"...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 31, 2016

The Haskell Mystery: Did She or Didn't She?

Flora Haskell


It intrigues me how some crimes capture the public imagination and gain an eternal fame (see the ubiquitous "the Ripper, Jack") while other atrocities, no matter how well-publicized they were in their day, sink into an undeserved obscurity. For example, one of Edwardian England's strangest--and saddest--murders not only remains unsolved, but lies virtually forgotten. It was a true-life Halloween night horror.

Twelve-year-old Edwin "Teddy" Haskell and his 34-year-old mother Flora lived in Fisherton, a suburb of Salisbury, Wiltshire. When Teddy was six, he contracted tuberculosis in one of his legs, causing the limb to be amputated. Fortunately, the child coped with his loss quite well. He had little trouble getting around on crutches, and even played football with his friends. He was an engaging, cheerful boy who was well liked by everyone who knew him. The widowed Mrs. Haskell was a laundress with little money, but she and her son were devoted to each other, and seemed perfectly content with their lot. Despite her scanty income, Flora was saving as much cash as she could to buy her son an artificial leg.


Teddy Haskell


Around 10:30 on the night of October 31, 1908, Percy Noble, a nephew of Mrs. Haskell's went to her house to return a shilling he had borrowed. He knocked at her back door. There was a light in the kitchen. He heard a chair being moved, and a "thumping noise," but did not hear a door being opened or closed. He was startled to hear Flora scream. She flung open the door and shrieked, "Go and see if you can see that man. He has killed my poor Teddy. Go for a doctor!" Noble looked up and down the road, but could not see anyone. He fetched a doctor, as well as a police sergeant.

When neighbors and the police went upstairs, they found Teddy's corpse lying in his bed. Someone had slit his throat. A blood-stained knife was lying at the bottom of the stairs near the kitchen. The upstairs drawer where the money for Teddy's cork leg was stashed had been broken open, and part of the cash was gone.

Contemporary newspaper photo of the Haskell home.


The story Mrs. Haskell told police was both extremely simple and bafflingly weird. She claimed that after putting Teddy to bed, she went to sit in the kitchen. A short while later, she heard a noise. Thinking it was a visitor, she went to the front door. Then suddenly, a strange man ran down the stairs, shoved her aside, and fled into the night, throwing a bloody knife at her before he vanished.

Flora could give only a partial description of the man, who was not seen by any of her neighbors. Police could find no trace of him. Investigators learned that the murder weapon was a knife belonging to Mrs. Haskell. It had recently been sharpened. The more the police pondered Mrs. Haskell's story, the less they believed it. Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard (who later gained fame by arresting Dr. Crippen) was particularly insistent that Mrs. Haskell was the guilty party, and successfully argued that she be arrested. "If I did it...I don't remember," she said plaintively.

Teddy's funeral


The bereaved mother made a pitiful sight at her murder trial. A reporter described her as "a careworn, listless, frail woman," who "hardly seemed to realise her position." The prosecution argued that Flora killed her son out of a misplaced sense of "mercy." The murder, they suggested, was an act of euthanasia, in order to spare her child from the hard life of a cripple. The savage act, they declared, was "one of those extraordinary abnormal conditions which overtake human beings sometimes." It was a weak theory that was undermined by the numerous witnesses who testified how well the boy managed his disability, and that his mother never expressed any fears for his future. One of her friends said firmly, "Everything a mother ought to be, she was." The defense argued that Teddy had simply been killed by a burglar. (They could not explain why the thief would so gruesomely kill a helpless child, while leaving his mother unharmed.)

The prosecution's strongest evidence lay in the blood-stained clothing Flora had worn on the night of the murder. Medical experts testified that the stains showed no "splash," such as would be expected if a bloody knife had been thrown at her. Similarly, blood found in the Haskell kitchen was consistent with the knife being laid down, not dropped or thrown. The Crown also pointed out the strange fact that according to Flora's story, she did not go upstairs after seeing the mystery man come down, but she instantly concluded that he had murdered her son.

The jury was left with a grim conundrum: It seemed nearly impossible to picture this hard-working, decent woman brutally killing her beloved only child, but if she didn't, who did? In the end, the jurors were left hopelessly deadlocked. Flora was tried a second time, with this jury returning an acquittal.

