On July 23, 1943 occurred one of the most bizarre and spectacular murders in British criminal history. Archibald Brown was a bitter, bullying, tyrannical, violent man who spent years ruling his family with a rod of iron. Even after a serious motorcycle accident left him permanently confined to a wheelchair his temperament remained as unpleasant and autocratic as ever. It seemed as though his long-suffering wife Doris and their eldest son, the equally long-suffering Eric, would never be free of his domineering cruelty. At least, not while he remained alive. Doris seemed prepared to endure her misery stoically. Eric wasn’t. If the only thing that would liberate both him and his mother from Archibald and Archibald from his own suffering was death, then death would be provided. Seeing what he was about to do as compassionate all round, Eric would ensure it was quick and merciful.
Eric had long held a desire to remove both his father’s tyranny (and his father with it). Fittingly, it was by curious means that his the means and opportunity became available. By 1943 the Second World War was in full swing and Eric Brown had been conscripted into the infantry, the 8th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment. The Army were aware of his father’s disability so gave him regular leave and posted him to Spilsby Barracks near his home in Rayleigh. The short distance meant that Eric could visit home easily and often. It was also at Spilsby Barracks that Private Brown learnt how to use the Number 75 Hawkins Grenade-Mine, a multi-purpose weapon used as an anti-tank mine, anti-vehicle grenade and demolition charge. The Hawkins was a small mine only around 7 inches wide and nine inches long, but it contained 1.5 pounds of Ammonal explosive, easily enough to blow the tracks off a tank or half-track. For added punch Hawkins mines could be linked together in a ‘daisy chain’ and either strung across a road or thrown at an enemy tank or other vehicle. It was a little weapon packing a big punch and Eric soon found another use for it.
Eric knew his hated father was permanently confined to a bath chair, just like a modern-day wheelchair. All he needed to do was steal a Hawkins mine, alter the pressure plate so that it would explode under the weight of a human being instead of a tank and slip the mine under the seat of his father’s bath chair. So, having stolen one and brought it home on a previous leave, all that Eric now needed was enough anger and frustration to actually use it. Archibald Brown, being the boorish, overbearing tyrant that he was, soon supplied that as well.
In July, 1943 Eric was home again on leave. He spent the best part of two weeks watching his father tyrannize his mother and constantly taunt and provoke Eric himself. Archibald Brown had three full-time nurses and one of their jobs was to take him out and wheel him round the local area for some sun and fresh air. After enduring years of provocation and having finally had enough, Eric decided it was finally time for him to take out his father. Permanently.
The bath chair was kept in the family air raid shelter. The nurse on duty that day found it odd that the door was locked when she collected the chair for Archibald’s daily outing. After a few minutes, Eric unlocked the door and wheeled out his father’s chair. He seemed nervous and irritable and in no great desire to stand too close to his father or the chair itself. Nurse Mitchell helped Archibald into his chair and they trundled off around the local area. Eric watched, dumbfounded and increasingly tense, and nothing happened. Nothing. No fizzing fuse, flash of flame or puff of smoke indicated that the mine was even there, let alone that it was going to explode.
At least, that is, until Archibald shifted around in his seat to pick out his cigarettes…
Nurse Mitchell had a truly miraculous escape. She sustained only minor injuries as 1.5 pounds of high explosive blasted both the chair and Archibald Brown into pieces and scattered them in all directions. Pieces of the chair were found hanging in nearby trees scattered all over the park they were trundling through when the mine detonated. Pieces of Archibald Brown were found over an even greater area. His right foot, still in his shoe, was found in the front garden of a house just over a quarter-mile from the epicentre of the blast. Archibald Brown’s domestic tyranny had lasted decades. His death took milliseconds. Once the smoke and flame had cleared the police were summoned.
At first they couldn’t automatically rule it a murder. In 1943 German aircraft were regularly dropping thousands of anti-personnel mines called ‘butterfly bombs’ all across the country. ‘Butterfly bombs’ were named because they bore a resemblance to butterflies and so that had to be ruled out first. Once it had been discounted the case became a straightforward murder hunt and it wasn’t long before Eric was a prime suspect. Detectives did a background check unearthing some very disturbing details. First, the type of device identified as a Hawkins Mine. Then it transpired that Private Eric Brown had taken a lecture on the Hawkins Mine at Soilsby Barracks on April 23. A check of the barracks inventory unearthed that there should have been 175 Hawkins Mines in the armoury. A search revealed there were actually 174. One was missing and detectives now had a pretty solid idea as to who took it and what they used it for, especially when Eric’s long-standing loathing of his father and their long-standing feud came to light. Eric Brown had means, motive and opportunity. Only three weeks after the explosion Eric Brown was under arrest and facing a charge of capital murder.
Detectives soon secured his confession. Eric admitted killing his father, told them how he’d done it and why and was promptly brought to the Magistrate’s Court to be committed for trial. His trial for capital murder began in November and lasted only a few days. Eric’s defense was pleading not guilty by reason of insanity and the jury met him halfway. They herd the evidence, were sent out to deliberate by Judge Atkinson and returned a verdict after only 45 minutes. They found him guilty, but insane. Eric was now safe from the hangman’s noose, but would be detained indefinitely ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’ in an psychiatric hospital until doctors deemed his safe to release. Eric Brown was detained in 1943. He wasn’t released until 1975, 32 years after the murder. Since his release his anonymity has been complete. No details are available of his health, welfare or location, we don’t even know if he’s still alive.