The Chocolate Box Murder.

Chocolate_headlineImagine you are a young barrister and you have been given your first murder case to defend. The year is 1929, the country is England in the county of Bath. You need to defend your client from the death penalty but there is a problem – your client is guilty of murder, he murdered his young wife, and there is no question he is telling the truth when he claims he battered his bride to death in the bedroom of their apartment with an iron bar.

He does not appear to be insane and accepts his guilt. A quick perusal of your brief points to him as guilty of murder on all counts and your job is to save his life even though he took an innocent life for no apparent reason. Okay let’s see how well you would do.

This story begins with a dishevelled man in his early twenties, limping up to a surprised desk sergeant at London’s  Paddington Green police station, and announcing, “I have killed my wife.” It was Friday 26th October 1928.

He turned out to be William Bartlett aged twenty-three, living with his wife Marjorie Aimee, also twenty-three, above their confectionery shop called The Chocolate Box in Monmouth Street Bath (about 120 miles away from London). Bartlett claimed that a strange sensation had overtaken him while with his wife in the bedroom of their apartment. He heard the crash of an iron bar falling to the ground and when he tried to focus on her face, it was just a blur of red. Then he noticed her head was lying in a massive pool of blood, her face beaten to a pulp. This had happened during the night of 25th October and this horrific sight led to a realization of what he had done with that iron bar. His distress, had then set him to aimlessly wandering the streets, ending up taking a train to London where he finally decided to give himself up. He said, “I have murdered my wife by hitting her over the head with an iron bar.”

Station Sergeant Lediard checked with his Bath police colleagues and sure enough when Detective Inspector Jones visited the Chocolate Box at number three Monmouth Street,* he discovered Marjorie Bartlett’s body and the iron bar. His colleague, Detective Constable Evans found no evidence of a struggle, and Inspector Powell discovered a shirt belonging to Bartlett with blood spots all along the right sleeve.

What Bartlett had said was true, and he was taken into custody for a murder trial which would not be held until the New Year. Bartlett appeared a little too slow in his reactions, speech, and attention span and was suspected of having learning difficulties but certainly not someone who was insane and likely to murder. So he was to be examined by medical specialists before any trial could begin. They declared that he had the mental age of a boy of fifteen rather than a man of twenty-three, however this would not prevent the application of the death penalty if found guilty.

Assigned to take on Bartlett’s defence was Mr. J. B. Casswell a young Western Circuit barrister from the chambers of Mr. Rayner Goddard. The media loved him, speaking of his “attractive manner” and “attractive voice”, concluding “no one could be failed to be stirred by his appeal.” (Source: Bath Chronicle and Herald, Saturday January 26th, 1929, p.5 – note as much as they loved him, the media misspelt his name as Caswell)

So you need to add these additional, non-judicial variables into the mix, but charisma on the part of the defence lawyer is hardly the solution to save Bartlett from death by hanging (or is it?)  How’s your charisma?

CASWELL 004_resize                                        His Honour J.D. Casswell, KC, in 1938:

But what of his client Bartlett?

Firstly, the limp that Station Sergeant Lediard had noticed when a weary and dejected Bartlett appeared at Paddington Green Police Station to give himself up was not from his hours of walking but due to the fact that Bartlett had an artificial leg. Lediard also recalled “..his brow was knit and he looked confused.” (Source: Bath Chronicle and Herald, Saturday January 26th, 1929, p.16).

When Casswell met him he described Bartlett as “a very miserable, simple young man who certainly did not appear to have any motive for killing his wife.” A Lance for Liberty, J.D.Casswell QC, 1961, p.60)


Bartlett’s expression about coming over ‘queer’, was the consistent theme he told to his young lawyer, Casswell. In order for Casswell to make a fair attempt at a defence, he had to find one and there did seem to be a possibility that – at the time of that tragic murder – William Bartlett had no idea what he was doing. So, not insane, but somehow not in possession of his senses at that moment in time. Bartlett’s backstory revealed a rather sad childhood growing up in Birmingham.

