Date: 30 Jun 1949
Gertrude Dorothea O'Leary was beaten and strangled to death in her shop parlour.
Her body was found at 10.45pm on 30 June 1949 in the parlour of her shop at 13 Thomas Street, Stokes Croft in Bristol.
She was the proprietress of a beer off licence business at that address and lived there alone except for several cats. The premises had been converted from one of a row of small houses in Thomas Street which was in a poor working class neighbourhood. She used the front room on the ground floor as a shop where she conducted her little business. The shop led through a short narrow passage to a room at the back, known as the shop parlour, where her body was found.
She had been ferociously beaten down by a series of heavy blows about the head whilst she had been standing behind her counter and had then fallen to the floor in the passage. After a while her body was then dragged into the back room unconscious. Her murderer had then torn off a strip of material from her flowered overall and tied it tightly around her neck in a single knot.
There was no sign of any forcible entry to her shop, or any trace of footprints or of any weapon that could have been used to cause her injuries although a heavily bloodstained quart flagon of beer was found where she had first fallen that could have been used to cause some of her injuries.
The police report stated that the murderer had covered his tracks well, leaving no clues behind, such that at first they said it seemed as though they were dealing with someone who was not only thoroughly well acquainted with Gertrude O'Leary's habits, but was also one who had known their way fairly well about her house.
The police said that the motive for her murder was robbery, stating that a small sum of money, about £6 or £8 was missing along with a gold wristlet watch on an expanding bracelet and a turquoise pendant set in gold with pearls and amethysts on a diamond-cut rolled gold neck chain. The watch was noted as having a red '12' numeral with the other numbers on the face being in black. It was also noted that the gold casing overlapped the face more than was usual.
Shortly after Gertrude O'Leary was found dead, the Bristol police requested assistance from Scotland Yard who send detectives who soon left for Bristol, arriving at 5.55pm on 1 July 1949.
When the detectives looked into Gertrude O'Leary's background they found that she was born on 4 May 1885 and that her father had for many years been the licensee of the Bell public house in Hillgrove Street, Stokes Croft until his death in 1903 after which his business was carried on by his wife until her death on 11 December 1915. After that the business was carried on by the eldest sister, assisted by Gertrude O'Leary, until 1928 when they retired and went to live together at 9 Bayswater Road in Horfield, Bristol.
Gertrude O'Leary was a spinster.
Sometime about 1933 Gertrude O'Leary acquired the off-licence beer-house at 13 Thomas Street in Stokes Croft although she continued to live with her sister at 9 Bayswater Road until the sister died on 19 July 1939 when Gertrude O'Leary then went to live alone at 13 Thomas Street. After she moved she let out the house in Bayswater Road, but shortly before her murder she sold it.
The police report stated that extensive enquiries into Gertrude O'Leary's mode of life showed that she had no enemies and very few intimate friends, although she nevertheless had a reputation among her neighbours and those who did business with her as being a kindly and generous woman.
The police stated that an examination of her banking accounts with the Westminster Bank and Stokes Croft showed that at her time of death her deposit account stood at £140 and her current account had £340 in it. It was noted that all the payments from her accounts were made to business firms and that it was apparent from the transfers made during the previous six months from her deposit account to her current account that she had been loosing money on her business for some time.
It was also reported on Monday 4 July 1949 that Gertrude O'Leary had previously had her shop robbed some months before her murder during which a gold wrist watch was taken after which it was said she had taken the precaution of paying regular visits to her bank with her takings. It was also noted that the gold watch that was stolen during her murder was a replacement that she had recently purchased after the earlier robbery.
The policeman that found her body at 10.45pm on Thursday 30 June 1949 said that he had been on duty in Thomas Street in Stokes Croft when he was informed by a man, a 68-year-old retired engineer, that lived at 11 Thomas Street that the side door leading to the yard of 13 Thomas Street was open which he said was unusual. He said that when he then examined the door in question, he saw that it was about six inches open, noting that it hadn't been forced.
The policeman said that when he entered the small yard he saw that the scullery door was ajar and said that when he entered he found that the drawer of a bamboo hall cupboard in the passage had been ransacked and that its contents, food and correspondence, littered the floor. He said that he then shone his torch through the partly open living room door and saw Gertrude O'Leary lying on her back in front of the fireplace with a ligature around her throat, apparently dead.
He said that he then examined the front door which was the entrance to the shop and found that it was locked and then went to a police telephone pillar nearby and reported the information to the police station and then returned to the shop.
