1946: Neville Heath, torture-killer

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1946, 29-year-old torture-murderer Neville George Clevely Heath was hanged at Pentonville Prison for the murder of Margery Aimee Brownell Gardner, 32, an aspiring film actress.

Heath was one of the most notorious British killers of the mid-twentieth century. Although his victims numbered only two (the other being 21-year-old Doreen Margaret Marshall), he stood out from the pack by his brutality and sheer sadism. The Murders of the Black Museum, 1870-1970 provides this graphic description of the terrible injuries he inflicted on Doreen:

She had been struck several times on the back of her head. There were also abrasions on her back, a bruise on her right shoulder and an area of redness around the left collar-bone, as if someone had knelt on her. The left side of her chest was bruised and a rib had fractured, piercing the left lung. Her left arm was bruised, as were both wrists, which appeared to have been tightly tied; they also bore finger-nail imprints of her assailant. The fingers of both her hands were badly cut on the inside, as if she had seized a knife in self-defence. All these injuries had been inflicted before she died, her death itself having been caused by a haemorrhage resulting from two deep knife-cuts across her throat.

After death a nipple had been bitten off and her body had been mutilated. A jagged series of slashes reached from her vagina vertically up to her chest, where they were joined by a deep diagonal cut from each nipple to the centre of her body, forming a Y. A rough instrument, possibly a branch, had also perforated and torn her vagina and anus.

Heath came from a respectable, lower-middle-class background. His parents scraped together enough money for him to attend a private Catholic school, where early on he developed as a reputation as a bully.

As an adult he fell into crime, but there was nothing on his record to suggest he was capable of such gruesome acts; his previous convictions had been for offenses such as fraud, forgery, burglary and deserting the military.

In between stints in jail, he married a woman from a wealthy, prominent family and they had a son. By 1945, however, they were divorced.

Margery, Heath’s first victim, was separated from her husband at the time of her death. She had a masochistic predilection for bondage and flagellation, but even so, Heath was too much for her. In May 1946, they checked into a hotel together and he was so violent that she got scared and had to be rescued by hotel security.

Incredibly, however, when Heath called her to ask her out on another date, she agreed and they met again on June 20. They got drunk at a nightclub and took a cab to a hotel. No one heard any unusual noises during the night, but the next morning Margery’s bound, gagged and mutilated corpse was found in her fourth-floor room.

She had horrific injuries, all inflicted while she still lived, including cuts on her face, arms and back in an unusual criss-cross pattern. The cause of death was suffocation.

There was no sign of Heath, but within a day or two he’d been identified as a possible suspect and was sought for questioning.

Heath’s fiancee read about the murder in the papers and asked him about it. He told her he’d stumbled across the scene after Mrs. Gardner was already dead, and promised to go to the police and make a statement. He never did, but he did send a letter to the chief inspector, saying he’d lent his hotel key to Mrs. Gardner because she had nowhere else to sleep. She went to bed with a man named “Jack” but told Heath to come to her room after 2:00 a.m. to spend the rest of the night with her.

When he did, he wrote, “I found her in the condition of which you are aware. I realized that I was in an invidious position, and rather than notify the police, I packed my belongings and left.” Heath said he had the murder weapon and was mailing it to the police station in a separate package. He never did.

Instead, he went to Bournemouth and checked into the Tolland Royal Hotel under the name Rupert Brooke, after one of Britain’s most famous poets.

There he met Doreen Marshall.

Doreen Marshall.

Heath encountered Doreen on July 3 and asked her to have tea with him. She agreed. Tea turned into dinner, and the date didn’t end until almost midnight. At this time Heath said he would walk Doreen home, although she wanted to take a taxi instead. She was never seen alive again.

On July 5 she was reported missing and the Tolland Royal Hotel staff, knowing she’d dined with Heath, asked him to get in touch with the police. He did so, identifying himself by his alias Rupert Brooke. He told the story about their date and saying he’d left her on the pier and walked back to the Tolland Royal alone.

One of the police officers interviewing him about Doreen Marshall recognized Heath as the man wanted for questioning about Margery’s murder and confronted him, saying, “Isn’t your real name Heath?”

“Rupert Brooke” denied this, and when the police said they were detaining him for further questioning, he asked to be allowed to go to the hotel and get his coat. He’d come back right away, he said.

The cops were not that stupid and sent one of their own officers to fetch the coat. Inside was half a train ticket in Doreen Marshall’s name, as well as a cloakroom ticket issued at a train station on June 23. The police went to the train station to fetch what their prisoner had stored there: it turned out to be a suitcase containing several incriminating items, including clothing monogrammed with Heath’s real name, a bloodstained scarf and handkerchief, and a bloodstained riding crop woven in a criss-cross pattern that, it turned out, matched the marks on Margery’s body.

