Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (24)

by ChessBase
2/3/2008 – It has been called the perfect murder. Did the chessplayer W.H. Wallace construct an elaborate alibi before killing his wife at their Liverpool home in 1931? The Editor of Chess Notes examines the chess aspects of the classic Wallace murder case, including a claim that Wallace played against Capablanca. Once again readers are invited to join in the hunt for clues.

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Unsolved Chess Mysteries (24)

By Edward Winter

‘The Wallace murder case might have been devised by Agatha Christie. In spite of recent evidence that seems to point towards a solution, it retains that tantalizing quality of a classic unsolved mystery.’ – Colin Wilson on page 31 of Unsolved Murders and Mysteries edited by John Canning (London, 1992).

For sheer mystery and unsolvability the case has even been ranked by some authors as second only to the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. Some further observations:

  • ‘Almost every fact in the evidence was accepted by both prosecution and defence; but every fact could be interpreted in two ways.’ (The Wallace Case by John Rowland)
  • ‘As a mental exercise, as a challenge to one’s powers of deduction and analysis, the Wallace murder is in a class by itself.’ (Verdict in Dispute by Edgar Lustgarten)
  • ‘The Wallace case is unbeatable; it will always be unbeatable.’ (Raymond Chandler, in Raymond Chandler Speaking).

    William Herbert Wallace

On the evening of Monday, 19 January 1931 W.H. Wallace, a 52-year-old insurance agent, went to the Central Chess Club in the basement of 24 North John Street, Liverpool, England. The club captain, Samuel Beattie, gave him a telephone message from a call received shortly beforehand: a man identifying himself as R.M. Qualtrough wished Wallace to visit him, on insurance business, at 19.30 the following evening at 25 Menlove Gardens East, Liverpool. Wallace eventually decided to keep the appointment, but no such address existed (although there were streets named Menlove Gardens North, South and West), and he returned to his home (29 Wolverton Street, Anfield, Liverpool) at about 20.45. His wife Julia lay on the parlour floor, bludgeoned to death. Arrested on 2 February for her murder, and accused of having created the fictitious Qualtrough to give himself an alibi, Wallace was committed for trial. In court in late April he came over as cold and aloof. Much hinged on intricate evidence on questions of timing (concerning both the Monday and the Tuesday), and only circumstantial evidence against Wallace could be produced. Although the judge, Mr Justice Wright, summed up favourably towards him, the jury found him guilty in little more than an hour, and he received the then mandatory sentence of death by hanging. In an unprecedented development, however, on 19 May 1931 the jury’s verdict was quashed on appeal on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Wallace was freed, continued to protest his innocence, was shunned by many and died of a kidney ailment on 26 February 1933. No motive for the murder of his wife was ever demonstrated, no eye-witness was ever traced, and no murder weapon was ever found.

The best-known book on the case is the The Killing of Julia Wallace by Jonathan Goodman, first published in 1969. Goodman died on 10 January 2008, and we have been re-reading that work (and particularly the London, 1987 edition), as well as such other volumes as:

  • The Trial of William Herbert Wallace by W.F. Wyndham-Brown (London, 1933)
  • The Wallace Case by John Rowland (London, 1949)
  • Two Studies in Crime by Yseult Bridges (London, 1959 and 1970)
  • Murderer Scot-Free by Robert F. Hussey (South Brunswick and New York, 1972)
  • Wallace The Final Verdict by Roger Wilkes (London, 1985)
  • Murder Casebook 25: The Wallace Case (London, 1990)
  • The Insurance Man by Richard Waterhouse (Croydon, 1994)
  • The Murder of Julia Wallace by James Murphy (Liverpool, 2001).

The case was discussed briefly in C.N.s 476 and 599, and now we look at the chess aspects, of which there are many, in some detail.