He said that other officers arrived at the shop almost immediately and the premises were searched, but no person was found to be there. The policeman noted that there was nothing in the conduct or demeanour of the man that had reported seeing the door open that aroused his suspicion.
When the detectives arrived and examined the position of Gertrude O'Leary they found her lying on her back with her right arm extended above her head and her left arm at right angles to her body. Her face was heavily bloodstained and there were numerous deep wounds to her head and face, particularly in the region of her right ear and eye. Her head was in a pool of blood and there was a ligature tied tightly around her neck in a single knot.
The police found three bloodstained beer bottles in the room, and in the passage leading to the shop they found other blood-stained bottles near a pool of blood, where it was thought that Gertrude O'Leary had initially fallen after being attacked. There were also innumerable splashes of blood on the floor and wall, and those on the wall extended upwards to a height of about 18 inches as though Gertrude O'Leary had been kicked or beaten as she lay on the floor. The police also found a few spots of blood behind the counter.
The police report stated that there was little sign of the sort of disturbance that one might have expected to find had there been a struggle, and there was no evidence at all that the premises had been forcibly entered. They found some papers in disorder on the floor of the living room, and a small attache case containing correspondence and Gertrude O'Leary's handbag, had been ransacked. In the shop the police found that the till was open and hat it contained 12-3 in silver and 1-9 1/4 in bronze.
The floor of a second passage that led from the shop to the scullery was littered with correspondence and bills that had apparently been taken from the small bamboo hall cupboard that was there.
The upstirs portion of the premises consisted of two bedrooms and a small box room that led from the front bedroom. The police found that the front bedroom was in considerable disorder, with the mattress and bed-clothes having been turned back and the wardrobe and dressing table drawers opened and in disarrangement, and found the sum of £5.10.0 in Bank of England notes under a tray on the dressing table.
The back bedroom was not in use as such and was more or less a lumber room and contained a large wooden trunk, the contents of which, such as old curtains and clothing, had been turned over and left hanging partly out of the trunk. A mattress on a bed in the room had been turned back and letters, old documents and books were on the floor in great disorder.
It was noted that there were no signs of any bloodstains in the upstirs rooms.
When the police searched for fingerprints along the route used by the murderer through the shop they found fifteen finger impressions, fourteen of which were ultimately eliminated as belonging to people with legitimate access to the premises, but one set that could not be identified, a set of which were filed in the Scenes of Crime Collection at New Scotland Yard.
Gertrude O'Leary's body was examined by a Bristol Police Medical Officer soon after she was discovered, and he estimated that her death had taken place not less than six hours and not more than twelve hours earlier. He certified that her death was due to extensive head wounds and that the temperature of her body was 35 degrees centigrade whilst the room temperature was 25 degrees centigrade. He said that he had estimated the time of her death from the temperature he recorded for her body and the room.
The pathologist that carried out her post-mortem said that Gertrude O'Leary had severe wounding of the head, counting, in all, twenty seven wounds on her head and face, varying from half an inch to one and three quarters of an inch in length, with much bruising of the tissues around them. He said that the wounds extended down to the periosteal tissue that covered the underlying bone and that one wound to the back of her head had reached down to the bone of the skull which was slightly chipped.
He said that practically all of the wounds were on the right side of her head and on her right ear and added that she had a very bad black eye on the right side and eleven severe bruises on her right arm. She also had four extensive bruises on the back of her right hand and six severe bruises on her left arm and four on the back of her left hand and a fair amount of bruising in the deeper tissues of her neck where the ligature had been.
The pathologist noted that there was no evidence of sexual interference.
He said that he was of the opinion that the bruises and wounds could have been caused by an instrument such as a beer flagon.
He also said that from the appearance of the contents of her stomach that he was of the opinion that Gertrude O'Leary had had a meal about one or two hours before her death.
He concluded by stating that her cause of death was due to shock due to blows on the head and constriction round the neck.
The retired engineer that had reported the door to her shop being open on the night of 30 June 1949 said that that between 2.15pm and 2.20pm on the 30 June 1949, that he had gone into Gertrude O'Leary's shop to buy a bottle of lemonade. He said that there had been nobody else in the shop at the time and that after buying the lemonade he had gone home and drunk the lemonade and had then walked down Thomas Street and had sat on the Chapel wall. He said that he then noticed that the public houses in the vicinity were closing, which he said indicated to him that it was 2.30pm. He noted that he saw nobody else about which he said seemed unusual. He said that he then stayed about in the vicinity talking to various people and that he returned home at about 4.15pm in order to meet his wife who had visited Frenchay Hospital that afternoon, noting that she was at home when he arrived. He added that he saw no strangers about.
