Friday, October 29, 2010

Crime Novel Becomes Reality for GW English Professor!

GW Professorial Lecturer in English Matt Fullerty, who is currently teaching ENGL 62 (Comedy) and ENGL 52W (English Literature), recently found himself in the middle of a national news story in the UK.

Last weekend, a human skull was dug up in the garden of broadcaster/naturalist Sir David Attenborough in London. It turns out to be the long-missing head of an 1879 murder victim named Martha Thomas, who was killed by her maid Kate Webster.

In a peculiar twist, Dr. Fullerty has been writing about the murder--in the form of a novel--for the past two years. After the murder, Kate impersonated Martha Thomas around London, wearing her clothes and jewelry, and selling her victim's belongings. After trying to flee to Ireland, Kate was arrested and put on trial at the Old Bailey, eventually confessing to her priest. She was hanged in Wandsworth Prison by the "royal hangman" William Marwood on 29 July, 1879.

When the story broke on Saturday in England, Matt became the go-to source for the British press. The result was a feature in Tuesday's Daily Mail about life of the killer (and the man who hanged her).

You can read more about Matt Fullerty's novel The Murderess and the Hangman here. Matt is currently looking for a publisher for his work, and we hope this strange turn-of-events will help him land a book deal in time for Halloween!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How a skull found in David Attenborough's garden has solved one of Victorian Britain's most gruesome murder mysteries


On a bright, spring morning, coal porter Henry Wheatley and his companion were driving their horse and cart along the Thames.

Shortly before seven o'clock, just before arriving at Barnes Bridge, South London, Wheatley noticed a wooden box lying half-submerged in the water.

He got down from his cart and, with some difficulty, hauled the box on to the bank. Noticing that it was tied with cord, Wheatley took out his knife and cut it open.

He then gave the box a kick and it collapsed. What he saw next turned his stomach. A mass of white flesh fell to the ground. At first, Wheatley's companion suggested they'd stumbled across a box of butcher's offcuts.

Workmen building an extension at the Richmond home of Sir David Attenborough unearthed a skull in the naturalist's garden. The police are almost certain it is that of Mrs Thomas, who was murdered 130 years ago
But Wheatley knew his find was far more grisly  -  in fact, he'd stumbled across the body parts of a dismembered woman. The date was March 5, 1879. Wheatley immediately reported his find to the police at Barnes.

A pathologist identified the body parts as belonging to a short, somewhat tubby woman.
The corpse had been cut up with an ordinary meat saw, and a contraction of flesh away from some of the bones suggested that the pieces had been boiled.

However, the body was missing not only a foot, but also something vital to help with identification  -  its head.
Five days later, another gruesome discovery was made  -  this time on a manure heap in an allotment in Twickenham, about five miles from Barnes. It was a box containing the missing foot, which had been boiled in the same way as the rest of the corpse.

For the next few days, the police could only guess as to the identity of the body  -  which some newspapers speculated could have been used by medical students for dissection.

However, by the end of the month and with help from a key witness, the police and the public learned the body belonged to a 50-year- old woman called Julia Martha Thomas, who lived in Richmond.

Kate Webster
Kate Webster - who murdered her elderly employer with an axe after she returned home from church on a Sunday evening

She had been murdered by her servant, a 30-year-old Irish woman called Katherine Webster.
Because of the gruesome nature of the corpse, the public were fascinated by the case. Some people even removed pebbles and twigs as souvenirs from the small garden of Mrs Thomas's cottage in Park Road, Richmond.

What was never discovered was Mrs Thomas's head. Its location remaining a secret  -  until last week, a full 130 years later.

On Friday, workmen building an extension at the Richmond home of Sir David Attenborough unearthed a skull in the naturalist's garden, and the police are almost certain it is that of Mrs Thomas.
Should this indeed be the case, then the final chapter of one of the most foul murders in Victorian London can now be written.

As a crime novelist, I've long been fascinated by the tale of the Richmond Murder  -  and I've even written a book based on the killing.

The murderer, Katherine Webster, was born in a small village in County Wexford in 1849. She spent her teenage years in and out of prison. At around the age of 17, she fled to Liverpool, where she lived as a drifter and furthered her skills as a burglar.

