"...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, April 17, 2017

A Murder in Manchester

Illustrated Police News, 1880

One of the unexpected lessons learned from studying true-crime is that it can be unnervingly easy to get away with murder. If the killer is prudent enough not to commit the deed before a crowd of eyewitnesses and neglects to leave a business card behind, it's often difficult to trace the perpetrator. Even more importantly, if investigators are unable to find a strong motive anyone might have for seeing the victim dead, it usually requires some amazing stroke of blind luck to arrest a suspect, never mind secure a conviction. One perfect example of this dilemma is an undeservedly obscure mystery from 1880 England.

Richard and Mary Ann Greenwood of Harpurhey, Manchester, were well-to-do people in their seventies. Mr. Greenwood was somewhat deaf, but otherwise in decent health for his age. Mrs. Greenwood, on the other hand, was a semi-invalid who spent most of her time in her bedroom. The housekeeping and general management of the household was left to the Greenwoods' servant of nearly one year, 18-year-old Sarah Jane Roberts.

Fortunately for the Greenwoods, Sarah was a gem of an employee. She was pretty, intelligent, tidy, hard-working, and honest. Plus, she had a sunny and easygoing temperament that brightened the home considerably. She took excellent care of both the home and Mrs. Greenwood, and the elderly couple in turn thought of her more as a friend and companion than a mere servant. Naturally, such an attractive and estimable young woman had her share of male admirers, but she did nothing to encourage them. So far as her family and friends could tell, she never had any particular man in her life. Sarah was largely uninterested in social gaiety of any sort, being a somewhat reserved person who "kept herself to herself." In short, Sarah Jane Roberts seemed to be the most ideally normal young person in Manchester.

This is what makes her death so very, very weird.

Our story opens on January 7, 1880. The day was passing in an utterly normal fashion in the Greenwood household. Around noon William Cooper, a friend and former business partner of Mr. Greenwood's, came by on a casual social call. As Sarah was letting him in, he brought her attention to an envelope lying on the floor. It bore no stamp, and had apparently been merely pushed under the door or through the mail slot. He did not see the address on the envelope. When Sarah picked it up, she said, "It's for Mr. Greenwood."

When Greenwood opened the letter, he found that it read:

Mr. Greenwood, I want to take that land near the coal yard behind the druggist's shop. Queen's road. I will pay either monthly, quarterly, or yearly, and will pay in advance, and I will meet you to-night from five to six o'clock at the Three Tuns, corner of Churnet Street, and will tell you all particulars, I don't know your address or would have posted it.

Yours, etc.,
W. Wilson, Oldham Road
The letter referred to a parcel of land Greenwood owned. Greenwood had no interest in selling the property, and was inclined to just ignore the note. His wife, however, urged him to at least meet with the man and see what he had to say. He reluctantly agreed.

When Greenwood arrived at the Three Tuns, an inn about one mile from his home, he was irked to find that no one had been around asking for him. For that matter, no one there had ever heard of any "W. Wilson." After fruitlessly waiting around for about fifteen minutes, Greenwood concluded that he had been the victim of a particularly childish practical joke, and at about ten to seven, set out on the walk home.

As he approached his house, he was startled to see a small crowd gathered around it. Among the people present were two policemen. Greenwood soon learned that during his brief absence, something inexplicably terrible had happened.

At about 5:30--soon after Greenwood had left for his wild-goose chase--the milkman, James Partington, came by the house. Sarah took in the delivery, in her usual cheerful spirits. The milkman saw no one else on the road. Twenty minutes later, Mrs. Greenwood got out of bed, with Sarah helping her dress. Then the girl went to the kitchen to wash dishes, leaving her mistress sitting by the fireplace. A few minutes later, Mrs. Greenwood heard a knock at the door. She heard the door open, and quiet footsteps going from the lobby to the kitchen. She had the impression that she heard the steps of two people. All was quiet for a few minutes. And then Mrs. Greenwood heard a woman let out a loud scream of sudden terror. The old lady was startled and panic-stricken, but she overcame her fears enough to go out on the landing. "Jane, what is the matter?" she called out. The only answer she received was another scream, much weaker than the first. Then...complete silence.

Mrs. Greenwood was trembling so badly she was momentarily paralyzed. She was too terrified to go down to that kitchen. After a moment, she was able to bring herself to creep down the stairs and outside the front door, where she began yelling for help.

