6 notorious unsolved crimes from history

Who was Jack the Ripper? What happened to the princes in the Tower? And who organised the Great Train Robbery? Here, Stephen Halliday reveals some of history’s most puzzling unsolved crimes…

The ‘Princes in the Tower’: Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, disappeared in mysterious circumstances following the death of their father, King Edward IV. (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
1

Who was the Newgate Monster?

In May 1788, a doctor’s wife, Maria Smyth, complained that she had been indecently assaulted by a man in Fleet Street. The attacker, she claimed, had stuck a sharp knife into her bottom and fled.

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In the days and weeks that followed, many other women reported similar assaults. The culprit, soon named ‘The Monster’, became the subject of a play of the same name which attracted audiences drawn to the spectacle of seeing the hind parts of young actresses assailed by sharp instruments.

One victim identified a florist named Rhynwick Williams as her assailant, although there was no other evidence against him (despite extensive further enquiries and a detailed search of his lodgings). A trial ensued, during which Williams’s employer testified to his good character. A Bow Street Runner also stated that he had seen Williams in Weymouth, some 130 miles from London, on a day on which one of the assaults took place.

An 1870s illustration of a typical London artisan terraced houses with washhouses, privies and yards leading on to an alley, all dominated by railway viaducts. (Photo by Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Despite this rather impeccable alibi, Williams was found guilty of the assaults – he was convicted of “damaging garments” – and sent to Newgate prison for six years. He was treated as a celebrity by his gaolers, who charged visitors to view him living in a comfortably furnished cell. He also continued his floristry in prison by making artificial flowers which were then sold to the public at a premium to reflect his celebrity status. Upon his release from prison in 1796, he married and had a son before disappearing from history.

There seems little doubt that Williams was innocent of the crimes. So who was the real bottom-fixated ‘Monster’?

2

What happened to the princes in the Tower?

On 9 April 1483, King Edward IV died. He left behind two sons: 12-year-old Edward, who was proclaimed Edward V, and his nine-year-old brother Richard, Duke of York.

Before his death, the king had declared that his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, should become Lord Protector of the realm. It was a role that Richard happily assumed, accommodating the two young boys within the forbidding walls of the Tower of London, ostensibly for their protection. But Richard then declared himself king [Richard III], arguing that the two princes were illegitimate because it was alleged that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid. Conveniently enough, the boys later disappeared and were assumed dead throughout Richard’s reign.

In 1485, Richard was killed at the battle of Bosworth by an army led by Henry Tudor (who became Henry VII, the first Tudor king). Three decades later, Sir Thomas More, in his History of King Richard III, claimed that Richard had orchestrated the assassination of the two princes to protect his title to the throne.

The ‘Princes in the Tower’: Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, disappeared in mysterious circumstances following the death of their father, King Edward IV. (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

More purported that Sir James Tyrell, a trusted ally of Richard, had confessed to organising the murder of the boys on the king’s orders. It was suggested that the heinous crime had been carried out in the Tower of London by two of Richard III’s men, Miles Forrest and John Dighton. According to More, Forrest sought sanctuary in the monastery of St Martin’s le Grand (later the headquarters of the Post Office) where, in More’s words, he “rotted away piecemeal”.

But was Richard III responsible? At the time of the boys’ disappearance, Richard was already well-established as king, and indeed many other individuals had reasons for wanting the boys out of the picture. A strong case has been made for Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who knew that her son’s rather weak blood claim to the throne could be challenged by either of the boys. [Henry Tudor was the son of Margaret Beaufort – the great-great-granddaughter of Edward III – and Edmund Tudor, half-brother of Henry VI. As such, Henry was a potential candidate for the throne through his mother’s side.]

In the words of historian Leanda de Lisle: “None of these theories, however, has provided a satisfactory answer to the riddle at the heart of this mystery: the fact the boys simply vanished.”

3

Who set up the Great Train Robbery? Who attacked the driver?

On 8 August 1963, the Glasgow to London Royal Mail Train was stopped on the East Coast Main Line and relieved of £2.6 million pounds. The robbery provoked mayhem in official circles and attracted admiration in unlikely quarters. The novelist Graham Greene, for example, wrote to The Times to enquire: “Am I one of a minority in feeling admiration for the skill and courage behind the Great Train Robbery?”

During the robbery, one of the thieves struck the train driver, Jack Mills, on the head with a metal bar. The blow was delivered with a force sufficient enough to end his career, and Mills later died of leukaemia in 1970.

Most of the culprits involved in the robbery were caught and 11 of them were sentenced to gaol terms of up to 30 years (though two of the perpetrators, Charles Wilson and Ronald Biggs, later escaped from prison and none served their full terms). However, two questions still require an answer: who struck the train driver? And who organised the robbery?

Before his death in 2012, James Hussey, an experienced train robber, confessed to striking the driver. However, it has since been suggested that Hussey was protecting the identity of the real assailant who is still at large.

A number of figures have been put forward as the brains behind the operation. Was it British criminal Buster Edwards, who was a member of the gang who committed the robbery? Or was it a mysterious unidentified figure known variously as ‘Mister Three’ or ‘Alf Thomas’?

And who told the gang to change the date of the robbery from 7 to 8 August, when the train would be carrying more money? Could it have been a figure referred to as ‘The Ulsterman’? The train robber Gordon Goody, before his death in Spain in 2016, stated that the informant had been Patrick McKenna, a Belfast-born postmaster who had concealed his identity in meetings with those planning the robbery and received a share of the booty.

