Was it murder? The only witness was blind.
May 9, 2016
“This strange death that occurred in Bristol, England in the 1800s stumped the police constabulary in a mind-boggling way,” Mr. Mosby told his freshman Criminal Justice class. “There is no doubt that today this crime could be solved in a flash, or perhaps it could even be solved on an old episode of Perry Mason, by the talents of a detail-oriented writer such as Erle Stanley Gardner. For fun, I think we should do a re-enactment, right here in the classroom and see if we can shed any better light on it, than has already been shed.”
The students in the classroom came to life at this announcement, with murmuring and chattering.
Marion Mosby continued. “We will need some props. We shall divide into groups to complete making these props quickly. If you can sew at all, please go to that side of the room.” He pointed. “The rest of you gather on the other side where you will be making cardboard constructions.”
Mosby took some sturdy fabric to a group that he had appointed as the sewing group, and spread the fabric on desktops. The students helped him group some desks together for this purpose. The two cut pieces of fabric were identical and needed to be sewn together and stuffed with stuffing material. He gave them a box of needles and thread and asked them to seat themselves around it and sew away, each person doing a section, to speed up the process. They were to stop at a point, add stuffing then sew it up the rest of the way. “Be careful, now, as I don’t want to hear the words eye and needle in the same sentence,” Mosby cautioned them.
“You on the corrugated cardboard side of the room, notice how I have put out huge sheets of cardboard. You must make a cardboard wall and cut a window in the wall to these specifications.” He showed them a diagram of the window dimensions and the placement of the window on the wall. “It would be really nice if you could make a prop that is three dimensional, accounting for the thickness of the wall, rather than just a flat, two dimensional version. I know you are bright enough to figure out how to do this but I have made a crude pattern in miniature, to use as a guide, if you can’t. I will pick some actors for our drama, and we will re-enact the crime.” There may have been easier ways to provide props for the re-enactment but Mosby felt it would be good experience for the students and he needed the time to grade some papers.
The students finished their projects and Marion Mosby was waiting to give them further instructions. “I need two guys to hold up the wall firmly. This is a good wall, by the way.” Mosby was pleased with the results. “Okay, wall-holders, let’s turn it this way so we can see the scene in cross section. The rest of you arrange your chairs as an audience. Now, sewing team, bring your creation over here.” Those who had not seen it gasped. It looked like a giant gingerbread man doll. Someone had drawn a face on it with a marker, without receiving instructions to do so. “Very good, I see you have taken some artistic license. Sewing team you may sit down.” Mosby held up the doll. “This is our murder victim, Thomas Farrant, and this facsimile is his approximate size and shape, I measured carefully. Wall-holders, turn the wall for just a second, so that the audience can see the size of the window and the size of Farrant, side by side. Okay. Thank you. Now turn it back if you will.”
There was quite a bit of gasping and mumbling coming from the audience.
“I need someone to play the part of Mrs. Clift. He pointed to a slight young woman. I need someone to play the part of her estranged husband, Giles Clift. Don’t worry. There won’t be any kissing or love scenes. You two Clifts detest each other. In fact, Mrs. Clift has moved out and is taking a room in the home of Thomas Farrant, Giles Clift’s great nephew.”
“You dummy!” It became obvious that someone from the back of the room had read the Farrant case in advance.
Mosby picked one of the smaller young men to play the part of Giles Clift. “He nodded at him and said, “You and your wife here have had so many rows and loud arguments, complete with fisticuffs, that the magistrate has intervened on more than one occasion, and asked you to separate.”
The students roared as the two hammy Clifts pretended to argue and gesture wildly at each other.
“Here is the scenario,” Mosby said. “Mr. Clift you are not yet on the premises. Mrs. Clift you are on the premises and your child is upstairs. Thomas Farrant is somewhere in a distant room. Clift is angry that his wife has relieved him of some of his possessions, so he has asked a Mr. Lyons to accompany him to the Farrant house so that he can give the wife a piece of his mind. Why do you think Mr. Lyons is going at all, anybody know?”
“Clift is blind,” another case-reader blurted out.
“You are right. Clift is blind. So come here, Giles Clift, and we will blindfold you. Morris, you can play the part of Lyons. You both go to the imaginary front door of the Farrant house and enter. “While Lyons remained downstairs near the entrance, Clift succeeded somehow in going upstairs and removing the leg of a bedstead and taking the bed leg to his wife.” The actors pantomimed the movements as Mosby explained the scenario, then said, “Here is your bed leg, Giles, but remember you cannot see.” Moseby put a loosely rolled up newspaper in Clift’s hand. “You are squealing Mrs. Clift.”
The class watched with delight as the blindfolded Clift tried to swing at his squealing spouse with the rolled up newspaper, connecting a few times. It was reminiscent of playing with a piñata.
“I will be Farrant,” Mosby announced. He got behind the huge doll and pretended to try to come between the two Clifts. “Now, Giles, you must throw me out that window, even though I am half your age, twice your size and you are blind. Go ahead—try it!”
The class howled as Giles Clift threw down his newspaper and grabbed for the giant doll. He tried to figure out where the window was and squeeze the doll through. To make it more dramatic, Mrs. Clift, kept mock-attacking her spouse while he was attempting to do the diabolical deed. He could not get the bulky dummy through the tiny window.
“Let’s take a vote, students, by show of hands. We will vote on these things: Thomas Farrant, twisted and eased himself out of the window himself, Giles Clift used strength he didn’t know he had, to push him through, or a third unknown event occurred. It is highly unlikely but possibly Mrs. Clift or Mr. Lyons had some part in his going out the window.” The conclusions were not unanimous. Opinions were very mixed, when votes were taken. The students did learn how important collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses could be in the correct solution to a crime.
The facts that could actually be determined were these. In Bristol, England, on the day after Christmas, 1867, Thomas Farrant went out the tiny window head first, under his own power, or was pushed. He was seen to go out the window by passers by. When they saw him after the fall, it was apparent he could not recover from the injuries. A surgeon was called and Dr. Bernard determined that he had died of a dislocated neck. Mr. Lyons who is said to have only heard things from the first floor, claims that he heard Giles say, “I will break your neck out the window.”
Giles Clift was so tiny and spindly that he was not really up to the job. Then there is the fact that though the window frame was two feet square, the actual opening was only seventeen inches. The interrogation of Giles Clift was not helpful to the authorities, and Mrs. Clift’s testimony was useless, as they were both trying to entrap the other.
Had Farrant, wishing to remove himself from the Clifts’ argument, wiggled himself out of the window in hopes of positioning himself on a ledge, when he slipped and got fatal injuries? Why would he have done this? He could have just gone to other rooms in the house, or he could have physically thrown Clift out of the house.
Was Clift able to gain some sort of superhuman strength due to his fit of anger? Examinations of Clift and Farrant showed they had no injuries on their bodies, other than Farrant’s fatal mishap. We will probably never know. One was the victim, who could not tell his tale, one was blind, one was not reliable, and Mr. Lyons was only an ear witness.