Murder in a Swamp
W. STEWART WALLACE
The strange story of Reginald Birchall, the pseudo peer who killed to get money to bet on the Derby
FEW murder trials have attracted more widespread attention than that of Reginald Birchall for the murder of F. C. Benwell. The little courthouse in Woodstock, Ont., in which the trial took place in the autumn of 1890, was taxed to its capacity to provide room for the fifty or more reporters assigned to write up the case; and full accounts of the trial were published not only in the newspapers of Canada and the United States, but also in those of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. Even The Times of London, then at the zenith of its reputation, devoted many columns to a verbatim report of the trial. To this day many people in Canada remember the details of the Birchall case, though they have forgotten all about more recent murders.
It is by no means obvious why this should be so. There was nothing very mysterious or romantic about the crime. The detective in charge of the case, thanks to the way in which chance played into his hands, required no great ingenuity in solving the riddle of the murder; and there were few people who had much doubt, once the evidence in the hands of the Crown prosecutor was made public, as to the identity of the murderer.
It is often difficult to determine what makes a criminal trial notorious. It may be any one of a dozen purely adventitious circumstances. In the present instance, there were, I think, three factors which conspired to make the Birchall case famous. The first was the fact that it had to do with immigration from Great Britain to Canada, a subject which was at that time, and for long afterward, very much in the public eye. The second was the fact that the dramatis personae were not members of the criminal class, but were technically gentlemen, educated at Oxford or Cambridge, and in one instance closely related to the English titled aristocracy. The third was the personality of Birchall himself, a young man of exceptional qualities.
Reginald Birchall was the youngest son of the Rev.
Joseph Birchall, rector of Church Kirk, Lancashire, rural dean of Whalley, and proctor in convocation for the archdeaconry of Manchester. His father was apparently a first-rate scholar. He had been a Hulmeian scholar of Brasenose College, Oxford, and was regarded as an authority on ecclesiastical law. Up to the age of twelve years, the son was educated at home by his father, who gave him a good grounding in Latin and Greek. He was then sent to Rossall, a well-known English public school, where he acquitted himself well. He won a prize in science and was captain of one of the football teams.
In his second year at Rossall, however, his father died, and his guardian removed him to a school at Reading. This school, it appears, had a low standard both of scholarship and discipline; and here it was that young Birchall began, according to his own confession, the descent to Avernus. He became popular with a group of boys who were wont to break bounds and frequent the local public houses, and even held carousals in the school itself. Though he became a monitor and secretary of games, Birchall confessed later that he constantly abused the trust placed in him, and indeed contributed not a little to ruin the school. The results were seen when, in the year 1884, Birchall went up to Oxford to try his “responsions”—the very simple examination whereby one qualifies for entrance into the university. To his surprise he failed in this test.
The following year, however, he succeeded in passing his “responsions” and entered Lincoln College, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner. In the autobiography which he wrote later while in Woodstock jail; he devoted many
pages to an account, sometimes amusing and vivacious, of his life at Oxford; and from this it appears that he, like many other “pass men,” had enjoyed there a wild and hilarious time. He became, for example, the founder and first president of the Black and Tan Club—an association of choice spirits who amused themselves by making riotous raids on every town and village within a radius of forty miles from Oxford. He succeeded in passing his first public examination, but he paid little attention to his books and went down from Oxford without obtaining his degree.
The Fictitious Lord
ON LEAVING Oxford he became for a time the manager of a travelling theatrical company, and he tried his hand also at horseracing and bookmaking, apparently without much success. Then, in the autumn of 1888, he eloped with the daughter of David Stevenson, the general traffic superintendent of the London and North Western Railway Company. Birchall seems to have been genuinely attached to his wife, but it is probable that he was not entirely oblivious to the fact that David Stevenson, who was comfortably well off, was seventy-eight years old and would in the natural course of events leave his money to his daughter.
By this time Birchall’s finances were getting deeply involved. He had lived very extravagantly at Oxford, keeping several horses, spending money lavishly, and incurring heavy debts. His father had left him a legacy of over £4,000, payable in 1891; but he had been compelled to sell his interest in his father’s estate for £3,000 to satisfy his more urgent creditors, and shortly after his marriage he resorted to the expedient of cashing cheques for which there were no funds.
