Broomsticks, bacon and bloody murder
“Murder most foul” screamed the front page of the Amman Valley Chronicle in letters three inches high.
The shocking discovery of the body of shopkeeper Thomas Thomas in the Carmarthenshire mining village of Garnant exactly 100 years ago rocked west Wales, and the newspaper’s decision to take headline inspiration from Shakespeare was understandable: the Bible-quoting store manager had been stabbed repeatedly, suffered numerous skull fractures after being beaten around the head with a broomstick, and had had his throat slit. In a final macabre insult, the killer had shoved in large lump of cheese in the victim’s mouth.
The killing at Star Stores - and theft of more than £100 from the shop safe - shortly after 10.15pm of Saturday, February 12, 1921, remains one of the west Wales’ few unsolved murders.
The case was largely forgotten until then newspaper reporter – and now editor of West Wales Life&Style – Steve Adams came across the briefest mention of it more than 95 years later.
“While I was working as a reporter on the South Wales¬¬ Guardian – the weekly newspaper that bought-out the Amman Valley Chronicle in the 1950s – I was looking through some back issues and came across a small bereavement notice on the death of the former village bobby,” said Steve.
“The reporter was full of praise for Sergeant Thomas Richards and catalogued his career highlights, but in the final, pointed sentence he noted that for all his fine work, Sgt Richards had been unable to catch the killer of Thomas Thomas at Star Stores some 40-odd years earlier.
“I was stunned. I’d always had an interest in true crime, particularly anything committed in west Wales, so I was amazed to read of an unsolved murder I knew nothing about and decided to do some digging.”
Steve was astounded by the story he unearthed, which included Britain’s most famous detective, an Army deserter, midnight bonfires, explosives hidden in hedgerows and even links to the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Little had been written about the murder, but Steve eventually came across an article in an academic journal by the globally-respected expert in international relations, Owen Harries, who had been born in Garnant a few years after the crime.
Although the article was primarily about the industrial decline of the south Wales coalfields, Steve was intrigued by the reference it made to the murder and the claim that the killer’s identity was known.
According to Owen, a man named Mountstephens had killed Thomas Thomas. The shopkeeper had rented a room in the Mountstephens family home and when Thomas Thomas failed to come home that night, Mountstephens’ failure to investigate was seen as proof that he had played some part in the crime. The fact that the murder weapons – a bloodstained broom handle and a knife taken from the shop - were discovered near a path that led towards Mountstephen’s house further cemented the popular belief of his guilt.
Steve, however, was unconvinced.
“It all seemed far too vague and circumstantial,” he said. “Witnesses had heard Thomas Thomas tell Mountstephens that he planned to work late that night and although the knife and broomstick were found on a path that went towards Mountstephens’ house, there were lots of junctions off it leading elsewhere too. It was in the fact the most likely escape route for the killer wherever he or she was heading.
“The most telling aspect though was the fact that the police soon dismissed Mountstephens as a suspect.”
And the policeman summoned to investigate the case was not your average village bobby.
Detective Inspector George Nicholls of Scotland Yard was sent to Garnant to lead the investigation. Nicholls was renowned throughout the land as the man who caught Charles Wells, himself made famous by the popular music hall song, The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.
Nicholls was Britain’s leading spy-catcher during the First World War and went on to play a key role in creating what would eventually become Interpol, the international police force.
“Nicholls was an incredible man,” said Steve. “He was probably the most feared and famous detective of his day, but even he faced massive problems when it came to solving the murder at the Star.”
When he arrived in Carmarthenshire, Nicholls discovered that the God-fearing ladies of Garnant had deemed it blasphemous to leave the shop stained with blood and had forced their way past the young constable left guarding the scene to scrub the place from top to bottom, removing all evidence as they went.
“When Nicholls arrived, the scene was all but spotless,” said Steve. “The chief constable of Carmarthenshire summed the situation up when he later wrote that Nicholls has been left with ‘nothing so much as a clue’.”
Despite the complete absence of evidence, Nicholls continued his investigation for the best part of a month, interviewing and re-interviewing potential witnesses and possible suspects.
“It’s clear from his notes that Nicholls suspected a man named Tom Morgan, a shadowy figure with a history of petty crime who moved to Garnant during the war years,” said Steve.
Llandovery-born Morgan had spent time in one of the first institutions for young offenders after being found guilty of a series of thefts and break-ins that began when he was eight or nine.
“The more I looked into him, the more convinced I was that Nicholls’ suspicions about Morgan had been correct,” said Steve.
“When he moved to Garnant he claimed to be a former soldier invalided out of the Army, which was only partly true.
“He had been blacklisted from working at any Carmarthenshire coalmine due to his habit of claiming the work – and wages – of other men as his own. He was also suspected of numerous petty crimes up and down the valley - from cash thefts to stealing chickens - but had thus far avoided arrest.
“I discovered that he had joined the Army after being released from the young offenders institute in 1912 but deserted when it became clear his regiment would be sent to France when war broke out.
“Cunningly, he re-enlisted with a different regiment only a week or two after deserting but mysteriously – in the few days between signing up at the recruitment office and his medical – he suffered a serious foot injury that meant he was deemed unfit for service.
“Even though the injury left him with a life-long limp, there is no doubt in my mind that it was self-inflicted. It fitted with what I discovered about him.
“I spoke to some of his surviving relatives who described how older family members had refused to even mention his name.”
But when it came to the murder at Star Stores, Morgan, it seemed, was in the clear.
Following the discovery of the murder, village GP Dr George Evan Jones carried out both the initial examination of the body and subsequent post-mortem. Dr Evan Jones was a hugely respected figure and had studied medicine in Edinburgh alongside the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
And in a twist more fitting of a Conan Doyle story, it was the doctor who ensured Tom Morgan was beyond suspicion.
“According to Dr Evan Jones, the crime could only have been committed by a right-handed man,” said Steve. “That meant it would have been impossible for Morgan to have been the killer as just a few months earlier, he had lost almost all the fingers on his right hand in seemingly incredible circumstances.”
Morgan claimed that he had been out walking one day when he had spotted smoke coming from a hedgerow. At the precise moment he reached into the bushes to find out what was the cause, there was an explosion which completely severed the fingers on his right hand.
Despite his horrendous injuries, Morgan had not sought medical attention or reported the incident to the police. When later questioned by police, he said he could not remember exactly where or when the explosion had occurred.
“The doctor’s testimony was crucial in saving Morgan from a date with the hangman,” said Steve.
“I honestly believe that his initial assessment was wrong. After analysing details of the injuries, the angle of the blows and the layout of the shop, I’m convinced that the crime could only have been committed by someone who was left-handed – or rather, by someone wielding the weapons in their left hand.
“Once that seems the most likely scenario, the pieces fall into place and it only leaves one plausible suspect – Tom Morgan, but at the inquest, Dr Evan Jones maintained that the killer had to be right-handed and so Morgan was in the clear.
“I’m actually convinced that the explosion that cost Tom Morgan his fingers was a trial run to blow open the Star Stores safe, and to make matters worse, I now know of a witness who saw a bonfire burning in Morgan’s garden just hours after the murder – presumably he was destroying his bloodstained clothes, but they didn’t tell the police.”
Without such key evidence, Nicholls eventually returned to London with the murder unsolved.
“I am absolutely convinced that Tom Morgan committed the murder at the Star,” said Steve, “and I fully believe that if it wasn’t for Dr Evan Jones, George Nicholls would have got his man.”
Murder at the Star: Who killed Thomas Thomas, published by Seren Books, is available as an ebook. Signed print editions of the book are also available to purchase by contacting Steve directly at email@example.com