Chess and the Wallace Murder Case by Edward Winter

The Julia Wallace murder case has fascinated writers such as Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers and P.D. James. It evokes a forgotten world of insurance collectors and the insecure respectability of middle-class life. It also confronts us with the mystery of what goes on in other peoples’ heads. It has the trickiness of an optical illusion. Looked at in one way only William Wallace could have murdered his wife Julia Wallace, looked at in another way he is the only person who could not have murdered her. The murder has a literary quality, it reminds us of those murder mysteries  that came with a sketch map of the area. Like those detective stories we have some exact times thanks to the reliability of the tram service. Another fascination is the character of William Wallace. It easy to visualise how his contemporaries reading about him in newspapers might see him as a sinister figure. He read books by Roman Philosophers, he played chess. Surely he was a criminal genius. But he was rubbish at chess (he could beat me any day of the week, I am also rubbish at chess)  and but for the totally unpredictable coincidence that a witness  saw  Julia Wallace alive at a fairly exact time he would have been hanged.   People divide into two groups: the ones who say Wallace did it, and those who say he did not kill his wife. I mostly think he didn’t do.. William Wallace who was born in Cumbria lived in Blackpool as a child. During his time in Blackpool he contracted typhoid. This is my excuse for including the story. That and the fact that it is the empress of real life murder mysteries.

The Mysterious Mr Qualtrough: William Herbert Wallace, 1931 by Mark John  Maguire - YouTube

In 1911 William Wallace met Julia Wallace in Harrogate and they married three years later. William Wallace and Julia Wallace must have looked an odd couple. He was six foot two, a foot taller than his wife Julia. On her marriage certificate she had claimed to be seventeen years younger than her actual age. One of the mysteries about the case is whether William Wallace was aware of this. I believe he was. Julia claimed that she had a wealthy, distinguished family. This may account for her estrangement from her brothers and sisters who did not attend her wedding or her funeral. William Wallace does not seem to have known she had brothers and sisters. William was tall frail and thin. Surprisingly as a young man he had enjoyed sport and the outdoor life.  He had worked abroad in India and China but his health forced him to return to England.   He  worked as an official in the Liberal Party. After he lost this job because of the War he worked for the Prudential Insurance Company where his job was to collect weekly subscriptions. William had studied chemistry and had been so well thought of that he was employed as a lecturer’s assistant. He was also interested in philosophy. He admired the Roman Stoics. Stoic philosophy suggests that we should seek to overcome emotional states such as pride and fear which impair our judgement. William was an enthusiastic chess player but was not outstanding. He worked for the Prudential Insurance Company where he collected subscriptions. He was regarded as honest and reliable. He is often portrayed as cold and aloof but he had friends and interests and social skills. This vision of a tall man with intellectual pretensions and a snobbish wife bring to mind Basil and Sybil Fawlty. Pictures of them give the impression of a gangling man somehow not quite at home in the world and a woman dressed in the fashion of twenty years earlier. Julia looks attractive and anxious, we do not know when the picture was taken but I would guess it is considerably before 1931. That is not to say they were not happy. Neighbours say that they were a happy loving couple and they had interests in common including music which they played together. They were a middle class couple, well off enough to employ a cleaner one day a week, and William had a job at a time of high unemployment. And so they would have continued a happy well adjusted unremarkable couple except that something happened. Liverpool in 1931 was a different place. The buildings were blackened, the docks were busy, houses were lit by gas mantles, people went about their business by tram. The Depression was under way and fear was in the air.  On a more domestic level at 29 Wolverton Road in the Anfield district of Liverpool William Wallace was going to his chess club. He had been unwell and missed previous meetings. After he arrived at the Chess Club he was told that there was a message for him. A person called R. M. Qualtrough had called to say he wished to make an insurance arrangement and asked Mr Wallace to call at 25 Menlove Gardens East at 7.30 the next day. The chess club captain Samuel Beattie had spoken to the telephone caller firmly insisted that he sounded nothing like William Wallace. The following day after tea William Wallace set out to meet Mr Qualtrough at 6.45pm on Tuesday 20 January, 1931. What followed seems exceedingly odd because in the course of his tram journey he asked no fewer than eleven people including tram conductors and a policeman where Menlove Gardens East was.  Menlove Gardens East does not exist. The Police would regard this behaviour as suspicious. It was as if William Wallace were establishing an alibi. William Wallace returned home at 8.45pm. He could not open his door. His neighbour John Johnston had a key and offered to try to open the door. William Wallace tried again and the door opened. His neighbours waited at the door. William Wallace came back and said:”Oh come and see she’s been killed.” Julia Wallace had been killed by a series of tremendous blows which had exposed her brain. A box containing about £4.00 insurance money had been forced open and the money taken. An iron bar was missing. A professor of forensic pathology was called and gave differing times for the death. Together with a Police Surgeon and using the onset of rigor mortis, the least reliable method, they agreed that the time of death was 8.00 pm. Julia had been struck from behind. There were no signs of a break in. This means that she must have let the murderer in or that the murderer had a key or that the lock had failed. The fact that she had her back to the killer might suggest that she knew him. There was a good deal of blood at the scene but no trace of blood on William Wallace or on his clothes.  A small amount of money had been taken. Suspicion was aroused by William Wallace’s demeanour which was calmer than investigators expected. This may have been because of his stoic attitude. The Police appear to have pondered for a good while before acting. William Wallace was arrested on February 2nd 1931. There were two aspects of the case which aroused interest. One was the telephone call to the Chess Club. Because the caller had made a mistake in making the call the actual call could be traced to a public telephone box four hundred yards from 29 Wolverton Street and its time was known. The phone call was made close to the time when William Wallace was leaving for his chess club. It seems unlikely that William Wallace would make the phone call, he was well known in the area and could easily have been recognised.  But if William Wallace did not make the call was it somebody who was following him?  Who else could have known he was going to the chess club that he only attended infrequently?   The second aspect was the timing of the murder. A milk delivery boy called Allan Close had seen Julia Wallace at a time between 6.30 and 6.45 pm.  A separate witness had checked the time on a church clock and had seen Allan Close two or three minutes later.  This would have given a time of 6.37 or 6.38.  Allan Close actually spoke to Julia so that apart from the killer he may have been the last person to see her alive. The time frame was crucial.  William Wallace was seen on a tram at 7.11.  The Police estimated that the latest time he could have left the house was 6.49.  William Wallace said that he left the house at 6.45.  Taking the narrowest time frame the question is: could William Wallace have bludgeoned his wife to death, had a bath (no blood was found on his body or his clothing) feigned a robbery  in seven minutes?   William Wallace would also have to dispose of the murder weapon and the stolen money which was only about £4.00. William Wallace was arrested. Interestingly his trade union staged a mock trial at which the evidence was reviewed, he was unanimously found innocent and the union paid for his defence which was a considerable help to William Wallace. The trial began on Wednesday 22 April. Unexpectedly the jury found William Wallace guilty at the trial. William Wallace’s lack of expressed emotion and also the fact that he was an intellectual and a chess-player must have had some part in giving the impression of an evil genius meticulously setting up a false alibi. On Saturday 25 April William Wallace found himself looking at a judge putting on his black silk cap and telling him he was to be hanged. He showed little emotion. At the appeal his defence would say that some members of the jury had been aggressive and hostile . There was hostility to William Wallace. One story circulating in Liverpool was that he had committed the murder naked but for his mackintosh to avoid bloodstains on his clothing. At Walton Prison William Wallace was dressed in the special gray uniform of people who are about to hang. The execution date was set for 12 May. An appeal followed. William Wallace walked into the Appeal Court a man condemned to death and he walked out a free man. He made use of his unexpected free evening in London to go to the theatre with his brother. The Appeal Court said that the evidence did not meet the requirements for a guilty verdict. It is hard to imagine the state of mind of William Wallace. If he was innocent he had set out to work one Tuesday, then he had come back to find his wife had been brutally murdered, then he had been arrested for her murder, and sentenced to death and now, at a time after the original date set for his execution he had walked in Appeal Court under sentence of death and he walked out an innocent man free to do as he liked. He carried on working for the Pru. Some customers, colleagues and neighbours treated him as if he were guilty. He settled cases with newspapers out of court which left him quite well off. He was able to move to the Wirral and continue his work at the Pru. He was moved to a clerical position out of contact with the public to avoid hostility. His health had always been frail. He only had one kidney and he fell ill and died on the 26 February 1933.

