The Story of the 1930s "Impossible Murder" That Utterly Fascinated Raymond Chandler

Illustration for article titled The Story of the 1930s "Impossible Murder" That Utterly Fascinated Raymond Chandler

The murder of Julia Wallace in Liverpool in 1931 was of the rarest sort: a real-life killing that invoked some of the most well-worn tropes of Golden Age mystery fiction. Her husband, William Herbert Wallace, was the chief suspect, but the case confounded the courts—and enthralled the public.


No less a figure than Raymond Chandler listed the Wallace case among his favorites, calling it “the impossible murder because Wallace couldn’t have done it and neither could anyone else.” Drama critic James Agee described it as “having all the maddening, frustrating fascination of a chess problem that ends in perpetual check,” for unlike so many other unsolved crimes that fans love to debate (e.g., Lizzie Borden), there’s no chance the killer was the apocryphal bushy-haired stranger. The killer was undoubtedly the enigmatic figure who identified himself as “R. M. Qualtrough.” The question is, was Qualtrough a prop of a self-consciously clumsy alibi staged by Wallace, or a clever killer who managed to frame Wallace in a web of ambiguous evidence? The debate continues.

William Wallace hardly looked like a murderer. At the time of the killing, he was 52 years old. He’d been married to Julia for 18 years, the last 16 years spent at a rented home at #29 Wolverton Street in Liverpool’s Anfield District.

Wallace was an insurance agent for Prudential, and from all accounts, he was every bit the nebbish policy pusher. The only thing that really set him apart from his fellow drones were some then-unusual upper-middlebrow tastes. He’d picked up certificates in chemistry and electronics, maintained a small lab in his house, and even did some lecturing at the local technical college. On the art side, he played violin, although poorly, and frequently spent evenings at home dueting with Julia on the piano.

But far more telling, at least in the minds of the local tabloid editors, was his passion for chess. He was a regular at the Liverpool Chess Club where he was noted for being an enthusiastic, albeit mediocre player. One wag in the club later told the papers if Wallace didn’t deserve to hang for killing his wife, he certainly deserved it for his chess.

Far less is known about Julia, save that she was a meek, mild, old-fashioned kind of woman who seemed to be well-suited to her equally meek and mild husband. From all appearances, their marriage was stable and happy; they never had public scenes, and the walls of the houses on Wolverton Street were thin. And, contrary to the rumors that ran rampant through Liverpool during and after the trial, no “other” man or woman was ever found.

The story began on January 19, 1931. It was a Monday night, the regular meeting night for the Liverpool Chess Club. At 7:20pm, shortly before Wallace arrived at the club, the club captain took a telephone call from a man identifying himself as “R.M. Qualtrough” asking for Wallace to call at his house at 25 Menlove Gardens East tomorrow night at 7:30pm concerning an endowment policy for his daughter.


Wallace arrived shortly after 7:30pm for his scheduled match. After being given the message, he commented that he knew no one named Qualtrough (a common Manx surname) and had never heard of Menlove Gardens East. Nor had anyone else at the club, although all agreed it was most likely off Menlove Avenue somewhere. Wallace was convinced he could find it. “I’ve got a Scotch tongue in my head,” he told his fellow wood-pushers.

Wallace got home the following night from work around 6pm. Sometime between 6:30 and 6:45pm, the milk boy stopped by and collect his money from Julia. He would be the last innocent person to see Julia alive.


Wallace was next seen at 7:06 two miles away from his house, transferring streetcars in his rush to make his 7:30 appointment with “Qualtrough.” He asked the conductor for directions to Menlove Gardens East, and was instructed to transfer to a 5A car at Penny Lane. During the 10-minute ride, Wallace badgered the conductor to not forget to call out Penny Lane. The innocent action of an eager salesman—or a calculated ploy of an aggressive alibi-setter?

7:15pm found Wallace safely aboard a 5A car, where he immediately began to badger the conductor for directions to you-know-where. He was told to get off at Menlove Avenue, only 650 yards up the line.


