As a companion piece to last month’s article, we present Arthur Machen’s The Islington Mystery (1927). In this short story, Machen blends historical murder cases with personal invention to create a concoction that effectively blurs the line between fact and fancy. For the former journalist, this became a favorite method employed in several of his late tales. Another fine example of this technique, albeit without the bloodshed, can be found in Opening the Door (1931).
It is curious that this particular tale, not one of Machen’s most well-known short stories, is one of the few to have been adapted into a film. Taking liberties, The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales (1960) is a classic dark comedy hecho en Mexico. Directed by Rogelio Gonzalez and starring Arturo de Cordova, a stalwart of Mexican horror cinema, the film is adored by connoisseurs of discriminating taste. It is an incredible film, and highly recommended.
The Islington Mystery
The public taste in murders is often erratic, and sometimes, I think, fallible enough. Take, for example, that Crippen business.1 It happened seventeen years ago, and it is still freshly remembered and discussed with interest. Yet it was by no means a murder of the first rank. What was there in it? The outline is crude enough; simple, easy, and disgusting, as Dr. Johnson observed of another work of art. Crippen was cursed with a nagging wife of unpleasant habits; and he cherished a passion for his typist. Whereupon he poisoned Mrs. Crippen, cut her up and buried the pieces in the coal-cellar. This was well enough, though elementary; and if the foolish little man had been content to lie quiet and do nothing, he might have lived and died peaceably. But he must needs disappear from his house—the action of a fool—and cross the Atlantic with his typist absurdly and obviously disguised as a boy: sheer, bungling imbecility. Here, surely, there is no single trace of the master’s hand; and yet, as I say, the Crippen Murder is reckoned amongst the masterpieces. It is the same tale in all the arts: the low comedian was always sure of a laugh if he cared to tumble over a pin; and the weakest murderer is sure of a certain amount of respectful attention if he will take the trouble to dismember his subject. And then, with respect to Crippen: he was caught by means of the wireless device, then in its early stages. This, of course, was utterly irrelevant to the true issue; but the public wallows in irrelevance. A great art critic may praise a great picture, and make his criticism a masterpiece in itself. He will be unread; but let some asinine paragraphist say that the painter always sings “Tom Bowling” as he sets his palette, and dines on boiled fowl and apricot sauce three times a week—then the world will proclaim the artist great.
The success of the second-rate is deplorable in itself; but it is more deplorable in that it very often obscures the genuine masterpiece. If the crowd runs after the false, it must neglect the true. The intolerable Romola is praised; the admirable Cloister and the Hearth is waived aside. So, while the very indifferent and clumsy performance of Crippen filled the papers, the extraordinary Battersea Murder was served with a scanty paragraph or two in obscure corners of the Press.2 Indeed, we were so shamefully starved of detail that I only retain a bare outline of this superb crime in my memory; but, roughly, the affair was shaped as follows: In the first floor of one of the smaller sets of flats in Battersea a young fellow (? 18—20) was talking to an actress, a “touring” actress of no particular fame, whose age, if I recollect, was drawing on from thirty to forty. A shot, a near shot, broke in suddenly on their talk. The young man dashed out of the flat, down the stairs, and there, in the entry of the flats, found his own father, shot dead. The father, it should be remarked, was a touring actor, and an old friend of the lady upstairs. But here comes the magistral element in this murder. Beside the dead man, or in the hand of the dead man, or in a pocket of the dead man’s coat—I am not sure how it was—there was found a weapon made of heavy wire—a vile and most deadly contraption, fashioned with curious and malignant ingenuity. It was night-time, but the bright light of a moon ten days old was shining, and the young man said he saw someone running and leaping over walls.
But mark the point: the dead actor was hiding beneath his friend’s flat, hiding and lying in wait, with his villainous weapon to his hand. He was expecting an encounter with some enemy, on whom he was resolved to work at least deadly mischief, if not murder.
Who was that enemy? Whose bullet was it that was swifter than the dead man’s savage and premeditated desire?
