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A Quiet Evening’s Reading

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A Quiet Evening’s Reading

Notable British Trials is as complete an inventory of human depravity as has ever been assembled. Spring 2018
The Social Order

For roughly 200 years, trial transcripts were popular, if not the favorite, reading material in the English-speaking world—especially in Britain. Of course, the best trials were for murder, with their dramatic denouements of acquittal or sentence of death. Between 1921 and 1959, the Edinburgh firm William Hodge and Company published a series of volumes (83 in all) under the rubric Notable British Trials, and other publishers—notably, Geoffrey Bles—imitated them. The genre has now disappeared, gone the way of the peep show or the pornographic postcard, though for different reasons. (Last year, an independent British publisher announced a plan to revive the series and add new titles.) To read a trial transcript with enjoyment requires time, patience, and concentration, and our age is propitious to none of these requirements. There are now swifter-moving means to gratify our prurience, and no doubt the decline and abolition of the death penalty give a much less satisfactory ending to murder trials—less satisfactory from a dramatic point of view, that is. Could there be a more definitive closure (to use a word favored by narratologists, psychotherapists, and other external parasites on the literary body) than the words uttered by an English judge, after he had the black silk square placed upon the top of his wig, in sentencing a murderer? “The sentence of the court is that you be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and thence to a place of lawful execution, and that you there be hanged by the neck until you are dead; and that your body be afterwards buried within the precincts of the prison in which you shall have been confined after your conviction, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”

I love that unctuous afterthought, so Anglo-Saxon in its hypocrisy: you order a man killed and then wish him well in the afterlife. But in fact, most death sentences were never carried out; a betting man would have taken the odds on commutation. It wasn’t deemed necessary to execute every murderer for the death penalty to exercise its deterrent effect.

Each volume of Notable British Trials came with a lengthy introduction by its editor, many of whom were distinguished writers—for example, William Roughead, the originator of the true-crime genre and much admired by Henry James; or F. Tennyson Jesse, the poet’s great-niece, a good novelist and author of a wonderful study of murderers, Murder and Its Motives, which remains in use. She wrote with cool irony about the worst crime in the criminal code; she says, for instance, of some women murderers:

The woman who murders her husband has nearly always ceased to think of him as such, and cannot really believe that he ever stood in that relationship towards her. It is only a tiresome insistence on the part of the law that makes her drastic step necessary. She loves another man who is her husband “in the sight of God,” and it is to her both unreasonable and indecent that the first man should be obstructing her path.

Jesse writes things that I think would nowadays call down upon her all the anathemata of which right-thinking intellectuals are capable. In describing the trial of a Mrs. Carew, who poisoned her husband in order to join her illicit lover, Jesse says:

Her counsel made a point that did not succeed in weighing the scales in her favour . . . but which shows him to have been a man of some penetration in the matter of female psychology. He said: “It must be borne in mind that a woman never thinks it wrong for a man to be in love with her,” and when he said that he said something profoundly true. A woman may think it shows a lack of pride, utter shamelessness, complete lack of all decent feeling for another woman to be in love with her husband, but she will always feel convinced that it is a sign of something nice and perspicacious in a man for him to be in love with her.

This was written in 1924. Subsequently, it seems to me, male psychology has—in this regard, anyway—become feminized; what once applied specially to women now applies equally to men.

It would be invidious to choose just one of the 83 volumes of Notable British Trials, which are as complete a compendium of human nature as has ever appeared; and if I select the trial of John Donald Merrett for my subject, I do not imply that any of the others are without special interest or instruction. I use Merrett only as an illustration.

Merrett, at 17, was accused of two crimes: first the murder of his mother in Edinburgh in 1926 by gunshot to the head; and second the fraudulent use of her checks to fund the (relatively) high life that he led. In six weeks, in fact, he cashed 29 of these checks, all made out to himself, for about half of her annual income, equivalent to about $100,000 in today’s dollars. He was found guilty of the second charge; but on the first, he received the peculiarly Scottish verdict of “not proven.”

The trial took place in February 1927, ten and a half months after Merrett’s mother’s death; the transcript ran in Notable British Trials two years later. It was edited and introduced by William Roughead, himself Scottish, and he says, with some national pride: “The crime of parricide is rare in the judicial annals of Scotland, our murderers, however reprehensible their practices, having generally the good taste to draw the line at the home circle.”

