"...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, September 15, 2014

The Green Bicycle Murder

Bella Wright, via Wikipedia


The tiny English villages of Stoughton and Gaulby could have passed for the towns featured in "Midsomer Murders": Quiet, green, cozy, quintessentially British. And like Badger's Drift, Fletcher's Cross, Midsomer Magna, or those other locations in that peculiarly blood-drenched fictional county, these real-life towns once spawned their very own bizarre, utterly baffling death.

And unfortunately, there was no Chief Inspector Barnaby or Sergeant Troy to tell us at the end who killed Bella Wright.

Wright, a native of Stoughton, was twenty-one years old at the time of her death. She came from a poor family, and had had to work ever since she left school at the age of 12. She had a number of suitors--at least one of whom was fairly serious--and, from all we know of her, was an attractive, intelligent, self-sufficient young woman.

On July 5, 1919, she had a day off from her job at a rubber factory. She spent what would prove to be the last day of her life sleeping in and writing some letters. After bringing the letters to the post office, she returned home, and, at about 6:30 pm, set off again on her bike in order to visit her uncle in the nearby village of Gaulby. When she arrived, the uncle, George Measures, was with his son-in-law, James Evans. They saw that another cyclist, a young man, was accompanying her. When Wright came in, she commented casually that the man was "a perfect stranger," adding that he would probably be gone by the time she was ready to leave.

However, when she emerged from her uncle's cottage about an hour later, the man was still there. Measures and Evans heard him say, "Bella, you have been a long time. I thought you had gone the other way." Wright gave no sign of being concerned or displeased by the stranger's continued presence. The man chatted casually with Evans for a few minutes, and he then bicycled off with Wright.

Some forty minutes later, a farmer named Cowell was herding cattle along a small, secluded road about two miles away from Measures' home. He and his cows stumbled upon an appalling sight: The body of Bella Wright. Her head was bloody, and her bicycle lay sprawled on the ground. Her body was still warm, indicating that she had died only a short time earlier.

Cowell assumed she had died from an accidental fall. He placed the corpse on the side of the road, and sent for help. When a constable and a doctor arrived, they also assumed that they were dealing with nothing more than a tragic mishap. Although the road was lined with high hedges, there was a gate near the death scene, which led into an open meadow. This fact was given no significance at the time.

The next morning, the constable examined the spot where Wright died, and realized that her death was no accident: A .45 caliber bullet marked the spot where her bloody head had lain. A closer examination of the corpse revealed a bullet had passed through her head.

The policeman made another discovery that has sent crime historians into fits of confusion ever since: The nearby gate was marked with bloody claw tracks. There were also no less than twelve sets of blood-marked tracks leading back and forth from the site where Wright's body was found to the gate. A large black bird--it was never decided if it was a raven, a rook, or a carrion crow--was found in the nearby meadow, dead. The bird's stomach was full of blood, leading to the highly gruesome assumption that it had gorged itself on Wright's blood before dropping dead from overeating.

Measures and Evans gave police a detailed description of Wright's mysterious new friend, who was now the prime suspect in her murder. He was about in his mid-thirties, of medium height, and with greying hair and a high-pitched voice. The men also recalled that he rode a distinctive green bicycle.

Investigators hounded every green-bicycle-riding man in the county, but they were all able to prove that on the fatal night, they were nowhere near the scene of the crime. After six months of effort, Scotland Yard still had no idea who had killed Bella Wright, or why. The young woman's murder seemed fated to drift into the category of unsolved mysteries.

Then, in February 1920, it looked as if the case would finally be solved by a canal boat. It was passing down a river--bringing, ironically enough, coal to the factory where Bella Wright had been employed--when the towrope caught on something. A boatman saw that the "something" was a green bicycle. Fortunately, the boatman remembered the Wright mystery, causing him to drag the canal and haul the object up. When police came in to search the canal, they also found a revolver holster with some cartridges inside. Some of these cartridges resembled the bullet found near the murdered girl's body. The icy-cold Wright case was suddenly heating up very nicely.

