The bludgeoning murder mystery that remains a cold case
PUBLISHED: 17:19 02 May 2013 | UPDATED: 17:19 02 May 2013
In recent years so-called cold cases have been the theme of many popular television series as detectives and forensic pathologists seek to unravel long-unsolved murders, using DNA and techniques unimagined or unrefined when the folder was filed away, perhaps forever.
Entertaining stuff, if you enjoy an on-screen grisly and gruesome gorefest.
Currently the Great Yarmouth is the scene of a real cold case resurrection as Mercury readers and the townsfolk are being asked by Norfolk Constabulary to help them to catch the unknown killer who stabbed 24-year-old Peter Miller in his Camden Place home in 1984.
I hope the reopening of the case brings positive results.
Nothing is impossible, of course, but I would be surprised if the police folder detailing investigations into another unsolved murder in Yarmouth is similarly withdrawn from the filing cabinet where it has lain, probably unopened, for 78 years. This is the curious case of Horace Butcher, a 68-year-old marine store dealer fatally injured in the sitting room of his Middlegate Street premises by being struck repeatedly with...a 7lb weight.
As was regular practice in those days, the local police enlisted the aid of Scotland Yard detectives to help them. One theory, tested during the investigations, was that the dead man had somehow managed to inflict the fatal wounds himself. The victim’s family offered a £50 reward – a large sum in the Thirties – for information that would lead to the perpetrator being caught. It produced nothing tangible.
The actual scene of the crime has long gone. At the time, 1934, Middlegate Street was a long, narrow and busy road gently curving from the town hall to Friars Lane, parallel to King Street and South Quay to which it was linked by Rows. There were homes, shops, businesses, pubs...
But wartime bombing and sweeping postwar reconstruction transformed the once-crowded area. Today only part of the old Middlegate Street remains, from Friars Lane to Nottingham Way which, like Yarmouth Way, was constructed to cut across the long-gone route of the old street.
One evening in mid-October 1934, Mr Butcher popped into the neighbouring Druids Arms public house for a drink, returned home, then came back to the pub. That had been his usual routine for 20 years, except that he normally also paid a third visit, just before 10.30pm closing time. That particular night, the landlord’s niece, Miss Parr, noted he never made the third call.
At the inquest into his death, other witnesses reported seeing him alone nearby in the late evening, before closing time.
For ten years newspaper seller John Kittle, of Row 47, had called on Mr Butcher daily to see if he wanted any odd jobs done. One day he went to the bank to pay in a cheque for Mr Butcher, and returned the next day about noon but surprisingly found his shop shut. He thought Mr Butcher might have overslept but efforts to rouse him at a side door were unsuccessful.
Finally he and the Druids Arms licensee, Edgar Farrow, shoved open the shop’s front door although there had been an interior bar across it. In the sitting room they found Mr Butcher dead and bloodied on the couch, and fetched the police.
Det Sgt Tuttle told the subsequent inquest that Mr Butcher’s head, face and hands were covered with blood, with more saturated blood all over the room and beyond. On the premises he found a 7lb weight, usually kept on a scale, with blood and human hair adhering to it. Also he found a bowler hat with indentations on both sides.
Nothing appeared to have been stolen, and the victim still had money in his pockets.
Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Barker reported there was no sign of forced entry or struggle. The blood-stained 7lb weight’s shape fitted the indentations on Mr Butcher’s bowler hat.
At the inquest the Scotland Yard man demonstrated how the weight could be held if anyone wanted to deal a blow with it. He discounted the idea that the fatal wounds were self-inflicted because the victim was “quite normal” shortly before returning home that night – and “it was difficult to assume that the deceased would do it with his hat on.”
When the coroner, Cecil Beevor, asked Dr Basil Adlington about the possibility that the fatal wounds might have been self-inflicted, he replied: “I think it is quite inconsistent that he could have inflicted the final blow. It is dimly possible that he could have inflicted some of the others but, as any of the blows would concuss him, I can’t understand his going on with more. I do not think he would have the strength to do it.”
The doctor agreed with the coroner that the position of blood indicated that Mr Butcher was struck twice with the weight in a passage but then managed to get as far as the couch. Bruises on his hands might be evidence of a struggle.
The coroner advised the jury that the blows must have been struck by someone hidden on the premises, but thought that if anyone intended “to murder a poor old man he would have provided himself with a handier weapon.” It looked as though the victim moved about his premises after being hit, and the coroner wondered what the murderer was doing as he did so.
Mr Beevor continued: “One cannot entirely ignore the theory that Butcher did it himself. He was an eccentric old man, one might say, who lived by himself and had a habit of mumbling. Possibly the suggestion came on him and he was overcome, or he had some kind of brainstorm which caused him to pick up the weight and, waving his arms round his head – as if beating off some imaginary enemy – he might have inflicted the wounds on his head.
“I think it is a wrong suggestion, partly because of the severeness of the injuries and the medical evidence, and that the blows could not have been struck by the deceased.”
The jury found that Mr Butcher “died of injuries causing concussion and laceration of the brain due to depressed fractures of the skull and that...he was wilfully murdered by some person or persons unknown.”
The Mercury summed it all up as “a baffling mystery”. It has remained so for nearly eight decades.