Date: 16 Sep 1953
Joan Maud Murray was found dead from an apparent coal gas poisoning suicide at her home at 72 Gauntley Street in Nottingham on 16 September 1953. However, the police thought that there were discrepancies in certain statements although no one was charged with her murder.
Her husband said, 'I know the police think I murdered her, but they say they can't prove it'. He said that although he told the inquest that he had found Joan Murray lying on her back in the kitchen clad only in her pyjamas, he said that it had been suggested that he had murdered her upstairs. He said that it was claimed that he was supposed to have carried her down the stairs and laid her on the kitchen floor at the side of the gas cooker where he later reported finding her on his return home from an afternoon visit to the cinema.
However, Joan Murray's husband added that 'people don't seem to realise that I loved my wife. We were married last October, and we were very happy. I wouldn't have done a thing to harm her. I was too fond of her to do anything like that'.
He added also that there was no gas supply upstairs and that the only gas fittings in the house were downstairs in the kitchen.
When Joan Murray's husband spoke at the inquest, he said that it was one of the worst ordeals of his life. He noted that if he was a little hesitant in some of his answers, it was because he drank a whole bottle of port just before going to the hearing. He said, 'I didn't drink it out of disrespect to anyone, but I have had such a trying time just lately that I felt I needed something to bolster up my morale'. It was said that to demonstrate that he tapped the side of his head with his hand.
He then said, 'I still think it was an accident. My wife had no reason for committing suicide'.
When he detailed finding her body, he said that when he opened the back kitchen door and saw his wife's legs lying just inside that he ran out to a workman nearby and shouted 'Gas, fetch an ambulance'. However, the Coroner said, 'So you mentioned gas, not knowing whether she had been gassed'. Joan Murray's husband then replied, 'Evidently. I was surprised to find my wife downstairs. I never really noticed gas at all'.
When the Coroner summed up he said, 'On the question of murder, the most suspicious aspect of the husband's evidence was that he may have mentioned gas without actually smelling it. It is a matter which casts very grave doubt and gives rise to a great deal of suspicion. I am still not certain in my own mind that it is absolutely conclusive whether, if this girl was in fact murdered, you know who did it'.
When the Coroner addressed the jury, he said, 'You may have very strong suspicions as to the cause of this young woman's death. And you may have very strong suspicions as to who is the person responsible. But on the evidence available to us at the moment you possibly feel a long way from being able to return a verdict of murder against a named person. If an open verdict is returned, it will allow the matter to be pursued further'.
An open verdict was then returned.
The City Ambulance received a call at 5.09pm on 16 September 1953 to call at 72 Gauntley Street and arrived two minutes later to find the body of Joan Murray dead in the kitchen.
When one of the ambulance crew later made a statement he said that he found the body of Joan Murray clothed in a vest, pyjamas and a white bed jacket and said that he particularly noticed that she was lying absolutely straight on her back with her legs and head towards the rear of the house and in the centre of a narrow space left in the scullery. He said that when he then examined her body, he formed the opinion that if Joan Murray was dead that she had only just died as her body was not cold, but cooling off and that her trunk was still warm.
He said that her body was then taken to the General Hospital where at 5.20pm a doctor pronounced her life to be extinct. The doctor noted that the parts of Joan Murray's body that were exposed were cool but said that he could not say for certain how long she had been dead.
The police were informed of Joan Murray's death at 5.40pm and they arrived at the house at 6.10pm. However, when they arrived, they found nothing about the house to arouse their suspicions that her death had been caused by anything of than suicide.
However, at 10am the following day, 17 September 1953, the Coroner, who noted that Joan Murray's mother had some three months earlier died under unusual circumstances, decided to call a pathologist and asked him to carry out a post mortem examination of Joan Murray's body and also requested that the police make close enquiry into the matter.
Joan Murray's husband gave evidence at the inquest detailing his finding of Joan Murray's body but he was also interviewed by the police on 18 September 1953.
In his statement, Joan Murray's husband said that he discovered Joan Murray's body at about 5pm and immediately shouted to some men that were working on land nearby to fetch an ambulance and give him some assistance.
The police report noted that the fact that Joan Murray's husband did in fact return home at the time he said and almost immediately after entering his house call for assistance was confirmed by a witness.
He gave a lengthy account of certain incidents concerning his imminent appearance before a Derby Court on a charge of arson and also of his wife's general physical and mental condition. He told the police also about finding a flexible steel tube that was lying across Joan Murray's body which was normally connected between a tap on the gas cooker and a gas copper, one end of which had been disconnected from the cooker, the disconnected end being that which he found lying across Joan Murray's body and the other end still connected to the copper, which it was noted, was of course not a source of gas supply.
It was noted that Joan Murray's husband said that the connecting tap on the cooker was turned on, but that no gas was coming out of it, a fact that was later also confirmed by another witness who said that they had to put a penny in the meter before the gas supply could be re-obtained.
Joan Murray's husband also stated that when he had entered the house that the living room door was wide open and that Joan Murray's body was lying on the scullery floor and that there was no cushion or other article underneath her. He mentioned that Joan Murray had had one or two dizzy spells in recent months and expressed the opinion that Joan Murray had lit the gas copper and had then become dizzy and, in falling to the floor, had pulled the flexible tube from its socket on the gas stove in an attempt to save herself from falling. He said that although Joan Murray had been worried about his forthcoming trial and also about a believed pregnancy, he had never heard her threaten to take her own life and felt certain that it must have been an accident.
The police said that they made extensive enquiries and interviewed a number of people but said that in no instance was any information forthcoming that would support any view that Joan Murray had committed suicide.
