In 1897, Herbert John Bennett, a poor but enterprising youth of seventeen, married his pregnant girlfriend, twenty-year-old Mary Jane Clarke. Not long after the wedding, the child which undoubtedly precipitated the wedding was stillborn, although they later had a daughter who survived.
The Bennetts, somewhat unusually for married couples of that era, went into business together. What made them even more uncommon was the nature of this business. To be blunt, Herbert and Mary Jane were grifters of a lowly, if energetic, variety. As Mrs. Bennett was a moderately talented musician, their favorite game involved violins. They would buy the cheapest variety of those instruments and sell them to the unwary for many times their value as "Excellent Strad models." They would also watch the want ads for people wishing to buy secondhand violins. Mary Jane would pick up a cheap violin and visit these people, posing as a young widow, or a clergyman's daughter, or something of that sort. She would explain plaintively that she was desperately in need of money, otherwise she wouldn't dream of selling this precious family heirloom, but...
|Mary Jane Bennett|
The young couple did so well from these swindles that Herbert was able to expand his larcenous horizons. He bought a small grocer's shop, which, just a week later, was mysteriously destroyed by fire. The insurance company obviously had its suspicions, because it refused to pay as much as the Bennetts were expecting. However, as Herbert had bought all his stock on credit, for which he never paid, the pair still made a tidy profit from the enterprise.
Immediately after collecting the insurance money, the Bennetts left their baby with relatives and traveled to Cape Town, South Africa under the names of "Mr. and Mrs. Hood." They stayed in South Africa only four days before returning to England. The purpose of this trip--surely a long one for such a brief visit--remains a mystery.
Back in London, the pair resumed their career of various petty con jobs, performed under different names. Their personal relationship, however, violently deteriorated. One landlady of theirs, a Mrs. Ellison, later described frequent bitter quarrels between the pair. During one fight, Mrs. Ellison heard Mary Jane warning her husband that if he was not careful, "I can get you fifteen years." Herbert responded with even more ominous words: "I wish you were dead. And if you are not careful you soon will be."
Before long, the Bennetts were living in separate residences, with Herbert taking up an uncharacteristically legitimate job with Woolwich Arsenal. In July 1900, Herbert met a parlormaid named Alice Meadows, and a romance sprang up between them. Miss Meadows had no idea her suitor was married--in fact, nothing he told her about himself was anything near the truth. She believed he had inherited some money from his late mother, which he supplemented with a perfectly honorable trade in used violins.
In August, Bennett and Alice took a holiday to Yarmouth. They traveled first-class, and engaged separate rooms at a fine hotel, the Crown and Anchor. The pair took several more brief trips around the country together. Later that month, Alice agreed to marry Herbert the following June. She, along with her family, did not see him as anything other than a kind, courteous, thoroughly decent young man who was always, she later insisted, a "perfect gentleman" to her.
Herbert Bennett was apparently genuinely in love with Alice Meadows, and had every intention of marrying her. This raises the obvious question: what did he intend to do about the current Mrs. Bennett?
On Saturday, September 15, Mary Jane left her lodgings, telling her landlady that "my old man" was taking her to Yorkshire. She took her little daughter with her. However, she traveled not to Yorkshire, but to Yarmouth. She found lodgings in the home of a Mrs. Rudrum. Mary Jane told her new landlady that she was a widow named "Mrs. Hood," and that she had been brought to Yarmouth by her brother-in-law. She went out nearly every evening, but where she went and what she did is unknown. On Thursday, September 20, Herbert told Alice that he had to travel to Gravesend to see his dying grandfather. Of course this story, like practically everything that ever came out of Bennett's mouth, was a lie. However, his exact movements are not definitely accounted for until the following Sunday.
On the evening of the 21st, "Mrs. Hood" stayed out later than usual. Mrs. Rudrum's daughter overheard her talking with a man, who said, "You understand, don't you? I am placed in an awkward position just now." This was followed by the sound of a kiss. Was Mary Jane's companion that night Herbert Bennett? Or some other man? No one knows.
