Justice for Joan by Martin Knight 

Justice for Joan WoodhouseThe murder of Joan Mary Woodhouse (July 17, 1921 – July 31, 1948) is also known as the Arundel Murder as her body was found on the grounds of Arundel Castle, Sussex, UK. There is plenty online about the case however some details are not. That’s where the book by Martin Knight comes in.

Joan Mary Woodhouse

Joan was an only child and grew up in a loving, religious family that included her maternal aunts Ida and Annie. Her mom died of cancer in 1943 at the age of forty-six. Joan graduated from Barnsley Girls’ High School and continued her education at the University of London in Bloomsbury. She studied librarianship.

During the Second World War, Joan was called to serve which she did. She studied draughtsmanship in Sheffield. After WWII, Joan started working at the National Library in London. Her apartment was in London’s famous Baker Street.

Joan was deeply religious and joined the Third Order of the Society of the Sacred Mission (part of the Anglican Church). As a member, Joan drew up her own Rule of Life principles. You can find them on page 28 of Knight’s book.

Her relationship with another librarian, Ted Roberts, resulted in an engagement however, he broke it off. As a result, Joan became depressed and contemplated suicide. She wrote her aunts that she had attempted one on March 28, 1948.

Because of this, her aunts recommended that maybe instead of living alone on Baker Street she should live somewhere with more people around for company. So Joan started living at a YWCA hostel (the Young Women’s Christian Association).

Case overview

When Joan didn’t show up for work at the National Library, her boss called the hostel. The hostel’s warden, Jessie Maddocks, had just received a worrying telegram from Joan’s family that she had not arrived home. On July 31, Joan was to travel up north to go home. Maddocks marched right down the street and into the Lee Road Police Department to report Joan missing.

Unfortunately, being missing wasn’t taken as serious then as we do now. Maddocks was told to wait a little, Joan would show up, she probably had an excuse, plans changed, etc. Joan’s remains were found on Aug 10, 1948. She had been raped and strangled.

Various theories circulated. Some said that she was promiscuous and based this on Joan’s address book filled with men’s names. However, that book had those men’s names as Joan volunteered as unofficial secretary of the Librarians’ Professional Association. The librarians were mostly men. Others referred to the earlier attempt at suicide. However, from the way she died (see autopsy remarks) she could not have killed herself. For the record, her former fiancée was never a suspect and had a solid alibi.

Joan Mary WoodhouseThe autopsy

Dr. Keith Simpson, Home Office pathologist, performed Joan’s autopsy. According to the author “Professor Simpson is clear that he harboured some skepticism about the police investigation and its conclusions.”

Autopsy findings:

  • Estimated date of death: July 31, 1948.
  • The body was too maggot-ridden for semen swabs
  • Whether she was a virgin before the assault, he could not say. Frankly, if he did say anything about that then he must have been one of those who believe in the intact-hymen myth and that would have undermined his credibility as a doctor in my humble opinion.
  • Severe pressure to the neck with right upper horn off the voice box broken
  • Forcible sexual interference
  • Fresh cuts and bruises to her lower legs indicating running through undergrowth before death
  • Bruises to the inner left leg indicating that it was the left leg that was pushed up. “Other bruises of a different kind seem to suggest that the assailant lay across the deceased’s right leg.”
The investigation

On Aug 10, 1948 Thomas Phillip George Stillwell (June 30, 1924-2008) bursted through the Arundel Police Station’s doors and told them that he found a dead body. The body was on Arundel Castle grounds and her killer had made no attempts to conceal it.

I am going to skip the parts about the crime scene, all the men who were ruled out as suspect including the ex-fiancée, Stillwell’s sad and perverted life story, and the clumsy investigation.

There was circumstantial evidence against Stillwell but no charges were ever filed. The Woodhouse family didn’t give up and hired a private investigator. Thomas Percy Jacks, with a background in law enforcement, discovered more details that firmed up the circumstantial evidence against Stillwell. His work launched a second investigation by Scotland Yard. It was spearheaded by Inspector Spooner. At the end, he too came to the conclusion that there was not enough evidence to secure a conviction in court. “At the lower level the police wanted a conviction and encouraged him [Jacks] but higher up he was being frustrated at every turn.”

The Woodhouse family still did not give up. They launched a private prosecution into Joan’s murder. Stillwell was represented by expensive solicitor Vincent Jackson. A red flag because normally at an inquiry, there is no need to be legally represented if you just testify that you found a dead body. Aside from that, who paid Jackson’s fee? The Stillwells were not rich.

