Tuesday, May 21, 2024

‘Axe murder’ of Victorian showman was one final illusion

The death of a beloved Victorian showman in one of history’s most sensational “axe murders” was not a murder and didn’t involve an axe, a new book claims.

Author Karl Shaw’s reevaluation of police files and other evidence suggests that an innocent man was framed for the killing of retired circus proprietor “Lord” George Sanger after allegations of adultery and theft led to a deadly scuffle.

Shaw intended to write a straightforward biography of Sanger, who, from humble beginnings, built a circus empire and whose “title” was part of his self-promotion. The fact that Sanger was bludgeoned, aged 85, by his former valet would have been merely the dramatic end of a life that included marrying a lion tamer and criss-crossing Britain with a 62-wagon convoy.

Sanger’s Circus comes to Beverley, East Yorkshire, in June 1901. Photo: East Riding Archives, no restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

However, when Shaw looked into it, this “fact” in the official record appeared not to be supported by evidence. Shaw said: “I was doing the due diligence about this strange endnote. I’d read that he met his end in a ghastly way ⁠— he’d had his head cleaved from his body and so forth. I thought I’d better go to the source material, but I wasn’t anticipating anything revelatory. Yet among the police files, there was this extraordinary story. All of a sudden a lot of my carefully prepared work had to be jettisoned because it was getting in the way of the real story, which was this dreadful miscarriage of justice.”

Sanger died from head injuries at 11pm on November 28, 1911, at Park Farm, his home at East Finchley on the rural fringe of North London where he had once grazed his elephants. He lingered for hours after being struck but was unfit to make a statement after police arrived. Sanger’s grandson-in-law Harry Austin and Sanger’s valet, Arthur Jackson, were also hurt. Their statements claimed that 26-year-old Herbert Cooper, Sanger’s former valet, had attacked Jackson with a cut-throat razor in the kitchen before taking an axe to Austin and Sanger in the drawing room.

Photographs of ‘Lord’ George Sanger and Herbert Cooper in The Weekly Dispatch, December 3, 1911. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive

Cooper, whose job had been taken by Jackson after his dismissal, fled the scene and his decapitated body was found two days later after he took his own life on a nearby railway line.

It seemed an open and shut case. Cooper was a “madman”, driven to murder by jealousy, as the press would have it. Nevertheless, at the coroner’s inquest, Austin, who was the only alleged eyewitness, admitted that he had not seen Cooper striking Sanger. Jackson also backtracked. After previously saying he saw Cooper charging towards the drawing room wielding an axe, he now said he was unconscious at the time, having been knocked out cold by Cooper.

In one of two suicide notes found on his body, Cooper said he had no memory of killing Sanger. He wrote: “Dear Dad, Something at the farm has happened, I don’t remember doing it I can only call to mind someone speaking I seemed to come to my senses no one knows what I have gone through the govener [sic] turned against me what for I don’t know and blamed me for things I never knew anything about after spending six years with him [ . . . ]”

Harry Austin, top, equestrian and grandson-in-law of ‘Lord George Sanger’. Photo: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Even so, after Bernard Spilsbury, the famous Home Office pathologist, gave evidence that Sanger’s injuries were consistent with axe murder, Cooper was ruled to have wilfully killed his former boss. The jury heard that Cooper had once been a favourite of the old man but had been cast out of his affections after Sanger accused him of stealing £50. It would not have helped Cooper’s case that the press reported a previous incident in which he had allegedly struck a trespasser on Sanger’s farm with a stick. This was reported in hindsight as having been a “furious attack”. Other media accounts of the “unhinged” killer’s savagery were notably lurid and inaccurate.

Shaw said his analysis of the case records in the National Archives revealed the legal process to have been deeply flawed. It suggested that the alleged murder weapon — a felling axe recovered at the scene — was planted by members of the Sanger family. “There was a team of policemen who were presumably well trained and were in the room [where Sanger died] for several hours. And it became clear from the police notes that this axe wasn’t discovered until 2am the following morning. It was discovered in a little alcove by the fireplace, under the noses of everybody. And it was not discovered by a policeman — it was handed in by Sanger’s brother-in-law.”

Details from a police plan of the crime scene. Photo: Karl Shaw

Shaw notes that a blood-stained candelabrum found lying on the drawing room floor was mentioned twice in police reports but not spoken of at all at the inquest. He believes Sanger’s injuries and slow death were far more consistent with being struck by the candelabrum than being struck by a felling axe as was alleged. Austin’s relatively minor injuries were also incompatible with his account of having been hit by the implement.

Going by records of known axe murders, Shaw writes in his book, The Killing of Lord George: “When an axe of this size hits a skull, the weight of the axe transfers to the entire skull and the skull invariably shatters. The immediate cause of death is extensive brain contusion following fragmentation of the neurocranium . . . To put it bluntly, if someone hits you over the head with a felling axe you are immediately dead.”

Injury by candelabrum is consistent with the account in The Sanger Story, a 1956 book by John Lukens quoting George Sanger’s grandson George Coleman. Coleman claimed, based on Sanger family lore, that Sanger rose from his armchair to join the fray when Cooper attacked Jackson and Austin. Sanger grabbed a bronze candelabrum from the mantelpiece and lunged at Cooper who was incensed after Jackson called him a “thieving bastard”. Cooper deflected the blow with his arm and the ornament caught Sanger on the side of his head. Coleman said that Sanger hit his head on a table as he fell but appeared to recover and was “quite normal” for a while before his condition deteriorated.

“There is no proof that Herbert Cooper was even in the room”

Karl Shaw

According to Coleman, the injuries sustained by Jackson and Austin were greatly exaggerated in the press and amounted to no more than a razor nick and a few bruises, respectively.

Shaw said the inquest gave little weight to significant allegations, noted by the police, that Cooper had had an affair with Harry Austin’s wife, Ellen — Sanger’s granddaughter. It appears that a servant, Jane Beesley, told Austin she suspected a dalliance and he believed the worst. Cooper referred to Beesley’s “lies” in his suicide note to his father. Shaw speculates that Austin may have convinced Sanger that Cooper was a thief in order to have him sacked, thereby setting the scene for the fatal confrontation.

Bernard Spilsbury, the influential Home Office pathologist. Photo: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He suspects that Austin and other members of the Sanger household conspired to frame Cooper for an axe murder when the showman’s death was in reality accidental. He finds it quite plausible that the “tough” octogenarian would have pitched into the younger men’s fight with dire unintended consequences. “If you put it all together, apart from Harry Austin’s word, there is no proof that Herbert Cooper was even in the room, and Harry Austin had a motive for framing him.”

As for Cooper’s flight and death, Shaw speculates that Cooper may have hidden on the farm for long enough after the incident to realise that something terrible had happened and he would likely be blamed. He doesn’t see Cooper’s actions as a sign of guilt but suggestive of shock and despair. “He had been bullied previously,” he said. “And I think he realised this was not going to turn out well for him.”

He added that Cooper was also a victim of “Spilsburyism”. Many suspected murderers were convicted and hanged based on the evidence of the articulate, urbane pathologist Bernard Spilsbury. However, serious doubts later arose around Spilsbury’s accuracy and objectivity. As Shaw puts it: “His signature on this was very interesting because it turned out much later that he made up a lot of stuff as he went along.”

Top image shows mourners watching the funeral procession of ‘Lord’ George Sanger (1827-1911) leaving Park Farm in East Finchley. Photo: Chronicle/Alamy.

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