"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Broughty Ferry Mystery; Or, The Case of the Lethal Lothario

On the surface, Jean Milne was the quintessential genteel spinster—a sort of non-ratiocinative Miss Marple. This resident of Broughty Ferry, Scotland was sixty-five years old in 1912. Her only close relative, a brother, died in 1903, leaving her a tidy fortune. She lived alone, without even a servant, in Elmgrove House, a large home well-shielded from the outside world by trees and shrubs. Despite her wealth, she generally led a quiet, Spartan life, choosing to keep herself somewhat distant from the town society. Milne was not exactly a recluse, but she was hardly sociable, either.

There were, however, hints that this demure Edwardian lady liked the occasional walk on the wild side. She had a passion for wearing colorful, girlish clothes, and three times a year, she would travel to London, where she would put herself up at a lavish hotel, see the sights, and generally kick up her heels for several months at a time.

She even, during what would prove to be the last of her trips to the capital, acquired a boyfriend, a gentleman she had met at her hotel—information she was not at all adverse to sharing with her friends back at Broughty Ferry. “Miss Milne was so kittenish over the matter,” one of these acquaintances recalled. “She giggled, just like a girl.” Milne even suggested the two would soon marry.

The poor woman’s romance soon proved to have the most frightful of consequences. On November 2, 1912, her postman noticed that Milne had not collected her mail for some two weeks, and he informed police of this oddity. The next morning, some officers went to Elmgrove to make sure all was well. After repeated knocking at the front door failed to get a response, they broke in, to be greeted by horror.

Milne was found dead by the foot of the stairs, fully dressed but partially covered by a sheet. Her head was bloody from several wounds, and her ankles tied together with a curtain cord. A blood-stained poker lay near her. The phone wires had been cut. The hallway was in disarray, indicating that she had put up a fierce fight with her attacker. Other than that, however, the house was in its usual order and nothing was missing, including the valuable jewelry the dead woman had been wearing, which ruled out an ordinary burglary. The autopsy indicated she had been dead for about three weeks. She had been beaten all over her body with some heavy object, presumably the poker. The wounds to her head were by themselves fairly slight, but in total they were enough to kill her by means of a cerebral hemorrhage.

The local police had the sense to realize that such a spectacular crime was rather out of their league, so Detective-Lieutenant John Trench of the Glasgow City Police, a man considered to be the best detective in Scotland, was brought in to handle the case.

Milne had last been seen alive on October 15. However, a collector for a local charity stated that he went to Elmgrove on the 21st, and, on approaching the house, saw a woman standing in an upper window who he assumed was Milne. When he knocked, there was no response. He noted that the cover of the front door’s lock was down. He returned later in the day. He saw no sign of anyone, but saw that the cover of the lock was now up, indicating that someone had recently used a key in the door. This testimony is one of the many irreconcilable oddities about the murder.

Trench found a half-smoked cigar in the dining-room fireplace. This, plus the fact that her table had been set for high tea for two, indicated that she had had male company—presumably her mysterious beau. (This was later confirmed when a local liquor dealer recalled that shortly before her death, Milne had ordered wine and whisky, explaining coyly that she expected “a gentleman friend to dinner.”) Trench also discovered something peculiar when he inspected the clothes Milne had worn at the time of her murder. They were full of small holes that he believed had been made by a two-pronged fork which was found near the murder scene. The autopsy report had made no reference to her being stabbed, so Trench urged that the body be exhumed for further examination, but, rather remarkably, this was refused, leaving the perforated garments an unresolved mystery.

It was obvious that Milne knew her murderer, and had, so to speak, let Death enter her house. All the doors and windows in Elmgrove were locked, and there was no indication of forced entry. Trench was of the opinion that Milne’s assailant had not meant to kill her—had, in fact, assumed she would survive. How else to explain the fact that the attacker had troubled to tie her ankles together and cut the phone line so she could not call police? The detective’s theory was that the two had quarreled, and Milne had reached for the poker—a weapon she had used before to scare off trespassing neighbor boys. Her adversary had wrenched it from her, and used it to—so he assumed—merely stun her enough for him to make his getaway. This is all plausible enough, but even Trench seemed to acknowledge that this still didn’t explain the stab marks on her clothing or the sheet covering her body.

And, of course, none of this helped to establish the crucial point: Who was the “gentleman friend” who presumably was responsible for her death? Milne does not seem to have told anyone anything about him, not even his name. One contemporary newspaper story claimed that correspondence found in the house gave some indication of his identity, causing Scotland Yard to be on the trail of a particular “dashing American.” This vital clue—if it actually existed outside of some journalist’s fancy—went nowhere.

