Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast - #217: Eliza Crees and the Honeymoon from Hell (William Sellick Crees)
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EPISODE TWO HUNDRED AND SEVENTEEN:
On Thursday 29th October 1883, William Crees had married Eliza Horsman having known each other for just a few weeks. Initially it seemed like they were very much in love, but with William being a man with a few secrets, Eliza should have been worried. But everything would come to a head, just two weeks after their wedding, as William was also harbouring a deadly disease, which would not only take the host, but also the lives of those he (claimed to) love.
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SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
Welcome to Murder Mile.
Today I’m standing on Greek Street in Soho, W1; a few doors south of the disgruntled dishwasher who shot dead his fiery chef, a few doors north-east of the shooting at the Golden Goose arcade, and just a few doors north of brutal street attack by two good Samaritans - coming soon to Murder Mile.
At 55 Greek Street currently stands a four-storey terrace built in the 1980s as the original building was destroyed during the blitz. With offices above and a café on the ground-floor, a smattering of outside seats are often occupied by fed-up couples sitting in silence; scowling like bulldogs with piles, as they dream of this ‘half-wit they once loved’ choking on a shortbread or being scolded by a cappuccino.
Which is why ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffets are so popular among couples, as unwilling to do time for the other’s murder, ladles of fatty food piled high means less reason to talk but also a much crueller death.
Back in 1883, on the third-floor in a front-room at 55 Greek Street lived saddle-maker William Crees and his new bride of just two weeks, Eliza. Technically, this was their honeymoon, a twee period where most couples still kiss, cuddle and say, “I love you”. But with a very common illness plaguing his insides, something nasty which had festered and lain dormant for possibly decades would soon arise.
My name is Michael, I am your tour guide, and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 217: Eliza Crees and the Honeymoon from Hell.
It was said that syphilis spread across Europe sometime in the 14th century. Where it came from is unknown, but with every country blaming their neighbour – as we call it the French disease, the French call it the Italian disease, the Italians call it the Spanish disease, and so on and so forth – although we all give it the euphemism of ‘cupid’s sickness’, syphilis is the most patient of cold-blooded killers.
Many people may not even realise that Syphilis still exists. It’s one of those oldy-worldy diseases which you may imagine only a dapper-dressed dandy with a hanky having, alongside consumption, quinsy or gout. Since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, diagnosed cases of syphilis in the UK remain at 7000 per year. Most of which are treated at primary and secondary stage, rarely reaching the tertiary stage.
As a bacterial infection, syphilis can be contracted through sex, birth or by touching an infected sore. Sex is the most common vector with the disease usually passed through intercourse (anal and vaginal), kissing, oral sex and anything where there a blood/fluid transfer. Sadly, with these infected sores often being small and painless, they are not easy to spot, and often the host won’t know they have syphilis.
But by the 19th century, records state that one-in-five Londoners had syphilis, and - as with STDs like VD, gonorrhea, or chlamydia on the rise - syphilis had become so common, it was accepted as normal.
Unlike consumption with its symptom of a hacking cough, syphilis was very much a silent killer, as it arrived like a thief in the night, but like a burglar who secretly covets your home, it hides inside.
There are four stages of syphilis:
Primary; which lasts six-to-eight weeks, beginning with painless sores at the point where the bacteria entered the body, which lasts up-to six weeks, before this chancre erodes into a painless grey ulcer. Many don’t know they have syphilis as with the sores not bleeding nor irritable, who thinks to check.
In the Victorian era, these sores (also called chancres) were often burned off with acid or treated with mercury. Considered more of an art than a science, doctors freely administered highly toxic mercury at levels of their own discretion, with some quacks administering it as a pill, an ointment, a steam bath or injected directly into the urethra, this treatment was often more deadly than the disease itself.
Even with treatment to cauterise the sores, the second stage of syphilis usually occurs ten weeks after the initial infection, appearing as painless rashes where the grey healed sore now sits, as well as on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet, but as they don’t itch, again, no-one thinks to check.
And as the bacteria begins to infect the rest of the body, other more obvious symptoms develop, like fever, swollen glands, headaches, fatigue, weight loss and hair loss, as well as muscle and bone ache.
