"...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, August 22, 2016

The Shooting Party At Ardlamont

Ardlamont House

The stereotypical setting for an Agatha Christie novel is a quiet, elegant British country estate. Therefore, it is only too fitting that 19th century Scotland's most famous death riddle, which in its day enthralled newspaper readers around the world, should have one as its backdrop.

The unwitting catalyst for this particular Series of Unfortunate Events was an army major named Dudley Hambrough. A member of a wealthy and aristocratic family, Hambrough was well-respected, well-connected, and seemingly highly fortunate. Sadly, the major had one fatal flaw: he was an irresponsible spendthrift with absolutely no aptitude for managing his once-vast fortune. Although his share of the family's estate netted him around four to five thousand pounds a year, by 1885 he was practically broke. As a last-ditch measure, he mortgaged his interest in the estates for £37,000, but he soon managed to blow through that as well. By 1890, Hambrough and his wife were reduced to the humiliating position of living in dismal rented rooms in London.

Hambrough had one son, 17-year-old Cecil. Unfortunately, the younger Hambrough was even more of a wastrel than his father. The major aimed to have his son schooled for a military career. The army would not only provide for Cecil's future, but hopefully have a taming effect on the wayward boy. With that in mind, Hambrough sought a tutor for his son: some solid, responsible man who would take Cecil under his care and steer the young man into a wise direction in life.

Instead, he wound up with Alfred John Monson.

On paper, Monson's credentials were impeccable. He was an Oxford graduate with an upper-class pedigree and a suave manner that inspired confidence. Hambrough took an immediate liking to the man, and hired him as Cecil's tutor. Monson, along with his wife and three small children, leased a Yorkshire estate called Risley Hall, and Cecil, who shared his father's enthusiasm for the charming would-be mentor, happily joined the household.

Life at Risley Hall was essentially one long house party. Cecil's "education" largely consisted of fine dining, heavy drinking, outdoor recreation, and the pleasant art of doing nothing in particular. It all suited the dissipated young man perfectly. Major Hambrough had hired Monson in the hope that he would discourage Cecil's bad habits. Instead, the tutor allowed them to flourish.

By April 1893, it had finally dawned on the Major that things were not exactly going according to plan. He sensed that Monson's influence over Cecil was now far exceeding his own. Also, Monson, under the guise of acting as financial adviser, had embroiled the major in a series of highly complicated financial juggles, and Hambrough was beginning to realize that Monson's real aim was to line his own pockets, at Hambrough's expense. The Major ordered his son to leave Risley Hall and return to the family's flat in London. Unsurprisingly, the prospect of giving up his lavish home with the Monsons in return for a dreary, financially-strapped existence with his strict father failed to appeal to Cecil. He flatly defied his father's command.

This was exactly what Monson wanted. It later emerged that he had his own secret reasons for winning the young man's favor. The tutor was not nearly as rich as he seemed. Like Major Hambrough, he had long since blown through his inherited wealth, and as the idea of earning a living was distasteful to him, Monson found other ways of maintaining the upper-crust lifestyle he felt he deserved. Like many other clever and totally unscrupulous men, he turned crook. Monson had a long history of insurance frauds, shady business deals, loans he had no intention of ever repaying, running up huge debts with creditors, and other such financial shenanigans. Monson was fond of boasting that he never pursued the acquaintance of anyone who could not be useful to him, and Cecil was no exception. When the young man turned 21, he would inherit £200,000 from the Hambrough Bank of London. Monson was determined to somehow get his hands on it all.

Early in 1893, a large Scottish estate named Ardlamont came on the market. The place appealed to Monson, and he rented it out for the shooting season. By June, the Monson family--and, of course, Cecil--had settled into their new home. The move was funded by heavy borrowing and extensive lines of credit.

It was at this point that Monson's activities began taking a decidedly curious tone. He paid a call on the Glasgow branch of the New York Mutual Assurance Company. He informed them that his pupil, Cecil Hambrough, wished to buy Ardlamont. The young man was due to inherit a great deal of money, but it would be awhile before the cash actually came into his hands. In the meantime, Monson's wife Agnes was advancing Cecil a loan of £20,000 as a down payment on the estate. As security for this loan, Cecil wished to have his life insured for that same amount.

The company accepted this story unquestioningly, and two days later Cecil came to their offices and signed the forms. Mrs. Monson was named beneficiary of this policy.

