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Was innocent man hanged?
2:18pm Monday 11th June 2012 in History
In 1938 a young man was hanged after being found guilty of carrying out the ultimate revenge on the man who sacked him by raping and murdering his wife. But true crime writer John J Eddleston thinks there may have been a miscarriage of justice
ON Tuesday, January 18, 1938, 67year-old Margaret Jane Dobson left her home at High Grange Farm, Wolviston, north of Stockton, at 4.30pm.
She told her husband, Henry, that she would be back at about 6pm but, when she failed to return home on the last bus, Henry and farm hands began searching for her.
The search continued the nextmorning, and at about 9.45am, as Henry walked along the long track that led to the main road, he saw a bundle of some kind in one of the fields.
Going to investigate, he was horrified to find the body of his wife. Hardly believing his eyes, he walked around the terrible scene before setting off for the nearest police station.
Margaret Dobson had been raped, then stabbed, and police believed that they had a likely suspect in Robert William Hoolhouse.
The Hoolhouse family had once worked for Mr Dobson. Five years before, an argument had cost Mr Hoolhouse and his son their jobs and the tied cottage that went with it.
This, perhaps, was reason enough for someone to want to harm Margaret Dobson, and when it came to the attention of the authorities that 21-year-old Robert was sporting some fresh scratches on his face, they decided to have a word with him.
At 1.15am on Thursday, January 20, Robert Hoolhouse was taken in for questioning, and the police not being satisfied with his answers, was then charged with murder.
INaddition to the scratches on his face, officers had also seen bloodstains on his clothing. There was also the fact his alibi did not check out.
Robert said that on the day of the murder he had been at home at 6 Pickering Street, Haverton Hill, until about 12.30pm.
He had then cycled intoWolviston, where he visited a friend, William Husband, staying with him until about 3pm.
Cycling back home, he had arrived at about 4pm and stayed there until 6pm, when he caught the bus intoWolviston, where he again visited William Husband.
John Lax and his sister, Dolly, were also at the house. Robert and Dolly had then caught a bus for Billingham, where they went to the pictures.
As for the scratches on his face, Robert said he had suffered them on January 19 when he had fallen off his bike.
When the police checked the alibi, they found a problem. William Husband and Dolly Lax said he had arrived at William's house later than he had said.
Faced with this, Hoolhouse made a second brief statement in which he said he must have got the time wrong. He had left home an hour later and had arrived at Wolviston at about 3.45pm, not 2.45pm.
For the police, that was highly significant.
The pathologist had put the time ofMargaret's death at some time before 4pm and they now believed that Hoolhouse had deliberately lied about the time to cover the period of the murder. As a result, Hoolhouse was charged.
Robert Hoolhouse's trial took place from March 28 to March 30, before Mister Justice Wrottesley. Unfortunately, his defence barrister missed a good deal of evidence that would have shown his client might well have been innocent.
The first piece of that evidence was that Percy Swales had seen a man standing in the field, near where Margaret's body would be found.
The man was certainly not Hoolhouse and the sighting was at 5.30pm, by which time Hoolhouse was certainly back home in Haverton Hill.
Then there was the matter of the scratches on Hoolhouse's face. When Margaret had been found, she was still wearing her heavy woollen gloves.
The police had experimented with these gloves, trying to cause similar scratches on a volunteer's face. A secretary with long nails was unable to inflict the slightest wound.
Even more conclusive was the footprint evidence. Henry Dobson had stepped around the body and his prints were clearly seen.
Other prints, presumably from the killer, were underneath Henry's. Plaster casts of those prints had been made. They did not belong to Robert Hoolhouse.
Finally there was the fact that no semen stains were found on Hoolhouse's clothing, despite extensive stains being found on Margaret's.
The jury tookmore than four hours to decide that Hoolhouse was guilty and he was sentenced to death.
But important witnesses had never been called.
Margaret Barker had travelled on the same bus as Hoolhouse on January 18. They had a conversation during which Margaret noticed no scratches on his face. The other witness was Doris Teale, who lived next to the Hoolhouses.
She had seen Robert standing outside his house at the time he was supposed to be murdering Margaret Dobson. Neither witness was called by the defence.
Protesting his innocence to the end, Robert William Hoolhouse was hanged at Durham by Thomas Pierrepoint on Thursday, May 26.
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