Ever since I saw a programme about Jack the Ripper as a teenager I’ve been fascinated by historical murder cases – especially ones that read like fictional whodunits, with enough clues for the ordinary reader to feel they can still solve the case.
I’ve recently become acquainted with Jeanette Hensby, author of two such books. I thought it would be good if she could share her thoughts and insights into the books and the cases upon which they’re based, so I jetted to a top London hotel where I conducted this interview in a plush suite, with champagne laid on and everything.
Or, it was all done by email. You, the reader, must weight up the evidence and decide for yourself.
We’ll start with The Rotherham Trunk Murder (an intriguing title!) What’s it about?
The book is about the murder of 16 year old Irene Hart. She was killed, in her own home, on the morning of 12th September 1936, in the Masbrough area of Rotherham. Her body was found that afternoon, stuffed into a green tin trunk, inside a cupboard in her bedroom. At the time the case was reported very widely, both nationally and internationally, and always under the heading of The Trunk Murder, so my title wasn’t very original. The case involved the biggest Scotland Yard manhunt in British criminal history (up to that time), and the first use of the wireless system for a police appeal to the public for information.
One thing that led to you writing about it is some sort of family connection. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
I was brought up in Masbrough, very close to where the murder had happened, and spent a lot of time as a child with my grandma when my parents were at work. Grandma had lived all her life in a house full of people until the last of her children got married and left, round about 1958, leaving her (as a widow) in the house on her own, which must have seemed very quiet and lonely for her. I was the only grandchild she had at the time of an age to chat to, and so every opportunity that she had, she would sit me down and talk about old times. Being only about 9, I wasn’t old enough to be interested in these tales about what I considered “the olden days”, but I always did my best to look interested. She certainly got my interest, though, on the day she told me a secret about a murder committed by somebody she knew. The story sat tucked away in the back of my mind over the years, and I always hoped I would find out more about it some day. That day arrived in 2014 when I read an account of the murder in a book by Margaret Drinkall called Rotherham Murders. I was completely fascinated until I got to the end of the story and read about the man hanged for the murder. His name was Andrew Bagley, and he wasn’t the person that grandma had named as the murderer. I was stunned, and didn’t quite know what to do. At my sister’s urging, and with some initial reluctance, I decided to research the case. I think the evidence shows that there was a miscarriage of justice, with a man hanged for a crime that he didn’t commit. There is no turning the clock back, and no possibility of getting the case re-opened or a posthumous pardon, but I knew that I could put on record what I had been told by my grandma, and what the criminal investigation and trial evidence suggested, and that is what I have done in the book.
You probably won’t want to give too much away regarding who you think the murderer was, but is it fair to say that he or she isn’t necessarily the most obvious of the suspects?
There was one very obvious suspect – Andrew Bagley – and he is the one who was hanged for the crime. His actions were suspicious to say the least, and it is easy to understand why he was arrested, tried and convicted. He could possibly have saved himself, but for reasons revealed in the book he chose instead to face the hangman. This was an unusual twist to the story, and one which I found incredibly poignant and moving.
One interesting aspect of my research was when the National Archives in Kew sent me some information that I had not requested. I very clearly requested copies of the statements given at the Magistrates’ Court by the parents of the victim, Irene. What they sent instead was full details of Andrew Bagley’s appeal to the Central Criminal Appeal Court in London, after he had been sentenced to death. Those records showed that not only was the appeal completely mishandled, but that there was a cover-up afterwards to conceal that fact. When I rang the National Archives to complain that I had been sent the wrong information they were dumbfounded, as there was no similarity between what I had requested and what I had been sent. It felt to me like somebody “up there” wanted that particular truth out, and I made sure that it came out in the book. Spooky, or what?
I think this is your first book – did you have any previous writing experience?
No, not as such, but I worked for many years as a senior manager, firstly in the local authority (Sheffield) and then in the NHS, and that involved a lot of management report writing – or pen-pushing as my mother always called it! A part of the job that had particular relevance when it came to the writing of the book was examining and evaluating evidence presented to me in relation to serious complaints or disciplinary matters. Investigating this case, examining the evidence, and detailing what that evidence suggested to me was not, therefore, a process that I was unfamiliar with. What was completely different, though, was the writing style. I had to get away from being as succinct and ‘to the point’ as possible, and write in what was, hopefully, a more interesting style. I hope that I balanced that well without getting into what is one of my pet hates in books – waffly, boring bits that are put into pad out the book and that you flip past without reading.