We shall probably never know. A murder that might have stood in the very first rank, that might have vied with the affair of Madeleine Smith—there were certain indications that made this seem possible—was suffered to fade into obscurity, while the foolish crowd surged about elementary Crippen and his bungling imbecilities.3 So there were once people who considered Robert Elsmere as a literary work of palmary significance.
Naturally, and with some excuse, the war was responsible for a good deal of this sort of neglect. In those appalling years there was but one thing in men’s heads; all else was blotted out. So, little attention was paid to the affair of the woman’s body, carefully wrapped in sacking, which was found in Regent’s Square, by the Gray’s Inn Road. A man was hanged without phrases, but there were one or two curious points in the case.4
Then, again, there was the Wimbledon Murder, a singular business. A well-to-do family had just moved into a big house facing the Common, so recently that many of its goods and chattels were still in the packing-cases. The master of the house was murdered one night by a man who made off with his booty. It was a curious haul, consisting of a mackintosh worth, perhaps, a couple of pounds, and a watch which would have been dear at ten shillings. This murderer, too, was hanged without comment; and yet, on the face of it, his conduct seems in need of explanation. But the most singular case of all those that suffered from the preoccupations of the war was, there is no doubt, the Islington Mystery, as the Press called it. It was a striking headline, but the world was too busy to attend. The affair got abroad, so far as it did get abroad, about the time of the first employment of the tanks;5 and people were trying not to see through the war correspondents, not to perceive that the inky fandangoes and corroborees of these gentlemen hid a sense of failure and disappointment.
But as to the Islington Mystery—this is how it fell out. There is an odd street, not far from the region which was once called Spa Fields, not far from the Pentonville or Islington Fields, where Grimaldi the clown was once accused of inciting the mob to chase an overdriven ox. It goes up a steep hill, and the rare adventurer who pierces now and then into this unknown quarter of London is amazed and bewildered at the very outset, since there are no steep hills in the London of his knowledge, and the contours of the scene remind him of the cheap lodging-house area at the back of hilly seaside resorts. But if the site is strange, the buildings on it are far stranger. They were no doubt set up at the high tide of Sir Walter Scott Gothic, which has left such queer memorials behind it. The houses of Lloyd Street are in couples, and the architect, combining the two into one design, desired to create an illusion of a succession of churches, in the Perpendicular or Third Pointed manner, climbing up the hill. The detail is rich, there are finials to rejoice the heart, and gargoyles of fine fantasy, all carried out in the purest stucco. At the lowest house on the right-hand side lived Mr. Harold Boale and his wife, and a brass plate on the Gothic door said, “Taxidermist: Skeletons Articulated.” As it chanced, this lowest house of Lloyd Street has a longer garden than its fellows, giving on a contractor’s yard, and at the end of the garden Mr. Boale had set up the apparatus of his craft in an outhouse, away from the noses of his fellow-men.
So far as can be gathered, the stuffer and articulator was a harmless and inoffensive little fellow. His neighbours liked him, and he and the Boule cabinet-maker from next door, the Shell box-maker over the way, the seal-engraver and the armourer from Baker Square at the top of the hill, and the old mercantile marine skipper who lived round the corner in Marchmont Street, at the house with the ivory junk in the window, used to spend many a genial evening together in the parlour of the Quill in the days before everything was spoilt by the war.
They did not drink very much or talk very much, any of them; but they enjoyed their moderate cups and the snug comfort of the place, and stared solemnly at the old coaching prints that were upon the walls, and at the large glass painting depicting the landing of England’s Injured Queen, which hung over the mantelpiece, between two Pink Dogs with gold collars. Mr. Boale passed as a very nice sort of man in this circle and everybody was sorry for him. Mrs. Boale was a tartar and a scold. The men of the quarter kept out of her way; the women were afraid of her. She led poor Boale the devil’s own life. Her voice, often enough, would be heard at the Quill door, vomiting venom at her husband’s address; and he, poor man, would tremble and go forth, lest some worse thing might happen. Mrs. Boale was a short dark woman. Her hair was coal-black, her face wore an expression of acid malignity, and she walked quickly but with a decided limp. She was full of energy and the pest of the neighbourhood, and more than a pest to her husband.
