case was a controversial landmark British criminal case. It
involved a murder conviction based on a painstaking police
investigation, and from careful forensic evaluation of the
On January 10,
1929, two men found the decomposing, rat-bitten body of a man
behind some boxes in a locked garage in Southampton; the garage
was used as a storeroom by the local agent of the Wolf's Head
Oil Company, and the body was identified as that of the agent,
Vivian Messiter, who had been missing for some time.
The victim was
reported as missing for nine weeks prior to his body's
discovery, and while police had checked the garage, they did not
pursue the matter thoroughly since they found it locked. It was
only when a new oil company agent came to take over the garage
when it was opened and the body discovered.
examination of the body revealed a puncture over the left eye,
which led police to think that Messiter had been shot, but
further examination by Sir Bernard Spilsbury indicated that the
real cause of death was multiple severe blunt force trauma to
the skull, so much so that "it was fractured everywhere except
The examination of the crime scene further revealed the
presence of extensive blood splatter to the height of several
feet, which meant that the man had been murdered in the same
hammer was found near the scene, and upon examination Spilsbury
found a hair consistent with that of the eyebrow hair of the
dead man. And since the wounds on the victim were also
consistent with the hammer, it was Spilbury's conclusion that
the hammer, wielded with great force, was the murder weapon.
papers that were found was a reply to an advertisement for local
agents signed, "William F. Thomas". In pursuing this lead the
police were able to discover that a man of that name had worked
for a Wiltshire building contractor who had disappeared after
allegedly absconding with a large amount of wage packets.
assigned to the case next went to the lodgings where "Mr.
Thomas" had stayed in before his disappearance. Apparently his
departure was so hurried that he negligently left a lot of clues
behind. From this the police were able to determine that
"William Thomas" was an alias for one William Henry Podmore,
who was known to police, being wanted for a charge of fraud in
Manchester. Suspicion immediately fell on him, and he was
subsequently brought in for questioning.
determined that Podmore did indeed work as Messiter's assistant,
but as the police still did not have enough information to
support a murder charge, he was initially convicted for six
months for the earlier charge of fraud.
meantime, a breakthrough in the case came with a careful
examination of a receipt book for oil sale commissions. Based on
a study of indentations between the lines of a genuine receipt
made by pencilled writing on the sheet above—which had been torn
out—it was determined that Podmore had been reporting to
Messiter sales of oil to non-existent customers, and collecting
commissions on these sales.
theorized that upon learning of this, Messiter had confronted
Podmore about the swindle, whereupon Podmore, being aware of the
Manchester charge, had lost his nerve and murdered him with the
months after the murder, the police deemed that they now had
enough evidence to bring Podmore to trial on March 1930 at
Winchester Assizes. Because it was obvious that Messiter had
still been repeatedly battered with the hammer even when
unconscious, public opinion was overwhelmingly against Podmore.
While the hair
evidence was played up by the media, it was only part of a
painstaking police investigation although it unquestionably
identified the murder weapon. Of greater importance was the
receipt book, as well the testimony of two fellow prisoners of
Podmore who stated that he had confessed in their presence.
Podmore was found guilty, and was hanged on April 22, 1930
despite some public outcry against the verdict.
William Henry Podmore
January 1929 the decaying body of 58-year-old Vivian Messiter was
discovered behind boxes in a garage in Southampton. Messiter was an
agent for the Wolf's Head Oil Company and the body was found by someone
from the company who had gone to find out what had happened to their
The man had died from massive head injuries. When police
searched Messiter's lodgings they discovered a reply to an advertisement
for a saleman's job with the company from William F. Thomas. Thomas was
wanted for questioning by the police with regard to a wages robbery.
When police got to the address shown on the letter Thomas had left
though they did find evidence that Thomas was really William Henry
Podmore, a 29 year old motor mechanic and petty thief.
was apprehended in London and, because there was insufficient evidence
to bring a murder charge against him, he was charged with an earlier
fraud he had committed in Manchester. He received six months
While he was serving his sentence forensic scientists
carried on the search for evidence. A sales receipt book was found. In
it were entries paying commission to W. F. Thomas for fictitious sales.
While the top two pages had been torn out, forensic analysis revealed
the writing on the page below. In the garage a hammer had been found
which had been used as the murder weapon. On it was discovered an
eyebrow hair that was identified as belonging to Podmore.
proof of Podmore's swindle, the forensic evidence, combined with
statements from fellow inmates from Wandsworth about his involvement,
was enough for a jury at Winchester Assizes, in December 1929, to find
him guilty. He was hanged in Winchester Prison on 22nd April 1930.
seem that the motive for this ghastly murder was fear of being found
out. He murdered his employer in order to silence him, as Podmore was
defrauding the company and had been found out by Vivian Messiter he felt
he had to kill him to keep him quiet.