An Odious Smell

Sir Bernard Spilsbury

The Brighton trunk murder of 1934 is one of those curious mysteries that should have been solved and yet never was. Who was the victim, where was she killed, why was she killed, how was she killed and who killed her?

On the 17th, June 1934, drawn by an ‘0dious smell’. an unclaimed plywood trunk was opened by William Vinnicombe at the luggage office at Brighton railway station. Inside he found the naked torso of a pregnant woman wrapped up in brown paper and tied with window cord. The head and limbs were missing and other railway stations were quickly alerted. The following evening a suitcase containing the legs was uncovered at Kings Cross station in London, but still no sign of the head and arms which haven’t been found to this day.

Sir Bernard Spilsbury

The renowned pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury travelled to Brighton two days later to examine the torso and revealed that the woman was about 25years old and probably three months pregnant. The following day he returned to London to examine the legs which he confirmed came from the body found in Brighton, adding that she was approximately 5ft 3in tall, brown haired and healthy, with well-kept and trim toenails. Unfortunately he couldn’t discover the cause of death and with the head and limbs missing later identification would be next to impossible.

Rumours soon spread and local opinion held that the poor girl was probably the victim of a back street abortionist and it’s said that similar thoughts passed through the minds of the investigating officers and that they brought in Dr Edward Messiah, of Hove, for questioning. He was later released but Chief Inspector Ronald Donaldson, towards the end of the investigation, ordered all the investigating officers to maintain a covert watch on him. One senior officer from Hove appears to have misunderstood the word covert and directly confronted Messiah expecting him to throw up his hands and ‘come quietly’. Instead the doctor wrote down a list of names on a piece of paper.

‘Back off’

The Hove officer kept this very much to himself and it only came to light when Donaldson was warned by a more senior officer to  Messiah. One can only conclude that many powerful and influential individuals had availed themselves of the good doctor’s services and had a great deal to lose if he ever started talking. Interestingly, shortly afterwards in London, a woman died whilst he was performing an abortion and once again he avoided prosecution.

Apart from this one suspect exhaustive police enquiries failed to identify the woman. However, there was one other real clue: a particular type of pure olive oil, found on the corpse; was commonly used by surgeons to stop heavy bleeding,  perhaps suggesting that the murderer could have been a medical man.

Many years of police investigations failed to reveal the slightest clue to the murderer or to the identity of the murdered woman, although both probably belonged to the leisured class. This makes the failure to identify the girl even more baffling.

It has been described as the ‘perfect murder’.

Based on Trunk Murders by David Rowland

Historical consultant David Rowland David – Rowland

The Brighton Trunk Murder – Part One

The Brighton Trunk Murder – Part Two

Inside the Black Museum  Trunk Murders


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