This Story is from twentieth century Cheltenham.
I first came across this story a few years ago in an obscure book I found in a charity shop. At first, flicking through the pages, I thought it was a spoof or hoax of some sort, but a later search on the internet confirmed that it was indeed a real case, though all but forgotten today. The story never seems to appear in any books of famous murders (solved or unsolved) of the twentieth century. Even Wikipedia, (calling it the “Cheltenham Torso Mystery”) gives it barely 10 lines, much less than it devotes to the “Bella in the Wych Elm” mystery, despite the fact that there are in fact two bodies in this case, not just one.
It was certainly a very big story at the time. The progress of police investigations were followed eagerly by the whole nation as the centre of investigation by Scotland Yard detectives shifted around the country from Haw Bridge to Cheltenham, then London, Cornwall and Oxford. Indeed, when no new evidence seemed to be appearing, journalists on the major papers even carried out their own investigations, such was the appetite for news.
The main reason for its apparent neglect since, I think, is because of the date. The murder or murders must have occurred in January 1938 and public interest was at its height in February. Barely a month later, though, the nation would have much bigger things on its mind, because in March, German troops marched into Austria. In September, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Munich to speak, face to face, with the German fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, returning a few days later with a famous piece of paper bearing both their signatures. Less than a year later, the Second World War had begun. The lives (and deaths) of four people in an English spa town on the edge of the Cotswolds would soon seem unimportant.
Yet, it is a fascinating story, and like many murders, solved or unsolved, gives us a flavour of the age. Many factors in this story are “of their time” and I suspect that the events that unfolded in January 1938 probably could not have happened in any other period.
Death of a dancer
The first body, that of Brian Sullivan, a 28 year old professional dancer, was found on 24th January 1938 in his bed at the Tower Lodge, Leckhampton Hill, Cheltenham, by his mother, Iris Sullivan.
Neither Brian nor his mother were actually living at the property at the time. Brian Sullivan was a keen ballroom dancer and made a living as a “dance partner”. It seems that in the 1920s and 30s, professional dancers could earn good money by offering their services as partners to ladies attending the many regular dances in large hotels at the time. Brian Sullivan had begun his career in this way in a Cheltenham hotel about eight years before, but since about 1932 he had lived in London, where, of course, there was more scope for his services.
His mother, on the other hand, Iris Sullivan, was in modern terminology a “single parent” and had since 1910 made a living as a private nurse. Her current appointment was looking after a Mrs Edith Butt, the wife of a Captain Butt. As this was a full-time “live-in” appointment, she was at the time living at the Butts’ home, 248, Old Bath Road, Cheltenham, less than a mile away.
Tower Lodge, therefore, appears to have been mainly used just as an occasional bolt hole by Brian when he visited Cheltenham. His mother didn’t even have a front door key, and, according to her account, she had gone there several times in the previous few days, hoping to see her son, but when no one had answered the door, she assumed he had returned to London without telling her.
When she went again that day, the 28th, though, she had with her a screwdriver and used it to remove a lock on the back garden gate. She’d then gone round the back of the house where she found the back door open. On going inside, she found to her horror, her son’s body in his bed.
At first she wasn’t sure what to do. To complicate things, on this visit, she’d taken her patient, Mrs Butt, who was suffering from mental health problems. Thinking fast, she managed to prevent Mrs Butt seeing the corpse and took her back to the house in Old Bath road. From here, she phoned her son’s solicitor, a Mr Thompson. He, of course, advised her that the police should be contacted at once and said he would do that for her.
Thompson then picked up a police constable, P. C. Merry and Mrs Sullivan and took them up to the Tower lodge. On this initial inspection, Merry noted noted that some floorboards had been lifted in the bedroom and a gas pipe underneath had been severed. He also found a suicide note in which Brian Sullivan left all his possessions to his mother and his clothes to his friend, Keith Newman. Mrs Sullivan confirmed the writing was her son’s. It looked like Brian Sullivan had gassed himself.
Until then, there had been few signs that Brian Sullivan was suicidal. He was certainly a popular dance partner: among his papers were several affectionate letters from women who he’d partnered and stayed in touch with. Later, a number of people, men and women, came forward to state that he was a charming, if slightly effeminate, companion.
But on checking his bank account, it transpired that he was heavily in debt and his mother admitted he’d been asking her for loans. He certainly had expensive tastes. He owned both a boat and a car, for instance (rarer in the 1930s than now, of course) and as well as renting two London apartments (one of which was sub-let to the above mentioned Keith Newman), he also had the lease of two cottages and adjacent land in Polperro, Cornwall, which he was renting out as holiday homes. Moreover, his choice of career no doubt meant he had to keep up appearances. He would need to dress smartly and be well groomed, especially as he was associating with with some wealthy people. On top of this were a recently failed marriage and several failed business ventures. He had even admitted to friends that his days as a dance partner were numbered. Although his mother claimed that the wording of the suicide note did not sound like that of her son, a verdict of suicide was reached and Brian Sullivan’s body was buried in unconsecrated ground.
