17th December 1947. Body of Evidence.
The statue of Sherlock Holmes was erected outside Baker Street Station, London by forensic chemists for his fictional contribution to the study of crime.
Today in 1947, the famous forensic scientist and pathologist Bernard Spilsbury gassed himself, ironic in someone who had spent his life investigating mysterious deaths.
One of the most mysterious cases concerning the absence of a body was when Spilsbury was prosecution witness in the second trial in 1937 of ‘motor-driver’ Fred Nodder.
He was initially convicted and imprisoned for the abduction of 10 year old, Mona Tinsley, but no body had been found.
However after the discovery of her body in the River Idle he was later charged with her murder. Nodder pleaded ‘autrefois acquit’ where someone previously acquitted can’t be tried for the same crime again.
This was rejected and he was sentenced to death at Nottingham Assizes before Mr. Justice McNaughton.(1)
Which brings us to one of the most important concepts in murder investigations, that of corpus delicti (body of evidence).
This usually relates to a ‘missing person’ which if there is a ‘body of evidence’ including physical and demonstrative and testamential, can result in a charge of murder.
One of the famous cases is from 1660, that of ‘The Campden Wonder’ from Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, where the legal notion of corpus delicti was used. It concerned the steward of a manor, called William Harrison who went out collecting rents and disappeared.
Suspicion fell on a servant and two relatives who were convicted of his murder and hanged. However Harrison turned up after a considerable absence, to everyone’s amazement, saying he had been abducted by pirates into slavery. Truly a case where the ‘body of evidence’ fell down.
Someone in the 2othc who misinterpreted corpus delicti was Haigh the acid-bath (sulphuric-acid) murderer, who assumed because he had dissolved the bodies there was no ‘corpus’, assuming this meant a ‘body’ literally as opposed to the figurative use of the word.
It ended in his appointment with hangman Albert Pierrepoint and his execution on 10th August 1949.
Any ideas of requiring a physical body to be charged for murder, were settled in the early 1950s when a Pole was convicted of a fellow countryman’s murder on a farm in Wales, despite the lack of a body.
Lord Chief Justice Goddard said: ‘things have moved on since the days of the ‘Campden Wonder’. Now circumstantial evidence was to become acceptable henceforth.
Since 2003 in England and Wales and later in Scotland, the notion of Double Jeopardy, the idea that one can’t be tried twice for the same crime can be overturned when circumstance demand.
This acknowledges that forensic science has moved on since Spilsbury’s day, as it was revealed later that many were innocent of the crimes they were charged with owing to his misleading evidence.
(1) Mr Justice Swift of the first trial had died.
Ref: The Mirror headline 7th June 1937 announced ‘Discovery of Mona’s Body’ found in river. Later ‘To Die To-day’ on 30th December 1937 when he was hanged at Lincoln Gaol.
Ref: chrishobbs.com/frederick-nodder/Pic Ref.