In the early 20th century, Brighton became notorious for a series of “trunk murders”, when dismembered female bodies were found crammed into separate trunks at Charing Cross Station in 1927 and two more bodies at King’s Cross and Brighton stations in 1934.
The seaside resort, best known as a destination for its illicit weekend trysts, was given the unwanted nickname of ‘Queen of Slaughtering Places’ and suddenly found itself to be the crime capital of England.
The First Trunk Murder
On 10th May 1927, staff at Charing Cross railway station in London noticed an unpleasant smell in the left luggage department. The trunk was opened and the dismembered body of a woman was found inside. Sir Bernard Spilsbury, an eminent police pathologist who had worked on the Dr. Crippen case in 1910, was called in to carry out a post-mortem examination at Westminster Mortuary. He found a limbless body with its legs hacked off at the hips and the arms removed from the shoulders. Each piece had been wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. The woman’s shoes and handbag were also in the trunk and the crime had been committed two-to-three weeks previously.
A label on the woman’s clothes led the police to a Mrs. Holt in South Kensington. She identified the body as that of Mrs. Rolls, who had worked for her as a cook. Rolls’ real name was Minnie Bonati and she had left her husband and adopted daughter to become a prostitute.
Police investigations led them to Rochester Row in Westminster where detectives interviewed numerous people. The most suspicious character was a John Robinson who subletted two rooms at number 86 under the name of Edwards & Co., an estate agent. He had informed his landlord he was bankrupt and left the building around 9th May.
On 21st May Chief Inspector George Cornish noticed a label with 'Greyhound' stitched onto on a duster found in the trunk. John Robinson’s wife worked at the Greyhound Hotel in Hammersmith. Back at Rochester Row police found a blood stained match and Robinson was taken to Scotland Yard for questioning.
Robinson confessed to picking up a woman at Victoria Station who he took back to his room. He said she demanded money and when he had refused to give it to her she rushed at him. He struck her and she fell hitting her head on a chair. Thinking she was merely dazed Robinson went back to his office in Kennington. The next day he found her dead and decided to dispose of her body by cutting it up and putting it in the trunk. On 23rd May Robinson was charged with murder.
The Second Trunk Murders
Seven years later on 17th June 1934, Southern Railway cloakroom attendant William Joseph Vinnicombe found the remains of a woman in a trunk at Brighton Railway Station. Concerned by a foul smell in the cloakroom, he discovered it was coming from a locked trunk. He summoned Detective Bishop of the Railway Police who opened the trunk. They found several layers of paper and cotton wool soaked in blood and a parcel tied with a sash cord that held together arms and a torso.
The next day a case containing the woman’s legs was found at King’s Cross Railway Station. Carrying out the post-mortem on 19th June 1934, Sir Bernard Spilsbury stated that the 25-year-old woman was pregnant and had suffered a heavy blow to the head with a blunt instrument. The only clue was a piece of paper with the word “Ford” written on it. The country was horrified and Brighton police called in Scotland Yard to conduct a massive nationwide operation.
The cases of 700 missing women were reviewed and police checked hospitals and known abortionists. For the first time ever the police appealed directly to the public for help and information using the Press. After a month of investigations with few results, police concentrated on house-to-house searches and, on 15th July, they found a locked room containing a trunk at 52 Kemp Street, Brighton.
Inside the trunk was another body of a decomposing woman. 42-year-old Violet Kaye had moved from London to Brighton with her lover Tony Mancini in September 1933. Her real name was Violet Saunders and she was a known prostitute who had once been a dancer touring the country in revue shows. A heavy drinker who was insecure of her much younger lover, she accused Mancini of making a pass at one of the waitresses at the Skylark Café where he worked. A few days after their argument, Mancini told his work colleague that Violet had left him and gone to Paris.
Tony Mancini was picked up for vagrancy on the outskirts of London on 17th July. When questioned he gave his name as Cecil Lois England and claimed he had found Kaye dead in their flat and assumed she had been killed by one of her clients. He had panicked because he had a criminal record and had hidden her body in a trunk. On hearing of the house-to-house searches he went on the run.
Brighton Trunk Murders: Timeline
10th May 1927 - Trunk containing the body of a dismembered woman found at Charing Cross Railway Station
23rd May 1927 - John Robinson charged with murder
12th August 1927 - Robinson hanged at Pentonville Prison
17th June 1934 - Trunk containing arms and a torso found at Brighton Railway Station
18th June 1934 - Trunk containing two limbs found at Kings Cross Railway Station
15th July 1934 - Violet Kaye’s body found at Mancini’s lodgings 52 Kemp Street, Brighton
17th July 1934 - Mancini charged with the murder of Violet Kaye
10th December 1934 - Mancini’s trial begins at Lewes Assizes
14th December 1934 - Mancini found not guilty
1976 - Mancini publicly confessed to Kaye’s murder
The First Trunk Murder Trial
Robinson’s defence was that Bonati had died of a heart attack, but the prosecution argued that the injuries to her head were not enough to have killed her. On 11th July 1927 at the Old Bailey, Sir Spilsbury argued that Bonati was in good health and said that the bruises on her chest suggested someone had knelt on her while holding her down and possibly suffocating her. The jury believed him and Robinson was found guilty. He was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 12 August 1927.
The Second Trunk Murder Trial
At Lewes Assizes on 10th December 1934 Mancini was represented by William Norman Birkett. Birkett was a liberal defence lawyer who had served as the alternate British Judge during the Nuremberg trials after World War II. He produced evidence that Kaye took morphine as well as being a heavy drinker and suggested this could have been the reason for her fall. Despite overwhelming evidence for the prosecution, the case against Mancini failed and on 14th December 1934, after 2 hours and 18 minutes deliberation, the jury found Mancini not guilty of her murder.
However in 1976, aged 68, Mancini publicly confessed to the murder in The News of the World, but the Director of Public Prosecutions ruled he could not be tried again. No evidence could be found to associate him with the second murder, and the woman, known only as the 'Girl with Pretty Feet', was never identified, her head was never found and her murderer was never brought to justice.
The Key Figures
Minnie Bonati - first ‘trunk murder’ victim
Unknown - second ‘trunk murder’ victim
Violet Kaye - third ‘trunk murder’ victim
John Robinson - perpetrator of first ‘trunk murder’
Tony Mancini - perpetrator of third ‘trunk murder’
Chief Inspector George Cornish - investigating officer on the first ‘trunk murder’