Casswell felt Bartlett’s childhood had been a terrible one as his parents and elder sister (he had two sisters) all died of tuberculosis and he had lost a leg as a young school boy when he fell and infected his knee. Three operations later, with parts of his leg being amputated each time, the complete limb had been removed. From then onwards he had become very introverted and took to hiding in his room. Casswell’s notes recorded him as ‘strange lonely and miserable.’ Indeed, the local paper, the Bath Chronicle and Herald, referred to him as, “being morbid, secretive and alone,” (ibid p.16)

The more Casswell delved into Bartlett’s past, the more sad and tragic it became and yet this was not to be a trial based on having sympathy for Bartlett but so much had gone very wrong for him since his mother had died when he was only thirteen, it must have had an effect on his mental state.

Casswell was particularly concerned about the time when Bartlett had managed to find a job apprenticed to a boot maker and was making progress when one morning at breakfast, he found his father dead on the sofa and when his elder sister had died, it was only ten months after the traumatic incident of his father’s death. He had very little contact with his remaining sister Frances.

Meeting and marrying his second cousin Marjorie Aimee in Weston-Super-Mare in the spring of 1928, was the best thing that had ever happened to him, he became a changed man, happy and content and loved Marjorie deeply – yet now he had murdered her – Why? It seemed an insane act and so was this going to have to be Casswell’s defence after all? But was he insane?

Between them, the Bartletts had sunk money that belonged to Marjorie into a childhood dream for both of them – running their own sweet shop – The Chocolate Box. The problem with this dream soon became apparent; neither of them had the least idea about how to run a business. They were literally like children playing shops. In a matter of months, their capital ran out while the income from the shop was negligible and the bills mounted up. So possibly a motive was beginning to emerge – but in what form would Bartlett have a motive associated with their business failing?

The trial began at the Somerset Assizes on Thursday 24th January, 1929.

Mr. J. L. Pratt was prosecuting on behalf of the Crown Prosecution Service, and Mr. J. D. Casswell was defending. An important variable for Casswell was that there were two women on the jury. He commented that he was not sure whether this would elicit some sympathy for orphan Bartlett or engender antagonism on behalf of his murdered bride, Marjorie.

When Bartlett was asked by the Clerk of the Assize, “Are you guilty or not guilty? Bartlett answered, “Yes Sir.”  Asked again, he said “Not guilty.”

Casswell knew exactly how the prosecution were going to play their hand, relying on a simplistic monetary motive. Pratt opened the trial and only spoke for twenty minutes. He claimed that this was a very simple case. He reminded the jury that Marjorie Bartlett was an orphan and William Bartlett’s second cousin.

The ‘dead woman’ – as he tended to refer to her – was entitled to two hundred and ninety pounds under a marriage settlement. He also referred to the fact that Marjorie Bartlett had sold some stock on the day of the murder for eleven pounds, yet there was only a few pence discovered in the apartment. Without actually saying this was the motive, he made the following declaration to the jury:

“It is inevitable in a case of this sort that one should speculate as to the motive that induced this man to kill his wife, because I suggest to you it is clear on the evidence that he was the man who killed her. If there were a doubt as to the person who actually committed a murder, then it might be very important for the jury to consider what motives the accused person had for doing it. But in this case, they need not be concerned with the question of motive because it was this man who struck the blows and they were murderous blows. Anybody striking them must have known that death would follow, for they were struck with great violence with an iron bar on the head of a defenceless woman.” (Source: Bath Chronicle and Herald, Saturday January 26th, 1929, p.16)

Casswell, now alerted to the ‘cut and dry’ style being adopted by the prosecution began opening some chinks of sympathetic and emotional light during his cross-examination of the main prosecution witness. He was Frederick Comfort, a retired journalist, grandfather of William Bartlett and uncle, by marriage of Marjorie Bartlett. Running through Bartlett’s tragic backstory, Casswell asked the question;

“Have you ever heard of his leaving home and being absent for some time, and returning, saying he did not know what had happened?”

