Linda Stratmann

Linda's True Crime Quiz

This is an unusual sort of quiz, because the "right" answers are a matter for debate. I am going to give the facts of a number of true crimes, and you are invited to guess what you believe the verdict was in each case, and, if you consider that the verdict was "guilty", what the sentence was. You could also consider what you think the verdict and sentence should have been if you think they ought to have been different from what actually happened.

All the cases cited below, except one, took place in the 20th century. I reserve the right to sneakily omit one or two salient facts that would be a dead give-away. In a sense, it is opinions that matter here, rather than "right" or "wrong" answers. Anyone who cries "unfair!" will be made to stand in a corner and write out "I will not cheek teacher" 100 times.

The answers are at the bottom of the page.

The Questions

Case 1

M was an eighteen year old University student, a precocious youth, appearing older than his years, who neglected his studies in favour of the local dance hall and its hostesses. He financed this life-style by forging his mother’s signature on cheques. One morning, his mother, seated at her writing desk, fell to the floor with a gunshot wound in her head. She was not, however, dead, and was taken to the hospital unconscious, where she remained under careful watch. M gloomily told the police that his mother had shot herself over money worries.

The wounded woman regained consciousness long enough to give her version of events to a doctor. She stated that she had been seated at her desk writing, while her son stood behind her. She had just told him to go away and not annoy her, when there had been a loud explosion, and she remembered nothing more after that. She lapsed into unconsciousness again, and a few days later she died. Meanwhile, the cheque forgeries had been discovered, and M was arrested and charged with the murder of his mother, and uttering twenty-nine forged cheques.

Case 2

Mrs C was the second wife of a prominent politician. For some time he had been the subject of vilification and derision in a major newspaper. When the editor published a letter written by C to his first wife, the couple were desperate. The first Mrs C had in her possession other letters, both amorously and politically indiscreet, written by C to the second Mrs C when she was his mistress. It was essential that publication of these letters should be stopped.

Frantic, Mrs C (Mk 2) took legal advice, and was told that there was no way that she could prevent the newspaper from publishing the damaging letters. She made a decision. She left a note for her husband - "I will see that justice is done….I will carry out the task.." She bought a gun, test-firing weapons at the shop’s firing range before making her choice. She went to the office of the offending newspaper, confronted the editor, and shot him four times, killing him. She was charged with murder

Case 3

B, an apparently mild-mannered little man, raped and murdered large numbers of women and girls. He was arrested when a policeman noticed blood on his clothes, and he at once began to boast about his exploits, and led the authorities to the sites of some fifty graves. Appearing on television, he proudly asserted that he had had no accomplices, but had committed all the murders himself. He stated that he had committed the crimes because of traumatic experiences he had suffered in his childhood. He was, however, considered to be sane.

Case 4.

S, aged 54, had retired from his lucrative medical practice and was living in a boarding house with his wife. They had been happily married for 31 years, but she was 20 years older than he, and fond as he was of her, it had to be said, the marriage was not as exciting for him as it had once been. Then, he met the much younger and attractive Miss B, a woman of advanced ideas, who encouraged him to enter into a bigamous marriage. They settled down in some furnished rooms. Mrs S was not entirely forgotten, as her erring husband sent her letters and money. Some weeks later, Miss B fell very ill. She made a will in which she left everything to S. Soon afterwards, she died.
S was arrested and charged with poisoning Miss B. No trace of poison was found in her body, but at the committal, the prosecution expert gave evidence that a bottle of mouthwash in S’s possession contained arsenic. At the trial, however, the same expert stated that his original evidence had been in error - the positive reaction for arsenic had been produced by contaminated apparatus. It was also revealed that Miss B had been about 6 weeks pregnant, and several doctors gave evidence that this could have produced many of her symptoms.

Case 5.

The main events took place in a small Welsh village in the early part of the 20th century. The wife of the local solicitor had for some time been complaining of illness. Although outwardly a happy couple, it was known that the husband was a "ladies man". When the wife died, the cause was stated to be heart disease, and she was buried without further enquiry, but shortly afterwards the widower’s behaviour gave cause for suspicion. It was rumoured that he had bought weedkiller, and that he had poisoned his wife. Eventually, the wife’s body was exhumed, and arsenic was found. The coroner’s court found that death was due to arsenical poisoning, and that the arsenic was administered by her husband. He was charged with murder.

Case 6.

