A Mix of Murders is my first book, and has remained popular since it was published at the end of May 2012. The following is a synopsis of A Mix of Murders, written by the book's copy-editor Richard Vaughan.
Grahame Farrell's true-crime debut is a real page-turner, treating the reader to fifteen in-depth accounts of 20th Century murders. Researched meticulously, and possessing a clear, eloquent style, this book explores cases such as that of William Bisset, an older, well-to-do gentleman, who was given to exhibiting his wealth somewhat brashly. His murder appeared simply to be a fatal mugging, yet ever-growing factual contradictions threw the prime suspect's guilt into ever greater doubt, to the point of strengthening his defence.
In the intricate case of Paul Vickers, we learn of a driven and accomplished medic, with aspirations to high political-status, and a predilection for vulnerable women. Married unhappily to a once-promising but handicapped mathematician, the doctor took numerous lovers, meeting his demise in the form of the attractive and worldly Pamela Collison. She informed the police of complicity with Vickers, and thus we discover a near-perfect murder-weapon along with counsels’ imaginative and polarising arguments during Vickers’s trial. Was Vickers the ‘new Dr. Crippen’, as Collison asserted? Farrell delivers the uneasy sense that facts and outcome were never wholly matched; read it and form your own view.
In notable contrast, we find that Michael Queripel’s conviction hinged on a single and rather unusual piece of evidence, and that his murder trial was one of the very shortest in legal history – just how short is surprising – and it is through such accounts that the broad spectrum this book presents becomes apparent. Scrutinising hitherto unexplored cases, Farrell gives accounts of murder driven by poverty, disaffection, social pressures and vaunting ambition. Comparing and contrasting those all-too-human forces that motivate people to kill, this volume forms a fine addition to the library of any fan of true crime.
Life was lived at a slow and gentle pace in the Dorset hamlet of Gussage St. Michael early in the last century. To reach the nearest main road, from Blandford Forum to Salisbury, required a two-mile walk along a narrow lane. A twice-weekly bus service to Blandford and Dorchester was the only regular link with the outside world. The nearest town, Wimborne, was ten miles away, and although only fifteen miles separated the village from the outskirts of Bournemouth, the overall feeling was of quiet rural isolation. With a population of only one hundred and sixty, this was an insular community in which everybody knew their place and the horizons of most people were limited by their relatively low position in the social hierarchy, while a strict moral code held sway over their lives in sexual matters. It is hard to conceive of a semi-feudal society like Gussage St. Michael surviving into the second decade of the twentieth century, but most rural communities of the period bore these archaic features to a greater or lesser degree.
Despite its small size and sleepy character, Gussage boasted both a school and a post office. The standard of education in rural schools of the period can be gauged from the fact that the village postmistress, Mrs. Lillian Burton, was also the assistant schoolteacher.
The largest landowner in the village, and the local squire, was George Good, a gentleman farmer, of Gussage Manor. Among his staff was Mrs. Burton’s husband William – known as Bill – who was employed as groom, gardener and rabbit-trapper. Mr. Burton, a well-built man with a clear complexion and a striking sandy-coloured moustache, was, at twenty-nine, a good twelve years younger than his wife. They had married in 1907, and had one daughter. Although the marriage provided him with the benefits of his wife’s two incomes as well as the post office accommodation, she was, in his eyes at least, losing her sexual appeal, and he gradually acquired a reputation both for pursuing younger women and for bragging about his conquests. Several scandals resulted, but confrontations with irate husbands and angry fathers did nothing to encourage Burton to abandon his adopted role as village roué.
Eventually, along came yet another target, Winifred Mitchell – tall, dark-haired, independent-minded (if a little naive), and twenty-four years old. She was the cook at Gussage Manor and therefore a workmate of William Burton. She was also a distant relative of his on her mother’s side, and numbered his wife among her many friends and acquaintances in the village. After having previously been in service in Wimbourne, she had been taken on by Mr. Good in October 1912. On account of her job-title at Gussage Manor, she was known by the staff as ‘Cookie’, but by most other people as Winnie. Clearly, marriage to a local man had thus far held no appeal for her, and consequently she still lived with her parents in her birthplace, the village of Manswood, about one and a half miles from Gussage. It might be more accurate, in modern terminology, to denote the strong-minded Winnie by the term ‘single woman’ than by the archaic and stuffy ‘spinster’. Burton judged her as being ripe for an affair.