So far, then, a sad story. But then, as they used to say in whodunnits of the period, the plot thickened.
A second body is found.
On 3rd February, ten days after Brian Sullivan’s body was discovered, some salmon fishermen, working just down stream from Haw Bridge on the river Severn, caught a bloated human male torso in their net. One of the men apparently vomited at the sight. A huge police investigation now began. Divers were called in, the river was dragged and detectives were despatched to the area from Scotland Yard. Britain’s most famous pathologist, Sir Bernard Spillsbury, arrived from London and personally examined the torso. Eventually, two legs and two arms were also recovered from the river, but, frustratingly, no head was found and the hands had been severed from the arms so no fingerprints could be taken. There was no way, therefore, of identifying the body (at least with 1938 forensics) or even how he had died.
But some interesting leads came to light very quickly. A few weeks previously, on the 10th January, some early morning passers-by had found a few odd items on Haw Bridge itself. The items included a leather glove, a gent’s shoe, some string and a length of braiding. The police had been informed and detectives also found some blood stains on the parapet. A witness, a lorry-driver, had come forward to state that he’d driven over the bridge early that morning and noticed a dark Austin with two male occupants and a large bundle in the back pass him then stop on the bridge. Unfortunately, he could only remember part of the registration number. However, tests on the blood had suggested that it was not human and the conclusion was that someone had killed an animal, such as a sheep or a dog, and hauled the body over the bridge, hoping to avoid prosecution.
After the torso was found though, police now turned back to the items and inside the leather glove found a laundry mark: CLR614. Through a nice piece of detective work, this number was traced to the Castle Laundry, Wandsworth, London. The manageress of the laundry not only confirmed that the laundry mark was one of theirs but was even able to identify the customer: a Celia Greally, who lived in WC1. On investigation, this Miss Greally was found to have no less than 28 convictions for prostitution dating back to 1932. Even more intriguing, though, she was in fact the estranged wife of Keith Newman – the very person to whom Brian Sullivan had bequeathed his clothes!
But there was more. It then came to light that the husband of Mrs Sullivan’s patient, Captain Butt, hadn’t been seen since the 4th of January. His disappearance hadn’t been reported at the time because in fact it wasn’t unusual, for the sad truth was that the Butt’s marriage was not a happy one. They’d married 11 years previously, in February 1927. For Butt (45 at the time), it had been his second marriage, but his wife had been a 46-year old spinster who was even then mentally unwell. There were suspicions that he’d married purely for money (his wife inherited a large property – the Manor House, Aston-on-Carrant), and it seems he hadn’t needed to work since their marriage.
Because of his wife’s mental illness, though, he had regularly disappeared for days or even weeks at a time without telling anyone where he’d gone, leaving his wife in the care of Nurse Sullivan. It later transpired that he had a relationship with a spinster in Oxford, and often went to stay with his sisters, but that didn’t account for all of his disappearances. When he went away again on the 4th January, 1938, his wife was certainly distraught at yet another disappearance, but it seems neither she nor Nurse Sullivan was surprised. However, this time, he never reappeared. Could the torso possibly be that of Captain Butt? Haw Bridge is about 12 miles from where Butt lived in Cheltenham, and he had no reason to go there. However, the laundry mark in the glove was just too coincidental. There was clearly a connection between Brian Sullivan’s suicide and the torso.
Police now carried out a more thorough search of the Tower Lodge. This time, they discovered that some bricks had been removed from a floor of the property and crudely covered with wooden planks. Under these was a gents overcoat, thought to have belonged Captain Butt. Moreover, the torso in the river had been weighed down with bricks which looked very similar to the bricks of the Tower Lodge (it was an early nineteenth century building, so the bricks would have been very distinctive). But there were no signs of either the head, nor the hands nor any signs that the body had been dismembered anywhere in the Tower – either inside or in the garden.
Detectives also questioned Celia Greally and Keith Newman in London, both of whom denied that they had been in Cheltenham at the time. Greally could not identify the glove either, but said that visitors often left behind items and she would have just put them in the laundry without thinking (it is worth remembering she was a known prostitute).
Having got so far though, the police investigation now seems to have ground to a halt. Not through lack of evidence – there was plenty of that – but most of it was hearsay and contradictory. There was for instance the strange evidence of the delivery of a parcel from a haberdashery store in Cheltenham to Tower Lodge on the 14th January, (10 days before Brian’s body was found). The delivery boy claimed the parcel wrapping had ripped slightly and he’d noticed sanitary towels inside. However, on checking the shop, no one could recall who had ordered the items. Mrs Sullivan was not living at the property and, although Brian was married, he was estranged from his wife and she claimed she was not in Cheltenham at the time.