A key figure in the Monday evening’s events at the club was Beattie:

‘Samuel Beattie, captain of the Liverpool Central Chess Club, had been at the café since six o’clock. As usual on Mondays and Thursdays during the autumn, winter and early spring, he had come straight from work to the café where the chess club meetings were held. Most of the members would not arrive until between half-past seven and eight, but Beattie liked to give himself plenty of time to make sure that everything was ready for the evening’s play.’ (Goodman, page 17)

However, there is no consensus among the books as to how well Beattie and Wallace knew each other (including whether Beattie would/should have recognized the voice of Qualtrough as that of Wallace; see pages 136-137 of Murphy). On page 19 of his book Goodman wrote:

‘Beattie had been friendly with Wallace for eight years – for nearly as long as Wallace had been a member of the chess club, in fact. He liked the man, as did all the other members who knew him. Once you had broken through his slight shyness, his reserve, you discovered that he was a very pleasant fellow indeed. He was by no means a regular attender at the club. Looking back, Beattie supposed that he came along about once every fortnight. He had not been at the club since before Christmas. Wallace had once explained, excused, his infrequent appearances by saying that he did not like leaving his wife alone at night. This seemed a reasonable explanation because, although he was a poor chessplayer, he obviously derived much enjoyment from the game.’

The Central Chess Club was relatively modest, and regarding its members Rowland (page 26) wrote: ‘These people were no Capablancas ...’ On the following page Rowland commented:

‘But at seven o’clock, or shortly afterwards, there occurred the telephone call which was, though no-one realized it at the time, the first of a chain of events destined to lead to one of the most mysterious cases ever to puzzle students of criminology – possibly the greatest mystery since Jack the Ripper startled London.’

The telephone booth (Anfield 1627) from which Qualtrough called the chess club

Murphy (page 22) presented the relevant part of the exchanges as follows:

‘“Is Mr Wallace there? Will he be there?”
“I can’t say”, replies Beattie.
“Can you give me his address?”
“I’m afraid I cannot”, Beattie said.
“Will you be sure to see him?”
“I don’t know”, says Beattie.
“Can you get in touch with him, as it is a matter of importance to Mr Wallace?”
“I’m not sure.”’

Thus Beattie gave no guarantee that Wallace would be present at the club that evening. A question often discussed is whether a third party would have expected Wallace to be there, and an important piece of evidence was the pairing table for the tournament. Agreement is lacking among the authors on the conclusions to be drawn, and there is even obvious mistatement of the facts:

‘By 6 November 1930 a small, handwritten notice had been pinned up by the captain of the chess club, a Mr Beattie, on the board beside the telephone in the City Café giving the names of the members selected to play in the second-class tournament which was to begin on 10 November and continue on alternate Mondays until 21 February 1931. Wallace was down to play his first [sic] contest on 19 January.’ (Bridges, page 167)

From page 60 of Hussey’s book:

‘It was, one should note, agreed by both prosecution and defence that the caller was certainly the murderer. And the case for that caller being Wallace was obviously the theory hammered home by the Crown, unprovable and highly unlikely though it was.

It was far from a strong case, and [Edward George] Hemmerde was on shaky ground indeed when he stressed that only Wallace could have known enough of his intention of going to the Chess Club on that particular evening and at that particular hour. “Nobody but Wallace knew that Wallace was going to be at the café – no-one!”, thundered Hemmerde.’

In contrast, pages 155-156 of Rowland’s book mentioned that, in his final speech for the prosecution, Hemmerde scored ‘a palpable hit’ with the assertion that nobody could have known that Wallace was going to the club on the Monday evening, by quoting Wallace himself in a deposition with Inspector Herbert Gold:

‘No, I had not told anyone I was going, and I cannot think of anyone who knew I was going.’

On page 61 Hussey wrote:

‘Qualtrough knows that Wallace is an habitual player of chess at the City Café, in fact he knows all of Wallace’s habits pretty thoroughly. There, on the café’s bulletin board ... has been displayed in plain sight for over two months the fact that Wallace is scheduled to play a “championship” match on Monday night, 19 January, at 7.45 – the standing hour for starting play.’

