LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND — On January 20, 1931, the body of Julia Wallace, a Liverpool housewife, was found dead at her home in Wolverton Street.
She had been brutally murdered, and her husband, 52-year-old insurance investigator William Herbert Wallace, was the prime suspect. This despite the fact that the couple seemed to have been well-matched by all accounts, and there were no rumors of infidelity or any other marital issues.The killing has become one of the most notorious and hotly debated murder mysteries in history. Crime fiction writer Raymond Chandler described the case as “the nonpareil of all murder mysteries.”
The story started on January 18 when William Wallace headed out for his weekly meeting at the Liverpool Chess Club. At 7:20 P.M., shortly before Wallace arrived at the club, the club captain took a telephone call from a man identifying himself as “R.M. Qualtrough.” Qualtrough left a message asking for Wallace to come to his house at 25 Menlove Gardens East the following evening concerning some insurance business for his daughter.
When Wallace arrived for his match and was given the message, he said that he did not know anyone by that name and was not familiar with the address.
The next evening, Wallace boarded a tram and headed out for his appointment with Qualtrough. En route, the tram’s conductor would later tell investigators that Wallace repeatedly asked him and the ticket inspector to let him know where the stop was and made the point of telling them that he was a “stranger” to the area.
After asking around widely, he discovered that 25 Menlove Gardens East did not exist. Liverpool has Menlove Gardens North, South, and West, but not East, for some reason. Unable to find the address or anyone nearby who knew a Mr. Qualtrough, Wallace returned home.
Upon arriving, at around 8:45 P.M., Wallace told his next door neighbors that the front and back doors to his house are locked and his keys didn’t seem to be working. The neighbors followed Wallace back to the rear of his house and watched as he tried the back door lock. It worked that time, and they entered the house. Once able to get inside, they found Julia’s body in the front room. She had been violently battered to death, and blood was splashed on the walls.
Apparently in shock at the state of her corpse, Wallace said, “They’ve finished her, look at her brains.”
An investigation determined that she had been beaten on the head 11 times with a blunt object. The motive did not appear to be robbery — Julia’s handbag was still on the kitchen table.
When Julia was found dead, the case baffled investigators. They found no sign of an intruder, no weapon, no witnesses — and the body was found in a locked house where the victim had presumably been alone.
Since Wallace’s death, the case has been hotly debated: Was Wallace, as many suspected, guilty of murder? Or was the mysterious “R.M. Qualtrough” the killer? Incidentally, police searched Liverpool and found five people with the last name Qualtrough, but all denied making the call.
Other evidence appeared to support Wallace’s guilt, including a switchboard supervisor at the Liverpool telephone exchange who said the mysterious call to the chess club the night before the murder came from a phone booth 400 yards from Wallace’s house. Police suspected that Wallace placed the call in order to provide himself with an alibi.
In addition, friends noted that Wallace had a strange demeanor, and appeared to lack emotion.
Despite a lack of physical evidence, the police charged Wallace with the murder, and he was convicted. But his conviction was later overturned by the Court Of Criminal Appeal, and became the first instance in British legal history where an appeal had been allowed after re-examination of evidence.
Wallace walked out of prison a free man. He died two years later, but the mystery continued.
An assortment of authorities and armchair detectives have attempted to crack the case over the years, including famed novelist PD James. Writing in the Sunday Times magazine, James claimed that the murder was misunderstood from the beginning by the police.
She concluded that Richard Parry, a 22-year-old local man who was also a suspect, made a prank call to Wallace. She believed that Parry sent Wallace on the fake errand in retaliation for the older man’s decision to turn him in for falsifying accounts at the Prudential, where both men worked. According to James, Parry lost his job as a result.
James believes that Wallace was guilty as charged, but that the case became muddled due to the coincidental prank call. According to James, Wallace was a troubled man whose failures eventually drove him to murder.
Theories abound, but none has been proven, and none really stands out as more likely than any other. As Raymond Chandler said, “The Wallace case is unbeatable; it will always be unbeatable.”
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Main photos: William Herbert Wallace and Julia Wallace [Wikimedia Commons]