Wartime Britain, and C, an attractive auburn-haired 18 year old, was no doubt lonely, as her husband was with the British Forces overseas. Late one evening she was seen leaving a public house on the arm of an off-duty soldier. Four days later, her body was found in the ruins of a shop. She had been the victim of a violent sexual assault, after which she had been strangled. The body provided two important clues as to her murderer - some dark hairs on her thighs, and clothing fibres under her fingernails. On the same day her body was found, L, an Artillery gunner, went missing. Ten days later he was spotted and picked up by the police. Samples of his body hairs matched those on the victim, and the fibres found under her fingernails matched those of his shirt. Moreover, one of the unfortunate girl’s hairs was found on his clothing. He was charged with murder, but declined to make a statement.

Go no further if you don't want to see the answers!


The Answers

Case 1.

The fact that I have sneakily omitted (it would have made it much too easy) is that the case took place in Scotland. It was 1926, and the eminent pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, was appearing for the defence. He took the view that the absence of powder blackening around the wound, usually seen in suicide cases because of the near discharge, was not inconsistent with suicide. The prosecution, who had conducted tests with the gun actually used, took the opposite view. Unsure whom to believe, the jury brought in a verdict of Not Proven on the murder and Guilty on the cheque frauds. John Donald Merrett was free in eight months. Changing his name to Ronald Chesney, he took to a life of crime - blackmail, thieving, smuggling and fraud. He married young, and deserted his wife, who returned to live with her mother.

In 1954, mindful of the useful inheritance he would obtain on his wife’s death, he visited the unfortunate woman, and after plying her with drink, drowned her in the bath. He was seen escaping from the scene by his mother-in-law whom he brutally bludgeoned to death. He fled abroad, Interpol was alerted, and , realising that the game was up, he went to a wood near Cologne, and shot himself. Did he kill his mother? If it had not been for the considerable reputation of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, he might very well have been found guilty, and in my opinion, that was probably the right result.

Case 2.

Looks pretty open-and-shut, doesn’t it? Sneakily omitted fact number two - the crime took place in France in 1914. Henriette Cailleaux pleaded provocation and said that the gun had gone off accidentally. Evidence was produced which implicated the deceased editor in anti-French propaganda, and Mme. Cailleaux was acquitted in a storm of patriotic fervour. My opinion? On the evidence of the note to her husband, Mme. Cailleaux committed premeditated murder, albeit under considerable provocation. After all, if she had not intended to fire the gun, why had she test-fired it? In a British court she might well have bargained her way to a charge of manslaughter, and I wouldn’t have too much argument with that, but of course, there was that other case where …… but I digress.

Case 3.

Daniel Camargo Barbosa had, a year before his arrest, been in prison in Colombia, serving a life sentence for rape and murder, but he had managed to escape to Ecuador, where he carried out a series of rapes and murders of women and girls. He was found guilty of his crimes and sentenced to sixteen years in prison. This was the maximum sentence under the laws of Ecuador.

Case 4.

In this 19th century Old Bailey trial, the 8 ¾ hour summing up of the judge, heavily prejudiced against the prisoner, caused the jury to deliver a verdict of "guilty" against Dr Thomas Smethurst. He was sentenced to be hanged a fortnight later. At that time there was no such thing as the Court of Criminal Appeal, but petitions to the Home Secretary, one of them from Mrs. Smethurst, led him to delay the execution long enough for him to consult legal and medical experts. Thomas Smethurst was granted a free pardon for murder, but he was then tried for bigamy and sent to prison for a year. On his release, he returned to live with his wife. He took legal action to recover the money his mistress, Miss Bankes, had left him in her will, and was successful

Case 5.

No, not the Armstrong case, but another solicitor, Harold Greenwood, tried for the murder of his wife in 1920. The main cause of suspicion was the fact that he had remarried only four months after his wife’s death. The defence tried to show that she had died from an overdose of morphia, putting the blame on the local doctor for prescribing too strong a dose. He, in turn, denied having prescribed morphia at all. In the end, although there were many opinions, no-one was ever able to determine the exact cause of death. Ultimately, there was so much contradictory evidence that the jury, who made a statement to the press afterwards, felt that while they were satisfied that arsenic had been administered to Mrs Greenwood, they did not know how, or by whom. Greenwood was acquitted, but he was professionally and socially ruined. He died eight years later, aged 54.

The Armstrong case, which this so closely resembles, came to trial only 17 months after Greenwood. It is very possible that Armstrong was inspired to murder by reading about Greenwood’s acquittal.

Case 6.

Another open-and -shut case. Everyone thought so, including the jury who found Dennis Leckey guilty of the murder of Caroline Trayler, and the Judge, Mr. Justice Singleton who sentenced him to hang. Unfortunately the Judge had made an error in his summing up, referring three times to Leckey’s failure to make a statement, as an indication of his guilt. The law stated that it was the prisoner’s right to remain silent until he had legal advice and he need not give evidence at his trial if he so wished. The Court of Appeal overturned the conviction, and Leckey walked free.

Linda Stratmann