And from page 68 of Hussey’s book:

‘Now Hemmerde had also made a great point in his opening speech about Wallace alone “knowing” that he would be at the Chess Club that Monday night. And again, on this point, [Roland] Oliver scored cleanly. First, he brought out in cross-examination of the waitress that the club’s schedule of matches (including Wallace’s name) had for weeks been posted in plain sight on the bulletin board of the café. Next, in cross-examining Beattie, he proceeded to bring out that Beattie had fully expected Wallace to turn up at 7.45 on the 19th and had told Qualtrough so on the phone, since that was the thoroughly well-known club hour for the start of “championship” matches. Finally he produced (Exhibit 54) a photograph of the bulletin board scheduling the matches. As Oliver finished, Hemmerde’s overconfident statement that “nobody but Wallace knew” must have been looking rather the worse for abrasive wear. The judge later intimated as much.’

It is unclear why Hussey stated that ‘Beattie had fully expected Wallace to turn up at 7.45’.

An unfortunate characteristic of all books on the Wallace case is their presentation of quotations and dialogue without indication of a precise source in each instance. For example, Wilkes simply provided, on page 14, an all-purpose reference to cover citations in his entire book:

‘Throughout the text all the material in direct quotes is authentic, reproduced from original documents, my two radio programmes, or personal interviews conducted by me.’

Scholarship seems in short supply, with few primary sources mentioned, and there are surprising discrepancies even over basic facts. In passing we note, for instance, that whereas it has usually been stated that Julia Wallace was roughly the same age as her husband (early 50s), Murphy (pages 34-36) examined her background in some detail before concluding that she was 69 at the time of her death.

Unlike so many other investigators, Murphy (pages 123-124) saw no reason to believe that Qualtrough would know that Wallace intended to go to the club on the Monday evening:

‘Thus, the argument runs, because Wallace was due to play a game on the Monday night, Qualtrough knew that he was to attend the club. During Wallace’s appeal, Roland Oliver reiterated this argument to the appeal judges who, in their summing up, concurred with him that Qualtrough knew that Wallace would attend the chess club. However, the best that could be said was that Wallace was expected at the club to play a game against F.C. Chandler. But expectation is not knowledge.

Had Qualtrough, or anyone else, then or now, perused the list, he would have discovered that Wallace had also been expected at the club on Monday, 5 January to play Mr J. Walsh, on Monday, 8 December to play Mr T. Moore and on Monday, 24 November to play Mr McCartney. But, according to the list he had failed to attend on all three occasions. Had Qualtrough studied the list, he could be forgiven for concluding that the chance of Wallace attending the club on 19 January was negligible.’

And from page 22 of Murphy’s book:

‘The club’s noticeboard, displaying the championship playing order, hangs on the wall, diagonally opposite the café entrance. Adjacent to the board is a public telephone box with the number, Bank 3581, etched on the glass window.’

Click on illustration to enlarge

On page 210 Murphy discussed the pairing table in more detail:

‘Thus, on 10 November Wallace played number three player, Mr E. Lampitt. Lampitt lost and had the letter “L” marked in against his number opposite Wallace’s name and Wallace, as the winner, had the letter “W” marked against his number, opposite Lampitt’s name. Two weeks later Wallace was to have played McCartney, but the game was not played; no letters L and W were written by the names ...

... And it is the list, and the information it gives, that is important to Qualtrough. The list states that Wallace had not been at the club since 10 November. Why, after perusing the list, should Qualtrough conclude that Wallace would attend on 19 January?

Goodman [page 18] reproduces a facsimile of the playing list which is inaccurate, and which does not contain the relevant indicators of Wallace’s failure to play his tournament games. ... Wilkes reproduces a photograph of the list but fails to see its significance.’

