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Keith Simpson's Memories

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  • Keith Simpson's Memories

    One of my all-time favorite books on true crime is Professor Keith Simpson's Forty Years of Murder. Highly recommended to any reader, this autobiography of a great pathologist is well written and beautifully readable, a fascinating and fast-moving account of the investigations by which the mysteries of crime were unraveled. There's never a dull moment with that book!

    However, one or two inaccuracies in it have surprised me, considering that Simpson had notes of all the cases he was involved with. Some of them are admittedly trivial. The first one to draw my attention was a statement that some miscreant was hanged for a murder he was involved in--some time in the late 1940s, I believe, and I apologize for being too lazy to check on it right now. In fact the fellow wasn't hanged, but was reprieved, or anyway escaped with his life by some means or other.

    No big deal, but another was the strangely unsolved murder of Diana Suttey in Leverstock Green, Hertfordshire, in 1956. Like most of the others where errors were involved, this was an obscure murder, which happened to grab my interest for more than one reason. Simpson had her name as "Diane Setty"--possibly due to confusion with the more publicized murder of Stanley Setty seven years earlier. Simpson also recorded the suspect as driving a Rover car, which was true at one time, but that man was eliminated and the eventual suspect was driving a different model of car. Despite all the witnesses they had, the failure to bring the killer to justice was frustrating to everyone involved, Simpson included.

    Again, just details/ no big deal. More surprising to me was the murder of John Whatman in 1946. Again, another obscure case, but Simpson related in detail his reconstruction of how the killer pursued Whatman down his driveway and shot him. He concluded by saying his reconstruction was never put to the test, because the case was never solved. In fact it was solved, and Sydney John Smith was duly strung up on the gallows at Wandsworth for the heartless murder of a helpless old man. You'd think Simpson would remember that. But perhaps he was never needed to give testimony, and too busy with other cases to remember, or perhaps even know about, the outcome. Not all trials are extensively reported in the press.

    What did make me wonder more recently was another case that was certainly obscure in the public mind, but cans not have been in Simpson's mind. He was always willing to give credit to those who had befriended and helped him in his career, and in this case the man involved was the Scotland Yard Superintendents Hugh Young, a fellow Scot. According to Simpson, it was the first time he had been called out on a murder case, in 1934, and it was a kind of "test" for his competency as a forensic pathologist, in which Hugh Young kindly helped him along by dropping hints. Incidentally it was Young who investigated the strychnine poisoning of Arthur Major by his wife that same year--an obnoxiously bossy and vain woman who, despite being hanged for the murder, still succeeded in leaving her husband's memory besmirched by accusations of drunkenness, abuse and infidelity of which he was most probably not guilty, Simpson of course had no involvement with that case.

    Anyway the facts of this first murder, as Simpson recalled them, were simply these. It took place at the York Hotel, opposite Waterloo Station in London. A couple had checked into the hotel the previous night, and at some subsequent time the man had left the hotel. In the morning, the hotel manager had entered the room with his passkey, and found the woman lying strangled in bed.

    There were other details; more on those in a moment; but the victim was never named, nor was there any mention of the outcome of the case. This was unusual, since most murder cases in those days were solved, and for that matter most murderers in cases of this kind ended up on the gallows. There is no record of anyone in the 1934-35 time frame being topped for a murder of this kind.

    There is, however, a record of a murder almost identical to this one--a few details excepted--taking place, not in 1934, but in 1939, which Simpson attended. Again the basic circumstances were the same. It took place at a hotel in York Street, close to Waterloo Station, where a man named Harry Armstrong and a woman, subsequently found to be Peggy Pentecost, had checked in the previous night. Armstrong left the hotel, the manager entered the room with his passkey the following morning, and found Peggy lying strangled in bed. Armstrong was later hanged for this murder.

