"...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, January 16, 2017

The Tragedy at Otterburn




Evelyn Foster worked as a driver at her father's taxi service in Otterburn, a small English village near the Scottish border. On January 6, 1931, at about 7 p.m., the 28-year-old was flagged down by a stranger who was standing near a car with several people inside. The man told her these people had been giving him a lift, but they were going to Hexham, and he wanted to go to Newcastle. The man asked Evelyn to take him to Ponteland, around 20 miles away, where he hoped to catch a bus to Newcastle. She told him she could drive him back to Otterburn, and then see where he could get a bus.

Driving alone with people she did not know was perhaps not the safest occupation, but Foster was a strong, practical woman who figured she could take care of herself. Besides, the man was well-dressed, soft-spoken, and gentlemanly. Certainly, there was nothing at all to alarm anyone.

When they arrived at the Foster garage, she told him the drive would cost him £2, and he readily agreed. While she refilled the car with gas, her customer said he would have a drink at the nearby Percy Arms. After a few minutes, she went to the pub to collect him, and the pair drove off.

The narrative of what happened next was pieced together from Evelyn's later statements: As they drove off, the two chatted casually. The passenger--who never gave his name--told Foster he was from the Midlands. (She thought he had a Tyneside accent.) He seemed to know a lot about cars. All was perfectly normal until they reached the town of Belsay, six miles from their destination. Then, the man abruptly told Foster to turn back. "Why?" she asked.

His mild manner suddenly changed. "That's nothing to do with you," he snarled. He reached over and grabbed the steering wheel. "No!" she protested. "I will do the driving." His answer was to punch her in the eye, temporarily blinding her. He shoved her over to the side of the car, leaving her arms pinned to her sides, and took the wheel, driving back towards Otterburn.

Just outside of the village, he stopped at a place called Wolf's Nick. With peculiar casualness, he offered Foster a cigarette. She refused. "Well, you are an independent young woman," he said mockingly.

At this point, Foster's recollection of that night turned hazy and confused. All she could remember was the man beating her and practically throwing her in the back of the car. Then he raped her. Afterwards, as she was lying there in a daze, she got a vague sense of him taking a bottle out of his pocket and pouring something on her. The next thing she knew, she was on fire. Somehow, she was able to crawl out of the car and drag her burned body out to the road, praying for someone to come by and help her.

She lay there until ten o'clock, when Cecil Johnson and Tommy Rutherford, two of her co-workers, happened to drive by. They stopped when they saw the now-smoldering automobile. When the two men went over to investigate, they immediately recognized the burned-out car as one belonging to their firm.

Foster was lying a few yards away. She was still alive, although barely conscious. "It was that awful man," she moaned to them. "Oh, that awful man. He has gone in a motor-car."

Johnson and Rutherford drove her to her family's home, and a doctor was instantly summoned, but there was nothing he or anyone else could do for the horribly burned woman. She was just able to tell her story of what had happened before she died early the next morning. It was noted that despite her agony, she was still completely lucid. Her last words were "I have been murdered."

At first, everyone presumed the murderer would be quickly caught. Surely, the people who had given the man a lift before Foster met him would come forward and tell anything they knew about him. Surely the Percy Arms barman and others in the vicinity would be able to give a fuller description of him. If he got a ride afterward in another car or a bus, his movements could be traced. And if he fled his crime on foot, in this remote and lonely area he would easily be spotted. And there were other clues--a man's glove was found near the car, as well as a footprint. The police could be pardoned for thinking the killer had made it almost too easy for them.

But all these leads, all these clues, proved to be completely useless. After launching the biggest manhunt Northumberland had ever seen, investigators could not find one other person who had seen anyone matching Foster's description of her attacker. It was as if the man was a phantom, seen by no one but his victim. The barman at the Percy Arms claimed that no stranger had come into the pub on the fatal night. Evelyn Foster had not come by, either.

