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20: Conclusion

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« on: September 02, 2023, 05:49:25 am »

THE identity of the criminal known, it took Inspector French but a short time to compile a complete and detailed account of that terrible series of crimes which comprised what had become known as the Starvel Hollow Tragedy. Herbert Philpot, once he understood that the evidence against him was overwhelming and that nothing could save him from the scaffold, broke down completely and made a confession which cleared up the few points which from their nature it was impossible that French could have learnt otherwise.

The first act of the Inspector, on lodging his prisoner in gaol, was to visit his rooms in Glasgow. There in a battered leather portmanteau he discovered a large cashbox of hardened steel which when broken open was found to contain the balance of Mr. Averill’s money. With the £2000 which had been paid to Messrs. Dashwood and Munce, no less a sum than £36,562 was recovered, no doubt all the old miser had possessed. Ruth Averill therefore received her fortune intact, and between the consequent easing of her circumstances and her engagement to Pierce Whymper, she found the happiness which had been denied her during her early years.

The history of the crime, as French at last presented it, made very terrible reading. Like most accounts of human weakness and guilt, it arose from small beginnings and increased stage by stage, until at last almost inevitably it reached its frightful consummation.

The trouble first arose in that house near the Ransome Institute in Kintilloch, when Dr. Philpot discovered that he and his wife had nothing in common and that their marriage had been a fatal blunder. There is no need to recount the steps by which they drifted apart: it is enough to say that within two years of the wedding their hatred was mutual and bitter. Then Philpot became intimate with the nurse whom Roper afterwards found him embracing in the Institute shrubbery, and from that time the idea of getting rid of his wife by murder was never far from the doctor’s mind. At first he did not see how this could be done, but as he brooded over the problem a method presented itself, and coldly and deliberately he made his preparations.

First, he selected a time when his wife should be alone with him in the house. Taking advantage of Flora’s absence one afternoon, he made a pretext to get Mrs. Philpot up to the bedroom landing. Silently he slipped upstairs after her and across the top of the lower flight he tied a dark-brown silk cord. Then, returning to the study, he called to her for Heaven’s sake to come quickly for the house was on fire. She rushed down, caught her foot in the cord, and fell headlong to the hall below. She was stunned though not killed, but Philpot was prepared for this eventuality. Seizing the only implement he could find, a cricket bat, he struck her savagely on the temple, killing her instantaneously. As he expected, the blow made a bruise such as she might have received from the fall, and no suspicion was aroused by it.

But an unexpected contingency had given Philpot away. He had supposed that the servant, Flora, had really gone to visit her sick mother. But in this he was mistaken. It was to see, not her mother but her lover, Roper, that the girl had left the house, and this afternoon, like many another before it, she met him in a near-by copse. There, just after they had greeted each other, a heavy shower came on, and Flora had proposed an adjournment to the kitchen for shelter. To this Roper had agreed, and they had just settled down therein for their fifteen minutes’ chat when they heard Philpot’s shout to his wife, followed in a moment by Mrs. Philpot’s scream of terror and the crash of her fall. Flora involuntarily sprang to her feet and ran up the stairs from the basement to the hall. But she was transfixed by the sight which met her eyes and she stood rigid, gazing at Philpot. Roper had by this time crept up the stairs behind her, and both actually saw the doctor commit the murder. Flora was about to reveal herself, but Roper’s grip tightened upon her wrist and held her motionless. Watching thus, they saw Philpot rapidly examine the body, and apparently satisfied that life was extinct, wipe the cricket bat and replace it in the stand. Then he ran upstairs and removed the silk cord, afterwards stooping over the floor on the half-way landing. They could not see what he was doing, but the evidence given later as to the hole in the carpet made his action clear.

Then followed a dramatic moment. When Philpot came downstairs he found Roper and Flora standing in the hall, and they soon let him know that they had witnessed the whole of his terrible proceedings. Philpot attempted to bluster, but he was quite unable to carry it off, and at last he asked Roper what he proposed to do.

