"...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, October 12, 2015

The Distressing Circumstances at Moat Farm

The 1899 murder at Moat Farm was quite notorious in its day, despite its lack of obvious intrigue. There was no mystery about the killer or his motive. The perpetrator--a worthless wretch if ever there was one--paid the ultimate price for his act, and not even the most soft-hearted sob sister could question the justice of the verdict. It was, to put it simply, a sad, dreary affair. However, the case also featured a plethora of almost comically nutty touches--not the least of which was the bizarre personality of the murderer--which compelled me to present it as this week's offering of The Weird.

The tragic figure in our story was a fifty-six year old spinster named Camille Cecile Holland. Independently wealthy, intelligent, and not-half-bad looking. She had all the means at her disposal to build a very nice life for herself. She could have bought a fine home, enjoyed a social life, pursued whatever activities she chose. Instead, her life was a curiously empty one. She seemed content to simply drift from boarding-house to boarding-house. Her only real companion was her little dog, Jacko. She had no close friends. Her only living relatives were a niece and nephew. She was on good terms with them, but they saw little of each other. She apparently had no real hobbies or interests. Miss Holland had had only one serious sweetheart in her life--a young naval officer who drowned many years back. She still wore a ring that had been taken from his body. This estimable, and seemingly fortunate, woman led a deeply lonely and unfulfilled life.

This no doubt explains how the normally sensible Camille Holland became easy pickings for the likes of Samuel Herbert Dougal.

We do not know when and how Holland and Dougal met, but once he learned of her financial status, he began an assiduous courtship. He described himself as an ex-Army captain who was married, but had been separated from his wife for many years.

As was usual with Dougal, this wasn't the half of his life story. After being discharged from the army, he was caught forging checks supposedly signed by his superiors. Thanks to that escapade, he not only served a year in prison, but he lost his army pension. Since then, he had twice been charged with other forgeries, but had--such are the strange ways of juries--been acquitted both times. There was also good reason to believe he had committed arson for insurance purposes.

Dougal also failed to tell Miss Holland that he had been married more than once. His first wife died very suddenly and in mysterious circumstances. Dougal attributed her demise to bad oysters. His second wife died only two months after their marriage. Those infernal oysters again! he sighed. His third wife, Sarah White, was still alive (perhaps she knew better than to eat oysters provided by her husband,) and living in Ireland. And these were just his legal unions. Dougal's resume also boasted numerous mistresses, one-night-stands, and a host of abandoned illegitimate children. Naturally, he kept all these interesting details to himself.

Dougal was a suave character, with the sort of dashing charm that comes naturally to many natural-born scoundrels. When he begged Miss Holland to elope with him, even though marriage was a practical impossibility, she agreed. (So much for the modern-day assumption that respectable Victorian women were all pious prudes.) However, though she may have lost her heart to this man, Miss Holland did not entirely lose her head. She was willing to run away with him, but his other proposal--that she reinvest all her securities in his name--was firmly rejected.

The two lovers settled down in a country house in Essex called Coldhams Farm, although Dougal rechristened it with the more colorful name of Moat Farm. It was a forbidding looking place. The farmhouse--which indeed had a moat--was in a bleak area heavily surrounded by dark, ominous-looking trees. It looked more like the set of a horror movie than a romantic hideaway.

Very fitting, as it turned out.

Contemporary drawing of Moat Farm

Although Camille's money paid for the house, Dougal--without bothering to tell her--had himself named as owner on the property deed. When Miss Holland discovered this, she tore up the document and had a new one issued in her name.

Miss Holland was proving to be a good deal more troublesome than Dougal had bargained for.

In late April 1899, the couple settled into their new home, under the name of "Mr. and Mrs. Dougal." Within the first three weeks they lived there, they went through at least three housekeepers, due to Mr. Dougal's curious notion that female servants should serve as his personal harem. The final servant, a girl named Florence Havies, was so appalled by Dougal's efforts to break into her room at night that she quickly sent word to her mother to come and rescue her. Until Mrs. Havies' arrival, Florence slept in "Mrs. Dougal's" room, and took care never to be alone in the house with Samuel. Camille's reaction to her "husband's" remarkable behavior is not recorded, which is possibly just as well.

On May 19, Samuel and Camille drove off in their carriage. They told Florence that they were going to the nearby town of Saffron Walden to do some shopping. A few hours later, Samuel returned to Moat Farm--alone. When Florence asked him what had happened to "the mistress," he told her she had gone to London.

Poor Florence was terrified at the prospect of being alone with Dougal. She got no sleep that night. She locked the door of her bedroom and sat fully dressed by an open window, ready to flee if her employer came anywhere near. Fortunately for her, Dougal ignored her presence. During that night, he went in and out of the house, busy with his own urgent matters. The next morning, Florence's mother arrived to fetch her daughter. Mrs. Havies chewed Dougal out, demanded a month's wages for Florence, and the two women stalked out. Samuel now had Moat Farm all to himself.

Well, until the next day, at least, when the legitimate Mrs. Dougal turned up at the house. He told her that he had been managing the estate for "an old lady" who was now "away."

It is a sad commentary on how little of an impact Camille Holland had made on the world that no one took any notice of her disappearance. Although all her clothes and belongings remained at Moat Farm, nobody in the neighborhood gave her absence a second thought. Dougal let it be known that she was off on a yachting trip, and everyone was content to leave it at that. The only living soul who missed her was Jacko.

Camille's banker in London soon received a letter--signed with her name--asking to have a new check book sent to her at Moat Farm. These checks were used to turn over all the money in her bank account to Mr. Samuel Herbert Dougal. All of her stocks were sold, with the proceeds also going to Dougal. Another letter from Miss Holland generously turned over to him the ownership of Moat Farm.