“His father has told me,” replied Comfort, “he was missing once for two days and was unable to explain what he had been doing.”

Casswell asked the witness if he felt the Bartlett’s marriage was a “love match.”

“Yes,” replied Comfort, “they had known each other for years as children.”

“And as far as you know they had lived a perfectly happy life until this incident?” inquired Casswell.

“Yes,” said Comfort.

“You know no reason why the accused should have killed this woman?”

“No,” replied Comfort.

Slowly but surely Casswell dug into what he saw as a motiveless act that did not fit the loving relationship of the childhood sweethearts and happily married couple. He was building his picture of a man who had a sudden episode of unexplained detachment from events and his surroundings. He even managed to cross-examine the police to reinforce this point.

“On your journey with the prisoner from London to Bath after you had taken him into custody, did the accused seem to appreciate the dangerous position he was in?”

Detective Inspector Jones replied, “Apparently he did not.”

When Casswell opened for the defence he immediately took pains to distance himself from Pratt’s dismissal of the jury not needing to be concerned about motive. He cleverly pointed out that the law did not need a motive, as it was clear Bartlett had committed the murder, but for the jury it was, in fact, very important they should consider motive.

“From a legal point of view, if a man had committed murder, it did not matter what the motive was, whether hatred, revenge or greed. But for you, the jury, motive is a very important matter. No doubt, as you listened to the evidence for the prosecution, you  wondered why on earth he did it. He was a man who apparently loved his wife and had not been married long. Did he do it to get a paltry eleven pounds, when he could have easily taken it and walked out the place when she was sleeping? Was it likely a man in his senses would have left in the house, all the signs that he and he alone, did it? The answer I am going to put to you is that Bartlett did not know what he was doing at the time, that he had no control over himself and was not responsible for his act.”

When Bartlett himself was put on the stand, Casswell took his time to unpick this man’s tragic life through his calm questioning, but not to the extent that it overpowered the terrible deed. Getting the balance was crucial.

He then took Bartlett to the morning of October 25th 1928 and how normal that day was, with Bartlett taking Marjorie a cup of tea in bed. Later, still in the bedroom, she called down for some matches so she could have a smoke, William threw her a box on the bed and went back down. Later, because she had an appointment, he called her from the bottom of the stairs but she could not hear. He went up to the bedroom and found her asleep, shook her awake to remind her and she was angry with him, telling him to go away, “speaking very sharply,” said Bartlett, the word ‘sharply‘ somehow seemed significant to him.

Casswell asked, “What happened to you?”

Bartlett went on to give the media the headline story they would all run with the next day;

Chocolate_glazedBath Chronicle & Herald, ibid, p16

Casswell then asked, “Have you ever felt like this before?”

“Yes,” replied Bartlett.

“When?” asked Casswell.

“When I threw a kettle over my sister,” replied Bartlett without hesitation.

“What happened as far as you know yourself?” continued Casswell.

“I seemed to wake up, as if asleep standing,” answered Bartlett.

“Do you know what woke you up?” inquired Casswell gently.

“A noise,” replied Bartlett.

“Did you find out what it was?” Casswell asked softly.

“Apparently an iron bar dropping from my hand,” was the answer.

“Did you know you had the iron bar in your hand?”


“Do you remember picking it up?” prodded Casswell.


“Do you remember anything that happened?” said Casswell.


“Did you see anything on the bed?”

“I saw something red,” replied Bartlett, “the next thing I found myself in the room down below, and I found bloodstains on my sleeve. I realised I had done something to my wife.”

“When did you first realise it?” When Casswell asked this question, Bartlett opened up as if he had to make sense of it himself;

“When I saw something red on the bed. I changed my shirt; I don’t remember washing my hands; I remember going out, but I don’t remember locking the door. I went to Bristol by train, stayed there all day. but I cannot remember what I was doing. I just walked about in a dazed condition, I can remember nothing. I started for London close on midnight. I don’t know what happened when I arrived there. I just walked about in a circle – but always came back to the same place – Paddington railway station. I was doing that all night and the following day. I passed Paddington Green police station several times, then my head seemed to clear and I thought the best thing to do was to give myself up.”

