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ASPECTS OF HERTFORDSHIRE LIFE Mrs Ridgley’s murder at the corner shop continued from page 16

concluded that the shopkeeper had died as a result of a tragic accident, falling over and somehow killing her dog on the way down. A quick report to the coroner and Elizabeth Ridgley was buried and equally quickly forgotten. The county’s chief constable, Alfred

Law, read Reed’s report with incredulity. Accident? This was no accident. Chief Constable Law had a number of options available to him: he telephoned Scotland Yard.

Hertfordshire, like many rural and

provincial forces, had no detective branch. Investigations were carried out by the superintendent, who was more often than not promoted on length of service rather than ability, which often led to disastrous consequences. The Home Office had been startled to hear of some of the botched investigations and had directed that in such cases rural forces should contact Scotland Yard and seek their assistance. The message had become diluted during the war but now it was time to reinforce it. By the time Detective Chief Inspector

Fred Wensley arrived in Hitchin on 6 February, some ten days later, the evidence had all but gone. The victim had been buried and the shop had been handed back to Mrs Ridgley’s family who, not unsurprisingly, had washed down everything, so upset were they at the sight of their relative’s blood. The seasoned detective ascertained that virtually no-one had been spoken to, no photographs had been taken and certainly very few statements had been committed to paper. Undeterred, he got to work, told Constable Kirby to rearrange everything as it had been on the morning he first found the body and had photographs taken. He then arranged for the exhumation of the body to allow the eminent pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, to carry out a post mortem. This confirmed that both Mrs Ridgley and her dog had been smashed across the skull with the four-pound weight; Mrs Ridgley’s body even having been pulled around the shop by her hair. Nine days later, DCI Wensley and his entourage of officers, including Constable Alfred Kirby, arrived at an address in Radcliffe Road, barely 200 yards away. They arrested an Irish war veteran, John

18 County Life

Healy, who had fought at the Battle of Mons during the war, and took him to the police station.

The evidence was looking good. Healy denied he was responsible but several witnesses saw him lurking both outside and inside the shop, just a few minutes before Mrs Ridgley was battered to death on the Saturday before she was found. He had tears to his trousers and bite marks on his fingers. Prior to the attack, Healy had no money and often resorted to violence against his wife when the subject of money was raised. Yet, following the attack, he had managed to pay off all his outstanding debts and had some left over for beer. His alibi was not supported by any witnesses and indeed his wife claimed he had come in late that night, sporting an injury and had gone to bed straight away. He was charged with the murder. At the Hertfordshire Assizes, all the evidence was put before a jury and after only 12 minutes they returned their verdict: Not Guilty. The verdict sent shock waves from

Hertfordshire to London. What had gone wrong? Could there have been any doubt that she was murdered? The trial judge had made every effort to tell the jury that despite the Hertfordshire superintendent concluding that she had died accidentally, the evidence was quite clear: she had been murdered - and in a most horrific way. Healy’s defence was that all the witnesses were lying and they had made up their evidence merely because he was an Irishman.

Up until this point, DCI Wensley had

been a very successful detective in London’s East End. His clear-up rate for

murder was outstanding and he was described by newspaper editors as probably ‘Britain’s cleverest detective.’ But now he was humiliated. It was hardly his fault though. He had been presented with an impossible task with no evidence upon which to build a proper case. A bloodied fingerprint at the scene was all that was required but Superintendent Reed had put an end to all that. Scotland Yard and the Home Office

responded with a firm warning to county chief constables that in cases of complex murders, the Metropolitan Police would be called in. No longer could such appalling investigations be allowed to be conducted. From her unmarked grave in Hitchin cemetery, Elizabeth Ridgley, provided the catalyst for change which would in time lead to better detective training and improved use of forensic science. But there is an epilogue to this tragic case. While the author of this book scratched around trying to find exactly what had happened he was very fortunate to stumble across original material never before seen. Apart from Inspector Reed’s original pencil-written report, he discovered an original document in the hand of the officer who had kicked off the whole sequence of events: Constable Alfred Kirby.

Dated the day after Healy was acquitted, Constable Kirby writes a report outlining his involvement in the investigation. A few pages into it, he names a man, Worbey Dixon, who was spoken to on the day that Mrs Ridgley was found in her shop. Dixon’s house was searched and he was clearly of interest to the police. DCI Wensley would later show that another man was also seen in the shop on that fateful night, but he was never identified. Could this be the man named in Kirby’s report? If it was, DCI Wensley would seem to have never been told about him. Who was he? Why was he spoken to in the first place? Well, there’s a mystery.

Who killed Elizabeth Ridgley? Perhaps we will never know.

This article has been written by Paul Stickler, author of ‘The Murder that Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes’. Published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd. See book review - page 65 - for an overview.

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