Chain of Evidence

If John Bennett had committed the crime for which he was hanged a century later, there would very likely be no question about his guilt or innocence. Unfortunately for Bennett, however, there was no DNA testing available — in fact, the term deoxyribonucleic acid hadn’t even been invented — when he was convicted of killing his estranged wife, Mary.
 
Bennett went to the gallows in 1901 for Mary’s strangulation murder, and the only piece of evidence against him was a semi-precious chain Mary may or may not have been wearing the night she died.
 
Mary was sexually assaulted before she was strangled, and it would be reasonable to assume that if Bennett wasn’t the source of the semen in her body, he probably wasn’t the man who strangled her with a bootlace.
 
Of course, there was no way to determine whose DNA was present, and there was strong evidence that Mary was wearing the chain that September night in 1900.
 
Bennett certainly wasn’t a sympathetic defendant. He was a liar, cheat, and confidence trickster who talked a big game, but was a chronic underachiever. At the time Mary died, he was wooing a 22-year-old servant named Alice Meadows and had set a 1901 wedding date with her. He had been overheard frequently arguing with Mary, and had once threatened to kill her.
 
Mary, also, wasn’t snow white. She very likely knew of Bennett’s cons, and reportedly practiced a few of her own. An accomplished musician, she occasionally sold overpriced violins to ignorant students at an exorbitant profit. In addition, Mary had no qualms about living under the assumed name of Mrs. Hood when circumstances dictated discretion.
 
Regardless, she certainly didn’t deserve to die.
 
Mary received the gold chain from her maternal grandmother, who treated it as a precious heirloom. Attached to the chain was a rather large watch. She inherited the chain and watch shortly after she was married to Bennett in 1898.
 
“(The grandmother’s) possessions were few, but amongst them was a long chain and a very old-fashioned watch, in which she took great pride,” wrote English author Edgar Wallace. “It was in truth a very clumsy piece of jewellery (sic).”
 
In early 1899, just steps ahead of the constables and bill collectors, the couple traveled to South Africa as Mr. and Mrs. Hood with the intent of emigrating, but their stay there was less than a week. Some accounts of their trip credit the hasty withdrawl to the fact that the South African government believed John Bennett was a spy for the Boers.
 
For whatever reason, by the spring of 1899 the couple was back on English soil. Their marriage, however, was quickly souring and the Bennetts were actively hostile to each other.
 
Their landlady would testify at Bennett’s trial that it was after their return from South Africa that she heard John Bennett threated his wife’s life.
 
“‘Damn you and the baby, too!’” she said she heard Bennett shout, referring to their infant daughter.
 
“Herbert, I will follow you for the sake of the baby,” Mary replied. “Remember, if you aren’t careful, I can get you 15 years.”
 
“I wish you were dead!” Bennett replied. “And if you’re not careful, you soon will be!”
 
A month later the Bennetts split up, although they were never divorced. John Bennett, who was just about to turn 21, found a rooming house near his latest employment at the Woolwich Armory, and in doing so, also found Alice Meadows.
 
Bennett and his girlfriend vacationed in Yarmouth in July 1900 and shortly after he returned, he proposed to Alice, who had no idea that Bennett was still married — or that he had ever been married.
 
According to testimony at his murder trial, in September 1900 Bennett suggested to Mary that she and their daughter, Rose, take a vacation to Yarmouth under the assumed name of Hood. The Crown surmised that Bennett used the incognito trip to Yarmouth as part of his plan to do away with his wife in a place far away from where either of them was known.
 
“Mrs. Hood,” who told her landlady at Yarmouth that she was a widow, arrived at the shore on September 15, 1900. One night shortly after she arrived, Mary, left Rose sleeping in their third-floor room at the cottage and went out. She didn’t return until midnight, and she was deposited at the boardinghouse by an unidentified man. The landlady, Mrs. Rudrum, believed she was drunk. Mary told the landlady she had met her brother-in-law and “had three drops of brandy.”
 
“Who she was, and where she came from, nobody knew,” wrote Wallace. “She was uncommunicative, not inclined to gossip, and…had no identity except as a summer boarder.”
 
On the evening of Thursday, September 20, Bennett advised his paramour that he would be unable to see her the following Saturday because he was traveling to Gravesend to visit a sick grandfather. She did not see him again until Sunday, September 23, and Bennett’s whereabouts were unaccounted for, except for some easily debunked alibi witnesses.
 