Annoyingly for the rabbit-trapper, Miss Mitchell proved to be anything but a pushover, and for four months she played hard-to-get before finally yielding to his blandishments, whereupon, unbeknownst to Mrs. Burton, the two became lovers, with Winnie surrendering her virginity in return for promises of a new life with Burton in Canada.
In the Edwardian English countryside – untamed, undiminished by suburbia – privacy was even easier to find than today. On Squire Good’s estate, and close to the Manor Farm itself, was a low hill on which lay a small wood called the Sovel Plantation. Mr. Burton’s rabbit-trapping duties took him there every day, and he was very familiar with its layout. It was the perfect location for illicit sex with the now-willing Miss Mitchell, and they made good use of it.
Although a number of people had for a while been aware of Burton’s interest in the young cook, no-one in the village knew the extent of their intimacy, with the exception of one person, Winifred Bailey – friend and confidante of Winnie Mitchell. She was the parlour-maid at Gussage Manor, and acted as go-between for the two lovers, passing letters from one to the other, and helping to arrange their secret meetings.
Miss Mitchell may have regarded herself as Burton’s mistress, and, with no marital ties herself, she was content to continue their clandestine relationship indefinitely, culminating in their life together in Canada, but as far as Bill Burton was concerned, she was just his current bit on the side. Things ticked along nicely, however. That is, until the day in March 1913 when Winnie came to him with bad news: she was showing signs of being pregnant.
This was an unwelcome development from Burton’s point of view, and almost immediately his passion for the girl was extinguished. He was no wealthy Don Juan who could afford to keep a woman and her child hidden away in a comfortable apartment in some fashionable location. Nor could he confess his transgression to his wife. If she should throw him out, he would lose not only his home but also her wages. He risked also the opprobrium of the whole village, and in a place as small as Gussage St. Michael, where everybody knew everybody else, it would be hard to keep a low profile until his infidelity had ceased to be headline news among the village gossips. And if Winifred Mitchell had any male relatives, they might take it upon themselves to mete out their own form of justice against the man who had ruined her. Worst of all, Squire Good might decide to adopt a censorious attitude and terminate Burton’s employment. The workhouse suddenly loomed large on his horizon. Homeless, jobless, ostracised and under threat of violence – it was a worst-case scenario and possibly wouldn’t entail quite such a catalogue of hardships, but at the very least he would have to pay maintenance to Winnie for many years to come, while his wife, if she didn’t reject him, would no doubt endeavour to make sure that his philandering days were over.
He weighed up his alternative courses of action. Perhaps Winnie had been two-timing him with another man. If so, Burton decided, he would try to prevail upon this rival to take the blame, through physical threats if necessary – that wouldn’t be difficult for a man of his size and strength. But he knew of no such rival, and the affectionate letters which Winnie had written to him suggested that he alone had enjoyed her favours.
An abortion was out of the question. Who could be found in Gussage St. Michael to perform one – assuming Winnie would agree to it? And if Burton looked further afield, to a back-street abortionist in, say, Bournemouth, it would cost him considerably more than he could afford.
There was one other option, and to Burton it seemed the perfect solution. Winnie had spoken on a number of occasions of her desire to leave the village and to move either to London, where her brother lived, or, preferably, to Canada with Burton (he had made the suggestion as part of his wooing technique early in his seduction campaign). He would now offer to elope as soon as possible with her. First, though, he had a secret task to perform. Accordingly, he went to the Sovel Plantation and dug a hole two and a half feet wide by seven feet long…
When next he saw Winnie Mitchell, he introduced her to his plan; they could start a new life together in Canada, and she could have the baby with no fear of condemnation from relatives and neighbours. She was, however, to tell absolutely no-one about the plan, but she could tell her mother that she intended to take up a job in London, with no mention of Canada; and under no circumstances should she reveal his part in the arrangement. She should also prepare herself by transferring any belongings she had at Manor Farm to her parents’ home.
Winnie couldn’t have wished for better news. She agreed enthusiastically to the idea, and they set 29th March as their departure date. She was to cycle to the Sovel Plantation, leave her bicycle there and walk to the main road where Burton would be waiting for her. A motorist friend of his would pick them up and drive them away together. Unfortunately, it rained on 29th and, despite her original enthusiasm, Winnie couldn’t bring herself to leave her house! After profuse apologies from the still-eager Winnie, the elopement was postponed until – so Burton informed her – a new date could be arranged with the driver.
