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Scotland says No…

…shameless plug for So That’s Why They Call It Great Britain. Everything from champagne to the Industrial Revolution to the MRI machine to, ahem, the vibrator came from this tiny little country off the coast of northern Europe. Amaze your friends! Irritate foreigners! Win pub quizzes!

…goes to the printers in a couple of weeks. We’re just waiting to complete the final chapter.

Amazon are already promoting it, which is a positive sign. It’s also got a ranking (low at the moment, though it has yo-yoed and been a lot higher) which means that there are pre-orders. That’s not always the case, and is a good thing.

We’re publishing it on November 11, for obvious reasons. There is just that small question in my mind as to whether the newspapers are going to be focusing purely on World War One and, in so doing, might forget about the more recent sacrifice, but we’ll see.

Newspapers are still very important to the promotion of a book – and we do want to promote this one, we’re almost evangelical about the message it contains. I’ll be sending a copy to Tony Blair and another to Alastair Campbell. I don’t suppose they read much – maybe we should have special editions printed in dossier form?

One mum – I won’t name her here – of modest means spends every penny she can on flights to her son’s graveside (he’s buried in Northern Ireland, she lives in Scotland). She used to go every week, but she can no longer afford it so it’s less regular. It’s heart-breaking, really.

While editing the book, I’ve also been reading a few others about Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan which had somehow escaped my notice earlier.

I highly recommend James Fergusson’s A Million Bullets (winner of British Army Military Book of the Year 2009) for the way in which it sets out the political background, and the way in which British troops found themselves under siege in District Centres during Herrick 4, the start of the fighting proper.

Most people know that the Paras had a tough time of it in Sangin – it’s where Bryan Budd won his posthumous VC, and Capt Hugo Farmer his CGC (Hugo’s story is told – sorry for the plug – in our own In Foreign Fields.)

Fewer know how terrible a time the Gurkhas and the Fusiliers had in Now Zad. One young machine gunner fired 40,000 rounds, and then (presumably) went home to Nuneaton and tried to forget about it all. And Tony Blair became Middle East Peace Envoy and a multi-multi-millionaire.

Fergusson went to a meeting with the Taliban, something I am confident I would not have done.

Ed Macy’s Apache is thrilling and fascinating, mostly for its detail. (To explain the astonishing firepower of his aircraft, Macy imagines a team of eight Apaches hovering behind a hill. On the other side of the hill are 128 main battle tanks. One of the Apaches pops up over the hill – a few feet, for a few seconds. In that time, its radar identifies all of the tanks, passes their details to the other seven helicopters. Inside thirty seconds, all 128 tanks are destroyed.) A little laddish in parts for my taste, but still a book I would love to have published.

Doug Beattie’s An Ordinary Soldier is also interesting, though more circumscribed in its approach. It deals for the most part with an operation he was involved in in 2006 to recover Garmsir from the Taliban. At the time, Beattie, a late entry captain, was almost at the end of his Army career. Suddenly, he found himself in charge of an under-resourced group of soldiers, at the end of the world, trying to work with the Afghan National Army and Police to repel the ‘insurgents’.

He won the Military cross for what ensued. Also in Garmsir at that time was Tim Illingworth, who won the CGC for his part in and OMLT effort. Apologies for the second plug, but Tim’s story is also told in In Foreign Fields. Here’s an extract:

Three days’ heavy fighting saw their resolve fail again. Seeing this, Illingworth moved straight to the front of the Afghan troops and moved alone to within 30 metres of the first enemy position under heavy enemy fire. His conduct so inspired the ANA that their company commander, Captain Daoud, joined him.

The grenades were high but as they screamed overhead the Afghans went straight down, most of them into a ditch which ran past this t-junction. That’s not the idea. The idea is to return fire, try to suppress the enemy, and then go down, in cover, from where you can continue to fire… it was just inexperience and youth. The trouble was, that enabled the Taliban to increase their fire, and it immediately got very heavy…maybe three machine guns, small arms, more RPGs coming in. Probably two or three launchers, at a range of 50 metres. An RPG detonated 10 metres to my right between two of the Afghan lads and fragged them both in the legs. Another came in, heading straight for me. They’re big old rounds, slow enough that you can see them but quick enough that you can’t move out of the way… this stuff in films, where guys see one, yell, ‘RPG! Incoming!’ and dive for cover is nonsense. Once it’s in the air, if it’s that close, forget it. I just had time to think, Oh no! I’d seen the other go in and detonate a moment before, the guys are on the ground, screaming, and I actually thought that I was about to die. It landed right beside me, missing my foot by a metre or so, and didn’t explode – it just ricocheted over the head of the sergeant major behind me and out over the maize field where it detonated in mid-air. All I heard on my radio was, ‘What the fuck was that?’

I thought, Well, maybe it’s my day today.

Rounds were zipping and cracking through the air and landing all around, left, right and centre, and we were not returning fire effectively at all… people were just pointing their AKs over the top of the ditch and pulling the trigger. They were almost more dangerous to their own side. The RPGs, and seeing the rounds landing, clarified it in my mind; I thought, Let’s just get on and sort this mess out.

The enemy was difficult to see. They were moving between their positions, and the trees and the marijuana bushes gave them lots of cover. Plus we were heavily out-gunned – we had light weapons, and that was it.

Daoud managed to get three or four of his blokes out into firing positions, but others were hanging back or even running away – the sergeant major had to stay at the rear and try to stop them from legging it back to the building. He stemmed the tide and then came up over PRR and asked if I wanted him to try and get them to right-flank the Taliban positions. I remember saying ‘That’d be nice!’, though it probably would’ve caused more confusion than anything. I was left with Daoud and a few of his guys. He grabbed an RPG off one of them and we pushed further forward together, with a couple of Afghan privates alongside.

We got to within 40 metres and Daoud thought he could see one of their machine gun nests.

He got the launcher up onto his shoulder and as he knelt up he was shot in the heart and went straight down.