On July 8, Heath was formally charged with Margery’s murder. At around the same time, Doreen’s body turned up: she’d been dumped, naked, in a clump of bushes about a mile from the Tolland Royal Hotel.

At his trial, none of Heath’s friends or family members came to testify on his behalf. Given the evidence against him, his defense attorney could hardly argue that their client was innocent. Instead they claimed he was insane: only a madman could have committed such acts.

But Heath’s calm, composed manner, and his obvious efforts to cover up his crimes, went against the insanity defense and the jury had no trouble convicting him.

In his final letter to his parents, he wrote, “My only regret at leaving the world is that I have been damned unworthy of you both.” Just before his hanging, he was offered the customary drink of whiskey. He agreed and added, “Better make it a double.”

On this day..

9 thoughts on “1946: Neville Heath, torture-killer

  1. The intrigue thatvwas the secret life of Heath has been over worked by not just the press but also authors released from any possible actions by his death and the same applied in the case of pearls His victims the lurid versions being a source of revenue with nobody to challenge the inaccurate or exaggerated fabricate details people enjoy reading these accounts from the safety of their armchair and the entertainment value is what become marketable with no regard to trashed reputations and the feeling of the relatives of all those concerned

  2. Pingback: 1930: Tea And Sand Castles At The Tolland Royal Hotel's Solarium And Indoor Beach, Bournemouth - Flashbak

  3. Dear Susan,
    I’ve read your very interesting response several times over (mainly to make sure I fully understood it because of the various typos) and can see, up to a point, what you’re suggesting. I’m not sure to what extent it’s relevant to the Heath case but it’s an intriguing hypothesis you portray, the way addiction of any kind can start then take over a person’s life. And the manner in which all addictions follow the same path, ie the initial neediness/pleasure, followed by the need to repeat the same actions in spite of the payoff as you describe it getting less. I can see that any addiction can really get a grip on a person (I believe in a drug-related context it’s known as ‘having a monkey on your back’). In a way it’s a logical extension of getting into a habit of doing whatever it is (drinking, taking drugs, forming ‘bad’ relationships, trying to ‘rescue’ people). Regardless of whether Margery had masochistic tendencies, she certainly had what would seem to outsiders to be appalling taste in her male companions. Her husband was a ‘bad lot’ with a history of burglary going back to his teens (whether she was aware of this when she started going out with him is not clear) and he became increasingly unstable from 1940 onwards spending 2 years in jail for stealing money from pubs. After giving up on the marriage, and after an ill-fated affair with what sounds like a decent suitor, she took up with a ‘gentleman crook’ not long before her death, one she had been in a car-chase with (although she explained to police she had no idea the car was stolen – by said ‘gentleman crook’ ) and finally, and fatally of course, went off with Neville Heath although apparently unaware that he was also a convicted criminal. But overall it seems she was somehow (subconsciously perhaps?) attracted to ‘bad boys’. I suppose this is not an uncommon phenomenon in some women, maybe the element of danger lends excitement (this certainly also applies to, say, gay men who visit public lavatories in search of sexual partners, and before the change in the law in 1967 making homosexual acts legal, it would have been even more fraught with danger/thrills).
    Chillingly in one of Margery’s letters to her mother quoted in ‘Handsome Brute’ and dated less than a year before her death, she says (in the context of explaining to her mother her situation with her estranged husband) ‘I feel that I can only thank God for sparing me (if he has) from some awful end’. Also in the book is the remark made by her friend Iris on the night of her death. When they met by chance at the Panama Club, Iris noted how ‘dissipated’ Heath looked, with big bags under his eyes. (Certainly this comment is borne out by the police mug-shot of Heath in check shirt taken not long after and shown above). Iris said to her male companion ‘Margery is in for a bad time [tonight]’ Maybe Iris was just a better judge of character than Margery, or did Margery choose to ignore the warning signs? We shall never know. What is clear is that she was in a tragically desperate financial situation with barely a penny to her name and this was a very large contributing factor to what happened to her.
    I do intend to investigate the book you mention. Thank you for bringing it into the arena. If you have any comments on what I have written, I would be very pleased to hear from you again.
    Sincerely, Geoff

