"...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, February 6, 2017

The Camden Town Murder

Emily Dimmock

In mid-1907, a young married couple, Bert and Phyllis Shaw, moved into a Camden Town, London rooming house run by a Mrs. Stocks. The Shaws seemed a pleasant and perfectly ordinary working-class couple. The 19-year-old Bert was a dining-car cook for the Midland Railway. Phyllis was a vivacious and highly attractive 23-year-old.

Life went on an apparently unremarkable course for some weeks. However, during Bert's frequent absences from home, Phyllis kept herself busy with pursuits that would soon lead to one of the most famous crime mysteries of the Edwardian era.

On the morning of September 12, 1907, Bert's mother paid an expected visit to the Stocks rooming house. Phyllis was supposed to have met her at the station, but unaccountably failed to show up.  Mrs. Stocks told her that Bert was at work, and his bride was apparently still in bed.

As the two women were chatting, Bert arrived home. He told them that he'd run up and fetch Phyllis. A couple of minutes later, he returned, looking decidedly out of sorts. The door was locked, he said, and she didn't answer his knocks. He got the spare key to the room from his landlady and led the women back upstairs.

When he opened the door, they were nonplussed to see that the front parlor had been ransacked. Cupboards and drawers had been yanked open, and their contents flung haphazardly to the ground. Bert rushed to the bedroom door, to find that was locked as well. By now in a state of panic, he flung violently at the door and broke it open.

By this point, all three knew there was reason to be alarmed, but it is unlikely they were at all prepared for the horror that greeted them. The small room was covered in blood. And the naked body of Phyllis Shaw was sprawled on the bed. Her throat had been cut so violently she was nearly decapitated. Her facial expression was eerily peaceful and there were no signs of a struggle, suggesting that the victim had been taken unawares sometime during the night, probably as she slept.  The murder weapon was never found.

The police soon learned that Mr. and Mrs. Shaw were not nearly what they had seemed. "Phyllis" was, in reality, named Emily Dimmock. She and Bert were not married.

Emily was born into a working-class family. While still in her teens, she made a go at working in domestic service, but such a dreary existence was not at all to her liking. She soon jettisoned manual labor for the much more congenial life of a prostitute. The pretty, seductive girl had no problem attracting a large clientele. Among her gentlemen friends was Bert Shaw. The two hit it off so well that he invited her to live with him as his wife. He offered her security and stability, so she readily agreed.  However, she led a double life. During Bert's long hours on the railway, she continued to bring men to their room, expertly slipping her guests past the prying gaze of her landlady. It was soon established that Bert Shaw was many miles away from home at the time of the murder, so he was easily ruled out as a suspect. It was obvious that the poor woman had been murdered by one of her clients. But who was he?

The killer had taken with him a few valuables: Bert's cigarette-case and watch, as well as Emily's purse and "wedding ring." The oddest sign of disarray was something that was not missing, but found on the scene. Emily had the habit of collecting postcards in an album. This album was lying open in her bedroom. Some of the postcards had been torn out. Remains of a dinner for two were found on a table in the parlor. Emily Dimmock's last meal was eaten in the company of her murderer.

Emily's favorite place to meet men was a Camden Town pub called the Rising Sun. Police inquiries revealed that a few days before her death, Emily was at the pub, where she picked up a sailor named Robert Percival Roberts. He was so taken with the young woman that he spent the following two nights in her company. He told police that he would have liked to have spent the night of September 11--what proved to be Emily's last night on earth--with her as well, but she told him she had made an appointment with another client. Like Bert Shaw, Roberts had a watertight alibi for the night of the murder, but he was able to give investigators their first important clue. He told them that as he was preparing to sneak out of Emily's room on the morning of the 11th, a neighbor slipped two pieces of mail under her door. One was an advertising circular, but the other was a letter. Emily showed it to Roberts, as proof that she could not see him that evening. Roberts recalled that the note read, "Will you meet me at the Eagle, Camden Town, 8:30 tonight, Wednesday?" It was signed, "Bert."

Emily had also shown Roberts one of her postcards, which was written in the same handwriting as the note. It read, "Phillis darling, if it pleases you meet me at 8:15 p.m. at the..." followed by a sketch of a rising sun. The signature was, "Yours to a cinder, Alice." Afterwards, Emily burned the letter and placed the postcard in a drawer. (Charred fragments of the letter were later found in the fireplace, corroborating Roberts' story.)

Detectives theorized that this card--presumably written by Emily's murderer--was what prompted the killer to search her rooms. The card was not immediately found, and the presumption was that the fiend had taken it away with him. However, as Bert Shaw was packing his possessions--resuming life at Mrs. Stocks' rooming house understandably held no appeal for him--he found the card, hidden behind a newspaper lining of a drawer.

