The Unsolved Murder of Julia Wallace
Julia and William Wallace had been married 16 years when, on a night in January 1931, Julia was found by her husband in a pool of blood in the couple’s living room. She had been bludgeoned to death.
William Wallace’s Alibi
Suspicion in Julia’s death quickly settled on her husband, but he appeared to be in another part of Liverpool when the murder took place.
According to a story in The Liverpool Echo by Paddy Shennan, William Wallace “attended a meeting of the Liverpool Chess Club on January 19, 1931, where he was handed a telephone message asking him to call at 25 Menlove Gardens East, Liverpool, the following evening at 7:30 p.m. to discuss insurance with an ‘R.M. Qualtrough.’”
So, on the evening of January 20, Wallace travelled by streetcar across Liverpool only to discover the address he had been given did not exist. He kept asking the streetcar conductor to tell him when to get off. He asked several people, including a policeman, for directions but, after 45 minutes of an unsuccessful search, he decided to return home.
It was as if he wanted people to notice him in that part of Liverpool at that particular time.
Julia Wallace’s Body Found
Writing for The Telegraph, Roger Wilkes notes that at about 8:45 p.m., January 20 neighbours of the Wallaces, a Mr. and Mrs. Johnston, found an agitated Wallace outside his house.
He told his neighbours “he’d been out for a couple of hours, returning home to find all the doors locked against him. Mr. Johnston suggested trying again. ‘It opens now,’ murmured Wallace, disappearing through the back door. Moments later he was back. ‘Come and see!’ he exclaimed. ‘She’s been killed!’ ”
Police arrived and forensics expert John MacFall used the onset of rigor mortis, an outdated method, to determine the time of death. He said Julia Wallace probably died at around 8 p.m., a time when William was clearly on the other side of the city.
Murder Investigation and Trial
Wallace seems an unlikely suspect. He was 52 years old and not in the best of health. Edward Lustgarten, writing about the case, describes Wallace as a “placid, good-tempered, gentle individual … Integrity and stability were the distinguishing marks of his modest and respectable career.”
Even though a witness had seen Julia alive shortly before her husband left on his fruitless search for R.M. Qualtrough, police decided Wallace had enough time, if he moved briskly, to commit the murder and turn up in a different part of the city a short while later.
At trial, the jury agreed with the police version even though there was no forensic evidence to tie Wallace to his wife’s death and he was far from capable of acting with the swiftness the prosecution’s theory required. He was convicted entirely on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to hang.
Verdict Overturned on Appeal
Wallace professed his innocence throughout the proceedings and, in a highly unusual verdict, the Court of Criminal Appeal agreed with him. The appeal court overturned the jury’s verdict saying it was “not supported by the weight of the evidence.”
Wallace moved to another area of Liverpool but his already poor health was broken by the ordeal and he died in 1933. No one else has ever been charged with Julia’s murder.
Was it the Perfect Murder?
The British writer James Agate took a particular interest in the case and he wrote, “It was planned with extreme care and extraordinary imagination. Either the murderer was Wallace or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, then here at last is the perfect murder.”
And the crime writer Raymond Chandler came to much the same conclusion. He is quoted in the 1997 book Raymond Chandler Speaking as saying, “I call it the impossible murder because Wallace couldn’t have done it, and neither could anyone else.”
Dorothy L. Sayers rendered her opinion that the murder “provides for the detective novelist an unrivalled field for speculation.”
However, writer John Gannon claims to have unravelled the mystery. In his 2012 book, The Killing of Julia Wallace, Gannon writes that one Richard Parry was the guilty party. According to The Liverpool Echo, Parry “had been a junior employee at Wallace’s firm, but was sacked for stealing. A petty criminal, he was always short of money.”
Gannon says that Parry and an accomplice made the R.M. Qualtrough phone call to get Wallace out of the house and then killed Julia in order to steal the small amount of insurance premiums her husband had collected that day.
Leave it to P.D. James
The great mystery novelist, P.D. James, likened the speculation about the Julia Wallace murder to that surrounding the Jack the Ripper case of 1888.
As with crime fiction writers before her, she wondered about the case until one day “a solution to the mystery came into my mind with the strength of an absolute conviction.”
She theorized that the lad Parry was the prank caller but not the murderer. He was simply getting even with William Wallace because he lost his job.
P.D. James leaned on psychology as she did in many of her novels. She described William Wallace as a man beaten down by disappointment and lack of success to the point that he was a lowly insurance salesman.
The prank call, said Ms. James, gave Wallace the alibi he needed to settle the demons of his failure. She is reported by The Guardian to have said “Perhaps when he struck the first tremendous blow that killed her, and the 10 afterwards delivered with such force, it was years of striving and constant disappointment that he was obliterating.”
So perhaps, as is so often the case, it was the husband who did it. We’ll never know.
- According to the Office of National Statistics in the U.K. “Women [are] far more likely to be killed by partners or ex-partners (50 percent of female victims aged 16 and over compared with three percent of male victims aged 16 and over).”
- According to National Public Radio “If you’re murdered in America, there’s a one in three chance that the police won’t identify your killer.” Fifty years ago, only one in ten murderers were unidentified.
- “Writer John Gannon on How he Finally Cracked the Case of the Man from the Pru and the Murder of Julia Wallace.” Paddy Shennan, Liverpool Echo, November 16, 2009.
- “Inside Story: 29 Wolverton Street.” Roger Wilkes, The Telegraph, May 12, 2001.
- “Verdict in Dispute.” Edgar Lustgarten, Scribners, 1950.
- “Raymond Chandler Speaking.” Raymond Chandler, University of California Press, 1997.
- “PD James Claims to Have Solved 1931 Cold Case Murder.” Liz Bury, The Guardian, October 28, 2013
- “An Impossible Murder.” The Unredacted, February 26, 2018.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor