Green Bicycle Case

The Green Bicycle Case involved the killing of a young woman named Bella Wright in Little Stretton, near Leicester, England on 5 July 1919. Wright was shot in the head; according to reports at the time, a raven was also found dead at the scene. The leading suspect Ronald Light (34 years old at the time) was tried, but acquitted. [ [Donahue 2007] , "passim."] The best-known book on the case, "The Green Bicycle Murder" (1993) by C. Wendy East concludes that Light did, indeed, murder her. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 70.] The earlier "The Green Bicycle Case" (1930) by H.R. Wakefield came to the opposite conclusion. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 73–74.]

Ronald Light was a World War I veteran who had returned from the war with shell shock. He did not voluntarily come forth in response to wanted posters for the man on the green bicycle who had been riding with Wright on the evening she was killed, and he made an attempt to dispose of the bicycle. Once arrested he admitted to being with her shortly before her death, but denied killing her. He was successfully defended in court by Sir Edward Marshall Hall KC. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 68–69.]

Bella Wright

Bella Wright was the oldest of seven children of an illiterate cow herder and his wife. She grew up in a thatched cottage four miles outside Leicester in Stoughton, under what Bill Donahue describes as "essentially feudal conditions". She attended school until the age of 12, then worked as a domestic servant before taking a factory job in Bates, about five miles from home. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 71.]

At the time of her death she had been "keeping company" with Royal Navy stoker Archie Ward, and had at least one other suitor. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 71.]

Wright may have met Light prior to the night of the murder. She had told her mother of an officer who had fallen in love with her; it may well have been Light, although he denied it in court. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 71.]

Ronald Light

Ronald Vivian Light grew up the only child of a successful inventor of plumbing devices. He received reasonable marks at the elite Oakham School. According to a prosecution brief from his murder trial, in 1902, at 17, he was expelled from Oakham for "lifting a little girl's clothes over her head"; the same brief states that in his 30s he "attempted to make love to a girl 15 years of age" and admitted to "improper conduct" with an 8-year-old girl. Two girls, ages 12 and 14, testified at his trial that the very day of Wright's death Light had chased them as they rode their bicycles through the countryside. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 70–71.]

In addition to these sexually-related accusations, Light was fired from a railway job in 1914, suspected of setting a fire in a cupboard and of drawing indecent graffiti in a lavatory. He was also fired from a farm, accused of setting fire to haystacks. During Light's service as a second lieutenant in the War, his father died, apparently a suicide; Light's mother explained the probable suicide partly by the father's worries about his son. In 1916, Light was fired as an officer, rejoined the army as a gunner, and soon returned from the Western Front shell-shocked and partially deaf. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 71.]

After his trial, Light "all but vanished." By 1928 he lived in Leysdown-on-Sea on the east side of the Isle of Sheppey. For at least a time, he assumed the name "Leonard Estelle". He married an older woman with a daughter; he had no children of his own. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 74.] He died in 1975 at the age of 89. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 70.] His stepdaughter had no notion of his trial until after he died. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 74.]

The night of Wright's death

By all accounts, Wright and Light met on a road 5 July 1919 around 6:45 p.m. She asked him if he had a spanner to help with her loose freewheel. He did not have one, but offered to accompany her, which she accepted. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 71.] He accompanied her to her uncle George Measure's cottage in Gaulby and waited for her outside; the uncle didn't like his looks. They rode away together at about 8:50 p.m. Her dead body was found on the Via Devana by a farmer, around 9:20 p.m. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 72.]

Police constable Alfred Hall, who came to the scene, initially found "smears of blood on the top bar of the field gate" but no footprints on either side of the gate. A doctor made a cursory once-over by candlelight, and said that Wright had died in a simple bicycle accident. Hall had his doubts; he returned at 6 a.m. and found a .455-calibre bullet 17 feet from Wright's body, which had not yet been moved from the scene. He washed the face of the corpse and found the entry wound. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 73.]

