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Sunday, August 7, 2016
SUNDAY REVIEW/ DOYLE’S NON-SHERLOCK CRIME STORY
Mrs. Emsley's neighborhood in London's Stepney district
THE DEBATABLE CASE OF MRS. EMSLEY
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Editor’s note:Jon Jerney of Project Gutenberg Australia
published this work on the Internet from the public domain.It first appeared in The Strand Magazine,
The stranger in London who wanders
away from the beaten paths and strays into the quarters in which the workers
dwell is astounded by their
monotony, by the endless rows of uniform brick houses broken
only by the
corner public-houses and more infrequent chapels which are
expansion of the great city has been largely caused by the covering of district
after district with these long lines of humble dwellings, and the years between
the end of the Crimean War and1860 saw great activity in this direction.
builders by continually mortgaging what they had done, and using the capital
thus acquired to start fresh works which were themselves in turn mortgaged, contrived
to erect street after street, and eventually on account of the general rise of
property to make considerable fortunes. Amongst these astute speculators there
was one John Emsley, who, dying, left his numerous houses and various interests
to his widow Mary.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sherlock Holmes, Baker Street, and Moriarty are
just one piece of the complicated jigsaw that was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s
literary life. Leaving aside his most famous creation, Conan Doyle also wrote
science fiction, historical novels, plays, romances, poetry and non-fiction.
Mary Emsley, now an old woman, had
lived too long in a humble fashion to change her way of life. She was
childless, and all the activities of her nature were
centred upon the economical management of her property, and the collection of
the weekly rents from the humble tenants who occupied them. A grim, stern,
eccentric woman, she was an object of mingled dislike and curiosity among the
inhabitants of Grove Road, Stepney, in which her house was situated.
possessions extended over Stratford, Bow, and Bethnal Green, and in spite of
her age she made long journeys, collecting, evicting, and managing, always
showing a great capacity for the driving of a hard bargain. One of her small
economies was that when she needed help in managing these widespread properties
she preferred to employ irregular agents to engaging a salaried representative.
There were many who did odd jobs for her, and among them were two men whose
names were destined to become familiar to the public. The one was John Emms, a cobbler
and the other George Mullins, a plasterer.
in spite of her wealth, lived entirely alone, save that on
charwoman called to clean up the house. She showed also that
timidity and caution which are often characteristic of those who
perish by violence--as if there lies in human nature some
instinctive power of prophecy. It was with reluctance that she ever
door, and each visitor who approached her was reconnoitered
window of her area. Her fortune would have permitted her to
herself with every luxury, but the house was a small one,
of two stories and a basement, with a neglected back garden,
and her mode
of life was even simpler than her dwelling. It was a
most unnatural old age.
Mrs. Emsley was last seen alive upon the evening of Monday, August
13th, 1860. Upon that date, at seven o'clock, two neighbours perceived her
her bedroom window. Next morning, shortly after ten, one of
irregular retainers called upon some matter of brass taps, but was
get any answer to his repeated knockings. During that Tuesday
visitors had the same experience, and the Wednesday and Thursday
without any sign of life within the house. One would have thought
would have aroused instant suspicions, but the neighbours were
accustomed to the widow's eccentricities that they were slow to be
Victorian London, East End
It was only
upon the Friday, when John Emms, the cobbler, found
sinister silence prevailing in the house, that a fear of foul
suddenly upon him. He ran round to Mr. Rose, her attorney, and
who was a distant relation, and the three men returned to the
house. On their
way they picked up Police constable Dillon, who
door was fastened and the windows snibbed, so the party made
over the garden wall and so reached the back entrance, which
they seem to
have opened without difficulty. John Emms led the way, for
intimately acquainted with the house. On the ground floor there
was no sign
of the old woman. The creak of their boots and the subdued
their voices were the only sounds which broke the silence.
ascended the stair with a feeling of reassurance. Perhaps it was all
all. It was quite probable that the eccentric widow might
have gone on
a visit. And then as they came upon the landing John Emms
staring, and the others, peering past him, saw that which struck
from their hearts.
It was the
footprint of a man dimly outlined in blood upon the wooden
door of the front room was nearly closed, and this dreadful
in front of it with the toes pointing away.