The retired engineer said that he had his tea and then went out again at about 6.15pm when his daughter drew his attention to the fact that Gertrude O'Leary's side door to the yard was open about eight inches. He said that there were three young children playing near the door and that thinking that they had pushed it open, he closed it.
He said that he then went indoors again and that at some point between 9.30pm and 10pm, he went out again and saw his wife talking to a woman that lived at 2 Francy Place which was nearby and heard that they were worried because Gertrude O'Leary had not opened for business as usual , noting that she would otherwise invariably tell customers when she didn't intend to open her shop.
The retired engineer said then that at about 10.15pm, as he was feeling uneasy, he opened Gertrude O'Leary's side door and went into her yard and flashed his electric torch on the window of the living room and called out, 'Are you all right Miss O'Leary?', but got no answer. He said that he saw that the scullery door into her house was open as well as the window to her living room, but didn't pay much attention to that as he had never been in her yard before and didn't know how Gertrude O'Leary usually left her door, noting that it had been a very hot day.
It was noted that neither the retired engineer or the other people that he had spoken to that afternoon had seen anything during the day to arouse their suspicions that anything had happened to Gertrude O'Leary.
However, a 25 year old married woman that lived at 12 Thomas Street, which was directly opposite Gertrude O'Leary's premises, said that at about 10am on 20 June 1949 that she was surprised by a knock at her back door as the rear of her house was difficult to approach by anyone not aware of the lay-out. She said that when she answered the knock, she saw a man standing there. She said that he was about 40 years old, about 5ft 4in tall, with a sallow complexion, a very slim build with dark hair and eyebrows and was clean shaven and walked with a slight stoop. She said that he was dressed in a dirty Burberry and dirty grey flannel trousers, a dirty greasy pork-pie type of hat and that his general appearance was untidy and that of the tramp class. He was also described as having had a serious expression about him.
She said that he asked, 'Would you mind if I used your lavatory?', in a rather squeaky voice but said that she refused. She said that he stood at her door for a few seconds longer and then walked away, at which point she noticed that he was carrying a sack.
At the time the woman's sister, a 22-year-old married woman from 7 Thomas Street was in 12 Thomas Street and also saw the man.
The woman from 12 Thomas street said that she saw the man again on two further occasions walking past her house and along the alleyway leading to the side door of Gertrude O'Leary's premises. She said that she could definitely identify the man again but said that she had not seen him again since Gertrude O'Leary's death.
The woman from 7 Thomas Street that had been in the house when the man called and had seen him said that about half an hour after the man called at the back door that she saw him looking into Gertrude O'Leary's window.
She said that she saw him again at about 11.30am on the Wednesday 22 June 1949 pass down Armada Place which was opposite Gertrude O'Leary's alley-way, noting that as he crossed the road he kept his head turned in the direction of Gertrude O'Leary's shop window.
She said that she also saw him do the same thing again on Friday 24 June 1949 at about 2.30pm.
She said that she also saw him on 28 June 1949 at about 2pm standing in the middle of Thomas Street looking up and down the hill along Armada Place and that alley by Gertrude O'Leary's shop and said that as she walked up the hill towards him that he went into the alley way and disappeared. She said that she then saw him again on the day of the murder 30 June 1949 between 2pm and 2.15pm when she left her home to visit her sister at 12 Thomas Street.
She said that when she arrived at the corner of Armada Place that the man passed close to her and that she turned round and watched him and saw that his head was again turned in the direction of Gertrude O'Leary's shop window. She sid that instead of crossing the road into the alley way that he went off at a tangent and stopped and looked into Gertrude O'Leary's shop window, straining himself to do so and placing his hands in such a position as to shade his eyes in order to look into the shop and beyond, and shifting his hat to the back of his head in doing so. She said that the man then went into the alley way by the side of Gertrude O'Leary's shop and that that was the last that she saw of him.
She added that she was definite that she would know him again.
A married woman who lived at 17 Thomas Street and who was a customer of Gertrude O'Leary and on friendly terms with her said that at about 2.30pm on 30 June 1949 that she saw Gertrude O'Leary at her shop door and had a conversation with her, She said that Gertrude O'Leary told her that she was tired and was going to rest for an hour and then closed her shop door, noting that she heard Gertrude O'Leary bolt it. She said that at the time there was no other person in the street.
She said that at about 3.30pm she had been in her bedroom when she heard a scream and that thinking that it was one of her children, she went downstairs to see what was wrong. However, she found that her baby was asleep and that when she went out into her back yard to see her 4-year-old boy who was playing there said that he told her that he had not been screaming and that she then thought no more of it. She noted that she was positive that it was 3.30pm because while she was talking to her boy, she had heard the wireless programme 'Music while you work' commence.