Roper, in his way quite as unscrupulous as the doctor, had instantly thought how he might turn the affair to his own advantage, and he quickly stated his terms. If Philpot would increase his ten shillings a week to forty, thus enabling Roper and Flora to marry in comfort, the evidence against him would be withheld. Philpot protested, but Roper was adamant and the doctor had to give way. Had that been all that Roper required, the matter would have been settled in five minutes. But the attendant pointed out that unless he had some material proof of the crime, his hold over Philpot would be gone by the evening: if he did not give his testimony at once he would have to explain later why he had withheld it. He would therefore follow the precedent he had set in the case of the nurse, and would require from Philpot a signed confession of the murder. He swore solemnly to keep this secret as long as the money was paid, but with equal solemnity swore to send it anonymously to the police the first time the two pounds failed to materialise. Again Philpot blustered, but again he had to give way. But he pointed out that a confession would take some time to prepare, and that if he wrote it then and there the body would be cold before the police and another doctor were called in, which would give the whole affair away. Roper admitted this difficulty and proposed the following solution. He would give Philpot until nine o’clock that night to write it. If it was not forthcoming Flora and he would visit the police station with the yarn that Flora alone had seen what had taken place---but without revealing herself to Philpot; that she had been so frightened she did not know what to do; that she had consulted him, Roper, and that he had told her she must immediately reveal what she knew.

Philpot had perforce to agree to this, and by nine o’clock the confession was ready. But Philpot with perverse ingenuity found a way of tricking his adversary and rendering it useless. He was an extraordinarily clever draughtsman and had frequently amused himself by forging the handwriting of others. Now he forged his own. He wrote the confession out, and then copied it, letter by letter, upside down. The result was a passable imitation of his own handwriting, but one which any expert would recognise as a forgery. If the document were produced his denial of its authorship would be accepted without question.

But Philpot did not wish the document to be produced. It was too horribly credible, and inquiries by the police might easily lead to some discovery which would convict him. With all the appearance of reluctant good faith he therefore handed over the document and promised to pay the two pounds a week with the utmost regularity. Roper, believing in the value of his instrument and fearing Philpot might make an effort to regain it, rented a box in a safe deposit and stored it there.

Some four months later Philpot, as already stated, left the Ransome Institute and put up his plate at Thirsby. There he speedily made the acquaintance of Mr. Averill. The old man indeed called him in, thinking that the fees of a newcomer who had to make his way would be less than those of a well-established practitioner.

When Roper was dismissed from the Institute he wrote to Philpot asking if he could help him towards getting another job, and it was while thinking over this request that the first idea of the crime entered the doctor’s mind. His plan was if possible to get Averill to dismiss his servants and to employ the Ropers in their places. Then he intended to get the couple to join with him in the murder of Averill and the theft of his money.

At first Philpot’s only idea was to obtain as firm a hold over the Ropers as they had over him, so as to free himself not only from the serious financial drain of their blackmail, but also from the terrible haunting fear that sooner or later they would betray him. But further consideration showed him a way by which he could get enormously more than this. By it not only would he achieve absolute safety in connection with his wife’s death, but the whole of Averill’s wealth might be his. It was no doubt a very terrible plan, for it involved committing two other murders, but fear and greed had by this time rendered Philpot almost inhuman and he cared for nothing but his own welfare. By this plan both the Ropers were to be done to death in such a way that suspicion could not possibly fall on himself. Even suspicion that a crime had been committed at all was unlikely, but if this by some unforeseen circumstance were aroused, it would certainly be believed that Roper had not died, but had committed the crime himself. After careful thought Philpot decided to put his plan into operation.