DID WILLIAM WALLACE MURDER JULIA WALLACE? Well of course he might have done. But  the probability is that he did not. This puts me at odds with some of the sharpest brains. P D James thinks he was guilty. Her argument is that we make a mistake in regarding the telephone call as connected to the murder. It was a malicious act to inconvenience William Wallace and was not part of a murderous plot. Everybody has assumed that the phone-call was from the killer but if it was not then William Wallace could be the killer.  P D James thinks that Gordon Parry made the phone call maliciously. If this were the case then William Wallace could have been the killer but the lack of evidence, the lack of motivation and the difficulty over timing all indicate that William Wallace’s guilt is only a possibility.  I find it difficult to believe that William Wallace could set up such an elaborate plot.  If he killed his wife but, as P D James suggests, was unaware that the phone-call was a hoax by Gordon Parry that seems to involve rather a lot of coincidences.  It  isn’t impossible that a man kills his wife and attempts to set up an alibi by attending a meeting which unknown to him has been set up maliciously, but it does stretch belief.  My reading of William Wallace’s character is that he was not overly-concerned whether he lived or died, he knew his life was limited in any case, he simply would not bother to go through so much elaborate pretence to prolong a life he did not value much anyway.   Also he does not show a trace of the imagination needed to invent plausible names like R.M. Qualtrough and Manlove Gardens East.  BUT…  the thing I find oddest about William Wallace is his diction.  When he returned home after his unsuccesful search for Menlove Gardens East he says to his neighbour: “Have you heard anything unusual tonight?” and then he goes on:” I have been out this evening since a quarter to seven and on my return I find the front and back doors locked against me.” Did people really speak like that? Wallace seems to speak in this curious over- elaborate way.  When he speaks to a Policeman earlier in the evening he says: “I’ve been to Menlove Gardens West but the person I am looking for does not live there.  I’ve also been to Menlove Gardens North and South but the numbers are all even.  You see, I’m an insurance agent, and I’m looking for Mr Qualtrough.  He rang up the club and left a message for me with my colleague to call on him at 25, Menlove Gardens East.” However odd this sounds if PD James is right and the phone-call was a hoax by another party, probably Gordon Parry, then William Wallace was genuinely looking for the address and that was just  the way he spoke.

