The "Impossible" 1930s Murder That Still Fascinates Crime Writers
On the evening of January 20, 1931, after a long trek through the Mossley Hill neighborhood of Liverpool, England, insurance agent William Herbert Wallace finally made it home. The house was dark, which seemed strange—his wife, Julia, should have been awake. He entered through the back door and went through the rooms calling her name, but received no answer.
When he arrived at his front parlor, he struck a match—his usual first step in lighting the room's gas lamps. The dim halo of light fell on the prone figure of a woman on the floor: Julia.
She was lying on her stomach, her feet pointed toward the gas fireplace, her head pointed toward the doorway in which Wallace stood, momentarily stunned. At first unsure of exactly what he was looking at, Wallace bent forward to examine his wife—and saw the blood pooled around her head. He quickly lit the gas light, which threw the brutal scene into stark relief.
Julia's head had been viciously bashed. The walls were covered in her blood, with some spatters up to 7 feet high. A partially burned raincoat lay underneath her. The quiet and retiring woman had met a terrible end.
The ensuing investigation and trial dominated headlines around the U.S. and UK and fascinated the public. Raymond Chandler called the case the "nonpareil of all murder mysteries," and "the impossible murder." The famed British crime writers Dorothy Sayers and P.D. James analyzed the evidence and put forward their own theories. Countless internet sleuths have scoured the web for damning details. And yet to this day—despite an arrest, a trial, a conviction, and a historic move by the Court of Appeal—mystery abounds: No one knows for certain who killed Julia Wallace.
THE FACTS OF THE CASE
The mystery began the day before William Wallace made the gruesome discovery in his parlor. At around 7:15 p.m. on January 19, 1931, Wallace—a 52-year-old employee of the Prudential Assurance Company—left his house at 29 Wolverton Street in the Anfield section of Liverpool, England. He walked to a tram and took it to the City Cafe, where he was due to play in the Liverpool Central Chess Club's 2nd Class Championship. A mediocre but enthusiastic player, Wallace was an off-and-on-again attendee.
Around the same time, a phone rang at the City Cafe. The caller asked for Wallace, but was handed over to Samuel Beattie, captain of the chess club, since Wallace had yet to arrive. The caller, who Beattie would later note had a "strong" and rather "gruff" voice, asked for Wallace again. Beattie told the caller that he wasn't there, and to try back later.
The caller said he couldn't call back, as he was at his daughter's 21st birthday party, but he left a message asking Wallace to see him about a business matter at 25 Menlove Gardens East, Mossley Hill, at 7:30 the following evening. He gave his name as R.M. Qualtrough.
Beattie caught up with Wallace not long after the latter arrived at the cafe. When he delivered the message, Wallace replied that he didn't know any Qualtrough, nor did he know where Menlove Gardens East was, but he figured he could probably find it. It was the Depression, after all, and Wallace wasn't keen to lose out on what he thought might be a new commission.
The next night, after having his tea, bidding his wife goodbye, and asking, per usual, that she bolt the back door of their home behind him, Wallace set off for Menlove Gardens East. He left his home shortly before 7 p.m., minutes after his wife was seen accepting their milk delivery, and around 7:06 was on a tram in the general direction of his destination. He made a point to ask the conductors on each leg of his trip if they knew how to get to Menlove Gardens East, and if they could tell him where to get off. Once he alighted at Menlove Gardens West, he began to search on foot, asking passersby, a policeman, and even the resident of 25 Menlove Gardens West if they knew where he could find the address. Everyone had the same answer—they had never heard of a Menlove Gardens East, or any Qualtrough, in the area. Finally, after checking a directory at a newsstand and striking out there, too, Wallace made his way home.
The next people Wallace interacted with were his neighbors, the Johnstons. They were leaving their house for an evening out at about 8:45 p.m. when they passed Wallace walking toward his back door. "Have you heard anything unusual tonight?" he asked Mrs. Johnston, his words shot through with anxiety. Their homes shared a wall, so there wasn't much that would have gone unnoticed by the parties on either side.
Mrs. Johnston said she hadn't noticed anything unusual. When she asked what the matter was, Wallace told her he'd tried his front door with his key, but it wouldn't open. The back door, too, wouldn't budge. Mr. Johnston suggested he try the back door one more time. Wallace approached the door, grasped the knob—and this time it opened easily.
Wallace disappeared into his home while the Johnstons waited outside. He lit gas lights in a couple of rooms before he arrived at the front parlor and the body of his wife, her head surrounded by a pool of blood. Wallace hurried back and called to the Johnstons, still waiting outside: "Come and see—she has been killed."