The police report stated that they carried out house to house enquiries throughout a quarter mile radius of Thomas Street to trace any other person who could provide further information that could assist in identifying the suspect, and that hostels, lodging houses, cafes and similar places were also frequently visited and their inmates searched for information.
On 1 July 1949 at about 4.15am, a policeman whilst engaged in another enquiry in Nelson Street near the Odeon Cinema, found about six inches of the cuff of a white shirt which was heavily bloodstained lying in the gutter of the street. The cuff was later examined and the blood grouping was found to be identical with that of Gertrude O'Leary, group 'A', which was however noted as being the second most common of all blood groups.
The place where the cuff was found was about 3/4 of a mile from Gertrude O'Leary's shop. However, despite every possible enquiry by the police and considerable prominence given by the local press to a photograph of the cuff, no further information regarding it was obtained and as such, the police stated that they were unable to assess whether or not it was associated with Gertrude O'Leary's murder.
A description of the man that had called at the back door of 17 Thomas Street along with that of the missing jewellery was circulated in the Police Gazette No.1 of 12 July 1949 as well as in the local and national press.
The police said that the city's street drains over a wide area were also searched with the assistance of the Local Authority in an effort to trace any weapon or the missing jewellery, but nothing resulted that could be regarded as of substantial assistance in the case.
The police also showed every photograph available of persons in the West Country who in any way resembled the man seen at the back door to the two sisters, but they were unable to identify the man.
The two sisters later attended New Scotland Yard where they viewed the photograph albums in the Criminal Record Office and quite independently identified the photograph of a man that they said strongly resembled the man that they had seen acting suspiciously in the vicinity of Gertrude O'Leary's shop on the day of and the day before her murder, and the man's name and description was then circulated in the police Special Notice of 12 July 1949.
The man's photograph and description was also later published in the Police Gazette of 9 September 1949 and sent out to Forces in the West of England with a note to the effect that if he was located that no mention was to be made to him of the murder.
The man was later traced to Gainsborough in Newton Road, Torquay at about 8pm on 9 September 1949 where he occupied a furnished room and he was detained.
When the police investigating Gertrude O'Leary's murder were informed that the man had been detained, they immediately left by the 9.35am train the following day for Torquay where they interviewed the man. However, they were able to establish definitely, that on the day of the murder, that the man had been employed at the Walcott Hotel in Torquay and could not have possibly been concerned with the murder of Gertrude O'Leary.
It was also reported that a young man with blonde hair had been seen near Thomas Street during the afternoon of 30 June 1949 and the police said that they were also interested in tracing him.
Further enquiries into Gertrude O'Leary's murder revealed that Gertrude O'Leary appeared to have been regarded by many in the district as a woman possessing a considerable amount of money and jewellery which was kept in an old box in her house. The police report noted that that gossip had apparently reached the ears of four local criminals, each of whom it was heard had at some point expressed their intention of robbing her when a favourable opportunity presented itself.
A 55-year-old woman that had lived in Great Ann Street in St Judes, Bristol, said that from December 1948 until sometime in May 1949, that she had lived with the first criminal at 29 Thomas Street as his wife. She said that during part of that time, the fourth criminal also resided with them as a lodger. She said that whilst there she was a customer at Gertrude O'Leary's shop and said that Gertrude O'Leary later became the subject of conversation between the first criminal and the fourth criminal, who she said discussed how they could break into Gertrude O'Leary's shop during an occasion when Gertrude O'Leary was out. She said that they both endeavoured to get her to entice Gertrude O'Leary into their place for a cup of tea while they got into her premises but said that she refused. She said that the fourth criminal had watched Gertrude O'Leary's shop for a long time seeking an opportunity to enter, during which she said that he secured considerable information concerning Gertrude O'Leary's movements and habits.
Another criminal who was serving a prison sentence in Gloucester Prison said that at about 11.45am on Saturday 18 June 1949, that he had been in The Carpenter's Arms in Stokes Croft, Bristol when he had heard two men enter the the urinal adjoining the toilet that he was using. He said that he recognised the voice of one of the man as that of the third criminal. He said that he then heard the other man say, 'How is it going?' and that the third criminal replied, 'It is dead under the arm. I shall have to get some money from somewhere'. He said that he then heard the other man say, 'We can do old mother O'Leary's. We can do she in the afternoon when she is closed. It is pretty quiet then and nobody is about. There is a wall at the back and we can do her from there'. He said that he then heard the third criminal say, 'Don't do her', and then heard the other man say, 'I'll do her. She got some jewellery and she is bound to have poke there'. He said that the third criminal then said, ''Leave it for the time being. Let us have a game of darts' and said that they returned to the public house and that he followed them in shortly afterwards and saw the third criminal playing a game of darts with another man. When the man gave the police a description of the other man, it was found to be identical with that of the second criminal.
