Category: Case History

Some time ago I asked if anyone could translate an article about Elvira that appeared in the French magazine Photo Journal (see Photo Journal 1951  )

Almost by return of post I received two fine English versions of the piece. The content is remarkable, to say the least, and not a little perplexing. If true, the whole Elvira story needs revising. Unfortunately, what is revealed is almost completely a work of fiction.

As the Barney trial is already prone to anecdote, falsehoods and wild speculation (some of which I have on occasion unwittingly added to) I was reluctant to doing anything further with the article. However, although innaccuracy and downright lies do nothing but harm, the “myths” that this piece generates are part of the story so have a certain interest of their own.

The premise upon which this sensational account is founded is shared by nearly all the commentators  on the scandal, contemporary with and subsequent to the trial. Basically, Elvira symbolised a decadent and parasitic ruling class, partying ever more wildly, while around them the suffering of the masses was growing worse by the hour. This view, found across the entire political spectrum, is not entirely without merit and certainly is one reason why the case has continued to fascinate.

The thesis is overly reductive, though, even in its more sophisticated formulations (see Osbert Lancaster or Giles Playfair). When formulated as crudely as it is in the Photo Journal report it breaks down completely into tired cliche and exposes itself as lazy generalisation masquerading as political insight.

Anyway, here is the article. I’ve included both versions (which seemed only fair, although they barely differ); partly to say thank you and partly because some of the “information” is so bizarre that it takes two reads to fully appreciate how outrageous a fiction it largely is.I suggest you either amuse yourselves by attempting to tally up the number of factual errors or merely console yourself that, Leveson notwithstanding, journalistic “licence” knows no national boundaries.

