Monday, May 14, 2012

Liberal agent acquitted in famous murder trial

The Wallace case is the nonpareil of all murder mysteries ... I call it the impossible murder because Wallace couldn’t have done it, and neither could anyone else. ... The Wallace case is unbeatable; it will always be unbeatable - Raymond Chandler 
The setting is wintrily provincial, the milieu lower middle-class, the style threadbare domestic. J.B. Priestley's fog-filled Liverpool remembrance of "trams going whining down long sad roads" is the quintessence of it. Events turn tantalisingly on finical questions of time and distance; knuckle-headed police jostle with whistling street urchins for star billing, while at the centre of the drama stands the scrawny, inscrutable figure of the accused man, William Herbert Wallace, the Man from The Pru - Roger Wilkes
The facts of the case are given by Wikipedia:
Wallace attended a meeting of the Liverpool Chess Club on the evening of Monday 19 January 1931, to play a scheduled chess game. While there he was handed a message, which had been received by telephone about 25 minutes before he arrived. It requested that he call at an address at 25 Menlove Gardens East, Liverpool, at 7.30pm the following evening to discuss insurance with a man who had given his name as 'R.M. Qualtrough'. 
The next night Wallace duly made his way by tramcar to the address in the south of the city at the time requested, only to discover that while there were Menlove Gardens North, South and West, there was no East. Wallace made inquiries in a nearby newsagents and also spoke to a policeman on his beat, but neither were able to help him in his search for the address or the mysterious Qualtrough. He also called at 25 Menlove Gardens West, and asked several other passers-by in the neighbourhood for directions, but to no avail. After searching the district for about 45 minutes he returned home. His next door neighbours, the Johnstons, who were going out for the evening, encountered Wallace in the alley, complaining that he could not gain entry to his home at either the front or the back. While they watched, Wallace tried the back door again, which now opened. Inside he found his wife Julia had been brutally beaten to death in their sitting room.
The police had their doubts about Wallace, and convinced themselves that Wallace would have had time to commit the murder and still catch his tram to Menlove Gardens. He was charged murder, convicted and sentenced to hang.

But the guilty verdict was quashed by the Court of Appeal on the grounds that it was ""not supported by the weight of the evidence". In other words, the jury had got it wrong.

Wallace, by most accounts, was not much of a chess player, but this background was one of the factors that gave his case such prominence. Some must have suspected that he was some sort of criminal genius who had used his ability to plan to get away with murder.

It is because of this chess background that the best survey of resources about the Wallace case I have come across is to be found on Edward Winter's Chess Notes site.

I first came across the Wallace case through a Yorkshire TV 1975 drama-documentary. But my reason for writing about it tonight is the discovery that, before he joined the Pru, William Herbert Wallace had been the Liberal agent for Harrogate. He was appointed in 1911 but lost the job when party hostilities were suspended because of World War I.


Anonymous said...

"The police had their doubts about Wallace, and convinced themselves that Wallace would have had time to commit the murder and still catch his tram to the chess club."

I'm afraid you have that a bit wrong. As your extract from Wikipedia shows, Wallace's visit to the chess club was the night before the murder.

In any case, as Jim Murphy's book shows, there was no impossibility in the timings on either night, and Wallace's actions were extremely suspicious. Whether or not there was evidence to prove him guilty beyond reasonable doubt, it's difficult to believe anyone else could have comitted the crime.

Jonathan Calder said...

Post amended, thanks. The 1975 programme, as I recall, certainly thought he had done it, though I get the impression that more recent treatments of the case have been prepared to consider at other suspects.

Unknown said...

Thank you Jonathon. Do you have a copy of the 1975 programme?