Here’s a full transcript of the tenth episode of Shedunnit.
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Caroline: On 6 October 1926, a young woman went into the cloakroom on the quay at Boulogne in France. Her friend was waiting for her outside, expecting her to come out again quickly because they were due to catch the boat back to England in ten minutes’ time. The seconds ticked by, and the boat left, but still the young woman didn’t appear. She was never seen alive again.
Five months later, her body was found several miles away. An umbrella and a syringe of morphine were lying nearby, and it looked as if she had been strangled. No witnesses came forward and the police were baffled. British and French journalists descended on the town, eager to try their hand at investigating this riddle. Among them was a newly-married Dorothy L. Sayers, a detective novelist with a keen interest in the crimes of her day, excited to test out her sleuthing skills on an actual case. But when she got there, she found that not every crime has a neat beginning, an intriguing middle and a satisfying ending. Real life is a whole lot more complicated.
This is the story of Nurse Daniels.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. This is another instalment in my series about the real life crimes that inspired the writers of classic detective stories. In this episode, we’ll learn about Dorothy L. Sayer’s frustrating adventures in France trying to crack a case that was captivating Britain, and how she managed to weave elements of it into her fiction. But to understand that, we need to go right back to the beginning. Who was Nurse Daniels, and why did her disappearance and death cause such a sensation?
Winifred May Daniels was 21 years old when she disappeared. She was a nurse probationer at a hospital in London, and according to the interviews given by her family after she vanished, she was a happy, cheerful person, who wasn’t prone to getting upset easily. One friend described her as “level-headed and cool, and not in any way hysterical” . She wasn’t famous or notorious, but she did live during interesting times, as the saying goes. Her disappearance caused a stir because of the role she inhabited in society, and her death was a good excuse for people to air a lot of prejudices and assumptions.
May Daniels belonged to the generation of women who grew up in the aftermath of the First World War and were able to take advantage of the progress that came afterwards. The very fact that she was training full time at a hospital even though the war had been over for years tells you something about the kind of person she was. She wanted to qualify and work as a nurse in a professional environment, rather than being the kind of gentlewoman volunteer who might having taken up nursing temporarily during the war. We don’t know anything about May’s romantic life, but she was unmarried and unattached as far as the newspapers could find out. She might well have been one of those “surplus women” supposedly left to fend for herself after thousands of men died in the trenches. You can find out more about that phenomenon and the ways it influenced detective fiction in the very first episode of this podcast.
Another clue to her personality lies in her appearance. The newspapers described Nurse Daniels as having “shingled hair”, which was an important identifier at that time. It means she had her hair bobbed in the modern style, rather than grown out long and arranged in a demure and complicated undo as her Edwardian mother and grandmother might have had. Shingled hair signalled that a woman had better things to do than spend hours fiddling with hair pins. She wanted a style that was comfortable, convenient and fashionable. To a certain kind of more conservative critic, reading this description would have had some negative connotations too, because some perceived the style as racy, since it exposed the back of a woman’s neck. A nurse with shingled hair might be assumed by some unenlightened individuals to be promiscuous or sexually available. This idea became part of the story later on, after the body was found, when people were attempting to find an explanation for how a nice, hardworking English nurse could have ended up strangled and dumped in a field in France. Naturally, the speculation got a bit lurid and out of hand. We’ll come on to that later.
On that day in October, May Daniels and her fellow nurse Celia McCarthy had 12 hours’ leave from work. They decided to take a day trip to France, and took the train to Brighton from London and then the ferry across the channel from there. The two women were close; May’s brother said later that “May simply adored Nurse McCarthy”. An eyewitness reported seeing them on the boat having a great time, laughing and chatting together. They spent the afternoon in Boulogne looking around the shops and having tea, and then just before their boat back to Brighton was due to depart, May said that she wanted to go into the cloakroom quickly for a “wash and brush up”. We know from later reports that May was dressed smartly, in a black coat and a fashionable mauve toque hat with a point at one side — perhaps she was enjoying the rare chance to be out of her nurse’s uniform. While she was in the cloakroom, Celia waited outside, and I think we can assume she would have told her friend to be quick, because they only had a few minutes before their ferry left.
Celia McCarthy waited and waited, the bustle on the quay all around her, watching the door through which her friend had vanished from sight. But May Daniels didn’t return. The boat left, and only one nurse was left behind on the quay.