The "Alice" card was reprinted in dozens of newspapers, in the hope that someone would recognize the handwriting. On September 29, the "News of the World" offered a £100 reward for anyone who could provide information about "Alice."

Ruby Young

Among the "News of the World's" readers was a young woman named Ruby Young. She liked to call herself an artist's model, but that was merely a discreet cover for the fact that she followed the same profession as the late Emily Dimmock. She immediately recognized the postcard's handwriting as that belonging to her former lover, a young engraver named Robert Wood. Before she could contact police, Wood himself showed up at her door. When she confronted him about the card, he did not bother denying that it was his. What he wanted from her was her silence.

Robert Wood

Wood explained that a few days before the murder, he had visited the Rising Sun, where he made the acquaintance of a personable lady who gave her name as "Phyllis." As they drank and chatted, "Phyllis" asked him to buy her a postcard. Instead, Wood offered her one he had in his pocket. Phyllis asked him to write something on it and send it to her, as a memento. She told him to sign the card, "Alice." Wood told Ruby that he had seen "Phyllis" at the pub on a couple of further occasions over the next two days, but that had been the extent of his involvement with her. He begged Ruby not to go to the police, which would only serve to involve him in a crime of which he was, of course, completely innocent.

Ruby was still very fond of Wood, and had no wish to cause him trouble. Tempting though the reward may have been, she promised not to contact the authorities.

The writing of the now-famous "Alice" card was also recognized by a Mr. Tinkham, the foreman at the factory where Wood worked. Robert implored him to keep this information to himself. "My father's health is in a bad state," he explained. "If he learns I've been consorting with prostitutes it could kill him." Tinkham, like Ruby, was touched by the pleas of this young man who had always impressed him as kind, courteous, and talented. He agreed.

Wood, unfortunately for himself, tried just too hard to establish an alibi. On September 20, Wood went to a friend of his named Joseph Lambert. On the night of September 11, Lambert had entered a pub, where he saw Wood talking to a young woman with her hair in curlers. Lambert did not know the girl, but easily surmised she was a prostitute. Wood was obviously concerned about that chance meeting. He confided that Tinkham was "talking about the Camden Town murder. If he says anything to you, will you tell him that we met and had a drink, but leave the girl out?"

Lambert instantly realized that he had seen Wood with the murder victim just hours before her death. When he confronted Wood with this, his friend glibly repeated his line about his ailing father, and assured Lambert that he, Wood, could easily "clear myself."

Lambert knew and liked Wood's family. Wishing to spare them any unnecessary trouble, he joined the growing list of people willing to keep their mouths shut for Robert Wood.

As it happened, all Wood's efforts to keep his name out of the investigation were for naught. A friend of Dimmock's, Emily Lawrence, had given detectives a detailed description of a young man who had had drinks with Dimmock in the Rising Sun on September 9. Dimmock had later told Lawrence that she was afraid of this man, whom she only referred to as "that bastard," although she did not say why. Police turned up a number of witnesses who had seen Dimmock with a man of this same description on the three nights preceding her death. They all described him as about thirty years old and 5'8" tall. He had a "long thin blotchy face and sunken eyes...a man of good education and of shabby-genteel appearance." This was an excellent description of Robert Wood.

Police had also talked to a man named Robert McCowan who had been walking by the Stocks rooming house around 4:45 a.m. on the morning of September 12. He had seen a man leave the rooming house--a man who must have killed Emily just a short time earlier. McCowan did not see his face clearly, but noted that the man had a distinctive jerky walk.

Wood's final piece of bad luck came when Ruby Young, troubled by Wood's strange insistence on her silence, confided the whole story to a girlfriend. She added that Wood had also made her promise that if the police contacted her, she was to give him a false alibi. This friend could not resist sharing this juicy bit of information to a man she was friendly with.

This man was a journalist for the "Weekly Dispatch."

The journalist wasted no time in going to Ruby Young. Seeing that the cat was well and truly out of the bag, she reluctantly agreed to tell him everything she knew. He arranged a meeting with her at Piccadilly Station. What he did not tell her was that he was bringing along a third party to this interview: Inspector Arthur Neil of Scotland Yard.

When Neil heard Young's story, he was instantly convinced that he finally had the name of Emily Dimmock's killer. He arrested Wood on October 4th.