Under these circumstances, it was deemed advisable for the young couple to start life anew in the New World; and in the autumn of 1888, shortly after their marriage, they set sail for Canada with the idea of taking up farming near Woodstock, Ont. On their arrival at Woodstock, however, it did not take Birchall long to make up his mind about his unsuitability for a life of farming in Ontario. He stayed one night in what he described as “the human pigsty” in which he was to serve his apprenticeship; and for the rest of the winter he and his wife stayed at a genteel boarding house in Woodstock.
While there Birchall used the name of Frederick A. Somerset, and indeed he let it be understood that he and his wife were really Lord and Lady Somerset. Why he assumed this noni de guerre one can only surmise.
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No doubt his assumption of a false name was not unconnected with the fact that his creditors in England were looking for him. Perhaps he thought also that if he tacked a title to his name it might be easier to get credit from the Woodstock tradesmen.
In the spring of 1889, the pseudonymous Lord and Lady Somerset departed from Woodstock and returned to England, where they reappeared as Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Birchall. Here they proceeded to camp upon Mrs. Birchall’s father; and for a time Birchall got employment as advertising agent to a fashionable firm of photographers in New Bond Street. But this employment came to an end because of the depression of trade, and Birchall was once more at a loose end.
It was while he was in this predicament that, to use his own words, he “planned out a great scheme which I thought would land me safely upon the shore of comparative affluence and comfort.” He got a tip on the English Derby to be run in 1890—a tip which, as the race turned out, would have enabled him to make a big coup. But he had no money, and in order to get it he conceived the idea of luring one or two young men of means into a partnership scheme for farming in Canada. He intended to get these dupes to put up £500 each and then take them to Canada, where “nothing could be said to us, as we could not be held in Canada for fraud committed in England.”
In December, 1889, therefore, he caused to be inserted in the Daily Telegraph the following plausible advertisement:
“CANADA. University man, having farm, wishes to meet gentleman’s son to live with him and learn the business with a view to partnership; must invest £500 to extend stock. Board, lodging, and five per cent interest until partnership arranged. Address J. R. Burchett, Primrose Club, 4 Park Place, St. James’, London.”
To those who answered this advertisement he replied, signing himself “J. R. Burchell” and leaving the impression that “Burchett” was a misprint. It will be observed that neither in “J. R. Burchett” nor in the “J. R. Burchell” was anyone likely to recognize the Reginald Birchall for whom a number of people were looking.
Eventually Birchall came to an agreement with two young men who answered his advertisement, Fred C. Benwell and Douglas Pelly. Benwell was the son of a Colonel Benwell, of Cheltenham; and Pelly, a graduate of Cambridge, was the son of the Rev. R. P. Pelly, of Walden Place, Saffron Walden, Essex, and a cousin of the beautiful Lady Pelly, who had been lady-in-waiting at Rideau Hall in Ottawa when Lord Lansdowne was Governor-General of Canada. Pelly actually paid down £170 as a first installment of the £500 payable under the agreement; but Benwell, more cautious, advanced only his passage money, leaving the payment of the first installment of his £500 until he should have seen Birchall’s farm.
On February 5, 1890, Birchall and his wife, with Benwell and Pelly, sailed from Liverpool for Canada via New York on the White Star liner Britannic. At first Birchall played his cards well. He succeeded in poisoning the minds of Benwell and Pelly against each other, with the result that they remained apart on board ship and reached Buffalo apparently without learning that Birchall had entered into the same sort of agreement with each of them. Each appears to have had his moments of uneasiness, as when, for example, a Canadian from Woodstock ran into the party in New York and greeted Birchall and his wife as “Lord and Lady Somerset;” but Birchall’s
plausible tongue succeeded in allaying i their apprehensions.
At Buffalo Benwell and Pelly were naturally anxious to see the much-talkedof farm, which Birchall said was only about two hours distant by train after crossing the Canadian border. Mrs. Birchall preferred to remain at the hotel j in Buffalo until certain that the farm-1 house was ready for her reception; and Pelly agreed to stay with her while Birchall and Benwell went ahead to spy out the land. The next morning, therefore—the morning of February 17— Birchall and Benwell left the hotel at the early hour of six o’clock and caught the Grand Trunk train for Western Ontario.
Murder in a Swamp
THAT evening Birchall returned to the hotel alone. He appeared to be in good humor, and was pleasant and laughing. Pelly asked him where he had left Benwell, and he replied that he had left him at the farm. When Pelly began to interrogate him further, however, Birchall said he was tired and went to bed.