Two days later, at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, Burton called on a young boy from the village, Leonard Mitcham, who, although he was too young to have a firearms licence, nonetheless owned a shotgun – an accessory which was normally the preserve of landowners, farmers and gamekeepers. Explaining that he wished to kill a cat which had been doing some minor damage, Burton asked if he could borrow the weapon, as well as some cartridges. The boy agreed, and Burton tried the gun out in his presence, using the two cartridges given to him.
“Len, do you think if I got close up, close to anybody, it would kill them?” asked the trapper casually.
“Of course it would.”
“It would blow their head off, I suppose!” rejoined Burton in a tone of contrived machismo.
Len was sent to fetch another cartridge. As soon as he received it, William Burton took his leave.
At half-past two in the afternoon, a smartly-dressed Winnie Mitchell cycled up to the common to keep a rendezvous with Burton. The move to Canada still occupied her thoughts, and the previous day she had packed a box of trinkets which her sister was to take to Gussage Manor for Winnie to pick up before her departure. Today, however, was for love-making, and as she and Burton talked, they made their way into the Sovel Plantation. He led her along a wooded path. Winnie was by now walking in front of him and didn’t see him bend down to pick something up out of the undergrowth. It was Len Mitcham’s shotgun. Standing about two paces behind her, he raised the gun and pulled the trigger; the shot hit her in the back of the head, the force of the blast throwing her forward; she was dead before she hit the ground.
Burton dragged her the eighty yards to the hole which he had dug a week previously, and dropped her in, but not before divesting her of her feather boa, which he intended to sell at some future date. He shovelled the soil back into the grave until it covered the body, then walked the half-mile to some familiar rabbit-holes, in one of which he buried the feather boa. His task completed, he made his way to Leonard Mitcham’s house.
He handed the gun back, saying that the cat would no longer be seen, and, with a word of warning to the boy to say nothing about lending him the weapon, he left.
That evening, he went back to the plantation with a local man, Fred Boyt. Several days before the murder, Burton had deliberately let it slip to Mr. Boyt that he and Winnie were planning on running away together to Canada. When Winnie’s absence was eventually noticed, reckoned Burton, Boyt would divulge the misinformation about Canada to her family, who would assume that she had left in advance of Burton. This would hopefully dispel any fears that she had come to harm. Fred Boyt had believed Burton’s lie, and had in fact tried to dissuade him from eloping with the girl. Now, in the Sovel Plantation, Burton told him that Winnie had indeed left by herself, and was currently in London; he had come, he said, to collect her bicycle from the plantation in accordance with her wishes. They found it where she had left it, and as Burton lifted it up, his face suddenly took on a menacing look. Glaring at Fred Boyt, he warned him, “If you mention about my pushing the bike back it’ll be a bad job for you!” Boyt – not the bravest of men – knew he would be no match for Burton if the rabbit-trapper came looking for him. He took the threat very seriously.
Burton then rode to the Mitchell cottage in Manswood, where, under cover of darkness, he crept into the garden, propped the bicycle up against a tree, then made his way surreptitiously home.
The cycle was discovered the next morning by Winnie’s mother, Rose. Why, she wondered, had Winnie bothered to bring her bike home but not come into the house herself for the night? Nevertheless Rose was not at first unduly concerned. She was well-acquainted with her daughter’s independent spirit. She knew of Winnie’s intention to leave Dorset, and she was also aware that her daughter planned to go without handing in her notice at Gussage Manor. Perhaps she had finally left for London. Even so, it was very strange indeed that the girl had gone without saying goodbye to the family.
By the next day, she was more than a little concerned, but hardly in a state of panic. Then she received a visitor. It was Bill Burton. He was inquiring whether anyone had seen Winnie. Mrs. Mitchell told him that her daughter hadn’t come home the previous night, and that she was thinking of reporting her absence to the police.
“Yes,” said Burton soliticously, “That’s the best thing you can do.”
For reasons best known to herself, Rose Mitchell waited three days before going to the police, and even then it was only to say that she thought her daughter had moved to London.
Throughout April, 1913, Burton kept up his bogus interest in the missing girl’s whereabouts while going about his daily duties on the estate. He could be forgiven for feeling more secure with each passing day, even though Winnie’s vanishing act was the talk of the village. Nobody, not even her parents, seemed to view her disappearance with suspicion, and Burton reinforced whenever possible the rumour of her move to the capital. His conversation with Frank Christopher on April 12th was typical. After delivering beer to Gussage Manor, Mr. Christopher gave Burton a lift to the post office. On the way, Burton asked, “What do you think of Cookie?”
