Content warning: this episode includes mention of suicide.
Caroline: Two women appeared at the infamous Court No 1 at the Old Bailey in London, twelve years apart. Both were accused of conspiring with their lovers to murder their husbands. Both became the subject of intense scrutiny and fascination, with the international media picking over every sordid detail shared in court. Both experienced extreme moral judgement for behaviour which, by today’s standards, is hardly headline-worthy. Both cases, especially when considered together, had an outsize impact on the way women’s crimes were regarded. Both inspired works of fiction by prominent writers of the day, and their stories have continued to be written and adapted for new generations in the decades since. The big difference between them? In December 1922, Edith Thompson was found guilty, and in May 1935, Alma Rattenbury was acquitted.
Today, we are exploring the tragic tale of the murder at the Villa Madeira and its consequences for crime and crime fiction.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Alma Rattenbury and her husband Francis moved into the Villa Madeira at 5 Manor Road, Bournemouth as the summer of 1935 drew to a close. It had a rather ostentatious name, but this was in fact an unremarkable suburban house in a quiet area of this popular English seaside resort. This was an exile, of sorts, for the Rattenburys: they were both Canadian, and had met in their home city of Victoria, British Columbia, a decade earlier. Alma, who had been a well-known musical prodigy as a child and a teenager, was relaxing with a friend in the lounge of one the city’s grandest hotels after giving a piano recital. Francis, a well-established architect thirty years her senior who was known for designing the province’s parliament buildings and the very hotel they were in happened to be at an event in the next room. They were introduced; they hit it off. Soon, Alma was saying things like “If I don’t love him, I simply don’t know what love is.”
The only catch? Francis was already married, in an indifferent way, to a woman called Florrie whom he had met at a colleague’s boarding house and got pregnant fifteen years before. As long ago as 1911, they had stopped speaking to each other at home and communicated only via notes passed by their daughter. A few months after meeting Alma, Francis Rattenbury requested a divorce, but his wife refused. What followed was an extremely public and unedifying breakup — he tried to evict his wife from their home, she took legal action against him, he moved his mistress in, their children took sides… And so on, and so on, until an exhausted Florrie finally consented to the divorce in January 1925. But any chance of the newly-official Alma and Francis Rattenbury settling down to a respectable and prosperous existence in Victoria had been ruined by the spectacle of his divorce. His children would no longer speak to him, and most of the community followed suit in ostracising the couple. No society matrons would recognise Alma as “the new Mrs Rattenbury” and Francis’s business prospects began to suffer as a result — few clients wanted to employ an architect with such a controversial private life. By 1929, Alma and Francis — or “Ratz”, as she had nicknamed him — had finally had enough of being shunned. And so, they decided to make a clean break of it and move to England. They could never have known what awaited them there.
Life at the Villa Madeira was relatively smooth, for the first few years. Alma and Francis no longer shared a bedroom, but seemed content to cohabit and co-parent the two children they had brought with them from Canada — Christopher, Alma’s son from her second marriage, and John, their own child. Christopher was a weekly boarder at a school in the next town, while John went daily to a school nearby. They had a cook and a maid-companion to help Alma run the house. Alma’s health was not especially good, since she had been diagnosed with tuberculosis soon after their arrival in Bournemouth. She summoned the doctor a lot and had four operations between 1932 and 1935. She and Francis did both make some efforts to reestablish the careers they had left behind in Canada, too, with her composing melodies for popular songs under the pseudonym Lozanne and him seeking investment for a possible building project.
There are some hints, though, that all was not as well as it seemed. Francis’s spirits were often low, and Alma later said that he regularly drank alone and talked about suicide. In July 1934, he made a specific threat of this kind, which resulted in a confrontation, with him hitting her in the face and her biting his arm. When the doctor came, he found Alma with a bruised eye and her husband nowhere to be seen; the police eventually found him safe and well, walking about the streets. Then their cook left and young John moved to a new school, which was harder to reach on public transport. In response to Alma’s worries about these domestic matters, Francis agreed that she could hire a driver-slash-handyman who would convey their son to school and do other chores around the place. And so, on 26th September 1934, an advertisement appeared in the “help wanted” section of the Bournemouth Echo that was to alter all of their lives. It said: “Daily willing lad, 14–18, for housework. Scout-trained preferred.”