The war, with its scarcity and its severe closing-hours, made the meetings at the Quill rarer than before, and deprived them of a good deal of their old comfort. Still, the circle was not wholly broken up, and one evening Boale announced that his wife had gone to visit relations in Lancashire, and would most likely be away for a considerable time.
“Well, there’s nothing like a change of air, so they say,” said the skipper, “though I’ve had more than enough of it myself.”
The others said nothing, but congratulated Boale in their hearts. One of them remarked afterwards that the only change that would do Mrs. Boale good was a change to Kingdom Come, and they all agreed. They were not aware that Mrs. Boale was enjoying the advantages of the recommended treatment.
As I recollect, Mr. Boale’s worries began with the appearance of Mrs. Boale’s sister, Mary Aspinall, a woman almost as ill-tempered and malignant as Mrs. Boale herself. She had been for some years nurse with a family in Capetown, and had come home with her mistress. In the first place, the woman had written two or three letters to her sister, and there had been no reply. This struck her as odd, for Mrs. Boale had been a very good correspondent, filling her letters with “nasty things” about her husband. So, on her first afternoon off after her return, Mary Aspinall called at the house in Lloyd Street to get the truth of the matter from her sister’s own lips. She strongly suspected Boale of having suppressed her letters. “The dirty little tyke; I’ll serve him,” she said to herself. So came Miss Aspinall to Lloyd Street and brought out Boale from his workshop. And when he saw her his heart sank. He had read her letters. But the decision to return to England had been taken suddenly; Miss Aspinall had, therefore, said not a word about it. Boale had thought of his wife’s sister as established at the other end of the world for the next ten, twenty years, perhaps; and he meant to go away and lose himself under a new name in a year or two. And so, when he saw the woman, his heart sank.
Mary Aspinall went straight to the point.
“Where’s Elizabeth?” she asked. “Upstairs? I wonder she didn’t come down when she heard the bell.”
“No,” said Boale. He comforted himself with the thought of the curious labyrinth he had drawn about his secret; he felt secure in the centre of it.
“No, she’s not upstairs. She’s not in the house.”
“Oh, indeed. Not in the house. Gone to see some friends, I suppose. When do you expect her back?”
“The truth is, Mary, that I don’t expect her back. She’s left me—three months ago, it is.”
“You mean to tell me that! Left you! Showed her sense, I think. Where has she gone?”
“Upon my word, Mary, I don’t know. We had a bit of a to-do one evening, though I don’t think I said much. But she said she’d had enough, and she packed a few things in a bag, and off she went. I ran after her and called to her to come back, but she wouldn’t so much as turn her head, and went off King’s Cross way. And from that day to this I’ve never seen her, nor had a word from her. I’ve had to send all her letters back to the post office.”
Mary Aspinall stared hard at her brother-in-law and pondered. Beyond telling him that he had brought it on himself, there seemed nothing to say. So she dealt with Boale on those lines very thoroughly, and made an indignant exit from the parlour. He went back to stuff peacocks, for all I know. He was feeling comfortable again. There had been a very unpleasant sensation in the stomach for a few seconds—a very horrible fear at the moment that one of the outer walls of that labyrinth of his had been breached; but now all was well again.
And all might have been permanently well if Miss Aspinall had not happened to meet Mrs. Horridge in the main road, close to the bottom of Lloyd Street. Mrs. Horridge was the wife of the Shell box-maker, and the two had met once or twice long ago at Mrs. Boale’s tea-table. They recognized each other, and, after a few unmeaning remarks, Mrs. Horridge asked Miss Aspinall if she had seen her sister since her return to England.
“How could I see her when I don’t know where she is?” asked Miss Aspinall with some ferocity.
“Dear me, you haven’t seen Mr. Boale, then?”
“I’ve just come from him this minute.”
“But he can’t have lost the Lancashire address, surely?”
