One hundred years ago today, John Williams was hanged at Lewes Gaol for murdering a police officer.
Not this John Williams.
Williams was supposed to be the mysterious prowler spotted lurking outside a Hungarian countess’ Eastbourne home on October 9, 1912. The prowler was treed on the portico of the house by a responding police officer, but shot that cop dead and made good his escape.
The ensuing “Case of the Hooded Man” — the branding is not quite Sherlock Holmes, but it suits this blog — concerned the legal contest over whether John Williams was that prowler/shooter.
Circumstantial though it was, quite a lot of evidence supported that conclusion.
The day after the murder, Williams was informed upon by a young friend, Edgar Power, who knew him by his real name of George McKay. Williams/MacKay had passed Power a note on the night the policeman died reading, “If you would save my life come here at once to 4 Tideswell Road. Ask for Seymour [the name of Williams’s girlfriend]. Bring some cash with you. Very Urgent.”
Power set up a meeting with Williams where the police could nab him. (Power would later testify at trial that his friend had bragged specifically about his “good shot” that hit the policeman.)
Not yet done, our busybody stool pigeon then called on Williams’s girlfriend and persuaded her to move the murder weapon she had hidden with her beau … enabling police to grab that piece of evidence, too.
That gun made its mark in the emerging science of forensic ballistics. Seminal ballistics expert Robert Churchill was able to conclusively link this firearm to the portico murder by means of an early application of a now-familiar technique.
Churchill fitted a new hammer and springs and then test-fired [the gun]. Those test bullets had the same rifling pattern as the bullet used to kill Inspector Walls, and Churchill had no doubt about his conclusions that it was a gun of that very same make which had fired the fatal bullet.
In order to demonstrate the technicalities of Churchill’s evidence, Sergeant William McBride, one of the very first police photographers at Scotland Yard, used close-range photography to illustrate the pattern of the grooves on the bullets. He also collaborated with Churchill in placing dentist’s wax inside the gun barrel, then withdrawing it when it had cooled and set hard. This enabled him to photograph the pattern in the wax, caused by the grooves of the inside of the gun barrel, showing the same profile that would match a lead bullet fired through that gun barrel.
A nationwide petition for Williams’s pardon would circulate after his conviction upon the production of some dubious evidence throwing suspicion upon another (phantasmal, so far as anyone could determine) party. The Home Secretary replied to those appeals in the House of Commons a week before the execution:
The house will understand that there is no part of the Home Secretary’s duty which throws greater responsibility upon him or is indeed more painful, then that which has to be exercised in connection with the prerogative of mercy. Of course, any man would be only too glad to find a scintilla of evidence or reason, or I might say to invent a reason, which would enable him to save a human life. But my duty, as I understand it, is to act in accordance with the law and the traditions of my office … the whole story [of a man’s alleged twin brother committing the crime] is an invention because [the man], having known John Williams in the past, he did not like to think of his being hanged.
Thought-of or no, hanged John Williams was.
Part of the Daily Double: Century-Old English Legal Novelties.
On this day..