The newly-rich Dougal became quite a popular favorite in local society. He was a gregarious fellow, with a cheerful, back-slapping manner and an engaging willingness to buy drinks for everyone at the local pub. He also bought an automobile. As it was the first one in the area, it created quite a sensation.

Dougal's social life also followed some less reputable channels. If half the local gossip is to be believed, grim little Moat Farm had been transformed into a rustic Playboy Mansion. A long string of female servants came and went at Moat Farm. The ones who accepted Dougal's requests for extracurricular service stayed a bit longer. Before long, Dougal was fighting court orders that he support children born to some of these women. When word spread that Dougal was fond of having naked women bicycle through the grounds of the estate, townspeople shrugged and muttered that some of his habits were "not nice." Mrs. Dougal agreed with this assessment. She finally had her fill of her husband and ran away with one of the farm's laborers.

To finally return to Camille Holland: It was not until early in 1903 that people began to wonder why she had yet to return from her yachting excursion. Questions about her whereabouts became so persistent that the local police felt compelled to make a search of Moat Farm. Dougal received this request with his usual geniality. Sure, he told the officers. Feel free to look around. Finding nothing but the occasional nude lady cyclist, the police left, feeling perfectly satisfied with life.

Then, someone showed Miss Holland's nephew one of the checks she had supposedly made out to Dougal. He instantly asserted that it was not in her handwriting.

After this, things unraveled very quickly for Samuel Dougal. When he tried to exchange counterfeit notes at the Bank of England, he was arrested for forgery. When his pockets were searched at the police station, he was found to be carrying some of Camille's jewelry--including the ring that had belonged to her dead naval officer.

Everyone was now very anxious to find Camille Holland. It was the first time ever that the world had taken an interest in the poor woman, albeit a bit too late in the day. A massive excavation was made of the grounds around Moat Farm. Psychics, dowsers, and cranks of various sorts all went to the newspapers giving their "solutions" of the mystery. Thousands of people flocked to the area to enjoy the show. Photographers made postcards of Moat Farm to sell to tourists. Others made a tidy sum selling food and drink at the site. The atmosphere was like a holiday camp. From his prison cell, Dougal threatened to sue the police for the way they were destroying his property.

Finally, after five weeks of searching, workmen dug up the skeleton of Camille Holland. Her remains were identified because they had been buried with the custom-made size 2 shoes she had been wearing when she was shot through the head.

Dougal, true to form, denied any involvement in Miss Holland's death. His line of defense was that the skeleton was not hers. His former lady love, he insisted, was still off yachting somewhere. When that failed to fly, he suggested that Camille had committed suicide, with the admirable thoroughness of burying herself afterwards.

While awaiting his trial, Dougal kept up a lively correspondence with his many female acquaintances, as well a number of those peculiar ladies who seem to find particularly loathsome murderers irresistible. Happily, the text of one of his letters was recorded by a student of the case. It is one of the more memorable missives in the history of true crime. Dougal wrote, “I daresay the girls have received their notices, etc., to attend next Monday at Chelmsford, have they not? There will be several from about there, and it would be a good idea to club together and hire a trap and drive all the way. It is a delightful drive through undulating country, and at this time of year it would be a veritable treat for them all. So much better and more comfortable than the tram with its three changes, and, besides, they have the four miles to get to the station in the first place. I was thinking of a child (Daughter) born on the 11th of this month might be named ‘Draga’ after the poor Queen of Servia assassinated on that day, what a dreadful piece of business. When you feel like it, please drop me a few lines and let me know how you are.”

I cannot improve on crime historian Edmund Pearson’s description of the context of this letter. After noting that what Dougal was describing sounded more “like a Sunday School picnic rather than a plan to attend a murder trial,” he wrote, “When it is further realized…that the participants, or many of them, were the mothers or prospective mothers of his children, most of us will give up seeking for adjectives to describe Mr. S. Herbert Dougal.”

Dougal was the only one surprised when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. After his appeal of the verdict failed, he admitted killing Camille, but insisted it was an accident. It was not until he was literally on the scaffold with the rope around his neck that he finally confessed his full guilt.

Dougal's victim was buried in Saffron Walden, with a tombstone inscription that is touching in its efforts to be tactful. Her epitaph reads, "In sympathetic memory of Camille Cecile Holland, of Maida Vale, London, who died at Clavering under distressing circumstances on the 19th May, 1899, aged 56 years."

Jacko was taken in by one of Camille's few friends in Saffron Walden, a Mrs. Wiskens, where, we are told, he became "the object of admiring curiosity." Such was his local importance as souvenir of one of the region's most famous murders, that after his death, Jacko was stuffed and put in a glass case in the Wiskens parlor. Reportedly, he is still on display at the Essex Police Museum.


  1. A fascinating and largely forgotten case. It's sad to reflect that Camille Holland is as neglected today as she was in life. I live not very far from Clavering and can tell you that it rarely gets discussed in local history publications. My friend MW Oldridge wrote a book about the case a few years ago entitled 'The Moat Farm Mystery' which I can attest is well-researched and detailed. I would urge anyone who has an interest in the case to find a copy.

  2. The poor lady. At least justice was served and a despicable creature done away with. Probably two of his wives were murdered and how many others?

  3. That's crazy. Really no other way to put it.

  4. Florence Havies was my great aunt and my mother told me quite a few snippets about her short time at Moat Farm, her rescue by her mum Martha, and her part as a witness at the trial. It is always a strange experience to see the story in print. The family thought that she had had a lucky escape.


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