The Bowler Hat Murder

It was Christmas Eve 1938. The weather was icy, and Ernest Percival Key noticed the ground was slippery when he walked to his shop that morning at 74 Victoria Road, Surbiton, Surrey. Ernest was 64 years old and had owned his jewellers’ shop for over 20 years. At about 10:30 a.m., he decided to call his wife at home to remind her to be careful when she went out shopping, due to the weather conditions. Ernest and his wife, son, and daughter were all looking forward to celebrating Christmas the next day.

Just before noon, Ernest’s son Jack visited the shop, but found to his confusion that it was locked. His father was a cautious and thorough man and would never leave the shop unattended, so Jack assumed he had gone to the back room to have a cup of coffee and had locked up while he did so. He knocked on the door several times, but there was no response. Jack assumed that Ernest simply couldn’t hear him, so he decided it would be quicker to go home and fetch a duplicate key. When he returned, he called out to announce his arrival, but was greeted with an eerie silence. It wasn’t until he reached the back room that he realised something terrible had happened.

Ernest Key lay unconscious on the floor, covered with blood. He had been stabbed more than 30 times, and it appeared that someone had made off with a number of expensive items of jewellery after viciously attacking the proprietor.

Jack tried to reassure his father and kept him comfortable while he waited for an ambulance, but his wounds were too severe, and he died on route to the hospital. Pathologist Dr Eric Gardner conducted the postmortem and discovered 17 defensive cuts on Ernest’s hands. He declared that the cause of death was haemorrhage from multiple wounds to the head, and the time of death was estimated to be between 10:35 and 11:50 a.m., shortly after he had spoken to his wife on the telephone.

Police questioned the Key family, but it was obvious that they were distraught at the loss of Ernest and had nothing to hide. When they searched the premises, detectives realised that Ernest’s blue overcoat was missing and surmised it had been taken by the killer to cover up the bloodstains on his clothes. The other significant clue was a bowler hat left behind at the scene, which did not belong to the victim. Dr Gardner examined the hat and was able to establish the size of the owner’s head and the colour of his hair, from some strands found inside it. The investigation found that the hat had been purchased from a shop in Richmond. Detectives were soon joined by Sir Bernard Spilsbury, famous for carrying out more than 20,000 postmortems in his 40-year career and for his involvement in the Gordon Cummins and Dr Crippen cases, among many others.

With this dedicated team on the case, the owner of the hat was soon traced. It belonged to a 29-year-old unemployed driver named William Thomas Butler, who lived in Middlesex with his wife and two children. Butler had a criminal record for petty theft, and it transpired that within an hour of the murder, he had arrived at a hospital in Kingston seeking treatment for cuts on his hands. He had given a false name and claimed to have injured himself falling off his motorbike. When asked why he gave a pseudonym, he said it was to avoid paying for his treatment – but the police were not convinced.
Butler was charged with the murder of Ernest Key and faced a jury at the Old Bailey on 15 February 1939, just months before WWII broke out. According to Butler, he had committed seven housebreakings in recent months and had sold some of the stolen goods to Ernest, but on Christmas Eve, Ernest had apparently refused to pay him £15 that he owed.

“We started quarrelling, and suddenly he turned round to the bench and took up a knife,” claimed Butler. “We fought, and Key got his hands round my neck and used the knife to cut the back of my head.” Butler showed the jury a scar on his head by way of evidence and admitted that he had slashed the elderly jeweller with the knife before collapsing from his own injury. He maintained that he had acted in self-defence and believed he should be charged only with manslaughter.

The jury didn’t agree. It was hard to imagine how a man acting in self-defence could have inflicted 30 stab wounds on his victim, and there was no proof that Ernest Key had ever engaged in purchasing stolen goods. Butler was found guilty of murder after two days of deliberations. Some members of the public were more forgiving, and 3,300 people signed a petition to reprieve the young man. Home Secretary Herbert Morrison dismissed the appeal, and just a month later, William Thomas Butler met his maker at the end of a rope, ably executed by prolific hangman Thomas Pierrepoint.

Perhaps the strangest part of this tragic case was its supposed connections to otherworldly forces. Ernest Key himself had been considered something of an eccentric and had been an avid member of the Surbiton Spiritualist Church. After Butler was hanged, the British media fixated on the idea that Dr Eric Gardner had solved the case simply by looking at the hat left behind by the killer. They seemed to ignore the fact that Gardner had used scientific methods to measure the hat and examine the owners’ strands of hair, and it was dogged police work which had led to the discovery of the outfitters that had sold the hat, and from there, the identity of the buyer. But the story spread far and wide, and even the German press picked up the tale and requested Gardner’s help to solve their own cases as they believed he was clairvoyant.

Either way, the killer might well have been punished, but the Key family were still left wondering about the true nature of Butler’s motivations. It was a question that would sadly never be answered and what really happened between the two men on that cold Christmas Eve morning remains a mystery.

PG/09/03/24

Sources:
The Mammoth Book of More Bizarre Crimes by Robin Odell and Paul Donnelly
Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail 30 December 1938
Sheffield Evening Telegraph 17 January 1939
Sunderland Daily Echo 17 February 1939

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