Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Murder of Elizabeth Benjamin, Maryhill 1921

Glasgow in the 20s
Monday 31st October 1921

14 year old Elizabeth Benjamin was a door-to-door salesgirl selling handkerchiefs, blouses, and lace employed by her elderly father to collect orders and payments from customers in Scoustoun and Whiteinch. She carried her wares in a small black suitcase and her payments in a red leather purse.
On Halloween 1921 she set out from her home at 1 North Elgin Street, Clydebank, on her usual weekly round of customers, calling first at houses in Scotstoun and then on to her Whiteinch round in the afternoon. 

Glasgow in the 20s

At approximately 3pm she visited a house in a tenement at 67 George St, she collected a small amount of money as a part-payment and then left to visit the the house across the street at No.88. At this house she mentioned to the occupant that her business had been slow today and that her next house call was in nearby Dumbarton Road. Elizabeth never made it to the next house.

Just before 7am the following morning, a resident at 67 George Street was at her kitchen sink which overlooked the back court. She thought she could make out the shape of a young boy lying on the ground against a stone wall. It was the battered body of Elizabeth Benjamin. The resident immediately raised the alarm.

Two women in the back court in the east end of George St in 1955

Elizabeth was dressed in a brown overcoat, blue dress and black long-legged boots. Although there appeared to be very little blood on the ground around the body, Elizabeth's head  had been bludgeoned and  a large wound ran across her forehead and down the side of her nose. Her hands were lifted above her head and tied together with rope at the wrists. Detectives later discovered that the rope used was similar to that used to tie down tarpaulins on railway carriages and that the knot used was one commonly used by sailors.

Elizabeth's failure to attend the family meal had aroused suspicion but her family did not contact the police. Instead they carried out their own search, the homes of friends and acquaintances were visited but no one had seen or heard from Elizabeth. It was the following morning before the family found out what had happened when detectives called at the family's home and asked them to attend the murder scene where they officially identified the body as it lay in the cold mud.

When detectives ordered that the body be removed, it was noted that ground under the body was dry, suggesting that the body had been there before it had started raining in the early hours of the morning. Muddy footprints and some blood stains were found on the stone at the top of the wall, indicating that those responsible had climbed the wall to escape the scene.

The residents of No. 67 George Street were among the first to be interviewed. One woman stated that at a very late hour she heard voices in the back court but she thought little of it and did not make any further investigation. Another female resident claimed that at approximately 3am she had occasion to look out of her window and saw what she thought to be a 'Halloween dummy' lying in the back court and unperturbed she went back to bed.

Within a couple of hours the search parties had turned up some vital evidence. An ashpit in a back court a few numbers down from where the body was found was discovered to contain a number of pieces of linen cloth, many of them bloodstained. Detectives immediately swooped upon the property, residents were interviewed and their houses searched. The detectives got no response to their knocking from a ground floor flat and just as they were about to force entry the door opened. Inside they found two men and a woman who admitted it was them who had thrown the linen in the ashpit. The woman claimed that she had found a black suitcase on her back window ledge this morning, but as the news of the body spread around the neighbourhood, the three feared being implicated in the crime and decided to burn the suitcase in the fireplace. However as the contents were wet it wouldn't burn and it was thrown in the back court bin.

All three were arrested and taken for further questioning. Very quickly the police realised that was their story was true, they had nothing to do with the murder of the Benjamin girl and they were released without charge. This decision was mostly down to the police having received information that not only corroborated the prisoners innocence but sent the police inquiry off in a different direction.

This information led police to a house in No 67 George Street where they found the metal framework of a red purse in the ashes of the fireplace. As the search continued bloodstains were found behind the front door, the floor, and the walls of the flat. A large drill-bit, 18 inches long made of solid grooved steel and covered in blood was found in a hallway cupboard. The police immediately arrested the occupants of the house - two brothers and the wife of one of them and took them to Partick Police station. Their names were given as John Harkness aged 33, William Harkness aged 31 and his wife Helen Harkness aged 28. While in custody the search of No. 67 continued, in the communal washhouse police found a heavily bloodstained bathtub, and when it was lifted the floor underneath was bloodstained too.

