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The Wigwam Murder
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: French-Canadian soldier of Indian birth
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: September 21, 1942
Date of arrest: December 6, 1942
Date of birth: August 28, 1913
Victim profile: Joan Pearl Wolfe, 19
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Hankley Common, Surrey, England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging at Wandsworth Prison on April 29, 1943
photo gallery


The Wigwam Case gained its infamous nickname as the case involved a Canadian soldier of North American Indian ethnic origin and the residence of the murder victim. The case also involved the famous British Pathologist Professor Keith Simpson.

The Case Details

On 7 October 1942, two soldiers were strolling on Hankley Common (near Godalming, Surrey) when they noticed an arm protruding from a mound of earth. A badly decomposed fully-clothed woman was found to have been loosely buried up on the mound.

Professor Keith Simpson concluded that the woman had been stabbed with a hooked-tipped knife, and that she was then killed with a heavy blunt instrument. He also deduced that the attack had occurred elsewhere, and the woman's corpse dragged to the ridge where it was buried. The woman was eventually identified as Joan Pearl Wolfe, who was living rough in a crude shelter made of tree branches, and so the newspapers gave her the nickname of "Wigwam Girl".

The police search of Hackney Common found the dead woman's Identity Card and a letter to a Canadian soldier called August Sangret. The letter informed Sangret that she was pregnant.

When the police interviewed Sangret, he admitted having intimate relations with the girl and living with her tree wigwam. A heavy birch branch, with blood stains, was found near the body's grave. Sangret's recently washed battledress was found to have blood stains. Finally on 27 November 1942, a hooked-tip knife was found blocking a waste pipe.

August Sangret was charged with Wolfe's murder and tried during February 1943. He was found guilty of murder, with a recommendation to mercy, and sentenced to death by hanging. The Home Secretary choose to disregard the jury's recommendation. Sangret was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on 29 April 1943.

L/27572 Private August Sangret, Royal Canadian Infantry Corps, is commemorated on the Brookwood Memorial. His entry can be found on Panel 23, Column 3.


August Sangret a French-Canadian soldier of Indian birth, who murdered Joan Wolfe in Surrey, England. This murder case is also known as The Wigwam Murder.

On October 7th 1942, two British soldiers saw a human arm sticking out of a pile of earth near Hankley Common, Surrey. When the woman's body was excavated, it had almost completely decomposed. The pathologist concluded the girl had been stabbed before receiving several blows to the head with a blunt object.

The victim was identified as Joan Wolfe, a girl who had run away from home and lived in the woods near the army base. The vicinity was scrutinized and a letter was found, written by Joan to a certain August Sangret. The letter informed Sangret that Wolfe was pregnant. On Sangret's clothes were found bloodstains, and his army knife was found soon after in a drainpipe.

Sangret's trial began in February 1943. He was convicted for murder and hanged on April 29th 1943 in Wandsworth prison.


  • J.H.H. Gaute and Robin Odell, The New Murderer's Who's Who, 1996, Harrap Books, London

  • Notable British Trials

  • Guy Bailey, The Fatal Chance, 1969, London

  • Edward Greeno, War on the Underworld, 1960, London


August Sangret (28 August 1913 – 29 April 1943) was a French-Canadian soldier of First Nations birth, convicted of murdering Joan Wolfe in Surrey, England and hanged. This murder case is also known as The Wigwam Murder.

Joan Wolfe

Joan Pearl Wolfe was born 11 March 1923. Wolfe's mother, Edith Mary Watts had married a Mr Wolfe, who suffered from an illness believed by his neighbours to be a form of sleeping sickness. He ended his life by gassing himself. Wolfe's mother married twice more; Joan had a sister and a half-sister.

Joan Wolfe lived with her mother in the market town of Tonbridge. They lived modestly in a council house in Lodge Oak Lane. In 1938, aged sixteen, Joan had become engaged to a young man from nearby Tunbridge Wells. Her mother had lectured her sternly about staying out late, but the two did not quarrel angrily. Wolfe's engagement evidently broke down and she began going out with soldiers; although little is known of Wolfe's relationship with her mother, it seems that she was a caring woman driven to her wit's end by he daughter's behaviour and their relationship deteriorated. Wolfe first left home before she was seventeen years old.

Wolfe was young, naďve, muddle headed and prone to flights of fancy. She was brought up as a Catholic and attended a convent school, she was outwardly pious and regularly wore a conspicuous crucifix about her neck, but she apparently lacked any real religious commitment. Having left home, she headed to Aldershot, the home of the British Army and her behaviour became increasingly promiscuous. Wolfe made her way to Godalming, looking for work.

The police intervened on several occasions; Wolfe was repeatedly questioned because she was still a minor. Despite her repeated claims that the police never did anything to help her, she was in fact offered various forms of assistance with varying levels of compulsion. She returned home more than once; always, she drifted back.

