The smartly dressed woman in the corner of the railway carriage seemed not to notice three young workmen who boarded the steam train at Polegate, near Eastbourne in East Sussex.
She wore a fur coat and hat, and had her luggage on the seat beside her. An open book lay on her lap.
The men, not wanting to intrude, didn’t speak to her. But one, George Clout, stole a glance and realised with a jolt of horror that blood was trickling down her face from under her hat.
Her eyes were open. They were flickering, searching. The woman appeared to be conscious but she couldn’t move.
Agatha & The Truth Of Murder, on Channel 5, sees Ruth Bradley as the writer, quizzing suspects and examining the evidence to solve the real-life crime. The whodunnit is on Channel 5 next Sunday night, above
As the train pulled into Bexhill station, the young man hurried away to alert someone. Rain lashed down on the dark platform: the only light came from the guard’s handheld lamp. George clutched his arm: ‘That woman back there,’ he said, ‘she’s in a deplorable state.’
The woman’s name was Florence Nightingale Shore. Her skull had been stoved in with a blunt instrument, with such force that shards of bone were driven into her brain.
As she slipped into a coma, her closest friend — a fellow nurse, who had served in field hospitals alongside her in two wars — rushed from London to be at her side.
Florence never regained consciousness and despite numerous clues and suspects, her killer was never caught.
Florence Nightingale Shore, left, is played by Stacha Hicks in Agatha And The Truth Of Murder, right. Can you solve the crime before Agatha Christie?
Now her murder is at the centre of an ingenious retelling that casts the queen of crime novelists in the role of detective.
Agatha & The Truth Of Murder, on Channel 5, sees Ruth Bradley as the writer, quizzing suspects and examining the evidence to solve the real-life crime.
But this is a complex case, and truth is always stranger than fiction.
One historian who has dissected the facts believes the real solution may lie hidden in the details of a news report published in the Daily Mail in January 1920 — pointing to the murderer, yet overlooked for almost 100 years.
Here are the facts. Can you solve the crime before Agatha Christie?
Florence Nightingale Shore was 55 years old and had never married. Born into a monied, upper middle-class family in Lincolnshire in 1865, she was named after her godmother, the famous Lady With The Lamp who had been a pioneer nurse during the Crimean War and was a friend of Florence junior’s parents.
When she was 16 years old, her philandering father was declared bankrupt and her parents divorced five years later. This had a traumatic effect on Florence, who vowed she would always be able to support herself without depending on any man.
In her early 20s she journeyed to China, where she worked as a governess for more than two years before returning to Britain and, inspired by her godmother, training to be a nurse.
The two Florences were related (technically, they were second cousins once removed).
Rosemary Cook discovered one despatch in the Daily Mail archives, filed by an unnamed correspondent who interviewed several passengers from the train. The ‘Mr Smith’ the reporters interviewed knew a little too much
The famous nurse’s father was baptised William Shore but changed his surname to Nightingale to fulfil the terms of a bequest from his wealthy great-uncle Peter Nightingale.
Academic and author Rosemary Cook, former director of the Queen’s Nursing Institute in London, has studied all the evidence surrounding Miss Shore’s murder in depth, and regards her as a pioneer.
‘For most of the 19th century, hospital nursing was the province of drunks and paupers,’ she says.
‘But by the time Florence began her training, her godmother had radically changed things.
‘It was now one of the very few alternatives to marriage or spinsterhood for middle-class 19th-century women.’
With exceptional courage, in 1900 Florence Junior set off to the Boer War in South Africa, nursing the wounded on both sides.
Although by 1914 she was in her late 40s, she signed up again at the outbreak of World War I, working with the French Red Cross to treat injured troops in casualty clearing stations and on ambulance trains along the Western Front.
She was an especial favourite among French African soldiers — Arabs and Senegalese fighting with the Allies — who adored her for her patient kindness. They called her the White Queen.
As a trainee in Edinburgh in 1894, Florence met the woman who would be her lifelong companion: another nurse, Mabel Rogers.
They ensured that wherever one was sent to work, the other would follow — and when Florence declared she was off to war, Mabel went with her both times.
But on the evening of Monday, January 12, 1920, Mabel was not travelling with her dearest friend.
She had a ticket for a London show, while Florence planned on paying a flying visit to some acquaintances in Hastings.
So that afternoon Mabel went with her friend to Victoria station, to help carry her luggage. Florence was travelling third-class, which meant finding a place in a six-seater compartment.
Florence wanted to be sure of a seat facing forwards, so she ignored the busier carriages and chose an empty compartment. As the women prepared to say goodbye, however, a young man entered the carriage.
He didn’t speak to them but Mabel noticed his odd appearance: he was wearing a brown suit with no overcoat, even though it was a freezing winter’s day.
As she stepped off the train, Mabel turned to wave to her friend but the man was standing up, blocking her view.
That night, when she arrived back at the Hammersmith nursing home where both women lived, Mabel received a chilling message. Florence had been attacked and left for dead. She was in Hastings hospital and was not expected to survive.
Mabel drove through the night, reaching Hastings at 3am, and for the next four days sat by her friend’s bedside. Florence died on January 17.
THE CRIME SCENE
When guard Harry Duck hurried to the compartment, he made a gruesome discovery.
The middle-aged lady who sat in the corner, apparently reading a book, was in fact dying. The floor at her feet was spattered with blood. Her glasses had slipped off.
Harry asked her what had happened: all she could do was swivel her eyes and gaze at him in mute agony.
Now the murder of Florence is at the centre of an ingenious retelling that casts the queen of crime novelists in the role of detective
Appalled, the guard signalled for the train to hurry on to Hastings, the quickest way to transport her to hospital.
When ambulancemen lifted her on to a stretcher at the next station, Harry discovered more bloodstains on the seat cushions.
Police who examined the scene decided the killer must have stood over her, battered her until she collapsed, then arranged her semi-comatose body to avoid suspicion.
Blood under her petticoats suggested there might also have been an attempted sexual assault, a grim detail that was withheld from the public.
Harry Duck believed the attack probably took place an hour before he found the body. The likeliest scene was Merstham Tunnel — a mile-long, pitch-dark stretch of track outside Redhill in Surrey, where two previous murders had occurred.
Mabel Rogers confirmed to police that much of Florence’s jewellery was missing, including a gold necklace and a diamond ring as well as three £1 notes — all the money she was carrying, worth about £150 today.
One theory police would pursue was that, in her furs, with a diamond ring, the dedicated nurse might have looked like a wealthy woman to an opportunistic robber.
Mabel was the last person known to have seen Florence alive and was the major beneficiary of her will, though that bequest amounted to a mere £1,000. In a detective novel, this might be enough to make her a suspect — but not in reality.
In 1924 , Agatha Christie published a thriller which begins with a death on the London Underground called . . . The Man In The Brown Suit
Apart from anything else, the assailant used a weapon that left an H-shaped indentation at one place on the victim’s skull, through her thick fur hat.
In two other places it shattered the bone.
Florence must have been hit very hard with something heavy. All Mabel carried was an ivoryhandled umbrella.
The man in the brown suit is a much more probable killer.
He was described as around 27 years old, about 5ft 7in tall, and clean-shaven. He had brown, slightly bushy hair, a pale complexion, and wore a light cap slightly on one side.
But he was also of slim build, which prompted speculation in the days that followed that he would not have been strong enough to overpower such a determined, well-travelled woman, even if he attacked her in the darkness of the tunnel.
Afterwards, Harry Duck believed he had seen the killer hurrying from the train at the first stop beyond Merstham Tunnel, which was Lewes station in Sussex.
Harry told police it would be impossible for anyone, however desperate, to leap from a carriage anywhere between the tunnel and Lewes, because it would be travelling at full speed — 30mph or more — for the whole distance.
But the platform at Lewes was short, and the train was 12 carriages long. One of Harry’s jobs was to warn passengers to go to the front of the train if they wanted to alight.
That night, he spotted something unusual: a man leapt down from one of the rear carriages on to the track, a drop of about four feet.
The guard hailed him: ‘Didn’t they tell you at Victoria to go to the front of the train?’ But the man just hurried past him into the night. Later, Harry couldn’t swear to it but he thought the man wore an old mackintosh, not a brown suit.
Another unexpected suspect then entered the frame. Army deserter Percy Toplis, nicknamed the Monocled Mutineer, was being hunted for murder while on the run from the military police.
Since he first fled there had been a sharp rise in violent robberies in England, and reporters had suggested they could all be the work of one man.
But Toplis was killed while resisting arrest in the north of England, and there is no evidence to connect him to Florence’s killing.
Sadly, after World War I, many traumatised and destitute soldiers turned to robbery, sometimes out of violent greed, sometimes simply to feed themselves.
THE BLOODY GUN
Sir Bernard Spilsbury, known as ‘the father of forensic science’, was called in to examine the evidence.
He believed the ‘H’-shaped wound could have been caused by the butt of an Army-issue Webley revolver, wielded by the barrel like a club.
Several days later a man was arrested in Eastbourne after robbing a group of women at gunpoint. His revolver had no bullets but a blood-smeared grip.
Dame Agatha would certainly have known about the mystery, which gripped the nation. Murders on trains, or seen from trains, are a frequent feature of her novels
Tests proved the blood was human. In 1920, however, there was no way to determine if it was Florence’s.
Police hoped witnesses would be able to identify him as a passenger on the Victoria train but when no one could, the robber was dropped from their enquiries.
In the Christmas TV drama, Bodyguard actress Pippa Haywood plays Mabel Rogers. ‘They had a very affectionate relationship, so Mabel was horrified that nobody was even charged over Florence’s murder,’ she says.
‘Mabel was at her wits’ end. The fictional twist of the show is that she goes to Agatha Christie to ask for her help, knowing her books and thinking she might solve the crime.’
Dame Agatha would certainly have known about the mystery, which gripped the nation. Murders on trains, or seen from trains, are a frequent feature of her novels — such as Murder On The Orient Express and 4.50 From Paddington.
But the most telling connection is that in 1924 she published a thriller which begins with a death on the London Underground called . . . The Man In The Brown Suit.
A MYSTERY MAN
As the hunt for Florence’s killer gripped the nation, newspapers sent reporters to uncover every detail. Rosemary Cook discovered one despatch in the Daily Mail archives, filed by an unnamed correspondent who interviewed several passengers from the train.
One identified himself as John Smith, of Brighton — and claimed to have seen the body. He had looked into the compartment, he said, and saw a woman slumped in her seat with blood running down her face — ‘all huddled up, in a semi-lying position’.
Police do not appear to have followed up this report, perhaps because John Smith is such a common name . . . or such an obviously false one.
But the mysterious Mr Smith appeared to know details that had never been released to the Press. Florence was moving not just her eyes but her left hand, he said. The travelling bag beside her had been rifled through. There was blood on her undergarments. A bottle of smelling salts lay beside her.
How could he have known these things, unless he had examined the body? And if he did that, why didn’t he summon help — unless, of course, he was the killer?
‘He could describe the scene in detail,’ says Cook. ‘Yet no one else there remembered him, and he was never called to give evidence at the inquest.
‘I think there are some searching questions to be asked of John Smith, from Brighton.’
The Nightingale Shore Murder: Death of a World War I Heroine, by Rosemary Cook, is published by Matador, £8.99.
Agatha & The Truth Of Murder is on Channel 5, Sunday, December 23, 9pm.