A maid who worked in a neighboring house told police that sometime between October 6th and 12th, she had seen a tall, fair-haired, good-looking man in evening dress walking through the gardens of Elmgrove. John Wood, Milne’s gardener, stated that when she returned from her last visit to London, she talked much about a tea-planter she had met, a “German gentleman.” One day not long afterwards, Wood was at Elmgrove when the doorbell rang. He answered the door to find a man who asked if Miss Milne was in. When she heard the visitor, Wood said she eagerly “skipped along the passage,” “just like a lassie” to greet him. She then sent Wood on his way and escorted her guest to the sitting-room. It was the last time Wood saw his employer alive. Two sisters by the name of McIntosh related that on the evening of October 7th, they saw a stranger emerge from the entrance gate of Elmgrove. As the sisters knew Milne rarely had visitors, they were interested enough to observe the man closely. Several other townsfolk also claimed to have seen “the man” in the vicinity. A taxi-driver, Frederick Ewing, said that on October 15th, he picked up a fare at the local train station who demanded to be driven to Broughty Ferry. Unlike Wood’s “German gentleman,” this man spoke with an English accent. When they were near Elmgrove, the passenger stopped the cab, paid his fare, and exited.  A workman claimed that early on the morning of the 16th, he saw a stranger who generally matched the description given by the maid furtively come out of Elmgrove’s main entrance gate. After anxiously looking about to see if he was observed, this unknown man hurriedly walked away.  “Wanted” fliers offering a reward were sent out, giving a description of the suspect.

One of these fliers gained the attention of the prison authorities in Maidstone. As it happened, they had in custody a Canadian named Charles Warner, who had been their guest for the last two weeks as a result of trying to leave a restaurant without paying his bill. His jail-keepers thought he fit the description given of the Broughty Ferry murderer, and immediately decided that the mystery was solved. They took his photograph and sent it on to be examined by the local witnesses. Their reactions were definite enough for five of them to be sent to England to view the presumed fiend in person.

When they arrived, Warner was put in a lineup. All five witnesses instantaneously and unhesitatingly agreed that this was “the man.” Although Warner himself denounced the proceedings as “a farce,” declaring that he had never been in Scotland in his life, a warrant was instantly issued for his arrest on a charge of murder.

“You’ll be sorry for this in a few days,” he said as he was transported to Scotland. “I’m an innocent man.”

No one believed him. After all, just look at all the eyewitness testimony!

In London, there was another eyewitness parade, this time of people who had seen Milne with her beau in various places around the city. This proved to be a great letdown for the police. Not one of these witnesses recognized Warner.

Well, little matter. Off to Broughty Ferry he went, for further interrogation, and, as everyone assumed, a trial, a conviction, and a hanging.

Well, everyone except Lieutenant Trench. He was evidently not only an intelligent, observant, and honest man, but unusually open-minded. He had ample opportunity to observe the prisoner for himself, and the more he studied Warner, the more doubts he had about the man’s guilt. Warner, he learned, had for the last few months had been traveling through Europe. His brother, who had been providing him with a small allowance, had recently died. This left him stranded, and forced to live as a vagrant. He had last been in the Low Countries, after which he traveled to London, where he had remained until November 3rd—the day Milne’s body was discovered.

Trench questioned him about where he had been on October 16, the presumed day of Milne’s death. (It says much about the quality of the investigation into Milne’s death that apparently no one had bothered asking him this rather vital question before.) Warner replied that he had been in Antwerp. He left that city the next day for London. Unfortunately, Warner had been sleeping out of doors, without any friends or private address that could establish proof of his whereabouts.

Finally, Warner recalled one piece of evidence to back up his story: On the very day of Milne’s murder, he had pawned his coat. In what would prove to be the luckiest act of his life, he still had the ticket. Trench got this ticket from him, traveled to Antwerp, found the pawnshop, redeemed the coat, and presented the authorities with as pretty a cast-iron alibi as can be imagined.

The machinery of justice, which was busy laying the groundwork for Warner’s murder trial, suddenly found themselves stopped in their tracks. After a short period of digesting the highly undesirable news that they had been wasting their time on a demonstrably innocent man, they shrugged, sighed, and let Warner go. In January 1913, he boarded a liner headed for Canada, and he no doubt gratefully disappeared from history. He will always be remembered, however, as not just probably the only man in history whose life was saved by a pawn ticket, but as a sterling example of the grave dangers of eyewitness testimony.

By this point in our narrative, you’re undoubtedly asking, “So, if Charles Warner did not kill Jean Milne, who did?”

Well, after the "sure thing" suspect fizzled out so dramatically, everyone seems to have given up on ever being able to answer that question.


  1. The "Lethal Lothario" -- never not loving your article titles!

  2. What an odd story - wonder who the murderer was?!

  3. It's sad that Miss Milne had been so elated over the man who may have killed her.

    1. Yes, I suppose that's the main reason why this is one of those unsolved cases that I find particularly haunting.

  4. What a sad, but intriguing, tale. Nice to know that an innocent man didn't go to the gallows though.

    1. Incidentally, not long after Milne's murder, Lt. Trench worked on another case where another demonstrably innocent man--Oscar Slater--was accused of brutally murdering an elderly, wealthy woman. Slater was convicted and sent to prison for many years, in what has now become one of true crime's more notorious miscarriages of justice. It's a long story, but the upshot was that Trench tried to do an honest investigation of the case, which so displeased certain Very Important People that he himself was brought up on bogus criminal charges, and his career was finished.

      Very curious business, the Slater case. I'd write a post about it, except it's such a famous case, much better-known--and simply better--writers than I have already tackled it many times.


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