Naturally, Wallace followed directions and laid the groundwork for an enduring mystery. Liverpool, of course, is equipped with a Menlove Avenue—John Lennon would grow up there. It is intersected by Menlove Gardens West and Menlove Gardens North. These in turn are connected by Menlove Gardens South. However, there is no Menlove Gardens East.

Thus began Wallace’s great search for Qualtrough. Real or feigned, he spared no effort. He first unleashed his Scotch tongue on a passerby, who correctly informed him that there was no Menlove Gardens East. But no determined insurance agent would let this discourage him, especially in that depression year of 1931. He rang the people at 25 Menlove Gardens West, who told him they’d never heard of Qualtrough.


He then tried a cop. But, instead of asking directions, he first told the Bobbie the whole story of the phone call and Qualtrough’s insurance needs. And then, suggestively, he asked the cop, “It’s not eight o’ clock yet, is it?” and pulling out his watch. Both men agreed it was in fact 7:45pm.

Wallace next tried the directory at the newsstand. After flipping through it, he asked the agent, “Do you know what I am looking for?” Naturally she didn’t. “I am looking for Menlove Gardens East,” he said. She only confirmed what everyone else had already said: there was no such street.


At this point, Wallace decided that either his alibi was now firm enough, or that he wasn’t going to be selling any insurance that night. It was time to vacate Menlove Avenue.

The next we hear of Wallace is at 8:45pm, outside his door on Wolverton Street. The neighbors saw him looking worried and confused. He claimed that neither door seemed to work. They offer to try their keys. In front of them, he tried his back door key again, and wonder of wonders, it worked. The neighbors waited a few minutes while Wallace checked to see if everything was OK. He first went upstairs. All was well. But when he went down into the front parlor and lit the gas, he came back out. “Come and see. She has been killed.”


Julia was lying on the parlor floor in front of the gas fireplace. One side of her head had been completely bashed in, leaving her brain exposed, by what was later determined to be 11 blows with a slender, blunt instrument. Blood had splattered the room; spots were found as high as 7 feet on the walls. Crumpled under her body was a half-burned Mackintosh coat—Wallace’s own, it would turn out. In an apparent state of shock, all Wallace could say was “They’ve finished her, look at her brains.”

Enter the Merseyside police, a then less-than-stellar outfit. Half the force had been canned after a 1919 strike and replaced with many under-qualified individuals. For a forensic expert, there was local medical professor John McFall, who would enrage future generations of crime historians with his beliefs that his instincts were enough; he needn’t take notes or run corroborative tests. He immediately concluded, based on the rigor of Julia’s body, that she had been killed at six, give or take an hour. He never considered measuring cadaver temperature, observing post-mortem lividity, or analyzing stomach contents—all more accurate ways of determining the time of death.


The police discovered little else of value. There was some disorder, as though someone had done some half-hearted searching, and Wallace would claim he was missing a few pounds. Despite an extensive search of the house, the garden, the sewers, and areas adjacent to the tram lines between Wolverton Street and Menlove Avenue, the murder weapon was never found.

Someone once noted that uxoricide requires no motive; marriage is in itself motive enough. Naturally, Wallace was Suspect #1. And when a few days of investigating uncovered no other likely parties, he was arrested.


Liverpudlians agreed wholeheartedly. But they weren’t satisfied with a simple domestic murder. Baroque rumors about Wallace’s motives races through the city. Some claimed the mild-mannered insurance man was a secret Aleister Crowley disciple with an opium habit who had affairs with dozens of women. Others said Julia was over insured, Wallace was sleeping with her sister, and the police should investigate his brother’s lengthy absence. (He was in fact in Malay on business.) Some more charitable tongue-waggers said Julia was terminally ill and her husband but a misunderstood angel of mercy. There was even a rumor that Wallace was innocent and the real killer was a lover of Julia’s whom she’d been blackmailing.

Needless to say, all these rumors were proved groundless. The closest Wallace came to magick was conventional chemistry, and any knowledge he had of opium undoubtedly came from De Quincey. Julia was only insured for 20 pounds, and no lover of either party was ever identified.


