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John Norman Holmes THORNE






The Chicken Run Murder
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Dismemberment
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: December 5, 1924
Date of arrest: January 15, 1925
Date of birth: 1900
Victim profile: Elsie Emily Cameron, 26 (his fiancee)
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: Crowborough, Sussex, England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging at Wandsworth prison on April 22nd 1925

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Love of another woman - John Norman Holmes Thorne

Norman Thorne and Elsie Emily Cameron met in 1920. She was a 26-year-old typist, rather plain to look at and wore glasses. Thorne, 18-years-old was an electrical engineer.

Elsie was worried that if she did not find a man soon she would end up left on the shelf. She had decided that Norman would do for her and the couple started courting. When Norman became unemployed in the summer of 1921 he decided to go into business for himself. His father gave him £100 and he bought a small piece of land at Blackness, Crowborough, Sussex, and, set himself up as Wesley Poultry Farm.

Norman worked hard. He built a series of sheds and runs and cycled back to London at weekends to see Elsie. He converted one of the shacks on the site into living accommodation and moved in. Now it was Elsie's turn to travel and she used to catch the train down to Sussex. She would spend the days with Norman and lodge with a local family at night.

Elsie and Norman became engaged at Christmas 1922. Shortly afterwards Elsie lost her job. Over the next few months she had a series of jobs, all of which she soon left, for one reason or another. About June 1923 Norman's business wasn't doing too well. Because of this Norman was reluctant to fix a wedding date.

At Whitsun 1924 Norman went to a local dance and met Bessie Coldicott, a dressmaker. Bessie was a lot less demanding and uncomplicated. His feelings began to shift from Elsie to the fun-loving Bessie.

In October Elsie travelled to Crowborough and stayed a week. As usual, she lodged with Norman's neighbours, Mr and Mrs Cosham, and spent her days at the farm. After she returned home she wrote to Norman informing him that she was pregnant. Norman promptly wrote back telling her about Bessie. Elsie replied the following day, telling him that he had got her pregnant and she expected him to marry her before Christmas.

Sunday 30th November saw Elsie arrive unannounced at the farm, about 11am. She was in a highly agitated state and, to calm her, Norman convinced her that they would marry, but that it must wait until he had sorted things out with his father. Elsie left just before 8pm and went back to London. Norman's father visited Norman on Wednesday 3rd December when they discussed Norman's financial and personal plight.

Mr Thorne Snr. advised Norman to wait if he had any doubts as to Elsie's claims of being pregnant and Norman wrote to Elsie informing her of this. Elsie could see the object of her dreams disappearing and decided it was time to act. She set out on Friday 5th December determined to settle the matter. She caught the train to Crowborough station and walked to the farm, this was the last time she was seen alive.

On the 10th December, Elsie's father sent a telegram to Norman asking after his daughter. Norman replied that he had not seen her. The next day Elsie's father informed the police of his daughter's disappearance.

It was established that Elsie had been seen, by two flower-growers, carrying an attaché case while walking towards the farm at about 5.15pm on the 5th December. When they spoke to Norman he was adamant that she had not been to the farm.

At the beginning of January there was still no sign of the missing woman. Police paid a visit to one of Norman's neighbours, Mrs Annie Price. She was certain she had seen Elsie entering the farm on the day she had vanished. Sussex police requested assistance from Scotland Yard and Chief Inspector Gillan arrived to take over the case.

After reviewing what evidence they had he decided that there was enough to arrest Norman and then they could search the farm. The farm was searched and, in an Oxo-cube tin, they found Elsie's watch, bracelet and some jewellery. Having completed their search of the outbuildings on the farm they now started to dig. The next morning was cold and wet but things went well for the police and they soon unearthed Elsie's case. At 8pm that evening he told detectives that he hadn't killed the woman but knew where she was buried.

He went on to tell them that he had seen her on the farm that day. He said he was having tea when Elsie arrived unannounced. She was most upset and stated that she was staying on the farm until they were married. He had explained about his feelings for Bessie and they had argued. He had already agreed to meet Bessie and her mother at the station and he left around 9.30pm to meet them leaving Elsie at the farm.

