Over the Easter weekend, 1891, news was breaking in the papers that a murder had taken place at a house in Matlock Bank, Derbyshire.
John Marius Wilson’s 1870 – 1872 Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales provided the following description of the Hamlet of Matlock Bank:-
“MATLOCK-BANK, a hamlet in Matlock parish, Derbyshire; near Matlock-Bridge. It has one large hydropathic establishment, three others of considerable size, and four smaller ones, all delightfully situated, and containing excellent accommodation. It has also an Independent chapel and a Primitive Methodist chapel; and the former was built in 1866, is in the early English style, has a tower and spire, contains 540 sittings, and cost about £2,100. Bridge House is the residence of J. Cash, Esq.; and Balmoral House, of Mr. A. Morrell.”
It transpired that the victim of the murder was, in fact, Mrs. Morrell, resident at Balmoral House.
The St James’s Gazette broke the story of the crime on Saturday, 28th March, 1891:-
“A terrible murder is believed to have been committed at Matlock on Thursday evening, the victim being a lady of seventy years of age, the wife of Mr. Michael Thomas Morrell, formerly of the firm of Abel, Morrell, and Company, sewing-needle manufacturers, Redditch.
Mr. and Mrs. Morrell, who belong to the Society of Friends, came to reside at Matlock about thirty years ago, and lived in a large and rather lonely house, which stood in a couple of acres of ground.
HE WENT TO BED
It is stated that Thursday evening, about ten o’clock, Mr. Morrell went to bed, leaving his wife sitting in an armchair in the parlour.
Mr. Morrell says that a few minutes afterwards he heard a shot fired and called to his wife. Receiving no answer, he went downstairs, and was horrified to find his wife dead in the armchair with bullet-wound in the head, and one side of her face blown away.
A PROFOUND MYSTERY
He obtained assistance from the Rocksidc Hydropathic Establishment, and the police were afterwards called in.
Beyond these facts, the affair at present is a profound mystery. No weapon was found near Mrs. Morrell, and the idea of suicide is regarded as untenable. Two panes of glass in the window were broken, and there are other appearances as if a shot or shots had been fired from outside, probably while Mrs. Morrell was asleep.”
MYSTERIOUS MURDER IN DERBYSHIRE
The Huddersfield Daily Examiner, published a fuller account of the crime on Saturday 28th March, 1891, and mentioned a rumour, that was then circulating, that Mrs. Morrell had received letters from Jack the Ripper:-
“On Thursday night, at half-past ten, Mr. Morrell, a gentleman of independent means, living at Balmoral House, Matlock Bath, aroused his neighbours, and informed them that an explosion had occurred in his house, and that his wife was dead.
Three young men went with him to his house, and discovered Mrs. Morrell sitting in an arm-chair in the kitchen, quite dead, evidently from the effect of a gunshot wound in the head.
HE HAD GONE TO BED
Mr. Morrell stated that he retired to bed, leaving his wife downstairs.
Some time afterwards he heard gunshots, and called out to his wife. Alarmed at receiving no reply, he went downstairs, and found her dead.
TAKEN INTO CUSTODY
The police did not deem this explanation satisfactory, and they felt themselves justified in taking Mr. Morrell into custody.
A thorough examination of the house was then made, but no gun could be found, and, as snow had been falling, it was impossible to discover traces of footsteps, or similar signs of the assassin in the grounds which surround the mansion.
SHE MAY HAVE BEEN DOZING
They ascertained, however, beyond doubt, that Mrs. Morrell must have been sitting in front of the fire, perhaps dozing, when the murderer stealthily approached the window, from which she was only about a yard distant, and fired the fatal shot point-blank. Two panes of the window were found to be broken, and there were distinct traces of gunpowder on the window sill
Mr. Morrell is over seventy years old, and his wife was about the same age. He betrayed no unusual emotion when arrested.”
THE MURDER OF AN OLD LADY LATEST DETAILS
That same day, Saturday, 28th March, 1891, The Daily Gazette For Middlesborough published the following update on the case:-
“Mr Michael Thomas Morrell, who was arrested for the murder of his wife, has resided at Matlock for about thirty years.
Both he and his wife were members of the Society of Friends, and they were singularly unpretentious people. They have no family, and the domestic duties of the family were usually performed by a charwoman.
HE WAS CALM
So far as the tragedy itself is concerned, nothing whatever is known beyond what has been stated by Mr Morrell himself.
It is considered improbable that the deceased could have committed suicide.
The proprietor of a neighbouring hydropathic establishment, where Mr Morrell gave the first alarm, states that he behaved with perfect calmness.
JACK THE RIPPER LETTERS
Two young ladies from Manchester, nieces of Mr Morrell, arrived at Matlock yesterday morning, to visit their uncle, and their distress on hearing of the tragedy created a very painful scene.
