Neil Root – author of Frenzy! Heath, Haigh & Christie: How the Tabloid Press Turned Three Evil Serial Killers into Celebrities – reveals how a News of the World reporter caught a killer
It was on 25th August 1951 when the News of the World’s ‘murder whiz’ and a leading light of Fleet Street’s legendary group of crime reporters, Norman Rae, arrived at the Black Boy Hotel in Nottingham to meet a man who claimed to have found the body of a woman in an orchard in the Sherwood area of that city.
In fact the man had already called the police anonymously, telling them that he had found the body there, and the police duly discovered the body of Mrs Bale Tattershaw, a native of Sherwood, in the disused orchard. She had been strangled.
The man waiting for Rae that day was a 19 year-old ex-dispatch clerk named Herbert Leonard Mills.
Mills had telephoned Norman ‘Jock’ Rae, almost a household name for his crime scoops in the News of the World since the mid-1930s, to tell the seasoned hack that he had an exclusive for him. Rae raced to Nottingham from the paper’s offices in Bouverie Street, London EC4, being driven there by his personal driver.
The heavily-built Rae, a fifty-four year old Scot, wearing his trilby at a jaunty angle, could smell a story from a long distance, and on this day his hunch would prove to be correct.
Mills was waiting for Rae in the hotel lobby. He told Rae that he was a poet, and that he would like to write the exclusive story for the News of the World. Rae warned Mills that anything he said could be used in evidence against him, but Mills was undaunted. The statement which he would then write on hotel notepaper was nothing short of extraordinary.
‘The perfect crime of murder’
Having published a book in which Norman Rae plays a significant part, examining how he and other Fleet Street hacks operated to get crime scoops in the post-war years I was contacted by Norman Rae’s youngest son, Angus.
Norman died in 1962, when Angus Rae was just four years old. Angus sent me a photocopy of the original statement made by Herbert Mills that day in 1951, a document never seen in its’ entirety before outside the Rae family, the judge and jury, the police and the News of the World editor in 1951.
The News of the World, which closed in July 2011 after 168 years amid the phone-hacking scandal, had a circulation in 1951 of 8.4 million, and this was partly due to Norman Rae, known as the crime reporter in Fleet Street then, a time when lurid murder stories shifted newspapers.
Written in Rae’s own fluent handwriting, it transcribed what Mills told him that day in the Black Boy Hotel.
It recounts how, according to Mills, he was sitting in the Roxy cinema in Nottingham on the evening of 7th August 1951, eighteen days earlier, when two women sat down next to him in the same row.
Mills said that one of the women tried to engage him in conversation, but he did not really want to speak to her, but then to be polite he did, and he termed her “a little suggestive”, and after an initial refusal, he agreed to meet her the following day, 8th August. The next part of the statement given to Norman Rae deserves to be quoted in full:
“I had always considered the possibility of the perfect crime of murder. I am very much interested in crime. Here was my opportunity. I have been most successful, no motive, no clues. Why if I had not reported finding the body I should not have been connected in any many whatsoever. I am quite proud of my achievement. Seeing the possibility of putting my theory to practice I consented to meeting her on the morrow.”
Mills then told Rae how he and Mrs Tattershaw had walked down various roads in Sherwood, where they were seen by an old school-friend of Mills, and two young women, one of whom Mills also knew. After that, they walked through some rose gardens and came to the old orchard. Mills then recalled:
“She took off her coat and lay down. I asked could I have the beads she wore…I thought they might interfere with my little crime, and intentions. She broke the beads from her neck to give to me. I tied them. She was a very simple woman…I was satisfied I found the perfect victim. She said she was cold. I had not interfered with her in any way, nor did I. I covered her with her won coat, then my own coat. She had her eyes closed. I put on a pair of gloves. I knelt my knees upon her shoulders, the coats were placed upon her, that she could not clutch or gather any thread within her finger nails. I was very pleased. I think I did it rather well.”
At the very end of this chilling statement, Mills officially confessed to the murder of Mrs Tattershaw, signing his name beneath: “I Herbert Leonard Mills state that on the evening of Aug 8th I killed Mrs Tattershaw and now wish to clear my conscience.”
Mills had been warned about the gravity of his statement and confession, but seemed to want to show his ingenuity and cleverness at any cost, a narcissistic egoism displayed by many murderers.
Norman Rae consulted his editor at the News of the World, Arthur Watkins, and the police were immediately informed and given the written confession, leading to the immediate arrest of Herbert Mills. After a trial in which he was sentenced to death, Herbert Leonard Mills was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint on 11th December 1951 at Lincoln Prison.
Tabloid crime hacks of Fleet Street’s ‘Murder Gang’ of the 1940s and 1950s often used highly questionable methods- Rae tried to covertly meet the infamous Notting Hill serial killer John Reginald Halliday Christie whilst he was on the run from the police just two years later in 1953, for example. But on that day over sixty years ago, Norman ‘Jock’ Rae singlehandedly brought a cold-blooded killer to justice.