In August, the household at Ardlamont hosted a shooting party. Several friends of Cecil's were invited to the estate, as well as a friend of Monson's, who was introduced to the household as an engineer named Edward Scott.

Two days after Scott's arrival at Ardlamont, he, Monson, and Cecil went out fishing. While Monson and Cecil went out to sea in a borrowed boat, Scott stayed on the beach.

When Monson and his pupil were far from land, things began to suddenly go very wrong. A hole appeared in the bottom of the boat, sending water gushing in. They were about to sink!

And darn the luck, Cecil did not know how to swim.

Happily, the water was much shallower than it looked, and Cecil was able to make it to shore. Scott and Monson congratulated him on his lucky escape. His friends had a wonderful idea: how about if on the following day, the three of them celebrated by going out shooting?

Early on the next morning, the trio headed out to the woods. Monson carried a twelve-bore shotgun, while Cecil had with him a twenty-bore. As Scott did not shoot, he would merely tag along and collect whatever the other two killed.

Just three minutes after the men had disappeared into the trees, a shot was heard. Soon after that, Monson and Scott rushed back to the house with shocking news: Young Cecil had suffered a terrible accident. Some of the servants accompanied them back to the woods. In a small clearing, they were horrified to see Cecil lying on his back, dead from a gunshot to the head.

Drawing of the site where Cecil's body was found

When a doctor and police arrived Monson told them that Cecil had veered away from the other two men to hunt for game. When he was out of sight, Monson and Scott had heard a shot. When they went to join Cecil, they found him dead. Cecil's gun, Monson sighed, undoubtedly went off accidentally while the young man was crossing a dyke. Sad, of course, but these things happen.

The doctor saw no reason to question this story. He ruled that Cecil's death was a tragic mishap, and the unfortunate young man was buried several days later.

This would have been the end of the matter, if several disquieting facts had not come to the attention of police. First of all, there was that business of Monson arranging for Cecil to take out a sizable life insurance policy mere days before the shooting. Then, there was that boating accident. Someone had very recently cut a hole in the bottom of the rowboat and stopped it up with a cork plug. When Monson and Cecil were in the water, it was obvious that the boat sank when this plug happened to come loose.

Or had someone removed it?

When the police also discovered that Monson and Scott had not informed anyone of Cecil's accident until after they had carefully cleaned the two shotguns the men had been carrying, it was decided that young Hambrough's death deserved much closer attention. Cecil's body was exhumed, and an inquest was held. This inquest revealed an interesting detail: Cecil had been shot not with the twenty-bore shotgun he had been carrying, but by Monson's twelve-bore. Monson attempted to shrug that off by claiming he and Cecil had switched guns, but this was the final straw as far as law enforcement was concerned. Monson was arrested and charged with murder and attempted murder. Police launched a manhunt for Monson's presumed accomplice, Edward Scott, but that enigmatic man had vanished. No one had seen any trace of him since a few hours after Cecil's death, when Scott was seen waiting for a ferry in Glasgow. When Monson's trial opened in December 1893, Scott had yet to be found.

Monson pleaded "Not guilty." The evidence against him was entirely circumstantial, and relied almost solely on expert witnesses, mostly in the field of ballistics. As is usual in such trials, the "experts" for the prosecution gave testimony completely contradicting that offered by the defense. What position had Cecil been in when he was shot? From what distance had he been shot? No one could agree. The defense strategy made the most of this general air of uncertainty, arguing that it was impossible to prove that the young man's death was anything more than an accident. The case against Monson was weakened further when it was revealed that Cecil's insurance policy stipulated that no money would be paid out if he died before the age of twenty-one. He died one year short of that age. Therefore, Monson gained no financial benefit from the death. (Although, naturally, Monson claimed that he knew about this clause all along, we will never know if he was speaking the truth. If he was unaware of it, that would be one of the greatest dark punchlines in crime history.)

By the end of the nine-day trial, no one was any more sure about how Cecil Hambrough died than they were before it started. The judge's summing-up reflected this, cautioning the jury that "It is the business of the Crown to prove the case, not for the defence to prove innocence." After a brief deliberation, the jurors delivered that famously inconclusive Scottish verdict of "Not proven." Monson was freed, if not precisely exonerated.