Wallace was down to play F.C. Chandler, but absences during the tournament were indeed frequent:

‘As it happened, Wallace arrived at the café to find that Chandler, the man he was due to play, was not present. After chatting with James Caird, he arranged to play an outstanding match in the second class championship with a Mr McCartney. The club rule concerning the pre-7.45 start still applied to this rearranged fixture, and at about 7.50 when Beattie went over to deliver the message, Wallace and McCartney were deeply involved in the game.’ (Goodman, page 285)

From page 29 of Wilkes:

‘James Caird arrived at the City Café at about 25 to eight. He knew that tonight was another round in the club’s second-class championship, and that he was not paired to play. But he’d come along anyway, on the off-chance of a casual game with anyone who would join him. He strolled around the various tables for several minutes watching the games progress. Caird was a grocer, living not far from Wallace in the same part of Anfield. The two men had known each other for years. So when, at about a quarter to eight, Caird saw Wallace arrive and hang up his hat and coat, he ambled over.

“Evening, Wallace. Care for a game?”

But Wallace explained that he was down to play a tournament match against a man called Chandler. He wanted to get the game wiped off because he was already in arrears.

Wallace moved away, threading his way between the tables in search of his partner. It seemed that Chandler hadn’t turned up, so Wallace sat down to play a game with an opponent called McCartney. Caird – who was in a class above Wallace at chess, and therefore ineligible to play him in tournaments – stood and watched the opening moves.

After some minutes Caird mooched over to where Beattie was engrossed in his match with Deyes ...’

Caird then pointed out to Beattie that Wallace was present, and Beattie went across to give Wallace the telephone message.

Wallace won his game against McCartney, and the Qualtrough matter continued to be pondered:

‘It is after ten o’clock and most of the games are over. Wallace and some of the other members leave the café together ... Wallace is talkative, highly delighted at his win over McCartney, taking Caird through the endgame move by move.’ (Murphy, page 25)

‘Even while at the club, Wallace had puzzled with Beattie and another member, Deyes, over the unfamiliar Menlove Gardens address. On the way home, accompanied by fellow-members Caird and Bethurn, he further maundered on about the subject ...’ (Hussey, pages 18-19)

Wilkes (page 89) reported that ‘Caird and his wife were on friendly terms with the Wallaces; friendly but hardly intimate’ and that ‘Caird was a fairly frequent visitor at Wolverton Street for games of chess. “I think the last time I was there was in October 1930”, said Caird.’

On the evening of Thursday, 22 January 1931, two days after the murder, a conversation took place between Beattie and Wallace, in the presence of Caird. Page 85 of Rowland relates how Wallace unsuccessfully tried to ascertain from Beattie the time at which Qualtrough had telephoned. See also pages 68-69 of Wilkes and page 167 of Hussey. Whether by accident or design, Qualtrough had, in fact, used the telephone booth in such a way that the time of his call was recorded by the Anfield telephone exchange: 19.20.

During the police investigation and the trial, which began on 22 April and ended on 25 April, all the parties were called upon to state their recollection of what had happened at the club:

‘In addition, statements are taken from James Caird and Thomas McCartney at Cottle’s City Café, about the events at the chess club on Monday, 19 January, in particular Wallace’s reaction to the Qualtrough message and the address at Menlove Gardens East. Caird, as well as detailing his own movements on the night of the murder, also provides confirmation of what occurred between Wallace and Beattie on the Thursday night.’ (Murphy, page 70)

‘For the defence, Oliver argued that Qualtrough was a thief who, knowing Wallace would be at his chess club on the Monday night, had planned to lure him from his home on Tuesday night in order to steal his insurance takings; that in the course of the theft he killed Mrs Wallace; that Wallace could not have had the time in which to kill her and that anyway, he was a loving husband who had no motive whatsoever to murder his wife.’ (Murphy, page 86)

On page 119 Murphy suggested that, if robbery were the motive, it was unnecessary for the murderer to make a telephone call to the chess club:

‘How much simpler, how much more lucrative it would have been, for Qualtrough to have slipped a note to Wallace through his front door on Monday, 12 January [sic – an intentional reference to the previous week], asking him to call at 25 Menlove Gardens East the following night.