This might have been taken as libelous of John Donald Merrett, who had not been found guilty of the crime: all the more so as, at the end of his introduction, Roughead says: “It is noteworthy . . . that no single member of this jury of fifteen saw his or her way to find the [accused] Not Guilty,” and that he was fortunate in his jury. But Roughead would have been confident that Merrett would not sue: the fact is, he was guilty, and would not have wanted a detailed reexamination of the case. What Roughead could not have known, of course, was that 28 years after Merrett killed his mother, he would murder his wife and mother-in-law, and then commit suicide. This put the words of Merrett’s brilliant defense counsel, Craigie Aitchison (father of the distinguished painter of the same name), in his final address to the jury, in an ironical light: “I will say only this to you, as one who has been much and intimately in contact with him in these last few days. . . . Send him out from the Court-room this afternoon a free man with a clean bill, and, as far as I can judge, he will never dishonour your verdict.”

The case has so many interesting aspects, at least to someone such as I, who, as a former prison psychiatrist, was professionally concerned with murder, that it is hard to know where to begin; but an outline of the facts will doubtless assist the reader.

John Donald Merrett was born in 1908, in New Zealand, where his father was an electrical engineer. Merrett Senior soon moved the family to St. Petersburg, to found a business there; the business failed. Bertha Merrett disliked Russia and moved to Switzerland, where she and her son lived out World War I. Then, definitively separated from her husband, she moved with Donald (as he was known) back to New Zealand, though not for long; as her son was highly intelligent, she thought it best if he went to school in England, where he excelled in mathematics. (He was also a gifted linguist, fluent in French and German, and later proficient in Spanish and Arabic.) Bertha Merrett originally intended to send Donald to Oxford, but because of his unreliable character—the precise nature of which was not yet specified for history—decided that it would be better if he went to Edinburgh, where she could live with and supervise him. This decision turned out to be her death warrant, though it also provided confirmatory evidence of her early apprehensions about her son’s character.

Once in Edinburgh, young Donald began to attend to his entertainments more than to his studies. He spent wildly beyond his weekly allowance from his mother, who was careful with her money. She soon received two letters from her bank telling her, unexpectedly, that she was overdrawn. She must have known that her son, the center of her life, was stealing from her. On the morning of her shooting, Bertha Merrett was sitting at her desk, writing a letter. She was shot by a single bullet behind the right ear. She died in the hospital two weeks later of meningitis, the result of her injury. The bullet had not entered her brain, however, which on postmortem examination was unharmed directly, making her left-sided paralysis, lasting from the time of her wounding to her death, a neurological puzzle. Perhaps the postmortem was not thorough.

As the only other person in the room at the time was Donald, the choice (barring accident) seemed to be between suicide and matricide. At first, the police believed that the shooting was an attempted suicide, based largely on the testimony of the maid, who, rushing to the scene after hearing the shot, claimed to have seen the offending weapon, a cheap Spanish pistol that Donald had bought shortly before—allegedly to shoot rabbits, a task for which it was singularly ill-suited—drop from Bertha’s hand as she fell from the chair to the floor. Later, the maid withdrew her testimony, saying that she had witnessed no such thing. Her conflicting positions were, needless to say, a gift to the defense.

Bertha was not only taken to the hospital but also placed under arrest in a ward with barred windows, suspected of trying to commit suicide, which was, until 1961, a crime in Britain. Since then, the country has become the attempted-suicide champion of the world, with more such gestures per capita than anywhere else, though its completed suicide rate is only moderate. This suggests an efflorescence of emotional incontinence or a high level of practical incompetence, or both. The law against suicide was no dead letter, incidentally: in Terence Rattigan’s 1951 play The Deep Blue Sea, the middle-class characters debate whether, after discovering that Hester Collyer has taken an overdose of aspirin and tried to gas herself, they must call the police:

ANN: Attempted suicide is a crime, isn’t it? People get jailed for it, don’t they.

PHILLIP: Yes.

This passage now seems as antiquated as any in the Gilgamesh: we now realize that it is primitive (and psychologically harmful) for the law to require emotional self-control of citizens.

