HAD she been brutally murdered, the tragic victim of a night prowler who had crept into her home through an unlocked front door? The circumstances certainly suggested so. Furniture had been overturned and a cloth dragged from a table.

In the middle of the mayhem lay her body.

She was naked, lying face down, partly on one side. Her arms were crossed under her body and her head rested on the floor by the fireplace.

The room had apparently been used as a bed sitting room, a divan occupying one corner. The bed clothes were scattered on the floor as was some clothing. An electric lamp was broken and other articles were smashed beyond repair.

Southampton police feared they faced a war time murder investigation after being alerted by a caller to the semi-detached house in Reynolds Road, Shirley.

Yet, they were puzzled. Why was her body virtually unmarked?

The dead woman was identified as Catherine Palmer, a 34-year-old Hungarian whose husband of six years was away on duty in the Mediterranean. For some 12 months she had lived alone.

The mystery began on February 3, 1941, after an insurance agent called at the property on business. Though it was daylight, she was puzzled the curtains were drawn. A knock on the front door brought no reply. Puzzled, she gingerly stepped inside and pushing open a downstairs door was horrified by what she saw.

Percy Chatfield

Chief Superintendent Percy Chatfield

She ran to a neighbour who in turn called the police. Sgt Edward Browne and Acting Sgt Mackay were first on the scene, and from the state of the body, they realised she had been dead for several days.

Superficially, there was nothing to account for her demise. After the police surgeon Geoffrey Havers had examined the corpse, they were joined by acting Chief Constable Frederick Tarry and Chief Superintendent Percy Chatfield.

Tarry gave instructions that the body was not to be moved until it was seen by Dr James Webster, Director of the Home Office Forensic Science Laboratory in Birmingham, who was designated to carry out the autopsy. The room was locked and a police officer stood guard on the premises overnight.

Meanwhile house-to-house inquiries revealed that Mrs Palmer had last been seen alive four days earlier by a doctor who had been treating her for a minor ailment. Neighbours were unable to provide officers about her life style as she was very much a reserved person who kept herself to herself.

Two days passed before the bizarre explanation seemed to emerge.


Shirley High Street 11/3/1949

Shirley in the 1940s

Mrs Palmer had not been murdered but had died from natural causes in extraordinary circumstances. She apparently had suffered a seizure in the night and the disorder had been caused by her stumbling about in the darkness before crashing to the ground.

It transpired she had been treated for a gastric problem by a doctor who promised he would return within a few days. Unfortunately, he had been unable to do so and it was the insurance agent who was next caller.

The following day, the Southampton coroner Arthur H Emanual opened an inquest into her death when he was merely expected to hear evidence of identification and the cause of death. Instead, Dr Havers, who had assisted Webster in the post-mortem, was hesitant about the findings.

Could Mrs Palmer have been murdered after all?

"If death was due to one of the natural causes, then the general upset that was noticed in the house and the superficial bruises may be accounted for," the coroner opined. "Do you think from what you saw the death was caused by the violence of any other person?"

Havers replied: "Probably not."

Coroner - "You say that at present under reservation?"

Havers - "Yes."

Following evidence of identification from the dead woman's brother-in-law, the inquest was adjourned until February 25 for further inquiries. However, Havers could not be present on that occasion and the hearing was put back until March 4 when he finally accepted Webster's conclusion she had indeed succumbed to natural causes, principally due to cardiac failure, tubercular meningitis and pulmonary tuberculosis.

"A person suffering from those natural causes might throw herself about and cause bruising," the coroner asked, to which Havers replied: "Yes."

The coroner then inquired: "Is it common for people so affected to throw off their clothes?"

Havers answered: "That was in Dr Webster's report. I have no previous experience of that. He has apparently. I think it is reasonable to assume that Mrs Palmer happened to be going to bed and to be undressed when she was taken ill. Her own clothes were placed neatly on a chair."

He added: "A woman suffering from an illness which makes her giddy, might throw herself about and suffer many bruises in the process. Mrs Palmer's bruises were superficial and had no effect in causing her death."

A verdict of death from natural causes was then recorded.