This escalation of symptoms is something we see with many diseases, as when the bacteria ravages the body and even our own defences are unable to cope, the host often only gets sicker and weaker.
But syphilis is sneaky and it’s subtle, as acting like a seasonal disease like the flu, it arrives, it infects, it announces its presence in a big way, and – regardless of whether the host gets treatment or not – the symptoms clear-up, as if the infection has gone. Or at least, that’s what it wants you to think. But without penicillin, the infection may move onto the latent and possibly tertiary stages of syphilis.
Latency is the third stage of syphilis, during which as the disease lays dormant inside the host’s body with no symptoms; no cough, no fever and no chancres. The disease is entirely silent, to the point where the patient may have forgotten that they had syphilis or mistakenly believe they’ve been cured. But the latency can last a few months, usually a few years, but in some cases, it can fester for decades.
Without treatment, 15% up to 40% of those infected developed the final stage - tertiary syphilis.
Like the grim reaper itself, it never warns of its arrival until it’s too late. As before, ulcers appear, only as these painful chancres begin to burrow deeper into the soft skin and the brittle bone, eating away at the fleshy extremities like the nose and riddling the body with ugly lesions and unsightly growths, it leaves its breathing host with the hollow bony skull of someone who looks dead, but is still alive.
But it’s not just the body that it attacks, but also the nervous system and the brain. Often developing into neurosyphilis, patients suffer from confusion, memory-loss, paranoia and changes in personality, as well as blindness, paralysis and dementia, as the host’s body, brain and soul is eaten from within…
…driving them to insanity, suicide and – and in some cases - even murder.
It was uncertain when William Crees contracted syphilis, or when the symptoms took hold.
William Sellick Crees was born in 1845 in Blandford, Dorset on the south-west coast of England. As the son of a Navy Excise Officer, they moved to be nearer the shipyards, and as a solid hard-working family, every one of his siblings earned an honest wage, as a clockmaker, a seamstress or as a glovemaker.
By 1861, with his mother Jane having passed-away, even as the youngest of seven, 16-year-old William made his way as a saddler’s apprentice, learning the leather crafting skills of making horses saddles, bits and bridles, as this grieving family moved to Great Torrington, a market town in north-west Devon.
Over the next ten years, it’s uncertain what he did, as although some reports incorrectly state that he joined the Navy – possibly as a lazy way to suggest how he contracted syphilis – he remained in Devon.
In early 1872, aged almost 30, William married Lucy Werry, a local girl from Great Torrington. As was the tradition, they set about building a family and a happy home in their birthplace, with four children following who – as a symbol of his pride or possibly arrogance - took William’s middle name as their own; Sidney Sellick in 1873, William Sellick in 1874, Thomas Sellick in 1876 and Lucy Sellick in 1879.
This should have been the epitome of a good life; a loving wife and four healthy children helped by his wife’s widowed mother all living in a little cottage at 11 Castle Street in Great Torrington, with enough money brought in by William whose skill as a saddler meant they were never without. Life was good.
But for inexplicable and unexplained reasons, just as his youngest was being born, William left. He left his job, his left his home, his left his wife and four children, and having fled the county, he would never return. Like the selfish shit that he was, he wouldn’t provide them with a single penny to aid their upbringing, he kept moving so they couldn’t track his whereabouts, and – as he had refused to divorce Lucy – this single-mother was left without any hope of finding a legitimate father for her children.
And yet, as a strong independent woman who earned a living as a glovemaker, without William in her life, she made a good life for herself, her children, and in 1911, she was technically listed as a widow.
So, maybe we could say that Lucy Crees, the first wife of William, had a lucky escape.
By April 1880, William had moved to Kingston-upon-Thames in south-west London. Having found work as a saddle-maker to a Mr Webster, before his youngest child was even one year old, he had already bigamously married a local girl called Harriet Potter, and the two had begun a new life together.
With the first Mrs Crees abandoned - unaware of his history - it seems unremarkable that the second Mrs Crees wouldn’t find the happiness denied the first; as with William now more selfish than ever and being prone to fits of anger and jealousy - although he wasn’t a drinker – violence would follow.
