Of the six cases featured in the latest Murder by the Sea series, Louisa May Merrifield’s is the one I would most like to research further.
The Blackpool Poisoner was the final episode on CBS Reality’s British series last week, and it is fascinating.
In 1953 Louisa went to work as a housekeeper for a rather cranky old gal called Sarah Ricketts, aged 79. As I point out during the programme, Louisa was something of a dodgy character, having had 20-odd jobs in three years prior to this.
Murder at the bungalow
Louisa and her third husband, Alfred (who was 24 years her senior at 71) moved into Mrs Ricketts two-bed bungalow at 339 Devonshire Road, Blackpool.
The housekeeper got her employer to change her will, leaving her £3,000 bungalow to Louisa and her husband. Soon after Louisa put rat poison in the old lady’s favourite treat – a jar full of jam.
As Murder by the Sea makes, Louisa was greedy and boastful. She made several blunders and was soon arrested.
It is hard not to feel great sympathy for Rhianne Morris, who appeared on this week’s Murder by the Sea.
She was the girlfriend of Barry Rogers, who, with his mother Penelope John, went to jail in 2018 for murdering his grandmother, Betty Guy.
It is clear Rhianne is still haunted by her time with Rogers, who was abusive to her. She would later come to discover that while they were together, Rogers and his mother concocted their callous plot to murder 84-year-old Betty, a former nurse.
Once again Murder by the Sea, presented by the eccentric Geoffrey Wansell, uncovered a dark side to a beautiful coastal area, this time Pembrokeshire.
Matricide is a rare crime. As this episode makes clear, however, for a mother and son to collude in the killing of the mother’s mother is even rarer.
The language is ripe and the cast – including Timothy Spall and Kenneth Cranham – is excellent. The Diamond Wheezers who burgled the underground safe-deposit company in London’s jewellery district in 2015 is a fascinating true-crime story.
While pulling off this shocking theft, the veteran lags are also gasping, collapsing, falling asleep and taking plenty of toilet breaks.
That light-hearted side is excellently done, scripted by Jeff Pope and Terry Winsor. Pope in particular has a strong record in dramatising serious crime stories for TV, including Appropriate Adult, This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper and Mrs Biggs.
The CBS Reality series continued to rake through the dark side of our seaside towns this week. This time it was the sad case of Swansea landlord Alec Warburton, who was murdered by his callous tenant, David Ellis.
Ellis had a number of grubby convictions behind him, including sexual offences against a girl. He was also a liar and seems to have lied about his financial situation to convince Mr Warburton to rent a room to him.
Swansea is a pretty safe community, so what ensued shocked the locals. Ellis plotted to kill Warburton, who was 59, having arranged for the other tenants to forward their rent to him, Ellis.
He then launched a horrendous hammer attack on the unsuspecting landlord. As Home Office pathologist Dr Brian Rodgers says in the programme, there were no defence injuries on Mr Warburton. Ellis’s attack was a cowardly assault from behind.
John Cooper was a man with a powerful streak of badness in him. A bully, a psychopath and a vicious killer, he terrorised an area of Pembrokeshire for two decades.
He is the subject of a forthcoming episode of CBS Reality’s Murder by the Sea (Tuesday, 29 January, 10pm). As a contributor to the series, I must say Cooper made the biggest impression on me for the heartless, chilling nature of his crimes.
He was jailed for 30 counts of burglary in 1998. By this time, however, he had also committed two double murders.
This new series about how police question suspected killers begins on CBS Reality on Thursday 3 January.
I am a contributor to it and had to do a lot of research on the six cases included. Watching or listening to lengthy questioning sessions was tedious at times. Unlike TV dramas, there usually isn’t much drama.
At the same time it requires patience for those vital moments when a callous killer may give themselves away.
They vary considerably here, from chilling psychopath Israel Keyes in the US to UK killers Nathan Matthews and Shauna Hoare, who killed teen Becky Watts. The latter tragic case starts the series.
Some of the killers are hard to pin down because they are psychopaths who lie easily and feel no guilt. Others are stupid and incompetent, and soon outfoxed by detectives.
The series, presented by Professor David Wilson, gives rare insights into the reality of all types of homicide and the challenges facing police. But be warned – the cases are generally sad and chilling.
Thanks goodness deference to authority largely gets the middle finger today.
This means we can give short shrift to claptrap like this: ‘Sadistic crime is probably more rare in England than in any other country in the world. Curiously enough, even the few known exponents in our English records are apt to bear an alien name.’
So, just to be clear – sadism is a vice of foreign blighters. The English do not stoop to such shameful behaviour.
This view, voiced in 1941, was not that of some loudmouth in a pub after one too many. It was the opinion of the Commissioner of Prisons, Alexander Paterson.
Sadism and cruelty
The problem he faced was what to do with Harold Jones, who had been convicted of murdering two little girls when he was 15. In 1941 Jones had served 20 years, considered a ‘life’ term at the time.
During his incarceration, the consensus had been that Jones was a sadist who showed no remorse. Senior medical officer W Norwood East reported that for Jones ‘the sexual act reaches its highest gratification when accompanied by cruelty’.
In 1936 the governor of Maidstone prison, B Grew, was damning, ‘Sad as it may seem I can see no hopeful prospects for Jones in the future.’
But by 1941 Paterson was effectively muddying the waters. The medical profession really knows little about sadism, he suggested.
These are the words of Professor Brian J Ford during BBC4’s Murder in Soho: Who Killed Freddie Mills? And the death of Britain’s former boxing hero has certainly attracted rumour, legend and some wacky theories since his apparent suicide in 1965.
I was pleased that this documentary took a fairly sober approach to the case. It is far better than the recent irritating and overlong Ruth Ellis Files on BBC4.
It did not focus much on the outlandish claim that Freddie Mills was the serial killer known as Jack the Stripper or the Hammersmith Nude Killer. However, it does make space for author Michael Litchfield, whose book on the case made such assertions. These are unfounded, as far as I am concerned. Author and former police officer Dick Kirby says succinctly the idea is ‘ludicrous’ during the programme.
Mills: suicide or murder?
The film does make a convincing case that Mills probably did not shoot himself in the eye – a very rare method for a person to use when committing suicide.
Various theories are explored to support the idea that Mills was the victim of criminals. The boxing world and West End nightclub land where Mills was a part-owner of a night spot were heavily linked to the underworld.
Does the programme clear up the puzzle once and for all? I don’t think it makes a conclusive case. But it is a fascinating portrait of a much-loved personality – perhaps Britain’s first celebrity and the David Beckham of his time – who seems to have crossed paths with the wrong people.