Detective Inspector Frederick Wensley was well aware of the reach and importance of his career in the Metropolitan police. Over decades he had been involved in most of the East End’s biggest cases, from the pursuit of Jack the Ripper as a young constable, through the Siege of Sidney Street, to the prosecution of Steinie Morrison for the murder of Leon Beron. In 1931 he would write his memoirs and revisit those crimes … but he didn’t expect his murderers to revisit him.
So the knock on his door in 1929, in the last days of his police career was a surprise. It was a man he hadn’t seen in 20 years, who had tracked the old copper down to thank him from sparing him from the gallows. But the curious tale of Kitty Roman and Henry Hall begins some 40 years before.
At the end of the 1880s, the two would set off, unknown to each other, from the other side of the world. Kitty (then Katie) Roman would depart New York with her father Andrew for a new life in London. The Americans settled in Fulham and Katie went to school in Lillie Road, but study and a comfortable if unexceptional middle class life held no interest for Katie. To her father’s horror she chose a career in domestic service. For the “restless and wayward” Katie it was the beginning of a descent that would end in murder.
Meanwhile, the young Harold Hall was continuing the many peregrinations of his short and unhappy life. He and his brothers had been cast into the Strangeways workhouse in Manchester, then shipped off to Canada as youths for a fresh start. He had gone to sea, travelling the world before settling (for a while at least) in London.
By 1909, Kitty’s situation had deteriorated markedly. She had moved steadily west to east, ending up in the grim Spitalfields stew of Dorset Street (the site of several murders including that of Mary Jane Kelly two decades before). She shared grim lodgings with Henry Benstead, and the pair scraped along on the money she made from taking in ironing, selling flowers outside Aldgate station, and prostituting herself.
On 2 July, Benstead returned home from a day’s drinking to find Kitty on the bed with her throat cut. He raced to the police station in Commercial Street and summoned the constables. The sketch ‘Ghastly Murder in Spitalfields’ in The Illustrated Police News of a few days later is typical of its time – melodramatic, stagey and packed with unlikely detail. But, showing as it does a crowd of people at the scene, it was probably rather accurate. The Edwardians didn’t do forensic crime scenes, and constables and onlookers would heedlessly tread upon vital evidence.
The police had the knife though, and the sharp-eyed Wensley spotted a penny clutched in Kitty’s lifeless hand: it seemed likely that she had been killed by a customer. But for more than a week they had little else. Benstead was a suspect of course, but had been given a solid alibi by his drinking buddies. To the frustration of Wensley, just a few days later the Coroner’s jury gave a verdict of ‘murder by some person or persons unknown’.
But just days later, a dishevelled figure turned himself in to a Bristol police station, confessing to the crime. It was Hall, and his grasp of details of the case, of the room in Dorset Street, and of the minutiae of the murder himself convinced Wensley that this wasn’t another attention seeker (even in the days of capital punishment people confessed to murders they hadn’t committed).
Hall said he had been drinking heavily before encountering Kitty and returning to her room. He had caught her going through his pockets and in a rage – he had been robbed by a prostitute in South Africa he said – he had strangled and then stabbed her.
The Illustrated Police Budget was one of many magazines in the early 1900s catering to the seemingly bottomless appetite of Edwardian Londoners for details of crime in general, and murder in particular. Of course, details were often sketchy and hard to establish. Sometimes there was little to say – murder was frequently depressingly mundane and swift. A wrong word, a jealous comment, too much drink taken and the frustrations of a life ground out just on the survival side of poverty erupted into a moment’s violence, which could never be undone.
That didn’t stop the police papers of course. Every attending officer and witness (or those who were nearby and spoke to people who might have spoken to witnesses) was interrogated. Detail was filled in, embroidered and coloured. No photographs? No matter – talented artists could swiftly recreate a crime scene in ink, the more melodramatic the scene the better.
So it was that ‘The Budget’ depicted Kitty Roman in her death throes, a look of shock and disbelief still frozen on her face as her last drops of life drained away. Hall was depicted as a dashing rogue, improbably dapper and smartly dressed, turning away with his knife, his evil work done.
Hall, wracked with guilt had tied up every loose end in the case, but that didn’t stop him suddenly retracting it all in the witness stand, perhaps suddenly aware of his own mortality. Too late: the jury were convinced and Hall sentenced to hang. But by Edwardian times many were having doubts about the universal sentence of hanging for murder, and 19 days after the verdict Wensley was summoned to the Home Office to give his view. Terrible though the crime was, Wensley had some sympathy for a man whose life had been unremittingly bleak. What purpose could be served by killing someone who had expressed contrition but now wanted to live? Hall’s sentence was commuted to life, though he would serve much less.
And that, it seemed, was that. There was a tasteless coda to Kitty’s death just a few years later. Edwardian London loved its drama, and in 1912 a play appeared on the London stage, bowdlerising the story. Set in a mission house in Stepney, Peter’s Chance told the tale of Kitty Roman, a gorblimey burglar and murderer who even ignores the cardinal rule of honour among thieves to kill her confederate. It seems an unfair epitaph, though the play was so bad it quickly fell into obscurity. One critic sniffed that the playwright, Mrs Lyttleton “had never seen the inside of an East End mission house [except] in her Park Lane imagination”.
But 20 years after the killing, Wensley received that unexpected visitor. It was Hall, who had been released from prison to go and fight in the First World War. Wensley notes in his memoirs that he had “served in France and elsewhere with distinction, reaching, I think, the rank of sergeant”. He had made a life for himself and was returning to thank Wensley for his compassion. His life, it seemed, hadn’t been completely wasted after all.
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