“I don’t know. Hasn’t she come back?”
“Where do you think she’s gone?” asked Mr. Christopher.
“Maybe up in London with someone who’s got more money than thee or I”, answered Burton.
Thus did the rumour of Winnie’s move to London begin to acquire the status of an established fact.
Then suddenly, things began to go wrong with Burton’s carefully-crafted plan.
In the last week of April, the local rector walked into Cranbourne Police Station and told the officer in charge, Sergeant Stockley, a rather worrying piece of gossip that had just reached the ears of his wife. Earlier that month, a local dairyman named Gillingham had found a set of false teeth in the Sovel Plantation; far from thinking them in any way suspicious, he had pocketed them, taken them home, and placed them on his mantlepiece, presumably in the belief that they might one day come in handy! The rector explained that during Winnie Mitchell’s time as a domestic servant in Wimborne, her employer had given her a set of dentures, and it was common knowledge that she never went anywhere without them. What if the dentures found in the wood belonged to Winnie? And if so, what were they doing there? Bearing the false teeth, Sgt. Stockley spoke to his superiors, who instructed him to make immediate inquiries into Winnie Mitchell’s disappearance.
On hearing of this, William Burton began to get decidedly nervous. He lost not merely some of his composure, but also, it would seem, some of his artfulness, and started to give totally different explanations to different people whenever the subject of Winnie Mitchell was raised. To some, he reaffirmed his assertion that she was in London.
“Cooky has been in London,” he told neighbour Ernest Fry. “I didn’t think she was gone to Canada. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her back before long.”
To Reginald Moon, a former workmate at Gussage Manor, he told a fabricated tale about Mrs. Mitchell receiving a letter from her son in London saying that Winnie was alright. But to George Latter, the Gussage Manor carpenter, he said that Winnie had gone away with a Mr. Hill to join the Salvation Army and had subsequently gone to Canada with that organisation. Slowly, Burton was losing himself in a maze of contradictions.
At the beginning of May, a second piece of important evidence came to light. In the course of his enquiries, Sgt. Stockley learned that on March 30th – the day before Winnie’s disappearance – some boys who had been picking primroses in the Sovel Plantation had come across signs of recent digging. With the curiosity typical of all small boys, they had looked around the site and come across the hole which Burton had recently dug. When they went back a few days later, the hole had been filled in. They had casually mentioned it to one or two people, and with typical schoolboy sensationalism (and unerring accuracy) they had described it as looking like a grave. They were told that the hole had probably been dug by Bill Burton on the orders of Mr. Good for the purpose of burying rabbit carcases. Now it suddenly acquired a sinister significance.
On May 2nd, accompanied by a constable, Sgt. Stockley went to investigate the boys’ discovery. The constable prodded the loose soil with his stick and unearthed some human hair. He and Stockley started digging out the soil. At a depth of one and a half feet they found the body of Winifred Mitchell. Lying face down with her arms by her side, she was fully dressed, with her skirts tucked neatly around her, and her hat still pinned to her hair.
The body was removed from the grave and taken to an outbuilding where it was examined by Dr. Claude Watts of Cranbourne. Very little decomposition had taken place, and the face was clearly recognisable as Winnie’s, though for good measure the body was identified by her mother on the strength of a button on her coat. There were severe gunshot wounds in the head and neck. The force of the blast had knocked her false teeth out. But for their discovery, the murder might never have come to light; the police now turned their attention to finding her killer.
News of the discovery of the body drastically altered William Burton’s perception of the situation. He was now a scared man, but he was determined to brazen it out until the investigation went stale, which he felt sure it would, provided Fred Boyt and young Mitcham could be intimidated into keeping quiet. He went to see Leonard Mitcham. Looking white with fear and with his knees trembling, he repeated his warning to the boy to say nothing about the shotgun.
