The Priory Puzzle

7/13/2009

On April 18, 1876 the occupants of the ostentatious mansion known as the Priory at Balham, a suburb of London, sat down to dinner. Their meal included whiting, lamb, and poached eggs on toast. The male occupant drank three glasses of Burgundy while his female companions polished off almost two bottles of sherry between the two of them.
After three days of excruciating agony, one of them would be dead. The cause of death was determined to be antimony, a particularly harsh poison, and would lead to one of England's most celebrated unsolved murder mysteries.
The Victim:

Charles Delauney Bravo was an up and coming barrister with a promising Parliamentary career in front of him. He resided at the Priory with his wife, Florence Bravo and her paid companion, Mrs. Jane Cannon Cox.
Charles Bravo was described as a cruel and vindictive man who had been accused of marrying Florence for her money. In typical Victorian fashion, he was the master of his domain and his wife was to submit to him in all things. He became enraged when he learned that Florence, intended to retain control of her considerable fortune and punished her by forcing her into degrading sexual acts, in addition to being verbally and at times physically abusive. In an effort to cement his hold over Florence, he insisted that she bear him a child regardless of the consequences to her health.
The Suspects:

Florence Bravo was a widow when she met Charles Bravo. Her first husband, Algernon Lewis Ricardo, was a Captain in the Grenadier Guards. He received an honorable discharge from the guards after their wedding but found that he was not cut out for a non-military regimen. Within a year the marriage was already under a tremendous strain. Florence discovered that he was sleeping with other women. He also developed a fondness for the bottle and quickly developed into a dipsomaniac. They remained married an additional 6 years during which time he was rarely sober. Their marriage ended after he became physically abusive during one of their frequent arguments and she packed up and left. Rather than go back to her husband as her father demanded she went to a hydropathy clinic in Malvern, Worcestershire. While at the clinic she was informed of her husband's death and that she had inherited his estate to the tune of 40 thousand pounds. She immediately made plans to leave Malvern and move to London where purchased the Priory. She would eventually meet Charles Bravo and the two married in December of 1875 after Bravo made sure the odds were stacked in his favor. The two began having premarital relations and Florence became pregnant in November but she had difficulty carrying the child and miscarried in January. Charles insisted that they resume relations three weeks later even though Florence had not yet recovered. She soon found herself pregnant but again was unable to carry the child to fruition and miscarried in April. Florence became seriously ill after the miscarriage and was terrified that if Charles again forced her to become pregnant before she had a chance to sufficiently recover it would kill her.
Mrs Jane Cannon Cox was a widow with little means and considerable debt. She and her three small sons moved back to England from Jamaica after the death of her husband. Her sons were enrolled in private school and she barely supported herself and her family by renting out her home and by working as a governess. When she and Florence met they took an instant liking to each other and Florence offered her an ideal position as a highly paid live-in companion. The two became fast friends and Florence came to rely heavily on Mrs Cox for advice and guidance. Charles was jealous of the close relationship between Florence and Mrs Cox. He also felt that Mrs Cox was the reason why he could not control his wife. Even though they were extremely well off, Charles was a penny-pincher and insisted that Florence fire Mrs Cox among other things in an effort to save money. Mrs Cox faced the possibility of losing her comfortable lifestyle and returning to a state of poverty and destitution.
Dr James Manby Gully was the director of the hydropathy clinic in Malvern, Worcestershire. He first met Florence when she came to the clinic after she had separated from her first husband. Even though he was nearly 40 years her senior the two became attracted to each other and began a scandalous affair causing Florence to be ostracized from her family and society. During one of their illicit rendezvous, Florence discovered that their attempts at birth control had failed and she was with child. Realizing that their reputations would be permanently destroyed if word of her pregnancy became public knowledge, Dr Gully agreed to perform an abortion on Florence.
Florence suffered severe complications after the abortion and nearly died. She would eventually recover but their relationship was never the same. Even though he was still deeply in love with her, Florence insisted that their relationship remain purely platonic. Upon hearing about the upcoming nuptials, Dr Gully became angry and broke off all communication with Florence.
