"...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, August 11, 2014

Mrs. Harvey and Her Mummy

Sarah Jane Harvey


In 1960, if you had asked any resident of the Welsh town of Rhyl who their most average, unexciting, unremarkable resident might be, most would have probably answered, "Mrs. Sarah Jane Harvey."

Before long, this opinion would require some dramatic revising.

The sixty-five year old Mrs. Harvey spent over 40 years in the same house on West Kimmel Street. After her husband Alfred died in 1938, she earned a threadbare living by taking in lodgers. This uneventful existence continued until April 1960, when she was admitted to the hospital "for observation." She was tired and unwell, but her doctor was having a hard time finding a reason for her illness.

While she was in the hospital, her son Leslie and his wife, who lived in a neighboring town, decided to give her a pleasant surprise for her homecoming: they would clean and redecorate her house.

The surprise turned out to be all theirs. One of the first things Leslie wanted to tackle was a large wooden cupboard at the top of the stairs. For as long as he could remember, his mother had kept it locked, explaining that it contained the belongings of Frances Knight, an elderly lady who had boarded with her many years before. Mrs. Harvey had forbidden anyone from ever opening it. Leslie decided that it was high time to get rid of what he assumed were a few old clothes and other worthless junk.

When he pried the cupboard open, what he found instead was a body of a long-dead woman, encased in layers of dust and cobwebs. The corpse had been naturally mummified by drafts of warm, dry air. A pathologist later testified that "the body was rock hard and remained as a statue. A large proportion of the body was brick hard and resisted a hammer and chisel."

Leslie Harvey, horrified and not a little mystified by his discovery, went to the police, who immediately went to Sarah's hospital room to question her about this unusual bit of home decor. When told about the body, all she could say was, "Oh, goodness gracious!" She denied any knowledge of the corpse. When it was suggested that the body was that of Frances Knight, she dismissed the possibility. Mrs. Knight, she declared, had left her home soon after the end of World War II to go live in Llandudno. Mrs. Harvey apparently hoped everyone would just shrug the matter off by assuming that some complete stranger had secretly crawled into her cupboard and died.

When she realized the police would not be this accommodating, she reluctantly gave a far different story. Early in 1940, she explained, Mrs. Knight rented a room in her house. The lodger was separated from her husband, who sent her two pounds a week maintenance. Mrs. Knight was an invalid, so she gave Mrs. Harvey written authority to collect this money. About a month after her arrival, Mrs. Harvey heard her scream. She ran into her lodger's room, where she found Knight lying on the floor, saying, "I am in an awful lot of pain and I would rather be dead." Very soon after that, the lady got her wish. Naturally alarmed by Mrs. Knight's sudden death, Mrs. Harvey could think of nothing better to do than to simply shove the corpse into the cupboard and put all this unpleasantness behind her. "I realize that I have been very foolish," she added, "but I kept trying to keep things covered up." She also kept Mrs. Knight's maintenance checks, putting the cash in her own bank account. When she made her weekly trip to the magistrate's office for the money. the clerks would periodically ask her, "How is the old lady?"

"She's keeping very well," Mrs. Harvey would reply with what was probably unintentional dark humor.

Unfortunately for Mrs. Harvey, the police did not find her second "explanation" any more convincing than her first. And when the pathologist found that Mrs. Knight had died with a stocking tied very tightly around her neck, Sarah Harvey found herself arrested for murder.

At her trial, the arguments for both sides were fairly simple. The prosecution stated that Mrs. Harvey had strangled her lodger in order to keep those maintenance checks for herself. However, the defense countered by pointing out that there was no proof that the deceased had died of strangulation. Wrapping a stocking around one's neck was a well-known folk medicine cure for a cold. Perhaps, they argued, the ailing Mrs. Knight had tried this unconventional bit of alternative medicine, and then died of perfectly natural causes.

No one seemed to find this scenario particularly convincing, but no one could prove that it was impossible, either. What derailed the prosecution was the simple fact that Frances Knight's corpse was so desiccated that doctors were unable to positively identify the cause of her death. Although Mrs. Harvey had to serve 15 months in prison for fraudulently collecting Mrs. Knight's maintenance checks, she was acquitted of murder.

To this day, the only person who has ever known for sure how Frances Knight died was Sarah Jane Harvey. If Mrs. Harvey was guilty of murder, she kept this information to herself until the day she died, which was very soon after her release from prison. The mysterious ailment that sent her to the hospital and indirectly triggered the discovery of her little secret turned out to be incurable cancer.

2 comments:

  1. Creepy lady, whether a murderess or not. I'll bet her son sold that house pretty quickly after he inherited. I always feel sorry for the people who die - whether killed or not - and no one misses them.

    And about the sock around the throat: my mum and dad had the same remedy, though they put Vick's Vapo-rub on the inside of it. A big, itchy wool sock with sticky, mucous-like ointment against one's skin. The thought of it makes me shiver to this day!

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