Julia Wallace's head was a battered mess, beaten so viciously that the brain was exposed on the left side. When the police arrived about 9 p.m., they discovered that four British pounds (about $350 today) was missing from Wallace's collection tin in the kitchen, which had been put back in its place with the lid on, but no other money—not from Julia's purse nor from the cache hidden in a vase in the bedroom upstairs—had been taken. Later, a cleaning woman would state that an iron bar and a poker used for the gas fireplace were both missing. No other weapon was ever identified.
Within a month, William Wallace was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife. A self-described stoic, he was unemotional in court, which led to some antipathy from a jury expecting to see a grieving widower. Some observers have speculated that it was that, more than anything else, that resulted in his conviction—all of the evidence against him was circumstantial at best.
Wallace was sentenced to hang, but in an historic move, the Court of Criminal Appeal in London overturned his verdict due to lack of evidence. It was the first time the appeals court had tossed out a verdict on those grounds.
Wallace was a free man, but he wouldn't live long to enjoy it. Within two years he succumbed to chronic health problems and died.
Did he get away with the perfect crime—or was he a victim as well?
In a case like the Wallace mystery, the facts can often weigh equally toward guilt or innocence. Three main theories have emerged out of the body of evidence so far.
Theory 1: William Killed Julia
Police considered William Wallace the primary suspect. But the biggest question mark in this theory is his possible motive. In short, there isn't much of one. Julia had very little life insurance and the Wallaces weren't especially hard-up for cash. According to friends and acquaintances, their 18-year marriage was not fraught with conflict. Wallace's diaries from prior to the murder indicate a placid and unexciting but contented union, one in which he shared his interests in music, chemistry, and chess with his wife. His later entries, made months after his conviction was overturned, indicate a deep grief over the loss of Julia. While one friend of the couple told the police there was tension between the two, the Johnstons had never heard any fights or raised voices coming from the other side. There was no suggestion that either Wallace or Julia was having an affair.
Setting the lack of obvious motive aside—perhaps William Wallace was unhappy with his wife in some way we'll never know—how would he have done it? Various authors and amateur sleuths have suggested some version of the following timeline: On January 19, Wallace left his house at 7:15 p.m., as stated to police. He called the cafe from a pay phone near his house, disguised his voice, gave a false name, and essentially created an alibi for himself for the night of the murder. (Police did establish that the call to the cafe came from a phone booth about 400 yards from Wallace's house, one that he would have passed on his way to the cafe at about the time the call was made. However, Beattie, who had known Wallace for years, testified that the caller didn't sound like his friend.)
The next day, Julia was seen between 6:35 p.m. and 6:45 p.m., very much alive, by the milk delivery boy and another witness. Wallace could have left his house no later than 6:50 p.m. to make the 7:06 tram toward Menlove Gardens, where he was seen by a conductor. If he killed his wife before leaving the house, he had only about 15 minutes to do so, then clean himself up, before going on his way. Let’s say he worked quickly.
Wallace then would have taken his trip to the fictional Menlove Gardens East, making sure to engage with plenty of people along the way: the resident at 25 Menlove Gardens West; a young man he met on the sidewalk; and a police officer. He asked them all for directions, and even checked the time with the policeman at 7:45 p.m. He then went to the post office and a newsstand, pretended to check the directory, engaged the clerk, and left shortly after.
He was next seen near his home on Wolverton Street at 8:45 p.m. by the Johnstons. It's also possible that he killed Julia after his return, but given the travel time back from Menlove Gardens, he probably only had 15 minutes to commit the deed, clean up, and make it outside before the Johnstons left their house.
Following this theory, regardless of when Wallace killed Julia, he needed witnesses to his "discovery" of the body. That's where the Johnstons come in. In this line of thinking, Wallace waited until he heard them coming out, made his way to the back of his house, and told them about his trouble getting in.
What about the mess in the parlor? Where were Wallace's blood-stained clothes? It is easier to stay clean if you wear nothing but a raincoat to murder your spouse, and then leave it under her blood-drenched body and change into your suit—which is exactly the theory the prosecution put forward. It should be noted no blood was ever found on Wallace's suit, nor was there evidence of anyone washing up in the house; aside from a small clot of blood on the toilet in the bathroom, and a smear on one of the pound notes in the bedroom, no other blood was found outside of the front parlor. (Wallace had touched the pound notes when he went through the house with the police shortly after Julia's body was discovered, although it's unclear if the blood on the money was his own.)
Dr. John MacFall, a professor of forensic medicine who served as medical examiner that night, put Julia's time of death at around 8 p.m. Problem was, he based his conclusion solely on rigor mortis, which is often considered an imprecise measurement. He'd later change his estimate to sometime closer to 6 p.m. Neither estimate pointed to a strong case for Wallace's guilt. For one, Julia was seen alive after 6 p.m. And at 8 p.m. Wallace was still traipsing around Mossley Hill.