A neighbor, Mrs. Eliza Cadman, had also heard the screams. She came to see what was wrong. The two women worked up the courage to go into the kitchen, where they found Sarah's blood-soaked figure lying on the floor. Someone had smashed her head in. The girl remained unconscious until she died a few moments later. Other than her head wounds, there were no other injuries on the body, and the kitchen was in its normal order.

Illustrated Police News

It seemed obvious that the murderer was the mysterious "W. Wilson" who had written to Mr. Greenwood. The presumption was that the killer aimed to lure the man of the house out of the way long enough for to carry out his attack. This would also indicate that Sarah had been the target of a carefully pre-planned murder. Someone had wanted this well-respected, well-liked young woman dead. But who?

The authorities felt the most likely solution to the murder was that Sarah had had a secret lover who, for whatever reason, decided to get her out of his life for good. However, no evidence was ever found suggesting the dead girl had a clandestine love life. It was anyone's guess whether or not Sarah had known her killer.

Could the murder have been a burglary-gone-wrong? It was proposed that perhaps Sarah had become acquainted with a man who, unbeknownst to her, was a thief. When he came by the house and proposed they rob the place, she instead threatened to turn him in. To shut her up, he killed her. A very tidy theory but one that, again, had nothing to back it up.

This proved to be one of the most clue-free of murders. Police had no murder weapon, no eyewitnesses, no suspects, no motive, no anything at all to suggest why someone would have wanted to beat Sarah Jane Roberts to death. They had no idea where the murderer came from, or where he/she went after committing the deed.

This utter lack of any hard facts inevitably led to a crop of increasingly lurid rumors taking their place in the public imagination. It was proposed that Sarah (who, incidentally, had been a virgin when she died,) was Mr. Greenwood's mistress, and the feeble, usually-bedridden Mrs. Greenwood had killed the girl out of jealousy. Perhaps, muttered vox populi, Greenwood's friend Mr. Cooper was the killer. Maybe he had written the letter luring Greenwood away from home? When it emerged that James Partington the milkman had been among Sarah's admirers--he admitted stealing a kiss from her on the past Christmas Eve--that was enough to bring him under public suspicion. (Fortunately for Partington, it was proven that at the time of the murder, he was half-a-mile away, still engaged on his rounds.)

The inquest was of no help whatsoever. When Mr. Greenwood testified, he took the opportunity to furiously denounce the vile rumors about his relationship with the dead girl. Both he and his wife, he explained, had been very fond of Sarah, but there was never anything more to it than that. The doctor who performed the autopsy stated the obvious--that Sarah died as the result of a number of violent blows to the head made with a heavy blunt instrument--probably, he thought, a hammer. Nothing else of any importance was presented. The coroner's jury delivered the only possible verdict, "wilful murder, by some person or persons unknown."

No less than five thousand copies of the "W. Wilson" letter were circulated by the authorities, but no one came forward to identify the writer. Various seedy characters--the "usual murder suspects" were investigated by police, but not one of them was found to have any plausible connection to the case. The search for Sarah's killer soon came to an utterly fruitless end.

There was one tragic footnote to this case. Mrs. Greenwood never recovered from the shock of her servant's brutal murder under her own roof. She died not long afterwards. Mr. Greenwood quitted Harpurhey for good and went to live with friends. The mystery undoubtedly haunted him for the rest of his days.

But did it haunt Sarah's phantom-like killer?

[Note: True-crime buffs will have noticed the similarities between the Roberts case and the famous 1931 riddle of William Herbert Wallace and the elusive "Qualtrough."]


  1. Had the knock on the door that Mrs Greenwood heard at the front door, or the tradesmen's entrance? If the front door, not only would it have been a brazen entry for the killer, but it would rule out a secret lover, who would not have been expected to come to the main entrance.

    If this were fiction, the poor Miss Roberts would have seen or heard something significant in another crime - without knowing its significance - and have had to have been eliminated by the criminals. Being a woman with no desire for admirers, she probably could not have been lured anywhere isolated; she had to be isolated in the Greenwoods' house.

    But this is as far-fetched as any other theory with no proof.

    1. Mrs. Greenwood believed the knock was at the front door. Oddly brazen, indeed. But, then, everything about this case is odd.

  2. A strange and fascinating case. Before the advent of modern forensic science, it was very hard to prove a case without an eyewitness. Today detectives have many more resources. That's one of the things that makes historical true crime so interesting.

  3. I wonder if Mrs Greenwood was the intended victim and something went wrong? The note provides the perfect alibi for Mr Greenwood.


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