  4. Hello to you all in this conversation. For more understanding of how people sometime get into (both sides) oddish an equation as the one which Margery and Heath found themselves, why don’t you read the following book. (PS- it is not a theoretical study, not is it written ABOUT people’s observed behaviors, but is written BY the people in these dreaded dead-locked entanglements themselves.) The book is: the Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous Handbook. Read the section in the chapter entitled ‘The Twelve Step Program’, on ‘Step One’, and ‘Step Two’ and Steps 3 and especially in the STEP 4′ section, where the addicts describe how -in thier program to escape the clutches of thier own bizarre addictive behaviors- they looked into finding out not what supposedly ’caused’ them to behave that way, but at what ‘PAYOFFS THEY DERIVED’ from the sexual/love entanglements they’d gotten into, but which eventually boomeranged on them, and began to destroy them. And! -most importantly, read ALL the personal stories in the back, to see the many variations the sickness can take. Note- a person who is married to an alcoholic, then gets involved with someone OBVIOUSLY violently disturbed, and THEN goes back for more, is not an uncommon scenario to the people in the fellowships of Sex And Love Addicts Anonymous/ Sex Addicts Anonymous, etc. This is not to paint Margery as responsible for Heath behaviour. Rather, is to point out the inherent ‘insanity’ in Margery’s ‘failure of the kinds of defence that stops one from putting ones hand back on a hot stove’ -(a quote from the Big Book Of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is the text that Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous also uses to describe- and heal from – thier own insane addiction. Many addicts- and I mean MANY people who marry alcoholics, then sex fiends, or another alcoholic,etc, are I’m fact addicts themselves. There is a payoff in all such repetitive behaviour, I’m the beginning at least, and as the sickness takes hold, the addict’s becoming involved over and over, I situations where THE PAYOFF IS LESS AND LESS,AND THE COST HIGHER, baffled everyone, INCLUDING THEMSELVES. Thus is the terrible date of all types of real addicts. (alcoholics, drug-addicts, gambling addicts, sex-addicts, ‘love-addicts’, violence/control addicts-like Heath, good addicts, etc, etc, etc). ALL get led to oblivion, the ‘her’ is less and less, but yet INSANELY, the less the payoff, the more the drive to do it. THIS is why addiction is absolutely a mental illness of pure insanity. The disease drives people to go into situations where they may even be killed, because it has taken them over so badly. No! They don’t want to for. Margery did not want to Sue, I am absolutely positive, but instead very likely was driven by the absolutely predictable, insane demands of a compulsion which would take her to do something which was well past it’s used date, and in which there was little or no enjoyment left, and forced get to partake anyway. Every alcoholic, who dies at the hands of liquor, has long since lost any pleasure in the drinking- (s)he is now compelled to drink-he had lost contra. There steamy suicides and murders amongst sex or ‘love’ addicted people. (and it ain’t ‘love’ either, in any of these whichsoever entanglements, it is obsessive neediness and attachments. I know you will gain some talk insight from the book, especially the personal stories at the back. But do read the STEP 1-4 sections , where the generalised first hand overview of the progression of the disease is more technically explained. You will be invited, by the very people who gave lives with addictions to sex/ attention/sick relationships/violence and abuse/etc- into an understanding of how such things come to be, and are played out in the world. Yours sincerely, Susan

  5. Yes I’m aware of the 1950s radio ‘crime’ programmes you mention, and have been staggered at the liberties taken with the ‘facts’, particularly the Pink Powder Puff which although is identifiably about Heath is an almost total fiction. There were also those TV programmes called Scotland Yard shown as fill-ins in cinemas too I believe, introduced by Edgar Lustgarten whom I always found very creepy and smarmy. I guess they were meant mainly as drama/entertainment and never intended to be taken as serious studies of any murder cases. But the books on the Heath case (until Handsome Brute that is, which you really should read) are equally full of errors/half-truths, many of them carried on from one to another by writers who were too lazy to do their own research. Some of their conclusions are quite appalling and do the victims a great disservice. Margery in particular has had a terrible picture painted of her, being shown as a near-alcoholic, crawling from pub to pub, a near-prostitute, sleeping with men in exchange for a meal, and a sexual pervert, ‘turning up at clubs looking for men to satisfy her craving for bondage and flaggelation’. And from the last description, some writers have gone on to suggest that she brought about her own demise, in the worst example stating that she was basically looking for someone to kill her, a kind of suicide by proxy. I really find this sort of comment very offensive. It’s an extension of the way rape victims are portrayed and are treated by the justice system. Every attempt is made to discredit their character and if they wear the wrong type of clothing or get drunk or drugged, often through no fault of their own, ‘well they were asking for trouble, weren’t they?’ Sadly attitudes to women are probably not much more advanced now than they were in 1946.
    But to revert to Heath, I don’t believe he ever admitted to having killed any other women than Margery and Doreen and even then, any comment was of the ‘I came to and found they were dead’ variety. I don’t think he intended to kill Margery because he was in her company with many witnesses on the night of her death. The bizarre letter he sent to the police a few days later was a pathetic attempt to distance himself from the crime and put the blame on someone else. Why he killed Doreen is harder to grasp, many have suggested it was a deliberate attempt to make himself appear insane but I’m not convinced. The way he enticed her to her death is also difficult to understand as she was apparently a sensible young woman; why would she allow him to take her in the opposite direction from her hotel when it was her express wish to go back there? Maybe it was his charisma, his success with women was well-documented. Then again why was he so courteous and gentlemanly towards Yvonne Symonds, the one who got away, but so hideously vicious to his two victims? These are just some of the elements of the saga which make it so fascinating. I don’t think we shall ever discover exactly what happened and why, which makes it all the more intriguing.

