calm the “disquiet in the public mind” — and expressing his confidence beyond any “scintilla of doubt as to the prisoner’s guilt.”†

* C. Ainsworth Mitchell, “Scientific Documentary Evidence in Criminal Trials,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Vol. 23, No. 2 (July-August, 1932)

** London Times, April 16, 1930

London Times, April 21, 1930. “I searched for many days,” Secretary Clynes said after the hanging (Times, April 23, 1930), “in the hope that I would find a reason for recommending a reprieve. I searched in vain.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf

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