The first inquest was held on April 25, 1876 at the Priory with Florence providing refreshments for the jury. The Coroner, an acquaintance of Florence's family, convinced that Charles Bravo had committed suicide, took great pains to keep any scandal to a minimum. The proceedings were kept private and Florence was never called to testify. Two of the five doctors present during Charles' sickness testified to the fact that when he was confronted with the fact that they believed he had been poisoned stated that he had rubbed laudanum on his gums for a toothache and might have accidentally swallowed some. He denied taking poison and refused to name anyone who might have wanted to harm him. The doctors also testified that Mrs Cox had made known to them that Charles had admitted "I've taken some of that poison, but don't tell Florence." The Coroner then closed the inquiry and the jury returned with an open verdict. That is, "the deceased died from the effects of poison - antimony - but we have not sufficient evidence under what circumstances it came into his body."
When additional facts of the case and the verdict of the inquest were revealed to the public there was an immediate outcry of dissatisfaction and a demand to open up a second more in depth inquiry. One of the physician's present, Dr George Johnson, who had not been allowed to testify at the first inquiry gave a statement to the press in which he claimed that Charles Bravo had not knowingly taken poison. Mrs Cox also changed her statement previous statement which she had altered in an attempt to shield Florence from public scorn. She claimed that Charles had actually told her that he had taken poison for Gully and to not tell Florence. In light of this the illicit affair of Florence Bravo and Dr James Gully again resurfaced.
On June 19, 1876 the Attorney General made application to the Court of Queen's Bench and was granted a rule that squashed the first inquiry and ordered the Coroner to hold a new inquest.
The second inquest was held at the Bedford Hotel in Balham on July 11. Both Jane Cox and Florence testified that Charles Bravo was mean-spirited and deeply disturbed. They claimed that he was often verbally abusive and had one time even struck Florence. He was also extremely jealous of her former relationship with Dr. Gully. On one occasion he had called Florence a selfish pig and that he was leaving her. How he hated both her and Gully and wished they were dead. Their testimony was seen by some as a means to lay the groundwork for establishing the fact that he had taken his own life.
Florence and Mrs Cox's statements were refuted by the unanimous testimony of relatives, friends, and servants. They described Charles as a strong, active man with a cheerful disposition. The last man who would ever commit suicide. To them his relationship with Florence appeared happy and affectionate and none of the servants had ever heard or sensed the level of discord described by Florence and Mrs Cox.
It was further established that Charles kept a water bottle at his bedside and it was his custom to drink from it each night when he went to bed. The bottle was filled nightly by one of the housemaids. It was presumed that the water bottle was the medium for the poison since he would have become ill within 15 minutes of consuming the antimony. But one of the physicians was sure that he had drunk some of the water from the bottle while attending to Charles.
When she was on the stand Florence was forced to describe in lurid details her relationship with Dr Gully and at one point pleaded with the Coroner to protect her from the relentless questions put to her by the solicitor representing Charles' family.
Dr. Gully was much more controlled on the witness stand. Even though he admitted to the affair with Florence he unequivocally denied any direct or indirect participation in the poisoning of Charles Bravo.
On August 11, with no hard evidence, the jury reached a verdict of willful murder. "We find that Charles Delaunay Turner Bravo did not commit suicide; that he did not meet his death by misadventure; that he was willfully murdered by the administration of tarter emetic; but there is not sufficient evidence to fix the guilt upon any person or persons.
After the trial, the three suspects were free to leave but their lives were forever changed. Florence Bravo was publicly disgraced and disowned by her family. She moved to Southsea in the county of Hampshire where she died at the age of 33 in 1878 from alcohol poisoning. Dr. Gully also suffered complete ruin to his social and professional reputation and died in 1883.
Mrs Cox fared much better than her counterparts. She returned to Jamaica with her sons where she received a substantial inheritance from her husband's aunt. She eventually returned to England and died in 1913.
To this day the questions still remain a source of great debate, who killed Charles Bravo and how?

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




Tenants Harbour, Maine is a quaint little seafaring village along the coast east of Muscongus Bay. But in 1877, it would become the scene of one of New England's most famous and mysterious murders.

In October 1877, Captain Luther Meservey boarded his schooner, the Bickmore, for a four-month long sea voyage. Used to spending long periods alone, his wife settled into her usual routine when her husband was at sea.

On December 22, 1877, Mrs Meservey was seen by several neighbours en route to the post office. A five minute walk from her cottage. When she arrived at the post office she was informed that her neighbour, Mark Wall, had already collected the mail, this was not an unusual occurrence. She was also seen walking back to her cottage but did not stop at her neighbour's to pick up the mail.

