The Edwards Mystery: The story is questioned

Miss Elizabeth Mary Edwards, the woman at the centre of the “Liverpool Mystery”, had disappeared from a busy street in Liverpool on 3 September 1879. After six weeks of intense interest from the press as the story was discussed across the country, she was found in London by a private detective, Richard Alfred Lloyd, who claimed that he found her on Oxford Street on the very first day that he looked for her. By 20 October, Miss Edwards was safe in the house of her uncle in London and the mystery seemed to be over. It still left the question of how she came to be in London. The initial explanation printed in the Daily Telegraph, seemingly based on what she told her family and almost certainly given to that publication by her uncle, was that she had fainted and been helped by a man in Liverpool. The family believed she was then forcibly detained and made to travel to London against her will.

Edward Henry Edwards, pictured in 1861, in the uniform of the Liverpool Press Guard, a voluntary force comprising those who worked in the press and printing trades in Liverpool

Edward Henry Edwards, pictured in 1861, in the uniform of the Liverpool Press Guard, a voluntary force comprising those who worked in the press and printing trades in Liverpool (Image courtesy of vanda39 on Ancestry.com)

This was where the story stood on Thursday 23 October. Miss Edwards remained at her uncle’s house, suffering from “a severe nervous affliction” which prevented her returning to Liverpool. Her mother remained with her, but her father, Edward Edwards, had to return to Liverpool – presumably for reasons connected to his job as a reporter for the Liverpool Mercury. Her fiancé had also travelled to London to see her.

On Friday 24 October, a further article appeared in the Liverpool Mercury which tried to close the story down, beginning with the slightly misleading but optimistic statement: “With the return of Mr Edwards to Liverpool, much of the mystery which surrounded his daughters disappearance has been cleared away.” Continuing to state the family case (doubtless prompted by Edwards himself), the article ended with what its author probably hoped was a definitive closing statement: “In consequence of the great interest taken in the case, and the deep sympathy expressed on all sides for the parents, it ought to be stated that the reasons, painful as they are, for the young lady’s disappearance, have proved satisfactory to her mother and father. Her mother remains in London with her. Mother and daughter have been joined by the young gentleman to whom Miss Edwards was affianced.  The curtain may now be drawn over this painful scene of domestic affliction.”

However, a crucial detail was slipped into the article in a throw-away manner: Miss Edwards had not travelled straight to London but had gone first to Shrewsbury as had been claimed previously. The article claimed that the man with whom she was seen (presumably the religiously-attired man described in newspapers) was a friend of her room-mate at the Shrewsbury hotel where she had stayed overnight. He was accompanying the two women in the town, and was only briefly alone with Miss Edwards when the other woman went into a shop. This contradicted the original press reports that it was this very woman who had seen Miss Edwards and the clergyman together. It was not the last contradiction that would be put out by the family. Miss Edwards then travelled directly to London from Shrewsbury (not going to Birmingham as claimed in other stories).

Birkenhead Woodside Railway Station (photograph from before 1918), where Miss Edwards probably caught the train to Shrewsbury (Image: From John Alsop collection via disused-stations.org.uk)

The Liverpool Mercury article concluded with a letter from Edward Edwards in which he apologised to the Welsh family (one of whom said he spoke to Miss Edwards on the train from Liverpool to Shrewsbury, and who, with his sisters, helped her to find a hotel) for doubting their story, blaming his “excited state of mind” at the time and thanking them for their help. Having previously told the Liverpool Mercury that he would give the full details once he had them from his daughter, Edwards seems to have had a change of heart and not only kept quiet himself but made her uncle refuse to say anything further to the press. By this stage, however, Lloyd had already spoken to the Daily Telegraph and brought much of the story into the open where it was examined closely.

