Poison, celebrity and the trials of Beatrice Pace

In the late 1920s, the Harry Pace trial was a cause célèbre of a type that was still relatively new, one of a series of dramatic homicide trials that punctuated the inter-war decades. This book presents the details of the Pace case. It also considers what one woman's story reveals about the history of the police, the development of celebrity culture and the interests of the public in inter-war Britain. It first sets the scene by tracing the puzzling illness that afflicted Harry Pace from the summer of 1927 to his agonising death in January 1928. The book then reconstructs a crucial topic of the press's coverage - the courtship of Beatrice and Harry - based upon three different (and sometimes contradictory) post-trial memoirs. It focuses on the police investigation and the lengthy coroner's inquest, the most extensive of the legal tribunals Beatrice would face. During the 'golden age' of the press 'human interest' stories were driving increasing newspaper sales, and crime was central to this world of press sensationalism. The book examines Beatrice's trial in Gloucester: involving some of the most prominent lawyers and forensic experts of the age, its abrupt ending added a surprising, dramatic twist. It further deals with the roles of the press, police and public, respectively. The Pace issue was more than a personal story, however, and the book explores how it became a vehicle for legal, political, institutional and social criticism.

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Christian intellectuals in Britain and the crisis of Europe, 1937–1949

From the late 1930s to the end of the 1940s a high-profile group of mostly Christian intellectuals met to discuss the related crises of totalitarianism, war and cultural decline in the democratic West. Brought together by the leading missionary and ecumenist Joseph H. Oldham, the group included prominent writers, thinkers, activists and scholars, among them T. S. Eliot, John Middleton Murry, Karl Mannheim, John Baillie, Alec Vidler, H. A. Hodges, Christopher Dawson, Kathleen Bliss and Michael Polanyi. Among its wider circle of correspondents and supporters were the era’s most influential Christian authors and thinkers – such as Reinhold Niebuhr, William Temple, Jacques Maritain, Dorothy L. Sayers and C. S. Lewis. The participants in the Oldham group saw faith as a uniquely powerful resource for cultural and social renewal, and they sought to integrate diverse Christian viewpoints, reconcile faith and secular society, and reshape post-war British society. In an ‘age of extremes’ they pursued a variety of ‘middle ways’ with regard to topics such as the social relevance of faith, the relationship of Christianity to secularity, the legitimacy of capitalism, the role of State planning, the value of patriotism, the meaning of freedom and the value of egalitarianism.

A new life and some old shadows
John Carter Wood

Beatrice Annie Pace herself 'is quite removed from this new and most interesting legal development' and had not 'the slightest knowledge of the new phase of the case'. Beatrice began building a new life. She gave notice that she would quit Rose Cottage, telling The People that she 'could not possibly live here after what has happened'. The claims made by George Mountjoy and Alice Sayes were indeed sensational, describing not only a sinister, cold-blooded crime but also portraying Beatrice as a sadistic murderess who gleefully deceived police, press and public. The vague and shifting chronology of the allegations is also suspicious: Sayes referred to poisoning attempts going back, alternatively, six or three years, Mountjoy to a plot 'extending over four years'. One vital matter had been handled before Beatrice's departure: the sale of her 'life story'. There are suggestions that the issue had caused tensions.

in ‘The most remarkable woman in England’
Gender, marriage and violence
John Carter Wood

Harry Pace's violent, controlling behaviour motivated by sexual jealousy fits a common pattern across cultures and eras. However, assumptions about gender, marriage and violence were changing in the inter-war period, and press stories of wives' suffering at the hands of deceitful, unreliable or violent husbands were commonplace. Harry's brutality and Beatrice Annie Pace's suffering shaped their respective press personae. Advertisements for Beatrice's Sunday Express series were headed '18 years of hell' and featured a photograph of Beatrice writing her memoirs. Beatrice's public persona was, ultimately, more than a little ambiguous. Not only had she exchanged 'the deep black which she wore all through her long ordeal' for 'a pretty flowered frock of some light summery material', but the children 'are better dressed then ever they have been in their young lives'. In 'A talk to wives' and 'A talk to those about to marry', she gave advice to young women.

in ‘The most remarkable woman in England’
Justice, politics and poverty
John Carter Wood

