I'm becoming convinced that life is merely a pale imitation of "Midsomer Murders." Take the theme of today's post: A quiet, respectable-looking English village is shaken when the puzzling, grisly death of a young woman exposes the town's sordid, violent undercurrents. As Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby once complained, "Every time I go into any Midsomer village, it's always the same thing--blackmail, sexual deviancy, suicide and murder."
That quote would not have made a bad slogan for the Peasenhall Tourism Board.
One of Peasenhall's liveliest residents was a 22-year-old girl named Rose Harsent. She was employed as a servant in Providence House, the residence of Deacon Crisp, the local Baptist elder. She spent her spare time singing in the church choir and collecting X-rated verses.
The other main figure of our rural mystery was another churchman: A lay Primitive Methodist elder in his mid-forties named William Gardiner. He was the foreman at the local seed drill works, and an enthusiastic man of God: trustee of the local Sunday School, assistant society steward, and leader of the choir where Rose Harsent sang. He had been married for fourteen years to a Georgina Cady, who had presented him with eight children, six of whom were still living.
There had been an unpleasant little scandal involving the choirmaster and his singer. One evening in May 1901, two Peasenhall busybodies, George Wright and Alphonso Skinner, saw Miss Harsent entering Crisp's place of worship, a small building known as the Doctor's Chapel. When the two young men saw William Gardiner surreptitiously follow her into the chapel, they quietly hurried over to the building and put their ears to the wall. Wright and Skinner heard Harsent yelp "Oh! Oh!" and then laugh. She then told Gardiner that she had been reading in the Bible about what they had just been doing. She was referring specifically to the 38th chapter of Genesis, dealing with Tamar and Onan.
If you're unfamiliar with the Old Testament, let me just mention that Dorothy Parker named her pet parrot "Onan" because "he spilled his seed upon the ground."
Well. Yes, exactly. If Wright and Skinner can be believed, Harsent and Gardiner were practicing something a good deal more colorful than hymns.
The two snoops could hardly wait to share the juicy results of their eavesdropping with everyone in Peasenhall. When Gardiner heard what was being said about him, he exploded with righteous indignation, and denied everything. He demanded a written apology from the two spies. After all, the rumors were causing his brother elders to launch an investigation into his allegedly scandalous private life. Wright and Skinner refused, asserting that their story was nothing more than the truth.
The senior members of the local Methodist sect held an informal trial on the question of Gardiner's morals. Although Wright, Skinner, and Gardiner all testified, Rose Harsent, curiously enough, was absent. Confronted with this "they said/he said" situation, the elders opted for damage control. They announced that the charges against Gardiner were unproven--not necessarily unfounded, mind you, just unproven--and they earnestly hoped that would be enough to make everyone forget the embarrassing little matter.
Naturally, the matter was not forgotten by anyone, least of all another local meddler, a Methodist lay preacher named Henry Rouse. Some weeks after the Doctor's Chapel incident, Rouse claimed he saw Gardiner and Harsent walking alone together down a lonely lane one night. Fearing that another scandal would "do the chapel a great deal of harm," Rouse later gave Gardiner a stern lecture on propriety. He recalled that Gardiner apologized and vowed to watch his behavior more carefully in the future. However, a month later, while Rouse was in the pulpit giving a sermon, he happened to glance behind him at the choir. To his horror, he saw Gardiner sitting with his feet up in Rose Harsent's lap. Gardiner himself denied either incident had ever taken place. Gardiner was beginning to get a great deal of practice in denials.
And then, some time around late November 1901, Rose became pregnant. She never revealed the name of the father of her expected child--in fact, after her efforts to induce an abortion failed, she attempted to keep her condition a secret. However, she knew she could not hide the pregnancy forever, after which she would be faced not only with losing her reputation, but her job, as well. There is no evidence she considered marriage to her lover, suggesting the man was in no position to offer her the only socially respectable way out of her predicament.