So far, Fred Boyt, too, had kept quiet, for fear of reprisal. Burton could breath a sigh of relief. But he was unaware that Winnie Mitchell’s confidante, Winifred Bailey, also had incriminating information in her possession – she knew about Winnie’s affair with him, and she also knew of tangible evidence of the affair in the form of the letters they had exchanged. She recalled her friend’s words to her before Winnie went to meet Burton for the last time, namely that if she wasn’t back by a quarter past four that afternoon, then, as a precaution, it should be assumed that she had come to harm (perhaps Miss Mitchell had become just a little suspicious of Burton’s seemingly-altruistic intentions; it must have seemed all too good to be true). That period of grace had obviously long since elapsed, but, believing that Miss Mitchell had subsequently gone to live and work in London, Winnie Bailey had ignored this safeguard; news of the discovery of her friend’s body, however, prompted her to go straight to the police. No doubt she also remembered Burton’s careless words to her a few days before the body was found: “I will take my dying oath I haven’t done anything to her… If the police find her in the plantation, she has been killed away [i.e. elsewhere] and brought to the plantation for someone else to take the blame” – a tactless remark and a clear sign that fear of arrest was causing him to lose his grip on the situation.
In fact, the police already had their suspicions about Burton. After they found Winnie’s body, they had searched her room; her entire wardrobe was still there – an unlikely situation if, as Burton professed, she had left the village for a new life. Nor had her trinkets been collected from Gussage Manor. Police inquiries also revealed that at 2.30 on the afternoon of March 31st, Winnie had been seen talking to Burton on the common, and hadn’t been seen again until her body was found. Bill Burton was therefore the last person known to have been with her before the discovery of the body.
On the strength of Winifred Bailey’s story, the police searched Burton’s house in his absence and found three letters from Winnie Mitchell. Earlier, they had found fragments of two letters from Burton to her. Each letter made it quite obvious that their relationship was anything but platonic. A distraught Mrs. Burton was informed that her husband would be arrested on a charge of murder.
Unaware of this, and still hoping that the investigation would eventually peter out, Burton was continuing his pretence of normality. The morning after standing white-faced in front of Len Mitcham and warning him to keep quiet about the shot-gun, he was chatting amiably while driving two local women to Wimborne Railway Station.
But the game was up. The police now felt that they had enough evidence to charge him, and that evening he was arrested by Sgt. Stockley and taken to Cranbourne Police Station where he broke down in tears. But he was careful not to incriminate himself. Told by Stockley that he was known to have exchanged intimate letters with the dead girl, Burton denied any physical involvement with her, and said that he had nothing to do with her murder. The next day he was taken to Verwood Railway Station, and thence by train to Wimborne, where, in several statements to Superintendent Ricketts, he continued to protest his innocence. Ricketts, however, was sure he had his man; although they had been called in late, the police, once involved, had acted quickly and effectively to pinpoint Burton as the number one suspect, and after his arrest, they succeeded in building up yet more evidence against him in time for his trial.
The trial of William Burton was held at the Dorset Assizes in Dorchester’s Shirehall on Tuesday, 3rd June, 1913. Murders were relatively few in rural Dorset, and practically the whole county wanted to be in Court. Admission to the public gallery was, for the first time ever, by ticket only. Members of the press could only get in if they had made a prior application and reserved a seat in the public gallery. The spectators included representatives of the upper echelons of Dorset society. There was one notable absentee, however: Lillian Burton refused to attend her husband’s trial.
The case for the prosecution was put by Mr. John Alderson Foote, K.C., an uncompromising legal fighter never afraid to push his case to the limits; his assistant was Mr. S.H. Emmanuel. Burton was defended by another experienced KC, Mr. John Graham Trapnell. The trial was presided over by Mr. Justice Ridley. Burton’s legal fees were paid out of the Poor Prisoner’s Defence Fund, a late-Victorian precursor of legal aid.
Standing in the dock with two warders guarding him, Burton was looking his smartest in a double-breasted blue suit, with his hair carefully brushed. When asked how he intended to plead, in a somewhat faltering voice he answered “Not guilty”.
The most crucial Prosecution witnesses were Leonard Mitcham and Fred Boyt, both of whom were now free to talk. The court heard from Len Mitcham how he had loaned his shotgun to Burton and given him firstly two cartridges to practice with and afterwards an extra one for use on the cat (which incidentally belonged to Fred Boyt’s wife). Mr. Trapnell tried to get the boy to admit to only giving the prisoner the two ‘practice’ cartridges which Burton had used in his presence, but Len was adamant he had afterwards fetched a third. Furthermore, Burton’s alleged reason for needing the shotgun was a lie; contrary to what he told Mitcham when he returned the gun, the cat was still alive and unharmed.