Bertha Merrett regained consciousness soon after arriving at the hospital, and remained fully conscious until the day before she died, when she slipped into delirium. The police never properly interviewed her about what had happened, but several visitors testified that she had said that Donald was beside her when she heard, or felt, an explosion go off in her head. One witness claimed that Bertha had said, “Did Donald not do it? He is such a naughty boy!”

A naughty boy indeed (“a big romping boy,” his counsel called him), as his subsequent career was fully to confirm, and as he remained to the day that he shot himself, more than a quarter of a century later. But both the defense and the judge (who was clearly favorable to the accused) criticized the worth of any testimony of what Bertha might have said while in the hospital, for several reasons: the balance of her mind might have been upset by her injury; she was under the influence of morphine; the witnesses might have colluded, as the son of one witness stood to gain if Donald were found guilty, because he was next in line for the inheritance, which Donald would forfeit if he had killed his mother; and, finally, that no one had written down at the time what Bertha had said, and the trial was taking place ten and a half months after her death—an unconscionable lapse of time, said the judge, for accuracy of memory. Nowadays, a mere ten and half months between a murder and its trial would be seen as a sign of undue haste, of precipitate prosecution: though whether this change in the appreciation of time represents an advance or a retrogression in the administration of justice (or, again, both) I leave it to others to decide.

Merrett was brilliantly defended. No one who reads Aitchison’s cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses will fail to admire his forensic art. Part of his job was to muddy the waters, or so to confuse the jurors that they ended up like Pilate, unable to know what to believe, or even if such a thing as truth existed.

The trial turned on whether Bertha Merrett had shot herself or been shot, a question for experts. For the defense, Aitchison called Sir Bernard Spilsbury, then the most famous forensic pathologist in Britain, Europe, and possibly the world. So great was his reputation that juries were inclined to accept his testimony purely because it was his. In an age of gathering disbelief, people believed in the infallibility of Spilsbury, for he represented, as no one else, the certainty of science; and the newspaper words “Spilsbury called in” meant (more or less) that someone—almost always the person the police most suspected—would hang. Today, his legacy is disputed.

Merrett’s was the first prominent case, and one of few ever, in which Spilsbury testified for the defense. Spilsbury was overwhelmingly a pathologist for the prosecution. His testimony in Merrett’s case was clearly wrong, moreover, at least as judged by the evidence on similar matters that he gave in other trials. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that he bent his opinion to suit those retaining him: and as someone who has been called both for the defense and the prosecution in murder trials, I know how tempting it is to slide down the slope from expert to advocate. You desire to please the side that has brought you in, and you become part of a team; having given an opinion favorable to a case, pride does not easily let you retract or qualify it in the face of contrary evidence, and you start to invent ad hoc hypotheses to defend it.

Spilsbury testified that the absence of blackening or gunpowder tattooing around his mother’s head wound did not prove that she had been shot at a distance that made suicide impossible: the opposite of what he had testified elsewhere. He instead claimed, based on his own clearly deficient experiments—with a gun and ammunition different from those used in the killing—that the markings could have been wiped away in the initial cleaning of the mother’s wound, and therefore suicide remained a possibility. This clashed with the testimony of two distinguished Scottish forensic pathologists, Harvey Littlejohn and John Glaister, who had conducted much better experiments than Spilsbury’s. But, Spilsbury being Spilsbury, his testimony carried the day with the jury, and Merrett got off. Perhaps Spilsbury was misled by thinking that intelligent, gifted young men like Merrett did not murder their mothers.

Merrett’s subsequent career was colorful, swashbuckling, and disgraceful—though, on one occasion, his psychopathy enabled him to become a war hero. He was a large and jolly man, the life and soul of the party—until crossed. He changed his name after he left prison, having served eight months of his 12-month sentence for cashing his mother’s forged checks (many while she was dying in hospital) and soon reinvented himself as Ronald Chesney. However, for the purposes of inheriting his mother’s money, he was still John Donald Merrett.

Soon after he emerged from prison, he married the young daughter, Veronica Bonnar, of one of his mother’s friends, who called herself, without title to the title, Lady Menzies. Veronica believed in his innocence and continued to visit him in prison. It was mother and daughter whom he murdered 27 years later.