That Qualtrough chose Wallace’s putative attendance at the chess club, rather than the night when he could maximize his gain, as the starting point for his plan, again testifies to the fact that robbery was not a significant motive in the crime.’

It remains to be discovered what became of Samuel Beattie, whom Rowland (page 27) described as the ‘manager of a cotton-broking firm’. Wilkes (pages 256-257) related his unsuccessful attempts to research the life of Beattie. The only picture that we have traced so far is an artist’s impression (which may be pure imagination) on page 2 of the Sunday Chronicle, 8 May 1955:

We should also like to establish basic biographical details about the other club players named in the case, such as James Caird (whom Goodman described, on page 175, as ‘an excellent witness for the defence’). Nor has further archive information yet been found about the club or, even, the final outcome of the tournament. From page 26 of Rowland’s book:

‘The first prize for this championship was ten shillings and the second prize five shillings. History does not record what position Wallace occupied in 1931, and whether he succeeded in winning either of the prizes.’

It is, of course, certain that he did not.

Wallace was not the only suspect. Books exist which assert that Qualtrough was Richard Gordon Parry, with whom Wallace had had some conflict, although Waterhouse’s volume suggested that Wallace and Parry collaborated on the crime.

As regards Parry, Goodman wrote on page 306:

‘He may have had any, or all, of three motives for the crime – financial gain, revenge and/or sex. He knew that Wallace was a member of the Central Chess Club and, as a frequenter of the City Café, could have looked at the notice-board to see when Wallace was due to play a match.’

Suspicions about Parry were also expressed by Wallace himself, as shown by a statement quoted on page 186 of Murphy’s book (dated ‘22/11/31’, but ‘22/01/31’ was clearly meant).

Richard Gordon Parry is on the right

Another question that has occasioned much debate is Wallace’s prowess, or lack thereof, as a chessplayer. Its relevance, though, is essentially limited to two aspects: 1) the insights that any claims made by Wallace may provide into his character and 2) whether any public perception, however misguided, of chessplayers as fiendishly clever operated to Wallace’s disadvantage during the trial. On page 36 of his above-mentioned essay on Wallace, Colin Wilson wrote:

‘Yseult Bridges, who also wrote about the case, became convinced of Wallace’s guilt when she read a series of “ghosted” articles about his life which appeared in John Bull in 1932. There Wallace remarks that he had matched his brains against some of the greatest chessplayers in the world. Yseult Bridges comments that “he was never more than a third-rate player in an obscure little club”, and concludes that Wallace was a pathological liar. But another writer, Jonathan Goodman, looked more closely into the matter, and concludes (in The Killing of Julia Wallace) that Wallace was telling the truth after all; in the 1920s he had played in “simultaneous exhibition matches” against world-famous players like Capablanca and been thoroughly beaten.

Kenneth Gunnell, a parliamentary candidate from Redruth, Cornwall, independently discovered that Wallace was telling the truth about his chess opponents ...’

We should like to know what precisely Gunnell discovered.

Below is the exact text attributed to Wallace (‘in one of his effusions for the Press’) on pages 260-261 of Bridges’ book:

‘Chess was one of the passions of my life. Liverpool was a great chess-playing centre, and I was well known in the circle. I have no-one to play chess with now. But some evenings I get out my board, put the pieces on the squares and settle down to working out difficult problems.

A minute or two passes. Then I, who in the past have matched my brains against some of the greatest players in the world, realize that I am not concentrating on the board, though I sit staring at it. Some shadow seems to rise between me and my beloved game.