The next morning Birchall and his wife and Pelly moved on to Niagara Falls, and took rooms on the Canadian side while their baggage was being cleared through the customs. On their arrival, Birchall invited Pelly to go for a walk with him to view the Falls; and, coming to a stairway which led down to the water’s edge, persuaded him to descend it.
“It is,” he said, “the best way to see the Falls.”
Pelly, as he went down the stairs, noticed that they were rotten and unsafe, and would have turned back.
“Birchall,” he said, “this is a horrid place.”
“Go on,” said Birchall, who was following him. “It will repay you.”
Finally, they reached the foot of the stairs, which was close by the Falls; and here, to their surprise, they found a man standing and gazing at the boiling, swirling waters. This man turned and looked at Pelly; and Pelly, not liking the situation in which he found himself, turned and sprang past Birchall up the stairs. Birchall, who seemed nonplussed by encountering the stranger, followed Pelly up the stairway, and for the rest of the day, according to Pelly’s evidence later, seemed moody and silent.
Next day Birchall went with Pelly for another walk, this time toward the suspension bridge, and took him under the. bridge, saying that it was possible from that point to get a better view of the rapids.
“He tried,” said Pelly afterward, “to persuade me to stand close to him at the edge, but his manner seemed so coldly quiet, so repellent, that instinctively I drew back and made my excuses for not going near the edge, and went away.” Next morning Pelly read an account in the papers of a murder committed in a swamp near Woodstock, and Birchall suggested that he should go to Woodstock and see if the body was that of Benwell. This alarmed Pelly and he promptly provided himself with a revolver, which he put in his pocket. In the afternoon Birchall persuaded Pelly to cross with him to the American side, in order to see about some matter of their baggage; and they returned by the lower suspension bridge. When near the centre of the bridge, Birchall walked over by the edge and looked down at the roaring rapids.
“Come, see the view,” he said. “It is superb.”
Pelly drew back, however, and kept out of his reach.
A moment later Birchall said:
“Come, walk with me. Your greatcoat will help keep off the rain.”
Pelly shook his head, declining the invitation; and then Birchall took a step toward him. But at that moment two men appeared on the farther end of the bridge; and Birchall turned, and without a word walked on toward the Canadian shore.
After this the plot began to thicken. Birchall said that he had received a message from Benwell asking to have his baggage forwarded to the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York. The next day there appeared in the newspapers a picture taken of the man murdered near Woodstock. Pelly saw it and took it to Birchall.
“That looks like Benwell,” he said.
“Impossible," replied Birchall, pointing out that the message he had received was that Benwell was on his way to New York. Finally it was agreed that Birchall and his wife should go to Woodstock to see if they could identify the body, while Pelly went to New York to see if Benwell went really to the Fifth Avenue Hotel.
Birchall and his wife went to Paris, Ontario a town a few miles from the swamp where the body of the murdered man had been found; and there they met Detective John Wilson Murray, of the Department of Criminal Investigation in Ontario.
A Sleuth on the Trail
■p\ETECTIVE MURRAY —whose
account of this and other cases is to be found in a volume entitled Memoirs of a Great Detective— had been called from Toronto to take charge of the case as soon as the body of the murdered man had been discovered, by the merest chance, by two brothers, Joseph and George Eldridge, farmers of the neighborhood who had gone to the swamp to cut saplings. He had examined the body, but had been unable to find any clue to its identification. All labels on the clothing had been carefully cut out, and even possible telltale buttons had been removed. The clothing was obviously English, and the body was that of a young English gentleman who had been shot in the back of the head. But no clue to his identity could be found until Detective Murray, going over the ground for a third time, found a cigar holder with an amber mouthpiece marked “F.W.B.” which had apparently fallen from the murdered man’s clothing as he pitched forward. This discovery, however, did not advance very far the solution to the problem of the identity of the murdered man; and so Detective Murray had the corpse photographed, and made arrangements that the photograph should be reproduced in the newspapers of Canada and Great Britain.
Such was the state of affairs when Reginald Birchall and his wife met Detective Murray in the upsta..s parlor of the hotel in Paris. Murray introduced himself and said:
“You are the gentleman who has been looking at the body of the young man found in the swamp?”
"Yes,” said Birchall quietly, "my wife and I were at the grave and saw the body.”
“You knew the young man?” asked Murray.
es,” replied Birchall, "very slightly.”
“I am glad to hear it,” said the detective. “At last we may learn who he is. Where did you meet him?”