How the Jealous Lady Elvira Shot Her Young Fiancé.
London. You need to go back to 1932, England was deep into a grave financial crisis, there were millions of unemployed, seaports were paralyzed, industry and coalmines at a standstill. The ruling class whilst living in selfish indifference began to be worried. Suddenly, in the month of May, an important scandal broke out. in high society. One of the most beautiful and elegant ladies of London is placed in the dock. The economic crisis suddenly takes second place. The newspapers seize the chance to report the private life of this lady who risks hanging. It concerns Lady Elvira Ashley Mullens, daughter of Lord John Ashley Mullens, financial consultant to His Majesty George V and at the same time the all powerful president of the Exchange Agents Corporation. Leader of the British and World exchange markets, Lord Ashley Mullens rules the roost at the Stock Exchange were everyone obeys his orders. The only person who he has not been able to tame is his daughter Elvira. Beautiful and turbulent she caused, from adolescence, grave concern by her adventures revealing a rather excessive “dynamism”.
At the age of 29, after three marriages, of which the last profoundly shocked English high society. Lady Elvira appeared to have no intention of calming down.
First of all let us look at what was her third experience.
Finding herself at the Warldorf Astoria, Lady Elvira, in the glory of her twenty seventh year had, despite prohibition, beaten all records in the matter of drunkenness. During one of her “bottle parties” she picked up John Sterling Barney, a mediocre tenor, better known for his physical attributes than for his singing voice. She removed and held him prisoner for some time in her magnificent villa in Newport News (the Cannes of the USA) and then trailed him before a minister who united them in marriage. The English aristocracy was outraged, Lord Ashley Mullens ordered his daughter’s immediate return to England, without husband, at the risk of having her allowance stopped.
Either the menace produced its effect or Elvira realized the mediocrity of her tenor but will she accept to return to London? She wanted nevertheless to spend some time in Paris to wait for her divorce to be granted.
Life in Paris at that time was very gay for those who had lots of pounds sterling. Patronizing the smart places , Lady Elvira meets a fellow countryman, Michael Stephens, a handsome young man of twenty three, somewhat debauched, who was used to escapades in night clubs and cashing cheques without funds which his father, a minor banker, paid to save the family name. Basically a good boy he had pleasantly whiled away his time in Paris thanks to a beautiful “danseuse” from the “Folies Bergère” who lived with him and subsidized him with her salary whilst waiting for the time he would see fit to marry her.
Onto this idyll the beautiful Elvira came, like a brilliant shooting star, deeply moving…….
Straight away she engages the pink faced blond Michael as private secretary and goes everywhere with him. Michael, who for the first time in his life earns money without having to beg from his father or girlfriend, feels happy.
He is able to dip freely into the cheque book of his new found patron….but at the same time his life becomes difficult. Not only does he have to fill his functions as “private secretary” of a very demanding lady but he has to keep calm the alarmed “danseuse” who is becoming jealous.
We know how similar stories generally end up. Elvira losing her head , offers her secretary her hand in marriage and a first class situation in London. Michael outlawed by his family allows himself to be easily persuaded. The prospects of going back to England with a substantial position and with the help of the City’s biggest financier made him forget the charms of his Parisian dancer.
Whilst Lady Elvira badgers her New York lawyers for a rapid divorce, the new fiancés live as a married couple. However, the mediocre tenor has no intention of giving way so easily, he threatens to reveal to the newspapers and courts the piquant details; he wants to exact a price for his consent. Lady Elvira appeals to her father in assuring him that her new marriage will settle her down. Her father forgives and pays up, but he makes it a condition that she returns to London and gives up the unhealthy life of the night clubs of Paris and America. He even obtains a splendid furnished flat in Mayfair where Lady Elvira will settle into, followed shortly afterwards by Michael.
In London she l takes up again her frenzied life of nocturnal amusements in the company of the most deranged elements of the aristocracy where she wants to involve Michael. At present, he despises this disorderly life and has only one wish and that is to return to Paris and find his Juliette again.
The discord begins, the rows follow and suddenly tragedy strikes.
One day, while Michael was washing, Lady Elvira discovers a photo of the dancer hidden in a watch left on the bedside table. She says nothing but decides to get rid of this rival;
Some time afterwards, the 30th of May around three in the morning, the couple having returned from a dance, prepare to go to bed, Michael decides to open the letters which had been waiting for him the previous morning. He finds a letter from Paris in which Juliette explains how Lady Elvira had managed to get her thrown out of the theatre where she danced. Michael demands an explanation but Lady Elvira sneers. At the height of indignation Michael wishes to get out to fly for Paris, but two pistol shots get him before he is able to reach the door.
Following this event Lady Elvira goes to prison. As one would predict the scandal was enormous. However all means were tried to stifle it. The press, no sooner won over, began to speak of the incident. The lawyers did the rest.
One month later the trial begins. The whole of English high society was there. Lady Elvira shows up in the dock dressed in black with two large white flowers at the waist. As always, beautiful and casual, she confirms the version of the story of accidental mishap caused by the revolver accidentally falling to the ground. It is in vain that her chambermaid declares that she heard her say “I am going to kill you”. It is in vain that the doctors in charge of the victim’s post mortem prove that the shots were fired deliberately at point blank range. The jury voted in her favour and amongst applause from the “snobs” in the public gallery, the judge acquitted her.
Only one person protests, a man who shouts in indignation and spits at the jury and is evicted from the court by the police as quickly as possible. It was the elder brother of the poor Michael.
It was necessary to use mounted police to disperse the crowd and it was under cover of darkness that Elvira was able to get out of the court unnoticed and leave for the USA where naturally she was received as a heroine.



We must go back to 1932. England is in the grip of a grave economic crisis with one million unemployed, ports paralysed, industries and coal mines stopped. The ruling class, living entirely in a state of self-centred indifference, began to be concerned. Suddenly, in May of that year, a grave scandal shocked the heights of society and one of the most beautiful and elegant ladies of London society was seen on the criminal bench. The economic crisis slipped into to second place and the newspapers were captured by the private life of this lady who risked being hung “by the neck until dead”.

