The Brighton Trunk Murders were two unrelated murders linked to the fashionable British south coast town of Brighton in 1934. In both cases, the dismembered body of a murdered woman was placed in a trunk.
The two murders, which were closely followed by the popular press, led to Brighton being humorously dubbed ‘The Queen of Slaughtering Places’ (a play on the previous soubriquet ‘The Queen of Watering Places’ which spoke to the town’s reputation as a bathing resort) and brought to public attention Brighton’s seedier side of gang crime and prostitution later popularised by novelist Graham Greene in his novel Brighton Rock, published in 1938.
The Unsolved Brighton Trunk Murder of 1934
The first Brighton Trunk murder came to light on the 17th June 1934 when an unclaimed plywood trunk was opened by William Joseph Vinnicombe at the left luggage office of Brighton railway station as he investigated an unpleasant smell. The trunk contained the dismembered torso of a woman and when other stations were alerted a suitcase opened at King’s Cross was found to contain the legs. The head and arms were never found.
The post-mortem by Sir Bernard Spilsbury revealed that the murdered woman was about 25 years old and was pregnant. But despite considerable police efforts the victim and murderer were never identified. The victim of this murder is referred to as ‘pretty feet’ owning to her well pedicured toenails.
A well-known local story speculates that the woman had died accidentally during a back-street abortion. It is believed that a well known abortionist was questioned during investigations but the lead was not pursued because of the potential embarrassment that might be caused to notable clients who had visited the abortionist.
Violet Kaye and Toni Mancini
Although the first murder was almost certainly unrelated to the second, it did lead directly to the discovery of the second trunk murder.
The victim in this instance was Violet Kaye nee Watts (also known by the name of Saunders). In 1934 she was 42 and had lived a haphazard life as a dancer and prostitute marked by drink and drug use. She lived with Toni Mancini, a petty criminal with a record including theft and loitering and worked in a variety of low level jobs variously as a waiter and bouncer. He was also known as Cecil Lois England (his real name), Jack Noytre, Tony English and Hyman Gold
Kaye and Mancini’s relationship was reportedly tempestuous. One argument occurred at the Skylark café on the seafront, where Mancini worked, when an obviously drunk Kaye accused him of being overly familiar with a teenage waitress called Elizabeth Attrell.
After this event on the 10th May 1934, Violet wasn’t seen again. Mancini told friends she had gone away to Paris. Violet’s sister also received a telegram saying that she had taken a job abroad.
After a subsequent row at their basement flat at 44 Park Crescent, it would seem that Mancini struck Kaye with a blunt implement, possibly a hammer, and killed her.
Mancini gave some of Kaye’s clothes and belongings to Attrell and moved to lodgings in 52 Kemp Street, close to the station. He purchased a large trunk in which he kept Kaye’s remains which he took to his new home.
Kaye’s absence from her ‘patch’ had been noted by the local police and Mancini was taken in for questioning but the police didn’t investigate further. Apparently panicked by the questions about Violet Kaye, Mancini went on the run. In his absence a house-to-house search related to the unsolved trunk Murder police searched premises close to the railway station and stumbled upon Kaye’s remains at Mancini’s lodgings on Kemp Street. Mancini was later arrested in South East London. The post mortem was conducted by the pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury.
The Mancini Trial
The Trial opened in December 1934 in Lewes and lasted 5 days. The prosecution was led by J C Cassells and on his team was a Quentin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham and eminent Conservative politician. Norman Birkett was the defence counsel.
The prosecution focussed on the brutal nature of Kaye’s death by a blow to the head. A graphologist confirmed that the handwriting on the form for the telegram sent to Kaye’s sister matched that found on menus Mancini had written at the Skylark café. One witness, Doris Saville, said that Mancini had asked her to provide a false alibi. Other witnesses, friends of Mancini, claimed that he boasted of giving his “missus” the biggest hiding of her life in the days after the murder.
Birkett’s defence focussed on Kaye’s work as a prostitute and her dubious character. Mancini claimed that he had discovered Kaye’s body at the flat in Park Crescent. Thinking that the police would not believe his story because he had a criminal record he had decided to keep the matter a secret and put her body in a trunk. Birkett speculated that she could have been murdered by a client or simply fallen down the steep steps into the flat.
The quality and nature of the forensic evidence was also drawn in to doubt by the defence who queried the amount of morphine in Kaye’s blood and proved that items of clothing stained with blood had been purchased after Kaye’s death. A number of witnesses also confirmed that Mancini and Kaye had seemed a contented couple.
After two and a quarter hours the jury returned a verdict of Not Guilty, it was reported that Mancini was dazed by the result and that the judge too was surprised.
In the 1976, just before his death, Tony Mancini sensationally confessed to the murder of Violet Kaye in a Sunday newspaper.
The 1831 Brighton Trunk Murder
The press attention to the 1934 trunk murders revived interest in a previous Brighton Trunk Murder. In the nineteenth century John Holloway murdered his wife Celia. Holloway, a painter on the Chain Pier, then transported her body in a trunk on a wheel barrow to Lover’s Walk in Preston and buried the remains. Holloway was arrested and tried and hanged in Lewes.
(For further reading there a number of books about the Brighton Trunk Murders available.)