The prosecution's reconstruction was that a mile west of Gaulby, Bella Wright had fled from Light, panicked, and headed south on an inferior road that was not the shortest route home, but a possible one. Light took an alternate route to get in front of her and lay in wait at a cattle gate, where he shot her and fled. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 72.]

In court Hall would testify that the blood on the gate came from a dead raven that had "gorg [ed] itself on blood," making six separate journeys from the gate to the corpse. However, there are normally no ravens or similar birds in the Midlands. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 73.]

Investigation and trial

For five months after Wright's death, Light hid his bike in a cupboard. He later claimed he had failed to come forward to avoid worrying his ailing mother. He eventually took the bike to the Upperton Road Bridge across the River Soar, dismantled the bicycle, and threw it piece by piece into the river, an act witnessed by Samuel Holland, a labourer. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 69.]

On 23 February 1920, Enoch Whitehouse was guiding a horse-drawn boat full of coal on the River Soar. The tow-rope snagged the frame of the green bicycle. Constables came. They saw that the serial number had been filed off of the frame, the brand name (Birmingham Small Arms) had been filed off the fork, and the serial number from the seat lug. However, a faint serial number on the fork proved sufficient to tie the bike to Light. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 73.]

Light was arrested 4 March 1920 at Dean Close School, where he had just begun teaching mathematics. On 19 March an additional piece of evidence was found: an Army gun holster and a dozen live .455-calibre bullets were dredged from the canal; they precisely matched the bullet found at the death scene. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 74.]

Light was tried at Leicester Castle. Judge Thomas Gardner Horridge presided. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 74.] He was calm and well-spoken in court. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 71.] His prior offences went unreported by the newspapers of the time, which were generally sympathetic to the "engineer, teacher, and ex-Army officer" who stood accused of the murder of a "factory girl". [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 74.]

On the advice of his barrister, Sir Edward Marshall Hall, Light admitted essentially everything but the killing; he even admitted that the holster was his, and that he had owned a revolver. Hall restricted his cross-examination largely to technical matters: he got prosecution ballistics expert Henry Clarke to admit that the bullet could as easily have come from a rifle as a revolver, and then made the case that the fatal shot could have been an accidental shot from a distance. He argued that this alternative scenario was likely, because a shot at close range would probably have done more damage to the victim's face. This and Light's demeanour were apparently enough to convince the jury to acquit. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 74.]

Aftermath

For decades, the green bicycle hung on the wall of a Leicestershire bike shop, but its current whereabouts are unknown. An anonymous collector purchased the recovered bullets and holsters for $6,000 in a Christie's auction in 1987. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 74.]

At least two books have been written about the case: "The Green Bicycle Case" (1930) by H.R. Wakefield (a defence of Light) [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 73–74.] and "The Green Bicycle Murder" (1993) by C. Wendy East (which concludes that Light was guilty as charged). [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 70.] Numerous other writers have put forth other views, including the possibility that Light killed Wright accidentally (showing her a gun that accidentally went off) or that she was killed by someone else entirely. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 74–75, 114.] The accidental killing theory is backed by a note supposedly written by Levi Bowley, Leicester superintendent of police, three days after Light's acquittal. Bowley's note claims that Light, while in prison awaiting trial, confessed the accidental death scenario to him. The authenticity of the note has been questioned and even if it is authentic, Bowley could have been lying, or Light could have lied to Bowley. [ [Donahue 2007] , p. 75, 114.]

Notes

References

* Bill Donahue, "The Green Bicycle Murder", "Bicycling" magazine, December 2007. p.66–75, 114.
* Edward Marjoribanks, "Famous Trials of Marshall Hall", Penguin (1989) ISBN 0140115560. Pp.329-342.

Further reading

* C. Wendy East, "The Green Bicycle Murder", Sutton Publications, Ltd. (October 1993) ISBN 0750903724.
* H.R. Wakefield, "The Green Bicycle Case", Philip Allan (1930).


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