The Edgware Road Murder: The Chilling Inspiration for THE UNSEEING

July 14, 2016

In February 1837, a labourer working on the Coldharbour Lane made a gruesome discovery: in a ditch he found a sack, and in that sack were two human legs.

This was the final piece of a grisly treasure hunt that had begun in December 1836 when a bricklayer found a woman’s torso under a paving slab on the Edgware Road. The head had been retrieved from a canal at Stepney, pronounced a match with the torso, and placed in spirits to preserve it. In March, the head was at long last identified as belonging to Hannah Brown, a washerwoman.

The Edgware Road Murder, as it became known, took place at the dawn of detective policing, but officers of the Metropolitan Police followed several pieces of evidence that led a clear path to James Greenacre, a cabinet-maker from Camberwell. Hannah Brown had been due to marry Greenacre on Christmas Day, but had disappeared on Christmas Eve.

When officers arrived to arrest Greenacre, they found a woman sitting up in his bed: his lover, Sarah Gale. They noticed that she was trying to hide some jewelry – two gold rings and a pair of earrings – so she too was arrested and taken to the police cells with her four-year-old son. Amid great public excitement and wildly inaccurate reporting, the case proceeded to trial. Although both defendants maintained their innocence, both were found guilty: Greenacre of Hannah Brown’s murder, Gale of aiding and abetting him. During the hearings in the magistrates’ court and at the Old Bailey, Sarah Gale remained silent and motionless. She gave only a short statement, read by her barrister, saying that she had not been in Camberwell at the time of the murder, and that she knew nothing of it afterwards.

That was what really interested me when I first read into the case: why, when faced with the death sentence and accused of helping to conceal the most heinous crime, did Sarah Gale fail to fully defend herself? She had not only her own life to consider, but that of her four-year-old son, George.

Several years after I first read about it, Sarah Gale’s story has become a novel – The Unseeing. The book begins with Sarah’s conviction and with the appointment of the lawyer who will investigate her petition for mercy, Edmund Fleetwood. Over the course of the novel, Edmund – and the reader – must determine whether Sarah is telling the truth when she says that she knew nothing of the murder and, if not, whom she is protecting. That reflects the process I myself went through when investigating the scant evidence that still exists: could she really have been blind to what had happened, or did she know and keep quiet? If so, why? Was she afraid of Greenacre? Or was it something else entirely? For Sarah had lived with Greenacre in his house in Camberwell as his wife – cooking and cleaning for him, sharing his bed – but without any marriage ceremony. Then, in the middle of December, when ice was on the ground, Greenacre had told Sarah and her son to leave to make way for Hannah Brown. That must, surely, have riled her: it might, some said, have given her a motive for murder.

Anna Mazzola, July 2016

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