Extracts from the memoirs of Chief Superintendent Drake Verdier, (1848-13/09/1927).
Jack Rips Through Bellhamshire
For much of 1898 and 99 the villagers of Gifham feared for their lives, for night-time was a terror, that regularly brought death to one or more villagers. At first it was thought that a feral dog — or dogs — was responsible for the deaths, as all the bodies showed signs of being bitten and the victim’s had had some of their flesh eaten. On the Thursday after Christmas 1898 was when I was called in, a body was found in the fields near Gifham — it was that of the pregnant wife, of a wealth, local land owner. On this occasion things were different, the woman’s body showed none of the usual signs of an animal attack — the previous ones had all shown such signs — despite which there were far too many similarities with the earlier bodies, for them not have been killed by the same killer. All the bodies had suffered massive blood-loss and there was no signs of a struggle, also there was far too little blood found, at all of the scenes of the crimes. The lack of the animal bites on the body — that had concealed the evidence, of the true nature, of the attacks, on the earlier bodies — revealed that some kind of blade had slit one of her wrists.
By the place, where we entered the field, where the body was found, there was a wrecked trap — it had lost a wheel, the previous evening. Both people who had occupied the trap, when it had been wrecked, were severely injured in the accident — John, the youngest son of George Fitzjames baronet, was nearly killed in the accident. That morning, he was abed, in what was expected to be his deathbed. The trap’s other occupant, a Miss Roberta Fitzjames, a distant cousin of Sir George’s, had died in the early hours of that morning, after heroically, despite her terrible injuries, carrying the mortally wounded, unconscious John Fitzjames the several miles, across fields, to the Fitzjamess’ home.
Upon Miss Fitzjames’s body, I was only allowed to carry out a very rudimentary examination, on the evening before her funeral. The family were not even happy about that and made an official complaint about it — the examination that I was allowed to do was only of: her face, neck, arms and lower legs. All these showed no signs, of her being the victim, of an attack. Miss Fitzjames’s face had been slightly damaged in the accident, but the only other injuries I could determine were old ones, healed scars on the back of each hand and a very old scar on her left wrist, which was little more than a red line. It was a very dull and misty day on the Friday when Miss Fitzjames was buried. Her funeral service was a very simple one, with Rev Stevens presiding over it, the only other people there were: the Fitzjames family, the vicar’s family, the village doctor and myself. When I last returned to the village — just after the Great War — I was saddened and surprised, to find that Roberta Fitzjames’s grave was unmarked — a heroine such as Miss Fitzjames deserves at least a small memorial. The rest of the graves in the Fitzjames plot had ornate memorials, except for one other member of the family, whose memorial was in ruins.
Upon the day of her, funeral, John Fitzjames recovered consciousness, which was a surprise to all of us, the doctor included — he had told me on the Wednesday that he expected the lad to die, any day, and that there was nothing that could be done for him. A very lucky boy was John. His survival gave me new hope, for my investigation, for I had very few clues to work with and no hope, of solving the case. Hoping and praying was what I did for him to have witnessed something and be able to remember anything that would lead me, to the killer, but I was not allowed, to question him, despite me being, by then, a regular visitor, to the Fitzjamess. Those visits, to the Fitzjamess, gave me my first suspect — Albert Fitzjames. Rapidly I came to suspect Albert Fitzjames because of: the way he talked about his brother; the things that I heard of his treatment of his frail, injured younger brother and also the village gossip about him — all of which made him a very good suspect. A couple of weeks later, when I was finally allowed to interview Master John, Albert Fitzjames was cleared of all involvement in the incidents, of the night, when the woman had been killed. To everyone’s great surprise John Fitzjames had made a dramatic recovery, in the couple of weeks that had passed since he was so terribly injured. When I interviewed him, he was sat up in bed and only had bandages still on his arms. He was such a fragile figure, with his arms and face swollen and inflamed; the fact that I was also injured, with my left arm bandaged and in a sling — after an encounter with one of the inmates of the local asylum — helped me get him to talk to me. John was not much help as a witness then, as he claimed to remember very little of the night, when he and his cousin had been attacked. It was a strange interview; it was almost as if he had been rehearsed before hand — by someone who knew exactly what I would ask him. He was an exceptionally likeable young lad, but had an unnerving ability, that I have only ever encountered very rarely — he seemed to guess, what I was about to ask and then answer questions before I could even start to ask them. The way he knew exactly what to ask me, about how I had injured my arm, made me wish that I had a few like him assisting me, with the investigation.
