The Murder That Never Was (Or Was It?)

ENSLEY MURDER_RE-SIZE_1    Some events are so random, that we would never think them possible until proven otherwise. Here is a real case from nineteenth century America that England’s favourite detective, Sherlock Holmes, would have been proud to solve.

Wealthy bachelor, Charles Ensley lived alone in his Tennessee home. He led a quiet life but was well-known in the neighbourhood as a polite, friendly man, in his late forties.

On the 16th June 1887, he was discovered by his servant, dead in his living room.

He was lying fully clothed on a couch, as if asleep, but it was soon clear that he had been shot dead. A bullet hole was discovered directly behind his left ear. He had apparently been shot in the head by an unknown assailant whilst taking an afternoon nap on the couch.

The house had not been broken into and the room was tidy and as neat as always. Mr. Ensley’s possessions had not been stolen. What was the motive and where was the weapon?

The weapon was soon found as it turned out to be a rifle displayed on hooks over the fireplace. The ball-style bullet taken from inside Ensley’s head belonged to that same rifle. It was not loaded, but appeared to have been the weapon that discharged that same ball.

Who would have been able to enter the house without suspicion and use the rifle to shoot their victim and why? Why was he still wearing his expensive watch and his wallet was intact? Time of death was estimated around 3 pm in the afternoon.

The immediate name in the frame was Ensley’s cousin, John Avery. As Ensley’s only known relative and next-of-kin, he was to inherit around $100,000 dollars. That would be worth around two million dollars today and with a decent exchange rate, could have reached one and three quarter million pounds sterling, so the existence of a motive was never in doubt.

Avery protested his innocence but could not provide a clear account of his movements, so it was not long before he was charged with his cousin’s murder. The State of Tennessee against Avery, in Henry County, was to prove a protracted affair.

There was no evidence to link Avery with the murder, it was merely a charge based on motive – which his defence claimed was not motive but supposition as he was not even in the vicinity at the time of the murder even though he could not prove it. Despite pleading ‘not guilty’ and strenuously protesting against lack of evidence, he was found guilty of his cousin’s murder in the first degree and sentenced to death by hanging.

Avery’s appeal to the Supreme Court won a stay of execution based on legal errors committed by the circuit court in Henry County. Indeed, twice, Avery won a mistrial ruling and four years had now passed with all these legal shenanigans.  It was then that a lawyer called Wallis appeared on the scene and agreed to take on Avery’s defence in his re-trial due for early August 1891.

Anyone familiar with actor Tony Shaloub’s performance as Adrian Monk, the homicide detective in the United States television series, simply called ‘Monk’, might like to factor that memory into the next sequence.

After studying the case at length, Wallis had a bizarre brainwave and, the day before the new trial was to begin, he arranged for a reconstruction of the murder scene in that same room taking eight reputable local citizens with him to act as witnesses to what was to happen.

His attention to detail was obsessive. He wanted the room to be exactly as it had been on the fateful afternoon back in 1867. He had Charles Ensley represented by a white sheet on the couch – with a charcoal outline of his body position at the time he was discovered. He also re-hung the rifle with the same ball shot loaded inside.

The other detail that puzzled the witnesses, was his precision in re-placing the same, heavy clear glass water pitcher on its high shelf just to the other side of the couch ensuring it was full with water and placed directly in front of the window as it had been at the time of Ensley’s murder.

Being August it was around ninety degrees in the shade – so the witnesses were beginning to tire with the heat and what appeared to be extraordinary behavior by Wallis as he adjusted, and reviewed the positioning of all these items until he appeared satisfied.

The time was early afternoon, just before 3pm as Wallis asked the sceptical group of witnesses  to wait and be patient.


At around 3 pm, there was a faint puffing sound and a sharp rifle report as a single ball-shot embedded itself into the couch and into the image of the late Mr. Ensley’s head.

As Wallis was to explain to the court the following day, and supported by his eight witnesses, the rays of the sun had used the water-jug as a means of magnifying the heat directed onto the rifle with such an intensity, the cartridge chamber could do no other than fire the lethal shot without the rifle being touched by human hand.

Avery lived a long life as a very wealthy man, although skeptics remain, adamant that Wallis’s experiment was merely a coincidence and Charles Ensley was murdered by his cousin John Avery.

I think I’m with Monk, sorry, I mean Wallis, on this one.


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