For some time, the deceased had kept to her house owing, it is said, to her having received ” Jack the Ripper” letters.”
THE MATLOCK MURDER – THE MYSTERY DEEPER STILL
NO CLUE TO THE MURDERER
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph published the following article, scotching some of the rumours about the case, in its edition of Monday, 30th March, 1891:-
“The mystery connected with the murder of the poor old Quaker lady at Matlock Bank grows deeper the further investigation proceeds into the antecedents of the husband and the relations of the old couple with their neighbours and friends.
Mr. Morrell is not under arrest, but, as the police express it, is “under surveillance for his own protection.” The only reason assigned for this protection is the circumstance of his peculiarity, and the suspicion which would naturally attach to the husband under the extraordinary circumstances of the crime, but, after an enquiry extending over a large number, who rarely agree with any certainty in exactness of time, they seem hardly worth considering.
The fact that no arrest has been made and that no distinct clue is, as yet, forthcoming, are the features that are noteworthy in this mysterious tragedy.
NO EXPRESSIONS OF REGRET
The “Jack the Ripper” episode scarcely possesses the significance which has been given to it; but the circumstances under which the various gentlemen, who came at the husband’s summons, were brought into the house, and had the story told them in a matter-of-fact manner, makes the affair more peculiar.
“This is a sad business,” said Mr. Statham.
“It is,” replied the husband, but, beyond a mild acquiescence of that character, he has never made any allusion to his wife or let fall any expressions of regret at the terrible mode of her death. This too is additionally strange, given his uniform affection for her.
All around the garden, a most diligent surface search has been conducted. The police are reticent on the methods of their work and its results, but little importance need be attached to their reticence. No gun has been found, and, without the gun, the best of clues is missing.
It is stated that he was seen digging in the garden, but a broken drainpipe is considered as a sufficient explanation of this, added to his general custom of working in his garden, or of tending his pigeons and fowls.
At present, the elucidation of the mystery is no further forward than it was on Thursday night, when the fatal shot was fired.
The “JACK THE RIPPER” EPISODE
There is little doubt that the”Jack the Ripper” letters to which allusion has been made were not sent to Mr. Morrell’s house.
The true state of things seems to have been, as Mr. Statham told our representative, and as others who new the parties confirmed, that Mrs. Lister, the charwoman, did receive some time ago o or two letters of a threatening nature.
These, she had taken to Mr. Morrell, and, in this way, the rumour had gained currency.
Mrs. Lister’s daughter told our representative that she remembered one letter of such a description arriving over a year ago, but further than that her memory would not carry her.
This is further borne out by the statement of a servant in Smedley’s Memorial Hospital, who was in service near Balmoral House at the time, and who remembered that the letter which came to Mr. Morrell’s was intended to frighten the servant.”
THE MATLOCK BANK MYSTERY – INQUEST AND VERDICT
The Bridgenorth Journal, on Saturday, 11th April, 1891, published the details of the proceedings on the final day of the inquest into the death of Mrs. Morrell:-
The adjourned inquest into the circumstances attending the death of Mrs. Martha Morrell was held at Rockside Hydropathic Establishment, Matlock Bank, before Mr. Davis, county coroner, on the 6th.
Constable Blockshaw produced a plan of Balmoral House, where the deceased met with her death.
Martha Smith, a nurse, said that at half-past nine p.m. on Thursday, March 26, she heard a shot as she was coming down a corridor in the Rockside Hydropathic Establishment. She could tell by the sound that it was a gunshot, but thought it was someone poaching. She did not feel at all alarmed.
Joseph Rowlett, boots at Rockside, said Mr. Morrell came there at half-past ten on Thursday night, and asked him to go to his house as his wife was dead, and there had been an explosion in the louse. He seemed excited and in a great hurry.
THE BODY OF THE VICTIM
The witness followed him up to the house with two stablemen. They stopped at the garden gate, and Morrell came up to them and said he had been to Mr. Davis, who was coming up presently.
They all went into the house by the front door and into the parlour, Mr. Morrell turning the handle of the door, which was not locked.
He took them into the kitchen, and showed them Mrs. Morrell. There was a wound on the right side of her face, and blood had run down the chair on to the floor.
Mr. Morrell pointed to the fireplace, and said there had been an explosion. He also looked into the kitchen boiler and under the grate, and said he could not find where it had come from.
Morrell added that he was in bed at the time and heard the explosion, and that as he was going downstairs he heard others. On entering the room he found his wife dead. Morrell was fully dressed when he went to the Hydropathic Establishment.
The parlour was dark when they went through, and there was no sign of an explosion in the kitchen.
Mrs. Morrell’s head was hanging over a pool of blood. He noticed that the bottom part of the blind was singed, but did not examine the window closely.
SERGEANT RAMSELL’S EVIDENCE
Sergeant Ramsell said that he went to Balmoral House at a few minutes past eleven, after hearing of the murder. He found two or three people with Mr. Morrell.
