On Tuesday 3rd January 1933, in his rented shed at 30 Hawley Crescent in Camden, local builder Mr Samuel J Furnace died… for the very first time, but his death was not to be his last.
At 8pm, that very evening, a crowd began to gather around the merchant’s yard of Hawley Crescent as thick plumes of smoke poured from the brick shed and flames lapped at the windows. Mr Wynne, the owner called the fire brigade, and within minutes the blaze was extinguished, but it wasn’t until they’d broken down both doors, that they saw the full horror of the scene.
As sitting at his desk, in a high chair, slumped over a high wooden table, was a badly charred body of a man, identified by a lodger and Mr Wynne himself as Samuel J Furnace, the local builder who’d rented the shed. Unable to see a way out of his spiralling financial situation, Samuel Furnace took the ultimate tragic step, and ended his life by setting himself alight. He left behind a wife and three children. Their only reminder of his final hours being a suicide note, written on a typewriter (seen above), which summed up his desperation that simply read “No money. No work. Goodbye. Samuel J Furnace”.
Mr Samuel J Furnace was dead, death by suicide, and the case was closed…
…or, so you would think?
But a few factors didn’t sit well with the forensics, nor the Police. Why would a builder, who has access to all manner of tools, blades, tourniquets and even chemicals, set himself on fire? Why not hang himself? Drown himself in the Regent’s Canal (a 2min walk from him shed)? Or shoot himself with the loaded gun that he owned? Why write a suicide note, using paper, when you plan to set yourself on fire? And even more bizarrely, how did he manage to remain so still, and seated in a high chair, at his desk, after he’d set himself on fire? It simply didn’t make sense.
When district Pathologist, Mr Bentley Purchase, examined the badly charred body, he noticed that Samuel Furnace had been shot; once in the back and once on the left-hand-side of his torso, both occurring before he’d died, and before he’d set himself alight. Which begged the question, who had shot Samuel Furnace, and – having been shot - why had Samuel set himself alight? Or, if he hasn’t, had his killer torched the body to make it look like a suicide to cover their tracks?
The Police knew that this was not a suicide - this was a murder. But, then who had killed Samuel Furnace? Well…
When the Pathologist examined the charred body he deduced that, even though two independent witnesses had identified the smouldering corpse as that of the 42 year old builder Samuel Furnace, the teeth were of a considerably younger man - twenty years younger, in fact. In a badly burned overcoat found next to the body, Police found fragments of the owner’s post-office savings slip, a debtor’s collection book and an empty wallet, all marked with the – slightly scorched but still legible - name of “W Spatchett”.
Walter Spatchett, a 25 year old debt collector, who’d gone missing that day, having completed his rounds, collecting £40 (roughly £2000 today) from debtors and made a sizable withdrawal from his savings account, had returned to the shed he’d shared with Samuel Furnace - who Walter had bailed out financially on numerous occasions - and was never seen again.
It seems that no-one had shot Samuel Furnace, nor had they set him on fire. Instead, he was alive, well and on the run. He’d murdered Walter Spatchett, having accrued an unmanageable number of debts, being short of work, low on cash, frustratingly married and living a lifestyle he couldn’t afford with numerous “lady friends”. As well as having recently renewed his life own insurance policy.
Samuel Furnace planned to disappear, but this was thwarted by his own brother-in-law, who Furnace had sent a desperate letter to, asking to meet him in Southend with “a bag full of clothes” and no explanation. His brother-in-law agreed, but not before he’d tipped off the Police, an ambush was set, and Furnace was captured and arrested.
In custody, Samuel Furnace claimed that he’d “accidentally” shot Walter Spachett (albeit twice), stolen his money to escape his financial woes, set the shed on fire to cover his tracks, and had thrown his gun into the Regent’s Canal. Furnace was charged that evening with murder.
But he was never brought to trial, as the night after his arrest, as he rested in his prison cell, he complained that he was cold and asked the officer on duty if he could have his overcoat to keep himself warm. At 7am the next morning, as the officer checked his cell, and saw Furnace raising a small bottle to his lips, that he’d hidden in the lining of his coat (should he ever need it). It was hydrochloric acid.
Samuel Furnace died 24 hours later in St Pancras Hospital, his last words from his burning lips being “my dear wife…”. Oddly, Samuel Furnace died on 16th January 1933, thirteen days after he’d originally died, but this second suicide, was the to be last. Samuel Furnace was dead.
And his windfall to save his family from spiralling debts was not to be, as having not checked the small print, his life insurance policy was deemed null & void, as it did not cover him… for suicide.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 18 murderers, 3 serial killers, across 21 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime historian, writer and tour guide of Murder Mile Walks.