The police said that some corroboration of Joan Murray's husbands statement concerning Joan Murray's believed pregnancy was provided by two of Joan Murray's friends who said that a short time before she died, Joan Murray had told them that she had been ill through taking pills and other things in an attempt to terminate her supposed pregnancy. However, they added that Joan Murray had also informed them on the Sunday prior to her death that she had restarted her periods, adding that she had been very ill as a result.
The police report stated that Joan Murray's husband's account of her supposed pregnancy and its termination was that she had appeared very worried and that he had told her that he would, 'get some stuff' but that in actual fact he did not know anyone to get it from. The police report stated that Joan Murray's husband said that he thought that if Joan Murray was convinced that whatever he gave her would get rid of the baby, that it would actually start her periods naturally, and so on the night of 12 September 1953, as she was going to bed, he gave her a drink of hot milk in which he added some crushed Rennies (indigestion tablets) together with a bit of sugar and that she drank it, went to sleep, and that the following morning she told him she had started her periods.
Joan Murray's autopsy report shewed that her death was due to coal gas poisoning.
The police report stated additionally that some of Joan Murray's organs and stomach content was handed over to the Forensic Science Laboratory in Nottingham together with a quantity of pills and tablets that were found at 72 Gaunltey Street in order to rule out or establish any possibility that Joan Murray had been made unconscious with a drug before she died of coal gas poisoning. However, the result was negative.
The list of pills taken from 72 Gauntley Street was:
Joan Murray's husband was again seen at 6.15pm on Monday 28 September 1953 by the police at which time he was told that they had reason to believe that he knew far more about the circumstances of Joan Murray's death than he had disclosed and then pointed out various discrepancies in his story to him. However, the police said that despite the implication, Joan Murray's husband remained quite calm and at no time varied from his previous statement and, in fact, said, 'You have my statement. If that's what you think, then it is a matter for a jury to decide'.
When the inquest, which had been adjourned on 19 September 1953, resumed on 29 September 1953, the cause of death was given as being due to coal gas poisoning. However, it was noted that his opinion was particularly significant. Firstly, with regards to Joan Murray's believed pregnancy, the pathologist said that Joan Murray was most certainly not pregnant at death and that she had in fact been menstruating and had not been pregnant. He additionally said that he could find nothing organic likely to cause her to faint. He additionally said that from the doctor’s observations, he expressed the opinion that Joan Murray had been dead for three or more hours before the doctor examined her.
The pathologist also said, 'With regard to the question of accident, in the first place it would have to be a very long drawn out faint for this girl to have lain unconscious on the floor and for her to have inhaled sufficient gas to continue her unconscious state. I should have thought normally that she would have come round from the faint before there was a concentration sufficient to continue her unconsciousness. Secondly, she was a tall girl, 72 1/2in and this is an extremely confined space crowded with kitchen utensils and I am considerably surprised that if this was a faint there was no bruising or abrasions due to contact with either the furniture or the floor. In the third place, when a body collapses, the natural tendency is for it to fall in flexion, the knees give way first and the whole body crumples up making it an unlikely but not impossible position to fall upon the back. For the reasons I mention, I consider accidental death by a faint and a fall ruled out. There were no bruises either external or internal. A person can be voluntarily subjected to gas but not unwillingly unless subjected to restraint'.
At the conclusion of the inquest, the Coroner returned an open verdict.
The police report went on to note the recent death of Joan Murray's mother who died on 17 June 1953. She was a 45-year-old widow who had been living with Joan Murray and her husband at the time. She was found lying on the hearth of the living toom at 72 Gauntley Street suffering from head injuries from which she died in hospital later the same day. She had suffered from head injuries consistent with a fall and hitting her head on the kerb surrounding the fireplace and it was thought that she had been standing on a chair to reach for an iron on a shelf and that the iron had fallen on her head and she had over-balanced and fallen onto the kerb.
At her inquest, the Coroner, who was sitting without a jury, returned the verdict that Joan Murray's mother died from contusion of the brain following head injuries accidentally sustained in her home.
It was noted that in the case of Joan Murray's mother's death that she had been in the house with Joan Murray's husband at the time and that he was the only person who could give any real evidence as to what had transpired prior to the arrival of the neighbours.
It was further noted that Joan Murray's husband had several convictions recorded against him in respect of offences that included shop breaking and larceny. It was also heard that on 8 October 1953 that he had appeared before the Derby Borough Quarter Sessions charged with three offences of arson at his place of employment, the British Celanese Works in Spondon. It was noted that although the damage in all only amounted to approximately £27, evidence was given of the serious threat at the time to millions of pounds worth of plant. He was convicted of the charges and four other offences of stealing parts from motorcycles at the Spondon works were admitted by him and taken into consideration.
It was also heard that no satisfactory explanation for his committing he offences could be found and at the time the report was written, the Learned Recorder had remanded him in custody until the following Derby Quarter Sessions for a medical report.
The police noted that Joan Murray's husband had served in the Royal Air Force from 7 May 1946 to 16 September 1947 when he was discharged after having been convicted by a civil court of felony, when he was sentenced at the Preston Quarter Sessions for shopbreaking.
He later joined the RASC on 24 October 1947 with whom he served until 26 December 1950 when he was discharged as permanently unfit for any form of military service on account of psychopathic personality with emotional abnormality. It as noted that his condition could not be regarded as either attributable to or aggravated by service in the Forces and no pension was granted.
It was noted that following Joan Murray's death that her husband had been associating with a girl who was by then in effect living with him, but there was no evidence to support any suggestion that they had been anything more than friendly prior to Joan Murray's death.
Nothing further was developed in the case, but the files were filed under 'Murder (suspected)' by the Nottingham City Police.
see National Archives - DPP 2/2306
see Daily Herald - Thursday 01 October 1953
see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Wednesday 30 September 1953
see Daily Mirror - Wednesday 30 September 1953