The Wigwam Murder

British Home Office Pathologist Keith Simpson, considered one of the leading minds of modern forensic pathology, consulted on some of his country’s most notorious murder cases like Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Great Britain, and serial killer George Haigh, the acid bath murderer during his four-decade career.
One of his earliest successes was that of the “Wigwam Murder” of sometime prostitute Joan Pearl Wolfe, a camp follower who lived in a tent outside the World War II military base of Hankley Common outside the village of Elstead in Surrey.
In October 1942, a pair of British marines were enjoying a bit of leave by walking through the brush outside their base. There, they discovered, sticking out of a mound of dirt, a badly decomposed human arm.
Police were summoned along with Dr. Simpson, and carefully they unearthed the mouldering body of a fully dressed young woman. Although at the time they had no clue to her identity, it was clear that she had been murdered by heavy blows to her head.
Simpson took custody of the body, and at his laboratory back at Guy’s Hospital in London, emersed the corpse in a solution of carbolic acid in an effort to slow down the consumption of the remains by bacteria.
It took a week for the phenol solution to work, with Simpson all the while “taking his tea breaks beside the bath, while the famous pathologist dictated notes” to his assistant, wrote Colin Wilson.
Over time, Simpson was able to make some astounding discoveries about the body.
Simpson concluded that the as-yet-unidentified victim had first been stabbed on the top of her head. Simpson was also able to say that the woman had been stabbed with a knife with an unusual tip — shaped much like the pointed and rounded beak of a parrot.
The location of the stab wound led Simpson to conclude that her killer had stood over her to make his initial assault. Simpson also surmised that the head wound was not immediately fatal because the victim had defensive wounds on her right arm and hand.
The woman managed to escape her killer and run away before she tripped and fell, Simpson concluded. He reached this conclusion because she had knocked out several of her front teeth.
The killer then caught up to her and coshed her head so violently with a blunt instrument that he fractured her cheek bone. This blow, Simpson decided, was the coup de gras.
Other clues on the body indicated that the killer then dragged her body to the top of a hill — there were scratches on her right leg that led to this conclusion — and buried her there.
The pathologist considered it unusual that the killer would drag the corpse to such a place to dispose of it. The reason she was disposed of in this manner did not become somewhat clearer until a suspect had been arrested for the crime.
Simpson was able to provide the local police with enough information about the victim that authorities quickly identified her as Joan Pearl Wolfe, a runaway who lived in a “wigwam” outside the military base and occasionally “entertained” the troops for a price.
Combing the area around her campsite, the police found a number of clues that confirmed their assumption of the girl’s identity — and a letter that cast a significant shadow on one of her paramours — a Canadian half-Indian named August Sangret.
The letter to Sangret, a private at Hankley Common, indicated that Wolfe was pregnant.
When he was interrogated, Sangret admitted that he knew Wolfe and had been intimate — living with her while off-duty — but denied seeing her for the past several weeks. He also claimed that his military issue knife had been stolen from the wigwam “a short time before she disappeared.”
Although no one else had a motive to kill Wolfe, in his defense Sangret claimed to have received a marriage certificate from his commanding officer. The CO confirmed this. The license turned up during another search of Wolfe’s campsite.
Additional evidence helped convict Sangret of the murder. Fatigues and a blanket linked to him were found in a field near the crime scene. They were stained with blood, although an attempt had been made to wash them. In addition, a heavy wooden stake with Wolfe’s hair and blood was found near the murder scene.
Police were still actively searching for the murder weapon with its unique parrot-beak tip. Shortly after Sangret was interviewed by detectives from Scotland Yard, a maintenance worker found the knife in a pipe in the enlisted men’s latrine. The detectives from the Yard remembered that in the course of Sangret’s interrogation, he had asked permission to visit that latrine.
In court, Simpson, using Wolfe’s skull to back his claims, testified that Sangret had first stabbed the girl, that she then fended him off temporarily and running away, stumbled on an army tripwire allowing Sangret to catch her and deliver the death blow.
The jury convicted Sangret of the murder, but recommended leniency. The judge, however, showed no mercy and condemned him to death. He was hanged on April 2, 1943 at Wandsworth Prison outside London.
The authorities concluded that he buried Wolfe atop a hillock because his Native American ancestors, the Canadian Huron tribe, buried their dead in raised mounds like the one where she was found. Sangret never admitted his guilt or confirmed this speculation.