I couldn’t agree more! I notice that, at the end of the book, you invite any family members or others with a personal knowledge of the crime to contact you. Did anyone get in touch?
Yes they did. The local paper, The Rotherham Advertiser published an article about my book, and a woman contacted me to say that she thought that she was possibly a member of Irene’s family. The woman’s maiden name had been ‘Hart’, and she had had a very unhappy childhood, hardly seeing either of her parents (both now dead), and being brought up by her grandparents. She remembers her grandad saying to her, when she was a child, “There are murderers in this family”. We met up, and after I shared with her all the census and electoral records I had gathered, we were able to quickly establish that her grandad and Irene’s father were brothers. There were not “murderers” in her family, but a murder victim – Irene. We met several times, and I was also able to tell her where Irene’s unmarked grave was, and we went together to lay flowers for her. This lady sent me a lovely note afterwards saying, “Thank you so much for opening up my family to me”. What a great outcome!
I have had no contact from any members of Andrew Bagley’s family, but would love to hear from them.
What sort of things did you learn from the writing process, and is there anything you can pass on to anyone thinking of embarking on a true crime or other non-fiction book?
I learnt that to write a decent non-fiction book, you have to put in many many hours of hard work, and keep checking, editing, and re-writing anything you aren’t happy about. You also need a few people that you can trust to tell you the truth (however painful) about your writing before you publish, and to be open to constructive criticism. Some other things that I learnt, and that I would pass on for others are:
Look at the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing as against trying to get a traditional publishing contract. Decide which suits you best.
If you go for the self-publishing option, as I did, you need to think very hard about how you will market your book. Thousands of books are self-published each week and unless you have a marketing plan it is possible no one will know about your book. My story had connections to Nottingham and to Rotherham, so I was able to get articles written in The Nottingham Post and The Rotherham Advertiser, and I was also interviewed on Radio Nottingham. (It was through the Nottingham connection that you learned about my book, Martyn, and offered to interview me for this blog – for which I am very grateful. Thank you!)
Use social media to spread the word about your book.
If you are writing about a true crime, be mindful of the fact that the people you are writing about will have family, and consider the impact on them of what you are saying. I had a good experience when Irene’s relative contacted me, but I know two other writers who got the full wrath of family members after writing their books.
Lastly I would say if you are prepared to put in the hard work, “Go for it”. Holding your first book in your hand for the first time doesn’t quite compare to the thrill of holding your new baby for the first time, but it certainly comes a close second.
Your second book, Edwin, Adelaide and George. The Bizarre Bartlett Poisoning lives up to its “bizarre” description, not least thanks to the apparently unusual variation on the “love triangle” involving the main characters. Can you give us an overview of the story?
In April 1875, thirty-year-old London grocer, Edwin Bartlett, married a beautiful nineteen-year-old French girl called Adelaide de la Tremouille. Adelaide’s parentage is shrouded in mystery, but it is believed that she was of noble English heritage. On the surface, the marriage seemed conventional, but beneath the surface all was not so well because Edwin had some very strange ideas about marriage and about sex. After giving birth to a stillborn child, Adelaide seemed unable to lift herself out of a deep depression. She was an intelligent, well-educated woman and Edwin decided that a return to studying might lift her spirits. Her spirits certainly lifted when the tutor Edwin chose started to visit her each day. The Reverend George Dyson was a good ten years younger than Edwin; handsome, charming, and soon totally beguiled by the seductive Adelaide. George confided to Edwin that he was falling in love with Adelaide, and that it would be better if the tutoring were to stop. But Edwin positively encouraged the relationship between his wife and the minister.
In the autumn of 1885, Edwin started exhibiting very strange behaviour and also became physically ill. His attending physician felt that Edwin was not mentally ill, and that there was nothing very much wrong with him physically. He was most surprised, therefore, when in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1886, Edwin was found dead in bed. He later stated that Edwin was, by far, the strangest patient that he had ever treated.
The post-mortem showed that Edwin had died as a result of being poisoned by liquid chloroform. The medics were at a loss, however, to understand how this could have happened. Liquid chloroform passing down the throat would burn the windpipe and cause such excruciating pain that the person drinking it would scream in agony. There were no burns on the windpipe, none of the sleeping people in the house heard any screams, and Edwin’s expression in death was peaceful. It appeared that someone had managed to commit an impossible murder.
