Master Of Murder Mysteries

On Sunday, April 22nd, 1934, The Sunday Post Magazine, in Washington, published the following article which looked back at the career of Frederick Porter Wensley (1865 – 1949), who had joined the Metropolitan Police as a constable in January, 1888, and who had spent many years serving with H- Division on the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.

MASTER OF MURDER MYSTERIES

When the amazing Stavisky case began to spread from high finance to murder, bootlegging and espionage, an elderly but vigorous gentleman, in his comfortable suburban home outside London, received a call which made him snort like an old hunter at the distant sound of the chase.

He kissed his wife, clapped on his hard derby hat and caught the boat-train for Dover.

The plain-clothes men unobtrusively at the gangway of the cross-Channel boat took one glance at that formidable visage, with its huge beak of a nose and close-set, steady hawk’s eyes, and touched their hats.

WENSLEY’S RETURN

“Wensley’s on the job,” ran a whisper around the quayside and the customs sheds. “Wensley’s aboard,” muttered the seamen to one another.

And long before he reached Paris the boule-vardiers were telling one another the news.

The French authorities had asked him to emerge from retirement and lend a hand to unravel the greatest and most complex mystery of today.

He is Scotland Yard’s famous “Iron Man,” Frederick Porter Wensley. Head of the Criminal Investigation Department until his retirement in 1931, its most expert solver of murder mysteries, with an unparalleled knowledge of the criminal mind and the national and international underworld, the British detective chief has won a fame second only to that of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

A photograph of Frederick Porter Wensley showing him wearing a bowler hat.
Frederick Porter Wensley

HE HAS HIS OWN METHODS

But if he does succeed in solving any part of the interlocking aeries of riddles of the Stavisky affair, it will not be by means of those ingenious deductions which enable fiction detectives to elucidate the most profound and perplexing crime problems. He has his own methods, and the proof of their value is the fact that up to the time he took over the chieftainship of the C.I.D. Wensley had an unparalleled record – not a single murder case unsolved within his jurisdiction – not one!

Give him a laundry mark or a half-burned matchstick and from a standing start he will find the murderer, secure the evidence and send his killer up for his just punishment. He has done it time and again.

HE LEARNT ON THE STREETS

He is not the product of a police college; he learned his job on the streets.

Back in the 80s he joined the police and was drafted to the East Side division – a youngster of sturdy yeoman stock, a country-bred boy, calm, shrewd, tenacious.

He knew nothing about police work, policemen or the ways of the big city Jungle.

EARLY LESSONS

His first lesson came when he sought to intervene in the role of peacemaker in a drunken quarrel in a liquor saloon. Sitting up in the gutter a minute later – he had arrived there by way of the plate-glass window – he realized his error.

Some months later he was walking his beat when a bartender came up to him. An affable stranger had walked into his saloon and invited everyone to drink. But when the time came to pay, he said he had no money.

Wensley, taking no chances this time, loosened his club; and when the stranger flashed a sword from his cane, he slipped under the blade and swiped the sword-stick man across the back of his neck.

At the station, he was told severely that he would be reported for improperly using his truncheon!

Fortunately for him, the prisoner, in court, jumped out of the dock with murder in his eye and tried to reach the magistrate. He was a lunatic.

The black mark against the young officer was wiped out.

So his education proceeded.

A black and white photograph of Detective Inspector Wensley.
Detective Inspector Wensley

OUT ALL HOURS

With strips of old bicycle tires nailed to his boots (rubber soles were not on the market then), he padded about the sinister alleyways of the East End, looking – vainly – for Jack the Ripper.

He grabbed a couple of robbers, was commended for intelligence and activity, and rewarded with $1.25 – which meant something to a constable whose pay was only $5 a week.

Out all hours of the day and night, in all weathers, working in a maze of narrow, ill-lighted streets infested with hoodlums and hold-up men, the hide-outs of criminals, the “factories” of forgers and coiners, he gradually learned all the tricks of the detective’s trade.

He learned that practical sleuthing depends less upon ingenious reasoning than upon information and speed.

YOU HAVE TO PROVE IT

Above all, he learned that getting your man isn’t the whole battle; you have to hang proof on him in court.

A house had been robbed. Young Wensley found a clew – a button of peculiar make, broken off short at the shank.

A few days later, as he walked along with those hawk eyes alert, he saw a man walking along with similar buttons, one missing. He arrested the wearer, a known criminal.

