The Bodies in the Trunks
Brighton in East Sussex, England has always been known as the home for dirty weekends away for Londoners and a city of scrupulous crime, that’s why many of us live here; it’s boujee yet full of culture and home to a community of people you won’t find anywhere else in the country. Perhaps it’s then unsurprising that many bodies have turned up in the seaside resort over the years. However, three torsos in trunks is a slightly more unusual occurrence.
On the 17th of June 1934, the train from London pulled into Brighton station. The journey between London and the seaside city is around 60 miles and the train ride would have been bumpy and uncomfortable for its passengers, back in the ’30s. It’s not that much better now.
Southern Railway cloakroom attendant, William Vinnicombe was the first to notice the locked wooden trunk, left at the luggage office from the London train. It had a strange smell aerating from it, something he’d not smelled before, so he alerted the local police.
When Chief Inspector Bob Donaldson opened the truck, he was greeted with the sight of a dismembered torso of a woman, wrapped in layers of paper and cotton wool, secured tightly with a cord.
When the London stations were alerted to the find, another trunk was discovered at King’s Cross station, which contained the legs, belonging to the same woman.
The autopsy showed that the woman was around 25 years old and was five months pregnant. She had suffered massive head trauma by a blunt instrument, and this was likely her cause of death. She was nicknamed “Pretty Feet” due to her dancer-like feet, and Chief Inspector Donaldson believed that she was the victim of a botched abortion. Her arms and head were never found.
Donaldson suspected a man named Massiah, a local abortionist of committing the crime, and told his officers to watch the man. Massiah would later perform potentially another botched abortion, killing a subsequent woman. He wasn’t arrested for the death and remained a registered doctor until 1952 when he failed to reregister himself when he moved to Trinidad. It was never proven that he was the killer of Pretty Feet and her identity remains a mystery to this day.
Violet Kaye and Tony Mancini moved from London to Brighton in 1933. Mancini was a waiter and a small-time criminal, who found work at the Skylark Café on Brighton seafront.
On the 10th of May 1934, Kaye arrived at the café, drunk and accused Mancini of cheating on her Elizabeth, a teenage waitress he worked with. Kaye was 42 and Mancini was 26 years old, so the waitress was closer to Mancini’s age than Kaye. Away from her friends and family, Kaye did nothing but drink and was likely jealous of Mancini’s new friendships.
That night, Kaye disappeared. Mancini told his friends that she had gone to Paris and wasn’t coming back, and gave Kaye’s clothes and belongings to Elizabeth. Kaye’s sister in law received a telegram from Kaye that read, “Going abroad. Good job. Sail Sunday. Will Write. –Vi”. The telegram had been sent on Sunday morning when Kaye was already dead.
Mancini quickly moved to a new house in Kemp Street, not far from Brighton station. He had few belongings and a large trunk, which were moved to the new house by handcart. The trunk was to be used as a coffee table in the living room, despite the smell and fluids seeping from the joins. Visitors complained about the odour coming from the makeshift table, but Mancini laughed it off. He couldn’t exactly tell them that Kaye’s dismembered body was inside.
Kaye’s disappearance was reported to police, likely by the sister in law, and Mancini was questioned. He went on the run soon after which prompted police to search his house, where they found the trunk with Violet Kaye’s decomposing body in it.
Tony Mancini was picked up in south London and was remanded in Lewes Assizes in East Sussex. His trial lasted five days where Mancini told the court that he had discovered Kaye’s dead body at their old apartment and had put her body in the trunk to avoid suspicion landing on him. Mancini’s defence told the jury that the head trauma Kaye had sustained could have been from falling down the stairs.
However, witnesses at the Skylark Café claimed that Mancini had told his friends that he had given Kaye the “biggest hiding of her life”. Another witness said that Mancini had told her to provide a false alibi for him and a graphologist was brought in to confirm that the form filled out for the telegram matched Mancini’s handwriting, taking from the menus at the café.
The jury took just over two hours and came back with a verdict of not guilty.
The prosecution’s downfall was the Home Office pathologist who carried out Kaye’s autopsy. The clothes that were covered in Kaye’s blood were bought after her death and the level of morphine in her blood was considered very strange and potentially incorrect. His testimony and findings were destroyed by Mancini’s lawyer, and his closing speech damned the man, whose reputation was already deteriorating within the Home Office.
Mancini left the court a free man but 50 years later, he told a News of the World journalist that he had in fact killed Kaye in self-defence, but the courts never charged him for perjury.
The third trunk murder occurred a few minutes down the road. John Holloway was a small-time criminal working out of Brighton racecourse when he met Celia. She became pregnant shortly after their meeting, but Holloway refused to marry her and instead she applied for parish relief in Ardingly where she grew up. He was imprisoned in Lewes jail by Ardingly Poor Law Authorities until he agreed to marry Celia, and after five weeks, he was released and they married.
The baby was stillborn and their second child also died. Holloway couldn’t deal with his new married life and decided to board a ship and leave her, in the meantime marrying another woman named Ann Kennett. When he arrived back in Brighton in 1831, both women were pregnant with his children and Holloway couldn’t afford the maintenance of 2 shillings a week for Celia’s child.
In July, Holloway and Celia walked down Edward Street, towards their new home. He slipped a rope around Celia’s neck as she walked into the property and called out for Ann, who was waiting close by to help with the murder. He then hanged Celia from a hook in a cupboard, to make sure she was dead.
He cut up her body, taking her head and appendages to the local common toilet (a couple of doors down from the author’s home, (also news to her)), and put her dismembered body in a trunk. He transported her to Lover’s Walk in nearby Preston Park and buried her remains. Her body was discovered after a heavy rainstorm, as she was buried in a shallow grave. Her remains included a male foetus.
Both John Holloway and Ann Kennett were arrested and taken to trial at Lewes Assizes. During their time in court, many witnesses gave their testimonies which included seeing Holloway wheeling a trunk around in a wheelbarrow at night. The autopsy told the story of how Celia’s body had been ‘amputated with skill’, as if the murderer had been trained to cut meat. Holloway had worked as an assistant in a butcher’s shop.
The press got a hold of this story early on and every gruesome detail was published, including the many inconsistent statements Holloway made, during the trial. The letters that he had written to his mother and sister whilst in prison were also circulated within the British papers.
On Friday the 16th of December 1831, John Holloway was found guilty and shorty after was hanged in Horsham, West Sussex. His body was displayed in Brighton Town Hall, which saw crowds of over 20,000 people visit to see his corpse.
Three months later, Ann Kennett was found not guilty of harbouring Holloway and was released from Lewes Assizes in March 1832.
A plaque was added to St John’s Church in Preston Road.