ALTERNATIVE SUSPECTS GORDON PARRY The main alternative suspect is Gordon Parry who died in the 1970s. At the time he had been shifty character who had worked with William Wallace and was familiar with the Wallace Household. He may have blamed William Wallace for drawing attention to discrepancies in his financial dealings with the Pru. If he had called Julia would have let him in. He says he visited Julia Wallace when William Wallace was not there. William Wallace was not aware of this. It seems unlikely that a twenty-two year old was having an affair with a sixty nine year old but many things that are unlikely happen. Gordon Parry, on the night of the murder, drove to an all-night garage run by acquaintances. He told him to clean his car. He had a blood-soaked mitten and he said to the man cleaning the car: “That could hang me.” Gordon Parry’s family was well connected. He was originally a suspect and William Wallace appeared to think he was guilty. He had a record of petty crime and was accused of attacking a woman, but the case was dropped. He was an enthusiastic amateur actor and could easily change accents and also he was in the habit of ringing up strangers. He also asked his girl friend to give him an alibi and she obliged and later retracted. However even her original alibi did not cover the time of the murder. In Gordon Parry’s defence it has to be said that his alibis taken together to cover the time of the crime. At one of his interviews with the police he said that William Wallace was “sexually abnormal.” He meant that William Wallace was gay. This may have been an attempt to prejudice investigators against William Wallace and draw attention away from Gordon Parry.  Irrespective of whether he was guilty or not Gordon Parry was an unscrupulous character and a capable actor and he used the same building that William Wallace used for his Chess Club.  One has a sense that he enjoyed hinting that he knew more about the crime than he was telling, of course this does not mean that he was guilty.

THE JOHNSTONS Possible suspects were the neighbours, John and Florence Johnston who were not thoroughly investigated. They had a key to the Wallace home and went in and fed the cat when the Wallaces were on holiday. John  Johnston died in a nursing home, he suffered from dementia. The journalist and crime-writer Tom Slemen claimed that he confessed to the crime. According to his reported story John Johnston his wife had kidnapped the Wallace’s cat, Puss, as a means of luring Julia away from the house to burgle the home. They were under the impression that Julia had gone with William on the Tuesday Evening because they saw her in a mackintosh with William at the back gate. They entered the house and began to search for the money that they were convinced was hidden there. As they were doing that they suddenly realised that they were being watched. Julia Wallace had not gone out and witnessed them ransacking her house. Mr Johnston killed her with the jemmy he had been using. The nature of this evidence (that is that it is reported at third hand from a dying person with dementia) detracts from its value . One detail chimes with something that we know to be true. The cat was missing and it did return. This is such a minor detail that only somebody acquainted with the case would have known.

OTHER THEORIES There are other theories, one is that  either William Wallace  or Gordon Parry acted in collusion with others. Both seem unlikely.  Gordon Parry was more likely than William Wallace to ring up the Chess Club in the guise of R M Qualtrough. If William Wallace rang the Chess Club he would have had to speak to somebody he knew and who firmly denied that R M Qualtrough was William Wallace. We know nothing to suggest that William Wallace had the ability and confidence to speak to somebody he knew in the guise of another person and this is the weakest link in the case that Wallace was the killer.  Possibly the killer is somebody unknown. The lock failed on the door, it seems to have been unreliable, and a passing stranger walked in and began to search for valuables. When he saw Mrs Wallace he panicked and hit her.

If William Wallace was the killer the “elaborate plot” is an illusion.  He had no way of knowing that by complete coincidence a witness was able to provide an almost exact time when Julia Wallace was still alive.  Julia Wallace is an enigma.  She was estranged from most of her family, misrepresented her background and took seventeen years off her age.

The theories, remember that many of the most distinguished commentators have been literary figures, arise because of the popularity of mystery crime novels which  require elaborate plots and enigmatic characters.  Either Wallace killed his wife or he didn’t.  If he did it is by chance and not by elaborate planning that he escaped.  If he didn’t it could be that we will never know the circumstances.

I do not see William Wallace as the kind of person who could carry out a complex pretence.  The acting around the telephone call to the chess club seems to me quite out of William’s capability.  He had no history of violence and no motive.

Suspicions around William focus on his odd emotional responses.  Maybe that was because he was odd.   If he did do it  he is buried with his victim.  Anything can happen but I think Wallace’s character and the time scale argue against his guilt.

Further reading The following book recapitulates much of the earlier work. The  cover looks like the cover of a murder mystery from the thirties.  It was some time before I realised it was an actual photograph of the crime scene.

The Murder of Julia Wallace James Murphy

The Murder of Julia Wallace
James Murphy