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The Murder of Mary Emsley

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A portrait of the victim, Mary Emsley.

A portrait of the victim, Mary Emsley.

Mary Emsley, Pariah of Victorian London

In August 1860, a wealthy property owner, Mary Emsley, was found dead in her in home. She had so many enemies in Victorian London that there could have been a queue of people ready to wield the cudgel that killed her.

A Cold-Hearted Landlady

Widowed Mary Emsley owned many properties in London’s East End. The buildings were largely squalid and overcrowded—in other words, slums.

Most of her tenants were subject to insecure employment, but this was not a matter that concerned Mary Emsley. What did concern her was the weekly payment of rent. Any tenant who failed to pay was immediately evicted. There were no extensions, no matter how pitiful the pleas.

Emsley lived alone in a three-storey house in a miserly condition. What cash she had she kept hidden in a coal store, but mostly she used her rent income to buy up more properties.

She has been described as grim, eccentric, stingy, suspicious, and without friends.

Mary Emsley’s Murder

On a warm August day in 1860, one of Mary Emsley’s rent collectors called at her house. He had not seen her out and about for a few days and wondered if she was all right. She was definitely not all right.

When the rent man and police got into the house they were met with an overwhelming stink of putrefaction. On the top floor, they found Mary’s body. She had been bludgeoned to death, and the villain had left behind a bloody footprint.

Mary's murderer left a piece of evidence at the scene of the crime: a bloody footprint.

Mary's murderer left a piece of evidence at the scene of the crime: a bloody footprint.

The victim must have known her assailant because there was no sign of forced entry. A reward for information worth ₤35,000 in today’s money was offered, and this stirred James Mullins into an action he would later regret.

A Suspect Is Identified

Mullins was an odd job man who had done some work for Emsley. He went to the police with a story of having seen Walter Emm, an Emsley rent collector, putting a parcel in a shed. When they opened the parcel, police found a cheque made out to Mrs. Emsley along with four of her teaspoons.

"Gotcha!" thought police, only it was Mullins they thought was the chief suspect. A sharp-eyed copper had noticed that the string used to bind up the parcel was exactly the same as the string Mullins used to tie his boots.

To be on the safe side, police arrested both Mullins and Emms and searched their dwellings. In the Mullins home, they found a hammer, which they decided must be the murder weapon. Police also persuaded themselves that Mullins’s boot matched the bloody footprint found in the house.

Word spread in the community, and people came forward with stories about things that Mullins had said. A Mrs. Fuke, perhaps with an eye on that reward money, revealed to police that Mullins had told her “It was a great pity that such a miserable old wretch should be allowed to live.”

The Trial of James Mullins

Charged with murder, James Mullins was brought before the awesome majesty of the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey.

The judge in the trial was very fair to Mullins. He discounted testimony from people who said the accused looked “haunted” and “crazed” on the night of the murder. He called it “idle dreaming.” He also gave his opinion that the Mullins boot and the bloody footprint did not look alike.

No matter—the baying crowd wanted a guilty verdict, which seems strange given the extreme unpopularity of the victim. The jury obliged, and the judge donned the black cap and pronounced the ultimate sentence.

On November 19, 1860 Mullins mounted the steps to the gallows outside Newgate Prison. Here’s a contemporary report in The Monmouth Merlin:

“It was expected that there would have been some manifestation of feeling on the part of the spectators, but this was not the case indeed the crowd was much more orderly and decorous than is usual on such occasions. When all the necessary preliminaries had been gone through, the drop fell, and the prisoner appeared to be dead almost in an instant.”

James Mullins, 58, issued a statement that was released after his execution in which he stated that he was entirely innocent of the crime for which he was being punished. There are people who now believe him.

The crowd pushed for a guilty verdict.

The crowd pushed for a guilty verdict.

Sherlock Holmes Investigates

Of course, it was not the great fictional detective who puzzled over the murder of Mary Emsley, but his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The writer took a particular interest in the case and examined it in fine detail. Writing about it in The Strand Magazine in 1901, he acknowledged that “It is true that the cumulative force of the evidence against Mullins was very strong.” But, he added the evidence was all circumstantial, which “it is nearly always possible to twist it to some other meaning.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

In the end, Conan Doyle concluded that Mullins was probably the killer, but he left open the possibility that it was someone else―a person or persons unknown.

Another writer, Sinclair McKay, is not so coy. Having access to information that was not available to Conan Doyle, McKay points the finger at someone who stood to benefit financially from Mrs. Emsley's death. It would be a gross disservice to Mr. McKay to reveal the suspect he identifies in his 2017 book, The Mile End Murder: The Case Conan Doyle Couldn’t Solve.

Bonus Factoids

  • During the 19th century in Britain, crime was generally on the decline. However, in the 1860s, there was a period of public panic over “garrote robberies.” Thugs would throttle a person with an arm, rope, or wire around the neck and run off with cash and valuables. Such attacks were rare, but the media covered them with lurid descriptions and created an almost hysterical reaction.
  • Organized police forces did not start to appear in Britain until well into the Victorian era. Policing was mostly limited to uniformed officers who patrolled a given neighbourhood in the hope they would deter crime. Detectives were looked upon as something akin to devious and shifty spies and not the sort of thing that was acceptable to British society.


© 2020 Rupert Taylor