Probably a lucky stray round, possibly aimed, we’ll never know.

I had about half a second to think, Oh, fuck! And then I carried on returning fire.

He didn’t die immediately, but he was out of it and obviously very near to death. His soldiers pretty much gave up, then. They seemed to forget that there were people still shooting at them and started wailing, ‘He is dead, he is dead.’

I scrambled back to the ditch with the two soldiers. The other Afghans were all sitting there in shock, pretty much out of ammunition because they had just sprayed it willy-nilly over the top of the ditch. It was clear that this attack was going nowhere. The only commander who knew what he was doing was dead. We didn’t have the men, we didn’t have the ammunition and they certainly didn’t have the will to fight.

I grabbed another captain, Ahmedullah, and four other guys, and told them to take Daoud’s body back to the house. I tried to explain that the rest of us would carry on fighting until they got his body back, and then we would withdraw. It was hard getting the message through, because Engineer, my interpreter, had stayed with the sergeant major. But they nodded, in a dazed sort of way.

Illingworth took up the commander’s rocket launcher, firing three rounds into the main enemy position in full view of the enemy while exposed and under withering fire. The Afghan force abandoned him, but in spite of his isolation he attempted to assault the enemy position, expending seven magazines of ammunition in the process. However, the enemy fire was unrelenting.

I saw a few of the soldiers pick up and carry off Daoud’s body, back along the track by the side of the maize field, and then I grabbed the RPG launcher and a handful of rounds and pushed back forwards, waving to the others to follow me. It took me a couple of attempts to get the first RPG off. I’d seen them used but I had never fired one before, and I didn’t realise that there’s a small nut that sticks out of every round that you have to make fit into a nick in the barrel. I’d just rammed the thing in, knelt up and tried to fire, and nothing happened. I got back down again, played with it, found out what was wrong, got up again and tried to fire it again… but this time the safety catch was on. I flipped the safety catch and fired and it went way high, over into the trees. Not terribly impressive, all told.

I fired two more, one went into the sandy coloured building and the second went into the wood line, and that did quieten the Taliban down. I got back onto my rifle, moving forward, identifying individuals if they left cover and shooting them if I could. I finished my magazine, went to change it and that’s when I noticed no-one else was firing. I changed the mag – it was my seventh and last, which is an indication – and turned round. And there was not a soul in sight. Which concerned me slightly.

Looking back, I think Daoud’s men had heard the word ‘withdraw’ and had got confused and just pulled out. I was now probably 25 metres away from the positions that we were originally supposed to be assaulting. Most of my rounds would have been fairly accurate, and had kept their heads down. But as soon as I stopped to change my magazine, and the firing stopped, it was obviously a matter of moments before the Taliban worked out that I was on my own. Then it was going to be game over, basically. Quite a worrying moment.

The other problem was that the last thing Tommy Johnson had heard me say on the PRR was ‘Daoud’s dead!’ He’d then tried to contact me but I was back down in the ditch at that point, and my radio reception had gone. He told me afterwards that he assumed I was gone as well, and he was busy thinking about how he was going to recover my body.

None of that was in my mind at the time, of course. I was just thinking I wasn’t going any further into this hornets’ nest. I turned around and went back the way I had come, back on the track and then back into the maize field. As I retreated, the Taliban opened fire on me again, so there were rounds chopping the maize down all around.

Then I stumbled upon Daoud’s body, lying on the earth with a solitary Afghan soldier next to it, crying.

Understanding the importance to Afghans of not leaving behind their fallen comrade, he made repeated attempts to drag Captain Daoud’s body back with him. Finding himself under increasingly heavy enemy fire, exhausted and running out of ammunition, he finally abandoned attempts only when he saw the Taliban about to cut off his escape.

I got down next to him. I couldn’t leave Daoud there, so I gestured to this guy to help me drag him back. A dead body is never an easy thing to handle, and Daoud was six feet tall and well-built, so he was heavy. I was knackered and carrying a considerable amount of kit, and the Afghan bloke was hard to persuade. I’d heard that they have a cultural thing about touching dead bodies – though it didn’t seem to stop the Taliban – maybe that was it. Anyway, it took me a while to get this guy to take a leg but eventually he did so and we managed to pull him a bit further back towards our own building. But we started getting a lot more rounds coming in, probably because they could see us moving the tops of the maize, and at that stage the guy decided enough was enough and disappeared. So I was now on my own, trying to drag Daoud, inch-by-inch, with one foot in both hands, tug-of-war style. After a minute of this, and about five metres covered, I realised that it wasn’t going to work, and that the Taliban were going to be in the maize field any moment and we’d then have two bodies, probably after a lot of torture and unpleasantness for me.

It was something I’d never had to deal with before. You don’t leave a man behind. Certainly not if he’s wounded, there’s no question, especially in somewhere like Afghanistan or Iraq where the enemy are not going to respect the Geneva Conventions. A dead man… you’d still move heaven and earth to get him back, because of your respect for him, but you have to weigh that up. Ultimately, would you trade another life – your own or someone else’s – to get a body back? No, and it would be stupid to, and the dead guy wouldn’t have wanted it, either.

But it was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, bar none. I was alive, he was dead. Nothing was going to change the fact that he was dead, but something might change the fact that I was alive. I sat there for a minute, or maybe a minute and a half, it seemed like forever, with rounds zipping over me, thinking, I’m going to have to leave him. It was a decision I hope I never have to make again. Here was a guy who had died doing what I was mentoring him to do. I’d got him into this situation, and I really wanted to get him out.

I left him, and made my own way back through the maize, crawling initially and then, deciding that I wasn’t getting very far, running. Weirdly, I heard this dog whining somewhere in the maize and I thought, I’d better stop and help the poor thing. And then I thought, What the hell are you thinking? Just run like buggery.

We’ve just released in kindle eBook form the Edward Spencer Shew true crime classic – and it is a classic, having won the 1963 Edgar Special Award – A Companion to Murder (US version here).

