Durban Castle Gay Gibson affair

Jim Kalafus

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It is a difficult case to research here in the US. There was minimal press coverage as it unfolded, but it became a staple in magazines such as Whisper and Uncensored during the 1950s which played up the more sensational aspects of the case. Sometimes Gay Gibson was portrayed as an innocent who fell into the clutches of a werewolf, other times as a party girl who had abortions and-likely- brought her violent death upon herself. Virtually everything that has been written here in the last few years has drawn on those lurid articles rather than trial transcripts, police files, or first person interviews with surviving witnesses. She could conceivably have died of a seizure during sex as Camb claimed, but he made a big tactical blunder by pushing her through the porthole. Unlike the body through the porthole case aboard the Olympic in the 1930s (Mr Poderjay may have smuggled his dead wife aboard in a trunk and disposed of her out the porthole) there was a witness who placed Camb in Miss Gibson's cabin and so this was a case in which a "guilty" verdict was all but guaranteed. Edith Thompson is another great case involving sex, violent death and a liner steward.....
 

Bob Godfrey

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Ms Gibson might not have been Snow White, but it's hard not to regard Camb as a predator, taking into account his behaviour in later life. Perhaps because of doubts about his murder conviction, he was released 'on licence' after only 12 years. He kept his record clean for a few more, and was then twice charged and convicted for indecent assaults. Incredibly, on the first occasion he was served only with a probation order. But after the second conviction, which involved several counts of assault on minors, he was returned to prison to serve out his original life sentence. He was eventually released after about 30 years and died very soon afterwards. More recently a book has been published claiming to shed new light on the 'porthole murder' and perhaps also on Camb's later convictions, but I haven't read it. Is it those revelations that you have in mind, Senan?
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Senan Molony

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Hi gents,

No, I know nothing of the later book... the only one I have read is the "Porthole Murder Trial" by Dennis Herbstein, which came out in 1991. It also features in the Notable British Trials series.

It only came back into my mind because I was chatting with one of the waiters at the BTS convention, a sexagenarian, at breakfast the morning after the convention was over. It got mentioned somehow, and it emerged that the waiter had been a steward with Union Castle at the time.

Although not on the particular ship, he had some gossip of what was being whispered within the company at the time. Basically it amounted to Camb having a girl on every ship as well as one in every port.

I think the jury was very much directed a particular way in the summing-up. Nowadays the course of the trial would be vastly different, with probably at lot more at the defence disposal, particularly in the area of sudden death.

A modern murder jury would be much more likely to give the matter more than the 45 minutes with which a guilty verdict arrived at the time. The absence of the body is still the biggest dilemma.

There is no doubt Camb went to Cabin 126 for sex, having been rather led on by Gibson. She didn't bolt the door, and the bells didn't go off until an hour after Camb arrived.

You can of course read two things into the absence of the body - Camb panicking after a natural death and acting extremely selfishly, not having called a doctor on the same deck, or Camb the murderer disposing of a throttled resister. Camb had scratches on his wrist, but only a few. The state of the body is unknowable.

If I were on the jury today, I think I would be advocating a middle road between conviction for murder and an acquittal. The jury at the time indeed could have brought in a verdict of manslaughter.

The point is, in any murder trial I have covered, that if there are two plausible explanations for a circumstance, one is bound to infer the one most favourable to the accused. That is part of conviction beyond reasonable doubt.

On the other hand, juries have to provide the basis for the administration of justice. The disposal of a body cannot be carte blanche if it were to render everything below the acceptable standard of proof and result in systematic acquittals.

Where the stakes are so high, the jury is not entitled to convict, in my opinion, where the defence case might reasonably be true. On the other hand, "splitting the difference" might have been a reasonable route where the defendant's established behaviour is undeniably objectionable and may possibly be a cover for murder. Camb was not charged with anything else, however, probably a tactical decision by the prosecution.

It may be that Camb was no more guilty of manslaughter than he was of murder and that he should have been acquitted, but he effectively disposed of that option himslf along with the body. To let him off scot-free would thus be a dangerous "reward."

And if Camb was innocent of everything but convicted of manslaughter in the wrong - then it is just his bad luck. But he might reflect that it is a lot less bad luck than dying a natural death at sea at the age of 21.