I suddenly draw back. I know what it is. Chess is mixed up now with the terrible drama of my life. Even my proficiency in my hobby was used as a weapon against me ...

Can you wonder, then, that when I sit alone in the evenings with my chess board in front of me, the shadow of the dock, the shadow of the Judge in the black cap – yes, even the shadow of the scaffold itself – rise up before my eyes. I push away the chess board, as I have already pushed away the microscope.’ [Wallace was also interested in science.]

A footnote by Bridges on page 261 read:

‘He was never more than a third-rate player ... in an obscure little club. This gives the clue to all the rest of his pretensions.’

Goodman reacted as follows on page 277 of his book:

‘But does it? Actually, no.

For two reasons:

‘First: Wallace had “matched his brains against some of the greatest players in the world” – although, admittedly, it was always a pretty unequal contest. In the ’20s he had played in “simultaneous exhibition” matches when chess masters like Capablanca, Kashdan and Blackburne visited Liverpool and took on all-comers.

Second: The John Bull articles were not written by Wallace. He was paid a fee for the use of his name, and for providing some information about his early years, very little of which was used by the journalist who “ghosted” the series. It was a rush job, and Wallace did not even see what he was supposed to have written until the series appeared in print. (This fact, incidentally, makes nonsense of quite a lot that has been published about Wallace in the past 30 years or so.)’

On pages 143-144 of his book Hussey too was critical of Bridges’ claims about Wallace:

‘And he loved chess, though it is clear, says one chess master, that he played an execrable game.

Wallace-ite Bridges, however, points out what she designates as the farcical “pretentiousness” of a published article mentioning chess which reads: “I, who in the past have matched my brains against some of the greatest players in the world ...” This, she glibly argues, gives the clue to the falsity of all his diary entries and writings – a view that seems somewhat to overlook the certainty that poor Wallace, the chess dub, could still have worked on end-games and problems, by perhaps Alekhine or Capablanca, as readily as might any veritable master. A cat can look!’

It is unclear on what grounds Alekhine, Blackburne, Capablanca and Kashdan were mentioned, as no connection between Wallace and any of them can be offered here. Kashdan’s seems an especially strange name for anyone to quote in this context. The lack of precise references and sources in books on the Wallace case is once again a grave impediment, and we should welcome assistance in drawing up a list of all references to chess in texts in Wallace’s name, whether ghosted or not.

Although Bridges denounced Wallace for vainglory in the ghosted John Bull articles, on page 253 she herself quoted Wallace’s own (modest) assessment of his chess skill in his diary, but she omitted a sentence of his which underscored that modesty:

‘6 November 1930. The tournaments [chess] are now up, and I see I am in Class Three [sic]. (This about represents my strength of play.) I suppose I could play better, but I feel it is too much like hard work to go in for chess wholeheartedly: hence my lack of practice keeps me in a state of mediocrity – good enough for a nice game, but not good enough (but no good) for really first-class play.’

The rounded brackets above indicate the text of the diary entry as it appeared on page 278 of Wilkes’ book, but not in Bridges’ volume.

The public perception of Wallace as a chessplayer was discussed by Goodman (page 102):

‘As for Wallace being a chessplayer: this was interpreted to mean that he was able to devise a far more cunning murder plan than the average citizen. It was reported that he was “a master player; a man with a mind as brilliant as it was perverted, trained to think ahead to the next moves, and to anticipate the moves which his opponent would make”.

Before long people were saying that only a brilliant chessplayer such as Wallace could have conceived and carried out the scheme to murder his wife; therefore, unless the police discovered another suspect equally expert at the game, Wallace’s guilt was a foregone conclusion.

The only people, it seems, who did not subscribe to this notion were those who had had the misfortune to play chess with Wallace. They knew that, far from being “brilliant” at the game, he was a very poor player indeed. His victory over Mr McCartney, the night before the murder, gave him tremendous pleasure – and no wonder, considering the novelty of the experience. At the time of the case a member of the Central Chess Club called Wallace a “chess-vandalist”, adding that “the best one can say about him is that he is an enthusiastic duffer”. Another member – a true devotee, this one – remarked, “The murder of his wife apart, I think Wallace ought to be hanged for being such a bad chessplayer.”