    Thus far, the circumstances were identical: too identical, surely, to be a coincidence. The only difference was in the details. According to the account I have of this 1939 murder, the manager entered the hotel room in the morning because the maid could not get in to clean the room and got no answer to her knocking. Called to the scene, Simpson put the time of death between 9:00 and 11:30 the previous night. Somebody thought they heard the door being closed at 11:00, which at first was taken to be the time at which Armstrong left the hotel, but he had an alibi for that time. Although he had become engaged to Peggy the previous day, he met another girl at a café at 10:00 that night and spent the night with her at a different hotel, leaving his erstwhile fiancée to sleep alone--dead or otherwise! While the girl in question backed up his alibi, he seems to have had the morals of an alley cat. No matter who heard a door click at 11:00, it was held that he had enough time to strangle poor Peggy (whatever his reason!) before leaving for his ten o'clock tryst, and he duly took the long drop.

    In the 1934 case Simpson described, the hotel manager entered the room because the man was seen hurrying away at 9:00 in the morning, and he thought the fellow might be welshing on his bill. The time of death was entirely different. Simpson said he found the dead woman's temperature was 102 degrees, well above normal; but that happens in consequence of strangulation. He estimated that the woman was killed not long before the man was seen leaving the hotel; certainly not the previous night.

    It's all very curious. One would expect Simpson to have an accurate memory of that first encounter, such an important step in his career. Unless there really were two murders in a hotel near Waterloo Station, which seems unlikely, he seems to have had things badly muddled. I doubt he was the kind of man who would fabricate such a story. He was about seventy when he wrote his book, though his writing style suggests his mind was still brilliantly sharp. It's all very puzzling.

  • #2
    Hello Gordon,

    Thanks for your post re Keith Simpson's Memories, Forty Years of Murder.

    There is another error which has been debated several times on the A6 Murders (sic) threads concerning the murder of Michael Gregsten who was killed by two bullets fired from a .38 revolver. Unfortunately Simpson refers to Michael Gregston (not Gregsten) being shot by .32 calibre revolver.

    Originally posted by Spitfire View Post

    I have to hand Prof. Keith Simpson's book "Forty Years of Murder" and it is quite clear on pp 161-7 that it was Michael Gregston who was shot on the 23 August 1961 with a calibre .32 bullet, on the other hand, Michael Gregsten was proved at Hanratty's trial to have been shot with a .38 bullet. I'm sure we have been over this before. Gregston shot with a .32, Gregsten with a .38, two entirely different people shot with two different bullets.
    Whatever attributes this book might have, accuracy is not one of them.


    • #3
      Hi Spitfire,

      It was unfortunate that both Michael's and Valerie's names were so often misspelled. At least Simpson managed to get Valerie's name right. In the past I've seen numerous references to Valerie "Storey."

      There are a several other .32s in that A6 chapter of Simpson's: three more, to be precise. What did surprise me was that he would write this:

      "Russian Robert"... had been shot at very close range with a .32 revolver...

      Then in the very next paragraph:

      At Grondkowski's lodgings the police found the .32 automatic that had fired Russian Robert's bullet.

      "Revolver," "automatic," what the heck! I never could understand why so many people in general seem to confuse (or more likely, conflate) the two, when the visible differences between a revolver and a (semi)automatic pistol are so obvious even to anyone who knows almost nothing about guns. Since revolvers have been around for the better part of two centuries, doesn't everybody know they're called that because they have a revolving cylinder, which is clearly visible to the most casual observer? It's as if some people think "revolver" is a generic term for any kind of handgun! In spite of that, I would still not have expected someone so long and intimately involved with crime investigations as Simpson to be guilty of that particular fault!


      • #4
        Although it sounds somewhat unlikely, such things as automatic revolvers have been made...


        • #5
          That's interesting, Joshua. I'd never heard of the Union revolver before. But I did know about the Webley-Fosbery, which was similar, but designed earlier. The Fosbery is better known; certainly more were produced, since Webley was taking advantage especially of an existing market for .455 army sidearms. I imagine there must have been a lot of recoil though, with all that mass moving back and forth with every shot: the barrel, the cylinder with the ammo in it, and the frame with most of the works. I wish I'd bought one back in the 1990s, because they were going for a few hundred back then. But I wasn't looking for one especially, just whatever I came across at an occasional gun show. Today some Fosberys are selling for five figures, so it would have been a great investment. Too bad!