This was the Lady Elvira Ashley Mullens, daughter of Lord John Ashley Mullens who was in turn a financial adviser to His Majesty George V and the all-powerful president of Corporation of Stockbrokers. Dominating the British and world financial markets Lord Ashley Mullens made the rain fall and the sun shine on the London Stock Exchange where everyone bowed to his will. The only person whom he could not dominate was his daughter Elvira. Beautiful and stormy, she had, since her adolescence, been a worry due to adventures that revealed a rather excessive “dynamism”.

At the age of twenty nine, after three attempts at marriage – the last of which had distinctly shocked English high society – Lady Elvira seemed to show no intentions of settling down.

But let us look first at that third marriage experience.

Finding herself at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, Lady Elvira – in all the glory of her twenty seven years – had, in spite of prohibition, broken all the records in drinking bouts. In the middle of one of these “drinking parties” she picked up John Sterling Barney, a mediocre tenor, better known for his physical attributes than singing voice. She carried him off and after holding him prisoner for quite a while in her magnificent villa at Newport-News (The Cannes of the USA) towed him off one fine morning in front of a pastor who married them. The aristocracy of England was outraged. Lord Ashley Mullens ordered her immediate return, without her husband, on pains of their lives.

Whether the threat worked or whether Lady Elvira began to realise the mediocrity of her tenor, she did return alone to London. She wanted, however, to stay a while in Paris until the divorce came through.

Paris, at that time, was particularly exciting for those with British pounds to spend: spending her time in elegant spots, lady Elvira met a young compatriot, Michael Stephens, a handsome young man of 23, a little lame, prone to occasional pranks in nightclubs where he presented cheques without any backing so leaving his father, a minor banker, to pay up in order to preserve the family name. Basically a good lad, he was made comfortable during his time in Paris thanks to a pretty dancer from the Folies-Bergere who lived with him and supported him with her wages waiting all the while for him to marry her.

The beautiful Elvira crashed into this idyll like a resplendent meteor turning everything upside down. First she dragged the pink and blond Michael everywhere as her secretary. To date Michael had never earned his own money always having to ask his father or girlfriend for money so he felt happy. He was able to plunge his hands into his “boss’s” cheque book. But at the same time his life became tricky. Not only did he have to perform all the duties of a “private secretary” to a demanding lady but he also had to calm the dancer who, awkwardly, had become jealous.

We well know how similar tales have ended. Elvira lost her head, offered to marry him and establish him at a high level in London. The idea of returning to England, properly sorted out and supported by a high ranking City financier enabled him to forget the charms of his Parisian dancer. While Elvira harassed her New York lawyers to expedite her divorce, the young engaged couple lived together. Bu the mediocre tenor had no intention of giving in easily. He threated to give the papers and the court juicy details; he wanted to be paid off. Lady Elvira told her father that her new marriage would calm her down. Her father forgave her and made peace, insisting only that she returned to London leaving behind the malign influence of Parisian and American nightclubs. He found her a splendid furnished apartment in Mayfair into which she moved followed shortly by Michael.

In London, she started her rounds of frenetic night time entertainment again with the most unbalanced elements of the aristocracy, wanting to drag Michael along. But he had changed. At the moment he was turning against this disordered way of life and dreamed of nothing more than returning to Paris to his Juliette.

Disagreements began; scenes followed and the tragedy gathered force. One day while Michael was dressing, Elvira found a small photo of the dancer hidden in his watch where he had taken it off and left it on a table overnight. She said nothing, deciding to get rid of her rival.

Sometime later, on 30 May, about 3am the couple came back after a dance and ready for bed but Michael decided to open the post that had been lying around all day. He found a letter from Juliette that said Lady Elvira had managed to get her sacked from the theatre where she danced. Michael demanded an explanation; Lady Elvira sniggered. In high indignation, Michael left to rush off to flee to Paris. But two bullets hit him before he reached the soil.

