The Peasenhall Mystery of 1902 is one of the most notable of unsolved murder cases in British criminal history.
Rose Harsent was a woman of twenty-three employed by William and Georgeanna Crisp as a domestic servant at their home in the village of Peasenhall in Suffolk. On Sunday 1st June 1902, Rose's father came to pay her visit and found her body at the foot of the stairs. Her throat had been cut and an attempt had been made to set fire her to her body. (Presumably with a view to destroying the evidence.)
A doctor and policeman were summoned and concluded that she had been dead for some four hours, whilst the subsequent post mortem established that she had been pregnant at the time of her death. The police soon discovered a note addressed to Rose in which the anonymous author arranged a midnight assignation with her. They soon identified the handwriting as belonging to William Gardiner, who only lived a few hundred yards away from the Crisp household with his wife and six children. Gardiner who was a leading member of the local Primitive Methodist Congregation, where he was the choirmaster and a Sunday School teacher, denied any involvement in her death. The authorities however believed otherwise and, working on the theory that Gardiner had seduced his neighbour's servant and was thus the father of Rose Harsent's unborn child and had killed her in order to prevent this fact coming to light, on the 3rd June the police arrested Gardiner and charged him with her murder.
The trial began on the 7th November at the Suffolk Assizes at Ipswich, and whilst the evidence of the note appeared to clearly demonstrate Gardiner's guilt, he strenuously denied having kept the appointment with Rose Harsent and claimed that he was at home in bed with his wife at the time of the murder, a story which was supported by his wife. In the event the jury failed to reach the unanimous verdict that was required at the time. Whilst eleven jurors supported a guilty verdict, one juror by the name of Evan Edwards insisted that Gardiner was not guilty and obstinately refused to change his mind. A re-trial was ordered and on the 21st January 1903 the case was heard once more before the Suffolk assizes. Once again the jury was divided, only this time around opinion had shifted in the other direction with ten jurors supporting a verdict of not guilty with the other two insisting on Gardiner's guilt.
Once again the jury was discharged and arrangements were made for Gardiner to stand trial for a third time, this time at Bury St Edmunds. But before the case came to trial the Home Office decided that there was no prospect of securing a conviction and lodged a plea of nolle prosequi. The case against Gardiner was dismissed and he was released from custody, having neither been convicted nor acquitted on the charge of murder.
With its heady mixture of extra-marital sex and brutal violence the case naturally attracted considerable publicity and was the talk of the nation for months. Gardiner became something of a celebrity and he turned down a number of lucrative offers to make personal appearances on stage. He steadfastly refused to change his name, despite the advice to do so, but nevertheless left Suffolk and moved to Southall in London where he ran a shop on the corner of Queens Road and Hartington Road and thereafter faded into obscurity.
Speculation as to whether or not William Gardiner was indeed guilty of the murder of Rose Harsent has continued ever since. Although there was strong circumstantial evidence that pointed to his guilt, his wife's determined support of his alibi serves to convince others of his innocence. It has also since become known that Rose Harsent was not quite the seduced innocent she was believed to be back in 1902; in fact she had a string of other lovers, all of whom would have been potential suspects had they been identified at the time. Various authors have since suggested the names of other local men as the killer, without actually establishing a clear case against any. The television series Julian Fellowes Investigates devoted an episode to the case which featured a dramatic reconstruction of events and concluded that the killer was Gardiner's wife whom it was concluded had killed her rival in a jealous rage.
- Appendix 1: William Gardiner from The Maypole and Southall Green by R.J. Meads
- Footnote 53 from The Conflicts of Law and the Character of Men: Writing Reversal of Fortune and Judgment at Nuremberg by SUZANNE SHALE, 30 U.S.F.L. REV. 991 (1996)
- The discussion of the case at
- Colin Wilson A murder mystery: why do some killings dominate the headlines?
- Other references at
- William Henderson, Trial Of William Gardiner, Notable British Trial Series, (William Hodge and Co, 1934)
- J. Rowland, The Peasenhall Mystery (John Long. 1962)
- R.J. White, The Women of Peasenhall (Harper & Row, 1969)
- M. Fido and K Skinner, The Peasenhall Murder (Alan Sutton, 1990)