  6. Thanks for the comments.I’m glad for the opportunity to talk to someone who knows so much more than I do on the case.
    There is a lot I come across about Heath in various British media of the 40s and 50s.For example,there are the various radio series ‘Secrets of Scotland Yard/the Black Museum/Whitehall 1212′ etc.At least two of these series were made by the same production team,with the same essential writers (the Daily Express’ chief crime reporter Percy something,’a man who knows every seamy back-alleyway in the east end’.)Very often they would cover the same stories,sometimes using pseudonymous criminals,sometimes not.An at times,to me,arbitrary moral code seems to be at play,with narrators making ‘he wasn’t all bad’ excuses for the strangest cases,whilst making the episodes devoted to Edith Thompson unlistenable to me,and I’d hope to any modern audience.The Heath episode affords them a pretty broad canvas,and whilst I could hardly demand factual accuracy in a dramatised reconstruction of the story of ‘Edgar Haine’ or however Heath is variously renamed,why make stuff up when you have so much material?
    In the series Orson Welles narrates (Black Museum),the story is told in the form of the prisoners cell-room reminiscences.I guess this is to give maximum opportunity to the ‘hail fellow well met’ aspects of the murderers character-all that ‘C’mon boys,lets go’ stuff at the scaffold.So maybe it’s good drama.Cos there is certainly some genius in his escalation,as depicted.His first murder of a Wren in her own car,letting it run off a cliff with the body inside.Writing it down reveals its staginess,but the scene buzzes inside my head.
    He was still pretty young when he was hanged,even for a serial-killer,but it does seem a curiously advanced pathology if the Margery Gardner killing was his first.Moreover,his almost laconic failure to establish an alibi suggests someone who has been used to his crimes getting swallowed up in the exterior chaos of a wartime society.
    The various radio series are all available for free on-line.Try old time radio dot com.You will have to use yr own skill and intuition to find the relevant episodes,coz they are either given ‘the case of the missing such and such’ titles,or otherwise have their own internal logic-Black Museum titles its episodes after the featured exhibit,so the ‘Heath’ ep is called ‘A pink powder puff’ after that supposedly found in MG’s mouth.But whadda I know?Right?
    David Grahame

  7. In reply to David Grahame, having read in full ‘Handsome Brute’ the most recent study of the case (and assisting the author Sean O’Connor with some of his research), I have to agree with your comments on the way Margery Gardner’s reputation has been distorted by both press coverage at the time of the trial and subsequent articles and books about the murders, most of which have perpetuated the hypothesis that she was a masochist and must have known what to expect when agreeing to go back with Heath to his hotel room. There is no definite proof of this. Also what has been stated several times and is absolutely untrue is that she ‘abandoned her husband and baby daughter in Sheffield to pursue an acting career’. In fact she stood by her feckless and unstable alcoholic husband when he went to prison for burglary during 1941. After his release and an attempt to make their marriage work, he left her for another woman, failing to maintain Margery and their daughter, and left her in a precarious financial situation which meant she was unable to care for the child and had to try to find work, only occasionally as a film extra. There is no suggestion that she intended to break into pictures, she was an artist and would have preferred to pursue that career had it been possible. It has to be said that, although she had a bohemian outlook and mixed with some unreliable characters, she was probably no more promiscuous than many other artistic personalities of her time. To sum up, I feel she was more sinned against than sinning, and it’s unfair to pit her against Heath’s other victim, Doreen Marshall who has been consistently portrayed as an innocent led astray. Having two contrasting victim ‘types’ may make for a good story but is not the way things actually were.
    One other thing intrigues me though, I’m not aware of any other murders that Heath admitted to, where do you get your information from?

  8. Heath almost certainly killed more than twice.He admitted to killing at least one Wren when he was first in the RAF.It is also a long standing libel on Margery Gardner that she had already met with and indulged in masochistic practices with Heath.He had earlier been caught beating a tied woman in the same hotel some months earlier and it was automatically assumed that this was the same woman later found murdered.This was pretty quickly disproved but suited the various wicked woman narratives we are still so attached to.

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