"...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 26, 2015

Murder at Gorse Hall

George Harry Storrs

In 1897, a solicitor named Robert Innes and his wife Emma hired a governess, a pretty young Bavarian named Maria Hohl, to live in their home in the Cheshire area of England and look after their children. Life appeared to run on quietly enough until February of 1907. One freezing winter evening, Miss Hohl, who had shown an uncharacteristic melancholy in recent weeks, slipped out of the Innes home. Her drowned body was recovered from a local canal three weeks later. She had left behind a note saying "Nobody is to blame, only myself. It is heart rending to leave you all. Console my poor parents. Hearty thanks from a miserable sinner."

No autopsy was performed on Hohl, and the reasons for her suicide remained uncertain. However, it has been suggested that the young woman had been pregnant, and that was the reason she took her own life.

If Hohl was indeed pregnant, the father of her child was also never established. However, out of her very small circle of male acquaintances, there was only one plausible candidate for the role--a friend and neighbor of the Innes family, a successful mill owner and building contractor named George Harry Storrs.

This private little tragedy would now be long-forgotten, if not for its possible link to an even more puzzling, and far more famous death that took place two years later.

In 1909, George Storrs was living with his wife Maggie at their comfortable home in Stalybridge, Gorse Hall. The couple had been married since 1891, but the union was childless, and, it was believed, loveless. Adding to Storrs' personal unhappiness was the fact that ever since Maria Hohl's death, he had received a number of anonymous letters threatening him--the assumption is that the writer(s) sought to avenge the young governess' untimely end. Storrs confided to his coachman and general confidante James Worrell that he feared for his life.

Those fears proved to be eminently reasonable. On the evening of September 10, 1909, Storrs informed police that a stranger had fired a gun into a window of Gorse Hall. Police saw that a window in the dining-room had indeed been shattered, but, curiously, found no trace of bullets or bullet holes in the room, and no signs of illegal entry. This has led some to suspect that this "attack" was staged by Storrs himself, as part of an effort to convince police he was truly in danger. If this was a hoax, it was a persuasive one. After this incident, police periodically patrolled the grounds of Gorse Hall, and a bell was installed to serve as an emergency alert system. (The house had no telephone.)

If this attack had been phony, the one that occurred on the night of November 1 was all too real. On that evening, Storrs and his wife, along with their niece Marion Lindley (an orphan whom the Storrs had virtually adopted soon after their marriage,) relaxed in the dining room while the cook, Mary Evans, and the housemaid Eliza Cooper prepared their dinner. Around 9 pm, Evans saw a strange man suddenly appear at the kitchen door. He was pointing a gun at her. "Say a word and I shoot," he said calmly.

Evans instead ran into the hall, screaming "There's a man in the house!"

Storrs, along with his wife and niece, ran toward the commotion, where they confronted the intruder. Storrs and the man began brawling in the hallway. Mrs. Storrs was able to grab the would-be assailant's gun, and ran up to the attic roof to ring the alarm bell. Marion Lindley and the two servants ran outside to seek help. (James Worrall, the only other adult male at Gorse Hall, was in town at the local pub.)

As November 1 was an election night, most of the local police force was enforcing order in Stalybridge, leaving Gorse Hall largely unprotected. However, two constables who were still on duty at the police station heard the bell and made their way to the house.

They arrived far too late to save George Storrs. The policemen found the head of Gorse Hall lying in the kitchen, badly injured from 15 stab wounds. His attacker had managed to vanish into the night. Storrs died several hours later without saying anything helpful to the investigation, although some suspected that Storrs knew the name of the man who had stabbed him, and for whatever reason wished to keep that information to himself. Two local men who had been in the vicinity told police they had seen a man run out of Gorse Hall and down the drive, but it was too dark to be able to identify him. Maggie Storrs and the servants described the killer as a pale man in his mid-to-late twenties, medium height, with a thin build and a slight mustache.

George Harry Storrs was buried on November 11th. The next day, James Worrell hung himself in the Gorse Hall barn. He left no note, and his motive was a complete mystery. A local paper gave the unhelpful verdict that the suicide "may mean something or nothing."

Storrs was evidently not the world's most lovable man, but it was uncertain who might have hated him enough to stab him to death. Marion Lindley told police that she thought his attacker looked like Cornelius Howard, a cousin of the dead man who had been on bad terms with Storrs for some years. Lacking any other suspects, the police eagerly put out a warrant for Howard's arrest.

Cornelius Howard

Not long after this, Howard was apprehended while burglarizing a store. Ominously, he was covered in cuts and bruises, and bloodstains were found on his clothing. A large knife was found in his pocket. At the police station, Lindley firmly declared that he was the man who had stabbed Storrs. Evans and Cooper agreed he looked like the killer, although they were far less certain he was the intruder of Gorse Hall. Maggie Storrs said the killer had been a stranger to her. When facing a line-up of suspects, she initially picked out someone other than Howard. Eventually, however, she agreed that he was indeed the murderer. Although Howard insisted he had spent the night of the stabbing drinking in Huddersfield, he was put on trial for murder.