At the police station, Wood behaved with the same curiously oblivious stupidity he had shown ever since the murder. He gave a statement repeating the less-than-truthful tale he had fed Ruby Young and Mr. Tinkham. He also repeated the false alibi he had asked Young to tell police, blissfully unaware that she had already told Neil about how Wood had asked her to lie for him. He claimed that on the night of the murder, he was at his home with his father, who was ill in bed.  Unsurprisingly, he was then escorted to a cell in Brixton jail, where he awaited trial by making a number of sketches, many of which were reprinted in the newspapers.

Wood's trial at the Old Bailey began three months to the day after Emily Dimmock's body was discovered. People who knew Wood expressed their passionate disbelief that this soft-spoken young man from a respectable family could possibly have committed such a grotesque crime. His employers readily put up £1000 towards his defense. Wood's boyish looks, mild manner, and obvious artistic talent gained him much public sympathy. It also did not hurt his case that many saw the victim as a wretched "fallen woman" who had undoubtedly gotten what was coming to her.

The trial went along fairly predictable lines. Crown counsel Sir Charles Mathews naturally stressed Wood's clumsy, desperate attempts to set up false alibis for himself. Numerous witnesses identified Wood as the "shabby-genteel" man so often in Dimmock's company before her murder. Mathews also noted that when Dimmock met Wood in the Eagle, she was wearing curlers in her hair. Surely, such casual dress indicated that Wood was someone well-known and familiar to her. If he had been a stranger, she would have taken more pains with her appearance. Several women attested that they knew Wood had been acquainted with Dimmock for at least a year and a half. Even Wood had had to concede that he indeed had written the "Rising Sun" postcard and the letter Dimmock had shown Roberts. Mathews demonstrated that Wood had an odd gait similar to that of the man McCowan had observed leaving the murder scene.  The Rising Sun's barmaid related seeing Wood and Dimmock together in the pub on the night of September 11.  She said the pair left together at about 9:30.  Wood was the last known person to see Emily alive.  Although Wood claimed that he and Emily parted company outside the pub, he had no alibi for several hours after leaving the Rising Sun

Wood in the dock. From the "Penny Illustrated Paper"

Wood did not do himself any favors when he took the witness stand. He came off as insincere and unsettlingly blasé about being accused of a woman's brutal murder. He tended to smile at odd moments, and, in general, seemed to view his trial as a rather uninteresting stage production. He spent most of his time in court sketching the participants.  In "Science and the Criminal," written a few years after the trial, Charles Ainsworth Mitchell observed,
"Throughout his ordeal Wood seemed to be more concerned about the impression he was making upon the spectators in court than about the necessity of accounting satisfactorily for many suspicious circumstances that told against him.

"So well did he appear to be able to control his emotions that, as he himself wrote afterwards, he could notice whether one of the actresses who attended the trial day by day, smiled upon him. 
"Never for one moment did he lose this self-control or appear otherwise than an unconcerned witness of the events upon which his life depended. 
"This absence of nerves in the accused is what struck most people as one of the strangest features in a strange trial, and caused Mr. Hall Caine, who was present in the court throughout the whole time, to write of him: 'That he felt nothing I will not dare to say, that his mental processes were not frequently stirred to such pain as comes of baffling difficulties, but that the ordeal of his trial was a terrible one to him I absolutely refuse to believe. Robert Wood, innocent of the murder of Emily Dimmock, is yet the most remarkable man alive.' 
"In what trial upon a charge of murder has there ever been witnessed the sight of the prisoner, whose life was hanging in the balance, laughing and chatting with his friends, and making sketches of the judge, the counsel, and the witnesses? Even at the most crucial moment of the trial, when the jury had withdrawn to consider their verdict he exhibited no trace of anxiety, but until called below sat calmly sketching, while he waited for their return. 
"And thus Mr. Hall Caine wondered, as he got the prisoner to sign his name upon the back of a copy of the charred fragments of the letter, whether 'with all his mental alertness, his intellectual activity, his temperamental composure, this was not one of those men, the rare and mysterious men, who lack some necessary quality on the moral side of their nature.'"

What probably saved Wood was the fact that his employer's money had bought the pricey services of Edward Marshall Hall, one of the great defense advocates of his era. Hall was a masterful tactician and brilliant orator who had a gift for hypnotizing juries and bending them to his will. Robert Wood was a particularly difficult defense case, but Hall was in his prime and more than ready for the challenge.

Hall soon made short work of McCowan's eyewitness testimony. Despite the fact that McCowan had picked Wood out of a lineup as the man he had observed leaving Dimmock's house, (he instantly recognized Wood's walk,) Hall was able to get the hapless man to concede that the light had been poor when he walked past the rooming house. Without too much trouble, he was able to browbeat McCowan into admitting that well, no, when it came down to it, he could not be certain the man he saw was actually leaving the Stocks home, let alone that the mystery man was in fact the defendant.

