Sunday, 18 April 2021

The Unsolved Dingle Hill Murder

In 1870 a Dingle school headmaster was beaten to death. Nobody was ever convicted of the killing  after the police's only suspect was acquitted at his trial. 

Christian Fluek, a qualified surgeon and professor of languages and originally from Switzerland, ran a private boarding school at his villa in Dingle Hill, off the southern end of Park Road. At 5.30pm on Friday 25th November that year he went to his sitting room as he usually did at that time. Shortly afterwards servants in the kitchen below heard a thud but thought nothing of it, assuming it to be children fooling around. 

At around 6.30pm Mrs Fluek returned from an errand and found her husband insensible on the floor, with blood gushing from his head. She assumed he had had a fall and asked for help from the usher Richard Howchin then sent for Dr Barrett, who lived nearby. On cleaning the blood, it was soon apparent that there were four wounds with brain protruding from one of them. It was obvious that something far more sinister had happened and 41 year old Christian was lifted onto the bed, recovery seen as impossible.  

Police were called an a bloodstained iron bar was found in the room. Christian had been struck from behind in a coolly planned assassination by somebody who did not seem concerned that their presence would be noticed by the school's usher, five pupils, three servants and a lodger. There was no sign that anything had been stolen so robbery was ruled out as a motive. Suspicion soon fell on the attacker being a member of the household and the usher Richard Howchin was arrested when it was established that he had been given notice that his services would no longer be required after Christmas.

Christian succumbed to his injuries 48 hours later, having never regained consciousness. He was buried at in the graveyard of the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth and Howchin appeared before the Stipendiary Magistrate and was remanded in custody. Howchin was 21 years old and from Norfolk and also taught classics and maths at the school. During the inquest correspondence was read out indicating that he had applied for another teaching position but was not given a favourable reference, mainly in respect of his character rather than teaching ability. A verdict of wilful murder was returned and Howchin was committed for trial at the next Assizes.

Exactly three weeks after the murder was committed, Howchin's trial began on Friday 16th December. There was huge interest generated and the corridors of St George's Hall were besieged with people trying to enter the courtroom. Shortly after the trial began the judge had to order the area outside to be cleared due to the noise the crowds of people were making. 

Howchin confidently said 'Not Guilty' when the charge was put to him. Evidence was heard that there was so much movement around the house near the entrance that nobody could have come in unnoticed. Howchin was said to have been away from the schoolroom for about fifteen minutes, during which time the attack was believed to have occurred. Under cross examination, the boys accepted that he had been spinning pennies with them on his return and his manner was normal. 

On the second day of the trial, a park keeper from Sefton Park, which was being developed, said that the iron bar that was used to carry out the killing matched exactly ones which were being used as stanchions there, and that some had been found to be missing from wagons. He also said he recognised Howchin as having visited the park. 

Howchin's defence counsel Mr Torr was able to explain that blood found on his clothing could easily have been as a result of him assisting Mrs Fluek when she found her husband has been attacked. Torr described the prosecution of having made a chain out of weak links, and it was dangerous to condemn a young man to death solely on circumstantial evidence. He added that both two lodgers had the opportunity to carry out the killing and asked if Howchin could really have carried out such a diabolical crime then be laughing with boys just fifteen minutes later. 

In summing up the judge told the jury that they had to be careful with circumstantial evidence, but also ask themselves if the prosecution had been able to show that nobody else could possibly have committed the murder. After retiring for an hour an a quarter, they returned a verdict of not guilty and there as spontaneous cheering in the court room, which soon stopped when the judge said anybody continuing it would be taken into custody. On being discharged, Howchin had a gleaming smile on his pale face and he ran down the stairs to freedom. 


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