They say every family has skeletons in the cupboard – but a murderer isn’t something anyone researching their family tree hopes to find.
It happened to Janice Lee though when she started looking into her family history, and not in the dim recesses of the past either.
The grim event was only three generations back and finding out about it has opened a disturbing Pandora’s box for the family.
Janice found researching her father’s side was easy, all the way back to the 1500’s with no skeletons in the cupboard.
Buoyed by this great start, she began on her late mother’s side of the family.
Wall of silence
DNA brought her in contact with her second cousin Philip who had also been researching the family tree, and had got stuck with the same ancestor – Janice’s grandfather, Robert William Wallace, or Willis.
Janice said: “My mother, Elizabeth, was born in Bradford in 1921 to Robert William Willis and Elizabeth Kinsella. She was one of six children.
“But I had never heard my mother speak of her father and she did not have a single photograph of him.
“Philip had also found this when talking to my mother’s sister Elsie.”
Janice and Philip decided to chip away at the wall of silence.
Horror over Torry baby killer
They weren’t prepared for the full horror of what they were to find.
The terrible event took place in Aberdeen’s Torry district on June 20 1903.
Robert Wallace, described as a labourer, knocked on the door of Gordon Fordyce, a carter, at 79 Menzies Road where his wife Elizabeth, originally from Atholl Hill in Udny, Aberdeenshire, was staying.
He burst through to the kitchen, picked up a poker and beat his wife with it, fracturing her skull and killing her two-month-old infant.
He then ran off and jumped in the Dee, but was pulled out and revived.
The incident was dubbed the Torry Tragedy by the press and occupied many column inches for weeks.
Taken to the Royal Infirmary, Elizabeth Wallace’s condition was tracked daily.
She had a fractured skull, but although in critical condition for some time, went on to make a full recovery.
A post-mortem of the baby took place, where it was pronounced that he died from a blow.
The Aberdeen Press and Journal a few days later ran an interview with Mrs Fordyce.
Fleeing from husband
It transpired that Elizabeth had taken refuge there after fleeing from Robert.
Mrs Fordyce said Wallace had asked Elizabeth ‘to come home and forgive him’.
Elizabeth replied that she would forgive him but never stay with him again.
Mrs Fordyce said: “I understood he wanted her to forgive him for ill-using her.
“Mrs Wallace was quite determined, repeated that she would forgive him, but staying with him she never would.
“Next he asked if she would give him the child, and she said she would not.
“Then he seized the poker and struck her over the head.
“The blow was not sufficient to knock her down but I became alarmed and ran out of the house for the assistance of the neighbours.
“This only occupied a few seconds but when I came back Mrs Wallace was laying on the floor and her husband decamped.”
Mrs Fordyce also said that Elizabeth had told her about the ill-usage she had received from her husband both in Aberdeen and London, and that she intended to go and live with an uncle in Methlick.
“Mrs Wallace is well-connected, and is a remarkably nice person.
“Her husband was jealous of her but had no reason to be.
“He is naturally of a morose and jealous disposition, and watched his wife continually.
“He said the child was not his.
“Recently Mrs Wallace’s life had been miserable, being a woman of sensitive disposition and of good character.”
Janice and Philip also found out that Robert had come into an inheritance from his grandfather and was not working at the time.
“He had been hiding in a shed watching his wife and accusing her of having relations with other men,” Janice said.
Wallace didn’t stand trial due to a plea of unsound mind by his barrister.
Detailed accounts came out in court about his violent behaviour and hallucinations, and a ‘masked epilepsy’ which caused him to forget what he’d done.
Sheriff Begg declared him not fit for trial and the case was dropped, with Wallace to be kept in custody ‘until His Majesty’s pleasure was known’.
He was taken by train to Aberdeen and then by police van to Craiginches prison.
Later he was taken to Perth prison, where he can be found in the 1911 Census.
Janice said: “It explains why we couldn’t find any trace of him between 1891 and 1913, when he pops up in Liverpool marrying my grandmother, and she must have been oblivious to his crime.
“Because the case didn’t go to full trial, we think Elizabeth Campbell’s evidence wasn’t made public.
“We’ve no idea what would have led to his release within 10 years.
“Philip remembered somebody mentioning to him about 30 years ago that he had changed his name from Wallace to Willis because he got into a ‘little bit of trouble’.
“But what shocks us is that his family may have known what he’d done and yet didn’t say a word when he probably bigamously married my grandmother and had children with her.”
In 1941 Robert registered the death of Janice’s aunt, his daughter Catherine, and thereafter the trail goes cold.
There was a curious twist in 1960.
Coming into money
Janice’s mother was in London – for reasons unknown- when she apparently spotted an advert from a solicitor in the paper looking for relatives of Robert William Willis to get in touch as they may hear something to their advantage.
This resulted in the siblings all receiving a ‘considerable’ amount of money from his estate.
Three of them bought houses, and Janice remembers her father showing her a house they ‘almost’ bought in London.
She said: “Now where on earth did this large amount of money come from?
“He lived hand to mouth all his life even taking money from the children apparently when they started work.
“How did he suddenly become wealthy? Did he inherit money? Was it placed in a trust fund to protect it for the children?”
Janice and Philip are also intrigued by what Robert looked like.
Janice said: “His World War One army record shows him as just over 5ft 8” and sturdy.
“His employment record was of physical labour.”
In a pre-trial appearance, he’s reported as having grown a beard and looking nervous, but on the date of his appearance before Sheriff Begg, he is described as wearing a navy blue suit and looking ‘unconcerned’.
After months of online searching, Janice recently found her grandfather’s death certificate, showing that he died in St Catherine’s hospital, Birkenhead, of pneumonia on July 22 1960, aged 88.
She said: “It turns out he died a month after my grandmother, Elizabeth Willis.”
Meanwhile, Robert’s abused wife Elizabeth Campbell went on to live to the ripe old age of 89.
She emigrated to New York in 1907 and in 1909 married Dutchman Herbert De Korte by whom she had two children.
She spent many years in New Jersey but finished her days in Sun Valley, Los Angeles.
Janice said: “Although we haven’t been able to find out much about Robert’s life after his marriage to my grandmother, we’re happy to find out that Elizabeth managed to rebuild her life and lived to a ripe old age in the States.”
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