The most sinister and disturbing crimes bloom from moments so mundane that they’re barely noticeable. A spontaneous break in a long held routine, a friendly smile to a stranger, a spur of the moment decision on a warm evening to take the long way home: those are the points where the splinters of tragedy begin to pierce an otherwise peaceful existence.
That’s how it was in the case of Julia Wallace, found brutally battered to death in the sitting room of her home in Liverpool on the evening of 20 January 1931. A crime seemingly without a motive or a solution, it has haunted the imaginations of crime writers ever since. Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, P.D. James — they all spent time submerged in the overlapping and contradictory mysteries of this one 48 hour period in 1930s Liverpool, baffled as to how this real life case could be stranger than any fiction.
And it all started with a telephone call.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. Before I start today, I want to remind listeners that this is a very research intensive and completely independent podcast. If you enjoy listening to it and feel able to support what I do, the best way is to become a member of the Shedunnit Book Club, where in return for your contribution you get to hear the show without advertising, listen to extended versions of interviews, and join the community in reading and discussing a different golden age murder mystery every month. Find out more and sign up by visiting shedunnitbookclub.com/join or by clicking the link in the description of this episode.
The telephone call was for William Herbert Wallace, Julia’s husband. On Monday 19 January 1931, the day before her death, William set out as usual from their home on Wolverton Street in Anfield, a neighbourhood that lies to the north and east of Liverpool city centre, to go to his weekly chess night. The Liverpool Central Chess Club meet at the City Cafe, and William had entered his name in advance for the tournament that was to be played that evening. He left home as usual about 7.15, expecting to arrive in time to start playing around 7.45.
At 7.20, the telephone at the cafe rang.
sound of ye olde phone ringing
A waitress answered and upon learning that the caller wanted to speak to a member of the chess club, she called over the club’s secretary, Sam Beattie, to deal with it. In evidence later, Sam said that the caller was someone with a “strong, rather gruff” voice and that they asked for William Herbert Wallace. They were disappointed to learn that he had not yet arrived for the meeting, because they had hoped to catch him to make a business appointment. The caller also mentioned that their daughter was about to turn 21, which was relevant because William worked in insurance, and it was customary at the time to give someone coming of age an endowment policy as a gift, since it would pay them out a lump sum at a later date. Sam inferred therefore that this call could lead to a nice bit of extra work for his fellow chess enthusiast, and therefore suggested that the caller ring back a bit later in the evening when William would have arrived for the club meeting. Strangely, the caller declined, preferring to leave a message for Sam to pass on. The substance of this was that Wallace should come to 25 Menlove Gardens East in Mosseley Hill at 7.30pm the next day in order to meet the caller, who gave the name of R.M. Qualtrough before ringing off.
Sam Beattie’s later evidence suggested that in the moment, he just thought this caller was a business acquaintance of William Wallace’s. He passed on the message in that spirit when Wallace did arrive to play chess about 15 minutes later. William had not heard the name, nor did he know where the address was, but he wrote it down anyway, and even apparently consulted some other members about the best way of getting to Menlove Gardens East. They decided that his best bet was to take the tram out towards Menlove Avenue, which is a major road running south east from the city centre, and then explore to see if he could find the precise street there. William Wallace played chess for about two hours that evening, eventually winning his game, and then set off home. There was nothing, yet, to suggest that anything strange was afoot.
To understand why the case has bewitched so many over the decades, I think it’s necessary to introduce the key characters properly. Julia and William Wallace had been married for 18 years. They had met in 1911 in Harrogate in Yorkshire and got married on 24 March 1913. He had been working as a political agent for the Liberal party, but when the First World War started all political activity was suspended so he instead got a job as a clerk in the Liverpool office of the Prudential Assurance Company. The couple moved to the city and settled down at number 29, Wolverton Street. As far as any of their neighbours, colleagues and friends were able to say after the tragedy, they were happy. William described their relationship as very close: “Neither of us cared very much for entertaining other people or for being entertained; we were sufficient in ourselves,” he wrote.