Casswell then chose to ask his key question,

“Did you ever intend to kill your wife?”


“Had you any reason to wish to kill her?”


To further questioning – in order to allay the jury’s likely concern about the availability of the weapon used –  it was established that the iron bar was in the bedroom because it was used to adjust and mend his artificial leg.

Pratt for the prosecution then began an extraordinary cross-examination that paid no attention to what had just been revealed by Bartlett and showed clearly he had no interest other than trying to portray Bartlett as needing the money and planning a kind of murder story. His first question to Bartlett was:

“Was your favourite author Sexton Blake, and did you spend the greater part of your married life reading stories of crime?”

“No.” replied Bartlett firmly.

Pratt then pursued a pointless journey of questioning to try and indicate that Bartlett had been persuaded to marry Marjorie by his sister Frances, and as  he couldn’t get a proper job and as Marjorie had money, he could sort his life out that way, implying there was no real love and genuine marriage happiness, so clearly this was a deliberate act of murder by Bartlett and the ‘red mist’ theory was a ploy.

Pratt did not seem convinced by his own questioning. It was during the long afternoon and early evening part of this trial that the real breakthrough occurred for the defence by the introduction of a neurologist, Dr. R.G. Gordon, a specialist in what was at the time referred to as, ‘mental and nerve diseases.’

That afternoon Casswell and Gordon became a double act of important legal significance but the media chose to laud them in another way:

CASWELL_attractive  (Source: Bath Chronicle and Herald,  Saturday January 26th, 1929, p.5)

That afternoon the jury saw a performance worthy of a theatrical production.

They took to Dr. Gordon’s detailed but clearly expressed view that this was a case of ‘Epileptic Automatism’.(1) When Bartlett killed his wife, he was suffering from an epileptic attack – not a fit – but equivalent to a fit that enabled him to take actions his everyday persona would never wish to undertake. He would have no knowledge of his actions until it was too late.

However the prison doctor, who had appeared for the prosecution, testified that Bartlett had not exhibited any signs of such an illness while on remand. What would later become Casswell’s brilliant trade-mark style as a successful defence lawyer was glimpsed at this moment when he suggested to the prison doctor,  “If the prisoner were going to pretend to be unbalanced would not one surely expect him to pursue that pretence while under the authorities’ observation?” The doctor reluctantly agreed.

In his memoirs, A Lance for Liberty, (Harrap: 1961), Casswell admits at this point in the trial he had produced no independent evidence of previous epileptic episodes, “My only chance was an emotional appeal. I must arouse the sympathy of the jury for the accused.” (p.60)

Casswell asked the jury, “Do you think Bartlett consciously stilled the voice he loved or killed the only happiness that he had ever had in his life? It was passionate plea to the jury, ending with a quotation from Tennyson’s elegy, Break, Break Break:

‘But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand

And the sound of a voice that is still.’

For the first time and, as it transpired, the only time in his career, Casswell reduced the jury to tears. As expected, Judge MacKinnon tried to reverse this sympathetic picture back to the image of a cold-blooded killer, but the jury were swayed and returned a verdict of “Guilty but Insane”.

In the event, rightly or wrongly, William Bartlett served only a few years in Broadmoor before being released.

So, even when you know ‘whodunnit’ and the murder is a terrible, bloody one with no evidence as to real motive, or in this case, proven insanity, the final arbiters – the jury – hold the trump card. This card however had been expertly dealt in the city of Bath in January 1929, by a young barrister defending his very first murder trial.

How well did you do?

Chocolate_insane Source: Bath Chronicle & Herald, ibid, p16

*Incidently; The Chocolate Box today is a very popular student ‘take-away’ called Alfalafel:  3, Monmouth Street, Bath   – see trip advisor for details.

(1) An excellent paper on this condition can be found at: Epilepsy and the law – Epilepsy Society


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