Following this Lady Elvira was taken to prison. As one might expect the scandal was huge. Attempts were made to stifle it but the press was pre-warned and reported the incident. The lawyers did the rest. A month later the case began. All of high society turned up. Lady Elvira took her place dressed in black with two large white flowers at her waist. Always beautiful and rather casual she confirmed the details of the unlucky accident, caused by the gun falling. In vain might her maid state that she heard her call “I’ll kill you.” In vain might the doctors in charge of the victim’s autopsy state the shots were point blank and deliberate.

The jury found Lady Elvira not guilty and, amid applause from the snobs who filled the gallery, the judge acquitted her.

Only one person protested and spat at the jury until the police ejected him. He was poor Michael’s elder brother.

Mounted policemen were needed to disperse the crowd. And only under cover of night was Lady Elvira able to slip away from the court unnoticed and set off for thee USA where of course she was welcomed as a heroine.

It was in fashionable bars like this that Lady Mullens loitered in idleness. Barmen in London and Paris were well acquainted with this noble lady, one of their most assiduous customers.


NB Little of the above is true.

At the end of a long and distinguished career, Sir Travers Humphreys wrote A Book of Trials (1953). He had been involved in some of the most celebrated trials in English history – Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement, Crippen, Haigh etc. – so it is perhaps surprising that he chose to end the book with a chapter on Elvira.

Part of the reason for this was the widespread rumour that Humphreys had been surprised by, and not a little appalled, by the verdict. In this chapter he (partially) refutes this and offers, in the guise of a review of Patrick Hastings account of the trial, an analysis of the issues involved. It is a fascinating and cogently argued piece and sheds light not only the dynamics of the case but on the English judicial process as it then operated.

“I have been reading, not for the first time, the account of the trial of Mrs. Elvira Dolores Barney to be found in the book by the late Sir Patrick Hastings entitled Cases in Court. The trial took place in 1932 at the Central Criminal Court, and it happened that I was the judge. The chapter devoted to this case may be recommended to all young practitioners at the Criminal Bar, and to any other reader who may be interested in studying the method of approach by a master in the art of defending prisoners to a series of facts, most, if not all, of which would, each by itself, be insufficient to justify a conviction on the charge against the accused, namely murder, but which, taken together, clearly struck Sir Patrick as presenting a most difficult task to counsel for the defence.

I have not the least intention of re-telling the story of a trial in which the woman accused was acquitted upon the facts by a jury, and I should prefer not even to comment on the case if I thought that anything I wrote might seem to suggest that I disagreed with the verdict.The fact is that to me the most intriguing part of this chapter of the book was the difference between Sir Patrick and myself in the views which we formed of the strength of the case for the prosecution – as it appeared on the depositions taken at the Police Court, that is, the case as it reached me a few days before the trial.

I need scarcely say that we approached the matter from essentially different standpoints. Hastings was concerned to find answers to certain, undoubtedly awkward, pieces of evidence; my object was little more than to learn something of the nature and length of the case, since I made it  a practice not to read newspaper or other unofficial reports of proceedings at Police Courts in cases likely to be committed for trial which might ultimately come to be tried by myself.I now know that Sir Patrick had been briefed at the Police Court, though he wisely refrained from cross-examining the witnesses. To that extent he had the advantage of me. The following short facts are taken from Sir Patrick’s book.

Mrs.Barney was a spoilt child of fortune. The daughter of wealthy parents, she had early drifted into an atmosphere of idle luxury. She was married but did not live with her husband, had no interests except those to be found in night clubs, drank far too much and occupied a flat in London where she lived with a young man named Michael Stephens. He had no money, no regular occupation and was content to live on the money provided by Mrs. Barney. There were repeated quarrels and noisy parties, so that the pair were a constant source of annoyance to the respectable inhabitants of the mews in which they lived.