The man uttered not a word in court until the case was finished and the Judge asked him if he had anything to say. Then he pointed out that the button the police depended on as the vital link in the chain of evidence had a shank. But the shank of the button he had lost was still on the waistcoat he was wearing. And who ever saw a button with two shanks?

The Jury acquitted the robber, who laughed in Wensley’s face as he walked out.

The detective had neglected to take the waistcoat from the robber, who, while on remand, had got a friend to procure a similar button, break off a shank and sew it on.

THE WEINER GANG

He did not make any mistake of that sort when he broke up the Weiner gangĀ  – a case which proved to be one of the exceptions to his generalization that women in crime are seldom masterminds.

A gang of burglars was operating around the prosperous suburbs of the big city. The police were baffled; they couldn’t get a clew. Obviously the jobs were the work of a skilled gang and not of an individualist.

Equally clearly, each job was neatly planned, from the execution of the robbery to the disposal of the loot.

But the work bore the hallmark of no known gang, and the Yard could not pick up the beginning of a trail.

THE GROUP OF MEN

One day Wensley passed a group of men in an East Side street. He had seen some of them before, but had paid no special attention to them.

Now it occurred to him that these fellows seemed to have a lot of leisure and plenty of money!

What did they do for a living, anyway? That question was his starting point.

By some delicate shadowing, he found out where they lived. He also found out that they moved singly and in groups between three houses, in different neighbourhoods, which seemed to be meeting places.

They were Germans, keeping to themselves. That made it difficult to pick up a line on them from the usual sources of neighbourhood gossip.

Wensley was convinced he had found an organized gang of thieves and receivers; but he had no proof, and he had no inside knowledge of how they operated. He dared take no chance of doing anything which might make them suspect they were being watched, or they might take alarm and clear out before he had a case.

HIS LUCKY BREAK

Months passed.

At last, he found what he needed – a woman who knew the gang and would talk. He gained her confidence and gleaned enough to know that he had lit on the suburban robber gang.

A middle-aged woman, Bertha Weiner, was the financier and mainspring. She planned the details of every coup, working her gang of 12 men in three groups, and herself attending to the disposal end in collaboration with receivers.

Wensley threw out his net, and simultaneous raids landed all the gang in it, with full proof – a truck full of stolen property was grabbed by the police as they arrived at the robbers’ depot.

The most celebrated of the Wensley murder cases make up a cross-section of the British murder scene, from the subtle poison case involving an abnormally clever and wary man to the crude butcher’s cleaver killing in which some obscure man or woman perishes at the hands of some equally obscure killer somewhere in one of the city’s murkier rabbit warrens.

Few cases fail to fall into one or the other of two extremes: Either very simple or extremely difficult.

HE NEVER CARRIED A GUN

The gang type of crime is very rare, the professional killer is unknown, and murderers very seldom go about armed.

Indeed, Wensley, his life threatened by innumerable criminals in his time, never carried a gun throughout his entire career.

Even at the famous Sidney Street siege – that was back in 1911, when some desperate foreign criminals, rounded up in a slum house, shot it out with magazine pistols, and the guards had to be called out – even in this battle, when Wensley was in charge of the police forces and nearly lost his life getting a wounded policeman away under fire, he was unarmed.

If you asked Wensley what his chief preoccupation is when on the murder trail; he would probably say that it is to get to the heart of the affair in the very quickest possible time.

A delay can be fatal. It takes but a minute, sometimes, to destroy evidence, and without the evidence, you might just as well call off the bloodhounds and let the killer sleep peacefully in his bed.

THE ARMSTRONG CASE

The Armstrong case is a good one in point.

Armstrong, a sharp little country lawyer, was henpecked. He desired freedom from his wife; but he also desired her money and no scandal. A divorce or a separation can kill a country lawyer’s practice. He successfully administered arsenic to his wife over a long period and got her safely buried without anyone suspecting foul play.

But a successful poisoning can be dangerous to the poisoner. It can become a habit, like drug-taking.

Armstrong began to be jealous of a local brother lawyer named Martin. So Martin received a box of chocolates from an unknown admirer.

As he still walked the earth some days later, Armstrong invited him to come to tea and talk over their business. He went, and, returning, fell ill. Armstrong had succeeded in landing a dose of arsenic in him, but he had miscalculated the amount required to kill a healthy man.

Nothing existed except a suspicion.

Wensley, called in, went to work rapidly and deftly. Was there any substance in the allegations? It was absolutely necessary to make sure, first, that there was.

But, one breath escaping to Armstrong of inquiries, and the poisoner would destroy any evidence he might have left around and take a lawyer’s precautions to cover his trail.

It took some weeks of cautious sleuthing to ascertain that there was enough to warrant an official call on Armstrong for explanations.

Wensley descended so swiftly and unexpectedly that the lawyer had not even time to remove and destroy a packet of arsenic in his desk – poison which was awaiting the arrival of Mr. Martin to dine with his professional brother. This was one of the links of evidence brought out at the trial. Armstrong was hanged.

THE BYWATERS THOMPSON CASE

But the whole story of the Wensley murder hunt technique is perhaps best told in the compass of the story of the classic Bywaters-Thompson case (one of the rare crimes of passion in British criminal history, and the last case in which a woman was hanged for a murder in England).

In the early hours of October 5th 1922, Wensley’s car rushes him through the pouring rain to the suburb of Ilford.

As he goes he reflects on what the phone call from the Ilford station has told him. A young married couple, Edith and Percy Thompson, had gone to a theatre, caught the suburban train to Ilford and were walking home. It was about midnight.

As they passed along a dark street the man staggered, collapsed and died.

A doctor was fetched by some passers-by to whom the hysterical woman appealed for help. Seeing blood coming from the dead man’s mouth, he assumed a seizure and had the body removed to the morgue without detailed examination. In the morgue, a policeman, removing the dead man’s clothes, discovered that he had been stabbed several times.

Apprised of the knife wounds, the station captain sent men to bring Edith Thompson (who had been taken home by an officer) to the station.

Wensley found her waiting in the C. I. D. office attached to the station house, a pretty young woman still in her evening frock. Her distress was obviously genuine. She could give no more coherent account of what had happened than her original statement about her husband suddenly staggering and collapsing.

THE POLICE NET

Wensley had already thrown out a police net, and information was coming in fast.

The dead man was Percy Thompson, shipping clerk, 32. His wife was 28, and in business as manageress in a woman’s hat store. They had been married seven years – happily, said relatives and neighbours.

Could Mrs. Thompson suggest any person who might conceivably have any real or imaginary reason to kill her husband? She could not.

Could relatives? They could not. It looked as if a stranger had killed Thompson without motive.

Meantime, precious hours were passing.

THE BROTHER’S STATEMENT

Then the last relative turned up. He was Thompson’s brother. No one had known his address, and Wensley had put every available man on to chase him up.

Talking to the brother, Wensley for the first time got a line on the private life of the Thompson couple. It had not run entirely smooth. There had been trouble over a young fellow named Bywaters, who had lodged with them.

Bywaters had been very friendly, too friendly, with the wife, the brother thought.

But, of course, Bywaters had nothing to do with this crime. He was a ship’s writer, away at sea.

WHO WAS BYWATERS?

Just who was Bywaters?

Mrs. Thompson, questioned directly, explained that he was a young man she had known since childhood. He was on leave just then, but due to rejoin his ship the next day. So! He was not, after all, at sea. Where was Bywaters now? Well, on the night of the murder he had been at her parents’ house and had left at 11 o’clock.

Now, the parents’ house was at Manor Park. The murder had occurred near the Thompsons’ home at Ilford.

Wensley, who knew the maze of the big city and its environs like the back of his hand, was immediately struck by a significant fact. Ilford was only a mile or two away. Leaving Manor Park at 11, he could have arrived before the Thompsons descended from the train at Ilford station and began their homeward walk. He could have arrived and lain in wait, especially if he had pre-knowledge of the Thompsons’ movements.

DETAINED FOR INVESTIGATION

The next move was to find Bywaters and to find him quickly, before he could rejoin his ship or destroy evidence or even become aware that the sleuths were on his trail.

At 6 that evening he was brought in. As he hung up his overcoat in the C. I. D. office, Wensley’s keen eye detected some small spots on a sleeve. He sent out a message; and as detective and suspect talked, the police surgeon slipped in and took a small sample of the spots. It was blood; and on that assurance Wensley had enough on By-waters to tell him that they must keep the overcoat and detain him for investigation.

They do not use the third degree in England.

Wensley has his own methods; and the quieter and nicer and more reasonable and paternal he becomes, the more dangerous he is – if you have a crime on your conscience and something to conceal.

