The Confusing Murder of Actor Weldon Atherstone That Was Never Solved
Two theatrical murders, one solved one a cold case.
In 1910, two murders of those in the theatrical trade occurred. There were similarities in the details as fame visited both the actors after their demise. Neither had reached any level of stardom before the mystery of their murder became front-page news. However, the ending to the murders was very different.
The first of these murders was that of Belle Elmore; her dismembered body was dug up from the cellar floor on Hilldrop Cresent in London. She was the wife of Dr Crippen, who had himself vanished. He was found bound for Quebec on the ship SS Montrose with his love Ethel LeNeve.
The United Kingdom repatriated him and he was tried and executed. The story is famous even today. Many might have heard of Dr Crippen even if they did not realise why.
This second case, though, proved to be even stranger than the case of Elmore and Crippen.
Shots in the night
Weldon Atherstone was an out-of-work actor who had little success finding a job when he died. He was found dead on a rear doorstep flat in Battersea on 16th July 1910.
The first that residents knew about the death was when a local chauffeur driving in the area at 2130 heard two gunshots. He then observed a man jumping the fences of the gardens and fleeing. The man was twenty-three to thirty in age and was five foot six.
Being so alarmed with what he had seen, he drove straight to the police and told them what he knew. The local officer went back with the man to search the area. When they arrived they found three flats, the ground floor was empty and was being redecorated. The first-floor flat was occupied, and the top apartment owners were away.
The policeman knocked on the first-floor flat; it was opened by the owner Elizabeth Earl. She was in her forties and entertaining twenty-one-year-old Thomas Anderson. The couple appeared unconcerned about the shots they had heard.
They stated whilst they were enjoying supper; they heard two shots. They had looked out of the window and spotted a man jumping the fence. Thinking it was a neighbour chasing away a robber, they returned to supper, presuming someone else would call the incident in.
The policeman asked if it would be okay to use their back door to examine the garden below; neither objected. Anderson followed the policeman down the stairs. They searched the garden and found no trace of a fight. Whilst walking back to the stairs, Anderson discovered the body of Atherstone.
The body of evidence
On discovery, Atherstone was still breathing, although it was laboured. The policeman ordered that someone fetch a doctor to try and save the dying man. Anderson asked the chauffeur to do this as he had been waiting outside the flats.
As the doctor arrived, they could do little for him. He died at 2220, having never regained consciousness.
Atherstone had been shot through the right side of his face. He also had a wound on his left temple. His eye was hanging out on his cheek.
Strangely he was dressed in carpet slippers. The policeman asked Anderson if he recognised the body, to which he replied he did not. Why this man wearing slippers had been killed in an empty flat was a mystery.
Detective Inspector Badcock was employed to help solve the crime. When he arrived, he searched the man. He found an empty glasses case, letters that helped identify the victim, business cards, a red diary containing details of a relationship, keys and strangely, a homemade cosh in his back pocket.
A search of the flat found a pair of broken glasses, bullet fragments from one of the shots and signs of a struggle with blood drops and smashed items.
The mystery of how Atherstone had got into the flat was quickly solved. The builders who renovated the flat had tied a piece of string to the latch so they could access the property. It was this that Atherstone had used to gain entry to the flat.
Whilst these initial enquiries were going on, Thomas Anderson was eager to get home and approached the police several times asking if he could leave; he was told not yet. On one of these occasions, he returned to the garden where the body was.
The young policeman with the body asked if Anderson knew anyone by the name of Atherstone, having just found the ID cards. Anderson replied only someone named Weldon Atherstone, 'he is my father.' He was arrested on the spot, having failed to recognise his father the first time looking at the body.
Once at the station, Anderson became quite distressed when he realised that his father had been the victim. He was questioned and later taken to see the body, where he made a formal identification.
Weldon Atherstone was the stage name for Thomas Weldon Anderson; he had been forty-seven when he was murdered. Atherstone had been estranged from his wife for many years. The couple had four children, two sons and two daughters, of which Thomas Anderson, twenty-one, was the eldest. Both sons, it appeared, had followed their father from Manchester to London.
The woman in the red diary
Police went back, but this time to question Elizabeth Earl as she could either provide Anderson with an alibi or be part of the murder. When they asked Earl if she knew a Weldon Atherstone, she broke down in tears and admitted he had been her lover for many years.
The couple had fallen out two months ago and Atherstone had moved out of their shared flat. However, she stated that she had known his son for years and supported his story of hearing the gunshots and seeing a man fleeing the scene.