Wolfe became engaged to a Canadian soldier: Francis Hearn. Hearn returned to Canada promising to marry her; she wore a ring that he had given her and she sometimes referred to herself as his wife.

On 17 July 1942, the day after Hearn left for Canada, Wolfe met Sangret for the first time in a pub in Godalming. They talked and walked through a local park. They had sex that night and parted company having arranged to meet again. As very often happened, Wolfe did not keep her next date, but Sangret met her again by chance a few days later when she seemed to be on a date with another soldier named Hartnell. The three conversed for some time and then Hartnell left. Sangret and Wolfe met regularly, if unreliably, after that.

On 23 July, Wolfe found herself in hospital. She wrote to Sangret:

My Dear August,

Well, my dear, I hope I am forgiven for not turning up to see you last night, but I was in the police station five hours and they did not help me. I was walking along the road and suddenly came over queer. I fainted for the first time in my whole life. The brought me to the hospital here. They are going to examine me. I shall know whether I am all right or not then. I hope you will come and see me, as I really want to see you very much and being in bed all day is awful. You can come any night between 6-7 p.m. and Sunday afternoon. Please try and come. I have your picture on the locker beside me. The nurses know you are my boy friend, they told me to tell you to come and see me. You have to tell them my name and ask for Emergency Ward. Well, hoping to see you soon, I will say au revoir. God bless you. Love Joan.

Wolfe was not ill; she was, apparently, pregnant.

August Sangret

Sangret was born on 28 August 1913 in Battleford, Saskatchewan. He was of mixed race, called in French Bois-Brűlés ("burnt wood"), part French Canadian and part Cree. Little is known of Sanget's early life, but his family was poor and Sangret received little education - he was illiterate, but not unintelligent. As well as English, he spoke the Cree language and learned some of the traditional skills of his ancestors, including the construction of sturdy shelters or wigwams made from long poles covered by sheets of birch bark, the tools for this task include a small crooked knife that is unique to the Cree.

He was unable to find work in the 1930s, but from 1935 to 1939 he served in the Battleford Light Infantry, a militia regiment which trained for two weeks each year. On 19 June 1940, Sangret enlisted as a full-time soldier in The Royal Regina Rifles. He had a criminal record, including six months in gaol for a violent assault in 1932. He was not a model soldier; he was repeatedly punished for minor infractions of military discipline and had repeated spells on the sick list and he was at least twice treated for venereal disease requiring five admissions to hospital. He arrived in Britain on 24 March 1940 and was initially stationed in Fleet.

He was then sent to Aldershot and in July he was posted to a newly formed Educational Company which ran a course for men lacking elementary education. It was at this time that Sangret met Joan Wolfe.

When Wolfe was released from hospital, the couple spent a great deal of time together. Sangret made a shack or wigwam in woodland behind the officers lines. Here Wolfe would stay most of the time and Sangret would visit whenever he could, including many nights when he should have been in camp. The couple talked about their future plans, including marriage. When they could not meet, Wolfe sent letters to Sangret that would be read out by Sergeant Hicks. Wolfe got work, but she was totally unreliable and her various employments only lasted a few days. Wolfe drifted away for a few days to London and soon after she returned she was again picked up by the police and spent a few more days in hospital — not because she was ill, but simply so that she would be looked after.

When Wolfe returned, the couple were discovered in a wigwam by Private Donald Brett, a soldier attached to the military police. Brett told them to disassemble the wigwam and move away. Wolfe was once again taken to a hospital by the police. By the time she returned, Sangret had built a second wigwam made waterproof with his rain cape and gas cape. When Wolfe returned, the couple walked into town to try to find a room in town without success. That evening, Wolfe was detained by the military police who questioned her; she was sent to a hospital again and Sangret was arrested for "keeping a girl in camp".

The couple had to explain themselves to the authorities, they explained that their plans included getting married and they were treated sympathetically. On leaving hospital, Wolfe again returned to Sangret. They tried again to find a room in town, but ended up sleeping together in an unlocked cricket pavilion. Over the next two weeks, they spent a number of nights at the old pavilion and then, on 14 September, Wolfe disappeared. The affair between Sangret and Wolfe had lasted 81 days.

Discovery, evidence, and arrest

Hankley Common was then an army training ground regularly used for military exercises. On 7 October 1942, Royal Marine William Moore was patrolling the area on a routine march when in one of the many tank tracks that criss-crossed the area he saw what looked like a human hand protruding from a mound of earth. As he looked closer, he saw that two of the fingers and the thumb had been gnawed away by rats and nearby a foot also protruded from the earth; Moore realised he had found a human body.

Moore did not interfere with the body, but immediately reported his find to his sergeant who passed the information to Lieutenant Norman McLeod who called the police. By evening, a full scale police investigation was underway. Among the investigators was forensic pathologist Cedrick Keith Simpson and his secretary Molly Lefebure.