The police constable
pushed at the door, but something which lay behind it
from opening. At last by their united efforts they effected
There lay the unfortunate old woman, her lank limbs all
the floor, with two rolls of wall-paper under her arm and
others scattered in front of her. It was evident that the
blows which had crushed in her head had fallen upon her
and had struck her senseless in an instant.
She had none of that anticipation
which is the only horror of death.
The news of
the murder of so well known an inhabitant caused the utmost
in the neighbourhood, and every effort was made to detect the
Government reward of 100 pounds was soon raised to 300, but
avail. A careful examination of the house failed to reveal
which might serve as a reliable clue.
difficult todetermine the hour of the murder, for there was reason to think
that the dead woman occasionally neglected to make her bed, so that the fact
that the bed was unmade did not prove that it had been slept in. She was fully dressed,
as she would be in the evening, and it was unlikely that she would be doing
business with wall-papers in the early morning.
Very early image of Victorian London, 1860s
On the whole,
then, the evidence seemed to point to the crime having been
upon the Monday evening some time after seven. There had been no forcing of
doors or windows, and therefore the murderer had been
Mrs. Emsley. It was not consistent with her habits that she
anyone whom she did not know at such an hour, and the
the wall-papers showed that it was someone with whom she had business to
So far the
police could hardly go wrong. The murderer appeared to have gained little by
his crime, for the only money in the house, 48 pounds, was found concealed in
the cellar, and nothing was missing save a few articles of no value. For weeks
the public waited impatiently for an arrest, and for weeks the police remained
silent though not inactive. Then an arrest was at last effected, and in a curiously
numerous people who made small sums of money by helping the murdered woman
there was one respectable-looking man, named George Mullins, 50 years of age,
with the straight back of a manwho has at
some period been well drilled. As a matter of fact, he had served in
the Irish Constabulary, and had undergone many other curious experiences
before he had settled down as a plasterer in the East-end of London. This
man it was who called upon Sergeant Tanner, of the police,
before him a statement which promised to solve the whole
this account, Mullins had from the first been suspicious of
cobbler, and had taken steps to verify his suspicions, impelled
his love of justice and even more by his hope of the reward.
The 300 pounds
bulked largely before his eyes. 'If this only goes right I'll
take care of
you,' said he, on his first interview with the police, and
allusion to his own former connection with the force, that he
at these matters.' So clever was he that his account of what
he had seen
and done gave the police an excellent clue upon which to act.
that the cobbler dwelt in a small cottage at the edge of an
brick-field. On this brick-field, and about 60 yards from the cottage,
there stood a crumbling outhouse which had been abandoned.
seems, had for some time back been keeping a watchful eye
and he had observed him carrying a paper parcel from his
concealing it somewhere in the shed. 'Very likely,' said the
Mullins, 'he is concealing some of the plunder which he has
the police also the theory seemed not impossible, and so, on
following morning, three of them, with Mullins hanging at their
appeared at Emms's cottage, and searched both it and the shed.
however, were in vain, and nothing was found.
was by no means satisfactory to the observant Mullins, who
soundly for not having half-searched the shed, and persuaded
them to try
again. They did so under his supervision, and this time with
results. Behind a slab in the outhouse they came on a paper
parcel of a
very curious nature. It was tied up with coarse tape, and
disclosed another parcel tied with waxed string. Within were
small spoons and one large one, two lenses, and a cheque
favour of Mrs. Emsley, and known to have been paid to her upon
the day of
the murder. There was no doubt that the other articles had
belonged to the dead woman.
discovery was of the first importance then, and the whole party set off for the
police-station, Emms covered with confusion and dismay, while Mullins swelled
with all the pride of the successful amateur detective. But his triumph did not
last long. At the police station the inspector charged him with being himself concerned
in the death of Mrs. Emsley.
'Is this the
way that I am treated after giving you information?' he
'If you are
innocent no harm will befall you,' said the inspector, and he
committed for trial.
turning of the tables caused the deepest public excitement,
utmost abhorrence was everywhere expressed against the man who was charged not
only with a very cold-blooded murder, but with a
attempt to saddle another man with the guilt in the hope of
It was very
soon seen that Emms at least was innocent, as he could prove the most
convincing alibi. But if Emms was innocent who was guilty save the man who had
placed the stolen articles in the outhouse? and who could this be save Mullins,
who had informed the police that they were there?