Bywaters’ story came out; or rather just as much of it as Bywaters believed the police would now find out anyway.

He and Edith were good friends, nothing more. She had written him once or twice, but he had destroyed her letters. He had been out on the day of the murder from midday. At 7 he had called at Mrs. Thompson’s parents’ home. He had stayed until 11, and walked home, having missed the last train. He got home at 3 o’clock. He did not hear of the killing until he bought an evening paper at 5 next evening, when he had at once gone to the house of Mrs. Thompson’s parents, where the police had picked him up.

Did he carry a knife? Never in his life.

It sounded good.

INCRIMINATING LETTERS

But Wensley’s men had gone to the home of the young man’s mother, and there, in his room, they found letters from Mrs. Thompson. They were the letters of a mistress to her lover. More, they contained phrases which sounded sinister. “Yes, darling,” ran one, “you are jealous of him – but I want you to be – he has the right by law to all that you have the right to by nature and love – yes, darling, be jealous, so much so that you will do something desperate.”

Thus, in 18 hours, from a standing start, Wensley had laid bare the first layer of a secret shared only by Bywaters and Edith Thompson. He had discovered that the man and the woman were clandestine lovers, that Bywaters and the husband had quarrelled, that Bywaters’ account of his whereabouts at the time of the killing depended solely upon his word, and that Edith Thompson had written letters which contained sinister suggestions.

He had also discovered that Bywaters and Mrs. Thompson had taken tea together in a shop opposite her place of business at 5 on the evening of the murder, so that Bywaters could reasonably be supposed to have knowledge of what she and her husband would be doing that night, and where, and at what time, he could lie in wait.

NO ACTUAL EVIDENCE

But of positive evidence there was, so far, not a scrap.

It was all circumstantial.

They could not take Bywaters into court on what they had. They had not even evidence that Bywaters was on the spot at the time of the crime.

A CUNNING RUSE

But Wensley had still an ace in the hole. He knows the human heart as few men do.

All this time Bywaters and Edith Thompson had been carefully kept apart. Neither knew that the other was detained. But if this knowledge came to one or the other, might not the contact produce a nervous explosion which would blast away some of the obstacles in the way of the truth?

Mrs. Thompson was being kept in the matron’s room and interrogated in the C. I. D. office. To get from this office to the station house one had to traverse a yard. From this yard, the library of the police was plainly visible through its big window, and in the library Bywaters was being held, not yet having been formally arrested and charged.

Passing through the yard now with the police captain, after her last interrogation by Wensley, Edith Thompson saw through the window the figure of her lover. So they had got him! They knew all. Her nerve crumbled. How did she stand? She stammered: “Oh, God! Why did he do it . . . I must tell the truth!”

Wensley was still in his chair when she was brought back. And now she talked. A man had rushed at her husband in that dark street, there had been a struggle, she had seen the man running away. He was Bywaters.

Fatal admission, on which there was no turning back! Bywaters was then told that they would both be charged with murder.

Protesting against the inclusion of his mistress in the charge, he confessed that he had waited for Thompson, told him he must separate from his wife; and that in the resultant fight he had used a knife. Another fatal admission.

GRIM HINTS AT A CONSPIRACY

Meantime, Wensley’s men had searched Bywaters’ “ditty box” on board his ship, and found letters which contained, entangled among passionate endearments, grim hints at a conspiracy to murder the husband.

Wensley handed to the public prosecutor’s office the whole picture of what had happened in that dark street at dead of night.

The young husband walking along by his wife’s side. The wife chatting easily to hold his attention while waiting for the murderous attack which she knew was to come (unless her lover lost his nerve). The stealthy rush in and the first murderous stab in the back. The fierce struggle between the wounded man and his treacherous assailant. The woman holding her shrieks until her husband had fallen and the murderer had fled. The protracted attempt, lasting 27 hours and calling for masterly acting, to keep the truth from Wensley.

The Jury found them both guilty, and both were hanged.

Wensley subsequently observed that Edith Thompson’s acting nearly succeeded in its purpose. If another 12 hours had elapsed before he got a hint of the existence of a lover, Bywaters would have destroyed the evidence which alone secured the conviction both of himself and of his mistress.

OUT OF RETIREMENT

And now Wensley has come out of retirement to tackle another baffling case.

But this time the clews are cold, and much of the evidence may be destroyed.

Will the “iron man” of Scotland Yard solve this new mystery?”