McKenna died many years ago having shown no signs of affluence to his family, who were astonished at Goody’s revelation. Had McKenna been overcome by remorse at the fate of Jack Mills and given his ill-gotten gains to good causes? We will probably never know for sure what happened, but we can speculate.

The crime scene following the Great Train Robbery of 1963. During the robbery, a Royal Mail train was held up and over 2.6 million pounds stolen. (Photo by B. Marshall/Express/Getty Images)
The crime scene following the Great Train Robbery of 1963. During the robbery, a Royal Mail train was held up and over 2.6 million pounds stolen. (B. Marshall/Express/Getty Images)
4

Who killed Jill Dando?

The TV presenter Jill Dando was born in Somerset in 1961. After training as a journalist, she joined the BBC in her native West Country and presented news programmes before moving to Songs of Praise. In 1995 she joined Nick Ross as presenter of Crimewatch, appealing for information that could lead to the conviction of offenders.

Four years later, in April 1999, Dando was shot dead as she entered her home in Fulham, West London. The gunman appears to have forced her to the ground and placed the muzzle of a revolver to her head before shooting her. Her cry was heard by a neighbour, who observed a white male – about six feet tall and around 40 years of age – walking from the scene.

The manner of Dando’s execution – one shot discharged by a muzzle in close proximity to her head – suggested she had been murdered by a professional killer. However, the bullet that killed her appeared to have been fired from a converted replica or decommissioned gun – an unlikely weapon for an experienced hitman. Following an appeal on Crimewatch, a local man named Barry George was charged with the murder and convicted in 2001, partly as a result of firearms residue found in his clothing. The conviction was overturned in 2008 following a retrial.

Other possibilities have since been considered: was Jill killed by a former boyfriend? A criminal caught following a Crimewatch appeal? A deranged admirer? Was it a case of mistaken identity? Or, more ‘exotically’, was the perpetrator a Serbian warlord who was enraged by Jill Dando’s appeal for Kosovan refugees oppressed by Serb forces or seeking revenge for the NATO bombing of a Serbian radio and TV broadcasting station in Belgrade?

Each theory has its adherents, but no convincing evidence has been found to form the basis of a new investigation. As such the case file remains open, and we will probably never know who the murderer was.

5

Who killed PC Keith Blakelock?

On 6 October 1985, PC Keith Blakelock was among a group of police sent to Broadwater Farm housing estate in Tottenham to protect firefighters extinguishing a fire started during a riot. The disturbance followed the death of Cynthia Jarrett, an elderly African-Caribbean woman who had died of heart failure following a police raid at her home on the housing estate the previous day.

Upon their arrival at Broadwater Farm, violent rioters attacked the police, and PC Keith Blakelock stumbled and fell. He was set upon by the mob and killed by more than 40 knife wounds. The police charged 28-year-old Winston Silcott, a British citizen of African-Caribbean origin, with the murder.

Silcott was convicted in 1987 alongside two others – Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite – and sentenced to imprisonment. He was acquitted in 1991 when forensic tests revealed that evidence statements had been tampered with (although he remained in prison until 2003 due to his conviction for another, unrelated murder).

Despite further investigations, the murderer of Keith Blakelock remains at large today. Given the nature of the killing and the potential for multiple witnesses, his identity could be known to many.

6

Who was Jack the Ripper?

A fanciful illustration depicting 'Jack the Ripper', a serial killer who stalked the streets of Victorian London targeting prostitutes. (Bettman via Getty Images)
A fanciful illustration depicting ‘Jack the Ripper’, a serial killer who stalked the streets of Victorian London targeting prostitutes. (Bettman via Getty Images)

We end our tale of criminals who escaped justice with the most notorious of all: Jack the Ripper.

Between August and November 1888, five women were murdered in Whitechapel, East London. The murders occurred in a small area of Whitechapel and were characterised by extreme violence towards the victims which involved severe knife wounds and, in some cases, disembowelling.

Multiple theories concerning the criminal’s identity have been put forward – here are just some of the leading candidates:

Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence (also known as Prince Eddy)

The most exotic ‘suspect’ of all was Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, the eldest son of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and second in line of succession to the throne as grandson of Queen Victoria. Disappointingly for those seeking the Ripper’s identity, an examination of the Court Circular [an official record of past royal engagements] reveals that Albert was dining with the queen when he should have been roaming the streets of Whitechapel, knife in hand.

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Jill the Ripper

Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, occasionally ventured into the real world of crime and suggested that the culprit was in fact ‘Jill the Ripper’: possibly a midwife who would be trusted be the female victims and could move about with blood on her clothing without attracting suspicion.

Aaron Kosminski

In his memoirs, Sir Robert Anderson, the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police at the time of the Ripper murders, wrote that a Polish Jew had been identified as the most likely culprit but without evidence acceptable by a court. Aaron Kosminski, one of many Polish Jews living in the East End at the time, was identified as the Ripper by two investigating officers, one of them writing Kosminski’s name in the margin of Anderson’s memoir. In 1891 Kosminski was admitted to Colney Hatch lunatic asylum. He was later transferred to Leavesden Asylum, and died there in 1919.

James Maybrick

Maybrick was a Liverpool cotton merchant. His role in the case was based upon a diary, published in the 1990s, in which he ‘confessed’ to the murders. But examination of the diary revealed a number of factual errors in the ‘confessions’; handwriting which bore no resemblance to that of Maybrick himself; and ink of a kind that was not available until the 1970s.

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Stephen Halliday is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster with a particular interest in Victorian London. He is the author of The Little Book of Crime and Punishment (History Press, 2014), from which much of the information in this article is taken