The body was that of a female placed face down in a shallow grave which had then been disturbed by a passing vehicle, probably a half-track. The exhumation began the next day. There was a strong smell of putrefaction, and flies and maggots were everywhere. The body was badly decomposed and the head practically fell apart. Among the decomposing remains were clothes. The body was removed and taken to Guy's Hospital.

Simpson examined the body. Based on the hydrolysation of body fats saponification and taking into account the extra heat that would be generated by the maggots, Simpson estimated that the victim had died in mid-September. Simpson carefully reconstructed the skull by wiring together all the fragments that could be found, clearly revealing a large impact site. Simpson concluded that the victim died as a result of a single massive blow to the head while the victim was already lying face down. The blow which caved in the skull and simultaneously broke the jaw and dislodged teeth. The murder weapon was a pole or bough. Simpson found knife wounds on the body, inflicted before the victim had died. The wounds on the arms, particularly the right arm, suggested a struggle in which the victim fended off stabs to the face; the cuts were unusual in that tissue had been pulled out of the lesions. There were knife wounds in the head too; one of the wounds in the reconstructed skull was particularly unusual, it was a round countersunk hole. Simpson concluded that the knife had a blade resembling a parrot's beak.

The police quickly realised that the body and clothes matched the description of the missing Joan Wolfe. A search of the area where she was found was carried out by sixty police constables. Finds included a missing shoe, a tuft of hair, a fragment of skull, and a tooth. Later, Wolfe's bag was found with personal effects and identity papers; and a bloody bough was found that was certainly the murder weapon. A letter was found, written by the victim to August Sangret, informing him that she was pregnant. On Sangret's clothes were found bloodstains, and his army knife was found soon after in a drainpipe.

Sangret was arrested and taken to Godalming police station. He was interviewed at length by inspector Edward Greeno. The questioning went on for days and Sangret's statement, which was then the longest statement ever made, took a policeman five days to write out in longhand. Sangret was charged with Wolfe's murder.

Trial and punishment

Preliminary hearings were held at Guildford on 12, 13, 19 and 20 January 1943. With the committal proceedings complete, Captain Creasey noted in his diary that the case was "medium strong, circumstantial case only."

The judge finished his summary with the words:

That the girl (Wolfe) was murdered is not in dispute; that she was murdered by some man is also quite plain; and the only question you have to determine is: Have the Crown satisfied you beyond all real doubt that the prisoner, August Sanget, is the man who murdered her?


I can only conclude by saying what I said at the beginning; when dealing with a case of circumstantial evidence you must be satisfied beyond all doubt before you find the prisoner guilty. If you come to the conclusion that, on the facts as proved to you, no real doubt is left in your minds that his was the hand which slew this unhappy girl, then you will convict him.

The jury, who took two hours to reach their verdict, made a strong recommendation to mercy. Before sentence of death was passed, Sangret declared, "I am not guilty. I never killed that girl."

Sanget's appeal was heard on 13 April. The appeal was dismissed and the jury's appeal for mercy was not a matter for the courts, but for the Home Secretary. Then Home Secretary Herbert Morrison found the jury's recommendation surprising, even inexplicable. Seeing no good reason to interfere, he let the law take its course. Sangret was held in the condemned cell at Wandsworth Prison where he was hanged on 29 April 1943.

In his memoirs, published in 1960, Edward Greeno made his opinion quite clear:

I had interviewed thousands of people in this case and seventy-four of them went into the witness-box. The case was so watertight that, as Sir Norman Kendal said later, Sanget's appeal against the death sentence 'was almost a farce'.

One small doubt remained. Sanget murdered the girl because she was expecting his child—but was she? Was she expecting anybody's child?

The doctors didn't think so on the occasion that the police sent her to hospital, and when her body was found it was too late to tell.

But this is certain: Sangret did murder her. He confessed before he died, and this is where I quarrel with the rules. It is never announced when a murderer confesses. But why not? There are always cranks and crackpots to argue that some wicked policeman has framed some poor fellow. So why make an official secret of the fact that the policeman did his job?

Private August Sangret, Royal Canadian Infantry Corps, is commemorated on the Brookwood Memorial. His entry can be found on Panel 23, Column 3. Other executed criminals present on the Brookwood Memorial are Ernest James Kemp and Theodore Schurch.

Media portrayal

The Sangret case was dramatised twice by Harry Alan Towers. Firstly as "The Case of the Hunted Hunter" in the series Secrets of Scotland Yard in approximately 1949, then on the series The Black Museum in 1952 under the title of "The Brass Button". The case was featured in the Discovery Channel television series Crime Museum UK in the episode "Strange Weapons". It was also featured in the Discovery Channel series Crime Museum UK, with Martin Kemp.

The case is the subject of non-fiction book The Wigwam Murder by M. J. Trow.



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