The next evening, while Mary was out, Mrs. Rudrum received a letter for her boarder with a Woolwich postmark. Mary had returned to the Rudrum house around 10:45 p.m., again in the company of a man. This time, Mrs. Rudrum heard the unidentified man’s side of a brief conversation.
 
“You understand, don’t you? I am placed in an awkward position right now,” Mrs. Rudrum heard the man say. She then heard the sound of a kiss.
 
When Mary entered the house, Mrs. Rudrum delivered the envelope to her and forgot about it. Who actually sent it and what exactly the missive said remains a mystery to this day, for it was never found. One account of the crime states that “Mrs. Hood” read a portion of it to Mrs. Rudrum. Another claims no one else knew what the message contained.
 
“Meet me under the big clock at 9 o’clock tomorrow,” she reportedly read. “But be sure you put the baby to bed before you come.”
 
The Crown alleged that it was a message from Bennett to have his wife meet him.
 
That Saturday, shortly before 9 p.m., Mrs. Rudrum saw her boarder leave the house dressed in a straw sailor’s hat with a bright ribbon, a blue brocade bodice over a dove-colored blouse and a dark skirt. The item that most attracted Mrs. Rudrum was the long gold chain that “Mrs. Hood” wore about her neck.
 
The next time Mrs. Rudrum saw her boarder, the chain would be missing and the mysterious Mrs. Hood would be dead.
 
Mrs. Rudrum saw her boarder waiting anxiously near the Great Yarmouth town hall, which was located near the main train station. Shortly after, Mary was seen with Bennett in a popular tavern where they enjoyed a drink.
 
About an hour-and-a-half after Mary left Mrs. Rudrum’s, Alfred Mason and Blanche Smith, were walking along the beach near Yarmouth when they heard a woman cry “Mercy, mercy!” followed by moaning. However, because the secluded dunes were often a place where lovers met for romantic trysts, they put the cries to someone involved in lovemaking.
 
“South Beach at that time was a wild, untended stretch of sand and marram grass, to which courting couples instinctively bent their way,” Wallace wrote. “There were innumerable hollows where the swains could be sure of freedom from observation.”
 
The next morning, Mary’s body was discovered amid the dunes. She was lying on her back, her knees bent as if to receive a lover, and her bloomers were pulled down to her ankles. The sand around her hands was quite disturbed, as if she had been involved in a life-or-death struggle.
 
She had been strangled with a bootlace that was still tied around her neck in a reef knot and a granny knot. A reef knot is often used by sailors, and many of us tie it every day as we tie our shoes. (Americans call the reef knot a “square knot.”) There were signs that she had been sexually assaulted.
 
Although she wore a wedding ring, the only other clue to her identity was a laundry mark, the number 599, on her clothing.
 
Her gold chain, which Mrs. Rudrum swore Mary was wearing when she left, was missing.
 
When “Mrs. Hood” failed to return to the Rudrum boarding house, John Rudrum appeared at the local police station to report her missing. By this time her body had been discovered and Mr. Rudrum confirmed that the corpse was his missing lodger.
 
When police searched her room for additional clues to her identity, the same laundry mark was found on several of baby Rose’s things. The only other item of use to police was a photograph of Mary and Rose taken several days earlier — in the photograph, Mary was wearing her gold chain.
 
Bennett was confirmed to be absent from his lodgings on Saturday night, but the day after the murder, Bennett unexpectedly met Alice Meadows in Hyde Park, London, shortly before 1 p.m. He hastily explained that he had been to Gravesend, but left shortly after arriving because he “was in the way.”
 
The train timetables later revealed that he could have caught a 7:20 a.m. train from Yarmouth and been back in london at 11:30 a.m.
 
The Yarmouth police investigating the murder of the woman they knew as “Mrs. Hood” sat on the evidence for three weeks before calling in Scotland Yard, which aggressively pursued the case. That delay, however, allowed Bennett to attempt to cover his tracks.
 
“He couldn’t have drawn more attention to himself if he had walked through the Law Courts dangling Mary’s golden chain and tying reef-knots in a shoelace,” wrote Colin Wilson.
 