When Mary Jane entered the house, Mrs. Rudrum gave her a letter that had come for her earlier. Accounts vary about what this letter said. Some say Mrs. Bennett told her landlady that it asked her to meet the sender at 9 p.m. the following evening. Other reports say that its contents remain a mystery. It is also unknown who sent it.
On Saturday, September 22, Mary Jane went out at around 6:30 p.m. She was wearing a long gold chain, along with other jewelry and a fine silver watch. She was also carrying a considerable amount of money in her purse. We know little of her movements until 10 p.m., when the owner of a Yarmouth pub saw her in the company of a man, whom he later identified as her estranged husband.
About an hour later, a man named Alfred Mason and his girlfriend, Blanche Smith, were sitting on a Yarmouth beach. Their tryst was interrupted by the arrival of another couple who settled near them. A few minutes later, they heard a woman moaning, "Mercy, mercy." About ten minutes later, Mason and Smith left, assuming the other couple was merely "skylarking." They saw the woman lying on her back. The man with her looked at them, but they were unable to see his face clearly.
It is a great pity the moonlight had not been stronger, because what Mason and Smith saw were a murderer and his victim. Early the next morning, a woman's body was found at that spot. She had been strangled with a bootlace tied in a distinctive knot. Her clothes were disarranged, but it was unclear if sexual assault had taken place. The woman was soon identified as the "Mrs. Hood" who had been lodging with Mrs. Rudrum. Among her belongings was a picture a beach photographer had recently taken of her and her baby, showing her long gold chain--a chain which was now missing. However, a search of her room found nothing to show who she really was, or where she came from. The coroner's jury could only rule that this unknown woman had been murdered by an equally mysterious man.
In the meantime, Herbert visited Alice Meadows on the afternoon of the 23rd. He later went to Mary Jane's lodgings in London, where he collected her belongings. He told a neighbor that his wife was in Yorkshire. He wrote to Mary Jane's landlord terminating her lease, explaining that she was going to America. He gave Alice Meadows jewelry and clothes which had belonged to Mary Jane, stating they had been given to him by a cousin who moved to South Africa. He got Alice to agree to move up their wedding date to December. Alice heard news of the shocking murder at Yarmouth, without giving it much thought. After all, tragic as the event was, it certainly was no concern of hers.
The true identity of the Yarmouth victim finally began to emerge on November 5th, when someone reported that Mary Jane Bennett was missing from her home. The laundry mark on some of "Mrs. Hood's" clothing was linked to her. From there, a Scotland Yard inspector sought out Mrs. Bennett's husband. He talked to a co-worker of Herbert's, who identified Mary Jane as the woman in the beach photo. This was enough to make the officer arrest Herbert for murder.
This arrest was a gamble, but it worked. When police searched Bennett's lodgings, they found their suspect had obligingly retained a wealth of evidence against himself. They found a woman's silver watch and gold chain, a receipt from the Crown and Anchor from when he had stayed there with Alice Meadows, a wig and false mustache, and a bundle of love letters from Alice. When Mrs. Rudrum was shown the watch and chain, she was certain they were identical to the ones worn by "Mrs. Hood." When Bennett was shown the chain, he paused, and then exclaimed that his wife had not worn that for over a year. He also claimed he had never been in Yarmouth in his entire life. (For such an experienced liar, he generally made a remarkably poor job of it.)
