Stranger Than Fiction
Arthur Conan Doyle and the Case of the Spurned Lover
by Dean Jobb
On a summer evening in 1863 a laborer named Reuben Conway was walking near Wigwell Hall, an estate about a dozen miles north of Derby in the English Midlands, when he heard someone moaning. A young woman emerged from the darkness, steadying herself against a stone wall. Her neck and the front of her dress were covered in blood.
“Take me home,” she implored him. “There is a gentleman down below who has cut my throat.” He recognized her. Elizabeth Caroline Goodwin—everyone called her Bessie—lived at the hall with her grandfather, Francis Goodwin, a magistrate and retired army officer. Conway put his arms around her and carried her about forty yards before they both collapsed.
He turned back and confronted a man who had been lurking in the shadows. It was Goodwin’s fiancé, George Victor Townley.
“I have stabbed her,” he confessed coolly. “She proved false to me.”
Conway asked for Townley’s help and they carried her towards the manor house until they both had to rest. Townley held a handkerchief to Goodwin’s wounds—he had slashed her throat three times—while Conway fetched a lantern and summoned a doctor and the police. When the laborer returned, they resumed carrying Goodwin. “Take me home,” she repeated. “I am dying. Lord have mercy on me.” Townley kissed her. “Poor Bessie,” he said several times.
They encountered two men who pitched in to help. Who did this?, one of them asked. “I have done it, there’s no question at all about that,” Townley said, “and I shall be hanged for it.”
By the time they reached Wigwell, Goodwin was dead. “Horrible Murder By a Gentleman,” screamed a headline in the Derby Mercury. The killing—“one of the most awful murders that stain the annals of crime,” in the estimation of one newspaper—was sensational enough to grab the attention of the London press. In Manchester, where Townley lived, the Guardian called it “shocking” and “lamentable.” The Wigwell Hall Tragedy, as it became known, “excited the utmost interest through the length and breadth of England,” Arthur Conan Doyle noted decades later. It was one of the most sensational British murder cases of the nineteenth century.
In 1901 the writer who revolutionized detective fiction chose the Goodwin-Townley case for a rare foray into writing true crime.
Most murders, Conan Doyle noted in The Strand Magazine, could be chalked up to one of two motives: “the lust of money and the black resentment of a disappointed love.” Crimes in the latter category, like Townley’s, were “more interesting,” he believed, “for they are subtler in their inception and deeper in their psychology.” And at the heart of the case was a mystery that would have tantalized his creation, the supersleuth Sherlock Holmes. Was Townley insane, provoked by passion, or a cold-blooded killer?
They had been engaged for four years. Goodwin, twenty-two when she died, was visiting an uncle who lived in Manchester, about fifty miles away, when she met Townley at a social gathering. He sometimes visited Wigwell but most of their contact was via letter. Goodwin helped to care for her grandfather, who was in his eighties, and her kindness and grace made her popular around Wigwell Hall and in the nearest village, Wirksworth. She “had all the makings of a duchess about her,” recalled one acquaintance, “in heart and mind and manners.” Townley, a few years older and the son of a businessman, possessed “a calm and gentle bearing,” noted one press report. “There was nothing impulsive or passionate in his character.” He was a fine musician with a flair for languages and no interest in the business world or joining his father’s marine-insurance agency. While his family was well off, his future—and his ability to support a spouse—were in doubt. “I know I am not a good match,” he admitted. Members of her family seemed to agree. “My letters are strictly watched, and even opened,” Goodwin complained in one note to her fiancé.
They continued to correspond despite the surveillance. In one letter, she mentioned a young clergyman who was staying at the hall. Soon after this, in August 1863, she told Townley her grandfather was pressuring her to break off their engagement so she could marry the clergyman. “I want you to release me that I may have it to say that I am free. Don’t take this too hardly, in pity for me.” She offered him some hope, either to soften the blow or to confirm her reluctance. “I shall not marry if I can help it.”
Townley’s mother and other witnesses said he was devastated by the news. He was unable to sleep, refused to eat, and drank too much brandy. He wrote back, begging Goodwin to meet him one last time. “I am not the man to stand in your way,” he promised. “I wish to hear from your own lips what your wishes are, and I will then accede to them.” He caught a train and turned up at Wigwell on the evening of August 21.
Goodwin met him at the door and they sat on a bench in the garden and talked for half an hour. Then they went for a walk through the estate and along adjacent roads. Townley never revealed what Goodwin said, but it may have become clear that she, too, wanted to break off the engagement. He pulled a knife from his pocket and attacked. She managed to stumble away until Reuben Conway found her and she was carried back to the hall.