But two things would damn Wallace. First, if he didn’t do it, then who did? There is a downside to having an apparently blameless life! And then there was the nature of the crime, seemingly so cleverly planned, a characteristic of chess players. In the public eye, Wallace was elevated from lowly hacker to a Morphy-like genius playing chess with real people.

Although Wallace was quickly convicted in the court of public opinion, there was a trial. And a colorful and well-attended affair it was. Letters signed “Blind Goddess” and “Vigilante” bombarded his lawyers, accusing them of being “dirty Wallace lovers.”


By modern standards, the trial was quite short, lasting but four days. The prosecution argued that Wallace had attacked Julia clad in nothing but his trusty Mackintosh. The defense maintained that there wasn’t enough time between Julia paying the milk bill and Wallace being spotted on the tram for him to kill her and wash up properly. Highlights included Wallace being asked under oath if he had played those piano/violin duets wearing only his Mac, and the forensic professor trying to reconcile his 6pm estimate of the time of death with the 6:30pm sighting of Julia and offering an unsolicited opinion that the murderer had been in a “state of frenzy.”

By the end of the trial, most observers agreed the prosecution had not proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge all but ordered the jury to return a verdict of innocent in his instructions. No matter. The jury only took one hour to find Wallace guilty of murder, leaving the judge no choice but to sentence Wallace to hang.


Of course, Wallace’s attorneys appealed, but appeals in 1932 Britain were much different than they are in America today. The Court of Criminal Appeal had only been established 25 years earlier, and could only review the case and decision of the lower court—no new evidence could be considered. Although they could toss out a verdict as improper, they had never done so in a murder case up to that time. Previously, verdicts had only been overturned on procedural grounds such as inadmissible evidence, improper defense, and incorrect jury instructions. Unfortunately, the Wallace case afforded them no such convenient loopholes. The court considered the evidence, found it wanting, and had no other option than to quash the jury’s verdict on the grounds the conviction had not been proven. Essentially, the jury was branded as a dozen incompetent twits.

Although Wallace had been cleared in the eyes of the law, his fellow Liverpudlians saw it differently. They sent him daily poison pen letters. He had to move to the other side of the Mersey, and Prudential transferred him to an inside job with minimal public contact. Not that this animosity was without a silver lining; Wallace picked up a few nice bits of change via libel actions. Especially profitable was The Herald of Salvation magazine, which called upon him to “…like other condemned sinners, make open confession of this crime…to provide an object lesson for all men who love darkness rather than light.” That was worth 300 pounds, probably more than his commission on the Qualtrough policy.


He didn’t enjoy his escape from the gallows for very long. In fact, these days most killers spend more time on death row. By the end of 1932 his life-long kidney problems had become so severe he was forced to retire. Yet he refused to seek immediate treatment, as if he had given up his will to live. An emergency operation failed, and he died February 26, 1933. Even before he was buried (next to Julia, of course), Liverpool was abuzz with rumors about a non-existent deathbed confession.

Now for the fun part: dissection. There is a general consensus that the “Qualtrough” caller, whoever he may be, was the killer. The question is, was he a scheming killer carefully arranging for Wallace to be out of the house or merely a figment of Wallace’s chess-player imagination?


A near-certainty is that if Qualtrough wasn’t Wallace, is must have been someone Julia and Herbert knew well. Qualtrough had to know about Wallace’s Monday night chess club meeting, despite the fact that it was a small, obscure, and lightly publicized organization. And Julia had to know him, otherwise she wouldn’t have let him in. She was by all accounts a shy, reserved woman not likely to admit strange men when she was alone. Qualtrough obviously knew much about the Wallaces—so much so, he could very well have been Wallace.

Consider the phone call to the chess club. It was traced to a phone booth only 400 yards from the Wallace’s house, perfectly suited for Wallace to ring up the club on his way to the tram stop. But it was just as well situated for some “Qualtrough,” lurking in the shadows, to step into after he saw Wallace leave for his weekly chess match.