On the 1st of October 1880, a few months after their marriage, the new Mr & Mrs Crees travelled down from Kingston to the seaside town of Eastbourne in search of work, as William had lost his job. Lodging cheaply at the pokey little home of Mrs Bourne at 8 Maybury Terrace, as they hadn’t a single penny to pay their rent, without her permission, he pawned this seamstresses’ sewing machine (being their last hope of making any money) making just 14 shillings, as well as most of her clothes for 12 shillings.
As a ragged woman who officers stated was “literally starving to death”, Harriet begged her husband for just one of those shillings to give her body an ounce of strength, as by the 7th, all she had eaten was a small potato and a stale piece of bread. But having taken umbrage at her daring to question his authority, he unleashed a barrage of foul hurtful barbs and had threatened to “stab her in the heart”.
It was a marriage which began in love, and ended in fear, so being too terrified to return to her home, Harriet Crees did the right thing and – aided by her sister – she appealed to the Police for protection, she obtained a warrant to have him arrested, and she asked for the police to accompany her back.
In the front-room of 8 Maybury Terrace, Harriet sat with PC James Gambrill giving a statement, as Mrs Bourne, the landlady looked on. The house was quiet, until at 4:15pm, the doorbell rang, Mrs Bourne answered it, and in the hallway high words and a brief scuffle were heard, as William stormed in, his eyes fixed on his cowering wife, as his snarling mouth firing a furious torrent of rage in her direction.
Constable Gambrill would state “he did not say a word to me, not one. Suddenly without the slightest provocation, he brandished a butcher’s knife, and stabbed me in the neck”. But dodging the blow and with the blade embedding into this copper’s stiff leather collar, although it was stated “an inch higher and the officer’s head would have been severed”, the tip barely left a puncture wound in his neck.
With the officer briefly startled, William tried to stab – as he had promised – Harriet in her heart, but although weak with hunger, as she dodged his blade and fled the house, before he could strike again, the Constable swung the heavy cast-iron handcuffs at William’s wrist causing him to drop the knife.
Bundled onto the floor by three passing constables who Harriet had fetched, William was arrested. Seen as a premeditated attack as he had purchased the butcher’s knife that day using the money made from his wife’s pawned possessions, he was swiftly charged with two counts of attempted murder.
On 6th November 1880, William Crees was tried at Maidstone Petty Sessions for a crime which should have seen him executed or sentenced to a life of hard labour. But with Mrs Bourne the landlady being too ill to attend and unable to prove her illness – on a technicality – William was found not guilty of attempted murder, but guilty theft and dishonesty, and was sentenced to three years at Lewes Prison.
Having served six months, he never came searching for Harriet, instead he abandoned her. So, maybe we could say that – just like Lucy - Harriet Crees, the second wife of William, also had a lucky escape…
…only that luck would run out for his third wife.
Born in 1861, Eliza Ann Horsman was the eldest daughter of John, a confectioner from Worthing. How they met was unrecorded, but living in an era where an unmarried woman was frowned upon, Eliza’s options were limited, the courtship was short, and her father hadn’t met William before the wedding.
On 22nd October 1883, William Crees & Eliza Horsman moved into a front third floor at 55 Greek Street in Soho; a small squalid sparsely furnished room with a box bed and horsehair mattress, a washstand, a wooden table with two chairs and a fireplace. As one of the cheapest of hovels in this decrepit sea of vice, voices of disquiet echoed up its rickety stairs, as a chilly wind blew through a broken window.
Only William hadn’t come here for work, in fact he hadn’t done a solid day’s work in years and having pawned off most of what they owned to pay the rent, he spent most of his days sat lost in thought.
William chose Soho for one reason, as describing his head as “affected”, although there was no record of William being afflicted by such tertiary stage deformities as sunken eyes, festering sores and a hole in his face as if his nose had been eaten whole - possibly as these deformities were so commonplace – William was a frequent patient at two psychiatric hospitals, The Westminster and The Charing Cross.
Suffering with confusion, headaches, paranoia, rage and hallucinations, back then there was no known cure for tertiary syphilis, except for a miraculous recovery, confinement to a workhouse infirmary, or a long slow and painful death – which may explain some of William’s bizarre actions, but not all.