She stated that Atherstone had been a very jealous man; that was what they had fallen out about. She said he had been hit by a motorcar two years before death, causing a concussion. Since then, his behaviour had changed; his jealous streak had increased.
She had not seen him for several weeks. She stated that sometimes father and son had visited her together, although Anderson was unaware of the relationship between his father and Earl, thinking they were just friends.
Father and sons
Enquiries had proved that father and son had a good relationship, as did that of younger brother William Anderson who was sixteen.
William had spent the two weeks before the murder staying with his father during school holidays. He, too, knew Earl and had visited her with his father.
Why, if the family was so close, did Thomas not recognise his father? He stated to the police that the light from the lamps had not been good when he first viewed the body. He also said that the powder mark from the first shot had given the impression of a moustache; his father was clean-shaven.
It was also the simple fact that Thomas had not expected to see his father there, so he had never considered that it might be him lying on the ground.
Neither boy knew the extent of their father's relationship with Earl; however, both knew that when looking for work in London, Atherstone would stay with her.
The killing of Weldon Atherstone
During the investigation, several other witnesses had come forward to state they had seen a man fleeing the scene. All of them were questioned and everyone categorically stated it had not been Anderson they had seen.
Examination of the clothes the couple wore at the time also supported the fact that they had not been in the garden and certainly not scaled a wall to run away. The timeline also meant that Anderson couldn't have fled the scene and returned for supper before the police arrived.
The police had little to go on. The facts they knew were that a forty-seven-year-old man had been shot twice outside an empty flat whilst his son and lover dined together, unaware he was there. They also knew that he had changed into slippers when he arrived, placing his boots on brown paper in the empty flat.
He had gone to the flat expecting violence as he had a weapon. The man fleeing the scene was observed to have nothing in his hand; no gun had been found. A struggle occurred at the crime scene, and Atherstone was shot.
The first bullet had grazed off his teeth and been found fragmented in the flat. But unfortunately, the second shot had eventually been fatal.
Had Atherstone been meeting someone, he expected to turn violent. So why had he chosen the flat below his lover on a day he knew she was entertaining his son, to meet up?
Stalking and robbery
Examining the red diary on Atherstone's body made it clear that he had been obsessed with Earl and finding out who she was seeing. His jealousy had gotten to a point where he was convinced she was being unfaithful and needed to find out who with.
In the diary, he had documented watching her consistently since they had split up. He had also recorded some of their lives together. So intimate were the details that not all of them were ever released to the public.
Earl also mentioned that there had been several robberies in the area at the time of Atherstone's death. With high poverty and no social security, many men returned to crime to feed their families.
This, however, did not explain why Atherstone had gone to the flat with a weapon, it was clear that he was expected trouble.
Babcock supported all the statements of the witnesses at the inquest, including that of Anderson and Earl. The verdict was ruled as willful murder by person or some persons unknown.
Some surmised that it was a robbery gone wrong others believed that somehow Anderson had killed his father. Others would suggest that the brothers had murdered their father together; it was William that had been seen fleeing the scene.
The motive for the murder, they said, was jealousy as Thomas was in love with Elizabeth Earl and needed his father out of the way. To this date, the murder remains unsolved, as the police had no evidence.
What happened to Weldon Atherstone
Having examined the evidence, many, including myself, believe that the murder was a combination of these two theories.
Atherstone was obsessed with discovering who Elizabeth Earl was seeing behind his back. He was following her continuously to see who she was meeting. Knowing that Thomas was visiting her that night, I believe he thought his love rival might be his son.
He had gone to the ground floor flat to observe the couple. Changing into slippers so he could walk around the flat unheard by the two occupants upstairs. From here, he would have been able to know where the couple were by their movements.
Having heard them enter the bedroom, he would sneak into the flat and challenge the pair. The weapon he made was to use on his love rival, even if that was his son. The key found in his pocket matched Earl's flat. She was unaware he had cut himself a key.
Whilst lying in wait downstairs, he had disturbed a burglar, who knew the top floor residents were away and wanted to rob them. When the thief and Atherstone came face to face, a struggle ensued and Atherstone was shot. The thief runs away, taking the weapon with him.
Whether Thomas Anderson and Elizabeth Earl were in a relationship has never been proven. However, it is not beyond expectations that forty-year-old Earl may have been having an affair with a younger man. Earl moved to Australia shortly after the inquest to live with her brother.
This is only one theory for a case that has confused the experts for years and remains unsolved.
What do you think happened to Weldon Atherstone?