On the night of May 31st a doctor in the neighbourhood was called on the telephone by Mrs. Barney. “Doctor, come at once/ There has been a terrible accident.” He went to the flat. Mrs. Barney was in a state of extreme hysteria. Stephens lay dead upon the stairs. On the floor was the revolver belonging to the woman, with which the man had been shot. To doctor and police Mrs. Barney, though too frenzied to give a coherent account, repeated again and again that there had been a quarrel, that she had threatened, as she had often done before, to commit suicide by shooting herself with a revolver which she always kept in a drawer beside her bed. Stephens had tried to prevent her carrying out her threat; in the struggle the pistol had gone off, shooting him through the body. She was taken to the police station, where she repeated the story once more, and there being no other information she was released and allowed to go home with her mother.

The police, of course, continued their inquiries, which led to them finding fresh witnesses, not indeed witnesses to the actual shooting, but, as Sir Patrick considered, witnesses whose evidence, if accepted, would make the theory of attempted suicide much more difficult to establish. The Director decided that Mrs. Barney must stand her trial, and she was arrested and later committed for trial.

The further evidence above referred to may be considered under four heads.

a) Evidence that two shots were heard on the fatal evening. These witnesses were not very satisfactory and their evidence as to the number of shots heard by them was even contradictory. It seemed not unlikely that they had learned that the police had found the mark of a second bullet in the bedroom. Mrs. Barney accepted the latter fact and explained it. She said that on previous occasions she had threatened suicide and had fired in the room to frighten Stephens, not at him nor, indeed, near him.

b) A witness who heard the fatal shot and who added that he heard Mrs. Barney shriek, “I will shoot you”, just before he heard the sound of the shot. The obvious answer to that was put forward by Sir Patrick in suggesting that the words were, “I will shoot”, referring to killing herself, not her lover.

c) The inhabitants of a flat lower down the mews spoke of having heard the sound of a violent quarrel at the flat some days earlier and saw Stephens leave the building and walk away; as he did so Mrs. Barney opened the upper window, screaming, “Laugh, baby, laugh for the last time” – she then produced a revolver and fired, as they alleged, at him from the window. Nothing more was heard of this occurrence, and no one apparently thought it necessary at the time to inform the police. In those circumstances no one would quarrel with the decision to arrest Mrs. Barney in order that the death of Stephens could be more fully investigated.

d) Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the eminent pathologist, and Mr.Churchill, the well-known expert gunsmith, had expressed opinions, sensible enough in themselves, as to the improbability of the deceased having, during the course of the struggle for the pistol, himself pulled the trigger, but improbabilities do not as a rule count for much in a murder trial – at least that is, and was, my experience in the matter. My view, after reading the deposition, was expressed to my clerk, at that time the late Mr. Winckworth, much as follows:

“This case should not last very long. The woman gave an account at the time when, according to the doctor, she was not in a condition to invent or concoct a defence. She has throughout stuck to that story. Unless she breaks down in cross-examination,  or the prosecution can satisfy the jury that her story cannot be true, they will never convict her of murder. If the charge were manslaughter the case would be very different. Patrick Hastings is defending her and if anyone can get her off altogether he is the man to do it, but if Percy Clarke, leading for the prosecution, stresses the manslaughter I don’t think he will succeed.

At the trial Hastings defended her brilliantly and, what in this case was much more important, with consummate tact. There was no attack made on any witness for the prosecution but each incident was made to fall into its place in the picture of attempted suicide. As he himself has written: ” The whole scheme of the defence was to bring all the evidence into line with the possibility of attempted suicide. That would be sufficient to justify his defence to the charge of murder, since murder in such a case consists in unlawful killing with the intention of at least seriously injuring the deceased man.

Mrs. Barney made as good a witness as could be expected of any woman in her position. She was restrained and kept her emotions under control. It was not a case in which the jury were likely to feel much sympathy for either the dead or the living, but at least she said nothing to increase the prejudice against her caused by the story of her wasted life.