Joshua Casswell's failure to lay emphasis on the manslaughter option in the closing speech for the defence is thus pretty inexcusable in my book, particularly as Camb was looking at the rope.

Indeed, Camb could have initially headed off the problem himself by pleading to manslaughter, which might have been acceptable to the prosecution. Maybe he was advised of this course and rejected it. If so, Casswell could have laid emphasis on this too. It remains a way for the jury to get the defendant, the law, the standard of proof and the judicial system itself off the hook.

I don't particularly read any relevance into his later crimes, although detestable. Prison probably turned him into a nonce. Doesn't mean he was necessarily a predator at the time, although definitely a "try-on" merchant.

I find it interesting how a relatively simple case can test the system. Of course the system wasn't brooking any upstartism in those days.

What's the name of this other book, can you remember, Bob?
 

Bob Godfrey

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No other book, Senan. I was thinking of Herbstein's work, which was published as I said more recently than Camb's death - about 10 years on, I think. It is unlikely, I suppose, that Herbstein began his research early enough to obtain Camb's own (perhaps revised) version of events in cabin 126?
 

Jim Kalafus

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>There is no doubt Camb went to Cabin 126 for sex, having been rather led on by Gibson. She didn't bolt the door, and the bells didn't go off until an hour after Camb arrived.

All featured prominently in several of the more lurid magazine accounts from the 1950s. Not having read the book, I am curious about the relationship between Miss Gibson and Camb. Were there any witnesses to her leading him on, and any evidence other than his word that he had been with her for an hour before the bells were rung? Were the witnesses, if any, friends of his or truly impartial? The unbolted door cannot be conclusively linked to Gay because Camb, the only other person in the cabin, was also almost certainly the last to enter it and may have left it unbolted himself. Am also quite curious about the physical evidence left in the cabin (bloodied saliva, and urine, on the sheets) which suggest manual stragulation OR death by seizure. Could find no online references to the quantity of either, nor could I find references to the blood and saliva having been proven not to be Camb's by testing. No online record of semen being found in the bedding-was Camb a condom user? Also, were the scratches on Camb's wrist photographed and, if so, have the photos been published? Was the cabin sealed? Was the floor around the bed "combed" for traces of broken fingernail in light of the scratches on his wrist? For that matter was Mr Camb....ahem.... "combed" for traces of Miss Gibson?

>I don't particularly read any relevance into his later crimes, although detestable.

Did he have a record before the affair with Miss Gibson, and if so was it introduced at the trial? Such introductions are quite difficult to make in US courts, due to their prejudicial nature, and generally only occur as the result of a major defense blunder. Do not know if past record can be admitted at trial in the UK, but do not doubt that if he had a record before Miss Gibson's death the press found it.

I suppose that buying the book is in my future. The trashy 1950s accounts have left more questions than answers.
 

Noel F. Jones

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I have no details but I remember hearing tell of the case among staff members.

On the general matter of manslaughter my understanding is that this pronouncement would be conditional upon the judge telling the jurors that it was available to them.

Manslaughter is dependant upon some concrete evidence – not just conjecture – which ineluctably indicates an interposing scenario between murder and accident. On the accounts given here I'm not seeing it.

Camb's disposal of the body would have been the deciding factor indicating indictment for murder. I doubt that by today's criteria the outcome would have been any different.

Having said that, it is not unknown for manslaughter to be interposed for political reasons rather than objective justice. A case in point is that of R.v.Anthony Edward Martin ('Tony Martin') the Norfolk farmer who found his house invested by three burglars, two of whom he shot, one fatally. He found himself facing a murder charge as a result and just about every householder in the land was vociferously outraged.

The detail is outside the scope of this forum but manslaughter was substituted on appeal for reasons entirely divorced from the sequence of events on the fatal night and in cavalier disregard of very credible grounds derived from the actual incident.

Noel
 

Senan Molony

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Hi Noel,

>>On the general matter of manslaughter my understanding is that this pronouncement would be conditional upon the judge telling the jurors that it was available to them.<<

Any jury can convict of manslaughter in any murder trial, as they are the sole judges of the intent of the accused in particular.