The Wallaces had no children and plenty of hobbies. Julia played the piano and painted, while William dabbled in amateur chemistry and enjoyed reading about philosophy as well as playing chess. They had lived in the same house for 16 years and seem to have been very settled in their habits. Of course, nobody can ever really know what goes on behind closed doors or inside someone else’s marriage, but all of the evidence presented at the time and uncovered since suggests that they were a financially comfortable, devoted middle class couple. The unexplained violence of Julia’s death that January night in 1931 becomes all the more horrific when contrasted with her life beforehand.
Now, let’s run through the facts as it is possible to verify them. On Julia’s last day, 20 January, everything seemed to be as usual. A policeman saw her husband William mid afternoon not far from the Anfield area, wearing a tweed suit and a light raincoat, and was able to confirm that the insurance clerk seemed to be going about his business in the normal way. Several insurance customers gave evidence that he had visited them to collect their payments that afternoon and seemed in good spirits, cracking jokes and accepting a cup of tea at one house. He finished work about 6 and popped home to join Julia for his tea, in anticipation of going out again to keep his 7.30 appointment with person who had called the chess club the night before, R.M. Qualtrough of Menlove Gardens East.
The last person to see Julia Wallace alive was a 14 year old milk delivery boy, who dropped off the evening pint some time between 6.30 and 6.45, and said that he spoke to her as she fetched it in. The exact time was hard to fix after the fact, because there were contradictory statements about how long his milk round had taken. Julia could still have been alive as late at 6.45, as the evidence of a 16 year old newspaper delivery girl nearby suggested. As you’ll see later, this is the crucial window where the murder seems to have taken place — and one of the inconsistencies that drew Dorothy L. Sayers to the case.
The next time that it is possible to be sure of William Wallace’s movements is ten past seven, when he was at the tram junction on Smithdown Road, three miles away from his house, asking a conductor the best tram to take to Menlove Gardens East.
Wallace asked several different tram conductors for help in finding Menlove Gardens East as he travelled through the city, repeating that he was a stranger to this part of Liverpool. He was directed to get off where a small street called Menlove Gardens West intersects with the larger thoroughfare of Menlove Avenue, which he seems to have done.
This is where that telephone call the evening before starts to seem more sinister than mundane, because Wallace could not find the caller’s address. He ran into a clerk called Sydney Herbert Green near the tram stop and asked for help, and was told that while there was a Menlove Gardens North, South and West, there was no Menlove Gardens East. These three streets make a triangle, not a square, around a small park.
Wallace tried knocking on the door of number 25 Menlove Gardens West, but was told by the woman who answered the door that there was no R.M. Qualtrough at that address. By 7.45, Wallace had wandered further south to a road called Green Lane, where he met a policeman and asked for the address he was seeking, only to be told again that it didn’t exist. He explained why he was hunting for it, and the constable suggested he look it up in the directory at a local newsagents. And that is what Wallace did next — he spent about ten minutes hunting through a directory in a nearby shop, and still had no luck. Eventually, he gave up the search about 8.20 and set off home again from the nearest tram stop.
About 8.45, the Wallaces’ neighbours, the Johnsons, reported hearing someone knocking on the back door of the next house. They were on their way out anyway, and as they left they found Wallace trying to get into his own house. He explained that both the front and back doors of his house seemed to be locked against him, even though his wife had a cold and he did not think she would have gone out. The neighbour offered to get his own back door key and try that — they were terraced houses, and presumably the theory was that the doors would be similar. Wallace explained that the back door lock was quite sticky, and he did eventually manage to get it open while his neighbours were standing there talking to him.
William Wallace was inside the house for about a minute and a half. Then he came running out and said “come and see, she has been killed”. Mr and Mrs Johnson later gave evidence that they had come through with William into the front sitting room, and there found Julia lying dead upon the floor, her head bashed in and blood splashed everywhere. Crumpled up underneath her body was a Macintosh that William later identified as his own. He had been wearing it that afternoon, but had changed into a thicker overcoat before going out to keep the bogus appointment at Menlove Gardens East.