Chesney’s career consisted of smuggling and swindling, with an interlude as a war hero. He was a good sailor, and his smuggling ventures were often successful, in the sense that they sometimes brought him the equivalent in today’s money of hundreds of thousands of dollars a week; but money never stuck to his hand for long. He was either bathing in champagne, or broke.

Not long after World War II started, he enlisted in the Royal Navy. He rose to the rank of lieutenant commander, commanding a small vessel with which, with complete disregard for his own safety, he rescued British soldiers trapped at Tobruk in Libya, thus achieving the status of war hero. He was beloved of his men.

When the war ended, Chesney was posted to Germany. Here, long after abandoning his wife and mother-in-law (who together now ran a nursing home in North West London), he took up with a beautiful German woman. The postwar conditions were perfect for a smuggler; for years, he made huge sums trafficking in everything from coffee and nylons to penicillin. He was a real-life figure out of Graham Greene’s The Third Man.

By 1954, however, having had the equivalent of millions slip through his fingers, he found himself in a financial hole. Unfortunately for Veronica (and, as it proved, his mother-in-law), he had settled some money on her early in their marriage, which would revert to him if she died. Now needing this money, and in true psychopathic fashion, he set out to kill her.

He devised an elaborate plan to appear to be in the Netherlands, while in actuality he was in England carrying out the crime. He devised the murder method from reading another volume in Notable British Trials, that concerning George Joseph Smith, one of the first, and certainly the most celebrated, trials in which Spilsbury came to prominence. Smith made his living by seducing women and running off with their possessions. In three cases, he drowned them in the bath, after previously taking them to doctors for “fits.” All the women had made their wills in Smith’s favor shortly before meeting their deaths. At the trial, Spilsbury demonstrated how to drown a woman swiftly in a small bath—a method fully described, complete with diagrams, in the Notable British Trials volume.

Unhappily, Veronica Chesney (or Merrett) was a severe alcoholic, so it was obvious to her estranged husband that if she drowned in the bath, à la Spilsbury, there would be no need to look further than the large quantities of gin that she consumed nightly to explain the “accident.” Late at night, therefore, he insinuated himself into the nursing-home bedroom where she slept, got her into the bath, and drowned her. The plan was then to slip back unnoticed to the Netherlands, which, according to the false evidence he had arranged, he had never left.

All went well, except that, when leaving the nursing home, he unexpectedly bumped into his mother-in-law. She, of course, would have to be got out of the way; Merrett, the war hero, panicked and killed her most brutally, hitting her over the head with a blunt object and strangling her, leaving traces by which he was easily found. As the police closed in, he shot himself in the head: this time, there was no doubt about it being suicide.

Before her death, Veronica had become convinced that her husband would try to kill her. Shortly before he succeeded, she was reading the Notable British Trials account of his earlier murder trial.

As for Spilsbury, he, too, killed himself, at 70, seven years before Merrett, by gassing himself in his hospital room. The reasons are a matter of surmise, and there are several possibilities, not mutually exclusive. Two of his sons had died before him, one a recently qualified doctor, killed by a bomb dropped on St. Thomas’s Hospital early in the war, and the second from fulminating tuberculosis. He was not close to his third son, a philosopher, who did not altogether approve of him. A somewhat distant man, Spilsbury was estranged from his wife. Never concerned with money, he was now short of it. He was no longer the pathological lion of old, and his reputation was increasingly under attack. He had declined physically, suffering at least two slight strokes, and he was possibly aware that he might be going senile. He had long cherished the desire of writing a great textbook, based on his vast experience of 25,000 postmortems—his apologia pro vita sua—but now realized that he would never do so. He published nothing and was responsible for no definitive scientific advance. It may be, too, that he recognized that he had helped send some innocent men to the scaffold, and, a religious man, he felt a deep remorse. Even his testimony in the George Joseph Smith trial was flawed: he testified that water entering the windpipe would stimulate an unconscious epileptic back to consciousness. This was wrong.

For all his contemporaneous fame, then, Spilsbury’s life was ultimately a tragic failure. But he appeared as a hero, as a Daniel come to judgment, in many of the Notable British Trials, which, in part, serve as his enduring monument.

Photo: John Donald Merrett, murderer (UNITED ARCHIVES/TOPFOTO/GRANGER. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

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