Adelaide and George were charged with murder and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. Both stood together in the dock on the first day of the trial, but a surprising and sensational announcement was quickly made. All charges against George had been dropped – Adelaide alone would stand trial. The book summarises the evidence from the six day trial and gives my theory about what was really going on during this most puzzling of cases.
You had a local, and more personal, interest in the previous book. This case is more nationally known – what inspired you to delve into it?
After finishing the first book, I decided to research another Rotherham crime but I soon got bogged down with the research, couldn’t quite get enthused by the writing, and more or less decided that The Rotherham Trunk Murder would be a one-off and that writing wasn’t for me. My sister encouraged me not to give up on writing, but to put the Rotherham case aside and go for something easier, and I decided to do a book containing three short stories of famous crimes. I did the first (The South Croydon Poisonings) which I shall probably publish as a stand-alone short story soon, and had started with the Adelaide Bartlett case when I happened to find the full transcript of the trial online. What a find! It allowed me to study everything that was said during the six day trial, and to turn what had been intended as a short story into a full length book.
As you say, you managed to get hold of the original trial transcripts and it’s fascinating to ‘hear’ the actual voices of those involved. When I wrote A Matter of Honour, about England’s last fatal duel, I had to rely on newspaper accounts of the trials and I would have given my right arm for the actual transcripts. How did you find out about them?
I loved reading A Matter of Honour, and I know what you mean. I would have given my right arm for the full transcript of Andrew Bagley’s trial when I was researching my first book. I actually googled his case to see if the trial records were online, but they weren’t. I had started writing the Adelaide Bartlett story when I suddenly remembered that I had read that some Old Bailey trials were being transcribed and put online. I googled, and found the full transcript, put online by a project team at Sheffield University. Additionally, as this was such an exceptionally strange and mysterious case, someone had actually written a full trial record shortly after her trial, and that is also now available online.
You also have your own opinions as to the “who” and the “how” of this case. It’s a fairly well known one in historical crime circles – how different is your theory compared to those in other accounts?
The simple answer to that question is that I don’t know. The only detailed account that I ever read was in the book written in the 1970s by Yseult Bridges. I read it shortly after it was published, so I don’t remember much of it. All I do remember is that I was completely intrigued by the case to the point where, had it been fiction, I would have dismissed it as being unrealistic and far-fetched. As far as I remember, Yseult didn’t particularly put forward a theory to solve the mystery, and none of the other short accounts that I’ve read over the years have explained it; they’ve merely outlined the strange goings-on. Without reading the full transcript of the trial, I think anybody would struggle to make any sense of it, but in my opinion, if you study the transcript carefully the answers are there. But, I could be wrong. I really would love to hear other people’s views if they read the book.
Well, hopefully some of my blog followers will! Finally, what are your future writing plans? Are you happy to stick with crime, or might you try your hand at some other area of non-fiction, say something biographical – or even fiction?
Well, I can rule fiction out straight away. I don’t have the imagination for it. It’s a real gift and a talent that some people have, but it’s a gift and a talent that I don’t have. I doubt that I will write a biography unless it’s my own memoirs of my time in the local authority and the NHS. I did threaten to write my memoirs when I gave my retirement speech, and saw a few blanched faces. Seriously though, it is true crime that fascinates me – the characters and the psychology, and particularly where there is an element of mystery, or a possible miscarriage of justice.
You very kindly gave me very positive feedback about both my books, but commented that you had particularly liked the way that “my voice” was heard throughout the Trunk Murder book. I had sort of thought that I could write like that only because of my direct link to that particular crime, and I did enjoy writing that book more than I did the Adelaide Bartlett one. That one bit of feedback from you was a “lightbulb” moment, and I realised that I could write about the murder of the two little Rotherham girls in the same “personal” way. The murder took place only a hundred yards or so from where I lived for many years; the bodies were found in a field that we walked through most days, and so on. So, my writer’s block in regard to that case has gone, I’m thinking about the book in a whole different way, and feeling really enthusiastic about getting back into it. The book will be called The Abdy Farm Murders. Who killed little Frances and Amy?
Thank you so much for that helpful feedback, Martyn, and also for interviewing me for your blog. I’ve really enjoyed answering your questions.
You’re very welcome. It’s been a pleasure, because I share your enthusiasm for true crime and your reasons for finding it so interesting. I think a lot of people assume that it’s all about the blood and gore; but it’s really, as you say, a combination of the psychology of it, the fascinating characters, and the element of just possibly being able to solve a historical crime from your own armchair (or computer chair!).
I’ll certainly be looking out for The Abdy Farm Murders.