When you look back on a sequence of events like this, it’s easy to jump between the significant points and ignore the boring periods in between. There aren’t very many historical accounts of the Nurse Daniels case, but those that do exist tend to leap straight from her disappearance on the quay in Boulogne that evening to the discovery of her body five months later. But if you sift through all the newspaper clippings from the days immediately after she vanished, you get a fascinating glimpse into the mundane trivialities of crime and tragedy that detective stories usually leave out altogether.
For instance, although we know with hindsight that it is May Daniels who deserves our sympathy, it’s not as if Celia McCarthy was left in a very safe situation, either. She said in interviews afterwards that as she waited for any sign of her friend, she was completely unsure as to what she should do. It’s not as if you would immediately jump from your friend’s slight delay inside a cloakroom to assuming that she had been abducted or murdered. It would just be a bit unsettling to miss your ferry. McCarthy also didn’t speak much French, so once she was convinced that Daniels was no longer in the cloakroom, she found it very difficult to make enquiries as to whether anyone had seen her friend walking off anywhere. She was just left standing on her own on a dock, with no idea how long she should wait, and no idea where her friend could have got to. The ferry was due to leave around 5pm, and she waited on the dock until 9.30. Alarming, yes, but there was no reason yet to suppose that the story would have such a tragic ending.
One fact that many of the reports focused in on was that it was May Daniels, not Celia McCarthy, who was carrying the pair’s tickets. This suggested that it was unlikely that Daniels’ disappearance was planned, since if she had known she wouldn’t be returning to England with her friend, why keep hold of McCarthy’s ticket and leave her stranded in France? Police and public alike felt that this suggested Daniels had not vanished voluntarily, but had been “enticed away by a plausible stranger”, as one paper put it.
Nurse McCarthy ended up spending the night in the cloakroom before heading to a nearby convent early in the morning — she was a Roman Catholic — for some rest and the facilities to set enquiries in motion. She telegraphed to her sister in London for some money to pay for a return ticket and communicated with the British consul about May’s disappearance. The police tried to trace Daniels, but with little success, and her family offered of a £100 reward for information. But eventually McCarthy had to return to her own job and life back in England, none the wiser about where her friend had ended up. There was a small flurry of interest in the missing nurse in the papers, and some journalists tried to interview McCarthy at the hospital while she was on duty, but aside from the bizarre fact of her friend going into a cloakroom and apparently never coming out again, there was very little for the press to go on.
But then, a French farmer made a very unpleasant discovery. More on that after the break.
And now listeners, a small intermission where I’m going to ask if you’ve got round to signing up to the Shedunnit newsletter yet? It’s the best way to stay up to date with everything I’m doing on the show and find out when a new episode has come out, and means you’ll be the first to know when any of the secret plans I’m hatching at the moment for the future of the podcast actually come to fruition. If that sounds good to you, head to shedunnitshow.com/newsletter. Now, back to the story.
It was almost five months later, on 26 February 1927, when a French farmer called Jean Houchin made his unpleasant discovery. He was walking near a well-known landmark on the outskirts of Boulogne, the Column de Grande Armee, built in the early nineteenth century to honour Napoleon. There are gardens laid out all around the column, and about 100 yards from the landmark he came across the decomposing body of a woman hidden under what the Sunday Post newspaper would later dramatically call “the Bush of Death”.
After the police were called and the scene properly investigated, they found a broken umbrella and a torn handkerchief buried in the sand near the body, and a little further away a small metal box containing a broken hypodermic syringe. This last gave the police and the journalists who began to appear in Boulogne over the next few days their first far-fetched theory: that Nurse Daniels was a secret drug taker, and had given her friend the slip in order to take a dose of something, only to succumb to an overdose. The fact that Daniels had no known history of drug taking, and that it would be very odd to sneak out of a cloakroom and walk a mile and a half just to get a hit, soon quashed this theory, but not before the papers had indulged in some seedy speculation.
May Daniels’ brother went to Boulogne and his identification along with some dental evidence confirmed that the body was indeed that of his sister. The police were able to turn up a few witnesses with a vague memory of seeing a woman who might have looked like Daniels walking in the vicinity of the column, but there was no definitive statement or evidence to explain how she had come to be there and at what point in the previous five months she had met her death. They had not been able to trace her in the time since she disappeared, and it was even harder to do after news of the body’s discovery spread and people suddenly had a voyeuristic desire to be associated with the case.
Even the cause of death was hard to establish, with the medical evidence citing “syncope”, or sudden heart failure, but with no clue as to the underlying cause. There was thought to be some marks of strangulation on the body, but with its advanced state of decomposition, they couldn’t be certain. Neither were any drugs or poisons found in her system, although that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there — a long time had elapsed since her disappearance and many analytical techniques were in their infancy. In short, this was nothing like the miraculously clear-cut post mortem reports you get in books, with time and cause of death neatly delineated for the detective’s convenience. There was little doubt that May Daniels was dead, probably murdered, but beyond that, the trail was cold.