And so one thing led to another, and Mary Aspinall gathered quite clearly that Boale had told his friends that his wife was paying a long visit to relations in Lancashire. In the first place the Aspinalls had no relations in Lancashire—they came from Suffolk—and secondly Boale had informed her that Elizabeth had gone away in a rage, he knew not where. She did not pay him another visit then and there, as she had at first intended. It was growing late, and she took her considerations back with her to Wimbledon, determined on thinking the matter out.
Next week she called again at Lloyd Street. She charged Boale with deliberate lying, placing frankly before him the two tales he had told. Again that horrid sinking sensation lay heavy upon Boale. But he had reserves.
“Indeed,” he said, “I’ve told you no lies, Mary. It all happened just as I said before. But I did make up that tale about Lancashire for the people about here. I didn’t like them to have my troubles to talk over, especially as Elizabeth is bound to come back some time, and I hope it will be soon.”
Miss Aspinall stared at the little man in a doubtful, threatening fashion for a moment, and then hurried upstairs. She came down soon afterwards.
“I’ve gone through Elizabeth’s drawers,” she said with defiance. “There’s a good many things missing. I don’t see those bits of lace she had from Granny, and the set of jet is gone, and so is the garnet necklace, and the coral brooch. I couldn’t find the ivory fan, either.”
“I found all the drawers wide open after she’d gone,” sighed Mr. Boale. “I supposed she’d taken the things away with her.”
It must be confessed that Mr. Boale, taught, perhaps, by the nicety of his craft, had paid every attention to detail. He had realized that it would be vain to tell a tale of his wife going away and leaving her treasures behind her. And so the treasures had disappeared.
Really, the Aspinall vixen did not know what to say. She had to confess that Boale had explained the difficulty of his two stories quite plausibly. So she informed him that he was more like a worm than a man, and banged the hall door. Again Boale went back to his workshop with a warmth about his heart. His labyrinth was still secure, its secret safe. At first, when confronted again by the accusing Aspinall, he had thought of bolting the moment he got the woman out of the house; but that was unreasoning panic. He was in no danger. And he remembered, like the rest of us, the Crippen case. It was running away that had brought Crippen to ruin; if he had sat tight he would have sat secure, and the secret of the cellar would never have been known. Though, as Mr. Boale reflected, anybody was welcome to search his cellar, to search here and there and anywhere on his premises, from the hall door in front to the workshop at the back. And he proceeded to give his calm, whole-souled attention to a fine raven that had been sent round in the morning.
Miss Aspinall took the extraordinary disappearance of her sister back with her to Wimbledon and thought it over. She thought it over again and again, and she could make nothing of it. She did not know that people are constantly disappearing for all sorts of reasons; that nobody hears anything about such cases unless some enterprising paper sees matter for a “stunt”, and rouses all England to hunt for John Jones or Mrs. Carraway. To Miss Aspinall, the vanishing of Elizabeth Boale seemed a portent and a wonder, a unique and terrible event; and she puzzled her head over it, and still could find no exit from her labyrinth—a different structure from the labyrinth maintained by the serene Boale. The Aspinall had no suspicions of her brother-in-law; both his manner and his matter were straightforward, clear, and square. He was a worm, as she had informed him, but he was certainly telling the truth. But the woman was fond of her sister, and wanted to know where she had gone and what had happened to her; and so she put the matter into the hands of the police.
She furnished the best description that she could of the missing woman, but the officer in charge of the case pointed out that she had not seen her sister for many years, and that Mrs Boale was obviously the person to be consulted in the matter. So the taxidermist was again drawn from his scientific labours. He was shown the information laid by Miss Aspinall and the description furnished by her. He told his simple story once more, mentioning the incident of his lying to his neighbours to avoid unpleasant gossip, and added several details to Miss Aspinall’s picture of his wife. He then furnished the constable with two photographs, pointed out the better likeness of the two, and saw his visitor off the premises with cheerful calm.
