2 Killers 0 Convictions: The Brighton Trunk Murders

2 Killers 0 Convictions: The Brighton Trunk Murders

Patrick Lynch - January 23, 2017

The seaside town of Brighton, England was home to two bizarrely similar murders that were completely unrelated. In 1934, two women were killed and their bodies placed in a trunk. The work of a serial killer perhaps? Not so. Although no one was convicted of either murder, the police had a strong suspect in the first case but not enough evidence for an arrest. The second case resulted in an arrest and a trial but ultimately, an acquittal.

2 Killers 0 Convictions: The Brighton Trunk Murders
Report on first trunk murder with Spilsbury on left in picture. Hold the Front Page

The Mysterious June Murder

Brighton’s catchphrase was ‘The Queen of Watering Places,’ but after the two trunk murders, it was nicknamed ‘The Queen of Slaughtering Places.’ On June 17, 1934, a railway employee investigated a terrible smell coming from a wooden trunk. The plywood box was left there 11 days previously, and its foul stench was impossible to ignore. He was horrified to discover the dismembered torso of a woman.

Train officials all over the United Kingdom were alerted after the grisly discovery at Brighton Railway Station. A second suitcase was found in London King Cross Station the following day. It contained what turned out to be the legs of the same woman. The arms and head of the victim were never found.

The victim received the nickname ‘Pretty Feet’ because her feet were like those of a dancer. Tragically, a post-mortem revealed the woman was five months pregnant at the time of the murder. The savage butchering of the corpse meant the cause of death was initially unknown, and the victim’s identity could not be ascertained. Forensic analysts said the woman was between 21 and 28 years old, weighed approximately 119 pounds and was 5 feet 2 inches tall.

The police suspected a local abortionist called Massiah and Chief Inspector Ronald Donaldson told his officers to keep the suspect under surveillance. One of the men decided to confront Massiah in the belief that the doctor would confess. Instead, Massiah wrote out a list of names. Released without charge, the doctor went to London where a woman died while he was carrying out an illegal abortion. Once again, he escaped without charge and only came off the General Medical Register in 1952 when he retired to Trinidad!

The police had little evidence to go on barring a piece of paper with the word ‘Ford’ written on it. Sir Bernard Spilsbury performed the post mortem, and he wasn’t convinced that Massiah was the killer. For a start, there was no sign of any interference with the pregnancy and the murder was committed by someone with no real anatomical skill. This would seem to discount Massiah from the equation. He concluded that the cause of death was probably a blow to the head with a heavy, blunt instrument.

The nation was horrified when details of the murder came to light. The cops called in Scotland Yard to assist with a nationwide search. The police checked hospitals and known abortionists while the cases of 700 missing women were reviewed. Eventually, they concentrated on door-to-door searches and it was during this process that they made a grisly discovery in what was a remarkable coincidence.

2 Killers 0 Convictions: The Brighton Trunk Murders
Sir Bernard Spilsbury on left. Sir Sidney Smith on the right. The History Press

A Second Trunk Murder

On 15 July, police discovered a locked room containing a chest at Kemp Street, Brighton. It was near the train station, and the box contained the body of a woman. The victim was identified as Violet Kaye and the 42-year-old had moved to Brighton from London with Tony Mancini, her lover. The duo had a troubled relationship with the former prostitute Kaye often showing her jealousy as Mancini was 16 years younger. Mancini’s real name was Cecil Lois England, and he had a criminal record with convictions for minor offenses such as theft.

They moved to London in September 1933 and had multiple arguments. A particularly heated exchange on May 10, 1934, led to Kaye’s death. Mancini was working at the Skylark café in Brighton when a drunken Kaye (she was an alcoholic) accused him of relations with a teenage waitress. She was never seen alive again. Mancini told friends that Kaye moved to Paris. He even went to the trouble of sending a fake telegram to the victim’s sister-in-law to give credence to the lie.

Mancini took lodgings at Kemp Street and used a handcart to transfer the large trunk containing the body to the property. In a particularly twisted move, Mancini used it as a coffee table despite the terrible smell of decomposing flesh. The stench was so bad that neighbors complained about it! Eventually, Kaye’s absence was discovered, and police questioned Mancini. The panic-stricken former bouncer went on the run and police found a key to the Kemp Street lodgings and located the body. Mancini was arrested in South London two days later.

Trial & Acquittal

The trial of Tony Mancini took place in December 1934 and lasted just five days. One prosecution witness claimed the accused asked for a false alibi while his friends say he boasted about giving Kaye ‘a right good hiding’ in the days after the murder. Norman Birkett was the defense counsel and focused on the victim’s career as a prostitute. Mancini claimed he found the body in their flat at Park Crescent and, fearing he wouldn’t be believed by police due to his criminal record, panicked, stuffed the body in a trunk and brought it to Kemp Street.

Birkett suggested the victim could have been murdered by a client or fell down some steps. The quality of the forensic evidence was called into question by the prosecution who were puzzled by the level of morphine in Kaye’s blood and the fact that items of clothing stained with blood were purchased after her death. Birkett destroyed the prosecution’s forensic evidence with a superb cross-examination and Mancini was acquitted. In 1976, Mancini confessed to the murder to a national newspaper. He admitted that the couple had a terrible row at their flat and she attacked him with a hammer. Mancini wrestled it off her and threw it at Kaye; it hit her on the side of the head and killed her instantly.

Incredibly, the above were not the first trunk murders to happen in Brighton! In 1831, John Holloway killed his wife Celia and bundled her body in a trunk. Unlike the 20th century crimes, this one was solved quickly, and Holloway was hanged in December 1831.