He had returned about 11.30pm to find that Elsie had used his washing line to hang herself from a beam. He had cut her down and then just sat down and thought about what he was going to do. He said

"I got my hacksaw...and sawed off her legs, and the head.' He had then buried the pieces under the chicken run. Sir Bernard Spilsbury, carrying out the post mortem, said that he could find no sign of rope marks and Norman was charged with murder.

He appeared before Lewes Assizes on 4th March 1925. Evidence was given as to the lack of rope marks for the prosecution but it was argued by Dr Robert Brontë for the defence that he had found creases on the neck that may have been made by a rope. The police told of their examination of the beams in the shack and said that there was no sign of a rope having been suspended from any of them.

On the 16th March the jury retired and returned a guilty verdict. Norman Thorne was sentenced to death. He was hanged on 22nd April 1925, strangely enough the 22nd would have been Elsie's twenty-seventh birthday.

John Norman Holmes Thorne was being pressured into marrying Elsie Cameron when he had already fallen for another girl. Elsie had told him she was pregnant hoping that would make up his mind for him. He saw her murder as the only way out.


Norman Thorne

On December 5th 1924, Kensal Green, London typist, Elsie Cameron set out for Crowborough, Sussex, to visit Norman Thorne at his smallholding. Bespectacled, insipid, fragile, she clung vigorously to the idea of marriage with Thorne, whose earlier amorous inclinations showed signs of waning.

On December 10th her father wired Thorne for news of his daughter, and heard by return: ‘Not here… can’t understand.’ Two farmworkers had in fact seen Elsie Cameron, attaché’ case in hand, walking towards Thorne’s farm on the evening of the 5th, local police and journalists alike insisted they were mistaken.

Thorne appeared to welcome police inquiries – ‘I want to help all I can’ – and eagerly showed them around his poultry farm and the broken-down shack where he lived. He asked one Press photographer to photograph him feeding chickens at a particular spot, which later turned out to be Elsie Cameron’s burial site.

A female neighbour of Thorne’s, who unaccountably had not been aware of the commotion, finally came forward a month after Elsie Cameron’s disappearance to say she had seen the missing girl walking through the gate of Thorne’s farm on December 5th. As a result of this information Crowborough police on January 11th called in Scotland Yard. Digging up the poultry farm began in earnest, and on January 15th Elsie Cameron’s corpse, with head and legs severed, was found.

Thorne now said that Elsie Cameron had indeed arrived at his farm on December 5th. There had been a quarrel about a friendship with another girl and he had stormed out of the hut; on his return, at 11.30 p.m. he found Elsie Cameron had hanged herself with the clothesline and was dangling from a beam. He panicked, ‘I got my hacksaw… sawed off her legs and head by the glow of the fire…’ In the morning he buried the remains in one of his chicken runs: ‘It is the Leghorn chicken run, the first pen from the gate.’

At his trial for murder at Lewes there was controversy between pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, who had examined the remains on January 17th, and Dr Robert Bronte, pathologist called by the defence, who inspected the remains a month after Spilsbury’s post-mortem. Spilsbury had found signs of injuries to ‘the head, face, elbow, legs, and feet, which together were sufficient to account for death from shock…’, but no evidence of hanging. (Nor had the police found any trace of rope-markings on the wooden beam.) Spilsbury refuted Bronte’s suggestion that the ‘creases’ or grooves’ found on the victim’s neck were attributable to hanging, saying they were natural marks to be found on most female necks.

Thorne was found guilty, and when the case was taken to the Court of Criminal Appeal application was made for the medical evidence to be reviewed by a Commissioner appointed by the Court. The application was rejected, as was the appeal, and Thorne was ultimately hanged.

Elsie Cameron was known to be a thoroughly neurotic and unstable girl, who had been a shorthand typist but was unemployed for six or seven months preceding her death because of her neurotic condition.

In the first six months of 1924, she had been constantly under medical supervision for neurasthenia and loss of energy. Once, on a visit to Thorne’s parents, she had been hysterical and ‘difficult’. Her unstable mental condition also manifested itself in a periodic conviction of her pregnancy she had told Thorne she was pregnant just before arriving at the farm although examination of the corpse showed this to be untrue. (She arrived without even a change of underwear, but with a baby dress!) If Thorne had had the sense to go for medical aid immediately after her death, instead of sawing up her body by candlelight (a certain way of prejudicing a jury) he might have escaped with a short term in jail.