“London, Ontario, or London, England?”
“He came from London, England. A mere casual acquaintance. I met him aboard ship.”
I think it was Bentwell or Benswell or Benwell. I knew him very slightly.”
“Tha Britannic of the White Star line.” “When did you last see the young man alive?”
“He was on his way to London, Ontario, and, as we were travelling to the Falls, our way was the same. I last saw him at the Falls. He had a great deal of luggage there. He left some of it, in fact.”
“I’m very glad to know this,” said the detective gratefully. “You will be able to point out his luggage?”
“Yes,” was the reply. “I’ll be very glad to aid you. We are returning to the halls today. We came here because we saw the picture in the paper.”
“Will you take charge of the luggage for me?”
\ our name, so that I may find you at the Falls?”
"Reginald Birchall, of London, England.”
During this conversation Birchall had been most affable and confidential; but his wife, w’ho had been looking out of the window when Detective Murray arrived, had begun to pace up and down the room as though the conversation had upset her nerves.
“How was the young man dressed when you last saw him?” queried Murray.
Birchall put his hand on the sleeve of the detective, who was wearing a navyblue overcoat. “Like that,” he said.
“A whole suit of that color?”
‘Would he take a glass of liquor, do you know?”
“Oh, yes, he used to get very jolly.” “London, Ontario,” the detective remarked, “is a bad place. They’d kill a man for a five-dollar note there. And this poor young man went to London, eh?”
Immediately the face of Mrs. Birchall cleared with an expression of relief.
“Were you ever in America before?” asked Murray, as if making small conversation.
“Yes,” replied Birchall. “New York and Niagara Falls, but never in Canada.” After some more conversation, Murray asked Birchall to repeat his story so that he might note it accurately; and immediately Mrs. Birchall began pacing the floor again. When he had finished, Murray asked him:
“Did you hear from him after you left him at the Falls?”
“Just a line,” said Birchall.
“Have you got it?”
“Have I got Fred’s note, dear?” Birchall asked his wife.
“No,” said Mrs. Birchall in a tired voice, “but I remember seeing it.”
It was just a note to get his luggage through,” said Birchall.
“His first name was Fred?”
“I think so,” came the reply as the two men eyed each other. “It was so signed in the note.”
When Detective Murray left Birchall he was convinced that Birchall had not in all respects told the truth. He did not perhaps at this stage suspect him of the murder of Benwell, for it seemed unlikely that the murderer would come forward voluntarily to identify the body; but he felt there was something unexplained in Birchall’s story, and he lost no time in telegraphing to the police at Niagara Falls, describing Birchall and his wife and asking the police to shadow them.
“Do not arrest him,” he telegraphed, “unless he tries to cross the river to the States, I will be there Sunday night.” When Detective Murray reached Niagara Falls he found that Birchall and his wife were still staying there with Felly, who had returned from New York without finding any trace of Benwell at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. He interviewed Pelly and from him obtained the story of Birchall’s recent proceedings, so far as Pelly knew them. What he heard, however, was sufficient for him. He promptly obtained a warrant for Birchall’s arrest, and Birchall was arrested the following
morning, while still in bed, by the police of Niagara Falls.
'K/TURRAY went through Birchall’s baggage and papers, and found there plenty of corroborative evidence. Then he set out to trace the movements of Birchall and Benwell on the fateful February 17. He met the conductor of the Grand Trunk train that ran between Niagara Falls and Windsor, and the conductor stated he had had two passengers, young Englishmen resembling the descriptions of Birchall and Benwell, who had travelled with him on February 17 from Niagara Falls to Eastwood, a station four miles from the swamp where Benwell was found. Murray also found several passengers who remembered the two young Englishmen. He found three or four witnesses who had seen them leave the train at Eastwood Station, and one who had seen them approaching the swamp. He discovered a farmer who had heard two revolver shots in rapid succession in the swamp about one o’clock on February 17; and several witnesses who had seen Birchall when he returned to Eastwood Station alone about three o’clock in the afternoon. One of these, indeed, had known him as “Lord Somerset” and had had some conversation with him.
Thus Murray succeeded in establishing a perfect chain of evidence, showing Birchall’s whereabouts from the time he left Buffalo at six o’clock in the morning until he returned to Buffalo at 8.30 that night. He had had nearly four hours and a half in which to walk from Eastwood tb the swamp, commit the murder, and then walk back to Eastwood. The distance from Eastwood to the swamp was about four miles; and even if it took him three hours to walk the eight miles there and back, he still had nearly an hour and a half for the murder.
