* Murder at Birch *
8th December, nineteen forty three. A Tiptree policeman, unnamed, found a taxi cab abandoned in Haynes Green Road, Layer Marney. There was strong evidence of a struggle and the car had been parked on the wrong side of the road. Its lights had all been left on and there was no sign of the driver of the vehicle. Upon further investigation it was discovered that the drivers name was Harry C Hailstone. Further to their investigations the police also found out that Harry had called at his landlady’s in Colchester at eleven o’clock the previous evening informing her that he would not be in for supper as he had two coloured servicemen who wanted to be taken to Birch.
This was the last time that Harry C Hailstone was ever seen alive again by his landlady. He was found dead two days later in a ditch by Birch Rectory. He had been murdered and no, it had nothing to do with Margery Allingham or one of her novels. Initially, there seemed to be three possible motives for the murder: robbery, an argument over the fare or the passengers or thirdly the passengers tried “biking” the fare (running away without paying). The first motive was easily dismissed as the victim’s wallet, with all his cash, was still on his body although it was obvious that his murderer had gone through it. An inquest was called for where it was established that self strangulation or accidental death were both ruled out as being highly unlikely. There was also distinct evidence of violence around the scene of the crime.
It was reported in local newspaper, The Essex County Standard of 21st January 1944 that two coloured US soldiers had both been accused of the murder of H.C. Hailstone at a court martial in Ipswich. The local paper went on to say that the case was unique in that the two accused men were tried by separate courts and that this was conducted in two adjoining rooms.
The two men were Private J.C. Leatherberry and Private George Fowler. It was Fowler who, after a twelve hour sitting, was found guilty of murder. Fowler was sentenced to life imprisonment, “confinement to prison with hard labour for life”.
The case had a twist though. A blood stained mackintosh was found six miles away on the main road leading to Tollesbury. The label inside the coat had a Canadian maker’s name in it and also the owner’s name. The owner was traced to Sussex where he was identified and interviewed by the Sussex police. He was a Canadian Captain who had been stationed at the 18th Canadian General Hospital, Cherry Tree Camp, Colchester on the 5th December. Whilst returning to camp via Liverpool Street Station in London, he had met with a black US Sergeant. The American had invited him back for a drink. He had, good naturedly, gone along and whilst there asked to use the WC. When he returned the Sergeant had gone along with a bottle of whiskey and his mackintosh. The coat had contained five pound notes, a Rolex watch, a torch and a pair of gloves.
The Canadian officer had been robbed. Not only that but also by default, implicated in the murder.
Fortunately for the Canadian his story was corroborated. A US soldier had seen another US soldier wearing a light raincoat while making a telephone call out side a pub in Messing. The same soldier had also witnessed the coloured soldier climb into a cab. Other evidence came to light that proved the Canadian’s innocence. When Fowler’s testimony was investigated much of it didn’t hold up and so the police did a thorough search of his billet. They found a soldiers blouse with sergeant’s stripes on it along with a pawn ticket for a Rolex watch.
Fowler denied stealing the watch or trying to pawn it but the evidence against him was mounting and he started to show the strains of guilt. Finally, the truth came tumbling out. Fowler admitted to having taken the Canadian’s raincoat as a gift but claimed the pockets had been empty. He said that he had caught a bus back to Birch where he met with another soldier. Seeing as he was already two days overdue on his pass they two American’s decided to go to London. The pair returned to Colchester a few days later and although both had been drinking heavily, neither of them was drunk. Upon Leatherberry’s suggestion they hired a taxi to return to Birch. They stopped briefly at Hailstone’s lodgings before driving on to Birch. Fowler asked Hailstone to pull over on the pretext of needing to urinate and while he was doing this Leatherberry over powered Hailstone and killed. Together, Leatherberry and Fowler carried the body to the ditch where they threw the corpse in.
Leatherberry was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to death and was executed at Shepton Mallet on the 16th May 1944.
Fowler was returned to The United States of America where he served his life sentence.
Harry C Hailstone’s murder was the third tragedy to afflict the Hailstone family during the Second World War His mother and brother were the first victims when their home was bombed during a German air raid.
The case was investigated by Superintendent Totterdell of the Essex CID who would later write a book about the affair. The book was entitled “Country Copper.”
With grateful thanks to Geoff Russell Grant and The Centenary Chronicles number 13.
all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.