The most damning evidence against Wallace was his behavior during the Menlove Gardens East snipe hunt. First, why not check a map? Second, why go on such a wild goose chase based on such a vague message? (Phone messages do tend to get screwed up.) And as he ran about Menlove Avenue, he certainly behaved like a man who wanted people to remember who he was and when he was there…sort of like he was looking for an alibi. From his merciless pestering of the tram conductor to his chat with the cop (“It’s not eight o’ clock yet…”) and his bizarre behavior in the newsstand (as if the entire neighborhood was abuzz with his hunt for Menlove Gardens East), it does look suspicious.

But then, Wallace could have just been another socially inept guy with a few annoying mannerisms becoming increasingly flustered as he sensed a nice commission slipping through his fingers. It was the Depression, so he wasn’t going to pass up a chance to sell a policy, no matter how flaky. As for the map and street directory, Liverpool was growing rapidly at the time. Up-to-date information was not that readily available. Besides, you’d be surprised how many people in those pre-GPS times would set out on journeys with but the foggiest notion of where they were going or how they would get there. As for establishing a clever alibi, Wallace missed out on a key point: the beginning. He didn’t start badgering streetcar conductors until after he made his first transfer.


At his house, there was the incident of the lock that didn’t work without a crowd of witnesses. Once he got inside the house, Wallace managed to walk across a dark room, light the far gas jet and discover the body without getting a drop of blood on himself. How could he do this without prior knowledge of the corpse? And just what was the deal with his Mac under the body?

However, there are two powerful arguments here for Wallaces’ innocence: time and lack of evidence. The latest Wallace could have left his house, given the tram schedules, was 6:49pm. The milk boy had seen her between 6:30 and 6:45pm. (You can safely assume it was Julia, not Wallace in drag; he was considerably taller.) Could Wallace really do his wife in with “11 frenzied blows,” wash and change, and leave the house without any traces of blood on himself or outside the murder room in 19 minutes max?


Then there’s the Mac. The prosecution (undoubtedly to Liverpool’s titillation) claimed it was the sole garment Wallace wore during the killing. After the murder, he tried to burn it in the gas fireplace but panicked and pushed it under her body. The defense contended Julia had thrown it over her shoulders when she answered the door, and was bending over the fire to light it when the killer struck. She fell forward, and the Mac caught fire. Both scenarios fit the physical evidence.

Finally, there’s the weapon, or lack thereof. The Wallace’s charwoman testified that both the fireplace poker and a small iron bar were missing, either of which would have made an excellent weapon. The iron bar was found in the back of the fireplace many years later during a remodel; it had no bloodstains. If the poker was the weapon, what happened to it? If Wallace was the killer, were did he dispose of it? Remember, the cops checked pretty carefully for it. But why would an unknown killer take the poker with him?


These are the basic areas of contention. It’s easy to build up convincing pro- and anti-Wallace cases, and makes for a great party game. It has been the subject of at least five full length books, and innumerable articles. Dorothy Sayers wrote a long article on the case, and Raymond Chandler assembled extensive notes for an unwritten piece.

Recent speculation on the case centers on one Gordon Parry, a former co-worker of Wallace’s that had been sacked for embezzlement. He had motive (Wallace had had a hand in his termination) and opportunity, but taking out a grudge on one’s enemy’s wife does seem a bit extreme, and the evidence supporting this theory is far from conclusive.


It’s just as well. When he was bored, the aforementioned James Agate used to invite crime historian Edgar Lustgarten to “come over my dear boy; let’s have a good talk about Wallace.” For the image of Wallace, either the alibi-monger of 100 bad mystery novels, or the innocent victim ensnared by the scheming killer of another hundred equally bad mystery novels, continues to fascinate. As Raymond Chandler said, “The Wallace case is unbeatable; it will always be unbeatable.”

John Marr is the former editor of the zine Murder Can Be Fun.

Further information here and here.

This article originally appeared in Murder Can Be Fun and has been republished with permission.


Top image of Raymond Chandler in 1946 by AP Photo.


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