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The Postcard MurderA Judge’s Tale by Paul Worsley QC

‘It may be of some satisfaction to you, Gentlemen of the Jury, to know that you have been engaged in one of the most remarkable trials that is to be found in the annals of the Criminal Courts of England – certainly the most remarkable in my time.’ – Mr Justice Grantham, trial Judge at the Old Bailey.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul Worsley QC is a former Senior Circuit Judge at the Old Bailey. His career in the criminal law spanned over forty-five years. He first practised at the Bar from Chambers in Leeds, appearing in many murder cases, often characterised by the rural area in which the crimes took place.

In his first such case in 1982, when he was still a Junior, he secured the liberty – by way of a suspended prison sentence – of a farmer’s son who shot dead both his parents: they had treated him as a slave and made him sleep in the dog kennel. Six years later, he appeared for Yvonne Sleightholme, who famously went blind after being arrested for shooting dead her ‘love rival’ in a remote Yorkshire farmyard. 

Following his appointment as Queen’s Counsel, he defended and prosecuted in many murders, and successfully prosecuted ‘Wearside Jack’ (John Samuel Humble), who derailed the Yorkshire Ripper Investigation after sending hoax letters to the investigating officer, claiming to be the Ripper. 

 

Review 

There is always an understandable fascination with an unsolved murder. This is magnified when the crime is committed with exceptional brutality and without apparent motive.

There may be many suspects, but precious little evidence linking directly to the scene of the crime. The mystery may be beyond the wit of pathologists, police, neighbours, passers-by and the ultimate test – trial by jury. 

The fascination surrounding the untimely death of Emily Dimmock on 12th September 1907 in a room at 29 St Paul’s Road, Camden Town began almost immediately; it was immortalized by Walter Sickert in his painting, although the positioning of the bodies by Sickert mirrors the inaccurate depictions in press reports of the time, rather than the position of the victim when discovered.

She was in bed, face down, with her throat cut from ear to ear, almost severing the head. 

With no forensic evidence to go on, no eye-witness account and no apparent motive, the investigation centered around those who had known the victim, discounting those with alibis for the time of death and eventually alighting upon the author of a postcard, Robert Wood. 

The postcard was to Emily (known as ‘Phyllis’) and signed by ‘Alice’ but containing an assignation to meet at the Rising Sun pub.

It was admittedly written by Wood, in his hand. Wood, an artist, then became a person of interest to the police and proceeded, apparently, to do everything he could to draw suspicion upon himself by making loaded comments to police and others, attempting to create a false alibi and even being defensive to the point of flippancy in his examination in chief on trial for his life. 

Such is the background to Paul Worsley’s new book The Postcard Murder – A Judge’s Tale

In its principal narrative device, it is a tale told by the trial judge, Mr Justice Grantham, of the cause célèbre that was R. v Wood. The judge takes us through the trial, drawing on notes, transcripts and memory from the unique perspective of the bench in court number 1 of the Old Bailey. In doing so, Worsley has the distinct advantage of having occupied that position and conducted murder trials in the same court as Grantham. The air of ‘solemnity and dignity, and a hint of menace’ that the court exudes is wonderfully brought to life. The well of the court and its benches crammed not only with two of the most eminent criminal silks of the day (Mathews KC for the prosecution, Marshall Hall KC for the defence) but solicitors, playwrights and journalists all jockeying for position. Such was the stir created by the case that the public gallery was ‘ticketed’; no ticket, no entrance. 

It is difficult now to conceive of the sight, sounds and atmosphere of such a courtroom. Packed and poorly ventilated, a trial due to last some 3 days and which could result in a man being marched to the gallows on circumstantial evidence alone, condemned by his own lies and precious little more. Worsley re-creates this atmosphere with deft touches through the voice of his occasionally pompous narrator, overseeing all from the lofty heights of the bench. 

The book is in essence a courtroom drama, in real time. The speeches of counsel and the evidence are meticulously documented, whilst maintaining the dramatic momentum of a well-told story. To remain faithful to the evidence given in court and retain the impetus of a page-turning murder mystery is an art that requires no little skill; the book could easily have been no more than a transcript, or a disjointed series of questions and answers.

Instead it paints a vivid picture of the advocates for either side, the witnesses from the seamier end of the Euston Road and the Defendant, a ‘slight, slim figure’ who ‘didn’t look at all sinister’. 

The real success of this book is that, using the judge as narrator and with occasional forays into Socratic discourse by having the judge explain the evidence and his view of it to his son, acting as devil’s advocate for the defence long after the event, the reader has, in effect, become the 13th juror.

The circumstantial evidence stacks up against Wood – a potential identification, the postcard, the lies he later told to cover his tracks, the attempt to create a false alibi – is this enough to persuade you beyond reasonable doubt that Wood was the killer? It appears from his summing up that Grantham thought so until towards the end, rolled back from that, and balanced his direction to the jury, leaning perhaps towards acquittal.

Why? Did the judge have misgivings one way or the other? 

If not Wood, then who? If it was Wood, then why? If it was Wood, then how? Having read all the evidence, how will you answer the question that counsel for the defence rhetorically asks: ‘Could this delicate, amiable little artist have done this dreadful crime?’

Or will you be persuaded by the prosecution, who remind you that ‘Wood is a coldblooded man, and cold blooded under the most unnerving pressure’?

These are the questions that are left for the reader to determine. In a postscript, Worsley offers his opinion from the perspective of a modern day and highly experienced criminal judge. I won’t tell you what it is, it will be for you to read and decide. I would urge you to read it, it is a fascinating book that draws you into the murky underworld of Edwardian London and the high drama of a capital trial, meticulously researched and true to the evidence, as well as being a rattling good yarn. 

Review by Tom Tyson

Click here to buy the book.

 

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