One of the January submissions I had hoped to submit to was Mango Publishing Group’s Small Towns True Crime anthology. I’ve always been interested in true crime, and was drawn to the fact that the publishers wanted their contributors to select a little known local crime to be the focus of the submission.
I live in Lancaster, UK, and while we have many infamous historical tales to tell (the Pendle Witches were held and tried at the castle at the top of my hill, for one), the crime that I hoped to focus on for my submission piece was the 1866 murder of Elizabeth Nelson. There is a plaque in honour of Elizabeth on the grounds of the university stating that she ‘died in defence of her chastity’. Elizabeth’s murderer was never caught, and a local rumour may shed light on the sinister reason.
Before I explain more about Elizabeth’s death, I should disclose that I never did manage to submit (the deadline was January 31st). I soon realised that I needed to give far more time to researching Elizabeth’s life and death than I could offer the project, and made the decision to shelve it before I began. I was inspired by YouTuber Shauna Rae, whose channel I stumbled upon while falling down the rabbit hole that is Brandon Lawson’s disappearance. Since watching her measured, articulate, and considerate report on Brandon’s case, I have become a huge fan of her channel.
I immediately respected Shauna’s meticulous timelines, her careful representation of the human behind the victim, and her scrutinisation of all potential suspects with care and compassion for victims, potential criminals, and family members. I realised that I would not have time to give Elizabeth the case report that she deserved with only a month to go until deadline. And I also realised that there may be far more to her case than the details that were reported. Shauna often states in her videos that she gives greater weight to facts stated by locals of the area where the crime was committed than to those that are reported by the press. And there is historically a good reason for that.
Elizabeth was found beaten to death. When the police arrived at the scene, they reported that they believed she had suffered a seizure and immediately had her body taken to a public house up the road to be carefully washed, removing any evidence that might have remained on her body. Local legend has it that Elizabeth was found with a police button in her hand. I would love to research more about this. Why would a woman who had died ‘in defence of her chastity’ and was found covered in bruises have been assumed to have had a fit? Why is it only local word of mouth and not the newspapers that ever spoke of the button found in her hand? And surely the police records would have shown which officers had to order a replacement button for their uniform? Of course, the button is only a rumour, and the police may have had nothing to do with this long-cold case…
I’m glad I made the decision to cross the submission from my diary and not rush through the available facts to cobble an article together for submission. That just wouldn’t be right. But one day I hope to set aside the appropriate amount of time to shed some light on Elizabeth’s story, and perhaps unearth some long-forgotten secrets that are only whispered about in Lancaster’s old cobbled streets. Victims should never be forgotten. And as writers it is our job to present the truth, no matter how much time has passed.