"...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 22, 2018

Weldon Atherstone's Final Performance

"O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on."
~William Shakespeare, "Othello"

Thomas Weldon Anderson may not have been a great show business success, but he accomplished one thing achieved by very few actors: he starred in a real-life mystery story which topped anything he ever performed on stage.

Anderson was born in the English village of Much Woolton in 1861. As a young man, he decided to become an actor, changing his name to the more romantic "Weldon Atherstone." The newly-rechristened Atherstone was not a particularly talented thespian, but he was a tall, handsome man with an impressive voice. These attributes were sufficient to get him a steady stream of roles in the lesser theatrical companies. He was never an acclaimed performer, but he was a regularly employed one, which is more than most actors can say.

In 1886, he married an actress named Monica Kelly, and the two had four children. Unfortunately, the marriage quickly hit the skids. Atherstone was a jealous, hot-tempered individual, and the pair spent much of their time quarreling. By the late 1890s, Atherstone had enough, and he abandoned his family. He was not on his own for long. In 1899, while performing in an otherwise forgettable melodrama called "The Power of Gold," he fell in love with one of his co-stars, a pretty young American named Elizabeth Earle. In 1902, Earle retired from the stage, settling down with her mother in a small flat in Battersea. Atherstone lived with them when he was not "on the road" with touring companies.

"The Era," July 15, 1899 via Newspapers.com

When Earle's mother died in 1905, Earle remained in the flat. She became a teacher at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, and also held private acting lessons in her home. Earle developed a warm, motherly relationship with Atherstone's two sons, and for some time the irregular Earle/Atherstone household was the picture of tranquility.

Sadly, this domestic bliss did not last forever. Atherstone's career began hitting the skids. He was getting too old for leading man roles, and his hammy, melodramatic acting style was falling out of vogue. He did not take his professional problems well. Atherstone became increasingly moody, paranoid, and generally angry at the world. He fell into jealous rages against Earle, forbidding her to have any male pupils. In May 1910, Atherstone accused her of infidelity. When she indignantly denied the charge, he struck her across the face and moved out of the flat.

Such was the unhappy situation on July 16, 1910. Earle still remained close to the Atherstone boys, and on that evening she was visited by Weldon's 21-year-old son Thomas Frederick. As the two were having supper, they were startled by the sound of two gunshots. They seemed to come from the flat underneath Earle's, which was then unoccupied. However, neither went outside to investigate the noise. A short time later, a policeman came to the door. Apparently, a neighbor had just reported hearing the shots, after which he saw a man jump down from the wall of the next-door building and run off.

Thomas escorted the officer downstairs and into the rear yard, where they found a man lying unconscious. He had been shot twice in the head. The gun was not at the scene, and, in fact, never was found. Although doctors were immediately summoned, the victim soon died. Thomas claimed not to recognize the man. The victim was wearing carpet slippers instead of boots, and had been carrying a homemade cosh in his pocket, suggesting that he had not been engaged in any sort of benign enterprise. Also in his pocket was a business card bearing the name of "Weldon Atherstone."

When police asked Thomas if he knew anyone by that name, he hesitantly replied, "my father," but he could not believe his parent was the dead man. However, when he later viewed the body at the mortuary, he immediately acknowledged that it was indeed his dad.

Naturally, the prime suspect in Atherstone's murder was the man seen fleeing the scene. Witnesses described him as a small man in his twenties, and wearing a dark suit. He was definitely not Thomas Anderson, who was notably tall. But who was he, and--assuming he was the killer--what was his motive for shooting Atherstone?

Ross-Shire Journal, July 29, 1910

The actor's reason for being on the scene could be explained more easily. Atherstone was spying on his ex-lover. A diary found in his pocketbook revealed a man driven half-mad by jealousy, and he was convinced that Earle was seeing other men. In this diary, he named his suspected rivals, but these men all had alibis for the time of the shooting, and were soon cleared by police. (Incidentally, there is absolutely no reason to believe that Atherstone's obsession had any basis in reality.)

At the coroner's inquest, Earle--who seemed genuinely grief-stricken--was asked about her odd lack of curiosity when she heard the two gunshots. (She had assumed someone was scaring off a thief, or shooting at alley cats.) Thomas Anderson received questions regarding his equally peculiar inability to initially recognize his own father. He attributed this to a combination of the darkness and the victim's facial injuries. Both these witnesses struck observers as completely sincere, and no one could come up with any adequate motive for either of them to murder Atherstone. The inquest jury, faced with a remarkable paucity of evidence, gave the inevitable verdict of "murder by some person or persons unknown."

