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A girl shot in the head, a dead crow and a gun hidden in a canal: The Green Bicycle Murder that is still a mystery 100 years on

Mirror logo Mirror 21/06/2017

© Mirrorpix The canal glints like bottle green glass as dragonflies dance across the surface, but it hides a deadly secret.

A few weeks from now this quiet stretch of the Grand Union Canal in Leicester could become a crime scene as divers hunt for a murder weapon hidden in the murky water.

They believe a revolver, supposedly thrown into the canal by a killer, could hold the key to cracking a case that has mystified police and historians for nearly a century.

Annie Bella Wright, Bella to her friends, was found dead in a lonely lane outside Leicester on July 5, 1919.

Credits: Mirrorpix © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: Mirrorpix The 21 year-old factory worker had been shot in the head, a bullet hole below her left eye the only blemish on an otherwise pretty face. Blood oozed from the back of her large straw hat where the bullet left her body.

Beside her lay the bicycle she was riding when she left her uncle’s house in the village of Gautly, seven miles east of Leicester, shortly before 9pm.

A trail of bloody bird tracks led from Bella’s body to the top of a nearby wooden gate. In the meadow beyond a crow lay dead and the long grass was freshly flattened into a footpath leading to the distant cornfields.

Author Anthony Brown, whose new book The Green Bicycle Mystery analyses the different theories about the case, said: “It feels like a Sherlock Holmes mystery. You could almost imagine him standing at the crime scene examining the evidence as the last of the evening light faded.

“It’s a very puzzling case. It is also an extremely tragic one in which a young lady lost her life.

”Deaths like this can cast a shadow over a family for generations, so I wanted to keep Bella’s memory alive and try to find out what happened to her so there was finally some closure.”

Today teams of forensic scientists would comb the countryside for clues to find Bella’s killer, but 98 years ago things were very different. The bullet lying just a few feet from her head was only found the next day.

With no scientific evidence to call upon, local bobby Alfred Hall and his colleagues were forced to construct a case by tracing the victim’s last known movements on the day she died.

Credits: Daily Mirror © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: Daily Mirror Bella, who worked at a local tyre factory covering the shortage of men caused by the First World War , rose late after working the evening shift the previous day. 

She finished writing a letter to her boyfriend Archie Ward, who was stationed aboard the HMS Diadem in Portsmouth waiting to be demobbed after the war, said goodbye to her mother, and rode to the post office.

Meeting the post mistress on route, she handed over the letter and her money, then made for her uncle’s house.

By the time she arrived she had picked up an unlikely travelling companion, a small, unshaven man with a squeaky voice, who showed up again as she was leaving and offered to accompany her.

Bella insisted he was a stranger she had met on the road, but her relatives suspected otherwise. Her uncle George Measures claimed the man used Bella’s name and her cousin Agnes said the pair seemed familiar.

The family were able to give police one more vital detail. The man rode a distinctive pea green bicycle.

Seven months later the frame of an identical green bicycle was found in the canal in Leicester.

The identification number was filed off, but an expert reconstructed the code and traced it to a shopkeeper in Derby, who revealed he sold the bike to a former soldier named Ronald Light, who was sent home from the front line during the First World War suffering with hearing loss and shell shock.

Credits: Mirrorpix © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: Mirrorpix Police finally had a suspect. Light denied ever owning a green bicycle, then backtracked, insisting he sold it to an anonymous buyer.

Soon afterwards dredgers searching the canal found a brown leather army holster. There was no revolver inside, but it was filled with the same .455 calibre bullets as the one found by Bella’s body.

Light was charged with murder. At trial the prosecution claimed Bella rejected Light’s unwanted advances and tried to get away, but he caught up with her. In a fit of rage he allegedly knocked Bella to the ground, pulled out his First World War service revolver which he smuggled home illegally, and shot her in the face.

If the bullet was fired down into the road, that explained why it was found close by, the prosecution claimed.

Anthony says: “This is a unique case – I don’t think it could have happened in another time or country.

© Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited “In 1919 there were lots of men coming back from the front line with guns, illegally in most cases, and cycling was a major forms of entertainment and transport.”

When Light took the stand he admitted owning the bicycle, meeting Bella on the road, and even throwing the holster into the River Soare as he feared being accused by the police. But he denied killing Bella.

Light was acquitted in June 1920 after his defence barrister Sir Edward Marshall Hall, regarded by many as the best in the land, raised doubts about the much of the evidence.

Light changed his name, moved to Kent and married a widow whose husband was killed during the war, raising her daughter as if she was his own. He died in 1975, aged 89.

With no other leads the case grew cold, though a series of amateur sleuths have tried to investigate Bella’s death.

Credits: Mirrorpix © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: Mirrorpix They published their theories in books and dozens of magazine articles, fusing fact and fiction in stories that mimicked the Sherlock Holmes tales of the time.

The ‘shooting crows’ theory proved particularly popular. First published by the writer Trueman Humphries in The Strand Magazine in 1922, the theory accepted the jury’s verdict that Light was innocent.

It suggested that Bella’s death had been an accident. The fields outside Leicester were a popular spot for ‘rooking’, shooting crows and other scavenger birds.

Humphries claimed Bella might have been accidentally shot by youths shooting a crow on the nearby gate. That would explain the blood on the gate, the bloody bird tracks near the body, and the dead crow.

Incredibly experts believe it would have been possible for a boy lying in the meadow to shoot a crow on the gate at such an angle that the bullet subsequently hit Bella below the eye.

Years later a third theory emerged. Rumours began to circulate that Light admitted to killing Bella while collecting his personal belongings from the local police station three days after the trial.

This ‘signed confession’ was supposedly locked in a safe at the station and had been seen by several officers.

Credits: Mirrorpix © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: Mirrorpix Light allegedly told the officer on the desk he and Bella were riding home together when he agreed to show her his revolver, which was hidden in his coat pocket.

Not realising it was loaded, he took it out but as he handed the gun to Bella it went off unexpectedly, killing her. An alternative theory is that it was Light’s idea to take the gun out without telling Bella in an effort to impress her, but that it snagged on his pocket and fired into her face.

Either way Light supposedly admitted to running off in a panic, then throwing his service revolver and another handgun into the canal at a quiet spot near his home.

Several weeks later he smuggled his leather holster and his distinctive green bicycle out of his his mother’s home and dumped them further along the canal.

Anthony hopes finding the guns in the canal will finally solve the century old mystery. In the meantime he has reproduced much of the evidence he discovered – including the document from the police safe and PC Hall’s memoirs – in his book for readers to decide for themselves whether Light got away with murder.

Anthony says: “The police did their best to find the gun that killed Bella, but they didn’t know where to look.

“They never saw the documents I have seen. That is why I believe the revolver might have been thrown into the canal at a dark spot more than a mile away from where the bicycle was found.

“Trying to find those guns in the canal after nearly 100 years is like looking for a needle in a haystack, but if we find them it would be a sensational discovery that throws light on what really happened to Bella.”

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