He emerged from the courtroom to a less than rapturous public welcome. The trial's revelations about his fraudulent ways and his penchant for living on extended credit--not to mention the near-universal belief that he was a cold-blooded murderer--ensured that his name was now mud in Scotland. Cecil's family and friends were so enraged by the verdict that for many years, on the anniversary of his death, they placed notices in national newspapers: "Sacred to the memory of Cecil Dudley Hambrough, shot in a wood near Ardlamont, August 10th, 1893. 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' saith the Lord."

Monson and his family left Scotland for good and resettled in Yorkshire.

Most people who narrowly escape a murder conviction prefer to keep a low profile from then on. Not Alfred Monson. Rather, in his usual cheerfully sleazy fashion, he did his best to capitalize on his unsavory fame. He hooked up with a bogus hypnotist named Morrit, and the two gave shows where Monson would pretend to go into a trance. Then, Morrit would dramatically ask his subject if he had killed Cecil Hambrough. (Surprise, surprise, the answer was always, "No.")

Monson sued Madame Tussauds, on the grounds that his waxwork model was placed near figures of notorious murderers. He argued that this slur against his good name demanded substantial damages. (He blithely ignored the fact that he had offered to sit for his model, and donated the suit he had worn on the day of Cecil's death.) He eventually won his case, but was awarded only one farthing. (The case established the legal precedent of "libel by innuendo.") Monson even wrote a book, "The Ardlamont Mystery Solved," but it failed to sell.

Monson carried on his career of devising various financial swindles and prying money out of wealthy and not-terribly-bright young men. He also acted as a "tout" for several particularly crooked moneylenders.

It was his association with one of these loansharks, one Victor Honour, that led to Monson's undoing.  The two men were part of a particularly complicated life insurance swindle centered around Percival Norgate, a young debtor of Honour's whom the moneylender had been blackmailing.  Happily, the scheme miscarried and Monson and his confederates were arrested.  At their trial, not even the services of that legendary defense lawyer Edward Marshall Hall could save this disreputable crew from a "Guilty" verdict.  Monson was given five years in jail, which was surely the very least he deserved after such a long and varied career.  While behind bars, he divorced his wife on the grounds of her adultery with...the late Cecil Hambrough. Was this claim--possibly the oddest detail in this very odd case--true? No one knows. It seems to be unknown what finally became of Monson after his release from prison, but it is doubtful he came to a good end.

As for the now-you-see-him-now-you-don't Edward Scott, he emerged from hiding several months after Monson's acquittal. It turned out that, far from being "Edward Scott," respectable engineer, he was really a bookmaker from London by the name of Edward Sweeney. As the authorities had no further use for him by that time, Sweeney/Scott obtained a revocation of his sentence of outlawry. Sweeney followed Monson's lead in attempting to monetize the Ardlamont shooting: he sold his story--which was about as accurate as you'd think--to the "Pall Mall Gazette," and made an appearance at a Glasgow music hall. (It is pleasant to relate that he was instantly booed off the stage.) Whatever the circumstances surrounding Cecil Hambrough's shooting may have been, it is a certainty that no one profited from his death.

The Ardlamont Mystery remains officially unsolved. Of course, for most true-crime historians, the real mystery is how on earth Alfred Monson avoided swinging at the end of a rope.


  1. There unfortunately doesn't seem to be a great mystery about the death of young Hambrough. His father, the major, may have been a wastrel, but at least he knew what he was and attempted to prevent his son from following his path. But how on Earth anyone in 1880s and '90s Britain couldn't live on 5,000 a year is beyond me. This was an era when a labourer would make fifty pounds a year and live decently on the amount. Astounding.

  2. Great story- thanks for unearthing it and sharing it.

  3. Good Heavens, I knew the name of the house was familiar. Ardlamont was recently for sale. I have an interest in British country houses and collect the electronic brochures that are produced for the sales. It was offered with 640 acres. The brochure doesn't mention the murder, but the current web-site of the owners does, though they mention a 'famous' murder of the 18th, not 19th century - which shows how poorly they researched the house's history.

    1. Wow. I had no idea the place was still standing, much less that it was on the market. Do you remember how much they were asking for it?

    2. I think it was one and a half million pounds, which isn't a lot for a big house and a square mile of land, but Scottish prices are always lower than English. The house looks much the same except for the wings, which have been re-shaped a bit.

    3. I wonder if anyone has ever thought to put together a list of extant manor houses that have infamous murders or scandals in their history? It'd make one heck of a package tour...

    4. That would be a great idea. I think they have haunted house tours, but this would be something different. It'd be a win-win situation for promoters, home-owners and tourists.


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