Death In Disguise: The Amazing True Story of the Chelsea Murders
– Gary Powell
A short but powerful book, well worth a read for both history and crime fans.
Death In Disguise tells the terrible, true story of the elderly Reverend Elias Huelin and his house keeper, Ann Boss, who were murdered in Chelsea in 1870. After providing a brief history of the area, Powell uses a wealth of official records and testimonies to provide a near minute-by-minute account of the murder, cover up and trial – bringing what is possibly the most gruesome and shocking event in Chelsea’s history vividly to life.
There is something curiously poignant about the fact that these murders occurred in Victorian London, only a handful of years before those of the infamous Jack the Ripper – and it is a poignancy that is not lost on Powell. This was an event that shook a peaceful, affluent community to its core, and Powell is keen to emphasize the emotional and psychological impact it had on the families involved. This is a theme that he handles sensitively, both throughout the book and in an especially powerful epilogue. While I myself would have advised against presenting the names of those involved as a ‘List of Characters’ at the start (it risks sensationalising the story as a work of Gothic fiction), on the whole the story and its victims are treated with the gravity and humanity they deserve.
The first half of the book details the final few days of Elias and Ann, the confusion surrounding their apparent ‘disappearance’, the discovery of their bodies and the arrest of a mysterious person later revealed to be Walter Millar, a plasterer employed by Elias. This is told with great skill, as Powell has woven together various witness accounts to present a coherent and detailed picture, so that when the reader arrives at the trial they are well-acquainted with the people, locations and sequence of events.
Where Powell excels, though, is actually in what he doesn’t say – he never explicitly states whether or not he believes Walter Millar murdered Elias and Ann. Instead, he places that responsibility firmly on the reader’s shoulders. We are rapidly, and perhaps reluctantly, transported back to the two-day trial in July 1870 and asked, before Powell reveals what happened, to say whether we find Millar innocent or guilty. As Powell makes abundantly clear to us, to find him guilty would be to send him to the gallows. We are therefore asked to play God, having been given access to as much information as was available to the jury at the time (with the only disadvantage being our inability to see the witnesses and the accused ourselves). Was the evidence against Millar so strong that it out-weighed all that was unexplained – the lack of a murder weapon, the confused motive, the elaborate and (let’s be honest) ridiculous disguise adopted? Ultimately, Powell is asking, when a man’s life is placed in our own mortal hands, how certain must we be of his guilt before we condemn him to death?
I am still sat here trying to decide what I think. A sign, in my opinion, of a good book (and also that I am probably not cut out for jury duty).
You can order a copy of Death In Disguise here.