You don't actually need some "accidental" intervention, you just have to interpret the mens rea and whether the defendant intended "the natural and probable consequences of his actions."

So it is expressly not dependent on some concrete exterior evidence. Juries can and do put themselves into the head of defendants at the time.

They have a huge latitude, and very properly, because the very fact of laying a charge gives the prosecution a head start, even if the accused is supposedly innocent until proven otherwise.

I'm sure manslaughter would have been mentioned by the judge in his summing-up as he is obliged to set out the legal position to the jury, but he probably glossed over it.

There were some witnesses to Camb chatting to Gibson during the voyage, and she was hanging around that night, ordering a drink from him after her companions had gone to bed. So much so that a stewardess jokingly warned him off going down to her cabin.

>>The unbolted door cannot be conclusively linked to Gay<<

Except that female passengers travelling alone were advised to bolt their doors at night - and Gay, having retired, let Camb in.

There were two ounces of urine on the top sheet, Jim. The body voids on death. The bloody saliva is ambiguous, as you say. I don't know anything about a condom, but Gay Gibson had a Dutch Cap in her luggage... Camb said he did not complete the act.

The photos of scratches were taken eight days afterwards (on arrival in Southampton). The prosecution file has been destroyed. I doubt they were ever published.

Camb had no previous record of any kind.
 

Jim Kalafus

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>Except that female passengers travelling alone were advised to bolt their doors at night - and Gay, having retired, let Camb in

Sorry, I thought you were referring to a reference made in the magazines to the watchman or steward who answered the buzzer finding the cabin door unlocked, not to the physical act of unbolting the door.

>The body voids on death

Sometimes copiously, particularly during strangulation, which was why I was curious about the quantity. I'm also wondering about the composition of the stain, and whether it was blood mixed with a bit of saliva, or saliva mixed with a bit of blood: A good attorney could have explained the latter away as "sleep drooling" after overly vigorous tooth brushing or a bitten tongue. The urine? Well, if the witnesses can be relied on, she HAD been drinking earlier in teh evening.

>Manslaughter is dependant upon some concrete evidence – not just conjecture – which ineluctably indicates an interposing scenario between murder and accident. On the accounts given here I'm not seeing it.

He could have used the fairly standard (in fatal rape cases) "she started to scream and I accidentally smothered her while trying to stifle her" defense. Similarly, many manslaughter verdicts are reached in cases where fabric gags absorb saliva and suffocate the victim. He could also have used the autoerotic strangulation sex game gone awry plea, although in 1947 that would likely have been too prejudicial to attempt. Even in the absense of her body, a good defense attorney could have made any of those scenarios work towards a manslaughter conviction since there was no intent to kill. The disposal of her body, however, would have been (and would still be) a major stumbling block to success at pleading manslaughter simply because knowledge of the act would have been so remarkably prejudicial on the jury.

Given the ambiguous quality of the evidence (there is not a single 'smoking gun') and not a bit of proof that a murder even took place I am surprised that he did not stonewall. "We had rough sex. She had been drinking heavily and was depressed. She began crying and acting irrational. I left. She may have jumped overboard. Prove that she didn't." There is a particularly maddening case here in NY where that tactic has successfully warded off prosecution since the early 1990s. Though I do believe that Camb killed her, I am puzzled that his attorneys did not follow that path.
 

Noel F. Jones

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May 14, 2002
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While I take your points gentlemen:

While it may historically have been available; a verdict of manslaughter cannot be reached for in denial of evidential logic or in defiance of a judge's express directions.

Put another way, judges' direction should stipulate that manslaughter is not available as a mitigant per se in the absence of compelling evidence towards it. Where reasonable doubt exists the only possible disposal in a capital case is acquittal.

Of course, none of this precludes jurors from arriving at "perverse" verdicts.

In the matter of R.v.Camb (1947) I am assuming that the jurors would have been constrained by the doctrine of Constructive Malice whereby anyone who killed in the course of committing a violent felony, such as rape, was mandatorially adjudged guilty of murder.