Ultimately, the lack of time he had to commit the murder has exonerated Wallace in the eyes of many. Combined with the sketchy report on time of death and the lack of motive, it's hard to imagine Wallace himself committing the crime.
Theory 2: A Hired Assassin Killed Julia
One popular theory of the crime follows the first fairly closely, except that instead of getting his own hands dirty, Wallace hired someone else to kill Julia. The hired man made the "Qualtrough" call, and the next day let himself into the house with a key provided by Wallace. He then killed Julia, and shortly afterward Wallace returned home, waited for witnesses, and then performed the discovery scene. This theory clears up the timeline, as well as other details problematic for the prosecution, such as the lack of blood on Wallace's clothes.
The theory is strengthened by the fact that during the trial a young typist testified that she saw Wallace talking to another man near Wolverton Street at about 8:35 or 8:40 p.m. the night of the murder. Wallace, meanwhile, had told police he spoke to no one on the way home. Is it possible that the typist caught Wallace speaking to his hired man?
We may even have the identity of the assassin, thanks to an investigation by journalist Roger Wilkes. In the early 1980s, Wilkes interviewed one John Parkes, who was a mechanic at a garage in Allerton, about seven miles from Wolverton Street, in 1931. At 1 a.m. on the night of the murder, Parkes was visited by Richard Gordon Parry, a local amateur actor and one-time colleague of Wallace at Prudential. Parry was also a known troublemaker who'd had multiple run-ins with the law for crimes of theft and sexual assault.
That night, an agitated Parry reportedly demanded Parkes wash his car with the high-powered hose. When Parkes opened the car door and saw a bloody glove inside, Parry said, "If the police got that, they would hang me!" He then recounted a strange and disjointed story about dumping an iron bar down a drain.
Parkes kept the story to himself until Parry died in 1980, after which he told his story to Wilkes as part of a radio documentary. Of course, the fact that half a century passed between the crime and the witness statement detracts from the credibility (Parkes claimed he kept the story to himself because he was fearful of retaliation by Parry). But Wilkes was not the first person to mention Parry in connection with the murder of Julia Wallace.
Theory 3: Someone Else Killed Julia
Shortly after his conviction was overturned, a series of articles purportedly by Wallace appeared in the press. In one of those articles was the shocking (or, depending on your point of view, not-so-shocking) revelation that Wallace knew who the murderer was. The man was never named in the articles. However, Jonathan Goodman's examination and publication of excerpts from Wallace’s diaries in The Killing of Julia Wallace reveals who Wallace thought the murderer was.
During his initial police interviews, Wallace named a few people as suspects, and one of them was Richard Gordon Parry. He and Parry had worked together at Prudential. Parry would occasionally make Wallace's collections when Wallace, who suffered from chronic kidney problems, was too ill, and he'd been to 29 Wolverton Street and met Julia several times. He was also known to have visited the same cafe where Wallace's chess club took place. A notice on the board at the entrance of that club listed the dates each member was due to compete, so Parry (or anyone else) could have seen Wallace's name down for January 19. All it would have taken was some discreet surveillance of Wolverton Street that night to spot Wallace leaving home and heading toward the tram.
Parry was in fact investigated at the time of the murder, and had an alibi provided by his then-fiancée Lily Lloyd, who said the pair had been together that night. According to Goodman, when Parry broke their engagement in the summer of 1933, Lloyd told one of Wallace’s lawyers that the alibi was made up—she hadn't been with Parry that evening. However, no one followed up on her claim (and modern scholarship has suggested that Parry's alibi did not rely on Lloyd's story alone).
Alibi or not, there is evidence that two years prior to the murder Parry made an agreement with management to leave Prudential after it was discovered that he’d been siphoning money from his collections. Some authors have said that Wallace actually noticed the missing funds from the collections that Parry ran for him, and informed his superintendent; whether or not Wallace informed on him, Parry's parents were forced to step in and repay what he'd taken, and Parry left the company. Did Parry know, or think, that Wallace had informed? Was this a revenge killing?
Or maybe it was just a case of robbery gone awry. Parry was known for his love of cars and his tendency to live beyond his means. Perhaps he assumed Wallace would have more than four pounds in collections at his home, and that if he got him out of the house, he could swipe the money out from under Julia. Maybe she saw him take the money and threatened to call the police. Or maybe murder was on his mind the entire time? Though far from perfect theories, the idea that Parry killed Julia—whether motivated by money or revenge—does provide the "why" that prosecutors of Wallace never could.
The fact is, barring a signed confession unearthed from some Liverpudlian attic, we'll probably never know exactly what happened at 29 Wolverton Street on the night of January 20, 1931. Eight decades from now, amateur gumshoes may still be debating this irresistible whodunnit. And with questions as maddening as these still unanswered, who could blame them?
Additional sources: The Trial of William Herbert Wallace