Unsolved Murders


Age: 52

Sex: male

Date: 14 Jan 1938

Place: River Severn, Haw Bridge, Gloucestershire

The torso of an unidentified man was found in the River Severn on 3 February 1938.

It was commonly thought to have been the remains of Captain William Bernard Butt who went missing on 4 January 1938.

The torso was soon after connected to the death of a male dancer who had gassed himself at Tower Lodge in Leckhampton Hill, Cheltenham.

The case became highly sensational and many theories were born.

One theory was thought that William Butt had had a homosexual relationship with the 27-year old male dancer who gassed himself at Tower Lodge on 24 January 1938 and that he had been murdered because he was going to disclose that the dancer, his partner, had been sending women in a certain condition to his mother who would perform illegal operations on them. Neither theories were proven and the dancer's mother later sued the Daily Mail for such allegations in 1939 and was awarded £1,000 in damages and an apology.

However, William Butt's bloodstained coat and AA car keys were found at Tower Lodge. The bloodstained coat was found under some floorboards. Rope that was similar to that which was used to tie bricks to the torso was also found in a garden shed at Tower Lodge. It was also said that bricks that were found out of place in the alcove under the stairs at Tower Lodge, where also shown to be similar to the bricks used to weigh down the torso.

The vital dates given in the train of events were:

  • 4 January 1938: William Butt leaves his home in Old Bath Road, Cheltenham, the last time he was seen alive.
  • 10 January 1938: Bloodstains were found on Haw Bridge.
  • 24 January 1938: The Dancer was found gassed at Tower Lodge.
  • 3 February 1938: The mutilated torso of an unknown man was found in the River Severn with its head, arms and legs missing.
  • 5 February 1938: Inquest on death of dancer returns suicide verdict.
  • 5 February 1938: An arm to the torso is found in the river, without the hand.
  • 6 February 1938: The police reopened the investigation into the dancers death.
  • 9 February 1938: The legs to the torso are found in the river near Haw Bridge. A piece of flesh thought to be from the head was also found.
  • 21 February 1938: An arm to the torso is found in the river, without the hand.
  • 9 April 1938: The Coroner's jury returned an open verdict on the remains of the unknown man found in the River Severn.

During the dragging operations at Haw Bridge on Sunday 6 February 1938 and enormous crowd turned out to watch, filling the bridge and the adjoining banks, with an estimated total of 5,000 people having come out.

When the limbs were found in the River Severn, they had bricks attached to them that were said to be similar to bricks found at Tower Lodge. When the legs were found, a piece of flesh, thought to have been part of the head was also found clinging to the grappling hook. The flesh was thought to have been from the lip and had part of a greyish-white moustache adhering to it.

It was also heard that a pair of William Butts shoes were tried on the feet of the legs that were recovered from the river and were found to have been a good fit.

It was later found out that William Butt had been the actual tenant of Tower Lodge, where the dancer had gassed himself. It was stated at his inquest that he had been paying the rent through his nurse, the dancer's mother.

A hatchet found at the lodge was shown to match fairly accurately several notches that were found in the bones of the torso and remains found in the river. The pathologist said that it would have taken great strength to have cut up the body as it was found.

When the dancer was found gassed at Tower Lodge he was found lying on his bed in his pyjamas. He had left a note that read, 'Please help my darling mother, who has always done her best for me. I have not supported her as I should have done. I leave everything to her absolutely, except my clothes, which I bequeath to my friend in London'.

It was heard that newspapers were found in the car at the lodge dated 12, 13, 14 and 16 January 1938 and that they had carried stories of the finding of bloodstains, a glove and a shoe at Haw Bridge.

It was noted that the dancer had several properties that he drew rent from but it was later stated that he had been in financial difficulty.

His inquest stated that he had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. The Coroner said that he was quite satisfied that the dancer had taken his own life, noting that he had heard that he had had some domestic troubles, having separated from his wife, and did not appear to have been in work at the time. The Coroner returned the verdict, on 5 February 1938, that the dancer's death was due to carbon monoxide poisoning due to inhaling coal gas, self-administered, and that he took his own life whilst the balance of his mind was disturbed.

At the inquest in March 1938, it was heard that William Butt might have been run over by a car first.

The pathologist said that there was no indication of poison and said that bruises found on the remains had been caused shortly before death. He said that a bruise at the bottom of the back of the torso had resulted from considerable violence such as if he had been struck by a rapidly moving motor vehicle. He added that there were some more bruises higher up on the back that could have been produced in the same way.

The pathologist said that the torso had been roughly dismembered with a hatchet and suggested that the lifting of the torso over the parapet at Haw Bridge was much more likely to have been done by two people rather than one because of its weighed and because of the bricks attached to it. He said that if one person had lifted it over, then he would have expected a great deal more mess on the bridge.

A driver for a laundry said that he had been with his wife near Lockhampton Church at 11.30pm on the night of 8 January 1938 and said that he heard the sound of a gunshot come from the direction of Tower Lodge. He said, 'It sounded like a gun. My wife was with me at the time, and she was frightened. I told her it was a car back-firing, but at the time I thought it sounded like a gun-shot'.

The official description of William Butt was given as, 'William Bernard Butt retired as Captain from Worcester Regiment in November 1919, aged 52, 5ft 9ins, hair brown, turning grey, thick, believed parted on left side, long face, pale complexion, grey eyes, and rather large nose slightly turned up, full grey military moustache, clipped, probably artificial teeth, slim build, stooping shoulders, cultured speech, probably dressed in trilby hat, flat brim, and light tweed suit. Was last seen in Cheltenham at 10.40pm on January 4, 1938'. The official description of William Butt was also broadcast by the BBC.

William Butt had lived with his wife in Old Bath Road, Cheltenham along with the mother of the dancer who was a nurse. The dancer lived in London where he worked but would visit Cheltenham to see his mother and when he did so he would stay at Tower Lodge.

Although the jury had not identified the torso in their verdict, the police said that they were satisfied that the torso and remains were those of William Butt.

On 13 June 1938 the dancer's mother said that she believed that he had been killed because of the crimes of others and she was on a mission to prove it.

*map pointers are rough estimates based on known location details as per Place field above.

see www.bbc.co.uk

see Glouster Citizen

see Severn and Wye

see Adam Fresco. "Police investigate 1938 murder." Times [London, England] 3 Feb. 1994: 6. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 3 Mar. 2013.

see Leeds Mercury - Wednesday 06 April 1938

see Daily Herald - Wednesday 06 April 1938

see Daily Herald - Monday 13 June 1938

see The Scotsman - Friday 18 February 1938

see Shields Daily News - Monday 21 February 1938

see Aberdeen Press and Journal - Wednesday 30 March 1938

see The Scotsman - Wednesday 09 February 1938

see Western Morning News - Wednesday 09 February 1938

see Cheltenham Chronicle - Saturday 12 February 1938

see National Archives - Q/Y/4/9/3