First, he sent Roper a note to meet him at a secluded point on Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, and there he put up his proposal. Roper listened eagerly and accepted with alacrity. But in the course of conversation he made an admission and suggested a modification which amazed the doctor, but which, as it fell in with the latter’s secret plan, he agreed to after some show of objection. Roper, it appeared, had also made a mistake in his marriage. He had also grown to hate his wife and would go to any lengths to regain his freedom. In the light of the doctor’s proposal he saw his chance. Old Averill was to be murdered and to cover up the crime an accident was to be staged. Very well: Mrs. Roper could be got rid of at the same time. The same accident would account for both deaths. The two men discussed the ghastly details, and by the time they parted the whole hideous affair was cut and dry. Briefly, the plan was as follows:---

Roper should first arrange his getaway, and while still living at Kintilloch should apply for a passport for Brazil. Inquiries about him would come to the local police, who would certify that he was the original of the photograph enclosed and that the matter was in order. Roper would drop a hint that he had a brother in Santos whom he had often thought of joining, a course which he proposed to follow now that he had left the Ransome. On receipt of the passport he would obtain the necessary visa.

Philpot in the meantime was to see Averill and try to get him to dismiss his servants and install Roper and his wife in their places. As a matter of fact he found this an easy task. Working on the old man’s weakness, Philpot explained that having left the Ransome under a cloud, Roper would be thankful to take a job at a greatly reduced salary. This was enough for Averill, and he at once gave his people notice and offered their positions to the Ropers.

The couple thereupon settled down at Starvel, and by living exemplary lives sought to establish a reputation for integrity which would tend to support the accident theory to be put forward later. Philpot insisted that for at least a year they were to carry out their duties quietly, so that no one would think the “accident” came suspiciously soon after their advent. “We are going to make all the money we want for the rest of our lives,” he would say to Roper. “No precaution is too great to be observed.”

Philpot told Roper quite openly that he wished to use the crime to free himself from the other’s blackmail. Roper on his part accepted the position, as he considered the money would be worth it, and also as he believed that his hold over Philpot would remain strong enough to protect him completely. The two scoundrels therefore concluded their evil compact, deciding to act jointly in all respects and so to bear equal responsibility. After the crime Roper was to emigrate to Brazil, the idea that he had lost his life being suggested by the dreadful expedient of leaving a third body in the house, which, it was hoped, would be taken for his.

The procuring of this third body was not the least of their difficulties. Markham Giles was to be the victim; in fact it was Giles’ existence which had suggested the plan to Philpot. The man was known to be in poor health, and a few doses of a mild poison would make it poorer still. The result was that his death at the critical time excited no comment.

Philpot was to assist in the murders, and partly as a safeguard against night callers, and partly to establish an alibi, he determined to fake illness. He therefore took to his bed on Thursday evening, telling his housekeeper he had influenza. The symptoms were easy to simulate and a doctor knows ways of raising the temperature. His housekeeper and the aged Dr. Emerson were easily deceived, and on the two dreadful nights of crime he was able to leave his house unheard and unsuspected.

For the safe working of the scheme it was necessary that Ruth Averill should be got rid of. We have seen how this was done, but it unexpectedly involved drugging her uncle to prevent the fraud from becoming known. The plan was, of course, Philpot’s. He supplied all the necessary forged letters and the ten pounds, but Roper carried out the actual details. Ruth left for York on the Tuesday, and that evening after dusk had fallen Roper and Philpot met secretly at Markham Giles’ cottage, and there in cold blood the two miscreants murdered the unfortunate man by a forcible injection of cocaine. They left him in bed, Roper undertaking to “discover” his death next morning. On that fatal Wednesday morning he arranged the funeral in such wise that the body would be coffined and left in the house that night.

The Whymper episode had been thought out to learn whether or not the numbers of Averill’s notes were known. Roper would not murder the old man without Philpot’s actual assistance, lest the doctor might evade his share of responsibility, so he kept him drugged to enable the £500 to be obtained. Whymper on that Wednesday evening was brought out to Starvel and made the accomplices’ dupe.

On that same fateful evening Roper laid the foundation of the accident theory by simulating drunkenness in Thirsby. Of course it was a lucky chance for him that George Mellowes should overtake him on the way home, but even without this he believed he had arranged sufficient evidence of his condition.