It’s a fascinating A to Z compendium of fifty years of English murder trials, from 1900 on; it’s also beautifully written, with the kind of spare but interesting and descriptive language you rarely see these days.

Theodore Dalrymple lists it as being among his favourite books, and was kind enough to write a foreword.

We’ve also tracked down a lot of images, and added in a lot of extra detail not available to Spencer Shew.

Some of it is tragic. For instance, John Dickman was hanged for killing a colliery clerk on a train; later on his conviction was called into question.

Some of the cases remain infamous, some were sensational in their day but have been washed away by the waves of time.

Here are two from either end of the notoriety scale.

The first is very amusing, in its way – it could easily have formed the basis for a black Ealing comedy.

Vaquier, Jean Pierre, looked and behaved like a character in an improbable French farce. Square, squat, endlessly gesticulating, his hair en brosse, his bristling black beard smelling of violets (he used a perfumed brilliantine), he displayed precisely those forms of Gallic extravagance which are most outrageous and distasteful to the Anglo-Saxon mind.

He was an outsize caricature of a Frenchman, of the sort often seen on the stage—and seldom anywhere else. But the engaging absurdities of ‘Monsieur Froggy’, the stage Frenchman, masked a tigerish cruelty and ferocity.

The famous Blue Anchor murder is a story of passion, jealousy, and hatred, no less appalling because the principal character in it was a vain, ridiculous, posturing exhibitionist.

Vaquier

In January 1924, Vaquier, a native of Niort in the Department of Aude, having been a telephonist in the French Army during the 1914-18 war, was engaged in demonstrating to the patrons of the Hotel Victoria at Biarritz the potentialities of the radio as a medium of popular entertainment. That is to say he had obtained the permission of the management to give a regular series of wireless concerts—using his own receiver— in the salon. It was thus that he became acquainted with a Mrs. Mabel Theresa Jones, who was recuperating at Biarritz after a nervous breakdown, brought on largely by her financial worries. She spoke no French; Vaquier had no English. This did not prevent the acquaintanceship ripening into friendship, and friendship into something much more intimate, all at top speed; with the aid of a dictionary—purchased by Mrs. Jones at Vaquier’s suggestion—they found that rudimentary conversation was not beyond them.

In little more than a week they were sharing a double room at the more modestly priced Hotel Bayonne, also at Biarritz. The idyll was rudely interrupted by a telegram from the lady’s husband, Mr. Alfred George Poynter Jones, licensee of the Blue Anchor, Byfleet, Surrey, inviting her to come home.

Vaquier, in tears, begged her not to go, but could not prevail upon her. To soften the shock of parting he accompanied Mrs. Jones as far as Paris; from there she went on alone.

Vaquier waited for twenty-four hours, then followed her to London, ostensibly to secure the patent rights of a sausage machine which he had invented.

From the Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury he telegraphed to Mrs. Jones at the Blue Anchor: ‘Arrived from Paris on business. Shall be very pleased to see you and to meet Mr Jones. Perhaps you will inform me which evening.'(The English was supplied by a helpful receptionist at the hotel.)

Five days later—on 14th February—Vaquier arrived unexpectedly and without luggage at the Blue Anchor, borrowed £14 from Mrs. Jones to pay his bill at the Russell Hotel, and proceeded to make himself at home and, as he hoped, indispensable. Mr. Jones was very ill at this time with congestion of the lungs, which made it easier for Vaquier and ‘Mabs’ (as he called her) to resume their former relationship. For a while it continued with something resembling the ardour of those first romantic days at the Hotel Bayonne. But presently, so far as Mrs. Jones’s feelings were concerned, it began to wane.

Unhappily, what was a fading infatuation to Mabel Jones was to her lover a raging passion by which he was entirely absorbed. Time and again Vaquier besought her to come away with him. She always refused—no doubt his absurdities were becoming a bit of a bore—and Vaquier perceived that before he could hope to obtain the absolute possession of the wife he must first get rid of the husband. The idea was not displeasing to him, for he was passionately jealous of Mr, Jones and of the rights he enjoyed; the pitilessly cruel means he selected to destroy this inoffensive man shows the measure of his hatred of him.

On 1st March Vaquier went up to London. He called at a chemist’s shop in Southampton Row, where, during his stay at the Russell Hotel, he had made sundry purchases, and had made himself known to the manager, who spoke excellent French. He explained that for the purposes of ‘wireless experiments’ he required various chemicals, including .12 of a gramme (nearly two grains) of strychnine, a quantity sufficient to kill three or four people. After some hesitation the manager agreed to supply him. Vaquier signed the poison register—using the somewhat curious name of ‘J. Wanker’— and returned with his purchases to Byfleet.

He had observed that Mr Jones, a heavy drinker, was in the habit of taking bromo salts in the morning to palliate the effects of overnight excesses; he further perceived that this provided him, ready made, with the opportunity he was looking for.

There was a party at the Blue Anchor on the evening of 28th March. Mr. Jones retired to bed at one o’clock the next morning in a condition which suggested that he was likely to wake with a ‘hangover’. He slept late, which was not surprising, and it was not until after half-past ten that morning that he went into the bar parlour for his bromo salts, which he always kept on the mantelpiece. The blue bottle was in its accustomed place. Mr. Jones poured a teaspoonful of the salts into half a glass of water, stirred the mixture, and drank it in one gulp.

‘Oh, God! They’re bitter,’ he exclaimed.

An interested spectator of this proceeding had been Monsieur Vaquier, who had been sitting in the bar parlour ever since he had come down for his breakfast coffee at seven o’clock. From his armchair by the mantelpiece he watched gravely whilst Mrs. Jones picked up the blue bottle and poured out some of the contents into her hand. She was startled to see that mixed with the salts were some crystals. She tasted them, tentatively, and found them excessively bitter.

‘Daddy, they have been tampered with!’ she cried. ‘Quick—some salt and water!’

