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Authors: Linda Stratmann

A Case of Doubtful Death

BOOK: A Case of Doubtful Death
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This book is dedicated to the Friends of Kensal Green and the General Cemetery Company with especial thanks to Lee Snashfold and Henry Vivian-Neal for all their help with my research.




Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Author’s Note

About the Author

By the Same Author



n the cooler months, Henry Palmer’s most important duty was to keep the coal fires of the mortuary burning steadily. After all, as Dr Mackenzie used to say with his most engaging smile, an expression that ladies often commented was wasted on the dead, it wouldn’t do for the ‘patients’ to be too cold. Cold was the enemy of putrefaction, and worse than that, it paralysed the living, giving them a ghostly semblance of death that could delude the most skilled physician into certifying that life was extinct. While eminent medical men were confident that cures to the deadliest of disorders were almost within their grasp, science was still plagued with fundamental uncertainties. One of these, declared Dr Mackenzie, whatever practitioners liked to claim (and where, indeed, was the doctor of medicine who would ever admit to making a mistake?) was the infallible diagnosis of death. Failure to see the spark of life in a pale still form which seemed to have given up its last breath was, in his opinion, the worst possible error a doctor might make, for it could lead to horrors almost beyond human imagination.

The causes and consequences of premature burial were something he had made his special study for many years. To Mackenzie, the establishment, of which he was both founder and chief director, was not a place of death, but of reassurance. He called it the Life House, and the new admissions, who were laid gently on flower-strewn beds, were, at his express instructions, referred to as patients, and never corpses. He even ensured that the main repository was divided by a curtain into male and female wards. It would never do for a patient to awaken and find themselves in the company of persons of the opposite sex, a shock which might have a fatal termination in someone already in a fainting state. Every patient, on first being admitted, was carefully examined, and if no sign of life was apparent, a length of thin cord was tied to a big toe and a finger, and connected to a bell, which was hung from a hook on the wall. Should any of the patients revive, the smallest movement would announce to the orderly employed to keep constant watch over the wards that one of his charges was alive, and every means of resuscitation that modern medicine could provide was at hand to ensure the speedy and effective restoration of consciousness.

As far as Henry Palmer was aware, in the fifteen years of the Life House’s existence no patient had ever revived. Enshrouded by the warmth of the carefully tended winter fire, or in balmier seasons, the glow of the sun seeping through high windows, there was no answering flush on sinking cheeks, no sheen of sweat on pallid brows, only the spreading and darkening stains of decay. From time to time, the sound of a bell would be heard, but that was only due to undulations of the abdomen brought on by putrefactive gases causing a tremor, which rippled into the dead limbs. Before long it would be necessary to inform relatives that the patient had undeniably passed away, and the remains would be consigned to a coffin, placed in a side room referred to as the ‘chapel’, and later borne to a final resting place in All Souls Cemetery, Kensal Green.

Palmer had a great deal of respect for Dr Mackenzie, despite his employer’s eccentric beliefs, and while many a man might have recoiled from the uncongenial and unrewarding work, the young orderly took satisfaction from knowing that he brought comfort to bereaved families. During the long, quiet hours spent with the dead he saw that all was neat and well kept, changed the linen coverlets, maintained the banks of fresh flowers around the silent forms, cleaned the bedsteads, and sprinkled and swabbed the floor with a solution of carbolic acid. The pungent tarry smell of the liquid, the odour of wilting bouquets and the warm nostril-stinging tang of burning coal were between them almost enough to conceal what would otherwise have been the most powerful smell in the building – the sickly odour of the decomposition of human flesh. He made a round of the patients every hour, looking for clues that life remained, and, finding none, entered the details in a report, priding himself on his meticulous and neatly-kept records. Dr Mackenzie, who lived close by in Ladbroke Grove Road, called twice a day, and his partner, Dr Bonner, daily. The third director, Dr Warrinder, was also a regular visitor, although Palmer felt that his interest was merely to supply an occupation for his retirement, something that had been forced on him by failing eyesight. The three doctors would solemnly examine every patient as Palmer gave them his verbal account of the day’s transactions, then they would read and initial his record book, and compliment him on a duty well done. There were occasional visitors, strictly by appointment, who were always medical men. Mackenzie abhorred the idea of prurient persons hoping to glut their gross tastes on scenes unfit for all but the eyes of professional gentlemen, and most especially would not tolerate visits from members of the press, or females. Families wanting a last view of the departed were never shown into the wards, the body being decently laid out in the chapel.

