"...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 5, 2015

The Enigmatic Exit of William Lidderdale



On January 8, 1892, 40-year-old William R. Lidderdale left his home in Ilminster, England for a brief business trip to London. He planned to meet a surveyor, with a view to buying some property. All seemed well in his life. His career as a bank manager was both prosperous and completely above-board. He was engaged to be married to Elizabeth Chapman, a pretty young woman whom he appeared to love, and who loved him. The wedding was fixed for January 14. Some friends saw him in the train headed for London. It was later established that he had bought a return ticket. Before his departure, he gave instructions to one of his bank clerks to meet him on the following day and report to him. The surveyor Lidderdale was to meet sent a telegram explaining that he could not keep the appointment, but it is not known whether the banker ever received this message.

Two days after Lidderdale’s departure, his fiancĂ©e received a letter from him. It read:

“Arrived safely. Am sending this to Raby in case I should not see my darling tomorrow…I promised you that if ever I saw Miss Vining I would tell you, and I do so dear, at once. She has found out her old lover is dead, and those old duffers of lawyers must tell her they expected me up, so the first person I ran against on getting out of the train was her. I soon told her what she wanted, and got rid of her. She knows we are to be married, but does not seem to know the date of the wedding. Now, my sweet darling, just be happy about this. It will be all right. Excuse this haste, as I want to start off—Yours for ever, Willie.”

The next word anyone received of Lidderdale was considerably more startling. On February 10, numerous English newspapers carried a death notice:



“January 30, on Miss B.A. Vining’s yacht Foresight, William Robertson Lidderdale of Ilminster, result of accident on 8th January, alighting from carriage when in motion.”

This announcement, unsurprisingly, caused quite a commotion back in Ilminster—a commotion that would eventually grow into a world-famous mystery. Why was this notice published eleven days after Lidderdale’s alleged death? Why had his loved ones not been contacted when he had this “accident?” Why was there no record of this accident, or his subsequent death on board a yacht? Where was his body? Who was “Miss B.A. Vining?” And how could he have been fatally injured on January 8? On that date, he was seen at his London hotel, alive and well. His last letter to Elizabeth Chapman was written and posted that very evening.

Advertisements begging “Miss Vining” to come forward and explain herself were placed in all the London papers. They received no direct response. Instead, Chapman received in the mail a curious package, addressed to her in an unfamiliar hand. The package contained a Christmas card, a Jubilee sixpence she recognized as belonging to Lidderdale, a few calling cards with “Miss Vining’s” name on them, but her address erased, and five hundred pounds’ worth of banknotes. On the back of one of the cards was a message in Lidderdale’s handwriting: “Was true to you.”

This was the last we know of William Robertson Lidderdale. No sign of him, alive or dead, was ever found.

As the years went by and the strange story spread throughout Europe and America, newspapers around the world struggled to unravel the strange puzzle. The most obvious solution was that the death notice was a blind designed to hide the fact that Lidderdale had run off with Miss Vining.

However, this lady proved to be a phantom. Elizabeth Chapman and other friends of Lidderdale recalled him giving various exotic descriptions of Miss Vining—she was supposedly a rich, very beautiful American who had been deeply in love with him, but who had also tried to kill him on more than one occasion when he spurned her advances. However, no one he knew had ever laid eyes on her, although Lidderdale had spoken of her for a number of years before his disappearance. No one in the world professed to know her. No sign of her existence was ever uncovered. There was not even any evidence that a yacht named "Foresight" existed. No boat by that name was registered at Lloyd’s, nor was anyone by the name of “Vining” registered as an owner of any vessel. As far as anyone could tell, she was a vivid product of Lidderdale’s imagination, created, it was theorized, as a way of providing a background story for his planned disappearance. Years later, a newspaper reported that he had once known a “Julia Vining” before he moved to Ilminster, and theorized that Lidderdale had run off with her. However, she was described as a humble daughter of a laborer, not a wealthy American, and it is uncertain whether Julia truly existed, or was the invention of one London journalist.

If Lidderdale was not dead, no doubt his loved ones soon wished he were. The peculiar and unresolvable circumstances of his disappearance kept them in and out of courtrooms for years.

The missing man had insured his own life for hefty sums. His relatives, on the strength of the death announcement in the newspapers, tried to get the insurance companies to pay up.

Nothing doing, the companies replied. Life insurance fraud was one of the oldest games in the book, and there was no way they were going to hand over thousands of pounds simply on the evidence of a death notice that reeked of The Weird.

Lidderdale’s next-of-kin sued the insurance companies, endeavoring to prove that there really had been a Miss Vining, and a yacht “Foresight.” Unfortunately, they were never able to uncover solid evidence of either one. After years of litigation, a judge finally put his foot down and said that until the family could produce a corpse—or at least a death certificate—they would not be getting the money.

Then there was the difficulty with Lidderdale’s estate. Just before his disappearance, Lidderdale had drawn up a will leaving everything he had to Elizabeth Chapman.  His executors applied repeatedly to the probate court that the missing banker should be presumed to be dead, with an equal lack of success. For the next twenty years, the executors repeatedly petitioned the court to declare Lidderdale dead, only to be told, “Prove it.”

The Lidderdale Mystery kept detectives busy for years. They scoured the world for some sign of the banker or the elusive Miss Vining, to no avail. Did he disappear voluntarily, covering his tracks with a bizarrely elaborate cover story? How was it he was never found, after all those years of widely-publicized searches for him? Was he murdered, perhaps by the infatuated Miss Vining, taking her revenge for having been scorned by him? And where was the body? Did the rich, sinister Miss Vining even exist? People around the globe debated these issues for years, without finding any answers.

Elizabeth Chapman never married, always carrying the hope that she would be reunited with her fiancé. As far as I can tell, neither she nor anyone else ever collected the money from his estate or his insurance policies.

In 1912, during the fourth court hearing to try and establish whether Lidderdale was alive or dead, a director from his bank suddenly came forward to announce that he knew of Miss Vining, whose full name, he said was Beatrice Alice Hasledean Vining. She had no fixed abode, but spent her life traveling on her yacht. If this man was telling the truth, it is extremely peculiar that he kept this information to himself for two decades. Most likely, it was a well-intentioned, if mendacious attempt to settle the issue once and for all.

The newspapers announced that in light of this new "evidence," “The case has been adjourned in the hope that the identity of the woman of mystery and her equally mysterious yacht may be established.”

The case disappeared from the newspapers after that, so it is unknown to me if they were successful. It seems doubtful that they were. There is no record of the Lidderdale Mystery ever being solved.

5 comments:

  1. What a peculiar tale. Was it murder? Was it a deliberate disappearance? Why was a parcel with money sent to Miss Chapman? No explanation seems to fit this mystery.

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  2. Criminy. Are they sure that Lidderdale even existed?

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  3. According to a contemporary press report, "Foresight" was the Lidderdale family motto.

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    1. Yes, "Foresight is all." I only came across that bit of info after the post had been written; I should have thrown that in. It's another hint that Miss Vining was merely a product of Lidderdale's imagination.

      I'm pretty certain he staged his own disappearance, but it'll remain a great mystery why he did so--and in such a weird fashion. We'll also never know where he went, or what happened to him.

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  4. He became a she. That Miss Vining could be him. He said that the woman is infatuated to him could merely mean that he is experiencing some sort of admiration to himself. Then the woman wanted to kill him might mean he wanted to kill the old self - the man. The yatch could mean a free-wandering life. Perhaps Lidderdale staged all of it and lived a different life.

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