The case was prejudged by the public before ever the prisoner had
appeared in the dock, and the evidence which the police had prepared against
him was not such as to cause them to change their opinion.
series of facts were arraigned in proof of their
the case, and they were laid before the jury by Sergeant Parry
Central Criminal Court upon the 25th of October, about ten weeks
Unidentified alley in East End, London, 1860s.
sight the case against Mullins appeared to be irresistible. An
of his rooms immediately after his arrest enabled the police
some tape upon his mantelpiece which corresponded very
the tape with which the parcel had been secured. There were
in each. There was also found a piece of cobbler's
wax, such as
would be needed to wax the string of the inner parcel.
wax was not a substance which Mullins needed in his business,
so that time
theory of the prosecution was that he had simply procured it
in order to
throw suspicion upon the unfortunate cobbler. A plasterer's
which might have inflicted the injuries, was also discovered upon
premises, and so was a spoon which corresponded closely to the spoons
Emsley had lost.
It was shown
also that Mrs. Mullins had recently sold a small gold pencil-case to a
neighbouring barman, and two witnesses were found to swear that this
pencil-case belonged to Mrs. Emsley and had been in her possession a short time
before her death.
also discovered a pair of boots, one of which appeared to fit
impression upon the floor, and medical evidence attested that there
human hair upon the sole of it. The same medical evidence swore
to a blood
mark upon the gold pencil which had been sold by Mrs. Mullins.
proved by the charwoman, who came upon Saturdays, that when she had been in the
house two days before the murder Mullins had called,
with him some rolls of wall-paper, and that he had been directed
Emsley to carry it up to the room in which the tragedy afterwards
Now, it was
clear that Mrs. Emsley had been discussing wallpapers at the time that she was
struck down, and what more natural than that it should have been with the
person who had originally brought
had been shown that during the day Mrs. Emsley had handed
to Mullins a
certain key. This key was found lying in the same room as
body, and the prosecution asked how it could have come there if
not bring it.
So far the
police had undoubtedly a very strong case, and they
to make it more convincing still by producing evidence to
Mullins had been seen both going to the crime and coming away
Raymond, was ready to swear that at 8 pm that evening he had caught a glimpse of him in
the street near Mrs. Emsley's. He was wearing a black billy-cock hat. A sailor
was produced who testified that he had seen him at Stepney Green a little after
five next morning. According to the sailor's account his attention was
attracted by the nervous manner and excited appearance of the man whom he had
met, and also by the fact that his pockets were very bulging. He was wearing a brown
hat. When he heard of the murder he had of his own accord given information to
the police, and he would swear that Mullins was the man whom he had seen.
This was the
case as presented against the accused, and it was fortified
smaller points of suspicion. One of them was that when he was
police information about Emms he had remarked that Emms was about the only man
to whom Mrs. Emsley would open her door.
she open it for you, Mullins?' asked the policeman.
he. 'She would have called to me from the window of the area.'
of his--which was shown to be untrue--told very heavily
at the trial.
It was a
grave task which Mr. Best had to perform when he rose to answer
complicated and widely-reaching indictment. He first of all
to establish an alibi by calling Mullins's children, who were
testify that he came home particularly early upon that
Monday. Their evidence, however, was not very conclusive, and
by the laundress, who showed that they were confusing one day with another.
the boot, the counsel pointed out that human hair was used by plasterers in
their work, and he commented upon the
the prosecution to prove that there was blood upon the very
was supposed to have produced the blood-print. He also
regards the bloodstain upon the pencil-case that the barman
the pencil had carefully cleaned and polished it, so that if
any blood upon it, it was certainly not that of Mrs. Emsley.
commented upon the discrepancy of the evidence between Raymond, who saw the
accused at eight in the evening in a black hat, and the sailor who met him at
five in the morning in a brown one. If the theory of the prosecution was that
the accused had spent the night in the house of the murdered woman, how came
his hat to be changed?
One or other
or both the witnesses must be worthless. Besides, the sailor had met his mysterious
stranger at Stepney Green, which was quite out of the line between the scene of
the crime and Mullins's lodgings.
As to the
bulging pockets, only a few small articles had been taken from
and they would certainly not cause the robbers pockets to
was no evidence either from Raymond or from the sailor that
was carrying the plasterer's hammer with which the deed was
have been done.
