This is the first in a series of posts about unresolved murders from Scotland’s past.
On Saturday 2 November, 1912, a local postman in in the wealthy town of Broughy Ferry noticed something odd – the postbox of the 23 room mansion Elmgrove was overflowing with uncollected mail, and the resident, Jean Milne, had always let him know if the past if she was going to be out of town for a long period of time, arranging for her mail to be forwarded. He informed the police, who, after not getting any response from inside, broke in to find the body of Milne just a few metres away at the foot of the stairs.
She was fully clothed and covered partially by a sheet, while around her a pool of blood had spread out across the floor and dried. A blood-stained fire poker lay next to her, and her ankles had been bound by the cord from a curtain which had been positioned over the glass window on the front door of the house to obscure the view from the outside. The phoneline had been cut, and the windows were unopened, as they apparently had been for years.
The most obvious motive was money – Milne was wealthy, owning not only a valuable house but also supposedly earning an income over £1,000 a year – twice the salary an average skilled worker would expect to take home at that point. She holidayed for 4 months of the year, was well known as a strong financial supporter of the nearby St Andrew’s United Free Church, and was often seen in the fanciest restaurants in town. However, nothing appeared to be missing from the house, and the rings on her fingers remained in place when her body was found. With no clue of how to proceed the Broughty Ferry police called on Detective Lieutenant John Thomson Trench, a well-known homicide detective based in Glasgow (and more on him later, and not just because he is a detective whose name is almost trenchcoat), and with him on the scene they started to piece together the final days and circumstances of Jean Milne’s life.
After Trench had the chance to study to autopsy report (he was unable to examine the body itself as it was already buried by the time he arrived in Dundee), which concluded she had died from the result of the blows to the head – although from blood loss and shock rather than the blows themselves. Some digging around discovered that she was last seen alive on 15th October, while her uncollected mail was dated the 14th. They assumed the murder had taken place on 16th, but – and this part is a real unexplained oddity in the case – Elmgrove’s former gardener reported that he had called at the house on the 21st, getting no answer at the door by seeing a woman at a window at an upper floor. Calling back the following day, he noted that the cover on the front door lock had been moved, indicating that it had been used between his two visits. The police moved to speak to the public.
With the financial motive removed, it seemed as if a possible motive could be a crime of passion. The lack of forced entry into the house would indicate that Milne knew her murderer. When a £100 reward was offered to the public for information, there was not shortage of reports given to the police that Milne had at least one ‘gentleman caller’/’Tinder hookup’, whatever the preferred nomenclature was at the time. A gardener at the house reported that, in September, he saw Milne excited to meet a visitor to the house who the gardener pegged as a ‘charming German’ she had talked about meeting during a trip to London. He was 5ft 9in, had a whispy blonde mustache, and was gentlemanly in manner. In October, possibly days before the murder, there were several sightings – a maid in a neighbouring house saw a man walking up and down Elmgrove’s garden paths, and two groups of children on seperate days (7th and 11th) saw a man around the entrance to the house. It’s entirely probable, if all the sightings were of the same guy, that he is someone that Milne had told her female friends about in the weeks previous to her death, a relationship she didn’t give much details on but what the had assumed at the time was a romantic one. Trench would also later discover a half-smoked cigar in the dining room fireplace, a table set for two, and an order from at a local liquor shop where Milne had stated she was expecting a male friend for dinner.
Then, a taxi driver came forward to say that he picked up an Englishman from the train station on 15th October and dropped him off in Broughty Ferry, very close to Elmgrove. He was 5ft 9in tall, had a whispy blonde mustache, and was acting in an agitated and sinister manner. To top it off, a binman claimed to have seen a bowler-hatted man exiting Elmsgrove on the 16th, at roughly 4.30am, who was startled to see another person, so dipped back into the house before briskly walking out a few minutes later. His description matched that of the mysterious tall, mustachioed man who had been dropped off near the house the night before, and had been spotted by the gardener the previous month. It would appear the police had a prime suspect, who, if he was a lover of Milne, would fit the crime of passion motive. After a description of the suspect was passed around police stations across the UK, they quickly got a match for Charles Warner, an Canadian from Toronto who was visiting Europe.
Warner was actually serving time in Kent for not paying a restaurant bill – although he appeared well-to-do and ‘well groomed and of gentlemanly appearance’ he’d evidently fallen on hard times, given that during his travels across Europe and in Britain he’d taken to sleeping in public parks, pawning his clothes, and trying to slip out of restaurants without paying. He was arrested by Trench in England and taken back up north, where he was positively identified by more than a dozen witnesses – the only reservation being from the maid of the neighbouring house, and being that his grey hair didn’t match that of the man she’d see in the garden. Two witnesses even claimed to have seen Warner on a cruise with Milne. Warner insisted he was innocent, but the police rejoiced they had their man.
Trench felt otherwise though, on the back of a good ol’ detective’s hunch, and some bitter experience. Trench’s relationship with this case is interesting – he’d been choosen as he had come to prominence on the back of a remarkably similar murder case, that of Marion Gilchrist in Glasgow in 1908, a single, wealthy woman who was bludgeoned with a chair-leg in her own home – a home that remained un-burgled and with no signs of forced entry. Despite Trench’s protests a man called Slater was arrested and jailed for the crime, which Trench believed was a classic case of other detectives fitting the evidence to their suspect, rather than the other way around. Although a visit to the gallows for Slater had been avoided, he remained in Peterhead prison, locked up despite the campaigns of Trench and public figures like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Undoubtedly the detective must have felt he was putting right a few wrongs from the Gilchrist murder.
Trench talked to Warner at length on the train, learning that the American had simply miscalculated the funds needed for a continental trip he was taking – hence the sleeping rough, and doing a runner from a restaurant. In fact, this lack of money was to, in the end, be his saving grace – he had pawned a waistcoat in Antwerp on the day of the murder, one which Trench personally went to retrieve as evidence in favour of his argument. At the same time, the British Consul in Amsterdam were able to confirm they had issued a passport for Warner on the 17th October, meaning he cannot of visited the country beforehand – and if he had, it certainly wouldn’t have given him the time to get to Broughty Ferry and back. Unlike Slater, Warner was to be a free man. Sadly, although Slater was eventually released from prison after his conviction was overturned, Trench had already died by this time, having quit the police force in 1914 in frustration.
Warner was the last man to be arrested in connection with the murder of Jean Milne, which remains unsolved to this day. The logical chain of event of her death appears to be that the man she had been dating visited for dinner, they argued, and it escalated – Trench assumed, however, that the death was accidental, and that Milne had first grabbed the firepoker, with the unknown visitor taking it from her and trying to stun her. The cut phone line and the tied ankles would aid his getaway. What this doesn’t explain, and this is something that similarly stumped Trench, is the multiple small holes in Milne’s clothing, found by the detective after the autopsy, as if she had been stabbed by a carving fork – no corresponding holes were found on her body, or at least reported. Nor does it account for the mysterious figure at the window, seen on the 21st. All we really know for sure at this point, more than a century on from the murder, is that Jean Milne died a horrible death, and that someone got away with murder.