In due course, the “Missing” bill, garnished with a reproduction of the photograph selected by Mr. Boale, with minute descriptive details, including the “marked limp,” was posted up at the police-stations all over the country, and glanced at casually by a few passers-by here and there. There was nothing sensational about the placard; and the statement “Last seen going in the direction of King’s Cross” was not a very promising clue for the amateur detective. No hint of the matter got into the Press; as I have pointed out, hardly one per cent of these cases of “missing” does get into the Press. And just then we were all occupied in reading the pæans of the war correspondents, who were proving that an advance of a mile and a half on a nine-mile front constituted a victory which threw Waterloo into the shade. There was no room for discussing the whereabouts of an obscure woman whom Islington knew no more.
It was sheer accident that brought about the catastrophe. James Curry, a medical student who had rooms in Percy Street, Tottenham Court Road, was prowling about his quarter one afternoon in an indefinite and idle manner, gazing at shop windows and mooning at street corners. He knew that he would never want a cash register, but he inspected the stock with the closest attention, and chose a fine specimen listed at £75. Again, he invested heavily in costly Oriental rugs, and furnished a town mansion in the Sheraton manner at very considerable expense. And so his tour of inspection brought him to the police-station; and there he proceeded to read the bills posted outside, including the bill relating to Elizabeth Boale.
“Walks with a marked limp.”
James Curry felt his breath go out of his body in a swift gasp. He put out a hand towards the railing to steady himself as he read that amazing sentence over again. And then he walked straight into the police-station.
The fact was that he had bought from Harold Boale, three weeks after the date on which Elizabeth Boale was last seen, a female skeleton. He had got it comparatively cheaply because of the malformation of one of the thigh-bones. And now it struck him that the late owner of that thigh-bone must have walked with a very marked limp.
M’Aulay made his reputation at the trial. He defended Harold Boale with magnificent audacity. I was in court—it was a considerable part of my business in those days to frequent the Old Bailey—and I shall never forget the opening phrases of his speech for the prisoner. He rose slowly, and let his glance go slowly round the court. His eyes rested at last with grave solemnity on the jury. At length he spoke, in a low, clear, deliberate voice, weighing, as it seemed, every word he uttered.
“Gentlemen,” he began, “a very great man, and a very wise man, and a very good man once said that probability is the guide of life. I think you will agree with me that this is a weighty utterance. When we once leave the domain of pure mathematics, there is very little that is certain. Supposing we have money to invest: we weigh the pros and cons of this scheme and that, and decide at last on probable grounds. Or it may be our lot to have to make an appointment; we have to choose a man to fill a responsible position in which both honesty and sagacity are of the first consequence. Again probability must guide us to a decision. No one man can form a certain and infallible judgment of another. And so through all the affairs of life: we must be content with probability, and again and again with probability. Bishop Butler was right.6
“But every rule has its exception. The rule which we have just laid down has its exception. That exception confronts you terribly, tremendously, at this very moment. You may think—I do not say that you do think—but you may think that Harold Boale, the prisoner at the bar, in all probability murdered his wife, Elizabeth Boale.”
There was a long pause at this point. Then:
“If you think that, then it is your imperative duty to acquit the prisoner at the bar. The only verdict which you dare give is a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’.”
Up to this, moment, Counsel had maintained the low, deliberate utterance with which he had begun his speech, pausing now and again and seeming to consider within himself the precise value of every word that came to his lips. Suddenly his voice rang out, resonant, piercing. One word followed swiftly on another:
“This, remember, is not a court of probability. Bishop Butler’s maxim does not apply here. Here there is no place for probability. This is a court of certainty. And unless you are certain that my client is guilty, unless you are as certain of his guilt as you are certain that two and two make four, then you must acquit him.
“Again, and yet again—this is a court of certainty. In the ordinary affairs of life, as we have seen, we are guided by probability. We sometimes makes mistakes; in most cases these mistakes may be rectified. A disastrous investment may be counterbalanced by a prosperous investment; a bad servant may be replaced by a good one. But in this place, where life and death hang in the balances which are in your hands, there is no room for mistakes, since here mistakes are irreparable. You cannot bring a dead man back to life. You must not say, ‘This man is probably a murderer, and therefore he is guilty.’ Before you bring in such a verdict, you must be able to say, ‘This man is certainly a murderer.’ And that you cannot say, and I will tell you why.”