Interest in the Nurse Daniels case ran high in Britain and France over the next few weeks, fuelled by the rewards offered by her family and the fact that the police seemed to make no progress at all towards finding a solution or even a credible witness report. The circumstances were all aligned for maximum public interest: a pretty, modern young woman vanishes in mysterious, impossible seeming circumstances, and then her body is found months later alongside some hints of drug taking or other illegal activity. The lack of proper clues or witness reports left a vacuum in which speculation and outlandish theories could thrive. A lot of these focused on the broken hypodermic syringe, suggesting either that Daniels was a secret drug addict or that she had been doped by a gang of kidnappers, but there was one French police inspector who gave rise to another popular, if unsupported, explanation of events.
He had the turf beneath Daniels’ body analysed, and found a large quantity of blood in it. From this, he decided that she had bled and died at that spot, rather than having been moved there after death, and that most likely she suffered heart failure as a consequence of some operation that was being performed on her. The syringe hinted at medical involvement of some kind, too, lending circumstantial corroboration to this. The police and newspapers were reluctant to actually name the kind of operation that everyone was assuming had taken place — the inspector himself just said that “the act leading to the death of Miss Daniels was an offence against French and English law”.
What he, and everyone else, meant was abortion. A whole new narrative about May Daniels was built up, in which the cheery outing with her friend to Boulogne was actually a front for a desperate woman’s attempt to end an unwanted pregnancy at a time when there were no legal or safe options available to her. In this version, she either disappeared from the cloakroom voluntarily, giving her friend the slip in order to keep her appointment with a backstreet abortion provider, or her friend was helping her, and lied about the disappearance in order to cover up what Daniels was really doing. This latter seems unlikely, though, since surely Celia McCarthy would have had a better story if she’d been able to think about it in advance than just “she went into a cloakroom and never came out”. And then, goes the theory, the operation went wrong somehow and May Daniels died, so didn’t return to rendez-vous with McCarthy and return to England as expected. Those who had done the operation panicked, and dumped the still-bleeding body of Nurse Daniels in a bush on the outskirts of town, and then kept their heads down when the police started asking questions.
This is just about plausible as an explanation, although it falls down a bit when you wonder why they would leave her body badly hidden right by a well-known landmark, and why, if she had died during a medical procedure, it looked as if she had been partly strangled. But the press carried on embellishing this version of events regardless of its implausibilities and contractions. Within a few weeks, the story had advance to the point where Nurse Daniels wasn’t just pregnant, she was carrying the child of a prominent member of the British establishment (not named) who had paid for her to go over to France for the abortion in order that it would be harder to trace back to him than if it took place in London. There was no proof or even indication of this, by the way, but the addition of an aristocratic or political connection did add spice to an already salacious story. It didn’t help investigators get any closer to the truth, though.
Dorothy L. Sayers arrived in Boulogne in mid March 1927. She came with her husband Oswald Atherton Fleming, a Scottish journalist who wrote for the newspapers under the name of Mac Fleming. They had been married just under a year, and although Sayers was still enthusiastic and happy when she wrote about their relationship in letters to others, they had both embarked on the marriage with some baggage and it would become troubled later on. Mac was divorced with two daughters from his previous marriage, and he had a wound from his First World War service that gave him chronic pain and periods of illness. Sayers, meanwhile, had had a prior relationship with a married neighbour that resulted in the birth of her son, John Antony — a secret she kept closely for most of her life. We’ll talk more about this in a future episode, but for now it’s worth knowing that just a few years ago, Sayers had found herself in a not dissimilar situation to the one that had been imagined for May Daniels. Rather than abortion, which she abhorred both on religions and practical fronts, Sayers ended up having the baby and giving him away to be fostered with a cousin. She had hoped that when she married Mac, her son might come and live with them, but it never happened, although he did take Mac’s surname and use the name John Anthony Fleming.
Mac was due to report on the Daniels case, and the News of the World newspaper hit on a cunning idea: since he was a journalist and his wife was a detective novelist, why not pay for the two of them to go over to France and see if they could solve the mystery? Sayers and Fleming accepted — possibly partly because it was a free holiday at a time when money wasn’t exactly plentiful for them, since Sayers worked as an advertising copywriter and Fleming was freelance. They were far from the only special investigators sent by newspapers like this, either: former Scotland Yard man Chief Inspector Gough was hired by the Daily Mail and Netley Lucas, a conman turned crime correspondent was there for the Sunday News. Indeed, the town was crowded with people trying to work out what had happened to Nurse Daniels.