Mr Johnson went out to fetch a policeman, and while Wallace waited with Mrs Johnson, he sobbed a couple of times but mostly kept control of himself, she reported. Once the police arrived, everything proceeded as you might expect — a search was made of the house, the Macintosh under the body was identified, and everyone present when the body was discovered was asked to account for their movements. William Wallace explained about the mysterious telephone call that had sent him on a wild goose chase to the other side of the city.
A medical examination of the body around 10pm found that Julia Wallace had been dead not more than 4 hours, which fits in with the milk delivery boy’s evidence of having last seen her alive around 6.30pm. No weapon could be found. Indeed, no weapon was ever found, but the Wallaces’ weekly cleaning lady didi give evidence that the kitchen poker and an iron bar kept in the sitting room for cleaning under the gas fire had gone missing since her last visit to the house a few days before. There was blood splashed over half of the sitting room and all over the Macintosh under the body, but no stains were discovered elsewhere in the house, nor was there any evidence that anyone had cleaned themselves there recently — no wet towels or anything like that.
William Wallace’s mental state and his expression of emotion that evening became a very important part of the case. As I’ve already said, his neighbour Mrs Johnson later testified that he seemed upset but in control, but she was the only one to think that. Professor MacFall, the doctor who examined the body that night, later said that he felt that William was far too composed given the shock he had just experienced. “He was too quiet, too collected, for a person whose wife had been killed in that way that he described,” MacFall said later. “Why, he was not so affected as I was myself!” Wallace’s explanation for this, by the way, is amazing: he responded to the assertion that he was stiff and emotionless in the face of his wife’s death by revealing that he was merely a disciple of the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Wallace was quoted as saying “For forty years I had drilled myself in iron control and prided myself on never displaying an emotion outwardly in public. I trained myself to be a stoic”.
After the initial police investigation, William Wallace was allowed to spend the rest of the night at his sister in law’s house nearby. He spent the whole of the next day being questioned again, spending nearly 12 hours at the station. The officers went into everything in great detail, including the whole story of that telephone call to the chess club the night before, and from the start of the investigation seemed to have a clear theory in mind. The case was already attracting a lot of press attention because of the violence of the attack on a completely respectable middle class house wife. Ten days later, on 2 February, the whole world found out who the police thought was responsible, when William Wallace was arrested for the murder of his wife.
After the break: who made that telephone call?
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Dorothy L. Sayers always maintained a lively interest in real life murder cases alongside her detective fiction. As I covered on the Nurse Daniels episode of this podcast, in 1927 Sayers and her journalist husband had even gone to France to try their hand at investigating a case for themselves. Her 1930 novel, The Documents in the Case, also draws inspiration from another real life mystery I have covered on the show in the past — the case of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, who were executed in 1923 for the murder of Edith’s husband Percy. In addition, Sayers was one of the contributors to The Scoop, a collaborative radio serial that was aired in 1931 and written by members of the Detection Club. That story, too, was based on an actual murder case – the so called Crumbles Murders from 1924.
All of which is to say: Sayers was no stranger to the interplay of fact and fiction when it came to murder and crime writing. When the Detection Club decided to put together a volume of essays by members about real life cases, she volunteered to write about the murder of Julia Wallace in Liverpool in 1931. This was a case, she wrote, that “could only have been put together by the perverted ingenuity of a detective novelist”. The whole book, by the way, was called The Anatomy of Murder, and it was published in 1936.
In that essay, Sayers lays out why this case above all others held such fascination for her. It “provides for the detective novelist an unrivalled field for speculation,” she wrote. Everything that happened between William Wallace leaving home to go to his chess club meeting on the Monday evening and returning from his wild goose chase on the Tuesday night to find his wife murdered is “susceptible of at least two interpretations,” she said. It’s the crime writer’s dream: all the clues can be twisted to fit one of several different solutions according to who you want to think committed the crime.