The next morning, Mark Wall sent his son around to the Meservey cottage with their mail. When he arrived he noticed that the curtains were drawn. He also received no reply when he knocked on the front door and assumed that she had gone out. In fact none of her neighbours seemed curious about Sarah's mysterious disappearance.

What is surprising in such a small community, no one voiced any concern when Sarah Meservey failed to take part in any of the Christmas activities and her mail was piling up at the post office.

Finally after 38 days Captain Albion Meservey, cousin to Luther Meservey, brought the matter of her absence to the attention of First Selectman Whitney Long. The men went to the Meservey cottage and entered through an unlocked rear window. They noticed at once that something was terribly wrong. The cottage was freezing and had appeared to have been ransacked. As they searched the rooms the whereabouts of Sarah Meservey was quickly solved. When they entered the large bedroom amidst broken furniture and glass they found her body wrapped tightly in a quilt.

They surmised that she had been killed not shortly after returning from the post office since she was still wearing her coat and overshoes. She had been strangled with her white woolen scarf and her arms were tied behind her head with a cord tied in seaman's knots.

The men also discovered several distinct matches - long and slim- in the kitchen and bedrooms. Also in the kitchen, Capt. Albion found a crumpled hand-written note. On one side was written the date , "Monday Eveny 24". And on the other side, " i cam as A Woman She was out and i wait till She Came back not for mony but i kiled her"

On February 16, 1877, Captain Luther Meservey returned home to the news that his wife had been murdered and little progress had been made towards solving the crime.

Three days later, Mrs Levi Hart, whose husband, Capt Nathan Hart, had been helping Sheriff A. T. Low with the investigation, received an anonymous letter dated February 10 and postmarked February 16. The letter had been mailed from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sheriff Low deduced that the letter had actually come from Tenants Harbor and that some one had actually managed to route the letter to make it appear it had come from Philadelphia. The letter warned her to tell her husband "to be careful how he conducted things about Tenants Harbor" and went on to warn "tell them it is no use trying to catch this chap for he will not be caught".

After obtaining the letter, Sheriff Low asked four men, including Capt Hart, to submit a handwriting sample. They were asked to write the phrase, "i kiled her".

On March 8, 1877, Captain Nathan Hart was placed under arrest based on the assumption that his handwriting matched that of the murderer. Also in evidence were the distinctive matches found at the Meservey cottage. Matches that only one resident of Tenants Harbor possessed, Nathan Hart.

Leading handwriting expert of the day, Professor Alvin R. Dunton was asked to examine a ship's log book, alleged to belong to the accused, along with the note and letter. He concluded that all three documents had been written by the same hand. It was because of his testimony that the Grand Jury handed down an indictment against Hart for the murder of Sarah Meservey.

Hart went on trial in Rockland, Maine on October 1, 1878. The prosecutor, L. M. Staples claimed he had no alibi for December 22nd when authorities believe the murder actually occurred. He also claimed that since Hart had an ironclad alibi for the 24th he snuck back in the cottage and plated a note with numerous grammatical errors and dated the 24th in order to throw off the police. He produced a witness who claimed that Hart had made improper advances towards Sarah and had been repulsed.

Professor Dunton took the stand and dropped a bombshell. Even though he still claimed that the ship's log, the note from the crime scene and the letter had been written by the same hand, they had not been written by Capt Hart. In fact the ship's log did not even belong to Capt Hart. It belonged to and had been written by Capt Luther Meservey's cousin, Capt Albion Hart. Before presenting his startling discovery in court he had the findings verified by other handwriting experts.

Unfortunately his testimony was negated when Capt Hart took the stand to face his accusers. When he opened his mouth he literally talked himself into a conviction. Not only was he forced to admit that he had no alibi for the 22nd, he went on to testify that he had dreamed that Sarah had been murdered and the conditions of the inside of the cottage.

After only two hours deliberation the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. Hart was sentenced to life imprisonment.

On October 9, 1883, Capt Nathan Hart died after spending five years of his life sentence. His supporters, which included Professor Dunton, swore that an innocent man had been imprisoned and that the police and prosecutor were more interested in obtaining a conviction that finding the true culprit.

To this day no effort has ever been made to prove or disprove his innocence.