Mrs. Jones poured the crystals back into the bottle and hurried into the kitchen to prepare an emetic. She took the bottle with her, and put it into one of the drawers of the kitchen dresser. Mr. Jones followed his wife into the kitchen; she gave him an emetic, and he was violently sick. Afterwards he complained of being ‘numb and cold’.

Vaquier helped to carry him upstairs, and a doctor was called. A few minutes later Vaquier came hurrying into the kitchen and stammered out to the cook, Mrs. Fisher, a few of the English words he had culled from the dictionary. Mrs Fisher understood him to say: ‘Medicine—doctor—quick.’ At the same time he picked up from the dresser a bottle of Kruschen Salts and held it up for Mrs. Fisher to see. She gathered that he was asking for Mr. Jones’s ‘medicine’, his bromo salts, and she pointed to the drawer where Mrs. Jones had put the bottle. Vaquier went to the drawer, took out the bottle, and left the kitchen with it.

Dr. Frederick Carle arrived at 11.50 a.m. Mr. Jones, in an extremity of terror, was calling out for help, but he was already beyond medical aid. He died shortly afterwards in the extremely violent—and agonizing—convulsions which are typical of strychnine poisoning. Dr. Carle asked for the bromo salts bottle.

Mrs. Jones went to the kitchen dresser for it. The bottle was there, but in a different place—in the front, not at the back, where she had left it. There was nothing in it but a little water; it looked as if it had lately been washed. (It had. After washing the bottle out, Vaquier had been able to smuggle it back into the drawer whilst the cook was busy in the scullery.)

On the floor of the bar parlour Dr. Carle found some of the crystals which Mrs. Jones had spilt when pouring them back into the bottle; he scooped them into an envelope and sent them away for analysis. (They duly revealed traces of strychnine, as did the water which had been used to wash out the bottle.)

Rather over half a grain of strychnine was found in the organs of the body. That is a minimum fatal dose; allowing for the vomiting, it is probable that Mr. Jones had swallowed something not far short of two grains.

Vaquier stayed on at the Blue Anchor for a few days longer, maintaining the most affable relations with the crime reporters of Fleet Street who, as it may be imagined, descended upon Byfleet in force.

Mrs. Jones showed him very clearly that she suspected him of being her husband’s murderer, but it was not until he was about to leave the Blue Anchor for his new quarters at the Railway Hotel, Woking, that she taxed him with it to his face. She then said to him: ‘You have assassinated Mr. Jones.’

Vaquier had made sufficient progress with his English to understand her and to reply, ‘Yes, Mabs— for you,’ he said.

‘I would have killed you’, remarked Mrs. Jones, ‘if I knew you would have done a thing like that.’

After his move to Woking—on 4th April—Vaquier continued to hobnob with the newspaper reporters. His vanity was enormous. He liked to see his name in the Press and, better still, his photograph. This turned out to be his undoing.

On 16th April the manager of the chemist’s shop in Southampton Row happened to see a newspaper photograph of Vaquier; he recognized him as the garrulous Frenchman who had signed himself ‘J. Wanker’ in the poison register, and he at once got into touch with Scotland Yard. Thus were the police provided with the ‘missing link’. It was the proof they were waiting for that Vaquier had had strychnine in his possession. Now they pounced.

Vaquier was arrested at the Railway Hotel, Woking, on 19th April.

In reply to the charge of murder he said (through an interpreter): ‘I assure you on the tomb of my mother that I am innocent, and that I will make known tomorrow he who administered the poison. … I beg of you—do not put me in prison if you can help it. I prefer to die. You will see—I am not guilty.’

Vaquier’s trial before Mr. Justice AVORY took place at Guildford Assizes in July. As is usual at a poison trial, the prosecution was handled by a Law Officer of the Crown—in this case the Attorney-General, Sir Patrick HASTINGS K.C.; with him was Sir Edward Marshall HALL K.C.

The accused was defended by Sir Henry CURTIS BENNETT K.C. The four-day trial was a disappointment to Vaquier, or, rather, he was disappointed that his own part in it was not more spectacular. He was disgusted that he was not ‘confronted with his accusers’ according to the French system, for he had had agreeable visions of himself hurling defiance at false and perjured witnesses, demanding justice from a bullying judge—whom he would quell with his superior eloquence—and, in the end, emerging from his heroic ordeal triumphant and unscathed, to the astonishment and admiration of the Court, and indeed of the entire British nation. The reality was dismayingly drab.

The sphinx-like Mr. Justice Avory was not the ranting Monsieur le President of his imagination. There were no opportunities to defy or to quell. Everything was flat, colourless, and conversational. The outraged Vaquier found that he was required to sit still and allow other people to do the talking. He fell back upon various devices to divert the attention of the Court to himself. He kept the warders continuously busy sharpening pencils for him while he took copious notes of all the evidence, which was interpreted to him one sentence at a time. When a point appealed to him he was sure to offer some comment upon it—usually a frivolous one. For instance, when one of the Crown witnesses described himself as ‘a builder and undertaker’, Vaquier, highly delighted, remarked to the interpreter, ‘Ah, he houses them above and below ground.’

His own evidence was a tissue of absurdities. He insisted that he had bought the strychnine to oblige Mrs. Jones’s solicitor, a complete stranger to him, who had wanted it to destroy a dog. Under cross-examination by the Attorney-General he said that he had signed the poison register ‘J. Wanker’ because he had been told that ‘When you buy poison you never sign your own name’.

Q: Who told you that?

A: The solicitor.

Q: Did the gentleman who asked you to buy the poison tell you to sign a false name?

A: Yes.

Q: Did it strike you as odd that a complete stranger, who wanted to poison a dog, was telling you to sign a false name?

A: No.

Q: Do I understand you to say that you signed a false name merely because a complete stranger asked you to?

A: Yes; if he had told me to sign my name I should have signed it.

This passage sufficiently indicates the style and tone of Vaquier’s performance in the witness-box. It was not until the very end that the Court had a glimpse of the real man, as opposed to the mountebank.

