ESTHER Atkins possessed an air of theatricality in her dissolute occupation, distinguished by her
flamboyant attire. At times, she draped herself in an opera cloak, while on other occasions, she adorned her silk blouse with broad ribbon sashes that cascaded from her waist to the hem of her skirt.
During the depths of winter, she mirrored the wintry conditions, presenting herself in pristine white, setting her apart from her fallen companions in her outward cleanliness.
Yet, a prostitute she remained, not exempt from the laws that occasionally led to her incarceration in Winchester Prison for indecency and disorderly conduct.
Despite her vocation, the 35-year-old Atkins, afflicted by a speech impediment and burdened by the tragic loss of her father in a sewer repair accident during her early years, possessed a fiery temperament. Nonetheless, she always took care to arm herself with a strong physique, ready to defend against violent and perverse customers.
Alas, on the fateful day of October 6, 1903, her preparation proved inadequate.
Having just been released from a recent stint in prison, Atkins found herself embroiled in trouble mere hours after her freedom was regained. She suffered a brutal assault, leaving her with grievous facial injuries that necessitated medical attention.
And yet, fate had more cruel intentions in store.
Around 11pm, Atkins stepped into a cab accompanied by three men, two of whom were serving soldiers clad in gray overcoats and donning Glengarry patterned caps—a clear indication of their affiliation with the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers stationed at Mandora Barracks in Aldershot. The third man had been discharged from the regiment.
They directed the driver, Robert Carter, to drop them off near the 'Red' church in the vicinity of the Wellington Statue. One of the men ominously confided in the driver his intention to rob Atkins of the £10 she had concealed within her garments.
At approximately 2:30am, a partially unclothed body was discovered in a nearby coppice.
Some doubted it could be Atkins, for had she not perished in prison just the week before? Certain individuals insisted that she possessed the strength to defend herself, while others were convinced otherwise.
Yet, the victim was indeed Atkins.
The scene that awaited those who arrived was horrifying—her head bore the marks of a savage beating inflicted by jagged branches, her body drenched in blood. It was evident that she had fought tenaciously for her life, despite being restrained by her wrists.
Soon, events took an unexpected turn.
A laborer approached a driver from the Royal Engineers, urgently sharing, "Wait a minute, friend. There were two soldiers down at the common who murdered a woman. I heard her cries for help, and when I arrived, they had killed her, stripped her, and then turned their violence towards me. I was subjected to blows upon my head, body, and hands."
Overwhelmed by fear for his own safety and recognizing the futility of intervening, he made a hasty retreat.
Curiously, he appeared unscathed.
The driver advised him to report the incident to the military authorities, who, in turn, contacted the civilian police. Accompanied by Sergeant Garrett, the laborer guided them to the copse where the lifeless body had been discovered.
Significantly, the victim's shoes were missing.
However, doubts emerged concerning his testimony.
The police were acquainted with the man, later revealed to be a former fusilier named Thomas Cowdrey. Having spent time in an asylum and possessing limited intelligence, he failed to inspire confidence during the investigation. Consequently, at the behest of the police, the entire regiment was paraded in the hope that he might identify Atkins's assailants, yet he professed ignorance.
Nonetheless, he remained a person of considerable interest to the detectives.
But the detectives were not toiling in solitude.
Major Woods, conducting his own inquiries, questioned men regarding any suspicious activity or individuals they may have observed. Private John Robertson proved to be the key informant, disclosing that two of his colleagues, William Brown, aged 27, and John Dunbar, aged 21, had been absent without permission that fateful night.
Furthermore, upon their return in the early hours, Brown had requested a towel to clean his bloodstained hands, a fact noticed by Robertson.
When interrogated, neither Brown nor Dunbar denied having absconded from the barracks or having been in Atkins's company at the Crimea Inn. They also implicated Cowdrey as the third man.
A search conducted near Brown's barracks yielded the discovery of Atkins's missing shoes, leading to the arrest of the two men on charges of murder.