It was fortunate, that his lack of memory of anything that he might have witnessed, was more than made up for by what he told me, about his brother. The things he told me, about his brother, Albert, gave me a nightmarish insight into Albert’s caddish soul. John believed that Albert hated him and blamed him for Roberta’s death. He also confirmed many of my initial impressions of Albert, of whom it could be safely said that he was your typical upper-class coward and bully, who would marry anything, if it had enough money, to make it worth his while. By the time I left John’s room, I found it hard to believe that he and Albert were brothers. Albert’s and John’s characters were so totally opposite, in almost every respect — John was the sort of lad who would have been a credit to any father, whereas Albert was someone, who could have taught the Devil a thing or dozen. As I left, I had to feel sorry for the lad, for his sister and a real brim — the vicar’s daughter — entered, to keep him company and take care of him. From the look on the lad’s face, when they entered, he would have rather died than suffer their company.
By the end of January the investigation was at a dead end. Another woman was dead, her body yet again showed signs of an animal attack, as the earlier ones had. The night following, the one when the young woman had been killed, Ben Hunt disappeared, along with his few possessions. His father — the miller — told me that he had feared, for several months, that his son might leave the village, to seek his fortune. I discovered that Ben Hunt had fallen out with his intended, a few months earlier, and had had arguments with most of the villagers. Many years later, I was to learn that he blamed Alice Stevens — the vicar’s daughter — for causing his fiancee to break-off their engagement. It was something I think Alice would have felt obliged to do, for Ben frequented Trafalgar Street most Market Days — at least that is what I was told by the Constables of that beat. Before January was out, John Fitzjames’s miraculous recovery had him nearing total recovery, from his terrible injuries.
In the first week of February, Joan Grome became yet another victim of the Gifham Horror — the Gifham Horror was what the press had by then started to call the killer. There were other names that they used for the fiend, one of which was Gifham Jack — Gifham Jack was coined by a notorious penny dreadful writer, who tried to exploit these and the London murders in several ‘True Accounts’. Joan Grome was the woman that Ben Hunt had been engaged to; a month after she had ended her liaison with Ben she had become Albert Fitzjames’s latest conquest. With the death of Joan Grome, Albert Fitzjames became a suspect once again, but it was Ben Hunt who remained the main subject of my investigations.
Shortly after Joan Grome’s death I interviewed John again, hoping that he might have recovered his memory, of what he had witnessed, or if as I suspected that he would be more willing to tell me those things, that he did remember. At that time, I believed that his earlier lack of recall was more out of fear of (or loyalty to) his brother, than due to any lack of memory of the events. As boys will — who have been confine to their beds — he had overtaxed himself, in the few weeks, since he had been allowed his liberty, as a result of which he was back in bed resting, for a few days, when I next interviewed him. The day prior to my interview of him, for the second time, he had slept for the whole of day. As Sir George showed me up to the lad’s room, he told me that John had started to stand up to his brother. Sir George was nearly as pleased, by John’s new found courage and confidence, as I was myself — it hopefully meant that I only had to overcome his loyalty, to his brother. It was almost as if we had entered a den of thieves when we entered John’s room, that day — the three children who were in there all acted very guilty about something. I never did find out what they had been up to, but I have my suspicions — poor John. For the whole time I interviewed John, Helena Fitzjames, John’s twin sister and Alice Stevens kept exchanging looks. Luckily he recalled a little more, of what had happened, and he even gave me some vague descriptions of the attacker and the events, of that fateful night. There was not a single thing, in what he told me, that I could use in a court, though what he did tell me was just enough to confirm my suspicions, about the guilt of the Miller’s son. Since that day, whenever I have seen Miss Stevens or Miss Fitzjames, it has seemed to me that they have the same guilty look about them – that they had in his room.
There were three more deaths in February, each body, as with the earlier ones, had been feed off by animals — this was true even of those bodies, that were found, whilst they were still warm. March saw one more murder in Gifham and two in Bellhamcester. By then our search, for the killer, had become little more than a man hunt — a search for the Hunt boy. Early in April a gamekeeper, on the Howard estate, discovered a shelter, where Ben Hunt might have been hiding, so we investigated it, but we only found a few of his possessions. After the discovery, I had it watched for at least a month, in which time he did not return there.
