The Lucania and the Victorian Murderess

Jim Kalafus

Dec 3, 2000
While researching one of our long forgotten local scandals, I came across this 1898 account written by a Police Matron who was lucky enough to travel in high style.

A bit of background information. In September 1898, pieces of the body of Mrs Emma Gill began to bob to the surface of Yellow Mill Pond. She was found to have died of a botched abortion, and since she was under the care of the town's "Female Doctor" Nancy Guilford, who had suddenely decamped for England, it was assumed that the 'operation' had been performed by Dr Guilford and the dismemberment by her eldest son. She was arrested in England and a detective and matron sent over to escort her home. They arrived at Pier 40, aboard the Lucania, on a day in November 1898 on which the Umbria was outbound. Matron Hill wrote:

It was rough going over on the St. Louis, and rough coming back on the Lucania. Although the Lucania is a larger boat than the St. Louis, we felt the motion of the sea more on our return trip and I do not think the sea was running as high on the voyage home. It must be the build of the boats, not the size that made the difference.

Our voyage was one of business, but we enjoyed many social hours, saw many pretty sights and met many pleasant people. Going over on the St. Louis nothing occurred worthy of note. We engaged First Class passage and enjoyed good service and comfortable quarters, the only disagreeable feature being the rolling of the ship. We encountered the tail ends of several severe storms and were badly shaken up.

The St.Loius arrived in Southampton on Tuesday. There we dismebarked and left for London.....the following morning after our arrival, Dr Nancy Guilford- then confined in Holloway Jail, London- was taken to the city court.....

November 11 I went from the hotel to the depot in London where I met Detective Cronan, and with him was Doctor Guildford. She was with, and under the custody of, Inspector Frost. At this depot the four of us boarded a fast express for Liverpool and on our arrival there Mr Cronan, Dr. Guilford and myself took already secured passage for new York, and Inspector Frost bought passsage to Queenstown and return. Dr. Guilford remained a prisoner of England and was under the custody of Mr Frost until we arrived at Queenstown. When the ship leaves this port she clears English waters and it was, therefore, at Queenstown that Dr. Guilford was transferred to Detective Cronan.

We left Liverpool on Novermber 12 at 3 O'Clock and arrived at Queenstown at 2:30 AM the next day.

We suffered a great deal on account of rough weather, more so than when Mr Cronan and I went over as I have before stated. The Lucania was larger, had better accomodations, and the service was excellent. Dr. Guilford and I spent most of our time in our apartments as neither of us was in teh best of health. Dr. Guilford was quite ill all through the voyage and she would occasionally place her hand over her heart and complain that it troubled her, but I think this was due to nervousness. She was also physically run down. I think her confinement in Holloway was more than she could bear.

She seemed very low in spirits at times and I would often find her crying.

For the first three days I watched her very carefully. It seemed to annoy her and she said to me "Mrs Hill there is no need of your staying by my side continually. Do you think I would do away with myself. Why, No not yet. I want to see my children. Beside, I may be allowed to be bailed out and so you see I have a lot to hope for and there is no danger of my doing anyhting out of the way, so you need not worry and watch over me."

I agree with her and let her have more freedom, but I managed to be near her continually.

At times, particulary when at meals and we were all seated in the dining room she would be very socialble and in better spirits. We made a number of acquaintances. Among them were Melba, Toy Sloane, a businessman from Baltimore, and others. She would converse fluently upon topics of the day and at times would grow very interesting. Melba thought her a highly accomplished woman,and enjoyed her company.

Did anyone on board know she was Dr Guilford? Not until Thursday. She was registered in the clerk's office and generally known on board as "M Brown" and I was congratulating myself on the success of our deception until there came a climax. Thursday while Mr Cronan, Dr Guilford and myself were seated at the dinner table (we sat at a long table, there were smaller tables at either side) I discovered that Melba, Toy Sloane and a few others who were seated near us were acting rather suspiciously and eyeing us with unusual interest and suspicion. I made up my mind that 'the cat was out of the bag' and it was.

The next morning (Friday) after our breakfast, which was served in our stateroom, Dr Guilford and I went into the music room, and while she was reading a book I crossed the room and stood looking out a porthole at the waves. Suddenly a person whipsred in my ear "she's gone." I turned and faced a dignified looking gentleman of portly bearing. You may imagine my surprise at his addressing me thus. Why should he care whether 'she' was gone or not? How did he know who 'she' was? How did he know who I was? Well, I said 'thank you' bowed and left the room. I found Nancy Guilford just outside at the deck, looking at the sea.

This is how it happened. Mr Swift, the Chicago beef man was among the passengers and along about Thursday he discovered that he knew Detective Cronan and he- naturally- expected that Cronan was not on a pleasure trip.

Dr. Guilford and I were, during the remainder of the voyage, a target for many inquisitive glances, and I think there was many an argument as to which one of us was Nancy Guilford.


So, what became of Dr. Guilford? Do not know, yet, but am loooking for the record of her trial, if there was one. I am fairly certain she did not commit the fatal abortion, simply because when women died under such circumstrances and the operation was performed by a doctor, generally what happened was the doctor would declare death by "sepsis" or "appendicitis" or, if the pregnancy was known, "miscarriage" and it would be left at that unless 'someone' raised a stink. It was generally midwives and "abortion specialists" who did not have the ability to fill out a death certificate who had to resort to body dumps and dismemberment. There was little reason for Dr. Guilford to resort to such things when she could very well have diagnosed 'fulminating infection of unknown cause' as the cause of death and, most likely, no one would have questioned it.

Was the "Melba" in the account Dame Nellie Melba? Don't know.

Did Detective Cronan shoot off his mouth to a wealthy acquaintance who then spread the story all over the ship? Probably.
Apr 11, 2001
Sounds like a great plot for Peter Lovesey-almost as good as The False Inspector Dew! I have always fancied writing a book on shipboard murders and unsolved disappearances. Too bad they stopped making real portholes that open- it was a dandy way to get rid of the evidence! Good tale-should be easy to find out the outcome.

Similar threads

Similar threads