The chaffeur-handyman that Alma eventually appointed was named George Percy Stoner. He told her in the interview that he was 22, but he was in fact 17 at the time, and this was his first ever job. He was from a working class family in Bournemouth and lived a couple of miles away from the Villa Madeira with his grandparents. He eagerly accepted the salary of £1 a week (about £50 in today’s money) to drive young John to school, take Alma on her various errands, and do oddjobs about the house. By the time Stoner’s eighteenth birthday arrived on 19th November, he and Alma had become friendly; he confessed his real age to her, and a few days later they began an affair. Stoner moved into the Villa Madeira, taking the empty master bedroom. Ratz, it would seem, either didn’t know or didn’t care what his wife and his chauffeur were up to after he had gone to bed. The evidence is contradictory — Alma later said that her husband must have known, while other witnesses insisted that he didn’t.
When the crime writer and Detection Club co-founder Anthony Berkeley was writing his own account of the Rattenbury case, he picked this moment as being the turning point where everything that went wrong could have gone right. “Mrs. Rattenbury now had things as she wanted them; and if she had kept both her head and a firm hand on the situation, the secrets of the Villa Madeira would never have found their way into gleeful print. But she did not. She committed the mistake, fatal in her case, of falling in love with Stoner,” he wrote for the Detection Club’s 1936 true crime anthology The Anatomy of Murder. And indeed, Alma was anything but discreet. She bought Stoner lavish presents, took him on shopping trips to Harrods in London, and apparently allowed him to occupy a position in the house much more like that of guest than employee.
It was shortly after one of these London trips that everything came to a head. The 24th March 1935 was a Sunday and the Rattenburys’ son John was home from school. Alma and Ratz had tea together, and Ratz read aloud to his wife from a novel he had been reading, Stay of Execution by Eliot Crawshay Williams. This was later made much of in court, because the book deals with an older man married to a much younger woman who contemplates suicide. Ratz was feeling worried about his potential building project, and to improve his mood Alma suggested they make a visit the following day to a wealthy friend he had in Bridport, a town about 40 miles west of Bournemouth. He agreed, and plans were made for Stoner to drive them there, while a phonecall to the friend confirmed that they could stay overnight.
This seems to have been the catalyst for the events of that evening. Stoner was madly jealous that Alma was going on a trip with her husband, and might possibly even share a room with him. Stoner confronted Alma, saying that he would refuse to drive her there and even, Alma said later, threatened her with a gun. She calmed him down, though, and then proceeded with the rest of her day — putting young John to bed, packing for the trip, listening to the wireless, and at about 9.30pm, saying goodnight to Ratz, who was dozing in his chair with his book in the sitting room. Stoner was absent during this time; it was later revealed that he had taken the bus to his grandparents’ house two miles away and borrowed a wooden mallet from their shed, saying that he needed it to erect a tent in the garden at the Villa Madeira.
Around 10.15pm, Stone was back at the house and getting into bed with Alma. He seemed withdrawn and worried, initially refusing to tell her what was wrong, but eventually admitting that he had hit Ratz over the head with a mallet. Then Alma heard a groan from the floor below. She went downstairs and found her husband out cold in his chair, blood welling from his head and pooling on the floor. She took his hand to try and revive him, but got no response. Alma had been a nurse during world war one, and had worked in a field hospital very near the front line in France, so she was not without experience of traumatic injuries. This, however, was her husband, and her lover had just confessed to attacking him. She went into hysterics, drained a glass of whisky, summoned the maid, Irene Riggs, and sent for the doctor. The two women moved Ratz to lie down on his bed, wrapped his wounded head in a towel, and Alma became increasingly more panicked and erratic over the next few hours. The doctor called a surgeon, who moved Ratz to a nursing home for an emergency operation and quickly ascertained that this was no accident — this man had been struck hard on the head with a blunt instrument, three times. He alerted the police, who went to the Villa Madeira and began trying to make order out of the chaos that reigned there, with the mistress of the house drunk and trying to kiss a constable while her maid cleaned up the pools of blood all over the floor. At 8.15am, Alma gave a statement saying that her husband had dared her to kill him, and she had hit him as a result. She was taken into custody immediately afterwards, leaving Stoner, the maid Irene Riggs, and her young son John behind. It all seemed like a tragic yet simple case of a domestic dispute that had got out of hand…
After the break: Alma follows in Edith’s footsteps.
