It was a worried Welshman who showed the police the strange letter he had received from his relative Charles Lewis, the 60-year-old chief education officer of Erith, south-east London. Lewis wrote that his wife Maude and their adopted daughter Freda had been involved in a serious accident, and he would write more fully later.
Scotland Yards Detective Superintendent William Brown studied the letter. It didnt make much sense. He asked the Welshman if he had been to check Lewiss home in Erith Road, Belvedere.
The Welshman nodded. “But I could get no reply,” he said. “It looks shut-up to me. I went to the neighbours, and they told me they hadnt seen Charles or his wife and daughter since the Whitsun weekend, when Charles was working in the garden.”
“How about Lewiss work?” Brown asked a local detective.
“I rang the Erith education department,” the officer replied, “and they said he hasnt been in since Whitsun. But hed phoned them, saying something about his wife dying.”
“Wed better go to Erith Road and break in,” Brown decided.
A window was forced, and the police entered Lewiss villa. In one room the furniture was draped. In another the walls had been stripped for redecoration. There were no dirty plates or cutlery, so no one had left after a hurried meal. The three unmade beds each had a sheet missing.
Walking to a window, Brown looked out over the garden and saw a tarpaulin on the lawn. That was where Lewis was creating a lily pond, said the Welsh relative.
In the garden Brown looked thoughtfully at the tarpaulin and asked how Lewis had got on with his wife and daughter. The Welshman said that Maude wasnt the easiest person to live with. She tended to be critical and she had a sharp tongue, but she got on well with Freda, a bright girl of 20 who the couple had adopted after she lost her parents on the Titanic.
The tarpaulin was removed to reveal the recently cemented bowl of the lily pond. Brown ordered officers to be brought with pickaxes, and an hour later they had removed the cement to disclose a sheet of corrugated iron. This was shifted, and after that the digging was easier. Loose earth was spaded away, and shortly afterwards the missing sheets from the beds were discovered. And so were the bodies of Maude, Freda, and Fredas pet terrier.
A “wanted” notice was issued for Lewis, described as 60, six feet tall and slim, with grey hair and eyes, gold-rimmed spectacles and a pronounced limp.
The victims cause of death was found to be potassium cyanide poisoning, and the police soon traced Lewiss purchase of the poison at a local chemists. He had bought it six weeks before the murder of his family on JUNE 5th, 1931, making the purchase at around the time he had started work on his lily pond.
The police learned that a man matching Lewiss description had booked a passage on a coastal steamer which had left Wapping for Leith on June 5th. He had given his name as John Davidson, and he had disappeared overboard off Whitby. A boat had been lowered to search for him in the darkness, but there was no sign of him. When the captain went ashore to report the loss of a passenger at sea, the Edinburgh police opened Davidsons bag. Its contents showed that its owner was Charles Lewis.
What had prompted the murders and suicide? At Lewiss office his accounts were examined and a £600 discrepancy was discovered. So the chief education officer had dipped his hands in the till. Unable to face exposure, disgrace and imprisonment, Charles Lewis had ensured that his family would never know what hed been up to. And neither would anyone else, until he was beyond retribution.