History is full of strange cold cases, unsolved criminal investigations that can stay open for decades while the police look for new evidence. Sadly, the fate of almost all of them is to remain unsolved, open questions for all time.
One of England’s oldest, and strangest, cold cases is known as the Peasenhall Murder. In the summer of 1902, in a quaint Suffolk village, a beautiful young woman was found dead in her employer’s home.
What police originally believed to have been suicide turned out to be a brutal murder. The more they investigated, the more obvious the culprit seemed to be.
Yet the police never got their man. Or did they? When it comes to the Peasenhall Murder there are still more questions than answers, even after over 100 years.
The Death of Rose Harsent
It was the morning of June 1st, 1902, when William Harsent walked into the kitchen of Providence House in Peasenhall, Suffolk, England to find the body of his daughter, Rose Harsent lying on the floor. She was in a pool of her own blood with her throat slit. She also had numerous gashes on her shoulders and stab wounds.
If this wasn’t bad enough for her poor father to witness, her nightdress had also been burned and parts of her lower body were charred, as if someone had tried to dispose of the evidence by burning it. My Harsent called the authorities to the scene, and they initially ruled her death a suicide. It didn’t take long for them to change their minds, however: this was clearly a murder.
There was really only one suspect. Rose, just 22 years old, had been working as a servant at Providence House in the run-up to her death. In her spare time, she was a member of the choir at a local church, the Primitive Methodist Chapel in nearby Sibton. The choirmaster at this chapel was a Mr. William Gardiner, a married man with six children.
Peasenhall was a typical small, close-knit English village and anyone who has ever been to such a place knows how much villagers love to gossip. In the May of 1901, rumors began circling that the two were having an affair.
Two locals, Alphonso Skinner, and a Mr. Wright, claimed to have seen Rose and Gardiner entering another local church, known as the Doctor’s Chapel. They said they had heard Rose talking to Gardiner about their relationship while referring to Genesis Chapter 38, which talks about sexual relations.
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The gossip spread like wildfire and Gardiner was outraged. He demanded a formal apology, but the two men refused. The whole scandal culminated in a church investigation led by Rev. John Guy. The investigation turned nothing up, but Gardiner did threaten to sue his accusers for defamation.
With this drama in mind, it’s easy to guess who the police’s prime suspect was.
The Evidence Against Gardiner
Several pieces of circumstantial evidence found at the crime scene pointed to Gardiner being the murderer. Near the body was paraffin in a prescription bottle addressed to Gardiner and his wife and some romantic letters that were addressed to the victim.
The most damning letter hinted at an affair saying, “Dear R, I will try to see you tonight at 12 o’clock at your place. If you put a light in your window at ten for about then minutes, then you can put it out again.” The police reasoned whoever had written the letter was most likely the killer. There was also a newspaper at the scene that Rose’s employers didn’t subscribe to, but Gardiner did.
A post-mortem revealed the above wounds on Rose’s body. It appeared she had been beaten, stabbed, and then had her throat slit. Marks on her hands suggested she had put up a pretty good fight before succumbing to her injuries. Most interestingly, however, was the fact that Rose was found to be six months pregnant at the time of death.
The police didn’t exactly have a smoking gun but decided to go after Gardiner. They figured Gardiner was the unborn child’s father and had decided the best way to save his reputation was to kill Rose and her baby. The prescription bottle and newspaper both pointed to Gardiner and his handwriting was similar to that of one of the letters.
From there, things only got worse for Gardiner. A witness came forward and claimed they had spotted Gardiner standing outside his home and gazing over at Providence House at around 10 pm one night, watching the light from an upstairs window. Just like in the letter. Another witness claimed that on the day Rose’s body was discovered Gardiner had had a bonfire in his yard, perhaps to get rid of his bloodied clothes.
Most damningly the police discovered Gardiner always carried around a small, hinged knife on his person. Upon inspecting it they found what appeared to be blood trapped in its hinge. Gardiner, of course, denied he was involved in any way, but the police decided to go ahead and charge him with Rose’s murder.
The Trials of Gardiner
William Gardiner was initially tried in November 1902. He pleaded his innocence, stating that he had been fast asleep at home the night Rose was killed. His wife backed him all the way.
She even explained how she had given the prescription bottle to Harsent because the young woman had been feeling unwell. Rose must have simply filled the bottle with paraffin when she had finished the medicine.
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Gardiner’s wife even explained away the bonfire and the blood on her husband’s knife. They were just coincidences. According to his wife’s testimony, Mr. Gardiner had caught and killed a rabbit with the knife and the bonfire had just been started to boil some water.
One of Gardiner’s neighbors also came to his defense. She declared she hadn’t been able to sleep the night of the murder and she would have seen or heard if Gardiner had gone out that night. She swore under oath that no one left the Gardiner residence that night.
The defense team then set about doing their best to besmirch Rose’s character. They revealed numerous love letters and raunchy poems that had been sent to the young woman. Their argument was basically by the time of her death half of the men in Suffolk could have been the father/ murderer.
Of the 12 jurors, 11 voted to convict Gardiner but one argued none of the evidence was strong enough. With the jurors deadlocked, the judge declared a mistrial and ordered a second be held.
The second trial began two months later in January 1903. No new real evidence had come to light in the intervening months so the whole trial was basically a repeat. This time, however, the jury went the opposite way. 11 voted for acquittal while 1 argued for Gardiner’s conviction. At the time a unanimous verdict was needed in the UK for a conviction and so Gardiner was released a free man.
An Open Question
So, who killed Rose Harsent? Most modern historians and researchers who have looked at this cold case believe Gardiner did indeed get away with murder. But not everyone is convinced.
Some believe it was Georgina Gardiner who ended poor Rose’s life. Perhaps in a fit of jealousy, she attacked her husband’s supposed lover and killer. Strange things have happened.
Others believe the murderer was a neighbor by the name of Frederick James Davis. During the trial, it was revealed many of the letters and poems that had been sent to Rose were from him. No other evidence has been given, or real motive has been given to give this accusation any real merit, but it is at least possible.
In all likelihood, the death of Rose Harsent will remain a cold case. The Gardiner family left Peasenhall for London after the second trial and Mr. Gardiner died in 1941. Everyone else involved in the case is also long dead, meaning the real murderer likely took their secrets to the grave decades ago.
Top Image: William Gardeiner was twice tried for the Peasenhall murder, but the true killer remains a mystery. Source: Kathy / Adobe Stock.