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Black Country murder mysteries at Wolverhampton museum

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: January 28, 2014

By Gail Middleton

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THERE'S nothing we like better than a gripping murder mystery, whether real or fictional. Witness the millions who watched the final 'Poirot' case on TV last November.

Sadly, for those who mourn the loss of David Suchet's brilliant portrayal of Agatha Christie's famous sleuth, there is little consolation. Apart from the equally wily 'Miss Marple' whose slightly dotty exterior belies razor sharp detective skills.

Luckily, I was able to catch a recent exhibition paying tribute to the crime writer at Wolverhampton's Bantock House Museum. On the day I visited, there was also an added bonus – with a talk entitled 'Murder Most Foul'.

As the Agatha Christie exhibition was nearing its end, Bantock House offered murder mystery fans a snapshot of real Wolverhampton murder cases from the 19th century. Proving the old saying - truth is often stranger than fiction.

Listening to some of the accounts, it was obvious our forebears were just as interested in sensational gossip and gory details. And, just like today, the media gave it to them.

Crime figures for those times revealed Wolverhampton was no more dangerous than other rapidly growing industrial towns. And, that most crimes were property related, often fuelled by alcohol.

Some murders featured perpetrators stealing from vulnerable people who owned little more than they did. In 1861, Bilston man John Baggot was murdered during a robbery at his home.

Seven young men were accused of his murder -all for the theft of some old coats and handkerchiefs. In those days, such items could be sold or pawned. Surely, such paltry goods were hardly worth the risk of capital punishment. So, why did they do it?

Apparently, many such crimes were fuelled by alcohol. In many cases, what started out as burglary turned to murder when perpetrators were disturbed, or victims fought back. In the Baggot case, all seven men pleaded not guilty.

Subsequently, three of them were hanged in public at Stafford.

In those days, hangings still took place in public, attracting thousands of ghoulish onlookers. Fed for months on a diet of gory details in the press, a large section of the public flocked to public executions. Some may have gone out of a sense of seeing justice done. But, many more treated public executions as a centuries old custom, offering a memorable day out.

County towns, like Stafford, were swelled to overflowing at such times, local traders making a mint from crowds of hungry and thirsty spectators. Publishers also profited, selling countless copies of broadsheet ballads about the notorious crime. Many of these purporting to be the last confession of criminals, waiting to meet their maker. Another robbery that turned to violence occurred in 1825, when an elderly lady was murdered, while baking a cake. Ann Spencer lived at Gorse Cottage, Bushbury, an area known then for its poverty.

The motive was robbery – the theft of some clothes, a fork and a hammer. Ann put up a struggle, but her assailant, Thomas Powell, apparently used the fork and hammer to silence her.

At his trial, Powell pleaded not guilty, but offered no real defence. Appalled by the violent murder of the old lady, the jury found Powell guilty. The judge ordered him to be hanged in public - and his body to be dissected for the benefit of anatomists.

Other murders featured jealous husbands or lovers. In the 1877 Dunstall Hall murder case, Harry Rogers killed his wife because he thought she was having an affair. Rogers cut his wife's throat, from ear to ear, subsequently pleading insanity at his trial. Judge and jury, however, were unimpressed, and sentenced Rogers to hang. By this time, public executions had been banned, so Rogers was hanged inside Stafford Jail. That still didn't prevent around 4,000 people travelling to Stafford on the day of Rogers' execution.

The Harriet Segar murder was another case where murder was committed by a supposed loved one. Young Harriet was just 19 when her suitor, Charles Robinson, murdered her. Unlike the Dunstall Hall murder, this wasn't a crime of passion, but simple greed. Harriet had inherited property worth about £4,000, which was quite a sum back then. Robinson murdered her as she left to go shopping in Codsall.

I'm sure Agatha Christie would have appreciated the intricacies and drama of the real murders revealed at Bantock House. Especially, as the crime writer, herself, was involved in a real life mystery, as compelling as her own creations.

A mystery that, even today, many years after her death, has not been totally solved.

In 1926, when Agatha Christie went missing for 11 days, it caused a media sensation. By this time, she was an established crime writer with six novels under her belt. And, as days went by, the mystery gripped the nation.

Before the incident, Agatha had written some letters: one to her brother-in-law, saying she was going on holiday to Yorkshire. A second, to the Chief Constable, saying she feared for her life.

Her husband, Archie, had also told reporters that his wife was suffering from a nervous breakdown. Agatha's mother had recently died, but Archie went to London, leaving his wife to grieve, alone.

Archie's infidelities were also known, fuelling gossip that he may have killed his wife. A suspicion shared by the police, who subsequently tapped his phone. It was becoming just like a plot from one of Agatha's own novels. People also recalled Agatha showing signs of stress, even having trouble remembering her name when signing a cheque.

Around this time, Archie told Agatha he was in love with another woman, Nancy Neele, and wanted a divorce. A separation ensued, then Archie returned for a "trial reconciliation", perhaps for the sake of their young daughter, Rosalind. Agatha Christie recalled this time as a "period of sorrow, misery and heartbreak''.

On December 3, 1926, Archie told his wife he was spending the weekend with friends. When she arrived home, she found Archie had gone.

Already very depressed, Agatha probably suspected Archie was staying with Nancy Neele.

At 9.45pm, Agatha left the house, leaving 7-year-old Rosalind behind with the maid. Next morning, her Green Morris Cowley was found on an embankment, the bonnet up and lights still on. Inside, were her fur coat, suitcase and belongings. Before long, speculation grew to fever pitch.

Fearing the worst, police issued a missing person report, with £100 reward offered for information leading to her whereabouts. Even crime writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, got involved. A firm believer in spiritualism and the occult, Doyle took one of Agatha's gloves to a medium, hoping the spirit world might offer some clues. The hunt for Agatha even made the New York Times front page.

Meanwhile, the police were still convinced of foul play. Even when Agatha's brother-in-law told them she had written, telling him she was going to Yorkshire - no one believed his story. The truth, it seemed, was far too mundane. Or, was it?

The reward was finally claimed by a musician playing Harrogate's Hydro Hotel. The man had recognised the author, booked in as "Mrs Teresa Neele of Cape Town", and tipped off the police. When interviewed by a reporter, Agatha claimed she'd been suffering from amnesia.

When the media discovered Agatha wasn't dead but had been in Harrogate all the time, there was a furious backlash. Many suspected her amnesia was false, and that the whole thing had been a publicity stunt to boost sales of her latest novel. Not even doctors' statements could convince them. Others suspected it was Agatha's revenge against Archie for his heartless treatment of her.

Or was it that, in a deeply depressed and nervous state, she had been in a car accident and lost her memory? Whatever the truth, Agatha and Archie divorced two years later.

In 1958, Agatha Christie visited Wolverhampton when her play, 'Verdict', premiered at the Grand Theatre. Despite her fame, she shunned star treatment, hoping to avoid the spotlight. She consistently refused to discuss her own real life mystery – which, even today, remains an enigma.

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