All was quiet on board the Union Castle liner Durban Castle, steaming through smooth seas off West Africa en route from Capetown to Southampton.
It was OCTOBER 18th, 1947, and at about 1.15 a.m. the boatswains mate glimpsed the shadowy figure of a woman on the promenade deck. In the glow of her cigarette he recognised the smooth features of one of the passengers, the beautiful 21-year-old actress Eileen Gay Gibson.
At 3.30 a.m. Seaman Frederick Steer, on the second night watch, was alerted by the ringing of the bell on the room stewards board. Two lights were flashing, one summoning the steward, the other the stewardess, and both signals were from Gay Gibsons cabin, number 126.
Responding immediately, Steer went to the cabin and knocked on the door. There was no reply. Then he heard someone moving in the cabin, and after hesitating a moment he opened the door slightly and announced, Steward.
Through the two-inch crack he saw the indistinct figure of a man wearing only dark trousers and a white vest. Its all right, the man said, and slammed the door.
But Steer was uneasy. He promptly reported the incident to the senior watchman, James Murray, who took him to the bridge to repeat his story to the ships second officer, who told them to go to the cabin to make sure all was well.
It was about 3.45 a.m. when Steer knocked on the door again. There was no response, so Murray tried the door. It swung open and he saw the cabin was in darkness and silent. He closed the door quietly and they left.
At 7.30 a.m. Stewardess Field went to the cabin as usual to wake the actress for breakfast. When her knock went unanswered, she tried the door and was surprised to find it was unlocked. Gay Gibson wasnt there, and that too was unusual. Ordinarily she would be asleep. The dress she had worn the previous evening was draped over a chair, and her shoes were in the middle of the floor. The stewardess tidied them away and began to make the bed. Alarmed to see what appeared to be bloodstains on the sheets, she checked the actresss wardrobe. Having unpacked for her, helping her to dress for dinner each evening, she was familiar with every item. Everything was there except the actresss yellow dressing gown and black silk pyjamas, in which their owner would hardly have gone out to stroll the deck.
Now doubly alarmed, the stewardess hurried off to inform the chief steward, who took her to the ships captain. He told her to return to the cabin with the master-at-arms and take another look. They reported back that the cabins porthole cover was open. So had Gay Gibson gone overboard in the night?
The ships public address system was used, asking her to report to the bridge. There was no response, so the ship was turned about to make a predictably fruitless search.
Yellow and black fibres found on the rim of the porthole confirmed that, dead or alive, the actress had gone through it. Then one of the passengers, Mrs. Esterbrook, reported that at around 11 p.m. she had heard voices in the corridor outside her room. A man had said, Miss Gibson, I have a bone to pick with you.
Indeed, the actress had replied. What have I done?
That was all Mrs. Esterbrook had heard. She had not recognised the mans voice.
Then Stewardess Field recalled that one of the stewards, 30-year-old James Camb, had told her he had found Gay Gibson to be quite chatty. He confided she had told him she had left South Africa because her romance with a wealthy married man in Johannesburg had made her pregnant, and he had paid for her passage, also giving her a substantial sum of money.
It seemed incredible that the actress would share such a secret with a mere steward, but one element of his story was known to be true: a wealthy Johannesburg industrialist had paid for Gay Gibsons passage.
Questioned by the captain, Camb said he had prepared a drink for Gay Gibson at her request shortly before 1 a.m., and that was the last he had seen of her.
He was then questioned again. This time Steer and Mrs. Esterbrook were concealed behind a screen. When the interrogation finished, Camb was taken to the infirmary to be examined by the ships doctor.
Well? asked the captain as the eavesdroppers emerged from hiding.
Hes the man I heard with Miss Gibson outside my stateroom, said Mrs. Esterbrook.
Steer looked uncomfortable. Im sorry for Jimmy, he said, but Im sure hes the man who was in Miss Gibsons cabin.
In the infirmary, the doctor found scratches on Cambs arms, just the kind that would be left by raking fingernails.
Camb protested his innocence, but when detectives questioned him at Southampton he changed his story. He admitted being the man Steer had seen in the cabin, but claimed he was there at Gay Gibsons invitation. He said that while they were having sex she had an asthma attack which must have triggered heart failure. She suddenly went limp, and all his attempts to revive her were unsuccessful. Then he panicked when Steer came to the door. All I could think of was getting rid of the body, so I shoved her out of the porthole.
At his trial for murder, however, the prosecution punched several holes in his story. If he and the actress were having sex with her consent, why was she still wearing her pyjamas and dressing gown when she was pushed through the porthole? And the pressing of both buttons in her cabin indicated that she was trying to get rid of him. Then there were the scratches, suggesting that Gay Gibson had fought her attacker. Cambs story that she was pregnant, the Crown claimed, was an invention designed to blacken her reputation and suggest she was suicidal.
The jury were absent for only 45 minutes before they returned to find James Camb guilty, and he was sentenced to be hanged. The death penalty was suspended a month later, however, so his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.