A Murderous Vacuum Cleaner Salesman
16 April 2021 (Updated 31 March 2023)
In August 1931, the friends and family of Anne Louise Kempson became concerned. Mrs Kempson had not been seen for days and was not answering her door.
She lived with a lodger at a house called 'The Boundary' on Headington Road, but the lodger was away, staying with friends over the August bank holiday weekend.
A body is found
On Monday 3 August her brother procured a ladder and managed to enter her house via an open upstairs window. He found his sister lying on the floor, brutally murdered with multiple injuries to her head. At post-mortem, she was estimated to have been killed at around 9am on the previous Saturday morning.
Detectives from the Metropolitan Police were summoned to investigate the crime. The investigation floundered until the detectives identified a vital piece of evidence: on Mrs. Kempson's mantelpiece was a business card inscribed 'Tellus Ltd, Mr. Henry Seymour'.
It emerged that Mrs. Kempson had purchased a Tellus-brand vacuum cleaner from a travelling salesman a few years previously, and that self-same salesman had been back in Oxford over the weekend to check in on his previous customers.
Henry Seymour, suspicious character
Other customers who had encountered him described Henry Seymour's behaviour as erratic. On the Friday he had called on one previous customer at 8pm saying that he had been robbed while bathing near Eynsham and had all his money stolen. The customer took pity on him, lending him money for a bus fare to Thame, but he later returned to her house at 10:30pm saying that he had missed his bus and asking to be put up for the night.
The customer let him stay the night. In the morning he went for a haircut while he waited for her to cook him breakfast, and returned having purchased a hammer and chisel, curious actions for a man who claimed to not be able to afford a bus fare!
Later that morning at around 11am another of Henry Seymour's customers had met him at a bus stop waiting to catch a bus to Aylesbury. He had appeared nervous and agitated, so much so that he had felt the need to explain to her that he had been in a car accident earlier in the year and it had affected his nerves.
When the police checked with New Scotland Yard to find if Henry Seymour had previous convictions they uncovered a string of offenses including burglary, robbery, forgery, theft and assault for which he had served extensive gaol time. He was currently wanted by the police for embezzling £96 from a former employer.
One of his former convictions included an incident where he had been selling vacuum's door-to-door in Paignton and had violently assaulted a potential customer in her own home.
About this, he told police "Something seemed to snap inside my brain and tell me that this woman was my enemy, was responsible for all my troubles. In a few seconds, my brain had cleared."
The police make an arrest
Henry Seymour was tracked down to an address in Brighton where he was a lodger. When Henry was arrested he asked police officers "Is this about the murder at Oxford?"
Seymour gave jumbled responses to police questioning, claiming again that his disordered brain was a result of the car accident he has been in. He admitted selling Mrs. Kempson a vacuum some years earlier but denied visiting her house on Saturday 1 August.
He claimed he purchased the hammer and chisel as he wanted to take up a career as a carpenter, but post including an application to be a steward on board a ship was found in his room, which suggested he had other career goals in mind! A bloodstain was found in the pocket of Seymour's coat which he claimed was from some meat he had purchased from a butcher.
Henry Seymour's trial
At his trial, Seymour gave similarly vague and jumbled answers. He repeated his story about having been robbed while swimming in the river at Eynsham, but the lock keeper where he claimed to have been swimming gave a statement disproving this story. Witnesses were produced who had seen a man with his description entering Mrs. Kempson's house around 10am on the morning of Saturday 1st August.
The jury took 40 minutes to return a 'guilty' verdict, and Henry Seymour was hanged at 8am on Tuesday 10 December 1931.
Was Henry Seymour innocent?
Despite the speed with which the jury reached their verdict, many consider that Henry Seymour's conviction and execution a miscarriage of justice. The murder weapon was never found, and other than his business card there was no physical evidence linking Seymour to the crime. In addition to this, there was considerable evidence that the time of death given by the coroner was incorrect, and Mrs Kempson was in fact still alive hours after Seymour was known to have caught his bus to Aylesbury.
Four witnesses testified that they had seen Mrs Kempson alive on the day of her murder, long after Seymour would have left the city. These included a shopkeeper who claimed to have served Mrs Kempton in his shop between 12pm and 1pm. and two others who had seen her at 12:30pm and 3pm respectively. These last two had both known Mrs Kempson for over 20 years, so would have been unlikely to have mistaken who they had seen.
So could Henry Seymour have actually just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the real murderer of Alice Louise Kempson got off Scot-free?
Notes on location
The account of this crime that appears in Len Woodley's Oxfordshire Murders provides conflicting statements as to the whereabouts of Mrs. Kempson's house, saying at one point that it is opposite The Greyhound pub and at another, that is it only a few yards from Gipsy Lane, locations that are 0.8 miles apart. The map location I've used for this story is halfway between the two.
- 'Oxford Gaol - later HMP Prison' (PDF from www.capitalpunishmentuk.org)
- 'Oxfordshire Murders' by Len Woodley (The Wychwood Press, 2005, ISBN: 9781902279213)