Later, it was Fred Boyt’s turn to take the witness stand. Questioned as to why he hadn’t asked Burton his reason for threatening him, Mr. Boyt gave the honest reply, “I was afraid”, whereupon the entire public gallery burst into peals of laughter. An angry Mr. Foote rounded on them; “Don’t laugh!” he yelled, “There is nothing to laugh at!”
Cowardly and comical or not, Boyt was able to present evidence which could be corroborated. Burton’s attempt to smuggle the bicycle back to Winnie’s house unseen had been unsuccessful; after leaving Mr. Boyt to ponder the consequences of not keeping his counsel, he had been spotted riding the bike by, of all people, Mrs. Boyt. If this had made her suspicious, she was presumably advised by her husband to keep it to herself. Now they could reveal all.
George Good told the Court that Burton’s duties would sometimes take him to the Sovel Plantation two or three times a day if poachers were thought to be about. It was therefore inconceivable, said Mr. Foote, that Burton hadn’t seen the new hole. Anyone in his position who saw such a suspicious thing would assume that it had been dug by poachers and would be sure to tell their employer, but, as Mr. Good testified, Burton hadn’t done so.
As for motive, it was obvious that he had wanted to avoid being encumbered with both the shame and the financial burden of an illegitimate child. The tragedy was that Dr. Watts’s post mortem on Winnie’s body had revealed no evidence of pregnancy. Burton had killed her on the basis of a mistaken belief.
Burton elected to give evidence, and gave it with no apparent sign of nervousness. He replied sharply to questions from Prosecution and Defence Counsel alike. He admitted to borrowing Len Mitcham’s shotgun, but insisted that he had only shot at birds.
He said that he last saw Winnie Mitchell on a bridle path, the day she went missing. They talked for only a few minutes before she rode away on her bicycle. He denied having an affair with her. As regards the bicycle, he said he was surprised to find it in the plantation unattended.
He also introduced a new character into the story – “a fellow from Poole” whom he claimed the dead girl had once had a relationship with.
“Was that the first you had heard of him?” asked Mr. Foote. Burton replied that it was.
“Were you surprised?”
“Yes,” answered Burton.
“Did you try to stop her?”
“Why didn’t you tell this to the police?”
“Because she told me not to tell anyone.”
Asked why he hadn’t mentioned it until now, Burton replied lamely, “I was very nervous about it.”
Mr. Foote retorted by describing Burton’s whole testimony as a tissue of lies. In his closing speech, he told the jury that if they believed the word of Mitcham, Boyt and the Crown’s lesser witnesses against that of Burton, then they must find the prisoner guilty. He had done nothing to explain away their evidence other than to accuse them all of telling lies.
Mr. Trapnell, closing for the defence, argued (unrealistically, and surely more in hope than expectation) that since the prisoner was on affectionate terms with Winnie Mitchell, it was hardly likely that he should want to murder her. It was also, he said (with equal optimism), ridiculous to suppose that Burton could commit such a horrible crime and then go about his business in a normal manner. The Prosecution, he asserted (incorrectly), hadn’t come up with a motive.
Mr. Justice Ridley summed up by pointing to false statements and rumour-mongering by Burton to cover his tracks. Stressing the importance of Leonard Mitcham’s evidence, he asked the jury to make a choice between the boy’s word and that of Burton, who had admitted telling a series of lies. The mysterious man from Poole, who hadn’t been mentioned until the trial, couldn’t be proven to exist. As for Miss Mitchell’s grave, who had a better opportunity to dig it than the prisoner?
At 3.18 p.m., the jury retired. The volume of circumstantial evidence against Burton was so substantial that there could only really have been one outcome, and the jurors were out for only twenty minutes before returning with a verdict of “Guilty”. Asked if he had anything to say as to why sentence of death should not be passed on him, Burton replied that he hadn’t. Mr. Justice Ridley donned the black cap. Immediately, one of the more enterprising members of the press in the public gallery aimed a small pocket camera at His Lordship, but was spotted just as he was about to press the shutter, and the camera was confiscated. The embarrassed reporter was obliged to continue with notebook and pen.