His case exemplifies what may be regarded as the lesson of all murder: that murder is never ‘justified’, no matter what pressures are brought to bear on the murderer. There is always a simpler way out.


The Chicken Run Murder

In December 1924 Crowborough hit the headlines in the national papers when a young lady called Elsie Cameron went missing. Elsie had been to visit her fiance Norman Thorne in Crowborough but she never returned to her home in London. The case became known as the chicken run murder.

Norman Thorne was a Sunday school teacher from Kemsal Green, London. In 1917 he had met up with Elsie Cameron, a typist. They became romantically involved.

Norman lost his job as an engineer and with Elsie unable to work due to her nerves money was tight. So in 1922, using money loaned to him by his father, he moved to Crowborough and set up a chicken farm at the junction of Luxford Lane with Luxford Road called Wesley Poultry Farm. He moved into the little hut 12 x 7, living in primitive conditions, trying in vain to build his business.

In the Christmas of that year Norman and Elsie became engaged. All seemed to be going well until the following year when Norman met Bessie (Elizabeth Ann Coldicott) at a dance. By this time Elsie was pressing for marriage, telling Norman that she was pregnant. Norman and Bessie became infatuated and Norman soon decided he wanted to break things off between him and Elsie.

He wrote to Elsie that November:

‘There are one or two things I haven’t told you for more reasons than one. It concerns someone else as well … I am between two fires.’

Elsie seemed to not understand and wrote back to Norman insisting they should marry as soon as possible. So Norman wrote back :

‘What I haven’t told you is that on certain occasions a girl has been here late at night. I am not going to mention her name. No one knows … I must have time to think, she thinks I am going to marry her, and I have a strong feeling for her.’

The reply from Elsie wasn’t quite what Norman had hoped for

‘You have absolutely broken my heart, I never thought you were capable of such deception… Your duty is to marry me. I have first claim on you. I expect you to marry me as soon as possible. My baby must have a name, and another thing, I love you in spite of all.

And so it was that on the 9th December 1924, Elsie set off for Crowborough. She bought her ticket and boarded the train in the third class carriage before putting her case in the luggage rack overhead. Then she settled down for what turned out to be her last journey.

Days passed and her family grew concerned. Her father wired Norman.

‘Elsie left Friday. Have heard no news. Reply’

Norman’s reply was

‘Not here. Open letters. Can’t understand.’

The letters in question had been written by Norman and sent to Elsie’s London home. The first read

‘Where did you get to yesterday. I went to Groombridge but you did not turn up.’

The second letter, written the next day said

‘I was expecting a letter today especially after not hearing from you.’

The police started investigating the case. Two nurserymen came forward and said they had been passing by Norman’s gate and had seen Elsie walking towards the farm on the evening of the 5th. The police searched tha huts but found no trace of Elsie. Norman insisted she had never been there.

Scotland yard were called in but still no trace of Elsie could be found. Then on the 1st January 1925, a woman called the police to say that she had been on her way home on the evening of December 9th when passing by the farm she had seen a young woman entering Thorne’s farm.

It wasn’t much to go on but the police now had three witnesses saying they had seen Elsie at the farm on the night in question. On the 14th, Chief Inspector Gillan of the yard arrived at Norman’s farm. Thorne was taken into custody.

Meanwhile, police started searching the place again. This time they bought spades. Just after 8am the next morning a policeman found Elsie’s case containing glasses, jumper and shoes. The mystery was starting to unravel.

Back at the station, Norman could see that his original story would not hold and so he gave another statement. Elsie Cameron had indeed called on him on the afternoon of December 5th. She told him that she intended to sleep in the hut and would stay until they were married. An argument ensued and went on for hours. Norman then told Elsie that he had an appointment at nine that evening and had to go. He didn’t tell her it was with Bessie.