It was not a pretty sight. Vaquier listened with obvious incredulity as the interpreter translated for him the jury’s inevitable verdict of ‘Guilty’. Then, while the death sentence was being pronounced, he screamed abuse at the judge and jury, pounding the dock with his fist.

‘I swear on my mother’s and my father’s graves, still fresh, that I am quite innocent of the crime of which I have been accused. . . . You have given an iniquitous verdict!’ (So much was translated by the interpreter; he did not make any further attempt to keep up with the torrent of words that continued to pour from Vaquier’s lips.)

‘I can listen to nothing more,’ said Mr Justice Avory, in his ice-cold voice. ‘Let him be removed.’

Vaquier, still shouting and struggling, was dragged from the dock. There was a similar violent scene at the end of his unsuccessful application to the Court of Criminal Appeal to have the verdict put aside.

‘Je demande la justice, Monsieur le President!’ he screamed, as harassed warders struggled to break his grip on the dock rail.

Fifteen days later—on 12th August—Vaquier was hanged at Wandsworth Prison.

They emphatically did not mess about in those days.

The next case is considerably better known.

Haigh, John George, was the well-spoken, dapper little man with the nice eyes and friendly smile who usually ate by himself in the hotel dining-room. One found it agreeable to exchange a few words with him after dinner. Being a killer who notched up corpses with terrifying facility, he was liable to melt one down in a bath of sulphuric acid, if one possessed any loose capital, or even a few nice pieces of jewellery. But, of course, one did not know that when, amidst the pleasing tinkle of the after-dinner coffee-cups, one bade him ‘Good evening’ and remarked how mild it was for the time of year. He seemed so very pleasant. That, needless to say, was a gigantic mistake, but it was one easily made, and Mrs. Durand-Deacon made it.

Olive Henrietta Helen Olivia Robarts Durand-Deacon, an active, intelligent woman, was the widow of a colonel, who had left her well provided for. In the early part of 1949, when, presuming upon a casual acquaintanceship, she mentioned a small matter of business to the obliging Mr. Haigh, and in so doing signed her death warrant, she was sixty-nine years of age, and had been living for the past six years at the Onslow Court Hotel, Queen’s Gate, South Kensington, London.

Five people had already shared the fate that was to befall her at the hands of that smiling little man. (Haigh, himself, claimed to have killed three other persons besides, but this was almost certainly untrue; at the time, he was seeking to support a plea of insanity and wished it to be supposed that he had committed more murders than in fact he had.)

What manner of man —or monster—was John George Haigh? He was born at Stamford of sturdy Yorkshire stock on 24th July 1909. Both his parents were Plymouth Brethren. Newspapers were not allowed in the house, nor was the wireless; all forms of sport and entertainment were forbidden. Haigh’s father, who worked in the Yorkshire coalfield, built a high wall around his garden to shut out the sinful world; it was the symbol of the ‘exclusive’ character of the religious beliefs of the ‘Peculiar People’.

The young Haigh lived a life entirely withdrawn, finding in music his only emotional outlet. When, as a pupil at Wakefield Grammar School, he won a choral scholarship which required him to attend the services at Wakefield Cathedral, he was brought into sudden contact with a ritualistic form of religion in violent contrast with the Puritanical austerities of his home. This dichotomy was bound to be disturbing; Haigh seems to have collapsed under it and other psychological pressures.

He left school a congenital liar and cheat and took to crime as a duck to water. In November 1934 he served his first prison sentence— for fraud. In November 1937 he pleaded guilty to an indictment charging him with attempts to obtain money by false pretences, and was sentenced to four years penal servitude. He was released on licence in August 1940, but in the following year he was sent back to prison for stealing.

Haigh completed his third sentence in September 1943. In the following year, he acquired a basement at 79 Gloucester Road, Kensington, for use as a workshop. At about the same time he had a chance meeting in a public house with a young man named William Donald McSwan, who confided to Haigh that he planned to ‘go underground’ to avoid the ‘call-up'; soon afterwards he disappeared.

Under the date 9th September 1944, Haigh marked his diary with a red cross in crayon. Years later, Haigh provided an explanation of this mysterious entry. He said that the young man had come to the Gloucester Road workshop with a pin-table that needed repair. Haigh had hit him over the head, and had lifted the dead body into a water-butt filled with sulphuric acid; after decomposition, he had poured the residual fluid down a manhole in the basement. To McSwan’s parents he had explained that their son had disappeared to avoid military service.

In the following year, some time in the early part of July, Haigh killed both the parents, Donald and Amy McSwan, disposing of the bodies by the same method, and then, having exterminated the entire family, proceeded, by means of a forged power of attorney and other devices, to appropriate to his own use everything of which they had died possessed. Altogether, he seems to have enriched himself to the tune of some four thousand pounds. No suspicions were aroused; the disappearance of the McSwan family was never reported to the police.

By August 1947 Haigh had run through all the money, having squandered most of it on a singularly unprofitable greyhound racing system. At this time, he had already been living at the Onslow Court Hotel for some two years; he now began negotiations for the purchase of a house, undeterred by the fact that he had no money. It was in this way that he met Dr. Archibald Henderson, a genial Scotsman of fifty, invalided out of the R.A.M.C., and his wife, Rosalie, who had advertised that their house in Ladbroke Grove was for sale. Although his plan to buy the house fell through, Haigh became extremely friendly with the Hendersons.

He was now acting as London representative for a firm called Hurstlea Products, with premises in West Street, Crawley, and a storehouse—of which he had the keys—on the outskirts of that agreeable town.

In December 1947 he ordered three carboys of sulphuric acid and two 40-gallon drums for delivery at the storehouse, a two-storey building standing on a vacant lot in Leopold Road. In the following February, on some pretext, Haigh persuaded Dr. Henderson to go with him to Crawley.

‘Archie was to be the next victim,’ Haigh wrote later. ‘I drove him to Crawley, and in the storeroom at Leopold Road I shot him in the head. … I then returned to Brighton and told Rose that Archie had been taken ill very suddenly and needed her. I said I would drive her to him. She accompanied me to the storeroom at Crawley, and there I shot her.’ Both bodies were melted down in sulphuric acid.

