Sunday, 5 March 2017

Murder in Cold Blood - A Belgian Widow Accuses England

Wandsworth Prison, Wikimedia Commons

The strange account of a felon who became the victim and centre of an intense anti-capital punishment campaign masterminded by a wealthy Belgian widow.

Leonard Brigstock was obsessed with a passion for the macabre, manifesting in horrible, blood-filled dreams that drove him crazy. Brigstock had joined the Navy at seventeen years old, and at thirty-three, on Saturday 19 January 1935, he brutally slit the throat of Chief Petty Officer Hubert Sidney Deggan, aged thirty-six. What was particularly unsavoury about this murder was that it took place while the victim was sleeping on the gunnery training ship, HMS Marshal Soult, which was then berthed in Chatham Dockyard.

Previously, Brigstock had been in the King William public house drinking and playing darts. He left at 2.15 to return to his home in Nelson Road. Then, although he was on leave, he decided to return to the ship, where he waited till Deggan had gone for a nap in the mess room.

It was a vicious attack. The head of the CPO was almost severed from his body. Afterwards, Brigstock, coolly, went to a shipmate to report what he'd done. It was almost as though he was proud of himself. "I have cut the CPO's throat," he said, handing the man the dripping razor.

Later, it emerged that the mad stoker's motive was revenge. He had been reported for three disciplinary offences by the murdered man. Apart from these issues, his record was good and he was described as "conscientious." The offences involved negligence, such as absence and drinking tea at the wrong time and place, and were said to be of a "very serious nature."

Mitigating Circumstances - Insanity and the Devil's Mate

So why did Brigstock attract the concern of the wealthy widow, Mrs. Violet Van der Elst?
The stoker had experienced a traumatic life, suffering from the death of his first wife. Insanity ran in his family, as his grandfather died in a lunatic asylum and his niece was in a mental home. His childhood was disturbed by his father's violent attacks on the family. Brigstock, too, was often violent and once tried to cut his brother's wrist with a knife.

Some of Brigstock's dreams involved his dead wife. He saw her on the side of the ship trying to get away from an enormous figure - this was the Devil's mate. When he tried to save her he was choked and beaten by the evil, black figure.

A month later at the Kent Assizes, Brigstock denied malicious and wilful murder, pleading insanity. His plea was rejected and the jury found the ship's stoker guilty. Donning his black cap, the judge pronounced the death sentence and a subsequent appeal was unsuccessful. Brigstock's last hope was a reprieve which never happened. He was tried at Maidstone on 19 February 1935 by Judge Lord Chief Justice Lord Hewart and sentenced to hang on Tuesday 2 April 1935 at Wandsworth in London.

Mrs. Van der Elst Causes a Riot 

On the day of the execution at Wandsworth, there was almost a riot outside the prison. Brigstock's case had been taken up by the widow of a Belgian shaving-cream magnate, Mrs. Violet Van der Elst. The wealthy widow waged an anti-capital punishment campaign from her Kensington home, having organised a petition totalling 65,000 signatures in favour of a reprieve. She maintained Brigstock was insane; therefore he should not hang.

Mrs. Van der Elst was unsuccessful and Brigstock was executed despite the widow's protests that an innocent man was to be hanged. There was a fairground atmosphere on the day of the execution. Planes zoomed overhead trailing banners STOP THE DEATH SENTENCE, while women prayed and men trundled around with sandwich boards saying STOP CAPITAL PUNISHMENT. Excited crowds milled outside the prison gates reading leaflets against capital punishment. Someone shouted, "England is about to commit another murder in cold blood."

The hangman was Robert Baxter assisted by Robert Watson, who ensured that the trap dropped beneath Leonard Brigstock at 9.00am that April morning. His death was reported as being instantaneous. At least, in some respects, society was beginning to become more enlightened about punishment and compassion since the darker days of Georgian and Victorian Britain.


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