The police report stated that the four criminals who had expressed an intention to rob Gertrude O'Leary at a suitable opportunity were all traced and most vigorously questioned, their clothing and footwear examined for bloodstains, and their movements during the period in which the murder was committed carefully checked. However, they all strenuously denied responsibility for the crime and the police said that they could find no evidence to connect any of them with the murder, although noted that fourth criminal could not be entirely excluded from suspicion.
The police report noted that an unfortunate feature that probably had an important bearing on the enquiry was the fact that the day of the murder, 30 June 1949, coincided with an outing to Weymouth by the residents of Thomas Street which meant that whereas in ordinary times the residents would have been in the street or sitting on their doorsteps, the place was deserted of people.
The police report concluded by stating that it could reasonably be inferred from what was disclosed in their investigation, that after Gertrude O'Leary closed her business at 2.30pm on the afternoon of 30 June 1949 that she retired to her armchair in her back room to rest, as was her custom, and probably fell asleep. It was thought then that the suspect later entered through the yard door which although closed, was unfastened, and went in through the open scullery door to the upstirs rooms, probably thinking that the premises were unattended, noting that the absence of any bloodstains anywhere in the upstairs rooms seemed to indicate that they had been ransacked before the murder. It was suggested then that the murderer must have then gone downstairs into the shop and upon opening the till had been disturbed by Gertrude O'Leary who had surprised him from behind the counter and that he had then instantly attacked her where she stood, which the police suggested that the blood spots on the floor there seemed to indicate. The police said that they thought that Gertrude O'Leary then staggered into the passage and fell down and was then beaten or kicked into unconsciousness. The police suggested that the amount of blood found there pointed to the possibility that she had lain bleeding for some time until the murderer realised that her body could be seen there by anyone looking through the shop window. The police said that they thought that the murderer had then dragged her body into the back room out of view and that in realizing that she was still alive, had torn a strip of from her overall and had tied it tightly around her neck. The police suggested that the murderer then ultimately left by the yard door which was found ajar later in the day and fixed the time of her murder as having been at about 3.30pm, when the woman who had lived at 17 Thomas Street said that she had heard a scream.
The police noted that despite their vigorous enquiries in the district, no person could be traced that had seen anyone enter or leave Gertrude O'Leary's premises after 2.30pm.
The police report stated that the extraordinary frenzy with which the murderer had attacked Gertrude O'Leary was somewhat difficult to understand, noting that Gertrude O'Leary was a defenceless old lady, top heavy and unsteady on her feet, and that the need to inflict so many and such terrible injuries upon her just to escape, when unexpectedly caught in the act of stealing, indicated that the culprit was known to Gertrude O'Leary or that his brutality was the desperation of a madman.
Gertrude O'Leary's inquest was concluded on 2 September 1949 when the verdict of murder by some person or persons unknown was returned. The coroner said, 'It is obviously a case of murder, but one might wonder how it happened. People murder other people for the most peculiar reasons, but why should anyone go into a house of this sort? What money could be expected from an off-licence like this? Of course, there may be a history of vengeance, or it might be the work of a madman'. He then described it as 'a particularly brutal and sordid murder'.
Gertrude O'Leary's funeral mass was held on Thursday 7 July 1949 at St Mary's-on-the-Quay afterwhich her coffin was taken to Arno's Vale Cemetery where she was buried.
In her will, which was read on Saturday 1 October 1949, Gertrude O'Leary left £528. 5s. 2d. gross (£483. 3s. 2d. net).
It was suggested that her murder might have been connected with the murder of Emily Armstrong in St John's Wood London on 14 April 1949, but no connections between the crimes were ever proved.
see National Archives - MEPO 3/3135
see Bristol Post
see Western Daily Press - Saturday 01 October 1949
see Western Daily Press - Friday 08 July 1949
see Western Daily Press - Saturday 09 July 1949
see Western Daily Press - Thursday 07 July 1949
see Western Daily Press - Monday 04 July 1949
see Derby Daily Telegraph - Saturday 02 July 1949
see Gloucestershire Echo - Friday 01 July 1949