A postmortem examination was carried out and it was found that the cause of death was asphyxiation While Benjamin had been severely beaten these injuries had, surprisingly, not proven fatal. The coroner found a white linen handkerchief lodged in the girl's throat. This had killed her, and the time was death was thought to be around 4pm on the 31st of October.
Almost exactly three months later, on January 30th 1922, two of the accused, William Harkness and his wife Helen, went on trial at the High Court in Glasgow, accused of Elizabeth Benjamin's murder. The charges against John Harkness had been dropped and he was cited to appear as a witness. And what a witness he turned out to be.

Harkness testified that he was in the home of this mother in law at 1204 Dumbarton Road when Helen Harkness called about 8pm smelling strongly of alcohol and asked him to go with her to meet his brother. She said that their had been some trouble, Harkness agreed and went with her to 67 George Street where he met his brother William. When he asked his brother what sort of trouble he was in he replied that he had hit a women over the head and killed her. John was taken to the wash house by candle light and shown the body of Elizabeth Benjamin. William asked his brother to help him get rid of the body from the wash house and he agreed. They quickly removed it and placed it in the back court where it was later found.

Not until the following day, when the crime had been discovered and wildly reported in all the newspapers, did John Harkess call at his brother's house. He remonstrated with his brother about the fact that the girl was old 14 years old and that she had been gagged. He told the court that Helen Harkness retorted: 'Yes, Johnny. She was a tough little bastard. My legs are black and blue where she kicked me.' His brother boasted that he had been bitten on the fingers by Elizabeth as she struggled.
On the second day of the trial, the crown case of concluded around midday. As no witness were called for the defense, the jury retired to consider their verdict at 2.55pm. The jury returned 30 minutes later with two unanimous verdicts of guilty of murder on William and Helen Harkness. The jury however, stipulated that they strongly recommended mercy to be shown to the female prisoner. The prisoners held hands as they were sentenced to be executed at Duke Street Prison on the 21st of February 1922.

The true circumstances that befell Elizabeth Benjamin are these:
On leaving 88 George Street, the young girl was intercepted by Helen Harkness who asked her to go to the flat at No.67 under the premise of wishing to buy some of her wares. Once there Elizabeth showed off her samples but with no sale forthcoming she was eager to leave. As she walked along the hallway towards the front door, William Harkness struck her on the back of the head with the reamer causing her to fall to the floor. Helen Harkness then held the girl down while her husband struck more blows with the reamer. Elizabeth struggled bravely and William Harkness decided to quieten her by forcing a handkerchief into her mouth causing her to suffocate.

Duke Street Prison
The recommendation of mercy toward Helen Harkness was directed to the proper authorities and on Saturday 18th February a dispatch from the Scottish Office was received. It contained the information that Helen Harkness had been reprieved of the death penalty and her sentence had been commuted to penal servitude for life. William Harkness's execution was to go ahead as planned.

At 8am on Tuesday 21st of Febuary 1922 John Harkness was hanged at Duke Street Prison. Helen Harkness was released from prison in 1937 she was convicted twice in the next ten years on theft charges, her last dealing with the law was in 1947.

Curiously, another woman was found bludgeoned to death in the vicinity where William Harkness worked. She was found at her place of employment, Oswald's Dairy, Dumbarton Road, Whiteinch. She had been beaten to death as she opened the premises in the morning, her hands had been roped together with a clove hitch knot, like Elizabeth Benjamin. The case remains unsolved.

John Harkness met a grisly end when he was found in the backcourt of 1188 Dumbarton Road in the early hours of New Years Day 1927. His injuries indicated that he had fallen or been pushed from a great height. A man was arrested for his murder but was later released without charge.

Elizabeth Benjamin had only £1 on her person when she was murdered.

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