We know no more about the murder of Weldon Atherstone than that long-ago jury did. The near-total lack of clues in the case has provided a fertile field for a wide variety of theories. The simplest and most popular scenario imagines that Atherstone was out on a spy mission, hoping to catch Earle in the company of a romantic rival. He concealed himself in the empty flat below Earle's, expecting to confront her lover. Instead, he encountered a burglar. The two men fought, which ended with the burglar shooting Atherstone and disappearing into the night. Early 20th century true crime writer Hargrave L. Adam doubted that a burglar was afoot--early on a summer night, he said, was not a time for housebreakers to ply their criminal trade. He suggested that the gun had actually belonged to Atherstone, but during his encounter with "some petty sneak-thief," the weapon wound up being used against him. Sir Neville Macnaughten, a senior official at Scotland Yard, also scoffed at the burglar theory: "Burglars don't start business at 9:30 on a summer's night, nor do they crack cribs which contain nothing."

In more modern times, Jonathan Goodman--who had a taste for devising convoluted "solutions" to crime mysteries--proposed that Atherstone's murder was not due to a chance encounter with a stranger, but from a conspiracy among those closest to him. Atherstone, Goodman pointed out, had not been a very good father, and would hardly win any prizes as a boyfriend, either. Perhaps, he thought, long-suffering Elizabeth Earle and the two Anderson boys worked together to kill Atherstone. In Goodman's view, Thomas Anderson shot his father, with his brother William on hand to make off with the murder weapon. However, William had an alibi for the time of the shooting, and he did not match the description of the man seen fleeing the scene.

In his "Murder Houses of South London," Jan Bondeson diffidently speculated that Earle and/or the Andersons hired a "hit man," but immediately undercut his own theory by pointing out that none of them had sufficient funds to indulge in murder-for-hire. In any case, Bondeson felt that none of the three had sufficient motive to "swear into a murderous conspiracy." He cast doubt on the "burglar" hypothesis as well: the mystery man was described by witnesses as wearing an "elegant suit"--hardly likely in the case of a burglar stalking a lower-class neighborhood.

In his book about the case, "Mr. Atherstone Leaves the Stage," Richard Whittington-Egan listed the various questions surrounding the murder:

Had the dead man reason to believe that someone might come to the back of the mansion premises?
If so, for what purpose?
Was Atherstone anticipating an attack on himself, his son, or Miss Earle?
Who was there with whom he had at any time quarrelled who might cherish sufficient ill-will to take his life, or bribe an agent to do so?
Who anticipated a possible meeting with Atherstone, and a possible attack by him?
What was the reason for the meeting, and the motive for the attack?

"There were no answers," he sighed.

[Note: Understandably, Elizabeth Earle moved from her flat soon after the murder. What happened to her next is uncertain, but she may have emigrated to Australia. All we know of Atherstone's younger son William is that he served with distinction in World War One. As for Thomas Anderson, he joined the Merchant Navy, and eventually settled in New Zealand, where he became an active member of the Federated Seamen's Union of New Zealand. He died in 1964 with a dark cloud over his name, as he had just admitted to having spent the last several decades stealing funds from his union.

It would be interesting to know their theories about Atherstone's messy and untimely death, but, unfortunately, they seem to have kept whatever ideas they had to themselves.]


  1. The theories involving Miss Earle and Atherstoen's family run up again a lack of motive. Killing man simply because he was an annoyance hardly happens in real life. It seems more likely that it resulted from a chance encounter between Atherstone and another man who, minding his own business, was surprised by a silent, secretive man on a clandestine mission. Thinking he was about to be robbed, the stranger struggled with Atherstone and shot him with his own weapon. But I have as much evidence for my theory as anyone else has for his...

    An interesting side-light is Sir Neville's use of the slang term 'crib' to refer to a home or residence. Slang comes and goes - and then comes back.

    1. Yes, that struck me as perhaps the most likely solution: Weldon wasn't killed by a burglar--he was (quite possibly unintentionally) killed by a man who thought HE was a burglar.

      A true show business twist ending!


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