He saw the deceased in front of the fire, which was not quite out. There was a very large wound on the temple, and her tongue was severely lacerated. A pair of spectacles in a case lay on the floor. He found shot marks on the door in the passage opposite the window, the glass of which was broken and scattered on the floor.
A shot fired through the bottom broken pane would account for the marks on the door and the wall and the singeing of the blind. The charge appeared to have been a very heavy one. Parts of the framework of the spectacles were missing, and had not been found. The left glass was broken as if a shot had struck it.
On the table in the parlour was a poker and a box of dominoes, and, on the right side of the room, there was a bookcase, with the glass front smashed. The bookcase was locked, and had the appearance of having been broken to take something out.
The diamond pane in the kitchen window had evidently been broken from the inside.
The witness found evidence upstairs that someone had been in bed.
Mr. Morrell said that he had no one in the house, as the servant had left. The witness said to him, “I wonder you did not get your stockings in blood,” and he replied, “Old man as I am, I should have been a fool to get it on my hands and clothes.”
He had seen the underclothing of deceased. The stockings were burned, and the knees showed marks of burning. The burns were discovered upon the post mortem being made.
ELIZABETH LISTER’S TESTIMONY
Elizabeth Lister, a charwoman, said that she had been at Morrell’s house on the afternoon of March 26, and left at ten minutes past eight.
She did not hear of the tragedy till the next morning.
She had worked for several years at Morrell’s, and had never heard the husband and wife quarrel. She had never seen firearms in the house. She knew all the contents of the house. No windows were broken in the kitchen when she left.
The box of dominoes was not on the table.
THE DOCTOR’S EVIDENCE
Dr. William Moxon said that he found on visiting the house that the kitchen blind was drawn fully up, but it must have been down when the shots were fired.
The bones in the right side of the deceased’s face were completely shattered.
Death was due to the discharge of a shot from a firearm.
The burns on her neck were caused immediately before or after death, but they could not have injured the head. He was of the opinion that the shots were fired from outside the house.
By a Juror:– One discharge would fully account for the injuries to the face.
THE DISCARDED CARTRIDGE CASE
John Gill said that on the Saturday morning after the tragedy he found a cartridge-case in the grooms of Highfield, opposite Balmoral House.
It was about 7ft, from the wall, and under some fir trees. The case had been twisted up, as though an attempt had been made to destroy it.
MR. MORRELL’S EVIDENCE
Michael Thomas Morrell was the next witness, and he made the usual affirmation as a Quaker. He said that he was a retired merchant. He was 77 years of age.
He had tea with his wife the day before her death. He went to bed at about nine o’clock at night. His wife was then reading the newspaper. He left a candle on the table in the kitchen, and thought the blind would be drawn down.
He lay awake in bed, and soon after he heard an explosion, followed by two smaller explosions, and a little rustling like someone walking about.
He called, and receiving no answer, put his stockings on and went downstairs.
He found his wife sitting where he had left her with her head hanging on one side.
When he saw the blood be thought that she had committed suicide; but he could see nothing to confirm his suspicion. Then he concluded that his wife had been the victim of foul play.
He went upstairs and dressed. He went out to Rockside and saw some men who came up to his house, but he could not recognise them again. They did not go with him into the house.
No property was missing from the house.
He did not know until after the murder that his wife had money in the house. When £90 was found, it was suspected that all the money had not been found.
POLICE OFFICERS TESTIMONIES
Sergeant Ramsell (recalled) said that Mr. Morrell’s spectacle case, found in the room, had marks of shot and blood upon it.
Inspector Hutchinson said that they found no blood upon Morrell’s clothes, except on the bottom of one leg, which was slightly stained.
THE INQUEST VERDICT
The coroner said that this was all the evidence he proposed to call. It was perfectly clear to his mind that this was not a case of suicide. The case was surrounded with mystery, and he should advise them to return an open verdict, there being insufficient evidence to show who committed the crime.
After a few minutes’ deliberations, the jury found “That the deceased was wilfully murdered by some person or persons unknown.”
SUDDEN DEATH OF MR MORRELL
Despite the fact that the police appear to have held suspicions that Mr. Morrell may have murdered his wife, the jury’s verdict effectively ruled him out as a suspect.
Then, on Friday, 3oth October, 1891, as the following article in The Shields Daily Gazette, which appeared the next day, Saturday, 31st October, 1891, reveals Mr. Morell took the secret of what may have happened to his grave:
“The Press Association’s Matlock correspondent telegraphs:-
“Mr Michael Morrell, of Balmoral House, Matlock, died suddenly, from paralysis, yesterday.
It will be remembered that the deceased gentleman’s wife, an old Quaker lady, was murdered on the night preceding Good Friday, and the murderer has never been traced.”