In 1929, the Newfangled Realm of Forensics Helped Catch a Cruel Killer

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Sidney Harry Fox had already caused his mother plenty of grief by the time he decided to end her life in 1929, greedily eyeing her insurance policy as just the cash infusion he needed to continue his shiftless lifestyle. But Rosaline Fox would get her revenge in death, with the help of forensic science.

From his early teens, he was a constant source of trouble for his “decent working Norfolk parents,” according to the salacious details crammed into an article in London’s Evening Standard released after his 1930 execution. His misdeeds included launching a door-to-door campaign to collect money for charity (turns out 13-year-old Sidney was the charity, since he pocketed the profits); he then used his boyish good looks and ability to fake good manners to secure a position with a prominent London family ... and proceeded to rip them off, too.

Those upper-class airs must have been rather convincing, though, because during World War I, Sidney got a job at a bank. It wasn’t long before he was forging checks, true to form, and when he was caught he was spared prison under the condition that he join the army. And Sidney even managed to twist that seemingly simple task into a con, faking that he was “an old Etonian” to get into the Royal Air Force. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if he had been able to resist slipping back into his old check-forging ways. For that, he finally saw the inside of a jail cell, though it was just a three-month stint, and hardly convinced him to leave the life of crime behind.


More scams followed as Sidney grew older and more skilled at pretending to be a gentleman, apparently even using his “dashing and rascally” ways to convince a wealthy Australian woman to marry him ... a romance that faltered when Sidney, who many sources report was actually gay, was convicted of stealing her jewelry and then, after taking out a hefty life insurance policy on her, attempting to kill her.

All this time, Sidney’s mother stuck by her son, working as a cook and a cleaner to help him out whenever she could. She even helped carry out his scams on occasion, some believe. But that wasn’t enough. Sidney needed money, lots of money ... and he’d do anything to get it. And he did, dusting off his life-insurance get-rich-quick plan and using it on poor Rosaline Fox. This time, he succeeded, and he might’ve gotten away with it if only the newfangled realm of forensics hadn’t become such a reliable crime-solving aid.

What went down: thirty-something son and sixty-something mother traveled to the seaside town of Margate on October 23, 1939. The life insurance policy was set to expire at midnight, and at 11:40pm, a fire broke out in Rosaline’s hotel room. Convenient, eh? Despite the heroic efforts of another guest, Rosaline was apparently overcome by smoke and could not be revived. According to Murderpedia:

Subsequently, an inquest found that Mrs Fox had died from shock and suffocation and recorded a verdict of ‘Death by Misadventure’ and the body was released for burial, which took place at Great Fransham in Norfolk.

Luck was not to remain on the side of Sidney Fox. An insurance company became suspicious when it was discovered that a policy under which he had insured his mother against accidental death expired at midnight on the very night of the fire in her room. The appropriate authorities were alerted and the case reopened.

Mrs Fox’s body was exhumed on November 11th and sent for analysis by the eminent Home Office pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury, who told the reopened inquest at Margate borough magistrates court that ‘The injuries to the neck and tongue could, in my opinion, only have been produced by strangulation by the hand.’ Fox was found guilty of matricide and was hanged at Maidstone Jail in April 1930, the first convicted murderer not to appeal against his sentence.


The photo above depicts the crowd thronging outside of Maidstone on April 8, 1930, the day of Sidney Harry Fox’s execution.

Photo credit: AP Photo/BEAD