When William Wallace was put on trial for the murder of his wife in March 1931, the level of interest in the case was so high that the legal establishment was concerned that he would not get a fair hearing. When summing up the case to the jury, the judge therefore heavily emphasised the need to come to a verdict that fit the evidence presented and no other. “Can you say, taking all this evidence as a whole… that you are satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that it was the hand of the prisoner and no other hand that murdered this woman?,” he said.
It was not the job of the jury, in other words, to solve the case. They just had to decide whether the prosecution’s case against William Wallace was strong enough to find him guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” or not. Sayers, however, sees a different role for herself. She isn’t a juror, but a detective novelist. Therefore, it is her job, she says, to ask “if the prisoner did not do it, then who did?”.
Let’s take a closer look at the case the police had built up against William Wallace. Their theory right from the start was that he had committed a pre meditated and calculated attack upon his wife. In this version of events, he had made that pivotal telephone call himself in order to establish a plausible reason to be out of the house at the time when the crime was committed. As avid readers of detective fiction from this period will know, it was not usually possible to trace a call from a public telephone box after the fact, but in this case the police got lucky: there happened to be a fault on the local telephone exchange at the time, so as part of the repair work the staff were manually logging the origin point of every call. As such, there was a record of the call to the chess club at the City Cafe on the Monday evening, and it showed that it had been placed from a telephone kiosk about 400 years from the Wallaces’ home.
The idea was, then, that William Wallace had left home to go to the chess meeting and made the call on the way, disguising his voice sufficiently so that whichever of his friends there answered would not recognise it as him. Having left the fake message that would take him out of the house on Tuesday night, William then proceeded into town as normal and arrived about 20 minutes after his own phone call. Then the next day, he went home for tea after work and killed his wife with the poker shortly after 6.30 before going out to make sure he was seen by plenty of people on the other side of the city, looking for an address that did not exist, so that when the doctor gave an approximate time of death of around 7pm, he could show that he was already out. And then when he came back, he banged loudly on the already open door of his house to attract his neighbours’ attention, and then used them as witness to him “finding” the body of his wife for the first time.
In a way, it was fortunate for William Wallace that the police suspected him so strongly from the beginning, because it meant that they paid a lot of attention to whether there was any blood on his clothes or body. He was searched very thoroughly and not a single speck was discovered on him, which given the amount of blood all over the sitting room was a substantial point against him having committed the crime. This is where the Macintosh that was found under the body comes in, though.
The police suggested that William had told Julia to set up the sitting room for one of their regular music evenings — he played violin and she piano — and gone upstairs to take off all of his clothes and putting on the Macintosh over his naked body. Then, he crept up on his wife while she was bent over lighting the gas fire and killed her with the iron bar, having previously removed that to be handy for his use. The blood would have spattered all over the Macintosh, but he removed that and stuffed it under her body before cleaning himself, redressing in the clothes he had left upstairs, putting on his overcoat and going out. He carried away the weapon with him and disposed of it on the way to the tram in such a way that it was never found.
Although it probably sounds a bit like something that a novelist would make up, the “do a murder naked to avoid bloodstains” method had actually been used before — it had been employed in a couple of high profile nineteenth century murders. In 1840, the MP Lord William Russell was murdered at his London home by his valet Francois Courvoisier, who apparently whispered to the executioner on the scaffold that he had committed his crimes in the nude to avoid bloodstains that would lead the police to suspect him. And again in 1892, the American Lizzie Borden was thought to have killed her father and step mother while naked, for the same reason. Before the arrival of more advanced forensic techniques, this was… just about plausible.
So, that’s how the prosecution explained their choice of William Wallace as the murderer in this case. It just about works as a theory, but there is very little evidence that actually confirms it. The weapon was never found, there are no corroborating fingerprints or bloodstains, there were no witnesses to prove the jiggery pokery with the telephone call. That’s why the judge tried to direct the jury to be cautious in his summing up, but they still quickly returned a guilty verdict. William Wallace was sentenced to death.