After she was released, Flora Haskell moved to London, where she died of tuberculosis in 1920. No other suspects in her son's peculiarly savage and puzzling murder were ever found.

11 comments:

  1. What a sad tale. It seems clear from the evidence we have that Flora Haskell killed her son. The explanation she gave was ludicrously unrealistic. The evidence against her was circumstantial, so the acquittal was probably correct, legally. Even her statement that, if she had committed the murder' she didn't recall it, seems a half-hearted denial. Her motive is the real mystery.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree. My theory is that she planned a murder/suicide. Perhaps for whatever private reasons, Flora felt like she had had enough of life, and she and her son would both be best out of it. But then, after killing Teddy, she chickened out of killing herself, and in a panic, quickly thought up this weird--but not absolutely impossible--cover story of an intruder.

      Unfortunately, we'll never know what really happened.

      Delete
    2. I wouldn't be too sure about that. Its not as if blood spatter patterns had actually been studied at the time, besides which she didn't say the knife had hit her. And what would you think if someone carrying a bloody knife came running down your stairs from your child's bedroom?

      Nope. I'm leaving this as unsolved imo.

      Delete
  2. I agree it seems self-evident that she murdered her son. Some of the poorest working class people in that era treated their children in a way that seems extremely callous to us today, and she would hardly be the first Victorian/Edwardian mother I've heard of who killed her children because they were economically inconvenient or a threat to her social standing. The burglar/murderer is clearly an on the hoof fabrication concocted when she was surprised by an unexpected visitor and her behaviour under investigation and trial shows that she scarcely expected to be believed. Her acquittal seems strange at first, until we remember that British juries at the time sometimes showed mercy in this way if they felt that the accused had acted out of desperation and were already experiencing more suffering than the court could inflict upon them.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This reminds me of that 1970s murder, where the parents took out life insurance on the children, then gave them poisoned Pixie sticks mixed in with their Halloween candy. The Haskell case is like the "prequel." If she did kill the son for his crutch money, then died of the tuberculosis that crippled him, then it does look somewhat like karma.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Which in turn reminds me of Christiana Edmunds, the infamous Chocolate Cream Killer. She killed because she was insane rather than seeking financial gain, but it's worth reading about her case. I don't know if it will be shown in the US but there is a 2 part drama currently showing on UK tv about Mary Anne Cotton called Dark Angel. She seemed to view all her nearest and dearest as potentially profitable to her...

      Delete
  4. This one's a tough one for me. Maybe she owed someone money, for a gambling habit perhaps, and they threatened to kill her son if she didn't pay. They may have also known where she stashed her savings and that she'd never use that money for anything but her son's leg. But, if she told the police who it was and why it happened, she'd also be implicating herself and possibly friends. So she decided to play dumb knowing that jury's go easy on women - and mother's whose children have just been murdered.
    Or, she could've had these gambling debts (or maybe just something more ordinary like a rent increase or job loss) and was forced to use the money she had been saving for her son. When she realized she would never be able to afford his fake leg and he would never be able to marry and lead a normal life she decided to kill him to spare him. To make it as quick and painless as possible she sharpened the knife and killed him while he slept.
    Or, maybe her son knew where the money was, used it to buy something frivolous like sweets, and she flew into a rage. How dare he do something so stupid when she'd worked so hard to save that money to give him a better life! So she murdered him and tried to blame it on some fake intruder. Sharpening a knife is a normal thing people do and could've just been a coincidence. She may have also had to take money from her savings from time to time in order to make ends meet.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I don't know. I just don't have the feeling that she did it. Maybe... maybe she went to visit a man after Teddy was asleep? And couldn't admit to that in front of everyone? I don't know. But it sounds like she loved him.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Nothing to do with the case, but where was Teddy's father - had he and Flora separated?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She was a widow, but I don't know for how long.

      Delete
  7. He had died of turbuculous 3 years before If I remember correctly, There is a brillant book about this case called 'If i did it I don't Remember' By 'Frogg' Moody. My friend lives in the house it happened in!!

    ReplyDelete

Comments are moderated. The author of this blog reserves the right to delete remarks from spammers, trolls, idiots, lunatics, jerks, and anyone who happens to annoy me on days when I've gotten out of bed the wrong way. Which is usually any day ending with a "y."