The corner shop killings: The murder of Elizabeth Ridgley
In 1919, when a Hitchin shopkeeper and her dog were found bludgeoned to death in her corner shop, it triggered a bizarre sequence of events which resulted in two separate investigations with two quite different outcomes. The presentation focuses on how murder investigations were carried out by rural forces just after the First World War.
The 10 most frequently asked questions about the murder of Elizabeth Ridgley
- Who was Elizabeth Ridgley?
Elizabeth was a 54 year old widow, whose husband had died in December 1917. She had one stepson but no children of her own. She moved to Hitchin, Hertfordshire in 1910 and upon the death of her husband carried on a corner shop business in her home in Nightingale Road. She was described as a reserved woman who lived alone with her Irish terrier, Prince.
- What were the circumstances of her murder?
Elizabeth’s body was found in the internal passageway between the living room and the converted front room shop on the morning of 27 January 1919 lying next to her dog. Both had had their skulls cracked open by a four pound weight. The premises had been ransacked and blood was strewn all over the ground floor. A blood trail led from the counter in the shop to where both the bodies rested.
- What was so special about the case?
Despite the injuries and the apparent ransacking of the shop, the local police superintendent, George Reed, concluded that Ridgley had died as a result of a tragic accident. He claimed that somehow she had been wandering around the shop, fell over and cracked her head open on a collection of earthenware pots. During her fall, she must have fallen on her dog and accidentally killed it. Even the first constable on the scene, Alfred Kirby, declared it a murder scene but his opinion was ignored. Ridgley was quietly buried in an unmarked grave in Hitchin cemetery.
- What happened next?
The Chief Constable of the Hertfordshire Constabulary, Alfred Letchworth Law, was not convinced of his superintendent’s conclusion and drafted in Scotland Yard to re-investigate. Detective Chief Inspector Frederick Porter Wensley took over the investigation on 6 February 1919, ten days after the bodies had been found.
- What was the outcome of his investigation?
After reconstructing the scene and interviewing a large number of witnesses, Wensley arrested an Irish labourer, John Healy, who was living just a few hundred yards away in Radcliffe Road. There was a great deal of circumstantial evidence including witnesses seeing Healy acting suspiciously inside and outside of the shop just before Ridgley met her death. Healy was charged and appeared at Hertfordshire Assizes in June 1919.
- What was the outcome at court?
The jury deliberated for only eleven minutes before returning a not guilty verdict. He walked free from court.
- So, who did it?
Probably John Healy, but there was clearly some doubt cast in the minds of jurors, probably over one of the key witnesses, William Augustus Craswell. He had claimed he had seen Healy in the shop at the time of the murder. In essence, Healy claimed that all the prosecution witnesses were lying and that he was being picked on because he was Irish. The incident was at the height of the Anglo-Irish war over Home Rule.
- Was any other person identified as the murderer?
No. However, 100 years later, Paul Stickler, the author of the book, The Murder that Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes: At Mrs Ridgley’s Corner, was researching this case when he stumbled across original material never seen before. The name, Worbey Dixon, featured in the original Hertfordshire investigation but his name was never referred to during the trial.
- To what extent was the fact that Superintendent George Reed initially concluded that it was an accidental death, a factor in the juries mind?
This was brought up during the trial and the judge, Mr Justice Darling, clearly stated that this was a murder but of course we do not know how much that first decision at the scene weighed on the mind of the jurors.
- Why else will this case be remembered?
It fundamentally changed murder investigations in provincial forces. The Home Office mandated that provincial forces must consider the services of Scotland Yard’s murder squad in cases of murder where the killer is not immediately known. After this case, there was a gradual increase in detective officers in rural and provincial forces.