The number plate and any other identifying marks had been sanded away from the bicycle. However, police found that whoever disposed of the machine had overlooked one small spot that gave the serial number. Through this number, they were able to determine that the bicycle had been sold to a Ronald Vivian Light.

When the police tracked Light down, they found a quiet, nondescript mathematics teacher in Cheltenham. He had been teaching at the school for only one month. His service in World War I had left him shell-shocked and somewhat deaf, which led to him being discharged in 1919, after which he went to live with his mother in Leicester.  His teaching position was the first job since leaving the army.

Ronald Light


When informed that his green bicycle had been found at the bottom of a canal, Light reacted in the stupidest way imaginable: He lied, fibbed, babbled, obfuscated, and generally radiated panic. According to Light, he had never owned a green bicycle. He had never been near Gaulby. And, most importantly, he had never once so much as laid eyes on Bella Wright.

The police countered Light's taradiddles by introducing him to Measures and Evans, who immediately identified him as the man they had seen with Bella just before her death. Two adolescent girls, Muriel Nunney and Valeria Caven, stated they had been bicycling in the general area of Wright's murder several hours before her death. They claimed to recognize Light as the man who had menacingly followed them around for a time, badly frightening them. And, of course there was the evidence of the bicycle and the cartridges. Light was quickly put under arrest.

At his trial, the prosecution case looked utterly damning, with the added cherry on the top of Light concealing evidence and then lying about it. How could the math teacher possibly escape the gallows?

There was one way: Light's lawyer, Sir Edward Marshall Hall. Hall was the Perry Mason of his day, a brilliant defense attorney gifted with an ability to present his case with great charm, oratorical skills, and histrionic ability. He was renowned for being able to talk rings around the most cast-iron prosecution cases and hypnotize juries into believing virtually anything. He was, in short, a very guilty-looking defendant's best friend.

Hall blandly informed the court that he was not denying that the bicycle was Light's. His client had also been riding with Wright on the night of her death. He had indeed been the man seen by Measures and Evans. There was, he explained with his usual imperturbable suavity, an explanation for everything.

In contrast to his previously shifty behavior, Light made an excellent appearance on the stand, appearing dignified and truthful. He stated that on the evening Wright died, he left home for a bicycle ride. He never saw the two girls, Muriel Nunney and Valeria Caven. As he was riding, he saw a girl standing at the side of the road examining her bicycle, and he stopped to offer assistance. He determined that her front wheel was merely somewhat wobbly. They rode off together, chatting amicably. The young woman told him that she was going to visit friends in Gaulby, but that would not take long. Light said he took that as an invitation for him to wait for her.

Light said that after Wright entered her uncle's cottage, he waited around for about ten minutes. When she failed to reappear, he decided to go back home, but noticed that one of his tires had gone flat. By the time he repaired his machine, he saw Wright was emerging from the cottage. He testified that he never addressed her as "Bella": He merely said, "Hello, you've been a long time."

They rode together for about ten minutes, until he had more trouble with his tire and had to stop and walk his bicycle the rest of the way home. The girl went on her way alone, and that was the last he saw of her. A couple of days later, he read in the paper of Wright's death. He realized she was the girl he had met bicycling, and that he himself was the suspect wanted for questioning. Light admitted that the thought of being mixed up in a murder investigation caused him to lose his head and behave very foolishly. He broke up his bicycle and threw it into the canal, along with his old revolver holster from the war. “I didn’t make up my mind deliberately not to come forward,” he explained sheepishly. “I was astounded and frightened at this unexpected thing. I kept on hesitating and, in the end, I drifted into doing nothing at all.” 

