Wicked Women (1970– )
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Alice Rhodes 

This is an account of the Penge Murder which led to the Married Woman's Property Act. Alice Rhodes (Joanna Dunham) encourages her lover (Ralph Bates) to marry a "simple" rich orphan after ... See full synopsis »

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Cast

Episode credited cast:
...
Hazel Bainbridge ...
Mrs. Downes
Christopher Banks ...
Doctor Stonerigg
Raymond Barry ...
Tom Carter
...
Louis Staunton
Joanna Dunham ...
Alice Rhodes
Henry McCarthy ...
Inspector Hamilton
Rosemary McHale ...
Mary Staunton
David McKail ...
Patrick Staunton
...
Evans
...
Cabbie
Gillian Raine ...
Harriet Staunton
Di Seaney ...
Clara
Philippa Urquhart ...
Lizzie Evans
David Webb ...
Sergeant Mence
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This is an account of the Penge Murder which led to the Married Woman's Property Act. Alice Rhodes (Joanna Dunham) encourages her lover (Ralph Bates) to marry a "simple" rich orphan after which she is starved to death... See full synopsis »

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14 February 1970 (UK)  »

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A Sudden Death in Penge (1877)
12 February 2008 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

Still again another long forgotten British series on television (like THE LADY KILLERS) that dealt with various criminal cases of the past that had women as defendants. This one, the Staunton case, creator a furor in 1877 that hasn't totally disappeared today.

Harriet Butterfield's family had a pair of habits of getting into odd marriages, and somehow accumulating money. Her sister lost a major fortune in what was known as the Wicklow Peerage Case (based on her claim to having married an air to that Irish title). Her grandmother was a noted courtesan who married a Lord Rivers. Lady Rivers died in 1872, leaving substantial assets including 2,000 pounds apiece to her two granddaughters, Harriet and her sister the would-be peeress. This legacy did no hurt the sister, but it doomed Harriet.

Harriet would be considered "slow" today. She was capable of living a normal life, but she had the mentality of a child. And once she had a large bank balance she became a tempting target (especially as she was all too happy to talk about being rich).

About 1875 it was Harriet's misfortune to come to the attention of a rather nasty customer named Louis Staunton. Staunton began to court her. Her mother and sister did not like this suitor. But Louis knew how to manipulate the childish Harriet, and eventually got her to agree to marry him. When they married Louis demanded (as husband) possession of Harriet's property.

Louis actually had a girlfriend named Alice Rhodes. He and Alice had been very close to Louis' brutal brother Patrick and Patick's "wife" Elizabeth. The four (from what is now pieced together) were determined to keep the money and property but get rid of Harriet. Harriet was pregnant by Louis (part of his plans to force the marriage), and now there was a baby as well.

Soon Mrs. Butterfield and Mrs. Howard found they could not see Harriet

  • Louis and Patrick (and their two women) insisted on keeping Harriet
under lock and key. An occasional accidental meeting with the Staunton family did not relieve Mrs. Butterfield's fears. On one occasion she saw Alice wearing a brooch that was Harriet's.

In April 1877 the Staunton's abandoned the baby at a London Hospital, where it shortly died of apparent starvation. Shortly after they foursome dragged Harriet to the rather dull and sterile area of Penge near London, and there she died...reportedly of cerebral hemorrhage and apoplexy. But just as it looked like Staunton and his brother had everything set up perfectly it collapsed. One of them was reporting the death of Harriet to a store owner, and a person in the store (by sheer chance) was a friend of Mrs. Butterfield. Soon the trail led to Patrick and Louis Staunton and their two women, and all four were arrested.

In 1877 forensic science was (truthfully) a hit or miss situation for the authorities. Harriet's corpse was examined, and found to have less than one hundred four pounds of weight on her, and her body was filthy. It came out that those who saw her in the last six months of her life noted how Louis and Alice and Elizabeth ignored her, while Patrick apparently was allowed to mistreat her. The four were put on trial for murder.

It would be a messy trial - although the circumstances suggested mistreatment in a carefully planned way for Harriet and her baby, the fact was that medical evidence was not quite solid in 1877. It might be a debilitating illness that killed Harriet. Louis Staunton was defended by Edward Clarke, in the first major case of his distinguished career. Clarke fought for Louis' life, insisting that Harriet died of natural causes. He almost won.

Unfortunately for the Stauntons and Alice Rhodes and Elizabeth, the judge at the trial was Henry Hawkins. Hawkins was a very well prepared criminal lawyer, and he became a devastatingly good criminal jurist. In fact, Hawkins got such a record of successfully leading his criminal cases to convictions that he became known as "Hanging Hawkins". His summation in the Staunton Case was against the brothers and their paramours, and the Jury found the brothers guilty (they were sentenced to death) and Alice Rhodes and Elizabeth guilty of being an accomplices.

The case did not end. Clarke raised issues of unfairness against Hawkins in his summation (until the death of Hawkins in 1907 Clarke insisted the judge was an evil and vindictive man - which was going too far). Others joined the chorus attacking the forensic evidence, including the medical journal THE LANCET, and the noted novelist Charles Reade (THE CLOISTER AND THE HEARTH, IT'S NEVER TOO LATE TO MEND, HARD CASH). A petition signed by thousands had an effect. The brothers sentences were reduced to life imprisonment (Patrick died in prison, Louis was eventually released). Patrick's girlfriend Elizabeth got a prison sentence. Alice Rhodes' sentence was dismissed (oddly enough).

In the 1920s, the famous forensic scientist Sir Bernard Spilsbury gave a lecture on the Staunton Case. He concluded the jury had been right, and Harriet was starved to death.

Years later, Hawkins (a vigorous believer in long walks) stopped off for some lunch in a country pub during a walk. The waitress in the pub looked at him and scowled, but had to serve him. Hawkins took his drink and food from her, and before he left he asked her if she knew him. "Yes, M'Lord, we've met!", she said. He asked who she was. "I am Alice Rhodes...you probably remember me!!" Hawkins felt awkward and made the mistake of hoping she was well. "If I am," she spat out, "it's not thanks to you at all!" The judge bid a hasty departure.


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