She lived alone with her dog and despite repeated banging on her front door, the silence made one of the neighbours go to the police station to get help. Police Constable Alf Kirby found the back door insecure, entered the property and found both Ridgely and her dog dead. Both had been battered about the head and the shop, in her converted front room, was heavily bloodstained and obviously ransacked. Kirby called for assistance after making sure he had preserved what was so obviously a murder scene. Within the next 24 hours, the local superintendent of police concluded that Mrs Ridgley had died as a result of a tragic accident, allowed the crime scene to be cleaned and re-opened, and she was buried in an unmarked grave.
Within a few days, he arrested John Healy, an Irishman who had arrived in Hitchin a few months earlier. Healy had no alibi, had dog bites to his hand, blood on his torn clothing and had been seen in the shop moments before Ridgley met her death at 9pm on 25 January. He was charged but acquitted by the jury at Hertfordshire assizes.
This is a fascinating insight into how county and borough police forces coped with murder investigations in the inter-war period. It paved the way for a radical review of how provincial forces were expected to call upon the services of Scotland Yard sooner rather than later.
Little is known about Elizabeth Ridgley. She was 54 years of age at the time of her death. Her husband, William, had died two years earlier in 1917 and they had both lived in Hitchin, probably since 1910. She had no children but had a large number of sisters and brothers, most of whom attended her funeral on 1 February 1919. She was described as a rather serious woman but with a good ear for business. Her corner shop in Hitchin appears to have been a bit of a gold mine which made her susceptible to being the victim of an attack. Quite a number of people owed her money including John Healy who was charged with her murder. Her dog, which was killed alongside her was a terrier called Prince. She is buried in Hitchin cemetery in an unmarked grave.
Despite the injuries and the apparent ransacking of the shop, the local police superintendent, George Reed, concluded that Ridgley had died as a result of a tragic accident. He claimed that somehow she had been wandering around the shop, fell over and cracked her head open on a collection of earthenware pots. During her fall, she must have fallen on her dog and accidentally killed it. Even the first constable on the scene, Alfred Kirby, declared it a murder scene but his opinion was ignored. Ridgley was quietly buried in an unmarked grave in Hitchin cemetery.
The Chief Constable of the Hertfordshire Constabulary, Alfred Letchworth Law, was not convinced of his superintendent’s conclusion and drafted in Scotland Yard to re-investigate. Detective Chief Inspector Frederick Porter Wensley took over the investigation on 6 February 1919, ten days after the bodies had been found.
After reconstructing the scene and interviewing a large number of witnesses, Wensley arrested an Irish labourer, John Healy, who was living just a few hundred yards away in Radcliffe Road. There was a great deal of circumstantial evidence including witnesses seeing Healy acting suspiciously inside and outside of the shop just before Ridgley met her death. Healy was charged and appeared at Hertfordshire Assizes in June 1919.
Probably John Healy, but there was clearly some doubt cast in the minds of jurors, probably over one of the key witnesses, William Augustus Craswell. He had claimed he had seen Healy in the shop at the time of the murder. In essence, Healy claimed that all the prosecution witnesses were lying and that he was being picked on because he was Irish. The incident was at the height of the Anglo-Irish war over Home Rule.
No. However, 100 years later, Paul Stickler, the author of the book, The Murder that Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes: At Mrs Ridgley’s Corner, was researching this case when he stumbled across original material never seen before. The name, Worbey Dixon, featured in the original Hertfordshire investigation but his name was never referred to during the trial.
This was brought up during the trial and the judge, Mr Justice Darling, clearly stated that this was a murder but of course we do not know how much that first decision at the scene weighed on the mind of the jurors.
It fundamentally changed murder investigations in provincial forces. The Home Office mandated that provincial forces must consider the services of Scotland Yard’s murder squad in cases of murder where the killer is not immediately known. After this case, there was a gradual increase in detective officers in rural and provincial forces.
The Corner Shop Killings case is available as a presentation. Whether delivered on world-wide cruise ships or in a local village hall, it's absorbing, informative, and entertaining. Contact Paul Stickler for more information...