Journalists and politicians used Beatrice Annie Pace's personal experiences to highlight institutional, legal and social critiques during a period already marked by discontent about the criminal justice system. In the midst of a murder investigation, Beatrice had admitted telling two lies to the police. One was potentially relevant to the case. The other was itself illegal. Joynson-Hicks denied there was 'anything in the nature of third degree' in Britain and noted Beatrice had thanked the police for their 'consideration'. In addition to critiques of the police and of coroners' inquests, Beatrice's case sparked debates about poverty, marriage and equality before the law. The case generated some praise of Britain's courts and Britons' fundamental good sense. The Daily Express noted that 'a man proved innocent of murder in a criminal court may always bear the stigma of having been to all intents found guilty of murder in a coroner's court'.

in ‘The most remarkable woman in England’
Mrs Pace and her public
John Carter Wood

Clearly, Beatrice Annie Pace had press and politics on her side, and, in the wake of the acquittal, some newspapers asked a variety of prominent people for their views. There are 232 letters to Beatrice in the collection. It is impossible to systematically group them according to the writer's class or income level, but other distinctions are possible. As noted, the predominance of women in the crowds gathered at the inquest and trial was often commented upon. Fewer men than women wrote to Beatrice, but some took an equally strong interest in her case. Male correspondents related differently to Beatrice, as identification based on certain common experiences, obviously, was impossible. Despite the fact that Beatrice herself rarely expressed religious sentiments, nearly a quarter of the 220 letters classified as congratulatory had religious themes that went beyond colloquial expressions such as 'God bless' or passing references to having 'prayed for' her.

in ‘The most remarkable woman in England’
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John Carter Wood

After the Second World War, George Orwell looked back on the murder cases that had 'given the greatest amount of pleasure' to the British public. The Beatrice Annie Pace case fell just outside Britain's 'great period in murder', and since it ended in an acquittal it should perhaps not even be counted a 'murder' at all. The case's sensational quality in 1928 was a product of two broader factors during the 'great period in murder': an expanding sensationalist press and a declining acceptance of domestic violence. Opinions about accused killers often varied across the press spectrum, and they might, over time, shift as new information came to light. Although clear press preferences often emerged, it is often possible to find quite divergent views running parallel to one another: press unanimity of the sort found in the Pace case has probably been the exception rather than the rule.

in ‘The most remarkable woman in England’
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John Carter Wood

William Willcox, who had provided so much forensic testimony in the Beatrice Annie Pace case, wrote a medical opinion for the court that depicted the novel as obscene and dangerous. Despite a conclusion to the Pace case that was, from the police perspective, distinctly unsatisfying, Chief Inspector George Cornish was officially 'highly commended' for 'ability in a difficult case of alleged murder'. After 1928, newspaper articles might list other cases in which Cornish was involved, but they tended to avoid mentioning his dogged efforts to convict Beatrice Pace. After the Pace trial, William Willcox remained active in the field of toxicology. By the end of the 1930s, Beatrice was living in Stroud, Gloucestershire, where she bought a semi-detached house in which she would spend the remainder of her life.

in ‘The most remarkable woman in England’
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John Carter Wood

This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book presents the details of the Beatrice Annie Pace case while also considering what one woman's story reveals about the history of the police, the development of celebrity culture and the interests of the public in inter-war Britain. It then focuses on the police investigation and the lengthy coroner's inquest, the most extensive of the legal tribunals Beatrice would face. The book also focuses on the evidence given by Harry Pace's kinfolk, and considers the vivid testimony given by the Pace children, the police, family friends and forensic experts. A general conclusion and a postscript evaluate the case's significance and examine what happened to some of its key figures after the name 'Mrs Pace' had, once and for all, faded from the headlines.

in ‘The most remarkable woman in England’
The strange death of Harry Pace
John Carter Wood

This chapter sets the scene: it opens by tracing the puzzling illness that afflicted Harry Pace from the summer of 1927 to his agonising death in January 1928. It discusses an aspect of the story not only helps to introduce Beatrice Annie Pace and Harry but also gives initial insight into how the press presented their lives and marriage. Journalist Bernard O'Donnell's handling of the case clearly applied his principle that 'tactful sympathy and practical help will unlock the door to an inside story more surely than any amount of uncouth bluster'. He certainly seems to have been the journalist who was most successful in developing a rapport with Beatrice and her children. All the post-trial life stories used the couple's courtship to shape particular narrative arcs, with Beatrice's depiction as a rural ingénue adding to her life's drama, tragedy and pathos.

in ‘The most remarkable woman in England’