Famous Trials 5

February 27, 2018 at 3:46 pm Leave a comment

Review by Steve Savage

Five murder trials ranging in date from 1892 to 1935 – what would they have in common? When you read this book, which is an abridged version of five titles in the Notable British Trials series from William Hodge & Co, Ltd, perhaps the main common factor is inexplicability, or randomness. Unlike in fiction, these murders often lack clear motives. The question repeatedly arises whether the accused were entirely responsible for their actions. That is a question that dates back to Don Quixote and no doubt earlier. In the case of the “Arran murderer”, John Laurie, the Scottish authorities came under pressure from an emotional public campaign against his execution, and although the defence had not claimed any mental incapacity, after Laurie was condemned to death it was decided that, for unspecified reasons, he was “of unsound mind”, and the unfortunate criminal spent the rest of his life (over 40 years) behind bars.

In more than one of these cases, the murderer drew attention to himself unnecessarily, either going to a police station or writing letters about the case. Did they, like Raskolnikov, feel compelled to give themselves up, or were their actions part of a “cunning plan” worthy only of Baldrick?

When it comes to court proceedings, we see medical and psychological “experts” coming up with directly contrary opinions about the same matters of fact. Sometimes it appears (perish the thought) that they are deliberately trying to muddy the legal waters.

Dr George Lamson, Thomas Cream and Neville Heath were hanged. Apparently Heath’s last words, possibly apocryphal, having asked the prison governor for a whisky, were, “You might make that a double.” John Laurie spent four decades locked up, while the 18-year-old George Stoner, after a public campaign, had his sentence of death commuted to penal servitude, and was released after seven years. His lover, Mrs Rattenbury, was acquitted, but committed suicide.

This book was published in 1955. Perhaps surprisingly, some of these murders continue to fascinate. The story of the murder of Francis Rattenbury, a prominent architect who designed British Columbia’s parliament building in Vancouver, inspired Rattigan’s 1975 radio play Cause Célèbre and as recently as 2017 an opera by Tobin Stokes, put on by Pacific Opera Victoria.

Steve Savage




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