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A robbery in a train compartment had tragic consequences for train passenger William Pearson.
It is not a pleasant experience to sit in a compartment on an express train in the company of a dead body and a cold-blooded murderer, armed with a revolver.
That was the situation Rhoda King found herself in when she travelled on the 11.20am train from Southampton to Waterloo on Thursday, 17 January, 1901.
King was travelling to London to visit a sick relative and joined the train at Southampton where she entered an empty third-class compartment. At Eastleigh a young man entered and at the next stop, Winchester, an elderly gentleman joined them in their compartment.
The passengers did not speak to each other. The gentleman read his newspaper for a while and King sat looking out of the window. Time passed and when the train was near Surbiton the young man entered the train lavatory, the old gentleman was asleep and King was still looking out of the window.
A few moments later two shots were fired. King felt blood running down her face and realised she had been hit. She saw the young man rifling the pockets of the third passenger and cried out: “My God, what have you done?” The man replied: “I did it for money. I want some money. Have you got any?”
King, bleeding from a wound in the cheek, rummaged in her handbag and handed him a shilling. She saw that the old man had been shot in the head. It was a ghastly sight and she told the murderer to put a handkerchief over the face, which he did.
The victim was William Pearson, a Winchester farmer. The murderer was George Henry Parker, aged 23, an ex-soldier. He had never seen Pearson or King before.
Having killed Pearson and taken his purse and other property, Parker left King in no doubt that he would kill her too if she did not keep quiet. She pleaded with him not to shoot her.
He waved the gun at her and said: “I must not keep it about me. I have a good mind to put it in his hand and then they will think he did it himself.” King, to humour him, told him it would be better to throw it out of the window. He went to do this but saw some men working on the line and decided to wait. Later, urged again by King, he threw out the gun and the remaining rounds. By this time the train was approaching Vauxhall, where it was due at 1.29pm, and as it slowed down Parker climbed out on to the running board.
He told King not to say anything about what had happened and as the train pulled into the platform, he jumped off and ran away as fast as he could. King was in a state of collapse, but when the train stopped she stumbled out of the carriage and shouted to some railwaymen: “Stop that man. He has killed someone in that carriage.” Parker ran down the steps, rushed past the collector on the gate, and out into the street, followed by four or five men.
Near Vauxhall Bridge he was headed off by a constable on point duty and he turned into the gas works. After a hectic pursuit round the works he was cornered behind some trucks, arrested, and taken to Larkhall Lane Police Station by PC Thomas Fuller. To this officer, Parker said: “I wish I had killed that woman, then I should have got away.”
Meanwhile Platform Inspector Goodey and other railway staff examined the carriage. Pearson was beyond human aid but King was taken to St. Thomas’s Hospital for treatment. Railway and Metropolitan Police were soon on the scene and Superintendent Robinson of the London and South Western Railway Police took charge.
The line was systematically searched and the revolver was found near Wandsworth Bridge. At the police station, Parker was searched by Sergeant Thorley and found in possession of a purse and other items which were the property of Pearson. He was charged with the murder of Pearson and the attempted murder of King.
The medical evidence showed Pearson had been shot at point-blank range and King had escaped death by an inch. She recovered quickly and gave evidence at the inquest and the subsequent criminal proceedings when she was strongly, and deservedly, commended for the courage she had displayed.
On Friday, 1 March 1901, Parker appeared before Mr. Justice Phillimore at the Central Criminal Court. He pleaded not guilty on the advice of his lawyer who attempted to persuade the court that his client was insane as a result of alcoholism. He was found guilty, however, sentenced to death, and executed three weeks later.