Haigh’s diary for 12th February 1948 contained the laconic entry: ‘A.H.’ ‘R.H.’, followed by a red cross. No time was lost in disposing of the Hendersons’ property. Haigh sold the doctor’s car, forged deeds by which he acquired his house—which he afterwards sold—and, by these and sundry other transactions, cleared something like seven thousand seven hundred pounds. Haigh went through this larger sum even more quickly than he had the smaller. As before, most of it went to bookmakers.

By the beginning of 1949 he was substantially in debt, his bank account was overdrawn, and the Onslow Court Hotel was pressing him to settle his long-overdue account. This was Haigh’s parlous situation when Mrs. Durand-Deacon, who occupied the adjoining table to his in the hotel dining-room, was foolish enough to mention to him a little idea she had for manufacturing plastic fingernails. Haigh was most interested, and offered to take Mrs. Durand-Deacon to his ‘workshop’ at Crawley.

On the afternoon of 18th February he drove her there in his car. At the Leopold Road storehouse he shot her in the back of the head, stripped her of her Persian lamb coat and her jewellery, and tipped her body into a 40-gallon metal drum.

Having briefly interrupted his horrid work to eat an egg on toast in Ye Olde Ancient Prior’s Restaurant in Crawley, he filled the drum with sulphuric acid and went off to dine at the George Hotel.

At breakfast at the Onslow Court Hotel the next morning, he approached a fellow-resident, an elderly lady named Mrs. Constance Lane, a close friend of Mrs. Durand-Deacon. He asked her: ‘Do you know anything about Mrs. Durand-Deacon? Is she ill? Do you know where she is?’ Mrs. Lane said she did not know, adding, rather disturbingly, ‘Do not you know where she is? I understood from her that you wanted to take her to your factory at Horsham?’ Smoothly, Haigh replied, ‘Yes, but I was not ready. I had not had lunch, and she said she wanted to go to the Army and Navy Stores, and would I pick her up there?’ He had, he said, waited for an hour at the Army and Navy Stores, but Mrs Durand-Deacon had not turned up. ‘Well,’ said the disquieting Mrs Lane, ‘I must do something about it.’

Later that day, Haigh sold Mrs Durand-Deacon’s watch for £10 to a firm of jewellers at Putney, and sent the Persian lamb coat to a cleaner at Reigate.

The next morning at breakfast he went to Mrs. Lane’s table again. Had she yet had any news of her friend? Mrs. Lane had not; she intended to report the matter to the police. Later in the morning, Haigh approached Mrs. Lane once more. ‘I think we had better go together to the Chelsea Police Station,’ he said, and in her gentle way the old lady replied, ‘I think so, too.’

That afternoon, Haigh drove Mrs. Lane to the police station, where they jointly reported the disappearance of Mrs. Durand-Deacon.

Haigh proceeded methodically with the task of collecting the proceeds of his latest killing. He took Mrs. Durand-Deacon’s jewellery to Horsham for an expert valuation. He then went on to Crawley, where he looked in at the storeroom, and, finding that the reaction was still not complete, tipped out some sludge from the drum, and replenished it with a fresh supply of acid. The next day he returned to the shop at Horsham, where he had obtained a valuation of the jewellery. There he sold the lot for £100. A further visit to Crawley satisfied Haigh that disintegration was now complete.

In the yard outside the storehouse he poured away the whole of the contents of the drum. Since the main facts were never in question at Haigh’s trial, it is unnecessary to trace the patient police work by which the whole story was exposed—the tracing of the watch, the jewellery, the fur coat, the finding of pieces of eroded bone, part of a left foot, false teeth, the handle of a red plastic bag, and other fragments in the sludge tipped out in the yard.

It is sufficient to say that on 2nd March Haigh was charged with the murder of Mrs. Durand-Deacon; he replied, ‘I have nothing to say.’ But in the forty-eight hours preceding the charge he had said a very great deal.

Of all the things he had said, perhaps the most significant was contained in an apparently casual question he had put to a police officer at Chelsea Police Station on the evening of 28th February. ‘Tell me frankly,’ he had said. ‘What are the chances of anyone being released from Broadmoor?’

Later, upon being cautioned, he had said: ‘Mrs. Durand-Deacon no longer exists. She has disappeared completely and no trace of her can ever be found again. I have destroyed her with acid…. How can you prove murder if there is no body?’

He had then made an immensely long and detailed statement describing the murder and disintegration of Mrs. Durand-Deacon, and before her, the McSwans and the Hendersons, and three other persons besides—sketchily identified, and almost certainly imaginary.

Haigh insisted that in each case he had drunk a glass of his victim’s blood. This gruesome claim formed an important element in the defence of Haigh at his trial, which took place at Lewes Assizes before Mr. Justice HUMPHREYS in July 1949. Insanity was pleaded. Haigh was presented to the jury as a pure paranoic, so far advanced in mental disorder that he conceived himself to be under the control of a guiding spirit whose authority was infinitely superior to that imposed by the ordinary standards and restraints of human society. This defence—conducted by Sir David Maxwell Fyfe K.C. (afterwards Viscount KILMUIR)—was based upon the conclusions of a highly distinguished psychiatrist, Dr. Henry Yellowlees, who in the witness-box discussed the early formative influences in Haigh’s home life, which in his opinion encouraged the development of the paranoic condition.

Sir David Maxwell Fyfe: In the statement he made he has given a history, which we have heard, that in each case, as he put it, he ‘tapped’ the victim and drank some blood. What do you feel as to the truth or Otherwise of that statement?

Dr. Yellowlees: I think it pretty certain that he tasted it; I do not know whether he drank it or not. From a medical point of view I do not think it is important, for the reason that this question of blood runs through all his fantasies from childhood like a motif and is the core of the paranoic structure that I believe he has created, and it does not matter very much to a paranoic whether he does things in fancy or in fact.