M’Aulay then took the evidence piece by piece. Scientific witnesses had declared that the malformation of the thighbone in the skeleton exhibited would produce exactly the sort of limp which had characterized Elizabeth Boale. Counsel for the defence had worried the doctors, had made them admit that such a malformation was by no means unique. It was uncommon. Yes, but not very uncommon? Perhaps not.
Finally, one doctor admitted that in the course of thirty years of hospital and private practice he had known of five such cases of malformation of the thigh-bone. M’Aulay gave an inaudible sigh of relief; he felt that he had got his verdict.
He made all this quite clear to the jury. He dwelt on the principle that no one can be condemned unless the corpus delicti, the body, or some identifiable portion of the body of the murdered person can be produced. He told them the story of the Campden Wonder; how the “murdered” man walked into his village two years after three people had been hanged for murdering him. “Gentlemen,” he said, “for all I know, and for all you know, Elizabeth Boale may walk into this court at any moment. I say boldly that we have no earthly right to assume that she is dead.”
Of course Boale’s defence was a very simple one. The skeleton which he sold to Mr. Curry had been gradually assembled by him in the course of the last three years. He pointed out that the two hands were not a very good match; and, indeed, this was a little detail that he had not overlooked.
The jury took half an hour to consider their verdict. Harold Boale was found “Not Guilty.”
He was seen by an old friend a couple of years ago. He had emigrated to America, and was doing prosperously in his old craft in a big town of the Middle West. He had married a pleasant girl of Swedish extraction.
“You see,” he explained, “the lawyers told me I should be safe in presuming poor Elizabeth’s death.”
He smiled amiably.
And finally, I beg to state that this account of mine is a grossly partial narrative. For all I know, assuming for a moment the severe standards of M’Aulay, Boale was an innocent man. It is possible that his story was a true one. Elizabeth Boale may, after all, be living; she may return after the fashion of the “murdered” man in the Campden Wonder.7 All the thoughts, devices, meditations that I have put into the heart and mind of Boale may be my own malignant inventions without the shadow of true substance behind them.
In theory, then, the Islington Mystery is an open question. Certainly; but in fact?
1 For more on the Crippen case, refer to the following article: Machen on Crime & Detection.
2 Likely, Machen is referring to the unsolved murder of Thomas Weldon Atherstone (1862-1910). The “Battersea Flat Murder” occurred only days before Crippen was dramatically apprehended, and as Machen suggests, this fact is a probable reason for the incident have been so easily forgotten.
3 Suspected murderess Madeleine Smith (1835-1928) was tried in Scotland for poisoning her former lover in 1857. The case against Smith was largely circumstantial—she had bought arsenic days before the murder—but the court returned the unusual and somewhat skeptical verdict of “not proven.” The incident was a source of inspiration for the Wilkie Collins novel, The Law and the Lady (1875). Long-lived, Smith died in New York one year after the publication of The Islington Mystery.
4 Unfortunately, details on this affair at Gray’s Inn Road and “the Wimbeldon Murder” have proven elusive. Possibly these final examples are invented fancies by Machen as he leans into the narrative proper. However, any information would be greatly appreciated: email@example.com.
5 This places the Islington Mystery during the autumn of 1916. Tanks were first deployed by the British during the disastrous Somme offensive which began in early September of that year.
6 This passage by the counsel strikes as an echo of arguments and events from the historical trial of Elizabeth Canning as recounted by Machen in his book-length study, The Canning Wonder (1925).
7 This is an incredible case from the 1600s which dealt with false accusations, a confession of insanity and suspected witchcraft. After the disappearance of a prominent man, three of his servants were convicted and executed for his murder without the benefit of a corpse. Yet a year later, the man returned alive and well. According to his tale, he had been kidnapped by Turks and sold into slavery from which he then miraculously escaped.