On the day of the funeral Palmer would be there in his good dark suit of clothes, looking like an undertaker’s man and assisting the bearers. It was only on the patient’s final day above ground that he allowed himself to think of whom he or she had once been, and say his own farewell. His sister, Alice, and her friend Mabel Finch, to whose company he had recently become very partial, had both said, not without a laugh from Alice and a blush from Miss Finch, that he was almost ladylike in his feelings, not that that was in any way a bad thing. Dr Mackenzie was also at the funerals, with large sorrowful eyes, a man of science forever searching for the truth and always disappointed.

Although friends and relatives were known to cling desperately to the hope that their loved one might not after all be dead, the prospect of revival was not something the Life House made much of in its message to the public. The enterprise made only one very clear guarantee. No customer of Dr Mackenzie’s Life House would ever be buried alive.

‘How very curious!’ exclaimed young detective Frances Doughty, making a careful study of a letter she had received that morning. It was a single sheet, with pale handwriting very lightly impressed upon the paper as if the writer was elderly or ill, and there were little stops and starts, suggesting that the composition of the message had been interrupted in a number of places by sudden and uncontrollable floods of emotion.

Sarah, her trusted companion and assistant detective, a burly woman whose broad, plain face and stern expression concealed a world of loyalty and kindness, looked up from the drift of lacy knitting that seemed to flow effortlessly from her powerful fingers.

‘New customer?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ said Frances, ‘her name is Alice Palmer, and she will be calling this afternoon.’ A small photograph wrapped carefully in light tissue as if it was a jewel, had been enclosed in a fold of the paper, and she showed it to Sarah. The sitter was a slender young man in his Sunday-best suit, looking self-conscious and clutching a hat. ‘Miss Palmer’s brother, Henry. Have you ever seen him?’

Sarah peered at the picture and shook her head. ‘No, I can’t say as I have. Isn’t he the man Reverend Day told us about in his sermon yesterday?’

‘Yes, Mr Palmer disappeared six days ago, and his family is very anxious for his safety. But here is a detail that piques my curiosity. For the last two years he has been working as an orderly at the Life House in Kensal Green.’

‘I’ve heard of that place,’ said Sarah, scornfully, ‘and they’ve no business calling it a Life House when all they do is take in dead folk. Coffins in and coffins out.
never heard of anyone coming back to life.’

‘Nor I,’ agreed Frances. ‘There are stories of course, but they may be made up. But there is no denying that many people feel a great anxiety in case they should be taken ill and appear to be dead, and then buried before their time. If they know that they will be taken to the Life House it will put their minds at rest.’ Frances laid down the letter and photograph and picked up a copy of the
. ‘This, however, is the really interesting part. Henry Palmer disappeared on the very same evening that his employer, Dr Mackenzie, died.’

Sarah nodded. ‘So he could have murdered Dr Mackenzie and then run away?’

‘There are many ways that the two events could be connected,’ said Frances cautiously, ‘or it could be that they are not connected at all. There is such a thing as coincidence, and I do allow for that when events are in themselves commonplace and unremarkable. But, where two rare and unexpected things happen on the same day and concern people who are acquainted, that circumstance deserves a very close examination. It does appear, however, that there was nothing suspicious about Dr Mackenzie’s death, although he was only forty-seven. It says here,’ she went on, perusing the
obituary, ‘that he had been very ill for some time, and it was well known that he had a weak heart. He had been advised to rest or even give up business altogether, but in common with many dedicated gentlemen he chose to ignore his doctor’s warnings. On the evening of the twenty-first of September, he was making his usual rounds of the Life House when he appeared to faint, but it was soon discovered that he was dead. His associate, Dr Bonner, said that he died from disease of the heart brought on by a septic abdomen, almost certainly made worse by overwork.’

‘Did Dr Mackenzie get put in his own Life House, then, and left to go all rotten?’ asked Sarah.

‘Apparently so,’ replied Frances. She put the newspaper aside and waited.

In the few months that had elapsed since the shocking case of murder that had elevated Frances’ reputation in the public mind, Frances and Sarah had become quite settled in their new home and also into an acknowledged position in Bayswater society as ladies who could deal with any difficulty. Frances was spoken of in hushed tones across fashionable tea tables as a clever young woman of almost masculine mind, while a story had recently flown about the district of how Sarah had exposed the activities of a thieving footman by dint of picking him up and shaking him until the teaspoons in his pockets rattled.

BOOK: A Case of Doubtful Death
10.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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