1873. Friday 5 September to Saturday 13 September. Remains – head, forearm minus hand, hand, thigh, shoulder and upper arm, part of the pelvis, feet and parts of legs – of a dismembered woman were found in the Thames, scattered between Battersea, Chelsea, Lambeth, Greenwich, Blackwall and Woolwich. According to the police doctor, they had been cut with a ‘fine saw’ and knife. There were some old scars, one large one probably from an ulcer on a thigh. Identification was inevitably difficult. The story – and rumours and facts about the subsequent investigations – made front page stories in all the national newspapers for some days. A few days later the government offered a £200 reward for anyone who could give evidence identifying the murderer, with a hint of a free pardon for anyone coming forward who had been an accomplice.
A Battersea landlady, a Mrs Christian, came forward and stated that a widowed lady who had come to stay with her while her affairs were settled went out the previous Tuesday and had not returned. The missing woman gave her name as Mary Cayley. She was tall for a woman of the time – probably about 5ft 8in. She gave her age as 33, but Mrs Christian thought she was probably 40. In newspaper reports, Mrs Christian’s establishment was described as respectable.
Mary had hired her lodgings a few weeks earlier, stating that she was recently bereaved. She paid half a crown in advance – all the money Mrs Christian ever received. Mrs Christian did not take up the offer of references which Mary made. The account she gave of herself was that she was the daughter of well-off parents, William and Mary Beer: William was a landowner from Uplyme in Dorset. When her husband died, he had left her a substantial inheritance but her in-laws were trying to defraud her of it. She claimed that, to try and win them over and gain their sympathy, she made herself out to be poorer than she was, pawning valuable furniture and jewellery and her husband’s gold watch and showing her in-laws the pawn tickets as proof of her financial difficulties.
After she came to London, she told Mrs Christian several times that she was visiting her solicitors to try and secure a first payment of what was due to her. She also often was out late at night, but never appeared inebriated on her return.
There is enough here to make one feel a bit suspicious, and the press seem to have agreed. As this account began to emerge, some article writers were a little sceptical. A syndicated article of 17 September stated that, having left Uplyme several years earlier, Miss Beer had returned with her ‘supposed husband’, a Mr Cayley.
In late August, when she was due to receive some money, Mary hired a cab to bring her home, but it was dark and the driver declined to take her to the door, dropping her by Battersea Park: when she arrived at Mrs Christian’s house, she was covered in mud and badly bruised, including on the face. Mary said she had been attacked as she walked the last stretch home, knocked unconscious, and robbed.
The following Tuesday, 2 September, Mary went out again, shabbily dressed, stating that she would receive more money and redeem the pawned jewellery. Mrs Christian offered to accompany her for her safety, but Mary refused, saying she had a couple of friends who would “see her all right”. As she left, she said, “Well good morning, my dear, you have been very kind to me during my trouble, and i’ll never leave thee. I shall fetch all my things out of pledge, and you ought now to consent to take a nice house and let us live well, for I shall never leave thee as long as I live.” Mary kissed her landlady and added “You will not know me when I come back for I shall then be dressed as I used to be.” But she never returned.
Mrs Christian did not read the newspapers and so did not see the lurid reports of the discovery of the body parts. But after several days she notified the police of Mary’s disappearance. The police took her to Clapham Workhouse where the severed head and other parts of the body were being held, and she identified them as Mary’s, saying, “There is the poor head and the hair that I have so often dressed, the cheeks I have so often kissed. Here is the scar on the breast I have so often seen full of trouble, and I have not the slightest doubt – I am sure it is her.” A brother, Abel, also came forward and said it might be Mary’s body. Despite this, the police made it clear to reporters that they were not to worried about Mary’s disappearance, for which they thought there was another explanation: they probably had their suspicions about Mary’s account of herself.
At the inquest Mrs Christian was less certain about the identification. The police doctors believed that the remains were of quite a short woman, which did not tally with Mary’s height – but she still thought the head was Mary’s. She had never seen most of the scars the police doctor had discovered. The doctor declared at the inquest that, while there was bruising on the temple, there was none on the rest of the face, and this was inconsistent with Mrs Christian’s statement that her lodger had been badly bruised on the face in an attack a few days earlier.
The Coroner, summing up, said that there was enough evidence to suggest that Mrs Christian might be mistaken in her belief that the deceased was the woman who called herself Mary Cayley. The inquest jury returned a verdict of ‘wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.’
The plot thickened. A few days later there were rumours in the press that the police had discovered someone who appeared to be Mary Cayley, some distance from London. On 20 September there were reports that a former Southampton hotel proprietor who had been staying in London searching for his wife (who had been missing for a month) had also identified the remains as those of Mary Cayley. He had apparently said that he knew her well as she was a friend of his wife’s, and on 1 September he saw her at Ludgate Hill railway station: Mary had said she was waiting for her surgeon; they drank ale together; and when a cab drew up, she said in some excitement, “Here is he” and got into the cab. The syndicated newspaper article was written in a way which cast some doubt on the reliability of this story.
And that is all we know. The mystery was never solved. In the absence of further developments, newspaper interest in the sensation died down. Lots of questions remained.
Who was the dismembered woman?
Was the lodger really a Mrs Cayley, née Beer, with a brother named Abel? There is an Abel Beer, son of William, at Uplyme in the 1851 census, but not a Mary. He was baptised in 1837, and the parish register entry gives his birth date as 5 February that year. His mother’s name was Lydia, and his father’s occupation was given in the baptism record as ‘labourer’. In the 1851 census, his father is described as a cheese dealer. By 1851 Abel was himself an agricultural labourer. He is probably the Abel Beer, born in 1837, who was in Dorchester prison in 1866. There appears to be no record of a Mary Beer at Uplyme in this period. If she was part of this family, her origins were much more modest – and less respectable – than she made out to Mrs Christian, and her first name may not have been Mary.
Why did Mrs Christian take Mary’s story so easily at face value, and not take up references for her? Were the lodgings less respectable than the newspapers made out? Why did Mrs Christian not go to the police earlier, given that there had apparently been an attack on Mary, that Mary said her in-laws were out to defraud her, and that Mary must have owed rent? Was Mrs Chrisian used to female tenants whose way of earning a living meant that they might spend nights elsewhere without letting her know?
Why did Mary frequently stay out late at night, returning on her own? For someone who claimed to be from a well-off family, that was not normal behaviour in mid-Victorian London – and it makes me wonder if she was really a prostitute: if she was and had a rough customer, or trespassed on a rival’s territory, that could account for the bruising and the mud on the occasion of the alleged attack on her. If the former hotelier’s story was true, would a woman of Mary’s alleged background have drunk ale with him at a railway station, and was it really her surgeon who was meeting her?
Was Mary’s whole account of herself a yarn spun to defraud her landlady by getting her sympathy?
There is certainly enough material here for a historical crime novel!