In April there was one death, in the village, the schoolmistress — the attack, on her, was far more violent, than the previous ones had been, and it also did not show any signs of an animal attack. That month there was another murder, in Bellhamcester, and there was also the start of a series of burglaries, in which nothing was taken. Tuberculosis cases, which had become less common since the Minster fire, were again rapidly growing, to epidemic proportions, in Bellhamcester; it was also becoming common, in the villages, south of Bellhamcester.
When by the end of May, there had been, for more than a month, no killings, by the Gifham Horror, I was taken off the case — my failure to catch the Horror meant I was assigned to a desk, in force headquarters. After this I never did return to criminal investigations and spent the rest of my time, in the constabulary, in positions that had more to do with politics than with real police work. We were given an address for Ben Hunt, in July, but he had left it long before he was squealed on.
The first week in September, was when the Gifham Horror struck for the last time in Gifham — Sir George Fitzjames’s two sons were both lost, in a single night. The body of Albert — Sir George’s heir — was found on the banks of the Wensel, the morning after he was killed. He had been the victim of an attack, which had been even more frenzied, than the attack had been upon the schoolmistress. The other son, John, was missing, unfortunately near Albert’s body we found John’s clothes, which were in shreds as well as being covered in blood. For several days, we searched the river, down as far as the mill weir. Despite all the villagers helping, with the dredging, of the river and the search, for his body, lasting for at least a week, no body was found. With the deaths of both heirs, to the Baronetcy, the case took on a new importance, despite which the case was still unsolved, when I left the constabulary. After the tragic loss of Albert and John Fitzjames, there were no more strange killings, in Gifham. For a while the village’s notoriety drew the curious.
The loss of his heirs took a terrible toll, on Sir George, and he declined steadily, after they were gone, living for just less than five more years. In July of 1904, aged just forty-eight, he died. The only occasions that I can recall Sir George leaving the Fitzjamess’ house, after the loss of his sons, were when he went to services at St Bridgit’s, Gifham, and also when he attended the dedication of the new Minster, in Bellhamcester (Easter 1901). The dedication took place twenty-two years, to the day, after the Bellham Inferno; the inferno had started just after sun rise, on the morning, when the ceremonial investiture, of a new bishop, was to have taken place. Rev Augustus Bishop, who had earlier been the Dean of Theology at the University, died in the fire, which destroyed the Minster and much of Bellhamcester old town, from the Minster to the North Gate. The Chancellor of the University, after Augustus, Rev Joseph Forster, also died in that fire. Apparently, the two of them had been trapped, in the Minster, when it caught fire. All that was found of them, in the ruins, of the Minster, was a skeleton of one of them, with the other having been apparently reduced to ashes. The skeleton had been protected from the worst, of the fire, by the huge cross, that had stood behind the altar, falling over it — the skeleton. That skeleton was assumed to be that of Rev Forster. For some strange reason there was found, in one of its hands, a silver five-pointed star. The ashes, that were presumed to be the Bishop, were only a few feet from the skeleton and were littered with the regalia, of his office. Poor, Augustus, was just the latest, of the Bishops, of Bellhamcester, to die on the eves, of their investitures. The one good thing that came out of the fire was the end of the epidemic — tuberculosis — that had plagued Bellhamcester since I was a boy. The dedication of the new Minster was also the formal investiture of Augustus’s successor, William Russell. At the ceremony the Fitzjamess were seated next to Victor Howard, an alderman of Bellhamcester, whose family had done exceptionally well out of the rebuilding, of Bellhamcester, after the fire.
That morning, the morning of dedication, was the first time, that I had seen the Fitzjamess, in more than a year. I only saw them then because Victor had made a point of seeing me, that day. Alice Stevens was there, with the Fitzjamess, this did surprise me, even though it should not have, as most of the times I had had cause to call upon the Fitzjamess she had been there. Alice Stevens had been the confidant and constant companion of Helena, the twin sister of John Fitzjames. Alice and Helena had when John was bedridden taken it upon themselves to keep him company and take care of him. The way the two of them had dedicated themselves to John’s care, made it seem, to me at least, that Alice had had an interest in him and that Helena was conspiring to encourage it. It had become clear after the loss of the two Fitzjames boys that I had been wrong, for both Alice and Helena showed little grief at their funerals, after the funerals though the two of them were regularly seen leaving flowers on John’s memorial and Roberta’s grave.
