The discovery of a young boy's body in a train compartment led to a complicated investigation for the police.
An errand boy's discovery
On 8 January 1914, an errand boy was sent to deliver a parcel. On his way back to work, he boarded a train at Mildmay Park station on the North London Railway.
The lad entered a third class compartment. As the train approached Dalston station, he suddenly noticed a small hand protruding from under the seat.
Frightened, the boy tried without success, to attract the attention of a porter. When the train arrived at Haggerston, the boy bolted from the station and out into the street.
He recovered himself, and went to the station master's office to report what he had seen. The train was stopped and searched. Beneath the seat in the compartment the lad had travelled in was the body of a five or six year old boy with long golden curls. The face was suffused with blood, the lips were bruised, and marks on the neck suggested that a cord of some kind had been used.
Identification of a child
Chief Inspector William Gough took the case up and initiated enquiries on the assumption that the boy had been strangled. His opinion was soon confirmed by Doctor Spilsbury who examined the body.
It did not take long to identify the child. He was the son of John and Agnes Starchfield. John Starchfield sold newspapers. In 1912, he had enjoyed some notoriety after he tackled an armed Armenian named Stephen Titus who entered the Horseshoe Hotel and shot a man and woman.
Starchfield was separated from his wife. Willie, their little boy, lived with his mother and about 12.50pm on the day of the murder she sent him out on an errand. He never returned.
According to the medical evidence, the murder took place some time between 2pm and 3pm, and the train had shuttled several times between Chalk Farm and Broad Street after the murder had been committed.
The inquest opens
The inquest opened on 15 January 1914, and evidence was given by the guard of the train, the errand boy who discovered the body, and the porter who first searched the train.
John Starchfield was asked to account for his movements on the day of the murder. He said he was in his bed in a lodging house and he had not seen the boy for three weeks. The inquest was adjourned.
When the inquest was resumed a week later, two signalmen gave evidence relating to a piece of cord they had found on the line on the day of the murder. Doctor Spilsbury said that it could have been responsible for the marks on the child's throat.
A third signalman testified that when he was on duty at the St. Pancras Box as the 2.14pm train from Chalk Farm passed, he saw a man in a compartment bending over what he thought was a young girl. This signalman examined the body of the murdered boy and said that he recognised the face as the one he had seen, the long curls had misled him as to the sex.
Another witness was the driver of a shunting engine in Camden Coal Yard. He stated that between 2.30pm and 3pm he had seen a man stooping over something in a compartment and that the man appeared to be tying up a parcel.
The most important witness was Clara Wood. She said she had seen a man leading a little boy by the hand on the afternoon of the murder. The boy was eating a piece of currant cake. The post-mortem had disclosed one and half ounces of partially digested food which contained currants. Wood was asked if she could identify the man. She pointed to John Starchfield. “Me?” said Starchfield. “Yes,” said Wood. “It's a lie,” shouted Starchfield. The coroner adjourned the inquest at that stage and remarked the further enquiries would be made in Starchfield’s interest.
When the inquest was resumed, witnesses from the lodging house gave evidence on behalf of Starchfield. A commercial traveller named John White was called. He described how he had seen a man and boy together at Camden Town Station. He identified Starchfield as the man. “It's a lie,” shouted Starchfield, “a damned lie.” One of the lodging house witnesses said: “It is too, he was in bed at the time.”
The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against Starchfield. He was taken into custody and taken to Old Street Police Station.
The case collapses
While he was awaiting trial, one of the essential witnesses attempted to commit suicide and the prosecution suffered a further setback when Wood failed to stand up to cross-examination. She created the impression that she had seen a photograph of Starchfield in a newspaper before she had identified him.
She was confused about the hat he was wearing when she saw him she admitted that when shown a photograph of the boy she could not identify him as the boy she had seen.
The judge was critical of the coroner’s office after the coroner had read to the jury statements made to the police without formal depositions or questioning the witnesses. The judge said: “I find that the depositions were not taken down at the time by the coroner, or at any rate they were not read over to the witnesses. Then, apparently, the coroner’s officer who took them round to be signed was permitted to allow the witnesses to correct them. That procedure seems to me to be an entire mockery and an abuse of the duties entrusted to any coroner.”
The judge instructed the jury to return a formal verdict of not guilty.
Starchfield died in the St. Pancras Infirmary in 1916. He always protested his innocence and used to say that some friend of Stephen Titus killed his son in an act of revenge.