In fact, the more police looked into Foster's story, the more unlikely it sounded. Although she had said the man set the fire while they were on the side of the road, and then pushed the car off into a ditch, there was no burn marks between the road and the ditch. It was determined that the car had been slowly driven off the road, and then set on fire after it stopped. The fire had originated from behind the car, not in front, and it was believed that it had been set using a tin of gas carried in the luggage box at the back of the car. They also began to question her story about the man pinning her against her seat and then driving back to Wolf's Neck. It would have been very difficult for anyone to maneuver the car in such a position. And why didn't she use her foot to put on the brake?

Law enforcement felt their doubts about Foster's account were confirmed when they read her autopsy report. She had not been raped. In fact, she had died a virgin. And there was no sign she had been struck on her face or head. In short, they became convinced her entire story was a fabrication, meant to cover the fact that she herself had set fire to the car--probably for the insurance money--and while doing so, accidentally set herself ablaze, as well. The Coroner agreed with this theory, and at Foster's inquest, practically directed the jury to come to that conclusion. Instead, they defiantly returned a verdict of "willful murder against some person unknown."

Everyone who had known Foster agreed with the jury, and were outraged that the police tried to blame her for her horrific death. She had been known as an honest, hard-working, self-respecting sort. A scheme like the one outlined by the police was entirely foreign to her nature. Besides, the insurance company would not have paid any more than the car's current market value, which would be less than £100. She had a healthy bank balance, and was in no need of money. Nevertheless, Otterburn's police captain issued a statement asserting that the attacker Foster described simply did not exist. As far as the authorities were concerned, the case was closed.

The case was closed, but was it solved? It has been pointed out that these refutations of Foster's story could themselves be refuted. The man could have been waiting outside the Percy Arms for her, which would explain why the barman did not see either of them come in. It is also possible that the man could have struck her hard enough to leave her temporarily stunned, but not so hard as to leave visible marks. The claim that she had been raped could have arisen from a misunderstanding. When Evelyn was first asked what had happened to her, she said nothing about rape. Later, when her mother asked if the man had "interfered" with her, Evelyn said yes, but she might not have interpreted that as referring to a sexual attack. In fact, it was the police, not Evelyn's mother, who translated that as meaning Foster said she was raped. Also, Foster never carried matches or a lighter, and nothing of that sort was found near the car. So, how could she have set it on fire?

Most crime historians who have studied this case believe that Foster was indeed the victim of a particularly horrible murder. So, who was this man? Why did he commit this senseless savagery? How did he escape? Was he guilty of other murders?

We have no idea.

Ernest Brown


[Note: In his 1977 book "The Burning of Evelyn Foster," Jonathan Goodman offered a possible suspect for Foster's murder. Two years after her death, a farm hand named Ernest Brown shot his employer and tried to burn the body in a car. The motive was simple jealousy--Brown was sleeping with his employer's wife. The farm was not very far from Otterburn--in fact, Brown had a friend who lived just outside of Foster's village. Goodman pointed out that Brown's appearance generally matched Foster's description of her attacker--he was also a natty dresser and had a Tyneside accent. Having a friend who lived near Otterburn would have given him a convenient hiding place after the murder. Just before Brown was executed for his crime, the chaplain advised him to confess his other sins, in order to make his peace with God. Brown responded with a mumble that has been interpreted as "Ought to burn." Goodman wondered if perhaps he had really said "Otterburn." Was he confessing to Foster's murder? It's an ingenious theory, although highly tenuous, and still fails to give a motive for the crime.]

3 comments:

  1. Aaargh, another case which could go either way. The epilogue concerning Goodman's book is particularly tantalising. A good article!

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  2. Maybe the other people in the car were accomplices, who travelled back to Wolf's Nick to pick the alleged murderer up?

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    1. I think it's likely that they did know the man, but accomplices in what? That's the tricky part. What was done to Evelyn seems so utterly pointless.

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