"...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 9, 2018

John Birchall's Bad Bet

John Reginald Birchall was in most respects a tiresome murderer. His crime had no mystery to it, or even those little human touches that sometimes evoke a certain amount of sympathy for a killer. His was a coldblooded, selfish, thoroughly repulsive crime, and the only good thing that can be said about this story is that through a combination of luck and Birchall's own mistakes, he was soon arrested, and the jury had no problem with giving him the sentence he richly deserved.

The one curious touch to this case--the thing that lifts it above the commonplace for me--is that his was the only murder I know of that was committed in order to place a bet.

Birchall was born in 1866. He was the perfect example of what was a classic character from the Victorian and Edwardian eras: The young man from a "good family" who went very, very bad. His father, the Reverend Joseph Birchall, was a respected rector and an excellent scholar, who saw to it that his children received a first-rate education. When Reginald was twelve, he was sent to Rossall, a fine public school, where he was a talented student. When he was in his second year at this school, his father died, an event that marked the beginning of Reginald's downward spiral. His guardian moved him to a lower-quality school, where the boy fell in with a bad crowd, who taught him how to drink, gamble, and generally raise hell. He still managed to make it into Oxford, but he so ignored his studies in favor of riotous living that he left the University without getting a degree.

After leaving school, Birchall proceeded to do nothing in particular with his life. He tried various professions, but despite his native intelligence, he was too lazy and self-indulgent to make much of a success at anything. He married a girl named Florence Stevenson in 1888, but it is feared that his bride's main attraction for him was the fact that she was the heir of a very old and very well-to-do father.

Birchall badly needed these funds. His fondness for spending money, coupled with a reluctance to honestly earn it, had left him deeply in debt. He had recently taken to covering his expenses by writing bad checks, but he knew that expedient would not last forever. A change of scene was required if he wanted to stay out of prison, so he and his wife hopped a boat to Canada. He coupled his new residence with a new name. For reasons unknown to history, he began calling himself "Frederick A. Somerset," while broadly hinting that he and his wife were really "Lord and Lady Somerset." Unfortunately, the New World was no more profitable to Birchall than the old one had been. In 1889, the couple returned to England, one step ahead of a pack of angry creditors.

Like so many pampered and greedy people, he began to contemplate striking it rich through a life of crime--or, as Birchall himself put it, he "planned out a great scheme which I thought would land me safely upon the shore of comparative affluence and comfort." He recently got a "hot tip" on a horse named Sainfoin for the 1890 Epsom Derby. If he placed enough money on the longshot colt, his financial troubles would be over, at least for a while. But where to get the capital?

His "great scheme" was this: He would enlist one or two men in a bogus plan to set up a farm in Canada. His dupes would give him money up front, which he would use to make his genuine investment in Sainfoin. He assumed that "nothing could be said to us, as we could not be held in Canada for fraud committed in England."

Under the name of "J.R. Burchett," he placed notices in London newspapers advertising his desire to find a "gentleman's son" to go into business with him at his Canadian farm. It would be necessary for the men to invest £500 "to extend stock." This led to him coming to an arrangement with two young men, Frederick Benwell and Douglas Pelly. Pelly was incautious enough to give "Burchett" £170 as a down payment, but Benwell refused to "invest" anything until he saw the farm for himself.

In February 1890, the Birchalls sailed with Benwell and Pelly for Canada. The two "investors" had no idea that Birchall had come to the same financial agreement with each of them. During the trip, Birchall kept his two "business partners" apart by cleverly poisoning their minds against each other, with the result that by the time the voyage was over, Benwell and Pelly were scarcely on speaking terms. The last thing Birchall wanted was for his two marks to get together and compare notes.

When the ship arrived in Buffalo, New York, Pelly and Mrs. Birchall stayed at a hotel while Birchall and Benwell took a train to Ontario to inspect this mythical farm. A few hours later, Birchall returned, alone and in very good spirits. He explained that he left Benwell behind at the farm.

The next morning, the trio traveled across the border to Niagara Falls. When they arrived, Birchall invited Pelly out for a walk to inspect this natural wonder. Birchall urged his companion to get very close to the water's edge, as "it is the best way to see the Falls." Pelly was not particularly eager to do so, but Birchall was so insistent, he finally complied. They were both disagreeably surprised to find that they were not alone. Another man was already there, staring into the deep, ferocious waters.

Pelly had no reason to believe he was in any danger, but his subconscious, fortunately, was wise enough to alert him that something was very wrong with this scene. He swiftly turned and went back to the hotel. His companion slowly followed him. Pelly later recalled that Birchall was gloomy and silent for the rest of the day.

The next day, Birchall talked Pelly into another tour of the Falls. Again, he urged Pelly to stand very close to the rapids, but, in Pelly's words, "his manner seemed so coldly quiet, so repellant, that instinctively I drew back and made my excuses for not going near the edge, and went away."