The idea that Wallace planned his wife’s murder like a game of chess was still very much in the air when he stood trial for his life. Afterwards (and in all seriousness, apparently) a Liverpool barrister asked Wallace’s solicitor why the defence did not call expert evidence to prove how poor a player Wallace really was.’

Once again, it will be noted, readers of books on the case are merely given unsubstantiated and unattributed quotes.

William Herbert Wallace

After Wallace’s sentence was quashed, he tried to resume his previous lifestyle:

‘He continued to work at the Liverpool head office of the Prudential. Each day he lunched at the City Café – but “the men with whom I have won and lost at play so often, with whom I have ... exchanged views on topics of the day over coffee and cigarettes, pass me with heads tilted away from me ... I suppose this feeling against me will probably persist for some time and I may never really live it down. Well, after all, so long as I know I am innocent why should I worry?”’ (Goodman, page 266)

Wallace continued to receive much unfavourable press attention. From page 269 of Goodman:

‘Perhaps the worst libel of all was contained in an article “The Crime at 29 Wolverton Street”, which appeared in the May 1932 edition of a magazine called True Detective Mysteries.

A photo-montage was given a centre-page spread, with Wallace standing on one side of a chess board, [Detective Superintendent] Hubert Moore on the other. Beneath the picture of Wallace a caption invited the readers to “observe his long, tapering fingers”. The chess analogy was continued in the article, the implication being that Wallace, the master, thinking out his moves in advance, had had little difficulty in outwitting a bone-headed Moore. (Come to think of it, the article provided as many grounds for Moore suing the magazine as it did for Wallace.)

But the printers and publishers of True Detective Mysteries were in luck. The writ against them was not issued until February 1933. Before the statement of claim could be discussed in chambers the plaintiff died.’

More information about that magazine item is sought. Can the reference be verified? We have the May 1932 issue of True Detective Mysteries, a New York publication, but it contains no such Wallace material.

29 Wolverton Street, Liverpool, where Julia Wallace was killed

Gerald Abrahams, who was a chessplayer, barrister and Liverpudlian, made a number of comments on the case. The following two passages appeared respectively on pages 148 and 149 of Hussey’s book:

‘It is perhaps significant that one barrister-commentator, Gerald Abrahams, says of Oliver’s defence of Wallace that a “defence that could, and should, have been declaimed on a high note was soft-pedalled”.’

‘In According to the Evidence, barrister Gerald Abrahams of Liverpool puts the Wallace prosecution succinctly: “To any objective observer, the hypothesis which is the prosecution’s case is something so intrinsically difficult of acceptance that the defence does not seem to matter. Putting the prosecution at its highest, it leaves doubt.”’

Gerald Abrahams

On page 171 Hussey wrote: ‘Barrister Abrahams states: “The judge ... summed up strongly for acquittal.”’ He did indeed, and it is perhaps surprising to find the following on page 309 of Goodman:

‘A few years before his death, in an interview with a Liverpool Echo reporter, he [Mr Justice Wright, who took the title Lord Wright of Durley] said:

“Never forget that Wallace was a chessplayer. ... I should say that, broadly speaking, any man with common sense would have said that Wallace’s alibi was too good to be true, but that is not an argument you can hang a man on.”’

Lord Wright died in 1964, but no precise source for the Liverpool newspaper interview was supplied by Goodman.

We note that Abrahams also discussed the case on pages 151-154 of his book The Legal Mind (London, 1954). After describing the basic facts, he wrote of Wallace:

‘And there were other equally powerful arguments, such as that the man was a chessplayer (to the author’s knowledge the worst that ever moved a pawn) and consequently capable of concocting great schemes of devilry and deception. The jury was of a type that could not recognize a non sequitur.’

