Monday, 21 January 2013

Bloody Murder on a Barge

River Medway from Strood, Photo by Janet Cameron

Albert Baker, aged twenty-eight, was the skipper of a barge called the East Anglia, which was owned by the London and Rochester Trading Co. Walter "Ginger" Smith, a little older at thirty-three, was his mate and they were old friends, having shared a school and similar childhood in Strood. Their first trip as barge-mates was in October, 1937, but tragically, this voyage was not to be repeated. Their friendship seemed to be a case of "opposites attract", Albert being a cheerful soul and Walter Smith rather reticent and often depressed.

Albert had been separated from his wife and was staying with his mother, father and married sister in Gordon Road. He was from a river-going family, and had even been in a film, Captain Bull, which was made in the Medway area.

Albert played the leader of a gang of smugglers, and was actually offered further work, but he preferred to be a waterman. In general, he was a pleasant, well-balanced young man. Things were very different for Walter Smith. With an alcoholic father, a mother who suffered from epilepsy, and an aunt who'd met her death in an asylum, Walter had nothing like Albert's background advantages. Despite these difference, or maybe because of them, the two young men were said to behave like brothers.

A Pistol and an Empty Wallet

On Thursday 21 October, The East Anglia docked at Felixstowe with a cargo of barley. Albert and Walter were seen drinking together on the quayside Pier Hotel the following day, around noon. Then the two men returned to the barge. The following day, dockhands made a shocking discovery. Baker lay dead in his cabin on his back, having been shot once in the left temple and twice in the chest, presumably by the long-barelled pistol lying nearby. It seemed he'd also been robbed because his empty wallet was found beside his pillow.

A Likely Story

That evening, at the British Lion pub, Smith was found drinking by the police who informed him his good friend was dead. He made no response except to request to be allowed to finish his drink, then he was taken to the police station, where he made his first mistake. "You say he was shot dead?" he enquired. But the police had not told him how Albert had died. That evening, Walter Smith said he'd last seen Albert alive the evening before and that he'd been arguing with a woman. She was Albert's girlfriend and her name was Scottie. However, Scottie was not the best person for Smith to try to implicate if he wanted to shift suspicion from himself. Scottie was able to prove she'd been in London the whole weekend.

On Sunday, Smith's situation deteriorated even further. He told the polcie that he and Albert were drinking in the pub on Friday, but on returning to the barge, the two of them had argued and Albert pulled a gun on him. They struggled and the gun went off. The big question here is how a gun could "accidentally" go off three times! Especially as that sort of gun had to be reloaded for each shot. Walter Smith was digging himself a pit and he was digging himself in deeper and deeper. Even stranger, he had worn the dead man's suit the previous Friday evening while treating all the pub's customers to a drink. Did the money come from the empty wallet under Albert's pillow?

Alcoholic Insanity

The trial took three days and was held at Ipswich Assizes. His defending counsel, Mr. Boileau, did not attempt to dispute the fact Smith had fired the lethal shot, but claimed his client suffered from alcoholic insanity. Smith denied that he could recall firing the shots and his sister, Beatrix Rix, confirmed that after her brother had a drink, he didn't know what he was doing.

Pollice Inspector Bevan from Maidstone described a previous incident involving Walter Smith. In a drunken state, the accused had entered his police station around seven years previously. He'd presented the police with a carving knife, claiming he'd just stabbed a man in the back. He was found to be lying and the only charge against him was for the theft of the knife. The policeman had been summoned by the defence to help prove that Walter Smith was unstable. He claimed he did not find Smith insane, but of sub-normal mentality and that the excess of alcohol imbibed by the prisoner contributed to his condition. Thus, he had "alcoholic insanity". Another doctor was called who labelled Smith's condition as "acute alcoholism".

The Prosecution disputed all of this, for their doctor, from Norwich Prison, said he could find no evidence of insantiy. A Dr. Grierson, from Brixton Prison, put forward his opinion that Smith's long wild periods of intense fury could make him commit violence but retain no memory of it. However, the judge had a very pertinent point to make, that going through the motions of loading and unloading a pistol hardly constituted a period of wild frenzy. Dr. Grierson agreed, and so Walter Smith's fate was sealed. It took the jury forty minutes to pronounce Walter Smith guilty. It is recorded that Walter Smith flinched but stayed calm.

I Must Have Gone Off My Head

There was an appeal but this was dismissed on on 8 March, Walter Smith was hanged at Norwich Prison. Before he died, Smith still insisted that he'd committed that terrible crime in a wild rage without knowing he'd done it - but the fact remained, how could you load a pistol three times while in a wild and abandoned frenzy?

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