Light told this story convincingly, and stuck to it during five hours of brutal cross-examination. When Hall questioned the two girls, Muriel and Valeria, he did such an expert job of shredding their credibility, suggesting that they had made up their story out of a desire for publicity, that by the end of the trial the judge advised the jury to disregard their testimony altogether. Hall also seriously damaged the assumption that the bullet found on the road was necessarily the one that had killed Bella Wright. He argued that the bullet found was so heavy, that if it had been used to shoot the victim, the exit wound would have utterly destroyed the back of her skull, particularly if it had been fired at close range. He suggested that she was killed accidentally, by someone hunting in the nearby field. And as for the bullet being the same caliber as the ones in Light's holster, so what? One could find millions of similar bullets all over England. Hall pointed out that absolutely no motive had been presented for Light to shoot Miss Wright. The two were strangers. There was no evidence of a quarrel, and the victim had not been sexually assaulted.

Hall also, as was his wont, went heavy on the melodrama.  He emotionally reminded the jury of Light's war record, and how he had been shell-shocked due to his service to his country.  The lawyer suggested that this earlier trauma had been responsible for Light's strange and suspicious behavior after Wright's murder.  Hall pointed out that Light was the sole financial and emotional support for his widowed mother.  What a cruel injustice it would be to put this poor, troubled, hard-working man in prison for a crime he so clearly did not commit.

By the time Hall finished speaking, the courtroom was left thinking the great victim in this case was the defendant, not Bella Wright.

After all the evidence had been presented, the jury deliberated for three hours before agreeing on a verdict of "Not guilty." Edward Marshall Hall had done it again.

After his acquittal, Light changed his name until the publicity died down, and in 1934, married a widow with three children. He lived an unremarkable existence until his death in 1975.

Of course, an acquittal is not always proof of innocence. Many students of this case still believe Ronald Light was Bella Wright's murderer.  Many sinister things about the ostensibly respectable war veteran were unknown to his jury. When he was 17, he was expelled from school for "lifting a little girl's clothes over her head." As an adult, he tried to rape a 15-year-old girl, and admitted to "improper conduct" with a child of eight. One has to wonder if young Muriel Nunney and Valeria Caven were as fanciful as Edward Marshall Hall claimed.

In 1914, Light was fired from his job at a railway. He was suspected of setting fire to a cupboard and drawing sexually explicit graffiti in a bathroom. He lost a later job at a farm because he was believed to have set fire to some haystacks. While he was in the army, his father committed suicide, reportedly at least partly out of despair over his peculiar son.

On the other hand, it could be argued that even if Light was a pervert and a pyromaniac, that did not necessarily also make him the killer of Bella Wright. It is possible that his underhanded behavior after her death--hiding his bicycle, lying to the authorities--was simply out of fear that his sleazy past would become known and he would lose his teaching job.

But if he did not shoot the young woman, who did?  And, no matter who killed her, what was the motive?  Wright's death, in the words of one crime historian, retains "considerable claims to be regarded as the most fascinating murder mystery of the century."

And that's not counting the even weirder mystery of what killed that damn bird.

5 comments:

  1. I wonder if testimony of a suspect's past was admissible in a trial in those days, and if so, whether the prosecution had known of it. I'd read of Marshall Hall before. He defended the 'brides in the bath' killer - who was hanged. He seemed to have lost a number of cases when the defendant went against his advice. I wonder how he felt about Light's guilt or innocence...

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    1. I've wondered about that myself. Apparently the police learned about Light's past during the investigation into Wright's murder, but I have no idea why the prosecution would not have brought it up during the trial. As far as I know, these details didn't become publicly known until about 20 years ago. (The contemporary newspapers, incidentally, were very much biased in Light's favor.)

      I get the impression Hall genuinely thought Light was innocent--or, at least, he persuaded himself that this was the case. Hall was such a good advocate, I think he was able to even convince himself his clients were not guilty!

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    2. That last point is a good one. Maybe that's how many lawyers, who may also be good people, can defend those who are quite clearly criminals.

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  2. The latest book on the case, The Green Bicycle Mystery (2016), includes the full transcript of what Light told the police days AFTER his acquittal. It's part of the Cold Case Jury series, so readers can deliver their verdicts online (the current poll is close). Fascinating stuff!

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    1. Thanks for telling me about this book. I'll have to see if I can find a copy.

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