But that isn’t the end of William Wallace’s story, as it is with so many of these cases that I cover on the podcast. He was just very lucky in his employer, shall we say. Before he stood trial, when public opinion in Liverpool had already decided that he must be guilty, his solicitor travelled in secret to London to consult the executive council of the Prudential Staff Union. William and Julia had been fairly well off, but there was no way he could afford to pay for the hefty defence he was going to need, let alone any appeals afterwards. So his solicitor put it to the union that they should help him with these costs.
And the union did something very strange. So strange, in fact, that another detective novelist, Margery Allingham, was moved to write an essay about just this aspect of the case, although it remained unpublished during her lifetime and has only recently been brought to light by the Crime Writers’ Association. In “The Compassionate Machine”, Allingham looks at the mock trial that the Prudential Staff Union council conducted in absolute secrecy. Perhaps this is the kind of behaviour we should expect from people who assess risk for a living — they essentially put their colleague on trial for themselves so they could work out whether he was likely to be found guilty or not, and therefore whether he would benefit from their assistance. Allingham remarks that this is a rare example of the “machine” of the law being put to compassionate use.
In the mock trial, William Wallace was found not guilty. And so the union funded his defence, and then when the jury found him guilty, the funded his appeal. On 19 May, almost four months to the day after Julia had been killed, The Court of Criminal Appeal overturned the guilty verdict on the grounds that it was “not supported by the weight of the evidence”. This was the first time that a conviction for murder had been overturned on these grounds. Usually, appeals succeed when there has been some prejudice from the judge or because new evidence has come to light, but here the Court was essentially saying that the jury had got it wrong.
The Prudential Assurance Company gave William Wallace his job back after the appeal, and he tried to return to some semblance of normal life. But to the people of Liverpool, he was still a murderer, no matter what the court down in London had said, and it became impossible for him to stay in the city. He moved to a small cottage on the Wirral, on the other side of the river Mersey to Liverpool, and lived there quietly. Just under two years later, on 26 February 1933, he died of kidney disease in hospital.
In Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1937 novel Busman’s Honeymoon, her sleuth Lord Peter repeatedly asserts that in solving a crime, motive matters far less than method in determining who the culprit is. “When you know how, you know who,” he says over and over again. And that was definitely the maxim followed by the police in the Wallace case. They made very little effort to suggest what William’s motive was for murdering his wife of 18 years and instead focused only on how he might have done it.
But in her account of the case, Sayers exercises her right as a detective novelist to stray beyond the limits of what a mere detective can do, and looked more deeply at the psychology of the characters involved. Nobody came forward to attest to any conflict or grievance between Julia and William Wallace, nor was there any suggestion of extra marital affairs or an end to their relationship. Unsurprisingly, given her husband’s profession, Julia’s life had been insured for £20, but that was a relatively small amount compared to the £90 she had in her savings account, and the £152 that William had in his. He had no financial difficulties or secret debts that would make it worth him committing murder for such a sum. As Margery Allingham put it, “Wallace stood to gain nothing but loneliness from his wife’s death.”
Sayers was also dissatisfied with the police explanation for the timeline. The window between Wallace supposedly committing the murder and being on the tram to Menlove Gardens was just too narrow, she felt. Even if you take the earlier estimate of the last Julia sighting, ie 6.30, Wallace only had about 20 minutes to kill her and completely clean and redress himself in order to be on the tram in time. And again, no blood stains were found in the bathroom or indeed anywhere else in the house, so if this was how it happened, he did a very quick but thorough job, and it would have been close run thing.
And then there was the telephone call, which made clear that the murder was pre-meditated. This couldn’t be an argument turned violent or a chance attack, because someone had tried to mess around creating alibis 24 hours beforehand. This lead Sayers to the conclusion that William Wallace was either “An innocent man caught in a trap or a guilty man pretending to have been caught in a trap.”