And now he
produced two new and very important witnesses, whose evidence furnished another
of those sudden surprises with which the case hadabounded. Mrs. Barnes, who
lived in Grove Road, opposite to the scene of the murder, was prepared to swear
that at 20 minutes to ten on Tuesday
morning--12 hours after the time of the commission of the crime,
according to the police theory--she saw someone moving paper-hangings
in the top room, and that she also saw the right-hand
a little way. Now, in either of these points she might be the
victim of a
delusion, but it is difficult to think that she was mistaken
both. If there was really someone in the room at that hour,
was Mrs. Emsley or her assassin, in either case it proved the
the prosecution to be entirely mistaken.
piece of evidence was from Stephenson, a builder, who
that upon that Tuesday morning he had seen one Rowland, also a
out of some house with wallpapers in his hand. This was a
ten o'clock. He could not swear to the house, but he thought
that it was
Mrs. Emsley's. Rowland was hurrying past him when he stopped him and asked
him--they were acquaintances--whether he was in the paper line.
you know that?' said Rowland.
Stephenson, 'else I should have given you a job or two.'
'Oh, yes, I
was bred up to it,' said Rowland, and went on his way.
In answer to
this Rowland appeared in the box and stated that he
Stephenson to be half-witted. He acknowledged the meeting and
conversation, but asserted that it was several days before. As a
fact, he was engaged in papering the house next to Mrs.
and it was from that that he had emerged.
So stood the
issues when the Chief Baron entered upon the difficult task
up. Some of the evidence upon which the police had principally
brushed aside by him very lightly. As to the tape, most tape
32 strands, and it appeared to him that
not exactly of one sort.
was not an uncommonsubstance, and a plasterer could not be blamed for
possessing a plasterer's hammer. The boot, too, was not so exactly like the blood-print
that any conclusions could be drawn from it.
point of the defense was that it was almost certain that Mullins hid the things
in the shed. If he did not commit the crime, why did he not volunteer a statement
as to how the things came into his possession? His remark that Mrs. Emsley
would not open the door to him, when it was certain that she would do so, was
very much against him.
On the other
hand, the conflicting evidence of the sailor and of the other man who had seen Mullins
near the scene of the crime was not very convincing, nor did he consider the
incident of the key to be at all conclusive, since the key might have been
returned in the course of the day.
whole, everything might be got round except the hiding of the parcel in the shed,
and that was so exceedingly damning that, even without anything else, it
amounted to a formidable case.
Victorian era courtroom
deliberated for three hours and then brought in a verdict of
which the judge concurred. Some of his words, however, in
sentence were such as to show that his mind was by no means
upon the point.
'If you can
even now make it manifest that you are innocent of the
said he, 'I do not doubt that every attention will be paid to
proof laid before those with whom it rests to carry out the
To allude to
the possibility of a man's innocence and at the same time to
to be hanged strikes the lay mind as being a rather barbarous and illogical
proceeding. It is true that the cumulative force of the evidence against
Mullins was very strong, and that investigation proved the man's antecedents to
have been of the worst. But still,
evidence, even when it all points one way and there is
be urged upon the other side, cannot be received with too
caution, for it is nearly always possible to twist it to some other
case, even allowing that the evidence for an alibi furnished by
children was worthless, and allowing also that Mr. Stephenson's
be set aside, there remains the positive and absolutely
testimony of Mrs. Barnes, which would seem to show that
Mullins did the crime he did it in an entirely different way to
the police imagined.
it not on the face of it most improbable that a man should commit a murder at
eight o'clock or so in the evening, should remain all night in the house with
the body of his victim, that he should do this in the dark--for a light moving
about the house would have been certainly remarked by the neighbours--that he should
not escape during the darkness, but that he should wait for the full sunlight
of an August morning before he emerged?
reading the evidence one is left with an irresistible impression
Mullins was very likely guilty, the police were never able
the details of the crime, and that there was a risk of a
of justice when the death sentence was carried out.
much discussion among the legal profession at the time as to
of the evidence, but the general public was quite
for the crime was such a shocking one that universal prejudice
against the accused.
Illustration of a Victorian Era judicial execution
hanged on the 19th of November, and he left a statement behind him reaffirming his
own innocence. He never attempted to explain the circumstances which cost him his
life, but he declared in his last hours that he believed Emms to be innocent of
the murder, which some have taken to be a confession that he had himself placed
the incriminating articles in the shed.
Forty years have served to throw no
fresh light upon the matter.