However, she soon found herself locked up and was sentenced to four years of penal servitude in 1867.
Released after three years, she made her way south to London, where she apparently attempted to make an honest living.

In 1873, she lodged in Rose Gardens, Hammersmith, West London, next to a family called the Porters, who would play a major part in her fate six years later.

Some time the following year, she gave birth to a son out of wedlock.

Unable to make ends meet Webster once more turned to thieving and, in 1875, she was sentenced to 18 months in London's Wandsworth prison for a staggering 36 offences of larceny.

As soon as she got out, she re-offended, and was locked up for another year in February 1877. In January 1879, she finally appeared to turn her back on a life of crime by taking a job as a servant for Mrs Thomas, at her home in Richmond.

Aged around 50, and recently widowed, Mrs Thomas was a small woman who took her religion seriously and was a devoted worshipper at the local Presbyterian chapel.

Unsurprisingly, the two women did not get along well. Mrs Thomas often had to reprimand her new servant for her violent temper and less than capable serving skills.

Builders unearthed a skull, believed to solve a 131-year-old riddle, in globe-trotter Sir David Attenborough's garden 
Gruesome: Builders unearthed a skull, believed to solve a 131-year-old riddle, in globe-trotter Sir David Attenborough's garden

On the evening of Sunday, March 2, Mr s Thomas returned from an evening service at the chapel. She found Webster had been drinking and a row ensued. The drunken servant girl was unable to contain herself and during the course of the argument she pushed her employer down the stairs.

She ran down after her, and seeing that Mrs Thomas appeared to be badly hurt, she decided to strangle her.
What happened next is like something out of a horror film. For the next 24 hours, Webster cut up the body of Mrs Thomas and boiled the pieces in a big copper pan.

Why she decided to boil the pieces is not clear, but it is likely she was hoping to disintegrate the flesh. She was unsuccessful and her attempts to burn the body parts also failed.

At this point , Katherine Webster decided that the only way to dispose of the body was to parcel it up and throw it in the Thames.

She placed the pieces in a box, and put the box into a large black bag. Then she assumed Mrs Thomas's identity.

On the late afternoon of Tuesday, March 4, she walked to her friends the Porters, whom she had not seen for months, and told them that she was now called Mrs Thomas and that her aunt had left her a house in Richmond.

Webster asked Mr Porter if he knew of an agent who could sell the house for her.

A little later, Webster, Mr Porter and his teenage son Robert went for a drink at a nearby pub. Robert carried the black bag, and it sat under the table while the three had ales.

Then Webster left  -  saying that she had to quickly see someone. When she returned, Porter saw that she no longer had the bag.

In fact, she had thrown it off Hammersmith Bridge.

Webster's greed knew no bounds. As well as trying to sell her victim's house, she also attempted to sell all its contents.

A man called John Church offered her £68 for some of the furniture, and she took £18 as a down-payment  -  insisting it be in cash or gold.

However, Webster was worried her crime would soon be discovered, and on or around March 18 she fled back to County Wexford.

Back in London, John Church began to grow suspicious and tracked down a friend of the real Mrs Thomas, who informed him that she was in fact in her 50s  -  and was most certainly not in her 30s with an Irish accent.
Church informed the police and, with evidence from Church and the Porters, they quickly put the puzzle together. On the 25th, Webster was arrested and detained at Clerkenwell prison.
At her trial that April, huge crowds thronged around the Central Criminal Court in London. Webster was found guilty, although she denied the murder.

She finally confessed the night before she was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on July 29.

What she never admitted was the location of Mrs Thomas's head, a secret which she took to her death at the end of the long rope.

Now, thanks to the unwitting help of Sir David Attenborough, the case can be finally closed.

Matt Fullerty's author site is

His novel based on the crime, THE MURDERESS AND THE HANGMAN, is currently with Watson, Little Ltd, and looking for a publisher. 


Friday, August 20, 2010

Porfiry Does Perugia

Regular readers of The Rap Sheet will undoubtedly recognize the name Roger (or “R.N.”) Morris. He’s not only an infrequent contributor to this blog, but he’s also the author of a pair of novels that feature the fictional mid-19th-century Russian detective, Porfiry Petrovich, introduced in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866): 2007’s The Gentle Axe (published in Great Britain as A Gentle Axe) and 2008’s A Vengeful Longing.

This author was born in Manchester, England, and studied Classics at Cambridge. He worked for many years as a freelance
advertising copywriter, while simultaneously penning fiction. He has a composed a horror story, “The Devil’s Drum,” which became a short opera, and was performed at the Purcell Room in London. His first novel, Taking Comfort (Macmillian, 2006) was a contemporary urban thriller. Building on the popularity of his first two Porfiry Petrovich yarns, Morris has recently submitted to his publisher the third book in that series, A Razor Wrapped in Silk.

Morris’ prose is polished, his plotting is superb, and he has a refined sense of black humor. He’s a writer from whom other writers might learn. So, when Morris and his family arrived on holiday recently in the Umbria region of central Italy, we asked him to speak to readers in the local capital of Perugia. The temperature at that time was in the mid-30s, which we feared would put off all but the most enthusiastic fans. Fortunately, though, almost three dozen people turned up to hear us ask Morris questions (and ask a few questions of their own) about The Gentle Axe (which was published in Italy as Il Giudice Porfirij), his evolution as a writer, and his associations with the land and literature of Russia.

Michael Gregorio: Tell us about the curious dedication which introduces A Gentle Axe: “For my mother, Norma, who likes a good murder.” Surely there’s a story there.

R.N. Morris: My mother was a keen reader of what we would probably call “pulp.” She liked nothing better than a good thriller. A good murder, too. I suppose that’s where my own interest in the genre springs from. There were always crime books scattered round the house, and it was inevitable that I would start to read them sooner or later.

MG: What kind of thing were you first drawn to?

RNM: Well, initially, I suppose, Agatha Christie and the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, but even before that I had got a taste for suspense by reading Enid Blyton. Do you remember the series of books that she wrote for children featuring the Secret Seven and the Famous Five, where a minor mystery turns into an adventure for the kids who stumble on it? I really loved those books!

MG: So, how did you graduate, let’s say, from reading to writing about crime?

RNM: It all started at school. I always seemed to love writing, and I liked telling stories. And then at secondary school, we had an English teacher who gave us homework at the weekends, and often we had to write a short story. Well, that was fine by me. I didn’t attach much importance to it, until, one day, our teacher was absent, and another teacher sat in with the class and decided that we ought to read our stories out loud. “Who shall we begin with?” he asked the class, and all the kids called out in a single voice, more or less: “Roger, Roger Morris!” That was when I began to wonder whether I might eventually become a writer ...

MG: How did you eventually become a writer?

RNM: Well, it all comes down to mum again. As well as crime novels, she used to read women’s magazines, like Woman and Woman’s Own, and so on, and they all contained short stories. I’d pick them up and read them, and I suppose I learnt from them because I began trying to write stories along the same lines. Inevitably, I began to submit them, too. But I just kept getting rejection after rejection ...

MG: But that changed, too.

RNM: Well, yes. I suddenly realized that I was trying to write for older women, and that maybe I wasn’t ready for it. I also realized that there were other magazines aimed at teenagers--mainly girls, again--and I had a go at writing for them. And finally, one of my stories was published. That was a real thrill for me. Well, I did some more of those while I was studying at university, and, of course, the next step was to think about writing a novel.

MG: Which you did.

RNM: Well, I did, but they didn’t really go anywhere. I have a suitcase full of unpublished novels under the bed. Eventually, I found myself an agent, and the books were sent out to publishers, and they came back again, and all with the same result. Zilch!

MG: Just like us! Mike [aka Michael G. Jacob, the English half of the husband-and-wife writing team who publish as “Michael Gregorio”] has had three agents, Daniela [De Gregorio] has had two, and we have the same stack of old papers hidden away somewhere. What about you, Roger?

RNM: I’ve had two agents, as well. The second one, my present agent, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, did the rounds with the books, and it was just the same, they didn’t really seem to be going anywhere. He was on the point of giving up, I think, but then I had this idea for a crime novel featuring Porfiry Petrovich and St. Petersburg. His eyes lit up at that and I could tell I was on to something.

MG: People in Italy don’t really understand how important a literary agent is. Here, they hardly exist, you know, because so much fiction--over 90 percent--is imported from America and the European countries. OK, Roger, so you had an agent, you were writing novels, and suddenly you got a break. Well, in fact you got two breaks!