“Upon the whole,” writes Sir Patrick, “she was not much shaken by her cross-examination.” The defence had in their favour one unusual piece of luck, or, should I say, they took full advantage of an error on the part of the policeman first called to the scene of the tragedy. No attempt had been made to examine the revolver for finger-prints until it had been handled by several people, and the defence were entitled to say to the jury that had the precaution been taken the finger-prints of the deceased might have been found on, or near, the trigger. As it was, the examination when made showed many blurred and unidentifiable prints, the only one clearly defined, being that of one of the detectives in the case.

There remained the question of manslaughter. Sir Patrick states, and I assume he must be right, that nothing had been said by Sir Percival Clarke as to manslaughter in his summing-up to the jury of the case for the prosecution. If so, I am sure that theremust have been some good reason in his mind for the omission, though I do not profess to understand it. As a matter of law,the more the theory of attempted suicide was stressed the more clearly would it appear that the deceased man was killed as the direct result of the unlawful act of the accused.

In such a case the onlyaccident in the matter would be that she killed, not the person whom she attempted to kill, but an innocent person who was trying to prevent her carrying into effect her unlawful design. If Clarke did not refer to the matter, naturally the defence would not do so. I directed the jury as I was bound to, upon the law, but if neither counsel had argued the question it is not surprising that the jury should have concentrated their attention upon the one charge mentioned in the indictment, viz. murder, and having found as I think rightly, that the charge was not proved, have returned as they did a simple verdict of Not Guilty. I have known such a thing to happen on at least one other occasion.”

Thanks to the comedic tradition exemplified by A.P.Herbert and others we tend to have a view of judges as well-meaning but hapless old buffers. The above gives the lie to that stereotype. There is a wealth of insight here, into the case, into Establishment thinking and into the legal process. There is also a considerable amount of carefully concealed self-justification. A couple of things seem apparent to me – firstly, the prosecution case was marked by complacency and ineptitude, and secondly there is no justification, under English law, for Elvira to be termed a Murderer, as she still, routinely, is. As to the truth of what really happened that night – well, that is still, and likely to remain, a mystery.

Michael Scott Stephen’s elder brother, Francis, was the only member of the Stephen family to be interviewed by the Police. He was two years older than Michael and was a solicitor, then residing  in Putney.He was questioned very briefly at the trial and at rather greater length at the inquest. This is from the inquest.

Coroner “Where did he live?”

FS  “I can’t say. I don’t know. I believe he had rooms somewhere’

(The coroner’s officer, interposing, said he believed he had rooms in Brompton Road.)

FS  “Yes, that may be so. I know he had rooms round there, somewhere.”

Coroner  “Had Your brother any occupation?”

FS  “I dont think so, lately.”

C  “Had he had one?”

FS  “Yes, he was a dress designer in Paris.”

C  “When did he give that up?”

FS  “It is very difficult for anybody to say that.”

C  “Was he right-handed or left-handed?”

FS  “Right-handed.”

C  “How was he supporting himself? Was your father making him an allowance?”

FS  “I think my father had ceased making him an allowance.”

C  “Do you know when?”

FS  “My father ceased to make him a regular allowance at least two years ago – I think it was when he went to Paris as a dress designer. That would be about three years ago. Whenever he was in  financial difficulties he was helped out by my mother I think.”

C  “Did he apply to you for money too?”

FS  “Yes.”

C  “Did you lend him any?”

FS  “Not during the last nine months.”

C  “I suppose you got tired of lending him money?”

FS  “Yes. He did not have a great deal from me, but I got tired of it.”

C  “Do you know anything of the relationship which existed between him and Mrs. Barney?”

FS “Yes”

C “What was it, Mr.Stephen?”

FS  “When I last saw him it was about that. I asked him and Mrs. Barney to come to my office, and I told him that my father did not approve of the association. My brother was very angry, so I  just asked them to leave my office.”

