Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes was the name given to the real-life detective, Fred Wensley. Known for his excellent arrest rate in murder investigations in the East End of London at the turn of the 20th century, he was swiftly promoted to Detective Chief Inspector of the Yard’s murder squad.
This story, however, takes place in Hitchin, Hertfordshire where he was sent in February 1919 to investigate the mysterious circumstances of the death of a 54-year-old shopkeeper.
Discovery of Elizabeth Ridgley
A few weeks earlier, on 27 January 1919, Hertfordshire officers had been sent to Elizabeth Ridgley’s address on Nightingale Road as there was concern for her welfare.
She had failed to open her corner shop and despite numerous shouts through her letter box, there was no sign of her.
Constable Alf Kirby of the local force gained entry to the premises and found Mrs Ridgley lying across the floor with fatal head injuries. Next to her rested her dog, with identical wounds.
Between them rested a four pound weight covered in blood and hair. The shop had been ransacked and money stolen from the till.
Despite Kirby recognising that this was a case of murder, his superintendent, George Reed, thought otherwise and concluded that Ridgley had died as a result of a tragic accident.
Reed’s chief constable, Alfred Law, was astounded at his superintendent’s conclusion and decided to call in the services of Scotland Yard to re-examine the circumstances. Enter Fred Wensley and his reputation for solving crimes.
Arresting a war veteran
However, not only had the body been buried but the entire scene had been cleaned up, blood washed away and anything which may have held a fingerprint, either cleaned or thrown away.
Yet, within a few days, Wensley arrested an Irish World War One veteran who was living a couple of hundred yards away.
His name was John Healy and upon arrest he was found to have a dog bite to his hand, tears in his trousers and blood on his clothes.
Moreover, witnesses saw him both inside and outside Ridgley’s shop minutes before she met her death and whereas before the crime he was penniless, suddenly he had money and was spending liberally.
Enquiries switched to Ireland from where Healy came and a colourful picture emerged. He came from the small town of Listowel, County Kerry where he was regularly drunk and taken to court on a number of occasions.
He was already a violent man when he was called up to serve as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front and was undoubtedly exposed to the horrors of trench warfare.
He left the army in 1916 and the local police were constantly called to his home due to outbreaks of violence and assaults upon his siblings.
His mother had already died in the local lunatic asylum and Healy was often seen walking round making rambling statements about the war.
In September 1918, he married a local girl, Annie, and moved to England in search of employment and settled in Hitchin.
In the weeks leading up to the murder of Elizabeth Ridgley, he is known to have seriously assaulted his wife on a number of occasions and occasionally his landlady. Despite having little money he was often drunk.
A shocking outcome
Wensley was dealing with a violent, drunken and traumatised war veteran against whom rested a whole weight of strong, reliable evidence. Healy was charged with Ridgley’s murder and appeared at Hertford Assizes in June 1919.
The evidence was strong and Healy’s only defence was that everyone was lying and that the only reason he had been charged was because he was Irish and the town had lunched a vendetta against him.
The jury retired for only 11 minutes before returning with a verdict of not guilty.
The outcome produced shockwaves throughout Hertfordshire and Scotland Yard and questions were asked. Wensley felt humiliated since this was the first murder he did not solve.
In fact, just a few weeks later he would be sent to the murder, in Bedfordshire, of a woman called Nellie Rault, but due to the late calling upon his services, vital evidence was lost. It remains undetected to this day.
After the trial
Wensley put pen to paper and strongly urged that in future, provincial forces call in Scotland Yard sooner rather than later before evidence was destroyed. His recommendations were adopted and the relationship between the Metropolitan and provincial forces became more harmonious.
Wensley’s own opinion as to why Healy was acquitted was simply that he felt that the trial judge had laboured the point too much: that before a jury could convict, they must be sure of his guilt. After all, a guilty verdict meant death by hanging.
However, it cannot be ignored that this was a time of heightened political tension in Ireland and a jury would have taken into account that Healy’s defence may have had some credibility. Could it also have played on their mind that they were dealing with a war hero?
Wensley eventually rose to become Chief Constable of Scotland Yard’s CID and was awarded both the King’s Police Medal (KPM) and Order of the British Empire (OBE).
He was widely regarded by the national media as “probably one of Britain’s cleverest detectives” but he would dwell on the events of February 1919.
Paul Stickler worked in CID for Hampshire Constabulary for much of his career and spent many years involved in murder investigations. He was also seconded to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia to study international perspectives of crime investigation. The Murder That Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes is his first book for Pen & Sword.