A Sensational Discovery

By May 1890. the police investigation into the murder of Amelia Jeffs had thrown up no new clues as to who had committed the crime, and her murderer was still at large. Albeit – and reading between the lines –  it seems apparent that the police were extremely suspicious of the Roberts’ family and their emphatic assertions that they had no idea where the two sets of keys to 126 Portway were.

THE MISSING KEYS FOUND

Undeterred by the fact that a murder had taken place in the property, tenants were found who were willing to take a three year lease on the house and they duly moved in.

In May 1890, a series of mysterious happenings at the property led to the discovery of the missing keys.

The Missing Keys Found. From The Illustrated Police News, 24th May 1890. Copyright, The British Library Board.
The Missing Keys Found. From The Illustrated Police News, 24th May 1890. Copyright, The British Library Board.

The events surrounding the finding of the elusive keys were reported by The Evening Standard on the 17th May 1890:-

The report in the Evening Standard detailing how the missing keys came to be found.
From The Evening Standard, 17th May 1890

WERE THE HOUSE NUMBERS CHANGED?

The Central News Agency duly sent a reporter to the scene to see what facts he could ascertain about the mysterious find. The article made the intriguing assertion that No. 126 was difficult to find as it “bears that number no longer.” This is the only mention in all the newspaper coverage that the house numbers had been changed to disguise the actual property in which the murder of Amelia Jeffs took place.

Elliot O’Donnell in his book Strange Disappearances (1927),  also mentions this change of numbers, but he may well have sourced it from the Central News Agency report  which appeared in The Illustrated Police News on 24th May 1890. Whether the numbers were actually changed is uncertain. It could just be that the agency was anxious to protect the privacy of the tenants and so their reporter made the assertion in order to keep curious murder site hunters at bay.

What does become apparent from the report is that Mr Joseph Roberts, the builder of the Portway houses, was extremely anxious to explain how the keys came to be there:-

The report on the finding of the Keys .
The Central News Agency Report. Copyright. The British Library Board.

AMELIA JEFFS MOTHER WAS INDIGNANT

News of the find had brought comments from the mother of Amelia Jeffs who, so The Portsmouth Evening News reported, was not at all impressed with the progress of police investigation into her daughter’s murder:-

Mrs Jeffs reaction to the finding of the keys.
From The Portsmouth Evening News, 25th May 1890. Copyright, The British Library Board.

INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE

Since nobody was arrested in the wake of the finding of the keys, it is apparent that the police investigation failed to turn up sufficient evidence to charge anyone with the murder, albeit, it is also apparent that there were grave suspicions that the Roberts family were in some way involved in the crime, if not responsible for it.

THE POLICE SUSPECTED A LIKELY PERPETRATOR

It is evident that the police almost certainly had a suspect, but were unable to take any action against him due to a lack of direct evidence.

In 1891, the then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Edward Bradford, issued his annual report on the Capital’s policing for the year 1890.

The Morning Post in its edition of the 5th August 1891, stated that:-

“The only capital crime unaccounted for,” the Commissioner remarks,  “is that of the girl Amelia Jeffs, who was murdered at West Ham on the 31st of January, and there the evidence against the author of the crime was deemed insufficient to justify his arrest. In respect to this case it  is only right to add popular suspicion did grave injustice to an innocent person.”

The “innocent person” mentioned here may well have been the man who had sailed for Australia three days after Amelia’s disappearance, who was discussed in our second article on the case. (If you missed it you can read it here.)

WHY THEY COULDN’T CHARGE HIM

On the 19th September 1891,  The St James Gazette gave a detailed account as to why the Metropolitan Police were unable to charge their suspect:-

“In the annual report for 1890, issued a few weeks ago, an expression occurs which excited considerable curiosity and comment. It is this :–

“The evidence against the author of the crime was deemed insufficient to justify his arrest.

The reference is to the murder of Amelia Jeffs – known as the “West Ham mystery” – and it was asked, does this mean that the police actually knew her murderer and let him go free?

Startling as it seems, that is obviously what it does mean.

The police do know the man who committed that most ghastly crime, and can lay their hands on him at any moment.

The French method of dealing with cases of this kind is well known. Any individual on whom suspicion falls is brought before an examining magistrate, although there may to hardly a shred of evidence against him, and he can be detained so long as that functionary thinks proper.

In England the difficulty is not so much to find the man, as to fix the guilt on him, and to identity him with. the murderer.

And the cross-examination of suspects is a weapon of enormous power towards this end.

The case of Amelia Jeffs illustrates the position exactly. We are unable to say how the police are certain of their man, though the intelligent reader may guess; but here he is, known and within reach. Only, the crime cannot be fixed upon him. In France that man would be cross-questioned by a magistrate, and might commit himself in the first five minutes. Here it is impossible; no questions directly implicating a suspect can be asked of him. The case must rest entirely on other evidence, and when that is lacking the police are helpless.”

THE END OF THE CASE?

And with that press interest in the case began to fizzle out.

However, as we shall see in the final instalment, several people did actually confess to having murdered Amelia Jeffs.