One of the stranger aspects of the Rattenbury case is that after Alma was arrested and charged with attempted murder, everybody else involved just… stayed put. They were in limbo, waiting to see if Alma’s husband Francis Rattenbury, known as Ratz, was ever going to regain consciousness. The maid-companion, Irene Riggs, and Alma’s lover the chauffeur-handyman George Percy Stoner carried on living at the Villa Madeira. Stoner was not at all on his guard — two days after that terrible Sunday night, he took Irene for a drive and pointed out his grandparents house, telling her that he had fetched the mallet from there. Crucially, when Irene asked if his fingerprints would still be on it, Stoner assured her that he had worn gloves when he handled it. Later, Anthony Berkeley would find this the most damning statement in the case, for it indicated a level of premeditation that was otherwise absent. The following evening, Irene called the police because Stoner was drunk and rambling that he was the one who had attacked Ratz, not Alma. Then on Thursday 28th March 1935, four days after the attack, Ratz died from his injuries, and suddenly Alma was facing a murder charge and potentially the death penalty. That afternoon, Irene gave a statement to the police about Stoner’s behaviour since their mistress’s arrest and what he had told her about the mallet, but tried to downplay the extent of the relationship between Alma and Stoner. The police investigated the chauffeur, discovering his movements in fetching the mallet and then returning to the house not long before the estimated time of the attack. Stoner had gone up to London on the train that day in a futile attempt to see Alma in Holloway prison, and upon his return to Bournemouth he was arrested.
The preliminary hearings revealed details of Alma and Stoner’s affair as well as the brutal violence of the attack upon Ratz. National and international media became obsessed with the case, publishing daily updates. Back in Canada, Ratz’s two older estranged children, Frank and Mary, were besieged by journalists. Frank gave a damning interview about his despised stepmother, in which he suggested that he wouldn’t be surprised if there was drugs involved in his father’s death somehow, and this sent the press into a further frenzy. Alma and Stoner were scheduled for trial on 21 May 1935, at Court Number One in the Old Bailey. Meanwhile, a procession of friends and lawyers visited Alma in Holloway and tried to persuade her to tell the truth about that night in March — she must not continue to shield Stoner, they insisted, or she would probably hang. Eventually, they brought her son Christopher to see her, and she broke down in tears. Stoner had attacked Ratz, she finally admitted, not her.
One of the many injustices of Edith Thompson’s trial in 1922 had been that the woman herself was not allowed by her legal team to give evidence, for fear that details of her scandalous reading habits and behaviour prejudice the jury against her even more. Alma’s lawyers clearly meant to learn from this mistake, and put her on the stand to explain what had happened that awful night at the Villa Madeira back in March. Now that she was cooperating with her own defence, relying on Alma’s own account proved to be a very good decision. Although the revelations about her lifestyle — her habit of staying in pyjamas all day and composing music all night — and her affair with a much younger man definitely caused those cliched sensations in the courtroom, it was generally agreed that Alma’s own evidence produced a very favourable effect. “Mrs Rattenbury impressed everyone who heard her at her trial as an exceptionally truthful witness, telling the truth even when it was against herself, and the version she then gave is probably the correct one,” writes Anthony Berkeley. Further, her actions in initially attempting to take the blame seem not to have counted against her either — she had done “a plucky thing, entirely in accordance with the public-school code”, he goes on to say. As with Edith Thompson, there was no direct evidence of her having planned or executed the crime. It was going to come down to whether her infidelity with Stoner was considered by the jury to be evidence enough of guilt.
Stoner’s defence, meanwhile, was more difficult. The police had hard evidence of him acquiring the murder weapon on the night of the crime and telling more than one person that he had done it after the fact. His lawyers attempted to build up a narrative of diminished responsibility by claiming that he was a habitual drug user, but this defence fell apart in court when Stoner was asked how much cocaine he had taken on the day of the attack and he replied “two egg spoonfuls”, which was more than three times a lethal dose. He had also said that cocaine was a brown powder with black specks, confirming that he had probably never seen the drug.
Another fascinating coincidence of this case is that the judge, Sir Travers Humphreys, had actually been present at the Edith Thompson trial as well. Before becoming a judge, he had served as a prosecuting barrister for many high profile cases of the last fifty years, including the trials of Oscar Wilde, Crippen, George Joseph Smith (aka the Brides in the Bath murderer) and, crucially, Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters. Even though in his later memoirs Humphreys denied that he had been remotely influenced by the parallels between the legal treatment of Alma Rattenbury and Edith Thompson, he had listened to Stoner’s barrister J.D. Casswell, repeatedly make the comparison. Like the judge in the Edith Thompson case, Humphreys makes sure to roundly attack the defendant’s character, repeated drawing attention to her adultery with Stoner as symptomatic of poor judgement and loose morals. F. Tennyson Jesse, who was present in court taking notes for a forthcoming volume of the Notable British Trials series covering the Rattenbury case, commented in her introduction that although the English criminal court was not supposed to be “a court of morals”, in this trial “it apparently was”. In his summing up, Humphreys declared that “Members of the jury, it may be that you will say that you cannot possibly feel any sympathy for that woman, you cannot have any feeling except disgust for her”. However, crucially, he went on: “But let me say this. That should not make you more ready to convict her of this crime; it should, if anything, make you less ready to accept evidence against her.” Unlike the judge in the Edith Thompson case, Humphreys clearly directed the jury not to allow their personal feelings about Alma Rattenbury’s morality to influence their verdict; in fact, they should be actively on their guard against this. Even Anthony Berkeley, who was incensed by the Edith Thompson verdict and felt strongly that the English legal system had a strong prejudice against modernity, acknowledged that the summing up in the Rattenbury case was fair.