RNM: Yeah, that was funny, really. I wrote the first Porfiry book, A Gentle Axe, my agent sent it out, and [publisher] Faber and Faber expressed an immediate interest. At almost the same moment, Macmillan were keen to take on a literary novel--let’s call it a novel of “contemporary interest”--which I had written, entitled Taking Comfort. Well, that caused a bit of confusion. I didn’t want to tell either publisher in case they both pulled out.

MG: And thus, you published both books. One as R.N. Morris, the other as Roger Morris. So, in a sense, you were free to choose the direction that you wanted to take after that experience. Why did you concentrate on crime-writing?

RNM: Can I say “for the money”? It wasn’t only that, of course. When Faber bought the first Porfiry book, A Gentle Axe, the contract was for two books, so I was lined up straight away to write a second one, and I already had ideas for four novels featuring him … Also, I was fascinated by the prospect of working in the crime genre; I saw it as a real challenge. I wanted to know if I could do it.

MG: Where did your interest in Porfiry Petrovich come from?

RNM: Well, I had started reading the Russians in English translation, and I picked up a copy of Crime and Punishment from the library. I was taken in by the amazing blurb on the back cover, really. It concentrated almost entirely on the figure of Porfiry, who was described as being “one of the very first detectives in fiction.” It made the book sound like a crime novel--which it was, of course--though when I read it, I realized how minor a role Porfiry actually plays. Still, I was fascinated by the book, hooked by the crime that Dostoevsky described, the leaden atmosphere and the crushing poverty of the time, as well as by the huge religious and philosophical ideas in the book. I saw a lot of scope in the character of Porfiry Petrovich, too, and I dreamt of doing something with him. At the same time, it all seemed a bit daunting. I didn’t speak Russian, I hadn’t been to Russia. I didn’t really know how to go about it. The more I thought about it, however, the more I wanted to do it. In the end, I sat down and I tried.

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE:How did you go about researching the book?

RNM: Mainly through reading Russian novels of the time, particularly Dostoevsky, of course. Also, I studied street maps of St. Petersburg, did a lot of reading, used the Internet. It was more complicated than it sounds, because so much had changed--the names of streets and squares, for example--as a consequence of the [1917 Russian] Revolution. Finally, I thought, well, it’s all there, Dostoevsky knew the place, and it worked for him. I sort of followed the topography as he had laid it out ...

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: And you’d never been to Russia?

RNM: Not then. I went on holiday shortly after the first book was published, and while I was writing the second novel, A Vengeful Longing. I was amazed, you know. It was a surreal sort of experience. Very dreamlike. I seemed to know the place like the back of my hand, it matched up pretty well with what I had imagined and written. And with what I’d read of Dostoevsky, obviously. I met a Russian guy--a genuine St. Petersburgian called Andrey--who was on my flight over. We got chatting on the Metro into St. Petersburg. He told me his life story and offered to take me on a walking tour of the city. I gave him a copy of A Gentle Axe and he contacted me after he had read it and told me he was struck by “the strong Russian, St. Petersburg feel of it.” I think he had been a bit skeptical, with me being an Englishman.

MG: And there’s more of Porfiry Petrovich in the pipeline, right?

RNM: Well, I have just submitted the third novel in the series, and I’m pretty pleased with it. It is entitled A Razor Wrapped in Silk, and it features the abduction of a child factory laborer and the sensational murder of a society beauty--two crimes from opposite ends of the social spectrum.

MG: It sounds fantastic. We look forward to reading it, and to seeing the Italian translation of A Vengeful Longing, which should be appearing soon in Italy. A final question, Roger: Will A Razor Wrapped in Silk bring the Porfiry Petrovich series to an end?

RNM: Book 4 is all planned out and I’m ready to start writing it just as soon as we get home!

(Author photo by Claire Morris.)
Michael Gregorio, The Rap Sheet, Tuesday September 8, 2009

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Unpublished Stieg Larsson manuscripts discovered

Stieg Larsson
A young Stieg Larsson on holiday in 1987. Photograph: Per Jarl / Expo / SCANPIX/Press Association Images

Sci-fi stories The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo author wrote when he was 17 and sent to a magazine discovered in library.