The next day, Pelly read in a newspaper that the body of a murder victim had been found in a swamp in nearby Woodstock. He had been shot in the back of the head. No clue was found to identify the corpse, except for a cigar holder that had apparently fallen from the body. It bore the initials "F.W.B." Birchall immediately voiced his suspicion that the dead man was Benwell. Pelly, already somewhat unnerved by his companion's odd behavior, was so alarmed at this statement that he secretly provided himself with a revolver.

Later that same day, Birchall again lured Pelly out of the hotel on some pretext. Again, it involved them going near the Falls. And again, Birchall made another attempt to get Pelly to take a close view--a very, very close view--of the water. Pelly, however, this time flatly refused to go anywhere near the rapids--or Birchall.

It was not a very cheerful walk back to the hotel for either man.

Birchall then announced that Benwell had sent him a message asking to have his luggage forwarded to a hotel in New York. He was not particularly impressed by the farm, and had decided against the proposed partnership. The next day, Pelly saw in the newspaper a photograph of the murdered mystery man at Woodstock. "That looks like Benwell," he told Birchall.

Birchall scoffed at the idea, reminding him of the "message" Benwell had sent. It was finally decided that Birchall and his wife would go to Woodstock to inspect the body, while Pelly went to New York to see if Benwell had indeed arrived there.

After the Birchalls viewed the corpse, they met with John Wilson Murray, the detective investigating the Woodstock murder. They confirmed that the murdered man was indeed Frederick Benwell, a man Birchall said he had known "only slightly." The dead man, he explained, was only a casual acquaintance that he had met while sailing to Canada on the "Britannic." He only got a "brief line" from Benwell after they arrived in Canada.

As the two men chatted affably, Murray noticed that Mrs. Birchall seemed strangely tense and unhappy. She paced up and down the room, as though the conversation was upsetting her.

Afterward, Murray couldn't shake the suspicion that Birchall had not been entirely forthcoming with him. He did not at that time think the man had been involved in Benwell's murder, but his policeman's instinct told him that there was just something a bit "off." He followed Birchall to Niagara Falls to question him again. He also talked to Pelly, who had just returned from New York without finding any sign of Benwell. This interview told Murray quite enough about Birchall to order a warrant for his arrest.

Once Birchall and his wife were in custody, Murray set out to trace Birchall and Benwell's movements on the day they left together to "inspect the farm." He found a number of different witnesses who had seen the two traveling from Niagara Falls to Eastwood, a train station a few miles from the swamp where Benwell's body was later found. He found more witnesses who had seen them leaving the train and heading in the direction of this swamp. He found a farmer who had heard two gunshots shortly after the Englishmen had walked off together. He found still more witnesses who had seen Birchall returning to the Eastwood station, quite alone. In short, Murray soon had as pretty a chain of damning circumstantial evidence as any detective could ever hope to see.

There was more. The dead man's father sent Murray a letter Birchall had sent him. The note cheerfully talked about Benwell's deep satisfaction with the farm and his eagerness to go into a partnership with Birchall. Birchall urged the father to send the £500 Benwell had promised him.

The letter was dated February 20--three days after Benwell had been murdered.

Birchall's murder trial was one of the least suspenseful in Canadian history, but it attracted a stunning amount of media attention. Newspapers all across Canada, America, and England sent reporters to file dispatches on the proceedings. The courtroom was even wired for sound so the public could listen in on the trial. It was probably the first live broadcast of any murder trial.

Birchall consistently asserted his innocence, but it was hard to find anyone who believed him. The defense made a feeble effort to argue that in the four-and-a-half hours between his train trips to and from Eastwood, their client would simply not have had the time to murder Benwell, but the prosecution easily made short work of that contention. The jury swiftly returned a verdict of "Guilty," and everyone--probably even the defense attorneys--would have been deeply shocked if they had come to any other conclusion.

"Illustrated Police News"

Birchall was hanged on the morning of November 14, 1890. He had evidently decided that although he had not lived like a gentleman, he was at least going to die like one. He walked to the gallows with a composed, dignified demeanor, politely shook hands with the executioner, and even had a slight smile on his face as the noose was placed around his neck. The hangman said afterward that he had "never before beheld such an exhibition of nerve." Such sang-froid, ironically, just made it plain to him how Birchall could have committed cold-blooded murder.

It was truly a crime where the grand old legal phrase, "committed at the instigation of the Devil" applied. Birchall took an innocent life, and thus forfeited his own, simply so he could bet on a horse race.

As what of Sanfoin, the horse who inadvertently provided a motive for murder? He won the Derby, at generous odds.

The Devil has always had a sense of humor.



  1. Still, one must admire his courage in marrying a shadow-person. Or at least woman who photographed badly.

    1. Do you think her husband kept her ‘in the dark’ about his plans?

  2. Birchall wasn’t a very smart criminal, really. His grand scheme was pretty obvious, and his killing of his victim was hardly the cleverest plan devised. He seems to have thought that, as long as no one actually saw him commit the deed, he could get away with it.

    As an aside, John Wilson Murray has a bit of fame in Canada. He was the Province of Ontario’s official investigator. He inspired a 1970s television series - “The Great Detective” - that I used to watch.

  3. Yes, this is Mr. Wickham! How could anyone not see how they coincide? They were both very stupid criminals.


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