Nothing could have prepared Leslie Harvey for what he found when he decorated his mother’s house as a surprise while she was in hospital.
After prising open a cupboard door at the top of the stairs, the taxi driver pulled away some clothes and was horrified to discover the mummified body of a lodger, who had been locked inside for 20 years. Grandmother Sarah Jane Harvey suddenly went from being a small, sweet-looking 65-year-old to a murder suspect, as 35 West Kinmel Street in Rhyl, North Wales was soon bustling with police, forensic scientists, pathologists, biologists and the local coroner.
Leslie, who lived nearby with his wife and young son, had planned to clean and redecorate his childhood home as a treat. He’d always wondered what was inside the 6ft 11" high storage unit on the landing, and was told it contained some leftover items belonging to former wartime tenants.
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But on May 5 1960, the 29-year-old recoiled at the grim sight of a wizened human foot beneath thick layers of cobwebs and dust. In a fold of the crumbling blanket around it, a body was revealed.
Generations of flies had long-ago feasted on the facial features, while moths had destroyed the hair and clothing. Draughts in the deep cupboard, running from the floor to the loft vent, had produced ideal conditions for mummification.
Mrs Harvey was initially subject to questioning from her sickbed at the nearby hospital, and eventually identified the corpse as former tenant Frances Alice Knight. Mrs Knight was estranged from her dentist husband, from whom she received a weekly allowance.
In her 60s, she was partly crippled and often complained of severe muscular pains after renting a room from Mrs Harvey during World War II. Mrs Harvey told police she was unsure of what best to do one particularly bad night in 1940, and went downstairs to make her a cup of tea.
When she returned, she said Mrs Knight was already dead. But instead of telling anyone, she dragged the body into the cupboard and locked it, then falsely obtained her lodger’s £2 a week from the Post Office (over the years it amounted to £2,099).
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The soft-featured lady told staff her friend had moved to an old folks’ home in Llandudno to see out her twilight years in supervised comfort. But Mrs Knight’s shrivelled and hardened body was found some 20 years later in the doubled-up position, dressed in a faded night dress.
Surrounded by insect-riddled flypaper, it had become mummified by the warm air that had circulated through the confined space over the decades. Because the body was adhering to the lino on the cupboard floor, a garden spade was used to lever it out before the rigid mummy was then taken to the mortuary while further investigations were undertaken.
The story gripped the world’s media, who were left fascinated by the riddle of the “Mummy in the Cupboard”.
Pathologists had to immerse the body in a bath of glycerine solution for a week until it had softened enough for internal examinations to be carried out. A stocking ligature and a groove around the neck suggested the cause of death was strangulation, and police treated the case as a murder enquiry.
At Mrs Harvey’s trial, the prosecution alleged that shortly after she was given permission to draw Mrs Knight’s money, she strangled her with a stocking. In her defence, she told the court that Mrs Knight had been suffering with a bad cold and said it was “common knowledge” to wrap a stocking around the neck to cure throat ailments.
The jury was instructed that the prosecution were in no position to prove that the knotted garment had been stretched.
Mrs Harvey was cleared of murder but was found guilty of obtaining money by deception between May 1940 and April 1960. She was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment. On her release, she went to live at a nursing home and died soon after of cancer.
The gruesome discovery and the mystery of Mrs Knight’s unsolved death is still the talk of Rhyl’s townsfolk decades later.
Raymond Vaughn, retired police officer told UK Horizons: "The case was the most unusual case anybody including pathologies, all the police had ever encountered.
"It was the first mummified body I had ever seen and I shall remember it for as long as I live."
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