The Attorney-General, Sir Hartley (afterwards Lord) SHAWCROSS K.C., who appeared for the Crown, put this to the doctor: ‘I am asking you to look at the facts and tell the jury whether there is any doubt that he must have known that, according to English law, he was preparing to do, and subsequently had done, something which was wrong?’

Dr. Yellowlees: I will say ‘Yes’ to that if you say ‘punishable by law’ instead of ‘wrong’.

Sir Hartley Shawcross: Punishable by law and, therefore, wrong by the law of this country?

Dr. Yellowlees: Yes, I think he knew that.

Bearing in mind what had to be proved to satisfy the criterion of the M’NAGHTEN RULES, that answer was fatal to a defence of insanity.

The jury took only a quarter of an hour to decide upon a verdict of ‘Guilty’. Haigh was executed at Wandsworth Prison on 6th August.

 

All regular but reluctant flyers will have been horribly fascinated by the recent MH17 tragedy.

Of course, one’s main concern is for the poor people aboard, and then their relatives, but in my case a tiny part of me has filed the hitherto largely unconsidered ‘surface-to-air missile attack’ in the litany of ways in which I might perish in an air disaster.

As though pilot error, equipment failure, metal fatigue, air traffic control mistakes, extreme weather and terrorism were not enough.

It’s probably that love-hate relationship with aviation which led us to publish Nick Faith’s Black Box and Macarthur Job’s Air Disaster: The Propeller Era.

Now the second (of, eventually, four) instalments in the world-famous Job series is available as a kindle eBook.

[Update: it was at No1 in Aviation History on Amazon this morning; after this blog went up it slipped down to No3...]

Air Disaster: The Jet Age deals with a series of infamous horrors – beginning with the Comet and ending with the Tenerife incident, in which two Boeing 747s collided on the ground and more than 500 people lost their lives.

Macarthur’s original paperbacks dealt almost entirely with the technical meat of the matter – the why and how of the accidents.

Our updated versions have included as much detail as possible about the people who were aboard; it brings home even more forcefully how important is the work of the air accident investigators (and the aircraft designers, handlers, airlines and allied crafts and trades).

Here’s an excerpt from the chapter dealing with the 1963 crash of a Northwest Boeing 720 in the Florida Everglades:

IN THE PRE-JET, pre-turbine era, aircraft designers dreamed of the day when technology would allow airliners to ‘cruise in the stratosphere’, flying serenely between ports of call high ‘above the weather’ – a realm thought to be free of the discomfort generated by convective cloud and the more pernicious turbulence of frontal storms.

The advent in 1940 of the world’s first pressurised airliner, Boeing’s piston-engined 307 Stratocruiser, seemed to bring that dream a little closer, its fulfilment apparently frustrated only by the intervention of World War II, which resulted in the decision to cease production after only 10 Stratocruisers were built.

It was not until jet airliners began to invade regions of the atmosphere above 30,000 feet in the late 1950s and early 1960s that the long-sought ideal of ‘above the weather’ flight was finally seen for the myth it was – because turbulence could be encountered at these levels in every way as severe as that afflicting flight at less ambitious altitudes.

But as has been the pattern so often in the march of aviation technology over the years since man’s first faltering successes with heavier than air flight in 1903, it took a major disaster to fully reveal the hazards awaiting large jet aircraft plying their high corridors in angry air.

Northwest Airlines Inc, based at Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, had taken delivery of Boeing 720B, N724US, late in 1961. Fitted with the latest Pratt & Whitney JT3 turbofan engines, it had flown more than 4500 hours on the company’s domestic route network in the 18 months it had been in service.

A lighter version of the better known Boeing 707, The 720 was America’s first short- to medium-range passenger jet; with a service ceiling of 41,000 feet, it could cover 3,600 miles at a cruising speed of 530 knots, and this impressive performance had led to its being ordered by a number of US domestic airlines.

On February 12, 1963, N724US was scheduled to operate Flight 705, the company’s ‘Regal Imperial’ transcontinental service from Miami, Florida, to Portland, Oregon, with intermediate landings at Chicago, Spokane, and Seattle, departing Miami at 1.30pm local time.

The aircraft had arrived from Chicago at 12.40pm after an uneventful trip, the crew reporting only a slight problem with the pressurisation controls, which was quickly rectified at Miami.

A change of crew for the return flight took place at Miami.

Captain Roy Almquist, a 47-year-old veteran airline pilot with nearly 18,000 hours’ experience, was in command. Almquist, a single man, and from Minnesota – as were the entire crew – was an interesting character, with a diverse range of business interests outside the cockpit. He was president of a bank in Savage, Minnesota, part-owner of a Ford dealership in nearby Rosemount, president of the Rosemount City school bus company, and a director of an R&D company, Dyna-Mation, Inc., which was involved in the manufacture of precision machine tools. In his spare time, he was president of the Rosemount Lions Club.

His first officer, Robert Feller, 38, was also highly experienced, with a total of nearly 12,000 hours. But because Boeing 720 aircraft were still relatively new to the airline, neither pilot had a great deal of experience on the type, most of their flying having been logged on the company’s DC-4s, DC-6s, DC-7s and, in the case of the captain, Lockheed 188 Electra turboprops.

First Officer Feller, a married man with two children, had gained just over 1000 hours on the Boeing 720, but the captain, who had completed his type rating only three months before, had only 150 hours. As usual in American airline operations, the flight engineer, officially designated the second officer, was also pilot rated with 5000 hours’ experience. His flight engineer experience on Boeing 720 aircraft amounted to 523 hours.

Second officer Allen Friesen 29, married and the adoptive father of a two-year-old Korean daughter, and an ex-Boeing man who knew the company’s jets well, completed the flight deck complement.

