"...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, July 7, 2014

The Flathers Tragedy

In the beginning of the year 1925, you probably could not have found a more charming couple in all of England than 32-year-old Arthur Valentine Flathers, a traveling salesman for a firm of cloth merchants, and his 26-year-old wife Hilda Nancy. The Bradford pair, who had been married nearly four years, were well-to-do, by all accounts deeply, sweetly in love with each other, and, to make their happiness complete, Mrs. Flathers was expecting their first child within a few days. The tall, good-looking Mr. Flathers was an excellent and highly successful employee who seemed to be liked by all. Mrs. Flathers was extremely pretty, level-headed, and amiable, "just that type of girl who would have made any good man a good wife," as a friend put it. Everyone from their friends to their household servant described them both as cheerful and utterly content with their lot. Several months before, Mrs. Flathers had been very sick with kidney trouble, and her husband was known to be extremely concerned by this, but she seemed to have recovered nicely. This bout of illness was the closest thing anyone knew of any shadow on their lives.

On January 4, this apparent real-life fairy tale came to a most shocking end.

On that day, the couple was scheduled to visit the house of a friend, Mrs. Eva Ludman, at about 6:30 pm. Their maid, Emmy Grove, later recalled that she last saw Mr. Flathers at about 1:30 pm. He was with his wife in the dining-room, and all seemed completely normal. ("He was always very jolly," she added.) Miss Grove left the bungalow at about 3 pm to enjoy her afternoon and evening off. Shortly before nine, while Grove was at the home of a friend, she received a call from Mrs. Ludman, asking Grove to check on things at the Flathers bungalow. They had never shown up at her home, and her phone calls to them were unanswered. The maid returned to a silent house. She was horrified beyond words to find the body of Mrs. Flathers in the parlor, lying near the fireplace. She was covered in blood from five bullet wounds to her head and body. A particularly macabre touch was provided by a handkerchief that had been tied tightly around her throat--evidently after she had already been shot. This was a case not just of murder, but savage, hateful overkill. A couple passing by the bungalow at about 8:30 heard noises that sounded to them like small explosions, but they apparently did not think much of it at the time. Police assumed that what they had heard were the shots which killed Nancy Flathers. The murder weapon was never found. After their bungalow was burglarized about a year before, Mr. Flathers told friends he had purchased a revolver so that his wife could protect herself when he was away on business, but this gun, if he still owned it, never turned up either, leaving it unknown if it was the same gun that killed Mrs. Flathers. (For what it's worth, Emmy Grove testified that she had never seen a gun in the house.)

The dead woman's husband was nowhere to be found. His whereabouts were not discovered until early the following morning, when his body was discovered on a railway a few miles from his home. His corpse had been frightfully mutilated by being run over by a train. The coroner was unable to say if his death was the result of an accident while he was crossing the tracks, suicide, or even murder. His inquest jury returned an open verdict.

Yorkshire Post, January 21, 1925. Via British Newspaper Archive

Everyone was at a complete loss to say how such a sudden, violent catastrophe struck the lives of these two people. Was Mrs. Flathers shot by an intruder while her husband was out, and then, when Mr. Flathers returned to discover her body, was he so unhinged with shock and grief that he ran out to kill himself? Working against this theory was the fact that apart from the shooting, the house was completely undisturbed, with no signs of robbery or forced entry. There seemed to be absolutely no personal motive anyone in the world could have had to harm either of these inoffensive and highly likable people.

As utterly bizarre as it seemed, the only way the police could explain these two gruesome deaths was to surmise that Arthur Flathers had shot his wife and then fled the carnage to kill himself. But why on earth would he do such a thing? No one ever saw the pair as much as quarrel. While admittedly it is often difficult to know what a couple's life is like behind closed doors, there seemed to be no doubt at all in anyone's mind that the two were profoundly devoted to each other. The only possible theory friends could offer was that Arthur, consumed with worry about his wife's uncertain health and upcoming delivery, in a moment of madness dealt with fears of losing his beloved wife by killing her, and then ending his own life.

This is, to say the least, one of the most extraordinary motives for a murder/suicide that has ever been offered. It would be natural for a loving husband to be concerned when his wife is about to go through childbirth for the first time, but dealing with these worries by pumping her full of bullets would certainly be an unusual coping mechanism. Unless Arthur Flathers was some sort of closet lunatic, a suburban Jekyll and Hyde, this supposition seems impossible to credit. Besides, at the time of her death Mrs. Flathers was in a greatly improved condition, and Mr. Flathers told friends that his concerns about her were greatly relieved. At her inquest, her doctor testified that he saw no reason why she should not have had a perfectly normal delivery.

Could this marriage have been too good to be true? Did this picture of a blissfully happy pair of lovers mask some sort of dark, deeply buried problems? Or did this seemingly idyllic couple attract an undetected enemy vicious and depraved enough to slaughter them both?

It should be noted that at Nancy Flathers’ inquest (which returned a verdict of “willful murder by a person or persons unknown,”) the coroner referred to “innumerable rumours making suggestions one way and another” regarding the double tragedy, and that investigation found “no foundation whatever for them...It is an abominable shame that people should commence stating things which they have stated in this case without any foundation whatever for them." He added that “there ought to be some law to punish people for spreading false reports either regarding people living or dead.” It is now anyone's guess if he was referring to the “murder/suicide” theory related above, or some other gossip of the sort that inevitably surrounds a puzzling crime.  It is also now impossible to say if these "innumerable rumours" furnished some sort of actual clue to what had happened.

The now long-forgotten deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Flanders remain a particularly disturbing little mystery.

3 comments:

  1. What a terrible event. The simplest explanation is, of course, murder/suicide perpetrated by the husband. Who knows what motive he may have had. Perhaps he discovered that the unborn child was not his. It's doubly bad that the baby suffered death, as well.

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    1. This story has haunted me a bit ever since I came across it in the old papers. I agree that it's most likely that Arthur murdered his wife, but it's a bit chilling that no one who knew them saw any sign of such a thing coming. I too wondered if he somehow suddenly found out Nancy's child was not his, although from what we know of her that seems unlikely.

      All we'll ever know is that on that particular afternoon/evening when they were alone in the house, something very, very bad--and at least as far as Mrs. Flathers was concerned, something utterly unexpected--took place.

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  2. In most murder/suicides, the person with the gun after killing their partner usually kill themselves with the same gun. It is very unusual for Arthur Flathers to go to the extra effort of walking to the railway, when the gun was close by.

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