Shortly after I left the police, about a year after Sir George died, the remains of a body were found in the Wensel, by an angler, about ten miles down river from Gifham. The skeleton, if you could call it that, meant that the Fitzjamess finally had a body to fill John’s grave. That burial was the subject of much village gossip, as a mysterious, veiled, young lady and a gentleman, who was dressed in a suit that had been old-fashioned when I was born, attended it. The couple had come all the way from London, just to attend the funeral. Before the funeral the young lady laid flowers, on Roberta’s unmarked grave. Of all the gossip about them, the only story I ever heard, that ever made sense, to me, was that they were friends of Roberta’s family, who had just returned, from the colonies. The floral tribute that the lady laid, amongst the others, at the funeral service, was strange, to say the least. Helena and Alice exchanged glances when it was laid — most likely due to what it was made up of: foxgloves, aconites, tansy, St John’s wort and yarrow. John had regularly placed the same flowers, on Roberta’s grave. After he disappeared, Alice and Helena had also been in the habit, of leaving similar tributes. They had also left the same flowers, at the foot, of the memorial, to John — with the addition of wild roses — after the day, of the entombment, they both stopped leaving flowers, at the graves — I never did find out, the reason why.
Immediately after the burial service, there was a confrontation between the two Fitzjames women and the mysterious lady’s companion. Something also passed between the mysterious lady and Alice, but that was a better tempered encounter. I can remember that it was Alice’s laughter, that drew my attention, to their meeting, and that, when I looked over, Alice was blushing. Unfortunately, the end of their conversation was far less friendly — Alice said something, of which I only can recall one word, ‘Helena’, as soon as Alice had said it the lady turned away and vehemently exclaimed, “No!” There was such power and determination behind that word, that it echoed off of the church walls, for all to hear. A few months later the Fitzjamess received a considerable bequest. As soon as they received it, Helena broke off her engagement to a wealthy widower. Within a week of her breaking off her engagement, Helena was engaged once again — but that was to the notorious penny dreadful writer. The writer had spent a lot of time, in the village, since the murders and has written two books, on the murders, which had very little fact in them and lots of his own fevered imaginings.
Alice had never been much, of a marriage prospect, for anyone, for she was far too headstrong — a brim by nature — with no family wealth to speak of and the looks to go with her nature. The funeral had been the first time, that I had ever heard her laugh, and one of the few times I can recall her blushing. After the funeral, there was a change in her, it seemed that something had softened her temperament. Rev Stevens was pleased to see the change, in her. I still cannot understand what the Hon Victor Howard MP saw in Alice. After Helena broke off her engagement to him, Alice started to keep company with him. Maybe they were consoling each other, as the proposed marriage of Helena Fitzjames, to Richard Fletcher, put an end to the friendship between Alice and Helena. To the best of my knowledge, they never spoke to each other again, after Helena announced her engagement, to that writer. Victor Howard MP and Alice were married a couple of weeks, after Helena — in my opinion Victor had a lucky escape, on the first night of their honeymoon. Poor Victor had never been fortunate in marriage, with his first wife having died of tuberculosis and his second died in childbirth — neither of which had given him a surviving heir. His only son, Harold, who had been his first wife’s only child, had died at Omdurman without issue.
The last death that was credited to the Gifham Horror was that of Victor, who was slain, on the Paris sleeper, on the first night, of his honeymoon. His bloodless body was found in-between his coach and a first class carriage, at Calais. The following year Alice gave birth to identical twin girls, Joan and Victoria. Up until they were sent away, to school, Alice lived in seclusion, with just the twins and a small staff, at Howard Hall — which is sited a few miles west of Bellhamcester. The house’s staff dwindled over the years, until for the last three years of her stay there — from 1917 to 20 — she lived there alone with only three staff. During that time, she refused to receive any visitors, there may have been a reason for it though, I did hear that Alice nearly died, of some mysterious ailment, about a year after the twins were born; it is said, by the few who had seen her after that time, that she never truly recovered from the disease, and that she would have to regularly take to her bed for a couple of days of rest. In 1920, on her doctor’s advice, Alice left the twins with their guardian and set off to do the grand tour, in search of a better climate. It is sad to say that the final sad conclusion to these events was to befall Alice, yet again, for she was never to return, to this country again. The last report of a sighting of her was in Prague. What happened to her in that city, or after she left it, is not known. When her estate was finally settled less than a third of it went to her daughters, the rest went to various trusts and in small bequests. The University received about a third of the estate, all of which went to the faculty that the twins’ guardian was a professor in — the bequest to the University was the title to, most of, the properties, that had been owned by Victor Howard.