A Century Later, This Haunting London Murder Remains Unsolved

Illustration for article titled A Century Later, This Haunting London Murder Remains Unsolved

Who strangled five-year-old, curly-haired Willie Starchfield to death on a London train, and then stuffed his tiny body under one of the seats? This tragic, sensationalized murder happened 101 years ago this week, and it's never been solved.


As True Crime Library reports, Willie's own father was, at first, the chief suspect; described as a "rough character," he was charged, but the judge determined there wasn't enough evidence to go through with the trial.

Others also came under scrutiny:

On the afternoon he died Willie had been left in the care of his mother's landlady while his mother went out job hunting. There was some evidence, in fact, that an unidentified woman who had been seen locally may have killed Willie. A witness said: "I saw her take him by the hand and then she was tugging at him. I don't think he wanted to go with her."

The British Transport Police's website goes into even more detail, recalling how Willie's mother sent him on an errand at around 12:30pm on the day of his death.

According to the medical evidence, the murder took place some time between 2pm and 3pm, and the train had shuttled several times between Chalk Farm and Broad Street after the murder had been committed.

The inquest opened on 15 January 1914, and evidence was given by the guard of the train, the errand boy who discovered the body, and the porter who first searched the train.

John Starchfield was asked to account for his movements on the day of the murder. He said he was in his bed in a lodging house and he had not seen the boy for three weeks. The inquest was adjourned.

Witnesses included train workers who discovered the murder weapon (a piece of cord); one who actually saw a man bending over a child in a train car as it thundered past; and one who saw a man "tying up a parcel." An eyewitness ID'd the boy's father as the man seen walking with a child the day of the murder; the boy was eating a piece of cake (sources differ as to whether it was currant or coconut), the ingredients of which were found in Willie's stomach during his autopsy.

The jury returned a verdict of willful murder against Starchfield. He was taken into custody and taken to Old Street Police Station. While he was awaiting trial, one of the essential witnesses attempted to commit suicide and the prosecution suffered a further setback when [the woman who'd made the cake ID] failed to stand up to cross-examination.

The judge was critical of the coroner's office after the coroner had read to the jury statements made to the police without formal depositions or questioning the witnesses: "That procedure seems to me to be an entire mockery and an abuse of the duties entrusted to any coroner."


At the judge's behest, Starchfield was found not guilty. He maintained his innocence until his 1916 death, and Willie's killer has never been brought to justice.

In a cruel twist, True Crime Library adds, Willie was born with a heart problem "by which any sudden or violent shock was likely to kill him."


Contemporary image of station where boy was found via Sunil060902 on Creative Commons.


F'mal DeHyde

The mother sent her five year old son with a heart problem on an errand into town? Yeesh.