Murder and scandal befalls Peasenhall Parish, a conservative community on the East Coast of England known for its sweet pea festivals and peacocks, in the summer of 1902. William Harsent finds his twenty-year-old daughter Rose sprawled out in a pool of her own blood in the Crisp family home where she lived and worked as a maid. Stabbed several times in the throat and chest, Rose broke the lamp she was holding when she fell, the fire destroying most of her nightgown and charring the skin of her arms and lower body. What it doesn’t destroy is proof of an unwanted pregnancy. All evidence seems to point to one man, William Gardiner, her alleged lover and murderer. But the case isn’t quite that simple.
Stopping by Rose’s living quarters to drop off laundry, William Harsent cries out at the sight of his murdered daughter. Aside from Rose’s body, a broken lamp, a broken medicine bottle and a burnt piece of newspaper, there were no clues at the scene of the crime – not even a bloody footprint.
Long before her murder, Rose is hired by the Crisps, a very well-regarded family whose patriarch, William Crisp, is a Baptist deacon and church elder. When accepting the job, Mrs. Crisp outlines Rose’s responsibilities and bids her to behave with propriety, as she is now a member of the household and her actions will reflect upon the entire family.
Despite Rose’s assurances, an autopsy performed after her murder reveals that she was six months pregnant. Some community members are not surprised as Rose allegedly had several male suitors. Investigators find a collection of x-rated poems written by Rose’s neighbor, Frederick James Davis, while searching her personal effects.
Rose was also rumored to have had an affair with William Gardiner, an esteemed and married member of the community. Before Rose died, two young men, George Wright and Alphonso Skinner, claim to have overheard Rose and Gardiner having sex in the Crisp’s family chapel. Gardiner swiftly denies it and speaks to his wife, Rose, Rose’s father and the accusers in hopes of putting the matter to bed. Even under threat of losing their jobs, Wright and Skinner refuse to retract their claims and issue an apology. Questioning Gardiner’s morality, senior members of the church hold an informal trial. The elders find the accusations unproved, but not unfounded.
Regardless of whether Gardiner was the father, Rose goes to Davis for an instruction manual on how to terminate a pregnancy. Davis pleads with her to keep the child and marry him instead. She declines, not wanting to get married to save her reputation. Rose attempts to abort the pregnancy but fails.
On June 1, 1902, the night she was murdered, Rose receives a letter scheduling a midnight rendezvous. It appears to have been written in Gardiner’s handwriting. A neighbor witnesses Gardiner standing on his front porch facing the Crisp’s house around 10PM, at the same time Rose brings a light to the window as the letter instructs. James Morriss, a local gamekeeper, spots muddy footprints matching Gardiner’s boots between his house and the Crisps’. He also possesses a recently cleaned pen knife that could have caused the wounds on Rose’s body. Later, blood is found inside the hinge. Gardiner claims it’s from a rabbit he dressed for his family’s supper. Furthermore, the burnt piece of newspaper found at the scene belonged to a paper the Crisps’ did not subscribe to--but the Gardiner’s did. And the broken medicine bottle was prescribed to one of the Gardiner’s children.
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie find all this damning evidence against William Gardiner a little too convenient. Although Gardiner was not a professional criminal by any stretches of the imagination, he was intelligent enough to know not to leave behind such obvious evidence. They consider the possibility that he was framed by Rose Harsent’s real murderer.
But who would have done it? Was it Henry Rouse, a fellow church elder and rival? Frederick Henry Davis, a man whose love for Rose had gone unrequited? George Wright and Alphonso Skinner? The Crisps themselves? Or William Gardiner’s own wife Georgina?
Stay tuned for next week’s episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories to hear our theories.