There are a couple of aspects that point towards it being the former rather than the latter and suggest that the point of the telephone call was to set William Wallace up for a crime he did not commit. Firstly, he was a regular attendee at the chess club, which always met on Monday evenings and started about 7.45, so anyone who had been observing his habits could easily have gleaned this. Then on that particular evening, he had registered to take part in a tournament, and the list of participants was advertised on the noticeboard of the cafe, so his attendance that night could also have been confirmed in advance.
The club secretary who took the message said that it “would be a great stretch of imagination” to suggest that the caller had sounded like Wallace, too. Sayers takes this further, suggesting that if indeed the call did come from a murderer who was trying to set things up to frame Wallace, they could well have been someone he knew, since in setting this trap they went out of their way to make sure they had no direct contact with him. They could have called when he was there, or sent a note, but they chose to time the message so that it would be passed on by a third party, suggesting that their voice or handwriting would have been recognisable to him. There’s no way to prove that, of course, but it’s a smart deduction on her part.
Sayers was far from the last person to delve deeply into the murder of Julia Wallace. Writers, layers and doctors alike have been fascinated it by it for decades, and there have been plenty of further investigations and mock trials trying to determine what really happened. Several amateur sleuths over the years have identified Richard Gordon Parry, a junior colleague of William Wallace’s at the insurance company, as a more likely suspect. The theory runs thusly: William had discovered that Parry was stealing from their employer and was considering turning him in.
Therefore, Parry makes the bogus telephone call and either he or an unknown accomplice kills Julia in a way that they think will result in William going to prison, or at the very least being completely discredited and fired. It’s a more plausible motive, even if there’s virtually no practical evidence to back it up. Another, less dramatic version, suggests that Parry decoyed William away so that he could break in and steal the money he had been collecting from insurance clients that day, and that the murder was the result of Julia interrupting the burglary. But then that doesn’t really account for the Macintosh, or the fact that no money was missing. You begin to see what Sayers meant when she said that every incident was open to multiple interpretations.
Several novelists incorporated elements of the case into their plots. Winifred Duke published a thinly veiled account of the case as Skin for Skin in 1935, a novel that Sayers reviewed very positively. John Rhode returned to it twice: firstly in the brilliantly titled novel Vegetable Duck from 1944 and then again, more explicitly, in The Telephone Call from 1949. Then there are plenty of other detective stories where the fortuitous telephone call and the false appointment play a major role, such as Agatha Christie’s radio play Personal Call and the Sayers short story “Absolutely Elsewhere”. In that last one, Inspector Parker has a line which I think sums up the perennial appeal of this as a fictional device: “So you see,” he says. “All the obvious suspects were elsewhere at the time.” As the instrument that can make that so, the telephone was as powerful a weapon for the detective novelist as any blunt instrument.
Interest in the murder of Julia Wallace has never dimmed. In 2013, P.D. James wrote an article for the Sunday Times in which she claimed to have “solved” the case at last: her theory was that William Wallace was guilty, and it was only because his colleague Richard Gordon Parry had coincidentally chosen the same night for a prank phone call that the matter had become so muddled. Whether or not you find that to be a likely explanation, it was certainly proof of James’s own decades-long obsession with this case — she included elements of it in her 1982 novel The Skull Beneath The Skin and also in 2003’s The Murder Room.
For me, as for so many others who have pored over the facts of this case, it all comes back to that telephone call. The undeniable fact that somebody lured William Wallace out of the house the night that his wife was murdered makes it very unlikely that the attack on Julia was random or spontaneous — somebody planned it. It forces William Wallace into one of two roles, as Sayers puts it: “If guilty, he was the classic contriver and alibi-monger that adorns the pages of a thousand mystery novels; and if he was innocent, then the real murderer was still more typically the classic villain of fiction.”
Either way, he was a character straight out of a murder mystery.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/thetelephonecall, where there will also be further reading suggestions on the topics we covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts
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I’ll be back on 14 October with another episode.