Rose continued in her increasingly worrisome situation until June 1, 1902. That morning, her father went to Providence House to bring Rose some of her laundry. He walked into the kitchen, only to find his daughter lying on the floor, near a staircase, dead. She was wearing only socks and her nightdress. She had been killed by several savage stab wounds to her throat and chest. After her death, paraffin had been used to burn her body, consuming most of her nightgown and charring her arms and lower body. A broken lamp was lying beside her, as well as a broken bottle that had held paraffin. The bottle had originally held medicine: it still bore a label reading "For Mrs. Gardiner's children." Also found with the body was a charred piece of newspaper. The publication was the "East Anglian Daily Times," a paper the Crisp household never read. William Gardiner was a subscriber, however.
There was a large pool of blood on the floor, but no footprints. This suggested that Harsent's murderer had stabbed her in the chest, then turned her toward the wall before slashing her throat from behind.
A search of the dead girl's bedroom revealed a note someone had written her the previous day. The writer said, "I will try to see you tonight at 12 o'clock at your Place if you Put a light in your window at 10 o'clock for about 10 minutes then you can take it out again, don't have a light in your Room at 12 as I will come round to the back."
The handwriting of this note looked very like William Gardiner's. Villagers also took note of the fact that he lived only 200 yards from Providence House. A neighbor recalled seeing Gardiner standing on his front porch shortly before 10 pm on the night Rose died. The neighbor noted that there was a light at the top of Providence House. James Morriss, a gamekeeper who had been walking on Peasenhall's main road at about five in the morning of June 1 testified that he had seen a set of muddy footprints (it had rained the previous night) leading from Gardiner's cottage to Providence House, and back again. He provided authorities with a sketch of these footprints, which contained marks matching a pair of shoes belonging to Gardiner. Not unnaturally, the Methodist elder became an excellent suspect in Rose Harsent's death. The working theory was that Rose arranged this midnight meeting to demand that Gardiner provide support for her and the upcoming child he had fathered. Instead, he took care of this embarrassing problem of his by getting rid of her and the unborn baby--permanently.
Gardiner, who was nothing if not consistent, denied everything. He did not write that note, he did not make a secret visit to Rose Harsent, he was not the father of her unborn child, and he most certainly did not kill her. It all did him little good. He was arrested and charged with murder.
The police were unable to pinpoint exactly when Harsent died. The doctor who examined her body could only narrow it down to between 12:30 and 6:30 am. The Crisps testified that on the fatal night, they had been awakened by a scream and a thud, which they unfortunately neglected to investigate. They could not say when this had happened.
The bad news continued to pile up for William Gardiner. A handwriting expert concluded that he had written the note found in Harsent's room. The envelope containing the letter was identical to those used at Gardiner's workplace. He owned a penknife which doctors stated could have been used as the murder weapon. It had been newly sharpened and cleaned when the police examined it, but blood was found inside the hinge. The medical experts could not say if the blood was animal or human. (Gardiner claimed he had used the knife to disembowel a rabbit.) A neighbor, Herbert Stammers, stated that about an hour before Harsent's body was discovered, he saw Gardiner start a bonfire near his wash-house. Was he burning his blood-stained clothing?
When Gardiner went on trial in November 1902, his lawyer, Ernest Wild, put up a very aggressive, if not particularly convincing defense. (A footnote: Leading the prosecution was Henry Dickens, son of the novelist.) Wild made some efforts to insinuate that Harsent's killer was a young neighbor, Frederick James Davis. Davis had, at the lady's request, provided Harsent with copies of pornographic poems, as well as the book on abortion that had such ineffective results. He admitted that he had also written Rose equally graphic love-letters, and had cherished an unfulfilled desire to bed her. However, there was, as Wild finally conceded, no reason whatsoever to believe Davis had any connection with her death. After the judge delivered a lecture on Davis' "abominable conduct," he was dismissed as a witness, as well as a suspect.
Wild strongly decried the intense local prejudice against his client. He argued that there was no proof that Gardiner and the dead girl had an improper relationship. He dismissed Rouse as a liar inspired by jealousy of Gardiner's superior position in their church. According to Wild, Morriss either was mistaken about when he had seen the footprints, or was simply inventing the whole tale. As Wild had been unable to shake the testimony of the prosecution's handwriting experts, he asserted that even if Gardiner had written the note to Harsent arranging the midnight meeting, that did not necessarily mean he had killed her. He emphasized that no blood had been found on any of his client's clothing. (In this regard, it should be noted that Gardiner claimed to own only two shirts. However, he also stated that his wife washed his clothes every two weeks, and that he changed his shirt every Sunday.)
The most prominent defense witness was the accused's wife, Georgina Gardiner, who swore that her husband had been in their bedroom all of the night of Harsent's death. She explained the broken bottle found near the dead girl with the assertion that some weeks earlier, she had filled the bottle with camphorated oil and given it to Harsent, who was suffering from a cold. She claimed that the bonfire Stammers saw was merely to boil a kettle of water.
Their next-door neighbor, Amelia Pepper, testified that she had been awake all night because of the storm, and never heard or saw anyone leaving Gardiner's home. When Gardiner himself took the stand, he, as usual, simply denied every bit of evidence against him, without offering much positive proof of his innocence.
The jury found themselves unable to reach a verdict. It emerged that eleven jurors voted for conviction, but one holdout stubbornly asserted that "I have heard nothing to convince me that he is guilty."
The prosecution was determined to try, try again, and Gardiner's second trial opened in January 1903. It was essentially a rehash of the first hearing, except for one amusing moment when Wild made the classic mistake of asking a witness he was cross-examining that one question too many. When he was grilling George Wright, Wild made an effort to get him to admit that Gardiner had freely admitted having been in the Doctor's Chapel with Harsent, but consistently denied that anything immoral had taken place.
Wright responded that, on the contrary, Gardiner had first denied ever being alone with Rose in the Chapel at all.
For once, Wild was left at a loss for words.
Harry Harsent, Rose's younger brother, changed his story from the first trial, when he had testified that he had never carried letters between his sister and Gardiner in 1902. He now admitted that he had. He thought it must have just slipped his memory.
Wild's concluding arguments relied heavily on sentimentalism, urging the jury to feel sympathy for Mrs. Gardiner, "this poor country girl." He said that if the jury did not believe her testimony, they would effectively be accusing her of being a perjured accomplice to murder. Wild strongly emphasized that after the Doctor's Chapel incident, Gardiner had been officially cleared of immorality by his fellow churchmen. He argued that the case against his client was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, so he therefore deserved an acquittal.
Dickens responded that such appeals to emotion had no place in a criminal court. Every piece of evidence in the case, he argued, pointed to Gardiner as the guilty party. There was no evidence that Skinner, Wright, Rouse, or Stammers were lying--particularly since they knew a man's life was at stake.
When it came time for this second jury to deliberate the case, they found that they were also unable to agree on a verdict. This time, curiously enough, it was eleven to one for acquittal. The passage of time is often on the side of an accused murderer. By this point, Rose Harsent was but a distant memory, while Gardiner and his sad, pathetically loyal wife were very much alive, both begging for sympathy and clemency. This second jury must have found it far easier than the first to give the Methodist elder the benefit of the doubt.
The prosecution decided a third trial would be futile. The Attorney General issued a writ of nolle prosequi, and Gardiner was freed, if not exactly exonerated. He and his family promptly moved to London, where he disappeared into anonymity until his death in 1941.
Most students of the Peasenhall Mystery agree that the eleven members of the first jury made the right call, but Gardiner does have his vigorous defenders. At least one crime historian theorized that Rose Harsent's death was an accident. The suggestion is that, as she came downstairs to meet her lover--whether it was Gardiner or someone else--she tripped and fell on the bottle she carried in her hand. The broken glass pieces stabbed her in the chest and throat. She dropped the lamp, which broke and caught on fire. Her mystery man saw this little scene and made a hurried exit. It has even been proposed that Georgina Gardiner killed her rival in a fit of jealousy. The thinking is that the wronged wife did not perjure herself to save her husband, but the unfaithful husband covered for his spouse.
Personally, however, I believe this is a case where Occam's Razor applies.