When Great Yarmouth was rocked by murder

WHAT a dull, humdrum life most of us would lead if murder was not a crime. Night after night we watch television plays, films and series about murders both real and fictional, with professional and amateur sleuths untangling a web of clues, alibis, red herrings, spoof confessions and a mounting body count in dignified Oxford colleges, seedy city back-streets, picturesque English villages populated by stereotypical upper middle class residents, Cluedo-style stately homes and gas-lit Victorian houses…

And don’t we just love it!

The abolition of the death penalty in 1965 took the edge off real-life capital crimes because the accused was no longer fighting against the ultimate threat of being killed by the hangman’s noose.

Before that, murder was big news guaranteeing boosted sales of newspapers carrying reports of the crime itself, the hunt for the perpetrator, and the trial. Would the jury return a guilty verdict, resulting in the judge sentencing him or her to death? Was official hangman Albert Pierrepoint waiting to despatch another murderer at dawn?

Exactly a century ago, Great Yarmouth was agog when the news broke that a body had been discovered on the South Beach. The reason for this extreme public interest in the murder of 18-year-old Dora May Green was its possible significance, being a copy-cat slaying of a woman in 1900...a crime for which a man had already been hanged!

The new death excited not only the town but also the nation, and London’s Fleet Street crime reporters returned here in force, aware that there had been grave doubts about the guilt of the man whose life was ended on the gallows in Norwich Prison 11 years earlier.

In both cases the victims were young women whose corpses were found in dunes on the South Beach, opposite Harbord Crescent. The so-called modus operandi was garrotting by a tightly reef-knotted mohair bootlace. Women walked in fear again.

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The first strangulation victim was of Mary Jane Bennett, a 23-year-old visitor from Kent who had been here for eight days before meeting her untimely end. Calling herself Mrs Hood, she and her eight-year-old daughter Ruby were lodging in Mr and Mrs John Rudrum’s boarding house in Row 104 between South Quay and Middlegate. Fourteen-year-old John Norton, of Boreham Road, stumbled across her corpse when he was going for an early morning swim.

A laundry mark on clothing found in her luggage was traced by police to a London laundry which identified the owner as Mary Bennett, of Bexleyheath. Her husband, Herbert, aged 21, a labourer at the Woolwich Arsenal, was discovered to have removed from their home - after her body was found - clothes and jewellery which he gave to his “fiancee”, 21-year-old parlour maid Alice Meadows who believed he was a bachelor.

Police also noticed that a watch and chain worn by the victim when she and her daughter were snapped by a photographer on Yarmouth beach were not among her possessions at the lodging house; in her husband’s London room police found a jewellery very similar to those in the snapshot. Seven weeks after the murder, Bennett was arrested.

At his trial at the Old Bailey the prosecution claimed that he took his wife and daughter to Yarmouth for a holiday to get rid of Mary, returning to the resort a week later to murder her so he could marry his new sweetheart.

The watch and chain picture was damning, one of the first instances of the use of photographic evidence at a trial.

In his defence, evidence was produced that Arsenal shift records showed he was actually at work there 120 miles away when his wife was strangled, and a witness claimed he spoke to Bennett in London on the evening of the murder after the last train to Yarmouth had steamed out. There was also an allegation that Mary Bennett had been seen kissing a man near her lodgings on the eve of her murder.

Criminologists later wrote books about all its twists and turns, half-truths and other issues. For example, was Bennett a spy for the Boers to whom the Arsenal was supplying arms and ammunition? Was the murder part of an insurance scam? Were the Bennetts confidence tricksters? Was she being blackmailed because of an affair with her brother-in-law?

It was claimed the case achieved notoriety because the London newspapers had waged a campaign to convict Bennett, and that witnesses were actually paid by the Press to tell their story before the trial.

Herbert Bennett was hanged in Norwich Prison, still protesting his innocence. Nobody, least of all the jury, had paid much heed to his protestations. As a large black flag was being hoisted outside the gaol as a public indication that the death penalty had been carried out, the flagpole snapped – a sign that an innocent man had been executed, some folk believed.

Mary was buried in Yarmouth’s most northern cemetery, between Kitchener and Estcourt Roads, her grave marked by a coffin-shaped stone on which her name is inscribed.

So the carbon-copy murder of Dora Green in 1912 created a furore hereabouts and also in Fleet Street, prompting those who had seriously doubted Herbert Bennett’s guilt 12 years earlier to emphasise that a terrible miscarriage of justice had been perpetrated. I do not think there was any formal attempt to clear his name.

Dora Green’s murder remains unsolved to this day, although two or three men confessed but were shown to be either sensation-seekers or were elsewhere at the time. Presumably all the paperwork and evidence items are locked away in an official crime archive somewhere, dust-covered and forgotten.

At the back of my mind will forever remain something my mother told me. In 1912, she was seven when Dora Green was murdered but recalled standing in the doorway of the family home in Isaac’s Road, Cobholm, one evening when an agitated couple hurried by. As they passed, she heard the woman saying something like: “You bloody fool! What did you have to kill her for?”

The next day news of Dora’s body being found went like wildfire around Yarmouth. I assume my maternal grandparents never contacted the police, or the mystery might not have stayed unsolved forever.