On the evening of Thursday 29th October 1883, William & Eliza attended the Promenade Concerts, a series of classical concerts in London’s royal parks, where the public could stand or stroll whilst taking a picnic and listening to the William Tell Overture by Rossini, Largo by Handel, and Don Carlos by Verdi.
It should have been a romantic day for this unwed twosome as William had proposed to Eliza, but with this special moment having descended into ranting over the simplest of things, their love was hurt.
So it’s odd, that alongside their escalating fights, with no money and no prospects, that William & Eliza wrote to her father announcing their impending marriage just five days before the wedding. A speed which either suggests coercion, a legal necessity, or maybe a moral obligation if Eliza was pregnant.
On the morning of Wednesday 14th November 1883, William Crees met Eliza’s father at London Bridge station. Dressed in his one good suit, John Horsman said that he presented himself well as a saddle-maker and a lover who “felt happier” having met Eliza - not mentioning that he was still bigamously married having never divorced, that one wife he had abandoned and the other he had tried to kill.
Having guided his father-in-law to be to a small service at St Ann’s church on Soho’s Dean Street, as John Horsman proudly gave away his eldest daughter, he was unaware that just two weeks later…
…that hall would host the inquest into her death.
The morning of Friday 30th of November 1883 began as moody and brooding as a bruised winter sky. Although still on their honeymoon, which they spent in their squalid lodging, being married for two weeks, lodgers for five and a couple for just two months, this day began as they all did - with a quarrel.
Their fight was over the ring itself, although quite what the spark was will never be known. Maybe he had planned to pawn it? Maybe this band was only made of brass? Or maybe, through the murmurings of two former wives with a warning to share, word had got out that their marriage was null and void?
At 8pm, William came home, and found that Eliza was out, drowning her sorrows in the Carlisle Arms.
One hour later, slightly sozzled but little more than a bit tipsy, Eliza asked the landlady if a letter had arrived for her, there hadn’t been, but witnesses would state “she seemed well and in good spirits”.
Shortly after this, at roughly 9:50pm, having reluctantly ascended to the squalid room she shared with her new husband who harboured a deadly disease and a festering rage, the neighbours all state that they heard William & Eliza arguing. Only this didn’t cause them concern, as their fights were so often.
Louisa Brigne, a lodger in the backroom of the top floor stated “the fight lasted about ten minutes. I went downstairs to tell the landlady; I ask her to tell them to be quiet and then everything went quiet”.
Suzanna Plantin, a lodger on the 2nd floor said “I heard a noise as if someone got up from a chair in the room above, ran to the door, and then fell. A little before the fall I heard three of four awful screams”.
It was a woman’s screams, which echoed the house, as she fought for her life, but no-one came.
Moments later, William left 55 Greek Street, taking the key and never to return.
It is uncertain where he went or what he did for the next hour…
…but at 11:10pm, on Moor Street, just off Old Compton Street, PC Henry Dyer saw William “behaving strangely”. Catching hold of the officer’s cape, William danced about, his eyes wide as they “protruded from his head” as he muttered “the doctor told me to do it, it is a glorious deed”. Asked what he had done, although sober, William would only repeat those same few words “the doctor told me to do it”.
But looking down and seeing that the man’s clenched fists and tatty clothes were sopping with slowly congealing blood - as he hadn’t any obvious injuries of his own - PC Dyer arrested him on the charge of being “a lunatic at large”, and this strange and peculiar man was held at Vine Street Police Station.
At 2am, with William committed – at the Police Surgeon’s orders - to the workhouse asylum and saying nothing but those seven fateful words, PC Dyer attended 55 Greek Street to find the blood’s origin.
Inside, tenants spoke of shouting, of screams, and then silence, before William stormed away.
Knocking on the door, he got no reply. Trying the handle, although the key was missing, the door was not locked. But as he opened it wide, instantly he was aware of what he was witnessing.
There was no disarray in the room, suggesting there was also no struggle. By the fireplace was a chair on which a poker, a brass candlestick and a knife had been placed. And although the candlestick was untouched, the knife was thick with a still-sticky blood, and the heavy cast-iron poker was badly bent.