The National Library of Sweden has unearthed unpublished manuscripts by a young Stieg Larsson, author of the bestselling Millennium Trilogy, which begins with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

According to Sweden's deputy national librarian, Magdalena Gram, "they were donated to the national library in 2007 and well known by us. The manuscripts were an integrated part of an archive from the Jules Verne Magasinet, a magazine with science fiction materials."

The science fiction stories, written around 1970 when Larsson was 17 and called The Crystal Balls and The Flies, were sent to the magazine by the teenager in the hope of having them published, but were rejected. In his accompanying letter to the magazine, Larsson described himself as "a 17-year old guy from Umea with dreams of becoming an author and journalist". Larsson did go on to become a founding editor of the magazine Expo, and then a hugely popular author, but did not live to see all his dreams become reality.
Larsson died suddenly at the age of 50 in 2004, just a few months after selling the first book in the Millennium series and leaving completed manuscripts of the two subsequent books. There are also believed to be 200 pages of a sequel to the trilogy stored on the late author's laptop.

Given the global success of the trilogy – the books have sold 22m copies in 42 countries and a Hollywood adaptation is under way – there is likely to be massive interest in any unpublished material, despite its age.
However, the discovery is also likely to intensify the bitter dispute around Larsson's estate. When the author died intestate, his partner of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson, lost all rights to his estate to Larsson's father and brother. In 2005, she refused an offer by the family to hand over Larsson's computer in exchange for the half of the flat she had shared with him. There is speculation that outlines for six further novels are also contained in the laptop.

Gram could not say if the stories would ever be read by a wider audience. "A national library is not a publisher. The rights to the texts are owned by Stieg Larsson's father and his brother," she said, and confirmed that the library was in contact with Larsson's heirs.

While fans devour posthumously discovered and published work, its publication does not always enhance a writer's reputation. Philip Larkin's Trouble at Willow Gables and Michaelmas Term at St Bride's, two novels of lesbian intrigue set at a girls' boarding school, published after his death in 1985, led many to agree wholeheartedly with Larkin's own note that they were "unforgettably bad". Last year saw the publication of Vladimir Nabokov's uncompleted final novel, The Original of Laura, that he had requested be destroyed upon his death. Again the critical response was overwhelmingly negative.
Michelle Pauli
The Guardian
Wednesday 9 June 2010

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Is Bernie Madoff 'Free at Last'?

In a recent New York magazine article, writer Steve Fishman sheds light on Bernie Madoff's life behind bars. The lengthy profile reveals a string of insider details, some far more telling than accounts of Madoff's prison rumble back in October.

For starters, the disgraced financier viewed by most as a thief and criminal for swindling an estimated $65 billion in history's worst Ponzi scheme, is regarded as somewhat of a celebrity at the federal correctional complex in Butner, N.C. He has an entourage of "groupies," according to the article, and though he shuns all autograph requests, he has managed to cultivate these relationships over time. Some even go as far as dubbing him "a hero" and turn to him for advice on anything from investing to entrepreneurship.

Then there's Madoff's talent for delegating duties on to others, hiring an inmate to do his laundry for $8 a month -- negotiating a discounted rate nonetheless. On the flip side, Madoff has energetically thrown himself into the prison-work world, even though he's exempted from chores because of his age. Fishman writes:

"He proposed that he serve as the clerk in charge of budget. He had qualifications—he'd been chairman of NASDAQ. 'Hell, no,' said the supervisor to Evans, laughing. 'I do my own budget. I know what he did on the outside.'"

Instead, Madoff was assigned to maintenance and cafeteria floor-sweeping duty.

Perhaps the most startling inclusion in the article is that Madoff reportedly feels little remorse for what he has done. Instead, Fishman suggests he might even be relieved that he is no longer living a lie. The article explains:

"'It was a nightmare for me,' he told investigators, using the word over and over, as if he were the real victim. 'I wish they caught me six years ago, eight years ago,' he said in a little-noticed interview with them."

As for his victims...

"'F--k my victims,' he said, loud enough for other inmates to hear. 'I carried them for twenty years, and now I'm doing 150 years.'"

For an in-depth view on Madoff's life in prison, read Steve Fishman's full article in New York magazine.


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