Then came the hideous deeds of that tragic night. Under cover of darkness Philpot went out to Starvel and there with almost incredible callousness and deliberation first Mrs. Roper and then Averill were done to death by throttling, their bodies being laid on their respective beds. Next the safe was robbed and the contents packed in two despatch cases, half for Philpot and half for Roper. The newspapers were burned in the safe, the latter locked, and the key replaced under Averill’s pillow. Finally, petrol was poured over the house, ready to be set alight at the proper moment.

The next step was to bring over the body of Markham Giles. Philpot and Roper took the handcart from the outhouse and went across the moor to the unfortunate man’s cottage. There they opened the coffin, with diabolical coolness took out the remains, laid them on the handcart, placed a suitable weight of earth in the coffin and screwed down the lid. They wheeled the body to Starvel, and carrying it upstairs, left it on Roper’s bed.

All this time Philpot had carried out his part of the affair so wholeheartedly that any suspicion that might have lurked in Roper’s mind as to his companion’s good faith had been completely dispelled. But Philpot had been only biding his time until his dupe had given him all the assistance that he required with his own even more hideous plan.

As they turned to set fire to the house Philpot moved rapidly behind his victim and suddenly with all his strength struck him in the back with a large knife which he had secreted in his pocket. Roper, stabbed to the heart, fell and died in a few seconds.

There were now in that sinister house the bodies of no less than four murdered persons—Giles, Averill and the two Ropers. But of these only three must be found. Philpot had foreseen the difficulty and quickly and methodically he proceeded to meet it. One of the four bodies must be buried, so that no suspicion of untoward or unusual events might afterwards be aroused, and no investigation as to the identity of the fourth victim might lead to the truth. He chose that of Giles for two reasons. First, it was the lightest, and second, if identification of any of them should prove possible, it would obviously be safer to have those of Averill and the Ropers found. The interment accomplished, he transferred Roper’s portion of the money to his own despatch case, set the house on fire and returned unseen to Thirsby.

Philpot was pretty certain that no suspicion would fall on him, but to safeguard himself still further he adopted yet another subterfuge. Some months before the crime he began deliberately to lose money by betting. When the crime was committed he was known to be in low water, and he was careful afterwards to continue gambling, even to the extent of ruining his ostensible career and going through the bankruptcy courts. In this way he hoped to dispel any suggestion that he had recently come into money, and give a reasonable excuse for quitting Thirsby.

From what French had told him, Philpot realised that the numbers of some of the stolen notes were known, and French’s announcement at the inquest he did not fully believe, fearing a trap. His ready money was, however, by this time exhausted, and he set to work to devise means not only to obtain more, but also to transfer a nest-egg to Brazil, to which country it had all along been his intention to emigrate.

The arrangements for this journey he had carried out with the same careful regard to detail which had characterised his other actions. Hidden in the cashbox with Averill’s money French found a passport made out for Brazil in the name of Arthur Lisle Whitman, with a photograph of Philpot, viséed and complete and---a forgery. The way in which this had been done showed the man’s extraordinary ingenuity once again. He had obtained in the ordinary way a passport for himself for holidaying in France. Roper’s passport with its Brazilian visé he had searched for and stolen before setting fire to the house. Of these two he had built up a new one, using certain pages from each. From his own book he took the description of himself, his stamped photograph and the vacant pages at the back. On certain blank pages from Roper’s he forged both the printing and writing where he could not suitably alter his own, as well as obtaining a model of the Brazilian visé, which he also forged.

The wretched criminal’s last move, the meeting with French at Waverley, was on his part a throw of the dice. On receipt of the wire to Whitman through the Edinburgh tobacconist he half-suspected a trap, and of course the plan became apparent when French’s letter to himself arrived. He saw, however, that he was either quite safe or irretrievably lost. If French had no inkling of the truth it was evident that he must keep the appointment and continue to play his game. On the other hand, if French knew, nothing could save him, and he would make an end of things for all concerned with his Mills’ bomb.

To bring this tale of the Starvel Hollow Tragedy to a close it remains only to be said that after a dramatic trial Herbert Philpot paid for his crimes with his life, while to turn to a happier side of the picture, Pierce Whymper and Ruth Averill found the happiness together which at one time had seemed likely to be denied them.

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