Norman said of his return two hours later

‘When I opened the hut door I saw Miss Cameron hanging from a beam that supports the roof, by a piece of cord as used for the washing line. I cut the cord and laid her on the bed. She was dead. I then put out the lights. She had her frock off and her hair was down. I lay across the table for about an hour. I was about to go to Dr Turle and knock up someone to go for the police and I realised the position I was in, and decided not to do so. I then went down to the workshop… I got my hacksaw and some sacks and took them back to the hut. I took off Miss Cameron’s clothes and burned them in the fireplace in the hut. I then laid the sacks on the floor and sawed off her legs and the head by the glow of the fire. I put them in sacks, intending to carry them away, but my nerve failed me and I took them down to the workshop and I left them there. I went back to the hut and sat in the chair all night. Next morning, just as it got light, I buried the sacks and a tin containing the remains in a chicken run. It is the Leghorn chicken run, the first pen from the gate.’

The mystery of what had happened to Elsie Cameron had now been solved. But was it suicide followed by a bizarre attempt to hid the truth or was it murder ? Norman Thorne was charged with her murder.

Despite the nationwide interest – the Chicken Run Murder was all across the national papers - the trial took place at the Lewes Assize court. Mr Justice Finlay presided with Sir Henry Curtis Bennett as chief prosecuting counsel and J D Cassels defending Norman Thorne. Norman’s defence was that this was suicide not murder and that the concealment, the lies and even the dissection were all due to overwhelming fear. ‘I thought of the letters I had written’ said Norman ‘I remembered I had been telling people that I wanted to break off the engagement. I remembered that it was known that another girl had been walking out with her. In view of these things, I became afraid. ‘
The defence put forward a case for death by shock while trying to commit suicide.

That Elsie Cameron was neurotic was never in doubt.Cassels quickly painted a picture of a Elsie as someone who was often depressed, sometimes hysterical and always suffering from her nerves.Elsie Cameron was not an unlikely suicide case.

The second day of the case was spent with the crown trying to prove that murder had taken place. They pointed to the results of two experiments carried out previously with an 8 stone weight fastened to the beam from which Elsie was said to have been hung. In the first experiment the weight was slowly raised and swung. In the second experiment the weight was placed on a chair and the chair was kicked away. In both cases marks were left on the beams. No such marks were left from the alleged hanging. The Crown put it that there was no possible way that any weight had swung from the beam.

On the second afternoon, Sir Bernard Spilsbury took the stand for the Crown. Sir Spilsbury was a legend in his own lifetime. His word could not be doubted and his evidence was damning. He had examined the remains of Elsie Cameron and had observed 8 bruises on the head, face arms and legs. All of them had been inflicted shortly before death and one on the temple caused by a crushing blow. Sir Spilsbury also pointed out the absence of signs of asphyxiation and scars around the neck that would be expected in the case of a hanging.

On the third day Norman took the stand. If Sir Bernard was a legend as a medical expert, Curtis Bennett was a master of the art of cross examination. ‘On the morning of December 5th’ began Curtis Bennett ‘were you still in love with Elsie Cameron?’ ‘Yes’ answered Thorne. On the morning of December 5th were you still in love with this other woman?’. ‘Yes’ came the reply. ‘On that morning’ Sir Bernard continued ‘which of these two girls that you were in love with did you desire to marry?.’ ‘I do not know I was particularly desirous of marrying any at the time.’ ‘Which did you intend to marry in the future?’ ‘Well’ said Norman ‘of the two, I suppose I thought more of the other girl.’

The case for the prosecution continued. Each time Curtis Bennett probed he got a small confirmation of the truth as he saw it. Before dismissing Norman from the witness box, Judge Finlay questioned Norman about whether he had tried to resuscitate Elsie or fetch a doctor. ‘No’ Norman admitted.

There was an eloquent closing speech by Cassels, a massive reply by Curtis Bennett, a careful, thorough summing up by Finlay – perfectly fair but not disguising his own belief that the Crown case had been proved. At 5.12 on the fifth day of the case the jury retired. By 5.40 they returned to pronounce a verdict of guilty. Norman Thorne was sentenced to death and was hung at Wandsworth prison on April 22nd 1925.



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