Abrahams then provided an analysis which included the following remark:

‘The author takes the view that to vest Wallace with guilt in the circumstances is to credit him with a mental power, a skill, an agility, a cold-blooded nerveless efficiency, of which he seemed utterly incapable.’

A chessplaying figure who was directly involved in the case was Hector Munro. From page 132 of Goodman’s book:

‘Hector Munro was a man who worked hard and played hard. He had many other interests besides the Law. One of his main fascinations was chess, a game at which he excelled; he represented Lancashire in matches against other counties, and played in tournaments all over the country.

He was a member of the Liverpool Central Chess Club.

His attendances at the twice-weekly club meetings were infrequent, and he had never had the misfortune of playing chess with Wallace – indeed, he had never even spoken to him; all that he knew about Wallace was that his initials were W.H., having seen the name on tournament sheets pinned to the notice-board at the City Café. Wallace must have known a good deal more about Munro than Munro knew about him – enough, at any rate, to convince him that he was choosing the right man for what lawyers call “the temporary post of life-saver”.

It was the captain of the chess club who had given Wallace the message which sparked off the train of events leading to his arrest; now the club’s star player was presented with the task of securing his freedom.’

Rowland’s book was briefly but favourably reviewed on page 7 of the October 1949 CHESS:

In a letter published on page 33 of the November 1949 issue J. T. Boyd commented:

‘Wallace was never a member of Liverpool C.C., but of Liverpool Central, which now meets at the Victoria Restaurant (or did two years ago). I well recall Gerald Abrahams laying three to one in crowns that the verdict would be upset on appeal, as it was.’

Pages 56-57 of the December 1949 CHESS carried a letter from Hector Munro (‘Liverpool, 31 October 1949’), which included the following:

‘I suppose I am specially qualified to speak about this affair, because I was the solicitor for Mr Wallace until he died, and also because I was (and still am) a member of the Liverpool Central Chess Club. Knowing, I think, at least as much about this case as anyone on earth, I feel it my duty to say that in my opinion Wallace was innocent. I always held this view, and its correctness has now been confirmed by everything that has come out since the trial.’

The Editor of CHESS, B.H. Wood, took a strong interest in the case. He and Harry Golombek were mentioned in the Acknowledgments on page 10 of the 1969 edition of Goodman’s book.

William Herbert Wallace

The chess issues in the Wallace murder case essentially revolve around four themes, all of which require further research:

  • The conditions of the chess tournament in which Wallace was participating, and its relevance to the telephone call from Qualtrough.
  • Information about the other club members and the club itself.
  • The extent to which Wallace’s liking for chess resulted in prejudice against him, by the press and/or the public.
  • The claims in John Bull, ascribed to Wallace but apparently ghosted, which referred to his chess prowess and mentioned Blackburne, Capablanca and Kashdan.

Note: for a more detailed version of the present article, see Chess and the Wallace Murder Case. Another murder case, dating from 1911, is discussed in our feature article Chessplayer Shot Dead in Hastings.

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All articles by Edward Winter

Edward Winter is the editor of Chess Notes, which was founded in January 1982 as "a forum for aficionados to discuss all matters relating to the Royal Pastime". Since then around 5,400 items have been published, and the series has resulted in four books by Winter: Chess Explorations (1996), Kings, Commoners and Knaves (1999), A Chess Omnibus (2003) and Chess Facts and Fables (2006). He is also the author of a monograph on Capablanca (1989).

Chess Notes is well known for its historical research, and anyone browsing in its archives will find a wealth of unknown games, accounts of historical mysteries, quotes and quips, and other material of every kind imaginable. Correspondents from around the world contribute items, and they include not only "ordinary readers" but also some eminent historians – and, indeed, some eminent masters. Chess Notes is located at the Chess History Center.

Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.


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