|"Illustrated Police News," November 17, 1900|
During Bennett's trial, the revelations of the sordid nature of his entire life, as well as his suspicious behavior after Mary Jane's death, was enough to convince most observers of his guilt. However, his lawyer, the legendary barrister Edward Marshall Hall, put up a surprisingly strong fight. In short, he managed to make a plausible case that all the prosecution witnesses were either half-witted or corrupt. He dealt with the gold chain found in Bennett's belongings by flatly stating that it was not the same one Mary Jane had worn in the beach photograph. Herbert's had a link chain, and Hall argued that Mary Jane's had been of a rope design. Witnesses for the defense and prosecution, unsurprisingly, gave differing opinions about what sort of chain Mrs. Bennett had worn, or what the type in the photograph may have been. Unfortunately, the photograph itself was not distinct enough for this crucial point to be definitively decided either way. He also introduced a surprise witness, a man who claimed to have talked to Bennett in a London pub on the night Mary Jane was murdered. Unfortunately for Bennett, this last-minute alibi witness was extremely unconvincing, and if he was telling the truth, it was, to say the least, highly curious that Bennett himself never mentioned him before. The prosecution produced other witnesses who claimed to have seen Bennett in Yarmouth on the night of his wife's death, and it is a fact that he was away from his London lodgings on the night of September 22nd.
Bennett himself did not take the stand. Hall later wrote that he had told his client, "If you will only go into the box and admit everything except the actual murder, I can get a verdict, but of course you must admit that when you saw the papers on the day after the murder you knew it was your wife, but that you were afraid to communicate for fear of losing Alice Meadows." Bennett replied, "I cannot say that, because I was not in Yarmouth on the 22nd, and I never knew that the murdered woman was my wife till I was arrested." Hall added, "I pointed out that this was hopeless, and he declined to give evidence at all." (Hall agreed that his client was "a worthless man," but "honestly and solemnly, I do not and cannot believe he murdered his wife.") Bennett's refusal to testify in his own behalf was seen as yet another damning, if indirect, piece of evidence against him.
The jury had little difficulty in finding this immensely unpopular defendant "Guilty." On March 21, 1901, Bennett was hanged, protesting his innocence of murder to the end. His orphaned daughter Ruby was taken in by her paternal grandfather.
At the time, few people believed Bennett, and it does seem most likely that he did indeed kill his wife in a particularly stupid and bungling manner. However, in the years since his execution, some true crime writers have made earnest, if not entirely convincing, efforts to throw doubt upon Bennett's guilt. They point out that it was never proven that Herbert was the "brother-in-law" who had been with Mary Jane in Yarmouth, or that he was the man Mrs. Rudrum's daughter had heard her kissing. Could not this mystery man have been the real killer? Bennett may have wished to be rid of his wife, they argue, but would he have been likely to sexually assault her? Considering that he had recently made himself very well known at Yarmouth, and in the company of another woman to boot, would he really have been stupid enough to pick that town as the site for his wife's murder? Would he have been idiot enough to go to a pub with Mary Jane, in the presence of who knows how many witnesses, on the very night he planned to kill her?
The mystery novelist Julian Symons went so far as to present a possible alternative scenario for Mary Jane's murder. Symons hypothesized that Bennett brought his wife to Yarmouth with the intention of pulling one of their habitual swindles on some mark. He suggested that Mary Jane had spent the week making the acquaintance of this man, with the idea of luring him into some compromising position, after which Bennett would show up, play the outraged husband, and demand money from the victim. Instead, the man somehow caught on to the scheme, and in a fit of anger murdered Mary Jane. Bennett later came upon his wife's dead body on the beach, and decided the only way to save himself was to keep his mouth shut and deny everything.
Although one cannot prove that Symons' theory is wrong, it does smack rather too much of crime fiction than real life. However, there is one postscript to this case that does raise disturbing doubts about the Bennett murder. In July 1912, the body of a young woman named Dora Gray was found on a Yarmouth beach, very near the site where Mary Jane had died. She too had been strangled with a shoelace--a shoelace tied with the same unusual knot used in the previous killing. Also like Mary Jane Bennett, her clothing was disarranged without there being any definite sign of rape. Although some suspicion focused on a local man, no one was ever charged with Gray's murder.
Was this a "copycat" killing? A chilling coincidence? Or, perhaps, a sign that someone had gotten away with murder not once...but twice?