Later, the cab driver participated in an identification parade, confidently singling out Cowdrey as the third passenger he had collected from the pub and transported to the vicinity of the church. Further evidence against Cowdrey surfaced through the presence of bloodstains on his attire.
Consequently, both Brown and Cowdrey stood before Mr. Justice Willis at the Hampshire Assizes on November 24. Though the two soldiers exhibited contrasting displays of composure—Brown incessantly gnawing at his lip, while Cowdrey wore a peculiar countenance, alternating between a sneer and a smile—they pleaded "not guilty" when asked for their pleas, each speaking in a resolute and audible voice. Dunbar, however, quivered with trepidation.
Addressing the assembled jurors, Mr. Justice Willis declared it to be the most appalling murder case he had the misfortune of trying, with a staggering count of 60 witnesses to be heard. The gravity of the situation necessitated that the jurors remain together until the conclusion of the trial, lodged at a Winchester hotel, with means for their essential needs to be provided.
The Crown's case was led by Charles Matthews KC, who, in his opening statement, contended that Brown and Dunbar had not embarked on a night of revelry and debauchery in search of another prostitute named Jenny Clark, as the prosecution had initially posited. Failing to locate her, they returned to the Crimea Inn, where they encountered Atkins. The three individuals walked together, with Cowdrey trailing a short distance behind.
At the cab stand, Brown inquired of Carter the cost of a ride to the Wellington Statue. When informed of the fare—two shillings—he acquiesced.
Subsequently, Atkins and Dunbar proceeded toward the small woodland, with Cowdrey again following behind. Meanwhile, Brown engaged in a dispute with the driver over the fare before eventually joining the others.
That marked the final sighting of Atkins alive, Matthews informed the court. "She was forced to the ground, and a fierce and savage struggle ensued. Seven wounds were found upon her head, inflicted by a blunt, heavy object, possibly the buckle of a soldier's belt. Injuries to her face suggest they were caused by a branch from a tree, half of which was discovered near the woman's lifeless form."
Despite the considerable number of witnesses called forth during the trial, the proceedings concluded in a mere four days. Each defendant sought to deflect blame onto the other for Atkins's demise. Brown acknowledged that he and Dunbar had gone to the copse with the intention of engaging in sexual activity but claimed it was he who had attacked Atkins after Cowdrey confirmed she carried money.
Dunbar admitted being present at the scene but maintained that he neither assaulted her nor possessed any knowledge of a plot to rob11 pmher.
In his closing remarks, Mr. M. St. Gerrands contended that the jury faced a straightforward decision. "It is a matter of murder or nothing," he reasoned. "You must decide whether these men, who possess every opportunity to lead fulfilling lives, should be acquitted or face a violent and dishonorable death."
Expressing skepticism toward the prosecution's claims, particularly the notion that they would rob a woman known for her destitution, he remarked, "It is the product of a fevered imagination. No more improbable a tale exists than that a man fresh from committing a heinous murder would immediately proceed to the barracks and say to a comrade, 'I have blood on my hands; lend me a towel.'"
Following a 40-minute deliberation, the jury convicted Brown and Cowdrey, who were promptly sentenced to death, while Dunbar was acquitted.
The circumstances surrounding the discovery of the shoes raised significant concerns that they had been deliberately planted by an unknown party subsequent to Brown's arrest.
Although Dunbar mounted a campaign asserting his compatriot's innocence and placing the blame solely on Cowdrey, Home Secretary Aretas Akers-Douglas refused to intervene. Consequently, on the morning of December 16, at 8 a.m., the two men made their final journey of 30 yards from the condemned cell to the looming gallows.
As the noose was tightened around his neck, Brown confessed, "Before I depart this world, I confess my involvement."
Cowdrey then exclaimed, "Grant me five minutes to speak the truth. God has aided me in my innocence. I am bound for Heaven. Brown is the perpetrator and has confessed."
Hardly had the words "I helped" faded from Brown's lips than they were executed.
And the somber tolling of the prison bell reverberated.