Wood's sketch of Ruby Young in the courtroom

Ruby Young's seemingly damning testimony was similarly demolished when Hall presented her with a deceptively simple question. Referring to Wood's request that she provide him with an alibi, Hall asked, "Have you ever thought that, regarding the evidence of Dr. Thompson, who places the time of murder at three or four o'clock in the morning, the alibi Wood arranged with you from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. on the previous evening to the murder would be a useless alibi for the murder, but a perfect alibi for the meeting of the girl?"

Young sheepishly admitted this hadn't occurred to her.

Hall hammered into the jurors' heads that the defendant had no motive to kill Dimmock. The articles stolen from her room had never been traced to Wood. Neither had the murder weapon. He dismissed Wood's clumsy falsehoods as the natural result of an innocent man who feared embarrassing himself and his family by the revelation that he associated with prostitutes. By the time he was through, the judge had no choice but to instruct the jury that "strong as the suspicion in this case undoubtedly is, I do not think that the prosecution has brought the case home near enough to the deceased."

Wood's portrait of the judge, Mr. Justice Grantham

With those words, everyone knew that Robert Wood's neck was safe. The jury's verdict of "Not Guilty" was received with enthusiastic cheers by the crowd gathered outside the courtroom. Theatrical productions were interrupted to deliver the glad news of the acquittal. London treated Wood like a popular hero. Ruby Young, on the other hand, had to be smuggled out of the building for her own safety. Vox populi saw her as a Judas who betrayed her lover for, not the usual thirty pieces of silver, but £100. (Money she never received, incidentally.)

In the face of such public hostility, Young changed her name and disappeared somewhere in London's underclass. One report says she eventually married a journalist. It is also uncertain what became of Robert Wood.  It has been stated that he too adopted a different name and emigrated to Australia, where he found success as a commercial artist.  Others claim he kept his real name and remained in England, where he married, had children, and lived to a ripe and happy old age.

No one else was ever charged with Emily Dimmock's murder, although the mystery has inspired a good deal of speculation. Perhaps, some argue, Dimmock was murdered by a casual pickup who was never identified? Others wonder if, after all, Bert Shaw could somehow have secretly slipped off his train and returned home just long enough to murder his faithless "wife." Several of Dimmock's clients had contracted syphilis from her, and at least two of these men had vowed to "cut her" because of it. Could one of them have come through on this threat? There have even been efforts--inspired by Patricia Cornwell's eccentric belief that artist Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper--to tie that painter to this later prostitute killing. (Side note: Sickert did a ghoulish series of paintings inspired by Dimmock's murder.)

Although defendants have been hanged on far less evidence, it is fair to say that Robert Wood deserved acquittal. The case against him, while highly suggestive, lacked definitive proof. There is, however, one item that provides a haunting coda to this case.  As noted before, during his trial, Wood entertained himself by sketching people in the courtroom. He also produced one drawing that Edward Marshall Hall must have been deeply thankful the jury never saw. It was a sketch of a woman very like the one Wood had been accused of murdering. He depicted this woman as an alluring but heartless puppetmaster, toying with and discarding men for her own amusement.

From what we know of him, Wood was the classic example of a "proper" middle-class gentleman who was attracted to the wild side. He enjoyed the society of London's shadier characters--something he had been very anxious to hide from his family. (Wood described his relatives as "a bit goody-goody.") He was both irresistibly attracted to women like Emily Dimmock and disgusted by them. He recognized their power over him, and hated them for it.

Perhaps that was what Dimmock feared about Wood. She instinctively sensed hatred behind his meek demeanor.

Hatred enough to cause Wood, in one dark, impulsive moment, to pick up a kitchen knife or one of Bert's razors, and slit her throat as she slept?

[Note: Many years after Wood's acquittal, Edward Marshall Hall told his daughter that at the time of the trial, he sincerely believed his client to be innocent. However, he came to believe otherwise. Unfortunately, we do not know what led to Hall's change of opinion.]


  1. The police investigation seems to have been very thorough. The leading detective, Arthur Neil, went on to head the 'brides in the bath' murder case, and become on of Scotland Yard's 'Big Four'. he evidently knew how to investigate.

  2. If only Emily had remained in the navy...

  3. The sketches are really very good. I find it disturbing to think of a person with such artistic talent committing such a seemingly pointless crime.

    On the other hand . . . syphilis.

  4. There's a good book about this case by John Barber. Despite the supposed respectability his middle class status conferred upon him and Hall's impressive persuasion of juries of the era, Wood was probably the perpetrator. Her transmitting a potentially fatal STD to clients certainly was motive, and many 'johns' are both demeaning towards and jealous over prostitutes they're involved with.


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