Found lying on the hard-wooden floor before the door, although she was cool to the touch, PC Dyer sent for Dr Farquhar Matheson of 11 Soho Square, who determined her life as very much extinct.
Fully dressed and lying straight with her hands over her breast, it looked as if she had been posed to be placed into her coffin, and yet her death may not have been obvious had it not been for the blood.
Lying with a deep red halo about her head, Dr Matheson would state “she had been stunned fast”, as with two hard fast blows William had struck her over the back of the head, smashing her skull into sharp shards of jagged bone which embedded into the soft spongy matter of her brain. It was overkill.
As witnesses had correctly heard, Eliza had fallen, but with her barely conscious and yet still alive, with the knife William slashed a great gash across her throat, tearing at all the structures from the skin to the spine, as the blade severed her muscles, her windpipe, her jugular vein and her carotid artery.
It was this wound which would take her life, only he had not finished in his frenzy.
With the knife, he stabbed her three times in the side, piercing her lung, kidney and heart. To her left arm, a hard blow had fractured the bone. But with his rage brewing further, with the knife as a fist, he smashed in her nose “shattering the bones… cutting the right nostril till it bent backwards, slicing up her left eye”, and – with repeated blows – he broke every bone in her face, as if to destroy it forever.
Informed at St James’ workhouse that he was being arrested for murder, he seemed not to be aware of the words and made no reply. Charged at Marlborough Street Police Court, having put a towel on his head, he asked no questions, made no comment and seemed not to know what was going on.
Examined by Dr John Kemp, seeing that William’s eyes did not constrict when exposed to a light (which they should), the Divisional Police Surgeon deduced that William was suffering from Argyll Robertson pupils, a known symptom of neurosyphilis, and one of the later stages of tertiary syphilis. (End)
With William deemed to be “in a very bad state of health”, on Tuesday 4th December 1883 at St Ann’s church where he and his victim had been married just two weeks before, the jury returned a verdict of willful murder and he was bound over to appear at The Old Bailey on a criminal charge.
With William being too ill to attend court, although there was no refuting his guilt, William was found guilty but insane, and was committed to Broadmoor where he was detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.
As one of the hardest parts of the investigation, Eliza’s father John had to identify what remained of his daughter’s body, but with her face and head barely recognisable, he could only confirm that it was her; first by her dress, then by a birthmark, and finally by the cheapness of her wedding ring.
Committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, which specialised in the mental unwell, although (at the time of the crime) 38-year-old William Sellick Crees was struggling with late-stage syphilis, it is uncertain – with penicillin yet to be discovered – how he lasted so long. On Tuesday 15th November 1932, 49 years after the murder, William died at Broadmoor, aged 85, he was said to have been in good health in his last week, but owing to senile decay, it was determined he died of natural causes.
Syphilis is a deadly disease, a silent killer which arrives without warning, vanishes without a trace, lies dormant for months, years and even decades, and – like a rabid dog - springs forth and attacks. But were his actions the disease’s fault, did it exacerbate who he was, or was he always a crazed killer?
The Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast has been researched using the original declassified police investigation files, court records, press reports and as many authentic sources as possible, which are freely available in the public domain, including eye-witness testimony, confessions, autopsy reports, first-hand accounts and independent investigation, where possible. But these documents are only as accurate as those recounting them and recording them, and are always incomplete or full of opinion rather than fact, therefore mistakes and misrepresentations can be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast is a 'dramatisation' of the events and not a documentary, therefore a certain amount of dramatic licence, selective characterisation and story-telling (within logical reason and based on extensive research) has been taken to create a fuller picture. It is not a full and complete representation of the case, the people or the investigation, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity, speed and the drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, and therefore it will contain a certain level of bias and opinion to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated. Murder Mile is just one possible retelling of each case. Murder Mile does not set out to cause any harm or distress to those involved, and those who listen to the podcast or read the transcripts provided should be aware that by accessing anything created by Murder Mile (or any source related to any each) that they may discover some details about a person, an incident or the police investigation itself, that they were unaware of.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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