If the aim of the Liverpool Mercury article of 24 October (which packed a huge amount of information into an article far shorter than the newspaper’s other recent pieces on the Liverpool Mystery) was to “draw the curtain” or to calm rumours, it failed spectacularly. An irate article appeared in the Daily Telegraph the following day (25 October) which recapped the wilder speculation (at least some of which was promoted by her family) during her disappearance about what could have happened to Miss Edwards and reminded readers that “all sorts of insinuations are made against certain districts of Liverpool”. It mused that “when the unfortunate young lady is restored to her parents, they elect to drop the curtain and to say no more about the matter. If anything could possibly be more mysterious than the original mystery it would be … the resignation with which the strayed one has been welcomed home.” While conceding that it was not really anyone else’s business to pry, and that no-one should tell the relieved parents what to do, the Daily Telegraph nevertheless managed to do both. “This very amiable reticence” suggested that Miss Edwards had not in fact been taken against her will, nor had she declined to contact her parents through shame or fear: when Miss Edwards had been found, “no further steps are taken, no charges are made against anybody, no theories about drugging or imprisonment are substantiated, no clue is given to the police to unearth a problematical villain or to discover an abominable sink of iniquity.” The article suggested: “The only conclusion to be drawn is that in this instance the sympathies of the public have been unnecessarily aroused.” It criticised Edward Edwards for neither thanking the press for their help, nor acknowledging Richard Alfred Lloyd’s role, and for “curtly [closing] the matter.” It concluded that the Liverpool police, who had always suspected there was no foul play, were correct all along. The newspaper also criticised the family for involving the press so deeply in the mystery and then refusing “to appease the curiosity that they themselves have evoked.”

Blandford Street, where Miss Edwards was supposedly taken after being drugged (Image: The Liverpool Nobody Knows Tour)

Nor was this the end of the matter: a Liverpool correspondent wrote in the same Daily Telegraph that the previous day’s article about how Miss Edwards was drugged and/or tricked into going to London had “been received in Liverpool with a good deal of surprise and incredulity, which is strengthened by the refusal of her friends to give any specific information as to the actual circumstances in which she is said to have been decoyed, as to the manner in which she regained her freedom, or as to the precise locality in which she is said to have been so shamefully treated.” The inevitable Samuel Campbell seems to have supported the story and claimed that any secrecy arose because “the friends of Miss Edwards wished to watch a certain place in Liverpool without it transpiring that they were doing so” – which even if it were not an unconvincing explanation would be fatally undermined by the fact that location of the “certain place” had been in newspapers for weeks, and anyone watching it would be obvious. The correspondent reported that no-one “outside the immediate circle of Miss Edwards’ friends” believed that she had been drugged and involuntarily detained. Nor did the police believe the story. The writer had also picked up on Edward Edwards’ admittance that his daughter had travelled to Shrewsbury, which made the story even less likely – not least because “it is thought impossible that she should have been drugged and vilely outraged” in the time between her disappearance at 3pm and her departure on the Shrewsbury train a few hours later when she showed no signs of any ordeal, was able to chat to fellow passengers and retained all of the possessions with which she had left home.

The (very long) Daily Telegraph article from 25 October also contained an update from Liverpool. Miss Edwards was too ill to return to Liverpool yet, and it was her “weak and nervous condition” that prevented her return with her father. It noted that there was still a great mystery about what she did between her disappearance from Liverpool and her appearance in London on 7 September (although this date was not mentioned anywhere else, then or later, and the earlier article in the Daily Telegraph, before it was confirmed she went to Shrewsbury, said that she travelled to London on 6 September). It also observed without comment that the Edwards family now said Miss Edwards had been told to get on the train by the “chief agent in the mystery” who travelled with her as far as Shrewsbury before vanishing. When she was found, her jewellery was missing and it was assumed she sold it to support herself; in London she stayed at “respectable coffee houses” and looked for employment before meeting the woman with whom she was found.