In the passenger cabin, Myrna Ewert was, at 28, the oldest of the five flight attendants. Virginia Lee Younkin, 25, willowy and tall, and a native of Texas, was a former beauty queen who had majored in Spanish at the University of Minnesota and was noted for her cobalt-blue eyes. Wendy Engebretson was 22 and the daughter of a prominent local lawyer. Her uncle had died in the loss of a Northwest Airlines Electra over Tell City, Indiana, three years earlier, but Wendy had not allowed this tragedy to divert her from her career. Connie Rae Blank was 21, and had been with Northwest for just a few months. At 20, Mary Sandell was the baby of the crew; she had briefly attended college in Nevada, Missouri, before quitting her course to follow her dream of becoming an airline stewardess.

The six million dollar aircraft was configured with 165 seats, but fortunately only 35 of them were occupied. A 36th passenger, a pretty young blonde woman in a beige suit, who was nervous of flying, had cancelled her ticket after seeing the threatening storm clouds which were building outside the terminal.

Of those 35 souls who did board, most were family members going to or returning from vacations, or businessmen.

Wealthy builder Walter Orzula, from Cicero, Illinois, was returning from his annual family holiday with his wife, their daughter Jerylin, 20, and son, Walter, Jr, 18. The couple’s third child, Joyce, usually travelled with her family, but this year she had elected to stay with her soldier husband at his base in Kansas.

University of Minnesota student Fred Olson III, 20, had been visiting his parents, who owned a large funeral directors’ business back home in Rockford, Illinois, at their holiday home in Florida. Next to him on the aircraft was his 15-year-old sister, Joan, who was flying north with her friends Susan Schwendener and Christine Rever, also both 15. Tragically, Christine’s aunt Marilyn, 21, had died ten years earlier with her fiancé in the crash of a National Airlines DC-6 en route from Tampa, Fla, to New Orleans.

Grandmother Fanny Lebedow, 63, of Chicago, was a nervous passenger, but her family had reassured her that she would be fine. Waiting to meet her at Chicago was her daughter Shirley, with her own children, including her daughter Ivy, 4. In another horrible irony, Ivy would herself die with her father just before Christmas 1974, when their private plane came down on the way to a Florida holiday.

Bankers Anton Smigiel and Joe Srodulski were returning from vacations with their wives. Both couples had a policy of not flying together in case disaster struck – each had children, and dreaded the idea of leaving them orphaned. The two men said goodbye to their wives at Miami and boarded a slightly earlier Delta flight north, leaving Sally Smigiel and Rose Srodulski to follow them on the Northwest Boeing.

In those pre-Roe v Wade days, Dr Herman Wells, 69, was flying to Chicago for a court hearing, having been indicted on charges of having performed an abortion.

Ramon Diaz, 24, had recently escaped the misery of Communist Cuba; an accountant by training, he had just secured a position with a firm in Seattle, and was heading north-west to start his new job. He was very excited, and hoped one day to be able to bring his parents over from Havana.

George Enloe, 47, a father of four and husband to Arvilla, now worked for Alaska Airlines as a customer services representative and had been in Miami on business. A former World War II naval navigator who had been at Pearl Harbour, Midway and Guadalcanal, and had then seen active service in Europe, he had enjoyed a highly impressive military career; he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and two bars, three Air Medals and the Purple Heart.

First Lieutenant Henry Baldwin, married to Carol with a two-year-old daughter, was returning to his Fort Lewis Army base after a compassionate visit to the bedside of his ailing father. With only two weeks until his military service was complete, he was looking forward to making a new life for himself and his young family…

Coming Soon

Apologies for the hiatus in posts – not, I’m sure, that too many people noticed.

It’s been down to a combination of work pressure, family stuff and illness – the latest instalment of which is a bout of whooping cough which has swept the office.

The symptoms include dramatic coughing and whooping for breath, (mild) fever, (light) seizures, and vomiting. Too much information, as they say?

I am now three weeks into it, and I have another three to go, apparently.Thoughtfully, I passed it on to everyone else.

We’re almost off to the printers with AT THE GOING DOWN OF THE SUN – just a couple more chapters to edit, and some final approvals (from family members and other interviewees) to be obtained.

It’s a tremendously moving book; obviously we are in publishing to pay our bills, but I feel very happy that this book will be a fitting tribute to all of the young men and women who have died in Afghanistan, and particularly those twenty whose stories we will be telling.

Published November 11.

Early next year we’ll be bringing out ANIMAL, QC – the literally astonishing story (it will be subtitled ‘My Preposterous Life‘, and that does not do it justice) of one of Britain’s leading criminal barristers.

Then it will be the very amusing memoir of a detective with 30-odd years on the job, ‘odd’ being the operative word.

After that, another look at life as a paramedic. Stuart Gray’s A PARAMEDIC’S DIARY has sold well, and continues to trickle out, so we have high hopes for this next book (which is not by Stuart, but another paramedic).

In other news, how to beat writer’s block, life as an undercover policeman (the long form version of the job is covered in our book Undercover), and I’m not the only person not to have finished A Brief History of Time.

…is a series of the most moving interviews you will ever read, with the widows, mothers, fathers and friends of twenty soldiers and Royal Marines killed in Afghanistan.

We’re publishing it on November 11, for obvious reasons.

The author, Graham Bound (a Falkland Islander who worked in the MOD comms team and has written a couple of outstanding books about the Falklands War and its aftermath), has done a stunning job.

More details in due course.

AtTheGoingDownOfTheSun-cover_WEB

is said, by many, to have been Sir Edward Marshall Hall, KC – a man who mixed professional triumph with personal tragedy.

He saved many people from the noose, and his story – and particularly the story of his cases – is a fascinating one.

It was originally told by Edward Marjoribanks (pronounced Marchbanks), a barrister and Tory politician who shot himself in the chest in 1932, aged 32, after being jilted.

The Great Defender, a fascinating look at life at the Bar in the latter part of the Victorian era, is now available as an eBook, with a foreword by modern-day QC Gary Bell, better known as BBC TV’s Legalizer.

At £1.99 for 160,000-odd words, it’s what you might call a bargain!

thegreatdefender_cover-ebook

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