Other bits of evidence too, seemed to lead nowhere. In Tower Lodge was the stub of a train ticket to Gloucester and station staff confirmed seeing Brian Sullivan, but why he went to Gloucester was a mystery.
Added to this were odd sightings of him by old friends, none of whom could confirm the exact date, and other people who had seen strangers in the countryside, sometimes driving cars which might or might not be Brian Sullivan’s Austin. Then there the cranks, who had their own theories. Someone claimed to have found the Captain’s head buried in his garden but that it had crumbled to dust when he tried to lift it. There were even rumours that the coffin used to bury Brian Sullivan was too big and that somehow Captain Butt’s head had been put in there!
None of this was substantial however. In April, the inquest held into the torso and the limbs heard all the evidence so far obtained, but still returned an open verdict. Officially, the torso remains unidentified to this day, so there is still no formal connection with either Captain Butt or Brian Sullivan.
However, this didn’t stop the rumour mongers and in the absence of further progress by the police, the newspapers weighed in with their own investigators. At the end of February, Andrew Soutar, a popular author and correspondent working with the Daily Mail, arrived in Cheltenham and over the course of the next few days, he interviewed neighbours and locals about the affair. In the Daily Mail he voiced what was probably a common rumour: namely that Nurse Sullivan and her son had been running an illegal abortion service. According to this, Brian Sullivan had acted as “go between”, arranging for high-class London ladies in a certain condition to discreetly stay at the Tower Lodge where his mother attended to them. The theory then ran that Captain Butt had somehow discovered the scheme, demanded his cut to keep quiet, and mother and son had done him in. Later, Brian Sullivan, overcome with remorse, had committed suicide, leaving his mother to face the music.
The theory would certainly explain the sanitary towels, and Brian, as a professional dance partner in London, probably would have come across a number of wealthy ladies seeking help with unwanted pregnancies. Abortion was illegal in 1938, of course. But there was not a shred hard evidence: police found no evidence of illegal abortion in the Tower Lodge when they searched it. Nevertheless, the rumours and innuendo in a national newspaper were too much for Iris Sullivan, and she sued the Daily Mail. In 1939, she was awarded £1,000 in damages and an apology.
There were other theories. Brian Sullivan was, by all accounts, very effeminate in his manner and there were inevitable rumours that he was a homosexual. There was talk that he had had a relationship with Captain Butt that had gone sour, maybe leading to murder. Alternatively, that Butt had threatened to expose Sullivan and he had been done in to silence him. However, Richard Whittington Egan makes clear that there was absolutely no evidence that either Butt or Sullivan ever had a homosexual relationship with a man, though there is strong evidence that both enjoyed the company and attention of women.
So what can we make of the mystery, over 70 years later? Well, firstly, of, course, we can wish for modern forensic examination. The torso was never identified nor, it seems, was anyone asked to try to identify it. It would of course have been far too distressing for his wife, but surely there were others – perhaps his doctor or relatives – who might have been prepared to verify whether it was him? A modern examination of the remains could surely answer the question, but unfortunately Whittington-Egan doesn’t state what happened to the torso – presumably it was buried somewhere.
However, even allowing for the lack of modern forensics, the police investigation does seem to have been inept. In particular, Whittington-Egan reveals that some local Cheltenham detectives were suspicious of the Scotland Yard detective assigned to the case, Detective Inspector Worth. Apparently, they found him high-handed and arrogant, refusing, for example, to co-operate with the press (who therefore did their own investigations). The senior Cheltenham detective at the time, Detective Inspector Hancock, felt that Nurse Sullivan knew more than she had told them. We have only her word, for instance, that she only discovered her son’s body on the 24th,.
Hancock felt one incident was particularly significant. Nurse Sullivan had approached him in the street, looking very agitated, and saying she had something important to tell him. Hancock had dutifully reported this to Worth, who was in charge at the time, and heard nothing more. In later years, though, he often wondered if Mrs Sullivan had something she wanted to get off her chest but had then clammed up when faced with the Scotland Yard man. Hancock felt that if he had spoken to the woman himself she might have revealed what was bothering her.
Hancock’s own theory about the mystery is that sometime in early January 1938, Brian Sullivan had approached Captain Butt for a loan, but the latter had refused. An argument ensued in which Butt fell (probably accidentally), fatally injuring himself. Brian panicked and, with the aid of his mother disposed of the body. Later, overcome with remorse, Brain had committed suicide. This would certainly fit some of the facts, but still left questions unanswered. Brian was notoriously squeamish (he had once had difficulty killing a fish while on holiday in Cornwall), so could his mother have butchered the captain’s body on her own? And where had all this taken place? The Tower Lodge, and all other properties had been carefully searched and there was no evidence of bloodstains. The case remains open to this day.
If anyone wants to find out more then I recommend they obtain a copy of Whittington-Egan’s book which has much more detail than I have space for here. In fact, as far as I am aware, it is the only full account in print of this fascinating tale.