A report in the Nottingham Evening Post on 27 October had a slightly different version of the family’s new claims. They now said that she had left the house in the morning, not at 3pm (contradicting what they said before her reappearance), conveniently allowing longer for her to reach the train and recover her equilibrium. After “transacting some business”, she was travelling to a friend’s house, became unwell and was helped by a man whom she asked to call her a cab. He did so, but instead of taking her home, took her to a house near Blandford Street; afterwards she was ashamed to return to her friends, so the man took her to the railway station and told her he would buy them both tickets to London, put her in a carriage and then abandoned her; she got out at Shrewsbury to see if he was in another carriage, and when she could not find him, went to a hotel. She continued to London “in great distress of mind” the following day, and tried unsuccessfully to find employment through an agency. Eventually, she met a young woman to whom “she confided the greater part of her story” and arranged to share an apartment in the house of an elderly lady at Brompton. “The lady states that to the best of her belief, the two lodgers had obtained some day-employment, as they went out together in the morning and regularly came home at mealtimes.” Finally, Miss Edwards had needed to sell her jewellery in order to support herself.

Liverpool in 1894: the circle shows the area of London Road where Miss Edwards alighted. Stafford Street is the road heading north. Blandford Street is to the north, parallel to London Road. (Image: Ordinance Survey 6-inch map for 1894, reproduced by the National Library of Scotland under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence)

The Daily Telegraph article of 25 October added some other details about what Miss Edwards had done in London, although it did not give a source for them: that she “scraped money together” to travel from Liverpool to Shrewsbury and then Willesden, before walking to London; she stayed in a Bayswater coffee house; she “wandered distractedly in the park, friendless and alone”; she travelled to Whitechapel to answer a job advertisement; she “apparently desired to go upon the stage and earn an honest livelihood”; she met the woman she was found with and “accepted both her friendship and hospitality”; and even when free from alleged coercion, avoided all her friends and family. The family had refused to confirm or deny this, but we shall return to it later.

A further follow-up in the Liverpool Mercury on Monday 27 October, by which time Miss Edwards appeared to have returned to Liverpool, included a letter from John Henry Wilson who was “formerly assistant medical officer of the Lancashire County Asylum, and at present honorary physician to the Liverpool Lying-in Hospital and Institution for the Diseases of Women”. He said that in August he had treated Miss Edwards for “attacks of epileptiform character (petit mal)”. He reported that she was now “suffering from melancholia and so incoherent that it is impossible to elicit a correct account of the past seven weeks.” The main report stated that she had “to be narrowly watched, lest she should attempt to inflict injury on herself”; it was decided that any further questions put to her could be dangerous.

These final attempts to “draw the curtain” and address the questions people had were unsuccessful, and the rest of the press began to turn hostile. Newspapers did not believe that she had been forced anywhere, and concluded that she had run away – like many before her – of her own free will. Particularly as details emerged of her medical history and and her state of mind upon returning home, one newspaper decided that she was “suffering from absolute mental derangement” and her claim to have been “maltreated” was either a hallucination or “the outcome of a morbid temperament.” The Liverpool Echo (27 October) took the view that the claims made by the Edwards family not only reflected very badly on Liverpool, but were also inconsistent and implausible.

Other newspapers seemed almost disappointed at the outcome. A syndicated opinion piece called it “the big gooseberry of the silly season”. The York Herald, which like many other newspapers nationally had followed the story avidly, remarked on 28 October: “So much have the public been disgusted at the result of the ‘Edwards Mystery’ that here, at all events, it is probable strange disappearances will, for some time to come, attract little notice. Thus, it is of course possible that the young man missing from Sheerness has been made away with; but I cannot find any one who will accept the theory – everybody says he is only an imitator of the Liverpool young lady.” The Evening Standard caustically criticised those who had woven complicated and sinister explanations for the disappearance and criticised Miss Edwards for her “reprehensible eccentricity”, not least for not sending word that she was safe, and said that “she can hardly complain if her unusual conduct is severely remarked upon.”

Any lingering hope among the family of maintaining the idea that Miss Edwards’ disappearance had been against her will was ultimately and fatally undermined by a syndicated interview that initially appeared on 27 October. The interview was with the previously unnamed woman with whom Miss Edwards was found. The Liverpool mystery was about to be finally put to rest by Miss Lizzie Pickford.

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