It intrigues me how some crimes capture the public imagination and gain an eternal fame (see the ubiquitous "the Ripper, Jack") while other atrocities, no matter how well-publicized they were in their day, sink into an undeserved obscurity. For example, one of Edwardian England's strangest--and saddest--murders not only remains unsolved, but lies virtually forgotten. It was a true-life Halloween night horror.
Twelve-year-old Edwin "Teddy" Haskell and his 34-year-old mother Flora lived in Fisherton, a suburb of Salisbury, Wiltshire. When Teddy was six, he contracted tuberculosis in one of his legs, causing the limb to be amputated. Fortunately, the child coped with his loss quite well. He had little trouble getting around on crutches, and even played football with his friends. He was an engaging, cheerful boy who was well liked by everyone who knew him. The widowed Mrs. Haskell was a laundress with little money, but she and her son were devoted to each other, and seemed perfectly content with their lot. Despite her scanty income, Flora was saving as much cash as she could to buy her son an artificial leg.
Around 10:30 on the night of October 31, 1908, Percy Noble, a nephew of Mrs. Haskell's went to her house to return a shilling he had borrowed. He knocked at her back door. There was a light in the kitchen. He heard a chair being moved, and a "thumping noise," but did not hear a door being opened or closed. He was startled to hear Flora scream. She flung open the door and shrieked, "Go and see if you can see that man. He has killed my poor Teddy. Go for a doctor!" Noble looked up and down the road, but could not see anyone. He fetched a doctor, as well as a police sergeant.
When neighbors and the police went upstairs, they found Teddy's corpse lying in his bed. Someone had slit his throat. A blood-stained knife was lying at the bottom of the stairs near the kitchen. The upstairs drawer where the money for Teddy's cork leg was stashed had been broken open, and part of the cash was gone.
|Contemporary newspaper photo of the Haskell home.|
The story Mrs. Haskell told police was both extremely simple and bafflingly weird. She claimed that after putting Teddy to bed, she went to sit in the kitchen. A short while later, she heard a noise. Thinking it was a visitor, she went to the front door. Then suddenly, a strange man ran down the stairs, shoved her aside, and fled into the night, throwing a bloody knife at her before he vanished.
Flora could give only a partial description of the man, who was not seen by any of her neighbors. Police could find no trace of him. Investigators learned that the murder weapon was a knife belonging to Mrs. Haskell. It had recently been sharpened. The more the police pondered Mrs. Haskell's story, the less they believed it. Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard (who later gained fame by arresting Dr. Crippen) was particularly insistent that Mrs. Haskell was the guilty party, and successfully argued that she be arrested. "If I did it...I don't remember," she said plaintively.
The bereaved mother made a pitiful sight at her murder trial. A reporter described her as "a careworn, listless, frail woman," who "hardly seemed to realise her position." The prosecution argued that Flora killed her son out of a misplaced sense of "mercy." The murder, they suggested, was an act of euthanasia, in order to spare her child from the hard life of a cripple. The savage act, they declared, was "one of those extraordinary abnormal conditions which overtake human beings sometimes." It was a weak theory that was undermined by the numerous witnesses who testified how well the boy managed his disability, and that his mother never expressed any fears for his future. One of her friends said firmly, "Everything a mother ought to be, she was." The defense argued that Teddy had simply been killed by a burglar. (They could not explain why the thief would so gruesomely kill a helpless child, while leaving his mother unharmed.)
The prosecution's strongest evidence lay in the blood-stained clothing Flora had worn on the night of the murder. Medical experts testified that the stains showed no "splash," such as would be expected if a bloody knife had been thrown at her. Similarly, blood found in the Haskell kitchen was consistent with the knife being laid down, not dropped or thrown. The Crown also pointed out the strange fact that according to Flora's story, she did not go upstairs after seeing the mystery man come down, but she instantly concluded that he had murdered her son.
The jury was left with a grim conundrum: It seemed nearly impossible to picture this hard-working, decent woman brutally killing her beloved only child, but if she didn't, who did? In the end, the jurors were left hopelessly deadlocked. Flora was tried a second time, with this jury returning an acquittal.
After she was released, Flora Haskell moved to London, where she died of tuberculosis in 1920. No other suspects in her son's peculiarly savage and puzzling murder were ever found.