C “Your father wanted them to separate?”

FS “Yes. They tried to give us the idea that they would get married when she got divorced, and we pointed out that this was not the best way of setting about it.”

C “Did he become abusive or did she, or both?”

FS “He more or less said “Don’t be so tiresome” or something like that. She rather tried to restrain him.”

C “He got impatient?”

FS “Yes, we left it at that.”

C “You ordered them out of the office?”

FS “I asked them to leave.”

C “Were they living together then?”

FS “He denied it at that interview, but I had a different impression but no grounds, except that when I wanted to speak to him I telephoned to her address in William Mews.”

C “What sort of physique had  your brother?”

FS “He was very delicate.”

What were his habits as regards alcohol?”

FS “I cannot say that I know.”

C “He was in no position to marry?”

FS “Not without a job.”

C “How tall was he?”

FS “About 5 foot 9.”

C “Do you know whether he possessed a revolver?”

FS “I have never heard of it.”

C “Had you any letter from him recently?”

FS “No.”

C “Your communications ceased six months ago?”

FS “Yes.”

There is a difference between this statement and the court one regarding Michael’s physique. In court Francis says that Michael was physically strong but in poor health – he also answers a question by agreeing that he would be considered good-looking. Given that the prosecution case depended heavily on Elvira’s supposed jealousy and the unlikelihood of a woman wrestling the gun off a man – it may be that Francis had been briefed accordingly.

Why does Francis switch to the plural in describing what happened  at the office? Had Michael and Elvira been summoned at the request of the father? If his father had already disowned Michael, as is often suggested, why was he so worried about his son’s relationship with Elvira? If Michael was already firmly established as a wastrel then what did it matter that he was living off the income of the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in London? Was this just good old middle-class respectability (with a touch of Scottish puritanism) or was Elvira’s reputation already a matter of concern? Incidentally, why was Elvira even there? It does have something of the the appearance of a “family crisis” meeting.

The other point worth noting is that it is Elvira who tries to calm Michael down. This runs counter to any other anecdote about Elvira’s general behaviour and possibly gives some credence to the notion that there was more than one volatile person in the relationship.

After his brief moment in the public eye, Francis Richard Stephen continued his career in the law. I’m not absolutely sure but I think he was a solicitor in Nairobi after the Second World War moving to Somerset in the 1960s.If he is the same Francis Richard Stephen who died at Bath in 1995 aged 90 then he had a much longer and, hopefully, less troubled life than his unfortunate brother.



Rupert Furneaux

After her death, Elvira Barney’s name was kept alive only in the world of “True Crime” writing. She features in endless books bearing titles such as “Masterpieces of Murder”, “Crimes of Passion”, “The Murderer’s Who’s Who” and so forth. All tell pretty much the same story, concentrating on the Mayfair Parties aspects of the case and the brilliance of Sir Patrick Hastings for the Defence. All assume Elvira’s guilt. Apart from the routine comments regarding Society high-jinks at a time of mass unemployment, there is very little in the way of social or psychological analysis, a notable exception being  Giles Playfairs “Six Studies in Hypocrisy“. Peter Cotes’ introductory essay to the Trial transcription remains the fullest description of the events surrounding the shooting and is hard to fault, as far as it goes.

Cotes’ book benefits from his knowing people who knew Elvira and from his one encounter with her (see One other crime-historian also used a personal anecdote to enliven an otherwise standard narrative.

Rupert Furneaux was a prolific writer on various subjects – military history, unexplained phenomena and celebrated murder trials. He produced the first full length study of the Erroll/ Happy Valley case. His 1962 book “They Died By A Gun” covers a number of well-known cases (Ruth Ellis, Madame Fahmy etc.) and his chapter on Elvira  (“Laugh, Baby, Laugh” ) adds a couple of face-to-face observations to an otherwise conventional re-telling.