A private prosecution is a criminal procedure started by an individual or a private organization as opposed to the prosecution that represents the state. Private prosecutions are allowed in many jurisdictions worldwide but only under common law. They are rare and not without controversy.

Jackson’s defense strategy was pointing out that there was no proof that Joan died on July 31 casting doubt upon the dates that his client said he visited Arundel Park as firm dates to place him at the crime scene. Second, he pointed out that everyone had failed to connect Stillwell to Joan.

The call for private prosecutions often pops up in cases of misconduct by authorities when several officials collaborate and violate the law which is often the basis for a wrongful conviction. Loss of trust in the authorities makes people then seek the opinion of independent private experts as trust in professional public officials has been shattered. Read more about private prosecutions here.

The private prosecution against Stillwell failed to secure a conviction. After the case had been reviewed by various people, they all concluded that although circumstantial there was indeed a case against Stillwell. Why then was he never charged? Was there an exterior reason why Stillwell was not charged by the state?

Stillwell’s heritage

In Arundel, rumor had it that Stillwell was not his dad’s son. Dad, Thomas Rawlins Stillwell, is mentioned unfavorably in police records as a useless drunk. He was not called during the private prosecution as a character witness for his son as he didn’t think much of his son and voiced his doubts that he was his own child. So if Thomas Rawlins Stillwell was not the dad, maybe we should check with mom, Ellen Agnes Parsons.

Foxes’ Oven

Michael de Labbabeiti’s book Foxes’ Oven was written in 2002. If it is fiction is comes creepily close to a scenario explaining why Stillwell was never charged.

The story is about a family in Arundel. They live in Foxes’ Oven which is the name of the Stillwell family home. The mother and father do not have a happy marriage. He suspects one of his sons isn’t his. It is his oldest son and the rumors are that he is a killer. Rumors in and around Arundel are that Stillwell is the illegitimate offspring of Bernard Marmaduke Fitzalan-Howard, the sixteenth Duke of Norfolk. Stillwell’s mother did work at the castle at some point. When it became clear that her son might be prosecuted for Joan’s murder, did she seek help from the Duke? Michael de Labbabeiti used this in his book. Knight found out that the Duke sold (read: gifted) Foxes’ Oven to Sillwell’s mother after all legal avenues were closed. The Duke could afford Jackson’s legal fees. The Stillwells could not.

A modern take on the case

A long time ago my dear friend Evie alerted me to Joan’s case and to this book.  She too wants Justice for Joan.

Joan’s case will remain closed due to a legal technicality but it is a very crucial one: nobody cautioned Stillwell.

The caution or right to silence says: “You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”

This caution is similar to the meaning of silence in the American Miranda Warning. Both cautions are based on the “fruit from the poisonous tree” doctrine. This doctrine says that police cannot use evidence that was not legally obtained. To read more about this doctrine click here.

For American readers now wondering whether this is the same as the exclusionary rule: it is an extension. The exclusionary rule in general prohibits the introduction into evidence of pieces that were obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. This means that these pieces cannot be admitted in a criminal trial and thus cannot be used as evidence against the defendant in court. To read more about the exclusionary rule click here.

As Stillwell passed away in 2008 we only have a few options to get more answers.

  • IF any evidence from the Woodhouse case still exists we could try to find touch DNA and compare that to the living Stillwell descendants. We could even compare it to the descendants of Bernard Marmaduke Fitzalan-Howard.
  • IF we find Stillwell’s touch DNA we establish his presence at the crime scene regardless of how many times he changed his story.
  • IF the touch DNA falls in line with that of Bernard Marmaduke Fitzalan-Howard, we have a firm indication that the book by Michael de Labbabeiti may be more truth than fiction.

Martin Knight wrote a fantastic book that I read in one sitting. It has a straightforward narrative, no lingering on gruesome details, and no speculations for the sake of speculating what might have happened to Joan.

The author gives his own thoughts in chapter 24 and that, my reader, you must read for yourself. I agree with Knight about his possible scenario.

I recommend reading chapters 21-25 including the epilogue (p. 156-205) in one sitting as they pull all the details from the case and the investigation together. Read together, the case is clear.

This book has my ideal setting: a list of contents, a list of illustrations that includes the various police officers ranks and departments, a timeline, a postscript, a further reading list, and an index.

Highly recommended reading!

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