In R.v.Patrick Joseph Byrne (1959) – which mirrors R.v.Camb to some extent – a murder verdict was appealed (successfully) on the ground that the trial judge effectively denied the jurors manslaughter. This despite Constructive Malice having been abolished in 1957.

In the very case I referred to (R.v.Martin) I think I am right in saying (I'll have to look it up) that the trial judge intimated to the jurors as they worked their way through the indictment, that he would not accept a manslaughter verdict.

As it was, this halfway-house verdict was obtained on appeal via a 'long-stop' pretext; it seems the appellant's advocates had correctly gauged the political susceptibilities of the judiciary and the appellant was relieved of a life sentence accordingly.

I rest my case – provisionally!

Noel
 
Aug 8, 2007
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I worked on board the Durban Castle 1950/1951. A lot of the Gay Gibson story never reached court. Durban Castle crews were a close-mouthed lot. Like the masons! Camb was a ladies' man but not a killer. There is no doubt he shover the body thru the posthole afeared of his job - which he lost anyway. He missed a date with the hangmsn because the capital punishment was at that time under review. He did 12 years in jail. The bit that never reached the press was Gay's fling with a junior officer. He had his own cabin. Camb did not. Also he was big and tough. A South African 'Yarpie'. As far as I know his name never came to the fore and he was not interviewed byu police in Southampton. The hangman at the time, Albert Pierrepoint, I knew well. He kept a pub in Oldham named 'Help the Poor Struggler' The beer was not of the best brewers but he being famous, the pub was always full!
 
Dec 23, 2010
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My father and mother were witnesses for the defence and my father ran the theatre company that Gay Gibson worked for in South Africa

My mother Ena not Ina Gilbert was a doctor and had looked after Gay for some time --what didnt come out properly at the trial because his wife was sitting pregnant in the Courtroom as he gave evidence was that Mike Abell another actor in the company had told my parents that he had had an affair with Gay and whilst making love to her in his car she had had a fit and he thought she had died as she went completely limp and lifeless --a few minutes later she woke up --this catatonic state occurrence had hapenned before --my father and Gay Gibson had both been part of the theatrical troup for the South African Army and my father had been told by Army mates that while coming back from a show she had fainted and they thought she was dead and had actually covered her with a sheet on one occasion only for her to wake up
The true evidence of Mike Abell would have backed up precisely what Camb had said namely that while he was making love to her she had a fit and ''died''
My parents also always said that Caswell was not prepared to bring out Gays sexual history which for the 1940's would have been considered apalling and wopuld have also corroborated Cambs story that he was invited to her cabin etc

My mother also said that the fact that urine was found on the bed sheets was also consistent with a fit rather than strangulation but that was never explored either

Dennis Herbsteins book is referred to and you will see that he interviewed my mother --sadly my father died in 1973 --I was the one that told him about the murder story and he decided to write a book about it
 
Dec 11, 2015
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I know that no one has posted a comment on this thread in 5 years, but those visiting here may be interested to know that my book on this case, Death of an Actress, has just been published. It is the second book in the Cold Case Jury series of books about unsolved historical crimes, typically murders from decades or even centuries ago. Each case is puzzling, strange and utterly compelling, not least because it is true. Every reader is asked to weigh up the evidence and different theories in each case and reach a decision concerning what most likely happened. My job is to also act as an impartial advocate, explaining to the readers the strengths and weakness of the rival theories, which have been propounded by different authors. Readers are invited to enter their decision at the Cold Case Jury website and, as others do the same, the verdict for each case will emerge.

I have included the Porthole Case in the series because the verdict has been questioned by many commentators because the prosecution had not dispelled reasonable doubt. The expert opinion on the physical evidence suggested that a death by natural causes was possible. When I read Denis Herbstein’s The Porthole Murder Case, I realised that the interesting question was not whether the jury was justified in its verdict, rather, how did Gay Gibson most likely die? Clearly, the jury thought she was murdered. But was this correct? It seemed a fitting case to put before the Cold Case Jury. In the book the fateful scenes on the Durban Castle are replayed: one showing it was natural death, the other that it was murder. At the moment, the verdict of the Cold Case Jury is murder, with 70% of jurors backing this verdict. This will change as more verdicts are polled.