In 1934, police were conducting a house to house search in Brighton. At number 52 Kemp Street, they discovered a trunk containing a body in an advanced stage of decomposition. The body was soon identified as 42-year-old prostitute, Violette Kaye. The resident of the house, Tony Mancini had long since disappeared.
When the police later picked up Mancini, he told them that he had discovered his girlfriend Violette dead on her bed, apparently killed by one of her clients. He panicked and hid the body in the trunk. But the police didn’t believe his story, when they discovered the charred remains of a hammer in his basement.
Mancini was charged with murder on 17th July. At the trial five months later, the jury returned with a verdict of not guilty. 42 years later, Mancini finally confessed to a British newspaper that he had indeed murdered Violette.
The Brighton Trunk Murders were two unrelated murders linked to Brighton, England in 1934. In both, the dismembered body of a murdered woman was placed in a trunk.
The murders led to Brighton being dubbed ‘The Queen of Slaughtering Places’ (a play on the ‘The Queen of Watering Places’ ) and brought to public attention Brighton’s gang crime and prostitution popularised by Graham Greene in Brighton Rock in 1938.
The first Brighton Trunk murder came to light on 17 June 1934 when an unclaimed plywood trunk was noticed by William Joseph Vinnicombe at the left luggage office of Brighton railway station as he investigated a smell. He alerted the police and Chief Inspector Ronald Donaldson opened the trunk to find the dismembered torso of a woman. When other stations were alerted a suitcase at King’s Cross railway station was found to contain the legs. The head and arms were never found. The press named the victim ‘The Girl with the Pretty Feet’ or simply ‘Pretty Feet’ because the corpse had ‘Dancer’s Feet’ thought beautiful.
The post-mortem by Sir Bernard Spilsbury revealed that the woman was about 25 and five months pregnant. But the victim and murderer were never identified.
A local story speculates that the woman died during a back-street abortion. It is believed that an abortionist, Dr Edward Massiah of Hove, was questioned but not pursued because of embarrassment to clients who had visited the abortionist.
Chief Inspector Donaldson suspected Massiah based on what was known about him and on Spilsbury’s notes: “Internal examination of the torso had not revealed the cause of death; the legs and feet found at King’s Cross belonged to the torso; the victim had been well nourished; she had been not younger than twenty-one and not older than twenty-eight, had stood about five feet two inches, and had weighed roughly eight and a half stones; she was five months pregnant at the time of death.”
Donaldson asked officers to watch Massiah covertly. One, drafted from Hove, confronted Massiah, expecting him to come quietly. Instead the doctor wrote a list of names and “…it seemed to the policeman that the sun had gone in: all of a sudden the consulting room was a place of sombre shadows….” (“A Coincidence of Corpses” by Jonathan Goodman).
The policeman did not tell Donaldson. Donaldson heard when he was warned by a senior officer to back off. Massiah moved to London where a woman died while he was performing an abortion, yet he evaded prosecution. He remained on the General Medical Register and was only removed when he failed to re-register in 1952, following his retirement to Port of Spain, Trinidad.
Although the first murder was almost certainly unrelated to the second, it did lead to discovery of the second trunk murder.
The victim was Violet Kaye née Watts (also known as Saunders). In 1934 she was 42 and had lived as a dancer and prostitute marked by drink and drugs. She lived with Toni Mancini, a petty criminal with a record including theft and loitering who worked as a waiter and bouncer. He was also known as Cecil Lois England (his real name), Jack Noytre, Tony English and Hyman Gold
Kaye and Mancini’s relationship was tempestuous. One argument occurred at the Skylark café on the seafront, where Mancini worked, when an obviously drunk Saunders accused him of being familiar with a teenage waitress called Elizabeth Attrell.
After this event on the 10 May 1934, Violet wasn’t seen again. Mancini told friends she had gone to Paris, and gave some of her clothes and belongings to Attrell. Violet’s sister also received a telegram saying that she had taken a job abroad.
Violet was dead and her body was in a large trunk which Mancini had taken to new lodgings in 52 Kemp Street, close to the station. He put the trunk at the bottom of his bed, covered it with a cloth and used it as a coffee table – in spite of the smell and the fluids that began to leak.
Kaye’s absence had been noted by police and Mancini was questioned. Apparently panicked, he went on the run. In search related to the unsolved trunk murder police searched premises close to the station and stumbled on Kaye’s remains at Mancini’s lodgings. Mancini was arrested in South East London. The post mortem was by Sir Bernard Spilsbury.
The Trial opened in December 1934 in Lewes and lasted 5 days. The prosecution was led by J C Cassells and on his team was a Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham and eminent Conservative politician. Norman Birkett was defence counsel.
The prosecution focused on Kaye’s death by a blow to the head. A graphologist confirmed the handwriting on the form for the telegram sent to Kaye’s sister matched that on menus Mancini had written at the Skylark café. One witness, Doris Saville, said Mancini had asked her to provide a false alibi. Other witnesses, friends of Mancini, claimed he boasted in the days after the murder of giving his “missus” the biggest hiding of her life.
Birkett’s defence focused on Kaye’s work as a prostitute and her character. Mancini claimed he had discovered Kaye’s body at the flat in Park Crescent. Thinking the police would not believe his story because he had a criminal record he kept the matter a secret and put her body in a trunk. Birkett speculated she could have been murdered by a client or fallen down steps into the flat.
The quality and nature of the forensic evidence was also drawn in to doubt by the defence who queried the amount of morphine in Kaye’s blood and proved that items of clothing stained with blood had been purchased after Kaye’s death. A number of witnesses also confirmed that Mancini and Kaye had seemed a contented couple.
After two and a quarter hours the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
In 1976, just before his death, Tony Mancini confessed to the murder in a Sunday newspaper. In a conversation with a News of the World journalist, Mancini explained that during a blazing row with Kaye she had attacked him with the hammer he had used to break coal for their fire. He had wrestled the hammer from her but when she had demanded it back, he had thrown it at her, hitting her on the left temple. The forensic evidence of Sir Bernard Spilsbury at the trial was vindicated, although a murderer had walked free.