“She has deceived me, and the woman who deceives me must die,” Townley told Captain Goodwin when they arrived, as if this somehow made sense of his granddaughter’s murder. He handed the blood-stained knife to the constable, who placed him under arrest. “I am far happier now that I have done it than before,” he told the policeman on the way to the local jail, “and I hope that she is.”
Townley stood trial that December in Derby. He had admitted stabbing Goodwin—“he openly gloried in it,” Conan Doyle noted—and this evidence alone was enough to support a conviction for murder. He had bought the pocketknife before leaving Manchester, suggesting the attack had been planned, and it was clear that he understood what he had done. Before his arrest, he handed Goodwin’s grandfather a bundle of letters she had sent to him. “You may read them, burn them, do what you like with them. I don’t wish them to be brought into court.”
Townley’s defense lawyers pleaded insanity. Witnesses described his erratic behavior in the hours before the killing. Relatives on his mother’s side had committed suicide or been locked up in asylums. A doctor who interviewed him in his cell was convinced he was insane and could not distinguish right from wrong. Goodwin “was promised to me,” Townley told the doctor, “and therefore she was mine. I could do what I liked with her.” It is not clear, at this distance, whether this was proof of madness or a comment rooted in the chauvinistic attitudes of the Victorian era.
The jury deliberated for just six minutes before finding him guilty. Judge Samuel Martin, who sentenced him to hang, believed he was sane but referred the case to the government for review. When a panel of medical experts confirmed he was of sound mind, Townley’s defense team invoked an obscure law that allowed local officials to declare him insane and transfer him to an asylum. His sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison. While Conan Doyle believed the outcome “satisfied, upon the whole, the conscience of the public,” he clearly had not done enough research. The reprieve ignited a firestorm of protest. Critics claimed the Townley family’s wealth and status enabled a guilty man to evade the noose. The Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, faced withering attacks in the newspapers and in the House of Commons. The government was forced to abolish the provision that had spared Townley’s life.
Townley, as it turned out, took matters into his own hands. In February 1865, eighteen months after he killed Goodwin, he jumped over a railing at Pentonville Prison in North London. He fell more than twenty feet to a stone floor, landed on his face, and died a few hours later. “Vengeance,” the Derby Mercury noted in its report of his suicide, “has done its awful work most terribly.”
When Conan Doyle wrote about the case almost forty years later, he changed the names of the ill-fated couple—to avoid the “possibility that pain might be inflicted” upon surviving relatives, he explained—and located the crime at a “secluded manor-house” somewhere in the Midlands. Townley became George Vincent Parker, Goodwin became Mary Groves, and the feature was headlined “The Love Affair of George Vincent Parker.” Conan Doyle need not have bothered; the case was so notorious, and had been resurrected in the press so often in the intervening years, that most Strand readers would have known who Groves and Parker were.
If Townley was sane, what had prompted him to kill? “Whether the dreadful idea was always there, or whether it came in some mad flash of passion provoked by their conversation,” Conan Doyle noted, “we shall never know.” A jilted lover, it appeared, had been “driven by jealousy and misery to a temporary madness of violence,” and Conan Doyle found this more troubling than the thought of Townley as a callous and calculating murderer. “None of us,” he warned, “is capable of saying how he might act if his affections and his self-respect were suddenly and cruelly outraged.”
Goodwin’s murder struck Conan Doyle as an example of how truth can be more implausible than fiction. “In fiction we make people say and do what we should conceive them to be likely to say or do,” he wrote, “but in fact they say and do what no one would ever conceive to be likely.” An exchange of polite letters before a murder. An assailant who came to his victim’s aid and tried to staunch the wounds he had inflicted. A killer who freely—almost boastfully—proclaimed his guilt to anyone within earshot. Employing such strange twists in a fictional story, Conan Doyle believed, was something “no human invention would hazard.”
The Strand commissioned a dozen true crime stories from Conan Doyle in 1901 but he only delivered the Goodwin-Townley case and two others. He seemed to prefer the neat fictional world of Sherlock Holmes to the messy real-life one. That August he resurrected Holmes in the pages of The Strand, in the first installment of the serialized novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. Holmes, killed off along with his arch enemy Moriarty in “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” published in 1893, was back. A new Holmes tale that featured a family curse, a ghostly killer dog, and an elaborate murder plot, it seems, struck Conan Doyle as the perfect antidote to trying to fathom the twisted psychology that transformed a spurned suitor into a murderer.
Award-winning author Dean Jobb’s next true crime book, A Gentleman and a Thief: The Daring Jewel Heists of a Jazz Age Rogue (Algonquin Books), will be released in June 2024. It’s the incredible story of Arthur Barry, who hobnobbed with the elite of 1920s New York while planning some of the most brazen jewel thefts in history. For more on this and his other books, find him at https://www.deanjobb.com.
Copyright © 2023 Dean Jobb