With the side-show over, Mr. Justice Ridley re-addressed himself to the solemn business of sentencing the man in the dock. Burton stood unflinchingly as the judge passed sentence of death:
“William Walter Burton, you have been convicted of the murder of Winifred Mary Mitchell. I will say very little about the circumstances of this case. It was a cruel and deliberate murder. You have no hope of forgiveness from mankind. I earnestly hope that you will use the short space of time you have remaining to you of [sic] endeavouring to atone and obtain the pardon of Almighty God for the atrocious crime you have committed. It only remains for me to pass upon you the sentence of the Court, which is that you be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to a place of execution, and that you be there hanged by the neck until you shall be dead. And that your body should afterwards be buried within the precincts of the prison where you shall last have been confined after your execution. And may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”
William Burton was duly hanged, on June 24th 1913, at Dorchester Prison by Pierrepoint. Before his execution – the first at that prison for thirty years, and one of only two there in the twentieth century – he confessed to the murder of Winifred Mitchell, and for good measure, notified the police of the location of the buried feather boa. He bore up manfully to his fate, somewhat relieved that he did not bear the additional guilt of murdering an unborn baby, and satisfied that he had received God’s forgiveness.
Winnie Mitchell lies buried in the Dorset village of Longmitchell. Her mother’s hair had turned white overnight as a result of Winnie’s murder. Lillian Burton survived her husband by seventeen years.
It is interesting to speculate on what Burton would have done if, instead of staying at home to avoid the rain, Winnie had turned up, as arranged, at the Sovel Plantation on 29th March. He had already decided to kill her by then, but although he had prepared her grave, he did not acquire a shotgun until the 31st. Presumably, he intended on the 29th to use another means to dispatch her – possibly strangulation, or perhaps a blunt instrument such as a heavy stone. The shotgun idea was clearly an afterthought following her failure to keep the original appointment.
It was a pity for Burton that she didn’t turn up on the 29th. His plan was fatally flawed because it relied partly on the continued silence of Leonard Mitcham. Had he killed her on the 29th, the boy would not have become involved, and equally importantly, if he had not opted for Mitcham’s shotgun as the murder weapon, her incriminating false teeth might have remained safely in her mouth!
The teeth were, of course, the main cause of Burton’s downfall, because they provided the first inkling of suspicion that Winifred Mitchell had come to harm. And once the corpse was found, it could only have been a matter of time, in a community of a mere one hundred and sixty souls, before William Burton reached the top of the list of suspects.
Unusually for a murderer, Burton was faced with the problem of the disposal not of the body but of one of his victim’s possessions – her bicycle. As a country-dweller, with access to private wooded land seldom traversed by others, he could confidently expect Miss Mitchell’s grave to remain undisturbed even when it was discovered by the schoolboys, since his job as a rabbit-trapper provided justification for the newly-dug hole; suspicion arose only when news reached the police that Winnie’s dentures had been discovered nearby. The bicycle, however, placed him in a quandary; to bury it would have been a mistake, since its absence would have provoked suspicion of foul play – who would believe that Winnie had left for a new life in London by that means of transport instead of by train? Far better to return the wretched contraption surreptitiously to her cottage – a gamble which, as he discovered to his cost, exposed him to the risk of being observed.
After Leonard Mitcham, and Winnie Mitchell’s false teeth, the bicycle was the third weakness in his plan; the fourth was Fred Boyt. Having involved Leonard Mitcham in the affair by requesting the loan of the shotgun, Burton repeated the mistake by making himself equally dependent on the silence of Boyt when, in a complicated attempt to secure an alibi, he took Boyt to the Sovel Plantation to retrieve the bicycle. A perfect murder this was not.
If you liked that chapter, you can purchase the complete book at Amazon now.
A Mix of Murders is an e-book released for Kindle [in May 2012] that features British murder cases from the twentieth century, from the early years of the century to the 1980s.
Author and librarian Grahame Farrell covers a really interesting mix (as the title suggests) of 15 crimes. The latest crime in the book is a chapter on Kenneth Erskine, known as “The Stockwell Strangler” who murdered elderly people in South London in the 1980s. This is a particularly disturbing chapter as Erskine was simply so brutal and dangerous. His victims so vulnerable.
Another intriguing case is the 1955 murder of Elizabeth Currell in the quaint and respectable commuter village of Potter’s Bar, South Hertfordshire. Mrs Currell was on her regular evening stroll on the local golf course when she was brutally attacked and murdered.
I enjoyed this book because the murder cases are ones that are lesser known and have a touch of “Midsomer Murder” to them. The book is Farrell’s true crime debut and it’s definitely worth a read.
...Fascinating studies of human behaviour. Each story is well written and detailed, and progresses logically through the crime, arrest, trial to the final outcome. It was a book I enjoyed reading.
You can purchase A Mix of Murders from Amazon now through Amazon’s various country-specfic sites.