His counsel produced James Davies, the landlord of a Huddersfield pub, who unhesitatingly testified that Howard had been in his establishment all the evening of November 1 (rather quaintly, he was one of the contestants in a domino contest.) The prosecution, however, produced other witnesses who claimed the contest had taken place the following night.

It was also established that Howard could not have been responsible for the September 10 incident. (He had been in prison at the time--surely a cast-iron alibi if ever there was one.) The failure to connect Howard to the earlier assault, as well as the initial reluctance of Evans, Cooper, and Mrs. Storrs to identify him, were seen as powerful points in his favor. Also, the prosecution failed to present any compelling reason why Howard should have wanted Storrs dead. Aside from the testimony of Marion Lindley, there was virtually no case against him. After deliberating for only twenty minutes, the jury acquitted Howard. It was a very popular verdict.

The search for Storrs' killer remained stalled until June 10, 1910. On that day, a young couple, James Bolton and Gertrude Booth, were walking along Early Bank Road, a "lovers lane" that ran behind Gorse Hall, when they encountered a stranger. This man grabbed Booth, and when Bolton came to her rescue, the assailant slashed Bolton with a knife before fleeing. The description Booth and Bolton gave police of their assailant matched that of the Gorse Hall killer. A local man named Mark Wilde was eventually convicted of this attack and sentenced to two months in prison. When he had served his sentence, he was re-arrested for the murder of George Storrs.

Despite the fact that they had previously identified Cornelius Howard as Storrs' killer, Mary Evans, Eliza Cooper and Marion Lindley now declared that Wilde was the guilty man. However, Maggie Storrs were not so sure. Human blood was found on a jacket of Wilde's. He was known to have owned a revolver similar to the gun Maggie Storrs had wrested from her husband's killer. There was, moreover, a link between Wilde and the dead man: Wilde's ex-girlfriend, Kate Kenworthy, had worked at one of Storrs' mills until he dismissed her for being "a troublemaker." She was forced to leave town in order to find work, and her relationship with Wilde came to an end. Could Wilde have resented this enough to kill Storrs? (According to hearsay, this was the theory entertained by Mrs. Storrs.)

When Wilde failed to present an alibi for either the September 10 incident or the night of Storrs' death, the police felt they had finally found their man. Wilde, for his part, insisted that he was not guilty of either the Early Bank Road attack or the Storrs murder. The blood on his jacket, he explained, had come from a "real Lancashire" fight with another man.

At Wilde's trial, his lawyer, Edward Theophilus Nelson (who had earlier defended Cornelius Howard) pounced on the lack of consistency among the eyewitnesses. If these same people had previously thought Howard was Storrs' killer, how could anyone trust their identification of Wilde? And without these eyewitnesses, there was absolutely no evidence against his client. This was, he proclaimed, a textbook case of "reasonable doubt."

The jury agreed, and Wilde was freed. Soon after he was released, he and Howard celebrated by going out drinking together.

No one else was ever charged with Storrs' death, and although crime historians have enjoyed speculating about the murder, no consensus about the killer's motive and identity has ever been reached. Was James Worrell somehow implicated in the murder? His suicide indicates that he certainly had something on his conscience, but what reason did he have to kill his employer?

Was Wilde guilty after all? When a friend of Wilde's died many years later, he reportedly told his stepson that on the night of the murder, Wilde came to his home, deathly pale and covered in blood. He admitted that he had killed Storrs, and asked his friend to help him clean up. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing whether or not this alleged "deathbed confession" was the truth.

Could the unhappily married wife, Maggie, have hired a hit man? Or was the killing arranged by George's estranged brother, James? What about the relatives of Maria Hohl? It was rumored that shortly before Storrs was killed, two foreign men were seen loitering around Stalybridge. This rather vague clue has led to a theory that Maria's brother John Gottfried Hohl murdered Storrs out of a desire to avenge his wronged sister. Although this scenario presents a plausible motive for the case, there is no direct evidence connecting John Hohl to the slaying. Or was the killing, as some local historians have suggested, simply a case of burglary-gone-wrong, with no personal motive involved? But if this was the case, how to explain the poison-pen letters and Storrs' all-too-accurate fears for his life?

This last question brings us to what is arguably the strangest element of all in this case: Storrs obviously knew someone had a grudge against him that was strong enough for him to feel his safety was threatened. Why did he never say who this enemy might have been? Why, even after he was attacked, did he bring that secret to his grave?

A year after Storrs died, his widow had Gorse Hall torn down--a fitting end for a murder mystery that has lain in ruins.


  1. I hate to see old mansions demolished, but in this case, Gorse Hall doesn't seem to have been good for anyone.

  2. Alfred Derrick, who murdered Hannah Etchells in Stalybridge a couple of months later may be a possible candidate.

    1. I read about that. While we can't 100% rule him--or anyone else--out, the evidence against him in the Gorse Hall murder seems extremely speculative.


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