He gave away some of Mary’s possessions to Alice, telling her they were from a cousin who emigrated to South Africa. He sold a piano and bicycle to a co-worker and gave away a photograph of Mary to a friend, explaining that it was his sister.
 
Then he picked up Mary’s dog and said she had moved to Yorkshire. Bennett gave notice to Mary’s landlord.
 
He then moved into a new flat across the street from the Woolwich police station, bringing only a trunk filled with clothes with the 599 laundry mark, a revolver, several wigs and false mustaches. Most importantly, he also had Mary’s gold chain and a receipt for a hotel room in Yarmouth.
 
Meanwhile, Chief-Inspector Alfred Leach had recognized the importance of the laundry mark and his team of police were canvassing every laundry in the areas that “Mrs. Hood” mentioned to Mrs. Rudrum. In Bexleyheath, a detective found a laundress who said it was probably hers. She also mentioned that she was still receiving laundry from Mrs. Mary Bennett, to whom the number was assigned.
 
This was the second time the Bennett name had come up in the investigation. The first time was after passenger lists from every ship that had recently made the passage to South Africa turned up a reference to Mr and Mrs. Hood. A porter on the Avondale Castle, the ship that returned the Hoods to England recalled that he was struck by the fact that the Hoods’ luggage contained tags with the name Bennett. A clerk for the shipping line told police that the Hoods had paid for their trip with a check drawn on an account belonging to the Bennetts.
 
Between the South Africa trip information and the laundry that positively identified the woman in the photograph found in Yarmouth as being Mrs. Bennett led police to begin searching for John Bennett.
 
The man to whom Bennett sold the bike and piano eventually led police to John Bennett, who was arrested in November 1900.
 
His trial began in February 1901 with the eminent barrister Edward Marshall Hall defending Bennett. Hall attempted to show that the reef knot was probably tied by a sailor, for seafarers used it to fasten sails. He then got the coroner to agree that sand in Mary’s mouth was probably the result of her killer placing his hand over her mouth.
 
Why, Hall wondered aloud, would her husband have to stifle her if she trusted him?
 
The item that would hang Bennett, however, was the gold chain. Hall tried to establish the existence of a second chain, which would explain why Mary’s chain could be missing and Bennett could have innocently been in possession of its duplicate.
 
Mrs. Rudrum, called to the stand by Hall, could not identify the chain in evidence as the one Mary had been wearing, and the photographer who took the picture of Mary on the beach was equally ambivalent. The chain in the photo appeared to be thicker than the one in evidence. The photographer was induced on cross-examination to speculate that the out-of-focus tintype might have distorted the size of the chain. Mrs. Rudrum’s daughter also testified that she doubted the chain was the same one Mary had in her possession.
 
Another witness for the defense, a former landlady, testified that Mary had once pawned the gold chain and bought an imitation to replace it.
 
There was too much circumstantial evidence for Hall to overcome. Despite an alibi witness who claimed Bennett had drinks with him in London on the evening of the murder, two other witnesses placed Bennett in Yarmouth that night. One, a waiter in the hotel where Bennett and Alice had spent their holiday, recalled seeing Bennett run breathlessly into the hotel around 11:45 p.m. on Saturday, September 22.
 
Bennett admitted he was in Yarmouth to see his wife, but strongly denied killing her.
 
The jury chose to believe the assertion of the existence of only a single gold chain, found Bennett’s half-hearted attempts to destroy evidence of Mary’s life in Bexleyheath an indicator of a guilty mind, and utterly rejected his alibi witness.
 
The jury took just 35 minutes to find Bennett guilty of the murder of his wife. He was sentenced to hang.
 
The verdict was met with skepticism by many people. Some medical evidence indicated that Mary had actually died around 1:30 a.m., which called into question Bennett’s 11:45 p.m. dash into his hotel.
 
Additionally, no one adequately explained the identity of the mysterious “brother-in-law” who Mary met early in her trip to Yarmouth. Others chose to believe that there was a second gold chain, which meant one was still missing.
 
Regardless, on March 21, 1901, Bennett was hanged at Norwich jail.
 
The case was forgotten for more than a decade until the body of Dora May Gray was found in nearly the same spot on South Beach, Yarmouth on July 14, 1912. She was found with her legs splayed, sexually assaulted and strangled with a shoelace.
 
The killer, who was never caught, left the lace tied around her neck with a reef knot.