The public queued all night in the rain for a chance to be in the courtroom when the jury returned with their verdict. They deliberated for 47 minutes before returning what Tennyson Jesse called “the only possible verdict” given the evidence they had heard. Alma Rattenbury was found not guilty of all charges against her, and George Percy Stoner was found guilty of the murder of Francis Rattenbury. Alma collapsed upon hearing the news and was lead out of the court in a daze, shortly afterwards to be admitted to a London nursing home to try and recover enough to be reunited with her children. Stoner, meanwhile, filed an appeal which would eventually be denied; however after a petition arguing that he should not receive the death penalty with over 300,000 signatures was delivered to the government and he was reprieved.
Alma, though, did not know that this was going to happen. Perhaps she would have acted the same way regardless, perhaps not. A few days after the verdict, she quietly left her nursing home, bought a knife at a London hardware store, and took the train down to Christchurch near Bournemouth. She walked out to a meadow by a stream, and there finished the furious writing she had been doing all day — explaining what she was going to do, and why. And then, in early evening, she stabbed herself six times in the chest and fell into the water, dead. In the letters she left behind, she said that she had decided before the trial to, as she put it, “finish things” if Stoner was found guilty. Even with her children to think of, she felt that life would be better for those who remained if she did not survive.
I think F. Tennyson Jesse’s analysis of Alma’s actions are the most astute. She wrote that: “Mrs Rattenbury was in some ways a vulgar and silly woman, but she was a generous, kindly, lavish creature, capable of great self-sacrifice. She was innocent of the crime of which, entirely on the strength of her own drunken maunderings, she was accused, but, nevertheless, though her life was handed back to her, it was handed back to her in such a shape that it was of no use to her.” Yes, Alma had been found not guilty. But the extraordinary international sensation caused by the trial and the damning verdict given everywhere of her character and behaviour made her feel like there was nowhere in the world she could go and be free.
What Alma Rattenbury couldn’t know is that that world was about to change, forever. The Second World War and all of the upheaval to class and morality that it brought was just three years away. Stoner was sentenced to a lifetime of penal servitude but served just seven years in prison before being released in 1942; although he spent the rest of his life on licence, he was able to live a long life, marry, work, and have children. He finally died in 2000, 65 years after Alma went into that river. Her children, too, managed to put the tragic events of 1935 behind them. Sean O’Connor’s book The Fatal Passion of Alma Rattenbury has been a vital source to me in putting this episode together, and he was able to interview Alma’s son John for it, who was then 90 years old. John made a successful career as an architect, just like his father, and became a close associate of Frank Lloyd Wright. He told Sean that “I know my mother was a good woman” and that to him, Stoner was just a “terrible victim of circumstance”.
Alma Rattenbury’s was the last of the great “women in the dock” cases from what George Orwell called “our great period in murder”. I’ve covered many of them on the podcast before, and you can see how the common themes emerge in the the stories of Madeleine Smith, Florence Maybrick, Constance Kent, Edith Thompson and now Alma Rattenbury. They were women who behaved in a way the society of the time found unseemly, often because they transgressed the boundaries of class when it came to romance, and they were punished for it — if not by the criminal court, than by the court of public opinion. There is some evidence of progress through this tragic series, though. As Anthony Berkeley put it, “if Mrs. Thompson had not been hanged, Mrs. Rattenbury surely would have been”. By the time that interwar period we know for its detective fiction had arrived, the public had lost a little of its appetite for death sentences and permanent damnation. The stories were told and retold, though. The Rattenbury case alone inspired a host of plays and adaptations, perhaps most famously Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre.
The Villa Madeira was stripped of its name in an attempt to deter the sensation hunters who kept breaking into the house in the late 1930s. It went back to just plain 5 Manor Road, and in 1940 it, too, changed with the times, when a Jewish couple fleeing Nazi Germany moved in and made it their home. The Landsteins lived there for fifty years, graciously allowing the occasional journalist and documentary maker to look at the house.
Far from being haunted by what had happened there, the villa became a happy home, albeit one that remembered what had gone before. In one interview, Mrs Landstein explains that she planted the garden with pink flowers, because that is how Alma Rattenbury would have liked it.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and hosted by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/thevillamurder. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
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Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening.