22-year-old Rose Harsent was a pretty, robust, country-girl who resided in the remote Suffolk village of Peasenhall. She was employed by Deacon William Crisp, a Baptist elder, as a domestic servant at Providence house.
On May 31st, 1902, Rose received an anonymous letter arranging to come and meet her at midnight. As the time approached for the late night assignation Rose made her way down the servant's staircase leading to the kitchen.
The following morning, William Harsent came to Providence house to pay a his daughter, Rose, a visit. When he entered the cottage through the back door he encountered Rose laying at the foot of the stairs. Her throat had been cut, she had deep gashes on her shoulders, and her nightdress was charred. The police and a doctor were summoned and soon realized that the seen was made to look like she had tripped down the steps and cut herself with the oil lamp and that the lamp had caught her nightdress on fire. They found that the fire had actually been started by a newspaper and also found a broken medicine bottle containing paraffin near the body.
When the police searched Rose's room they uncovered the anonymous letter and the handwriting was eventually traced back to one William Gardiner. Gardiner, a married man with six children, was considered a pillar of the community. He was a foreman at Peasenhall seed drill works, an elder at the local Primitive Methodist Church in addition to being the choir master. Rose Harsent also attended the church and was a member of the choir.
When an autopsy was performed Rose Harsent was found to be six months pregnant. To authorities there was no doubt that the father of the child was William Gardiner and that the pregnancy was the motive for her murder.
The previous year the two had been involved in a scandal. Their illicit affair had been uncovered when two young men from the village, George Wright and Alfonso Skinner, noticed the pair entering an empty cottage known as the Doctor's Chapel. Once they were inside the young men crept closer and soon they heard the unmistakable sounds of an intimate nature coming from inside. The two wasted no time spreading the gossip of what they had seen and heard. Apparently Gardiner and Rose had continued their sordid relationship even though he had been severely chastised by his pastor. As an elder of the church he was expected to be above reproach and it did not sit well with the members of the community that he had seduced an innocent young girl.
During his interrogation Gardiner denied any involvement in Rose's murder. He stated that he had been at home in bed with his wife at the time of the murder. An alibi which she staunchly corroborated.
The evidence, albeit circumstantial, against Gardiner was overwhelming. The newspaper used to start the fire had been brought to the crime scene as neither the Crisps or Rose subscribed to it. The broken medical bottle of paraffin had been prescribed for the Gardiner children. Gardiner's clasp knife was stained with blood, he claimed he had used it to cut up rabbits. Unfortunately at that time there was no way to test if it was human or animal blood. Neighbors testified that they had seen a large fire burning in the back yard of the Gardiner's house on the morning after the murder. The prosecution would later argue that this explained why there were no bloodstained clothing found in the house.
The first trial took place on November 7, 1902. In those days the jury had to reach a unanimous verdict in a murder trial. The jury returned with a count of 11 to 1 in favor of conviction.
The judge ordered a retrial which commenced on January 21, 1903. This time the jury returned with a count of 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal.
Once again a retrial was ordered, except this time, authorities not hopeful of securing a conviction, entered a plea of Nolle Prosequi and the case against Gardiner was dismissed. He and his family moved to a suburb in London and into relative obscurity.
Speculation of Gardiner's guilt or innocence has persisted ever since. It was his wife's determined support of him that went a long way in convincing others of his innocence.
It was also uncovered that Rose was not quite the innocent she was portrayed to be. She was purported to have a string of lovers. In addition to the letter from Gardiner there were lewd poetry and suggestive notes written to her by other men from the village, adding to the list of potential suspects.
In fact, William Gardiner could be the one providing the alibi for the one woman who stood to lose the most if Rose gave birth, his wife, Georgie Gardiner