“29th June 1932

Holloway

Elvira Dolores Barney

Murder

Central Criminal Court

Sir

I beg to state that the  above named has been under mental and physical observation since her reception on June 4th. I have already submitted a report on June 8th giving a list of abrasions and bruises which I found on the prisoner after her reception to prison. She is in good health, has not shown any signs of physical illness, she has slept well, shown no symptoms of drug taking, and has increased one and a half pounds in weight since reception.

PAST HISTORY

She has had good health but has had to undergo an operation for middle-ear disease and she met with a serious accident some twelve months ago in which she broke her lower jaw and has since required special treatment for her teeth.

MENTAL STATE

I have examined her on various occasions, she has always conversed rationally, shown no signs of delusions or hallucinations and her conduct has been normal except on one or two occasions when she has shown hysterical manifestations.

I am of the opinion that she is of sound mind and fit to plead the indictment.

I have the honour to be,

Sir,

your obedient servant

John Hall Morton

Governor and Medical Officer”

Elvira in 1932                                        

There are a number of points worth exploring in this statement. Firstly, there is the denial in the first paragraph of Elvira’s drug-taking. There must have been a line of inquiry that suggested such an involvement, otherwise why mention the issue at all?

Secondly, Elvira’s medical history and the after-effects of the car-crash modify the usual narrative. I am assuming that this was the same incident in Piccadilly when Napper Dean Paul was also injured. Apart from sounding a lot more serious than generally reported, I wonder whether the marked change in Elvira’s appearance in 1931-32 was the result of the crash rather than her life of “debauchery”. It also can’t have had the most calming effect on her already turbulent personality. Of “middle ear disease” I know nothing but it has been linked to mental illness and schizophrenia by some doctors (then and now).

Of Elvira’s present mental condition the letter seems a little complacent. What “hysterical manifestations”? How many – “one or two” hardly smacks of scientific accuracy? I am not implying any sort of cover-up but for a woman about to go on trial for her life the general tone and brevity of the report suprises me a little.

The writer of the report, John Hall Morton, was in charge of Holloway Prison from 1921 until his death, aged 52, in 1935. He was, by the standards of the time, an enlightened governor, famously installing mirrors in the cells  – much to the delight of the female inmates and angry mutterings from the usual press sources. He was also an opponent of capital punishment. This stance, highly unusual in the service, had come about after he had been required to record the horrific state of Edith Thompson’s corpse after she was executed in Holloway in 1923.

Edith Thompson

The Edith Thompson-Freddie Bywaters trial was one of a number of high-level murder trials  that captured the popular imagination between the wars and her cruel sentence (her boyfriend had actually stabbed her husband) has been the basis for novels (A Pin to See The Peepshow) and films (Another Life) ever since. Along with Madame Fahmy, acquitted of shooting her husband at the Savoy Hotel, Edith Thompson’s was the name most often linked with Elvira’s by crime reporters at the time. Fortunately, Elvira had a more competent defence team than Edith.

Morton’s last act as governor/medical officer was to write a report on Alma Rattenbury, the central character in the next great scandal involving sex and murder (and the subject of Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre ). That trial also had an accusation of drug use on the part of the accused but the various doctors, in Alma’s case, found no evidence although in retrospect it looks very likely.Alma’s story is well worth reading alongside Elvira’s, not so much for the “whodunnit” element but for the light they both throw on pre-War attitudes to sexually active women.

Alma Rattenbury

Apart from these high-profile figures the most famous, and very regular, resident of Holloway under Morton’s tenure was someone Elvira would have known well. This was the Queen of London Nightclubs, the legendary Kate Meyrick. However, she deserves a post to herself.

Party at Silver Slipper club celebrating Mrs.Meyrick’s release from Holloway