Of Elvira he says, ” though a leading member of London’s Smart Set, Elvira was neither “gay” or “beautiful”. I remember her as drab, coarse, rather fat and usually drunk.”  I’m not convinced that Elvira was a leading member of any “Set”, smart or otherwise but the unflattering adjectives certainly correspond to other accounts of the post-1932 Mrs. Barney.

He concludes his piece with the following comments, “After the trial Mrs. Barney returned to her old life, to be pointed out in sleazy clubs and notorious pubs as “That’s Mrs. Barney”, a fame which lasted until her death in Paris a few years later. I once asked her if she shot Scott Stephen deliberately. Mrs. Barney threw a glass at me. I’m sure she threw it intentionally.”

Amusing as this might be, I think it is probably a fiction. Furneaux was living in Kensington in the early thirties so he may have known Elvira. However, the lack of specifics (where did this take place?) and the reliance on cliche ( I am sick of the term “sleazy clubs”, which applies to very few of the venues Elvira favoured) do not inspire confidence. As to what constituted a “notorious pub” is anyone’s guess. The point is, of course ,both to boost Furneaux’ credibility and to leave the reader in no doubt as to the “truth” of the shooting.

Ruth Ellis

The most promising  aspects of Furneaux’ account are the parallels he attempts to draw between Elvira and Ruth Ellis This is a bit stretched as to the facts but has some strength in terms of thinking about Elvira’s character and the possible similarities between Scott Stephen and David Blakey. A proper comparative study would be quite enlightening. In the absence of which, expect  the odd digression concerning Ruth Ellis to crop up here in the not too distant future.

Newspaper Photograph

This photograph appears on the back cover of “Crimes of Passion” (1975 Verdict Press).

I don’t know which newspaper or magazine it is from, but it is a single page or part of a page . The reproduction isn’t that great but it does give a sense of the case was being covered.

The captions read,

Top Row

“Measurements were taken by the police at the scene of the tragedy – Williams Mews, Lowndes Square.”

“The Shot Man: Mr. Thomas William Scott Stephen, ex dress designer in Paris, who was found shot after the party.”

“The Accused : Mrs. Elvira Dolores Barney, daughter of Sir John and Lady Mullens who has been charged with murder.”

Middle Row

“Chief Inspector Hambrook C.I.D., who was in charge of the police activities, leaving the scene of the tragedy the day after.”

“Mr. and Mrs Barney after their wedding in 1928. Mr. Barney was a member of the prominent cabaret turn – The Three New Yorkers.”

“The Mother and Father of the Accused: Lady Mullens, escorted by Mr.Coleman, solicitor for the defence, behind whom is Sir John Mullens.”

Bottom Row

“Holloway Prison wherein Mrs. Barney awaits her trial on remand. Lady Mullens is seen moving from her motor-car to visit her daughter who, it is stated, has now recovered from her breakdown at the charge.”

“The Sympathy of the Crowd went out in typically English fashion to Lady Mullens when visiting Mrs. Barney in Holloway. The mother has paid several visits to her daughter since her removal on remand from police court to prison.”

The photograph of Elvira on her wedding day is one that doesn’t get published often. Is Elvira’s choice of outfit not a little odd?  I’m completely ignorant of such matters but it doesn’t strike me as particularly “bridal”.

The sympathy for Lady Mullens (I love that “in typically English fashion”) has been pointed out elsewhere. Giles Playfair (in “Six Studies in Hypocrisy”) sees the public support for Lady Mullens as the key to Elvira’s acquittal.

Michael’s family do not feature at all and this photograph of him, as far as I can tell, is the only one ever used in the press or in later accounts.

As it mentions several visits to Holloway, I’m guessing this item appeared towards the end of June, a week or so before the actual trial. A definite narrative is already firmly in place. The word tragedy is used twice, why not “shooting” or “alleged murder”? And whose tragedy – “the ex-dress designer in Paris” or the Mullens family?