As a wartime seaman whose ship ran the Atlantic gauntlet of U-boats, James William Percey was used to living dangerously. Ironically, however, the burly Canadian wireless operator was to die in his cabin while his ship was lying safely in Salford Docks.
His body was found on April 8th, 1944, when an offensive smell attracted attention to his cabin. He had been killed by two blows to the head, inflicted by an axe which was found concealed under a mattress in an adjacent cabin, and he was believed to have died in the late afternoon or early evening of APRIL 6th.
On that day his cabin had been found to be locked from the outside at 4.30 p.m., and it was not known to have been opened since – until his body was discovered two days later.
Perceys vessel was the Pacific Shipper, and its chief steward, James Galbraith, 26, quickly became the prime suspect. He was known to have been with Percey at around the time of the murder, and detectives learned that he had been borrowing money because he had promised to take a girl away for the Easter weekend.
He admitted being with Percey in his cabin on the afternoon of April 6th, and he also confessed to stealing £36 from a drawer in the cabin. He said he had been in the cabin because the wireless operator had got drunk and he had helped him back to the ship. When they reached the cabin Percey had asked him in for a drink, and when he left him Percey had been all right, apart from being drunk.
But when the steward appeared at Manchester Assizes, charged with Perceys murder, the court heard that the cabin door had been found locked only minutes after Galbraith had gone ashore, and Percey had not been seen alive again. And the jury was told that in case blood was found on his clothes, Galbraith had claimed he had given Percey a shave before he left the cabin. But when the victim was found his chin was covered with stubble, which does not grow after death.
I took the money when Percey was out of his cabin, Galbraith testified. As soon as he came back I left. I left him drunk, but he was alive, I swear.
The jury didnt believe him. Convicted and sentenced to death, he was hanged on July 26th, 1944.