Not Proven: What are the Facts Behind Scotland’s Unsolved Murders?

Kevin Turton

Victorian
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Scotland has its fair share of unsolved murders, but the two that have perhaps generated the greatest interest over the years are the 1857 Madeleine Smith case and the mysterious shooting on the Ardlemont estate in 1893. The former was even turned into a Hollywood film in 1950.

Following are the facts, and absences of facts, behind these murders.

Death by Chocolate?

Madeleine Hamilton Smith (Credit: Public Domain)

When Mr Justice Clerk took his seat in a packed courtroom in June 1857 I doubt that he ever believed the case would become one of Scotland’s most contentious and confounding ever brought before a jury, let alone a cinema screen.

Essentially, it began as a love story between a young woman born to wealth and privilege and a man who believed, despite his low-born status, he could bridge the class gap that existed between the two.

Told over six days and widely reported, the court heard how socialite Madeleine Smith had conducted a clandestine love affair with clerk, Pierre Emile L’Angelier.

They heard how that affair had been maintained without the Smith family being aware, how the relationship had become sexual and how Madeleine Smith had murdered her lover by giving him hot chocolate laced with arsenic.

The story was told through some 300 letters, all written by Madeleine and recovered by police after a post-mortem carried out on L’Angelier’s body discovered the poison in his system.

As in most modern-day murder mysteries, however, nothing was quite as it seemed.

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On the face of it, as was borne out in court, Madeleine Smith had every reason to see her lover dead at the start of 1857.

The dated letters gave credence to the police belief that she had begun to shift her affections from L’Angelier to a man named William Minnoch, a partner at a Glasgow firm of merchants and friend of the family.

Wealthy, well liked and seen by her father – Scottish architect James Smith – as a worthy suitor, Madeleine had perhaps realised that Minnoch offered a more credible future. Evidence gleaned from her letters certainly suggests that was the case.

The building where Smith and her fiancé Minnoch each had apartments. (Credit: Public Domain)

Correspondence dated to the first quarter of 1857 show the affair had cooled, L’Angelier effectively side-lined, until she discovered that he had retained all her correspondence.

Realisation that scandal would follow should it be brought into the public domain caused Madeleine to re-evaluate.

The letters had to be returned, but L’Angelier, whether through stubbornness or stupidity, refused, preferring to use them to force Madeleine to abandon the new love in her life and return to the old.

This, the court was told, had sealed his murder.

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The problem with this explanation, though, was that arsenic in the quantity ingested by Emile L’Angelier was extremely difficult to administer. It was also difficult to dissolve effectively in a cup of hot chocolate.

Even the time of death proved contentious, as did the man’s movements on the night of his death. All of this added a level of unexpected complexity and brought uncertainty to a jury already cowed by the presence of a woman of substantial social standing in the dock.

The verdict of Not Proven – understandable, but unsatisfactory – ensured the case was forever surrounded in mystery and suspicion in a similar way to that of the other great Scottish murder mystery at Ardlamont.

A Shooting at Ardlamont

Ardlamont House, Argyll, is designated as a Category B listed building by Historic Environment Scotland. (Credit: Public Domain)

Situated on Scotland’s west coast, Ardlamont House was built in 1820 and was intended to have been home to the Lamont family in perpetuity. At the time, offering a base from which future generations could prosper was seen as a sound investment.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, the past offers no certainty for the future. Family finances suffered, the house fell out of use and by the start of 1893 it was up for sale.

At that point, in stepped Alfred Monson; a man of little financial means but tutor to Windsor Dudley Cecil Hambrough, son and heir to the Hambrough banking family.

Cecil, as he was known to friends, had been placed under Monson’s tuition by his father, Dudley, months earlier, in the belief that he would benefit from the older man’s wider experience of life.

Windsor Dudley Cecil Hambrough, born 1873 (Credit: Public Domain)

By the time Monson, his family and Cecil had moved to Ardlamont house, however, the relationship with Dudley had become strained. So much so that Cecil had been ordered to return to the family home in London.

He refused. The twenty-year-old, only one year away from his majority and future inheritance, enjoyed a level of freedom he would not have had in the family home and intended to stay where he was.

This suited Alfred Monson who had used the Hambrough name and Cecil’s impending inheritance to secure the tenure of Ardlamont house and estate for the summer that year as part of a planned purchase.

It was a lie. There was never any intention to buy. It simply suited Monson’s plans to have access to the house, possibly in order to sell access to shooting parties later in the year. Cecil may well have been complicit.

On Tuesday 8 August Cecil and Monson went night fishing along with a visitor to the house, Edward Scott. Early the next day they went to shoot game in the nearby woodland.

Cecil Hambrough was shot and killed just after nine o’clock in the morning.

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Monson claimed it had been accidental. Cecil, he claimed, had been alone and tripped, which in turn had caused his shotgun to fire, the shot hitting him in the head.

The explanation was believed and there the matter would have rested had Monson not tried to claim insurance some weeks later, prompting an enquiry.

Monson was found to have taken out life insurance on Cecil which in turn created a motive. He was duly arrested and brought to trial for murder in December 1893.

Edward Scott, a name discovered to have been an alias, absconded and was never found.

So, the case rested upon evidence from various experts, most notably Doctor Henry Littlejohn, inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who declared the killing deliberate, motive, of course, being insurance.

But the case fell apart. Monson was freed on a not proven verdict and this, like the case of Madeleine Smith, went into Scotland’s unsolved file.

Kevin Turton has been a History and True Crime author for over twenty years. His book Britain’s Unsolved Murders, for Pen and Sword, tells the stories behind thirteen of Britain’s most baffling murders.

 

Kevin Turton