The Truck Murder
On the 6th May 1927 a man deposited a large, black trunk at Charing Cross Station left-luggage office. He gave instructions for the trunk to be carefully handled and then left the station in a taxi. On the following Monday one of the attendants noticed an awful smell coming from the trunk and becoming suspicious called for a policeman. The policeman opened the trunk to find it contained five brown paper parcels, tied with string. Each package was quite heavy and on opening was found to contain a portion of a body wrapped in items of clothing, towels and a duster.
The body parts were examined by Sir Bernard Spilsbury and he concluded that the body was that of a stout woman about 35-years-old. She had bruises on her stomach, forehead and back and that these had been caused, while unconscious. The woman had died of asphyxiation. Sir Bernard believed that the woman had been dead about a week. Also in the trunk were a number of other items such as, a pair of black shoes, a handbag, a pair of knickers that had a tab marked ‘P. HOLT’ and several items of clothing bearing laundry marks.
From the laundry marks the police were able to trace the knickers to a Mrs Holt who lived in Chelsea. The police were surprised to find that she was still alive. Even so the police were still confident that they were getting closer to the murderer. It was considered likely that the knickers had been stolen by one of the ten female servants that Mrs Holt had employed in the last two years. All the servants were accounted for except Mrs Rolls. The police asked Mrs Holt to identify the head of the victim and she confirmed it as that of Mrs Rolls.
Mrs Rolls was really called Mrs Minnie Alice Bonati. She had been married to an Italian waiter named Bonati but had left him to go and live with a man named Rolls and had subsequently taken his name. She was 36-years-old and had been working as a prostitute. She had last been seen alive in Sydney Street, Chelsea, between 3.45pm and 4pm on Wednesday 4th May.
Meanwhile police had also been trying to trace the origins of the trunk and had published photos of it in the press. A shopowner recognised it and identified it as being one that he had sold, for 12/6, to a dark man of average height with a military bearing. The next stroke of luck occured when the taxi-driver came forward who had taken the man to Charing Cross Station. He told police that he had taken two men to Rochester Row police station some time after 1pm on the Friday. After he had dropped this fare he was returning when he was hailed by a man standing outside a building opposite the police station and he had helped him to carry a large trunk from the building to the cab. He had taken the man to Charing Cross Station where the trunk had been deposited. The building in Rochester Row was identified as No. 86. The tenant of two rooms on the second floor was missing. He was John Robinson, an estate agent who had been struggling to stay in business.
Police traced Robinson’s lodgings in Kennington but he had left. However, police found a telegram that had been returned and it was addressed to ‘Robinson, Greyhound Hotel, Hammersmith’. This turned out to be Mrs Robinson, who worked there. Mrs Robinson wasn’t his real wife as he had still been married to another when they married. Robinson had bigamously married her after he had left his first wife and their four children. When she found this out she agreed to assist the police by meeting Robinson as he had requested. On Thursday 19th May she went to the Elephant & Castle, Walworth, accompanied by Chief Inspector George Cornish.
Robinson was arrested and taken back to be interviewed at Scotland Yard where he denied any involvement in the killing. He was placed on an identity parade but the shopkeeper, the taxi-driver and the porter all failed to pick him out and he was released.
Chief Inspector Cornish decided to back a hunch and had the duster from the trunk washed. It revealed the word ‘GREYHOUND’ and a further search of Robinson’s office turned up a bloodstained match caught in the wickerwork of a wastepaper basket. Robinson was brought back to Scotland Yard on the 23rd May. He then made a statement in which he stated that
“I met her at Victoria and took her to my office. I want to tell you all about it. I done it and cut her up.”
The trial took place at the Old Bailey and opened on Monday 11th July. Robinson’s defence was that he had been accosted by Mrs Bonati at Victoria Station and they had gone back to his office in Rochester Row. When they got there he said she had demanded money and when he refused she had become abusive and had tried to strike him. In order to protect himself he had pushed her away but she had lost her footing and had fallen and hit her head on a coal-scuttle. He had, he said, left the office expecting her to recover and leave but when he returned the woman was still lying there.
Feeling sure no one would believe him he had been in a panic. He had bought a knife and the trunk and had dismembered the corpse and deposited it at Charing Cross Station. He admitted to everything except an intent to kill. One witness for the defence was the victims husband Frederick Rolls who testified that the dead woman was an alcoholic and could become very violent. This statement however true did not impress the jury and they retired for an hour before returning a guilty verdict.
On Wednesday 13th July, 36-year-old Robinson was sentenced to death. It was perhaps not the murder that had disgusted everyone but the manner in which he had tried to dispose of the body, she was left no dignity. He was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 12th August 1927.