On 20 March, Dorothy wrote to her mother from Boulogne. “We rushed violently over here yesterday afternoon at about half an hour’s notice,” she said. “Mac is investigating the Daniels case and I am fooling about, hoping that an opportunity may present itself to ask leading questions! Anyway it was a very jolly trip over – simply glorious weather, sunshine and the cafes open till 2 in the morning. We rolled into bed about 2.30 and feel all the better for it, in spite of an intensive course of mixed drinks during the evening… of course, the place is swarming with English journalists.”
It seems like the sleuthing pair were having a lovely time, drinking and socialising with the makeshift press pack that had assembled in the town. However, they did also find time to do a bit of investigating, inspecting the mysterious cloakroom and various other key locations, but in the end Sayers had to admit herself stumped — she couldn’t do any better than the police in this instance. She did however find herself inspired by several of the aspects of the Daniels case, and worked quickly to incorporate her fictionalised versions of them in her next novel.
By early 1927, Dorothy Sayers had already published two Peter Wimsey novels — Whose Body? in 1923 and Clouds of Witness in 1926. By the time of the trip to Boulogne to investigate the Nurse Daniels case with Mac she had already written most of her next detective story featuring her monocled aristocratic sleuth. This book was titled Unnatural Death and it would be published later in 1927. Her biographer Barbara Reynolds points out that at the time of the Daniels investigation in March Sayers was still able to insert some new details that draw on her attempts at real-life detection.
That book, which incidentally is one of my own favourite detective novels, features a cloakroom scene very like that which Celia McCarthy experienced that October day on the quay in Boulogne. During the course of a trip to Liverpool, Wimsey’s manservant and detecting assistant Mervyn Bunter is instructed to follow a mysterious unknown woman who they believe might be connected to the case. He trails her successfully to a ladies’ cloakroom where Bunter feels that he, as a man, can’t follow. He waits outside, secure in the knowledge that there is only one exit and he can carry on tracking her after she comes out. He waits for ages and she doesn’t appear, and after getting a hotel employee to check the cloakroom he finds that the woman has somehow vanished.
So far, so similar to what happened with Nurse Daniels. But at that point, Sayers’ imagination takes over, and she invents a solution of her own. The woman in her story is completely aware that she is being followed, and she has come equipped to throw off her pursuer. She cunningly changes her coat and hat in the cloakroom and emerges looking completely different, and is therefore able to walk straight past Bunter without him noticing her, since he didn’t know her personally and was mostly using her outfit to identify her.
Sayers also uses this episode as away of hinting towards the way society looked upon single, so-called “surplus” women at the time — they’re interchangeable, she seems to be saying, and all you really notice about them are their clothes. Elsewhere in the same book she also includes a scene in which a murdered young woman is found under a bush in a semi-public place with various red herrings strewn around. I don’t want to give away anything more, because it’s such a good story, but let’s just say that hypodermic syringes and nurses also feature.
There can be no doubt that Sayers found her brief stint as a real life amateur sleuth very stimulating. And it’s not that surprising: the case of Nurse Daniels reads like the first ten pages of a brilliant detective story. The independent young woman, out for a day’s fun with a friend, goes into a cloakroom and is never seen to come out again. Her body is found months later, with several convenient red herrings nearby. But as Sayers and others found when they tried to work out what happened next, real life doesn’t work out as neatly as the stories we make up for ourselves.
Nobody was ever able to prove how May Daniels got out of that cloakroom without her friend seeing, or what sequence of events lead to her death, or even how she was killed. There’s no satisfying ending where a clever detective brings a wicked villain to justice. A horrible act of violence was committed against a young woman, and nobody was ever punished for it.
The sad reality is that sometimes, you never get to find out whodunnit.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/nursedaniels. There, you can also read a full transcript.
I have to say a big thank you to everyone who has supported the show in the last two weeks — it’s been a really busy time for me, and getting the notifications of your donations and reviews really helped keep me motivated to stay up late and write and record. A few of you pointed out though that the book wishlist link I mentioned last time wasn’t working, so I have now fixed that. If you feel an urgent desire to buy me a mystery story to talk about in a future episode or a magnifying glass that I can brandish while I read, go to shedunnitshow.com/wishlist.
I’ll be back on 6 March with a new episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: The Other Detectives.
I know I said that last time, but this time I really mean it.