A stronger case of circumstantial evidence would be difficult to conceive, but before Birchall was brought to trial in September, 1890, a still more damning bit of evidence turned up. Colonel Benwell, the father of the murdered man, sent back from England a letter he had received from Birchall after the murder.
“I have been talking to your son today,” wrote Birchall, “about arrangements, and he is so well satisfied with the prospects here that he is ready to go immediately into partnership, and is writing you today on the subject.”
The letter was not dated, but the envelope bore the postmark of February 20. This was three days after young Benwell had been done to death in Blenheim swamp. Apparently it was Birchall’s attempt to extract from the elder Benwell the first installment of the £500 payable when partnership was agreed upon. While the body of Benwell was lying unidentified on a slab in an undertaker’s office, Birchall was writing Benwell’s father to tell him that Benwell was satisfied with his prospects.
The trial of Reginald Birchall for the murder of F. C. Benwell took place in Woodstock at the end of September, 1890. Mr. Justice McMahon, a scrupulously fair judge, presided, and the prisoner was defended by an outstanding criminal lawyer, George T. Blackstock. The prosecution, however, was in the hands of the ablest criminal lawyer in Canada at that time, B. B. Osler, a brother of Sir William Osier, later professor of medicine at Oxford. The gist of the defense was that Birchall, in the four and a half hours at his disposal, had not time to walk to the swamp from Eastwood Station,
commit the murder, and walk back again; but the prosecution had no difficulty in showing that this defense was untenable. The evidence of the witnesses for the prosecution proved unassailable; and the jury, after being out for only an hour and a half, returned a verdict of guilty. No other verdict was possible.
Birchall was sentenced to be hanged on November 14, 1890. His wife was arrested also, but public sympathy was aroused on her behalf as she was obviously under the influence of her husband, and she was released without being compelled to undergo trial except in the police court. She remained true to her husband, who denied to the last that he was guilty of the murder.
While he was in prison awaiting execution, Birchall wrote an account of his life for a Canadian newspaper, in the hope that the proceeds of the sale might help to provide for his wife’s necessities. In this autobiography, while he omitted several salient facts of his career, he showed a scrupulous regard for the code of a gentleman, which contrasted strongly with the admittedly criminal character of his later life. To the last he retained his sang-froid and iron nerve; and when he went to his death on the cold grey morning of November 14, though ghastly white, he was still completely master of himself. To an old Oxford friend who had been allowed to accompany him to his execution, he said, “Take hold of my arm, old man, and walk with me as we used to do in the old days together;” and when they came to the scaffold he said to the hangman, “Do you mind shaking hands with me?” As the hangman drew the cord a slight smile broke on the doomed man’s face, and those who made the post-mortem examination found it still lingering there.
“I have attended nineteen executions,” said the hangman afterward, “and I never before beheld such an exhibition of nerve. The very nerve he displayed made it plain to me how he could have committed the crime of which he was convicted.”
Reginald Birchall wanted money with which to bet on the Derby of 1890. He planned to get this money from Benwell and Pelly, by fraud if possible, by murder if necessary. His plans were well and carefully made. Detective Murray in his Memoirs thinks that Birchall made a mistake in bringing two victims to Canada with him instead of one, but this was probably an essential feature of his bold plan. If the two young men disappeared, it would be easy to advance the theory that one had done away with the other and then fled. This was perhaps why, on the voyage to New York, Birchall had tried so successfully to set Benwell and Pelly against each other. Evidence of hostility between them was just what he wanted.
But the stars in their courses were fightingagainst him. Who would have expected that, two days after he had shot Benwell in the heart of a dismal swamp, two woodcutters would have stumbled on his body? And who would have thought that, after the greatest care had been taken to remove from the body all means of identification, a detective would discover an initialled cigar holder which had fallen from the murdered man’s pocket? Who, moreover, would have expected that, after Pelly had been led to the foot of the stairway at Niagara Falls, there would be found there a third person, gazing into the turbulent waters? If Benwell’s body had not been discovered in such a miraculous manner, and if Pelly had not so miraculously escaped a watery grave in the Niagara River, no jury would have found Reginald Birchall guilty of murder. The chances were that Birchall’s plans would have been crowned with success; and it was the irony of fate that the horse on which, after defrauding and murdering two men, he intended to place his money, actually won the Derby cf 1890. The End