I have researched Margaret Stapleton’s murder for a book I am writing about the British censorship department. The info here is based on news reports and a couple of personal interviews. If you have other information or recollections about the case, I would love to hear them!
In July 1941 the murder of a British censorette rocked the Bermuda community. The censorettes were brought to Bermuda to read mail passing between America and Europe. It was a good place to do this as the flying boats were not really capable of flying all the way across the Atlantic, especially if there was bad weather. The censorettes were in Bermuda to look for evidence of Axis agents operating in the US, before the US entered the war.
The Axis agents were responsible for the sinking of many British ships leaving American ports.
Margaret was the daughter of a British clergyman Gilbert Stapleton and was from Yately, Yorkshire. She had one sister, Katherine who never married.
On the evening of July 5, 1941, Margaret was invited to a party at Bleak House. It was the residence of Col Mann and Margaret was friends with his daughter. This later became Palmetto House and is currently the location of the Child Development Project in Pembroke. The theme was the orient and the place was decorated with Chinese paper lanterns and Margaret wore a silly hat. The Mann family took the phonograph outside and they listened to music under the stars. Around 8pm Margaret decided to catch the train and head home. She was renting a house with two other ladies on Pitts Bay Road.
Col Mann offered to walk her to the tiny Prospect Railway station but she refused. She laughed him off saying it was a moonlit night and what could possibly happen in Bermuda. She left pushing her bike along the track. As she walked along, some parts were very isolated. A man suddenly approached her and asked if she would like to have some fun. Nervous, she said, no, she had roommmates waiting at home who would worry about her. The man (or possibly men) then attacked her with a sawed off baseball bat with a rope around one end. After her head was bashed in she was raped. The men or (men) fled the scene.
Her roommates became worried when did not turn up and called the Manns. The Manns then went to look for her. The train came a long, the driver stopped the train and he helped them search. They found her bicycle, then socks rolled up in her shoes, then her body in the grass along the railway trail. The police were called. It was, by the way, Police Commissioner McBeath’s first day on the job.
The community was shocked to the core at the news that Margaret had been murdered and raped. The censorship department thought that it could be relation for their work, so they gave out very little info about the case at first. FBI agents were brought in to investigate but they could find very little information at all. For over a year the case went unsolved. Then two Portuguese Bermudian men in prison came forward and told authorities that their fellow prisoner, Harry Sousa had confessed to the murders. Harry was a 23 year old who was in the BVRC. He was a bit of ner do well whose only hobby was wandering from bar to bar in the evenings. He was in prison for raping a 14 year old girl. He told his prisonmates that if he had done to her what he did to that British woman he wouldn’t be in prison.
When questioned, and later during his trial, Harry denied his guilt, confessed, denied his guilt, then said he was with his friend Bermie Drennan all day, and Bermie would vouch for him.
Sousa was represented by David Tucker. During his trial, Bermie was a hostile witness who did little to help or hinder the case. He claimed that he and Harry were together that day, and that Harry gave him a ride on the front of his pedal bike, but he basically left him before the murder. He could not answer the most basic questions about what he did that day, to the point where the Magistrate declared his behaviour was criminal. But for whatever reason, they could not prosecute him or it was too late in the trial.
Also during the trial, Sousa’s two fellow prisoners claimed that the Commissioner of Police bribed them with the 600 pound reward to make up a story about Harry. This was later disproven and their testimony was completing unconvincing. McBeath pointed out on the stand that the reward for the capture of Margaret’s killer was a lot more than 600 pounds.
Before sentencing the Chief Justice said to Sousa: “Have you anything to say why sentence should not be passed upon you?” “I still say I do not know nothing about it,” the convicted man muttered. “Is that all?” questioned the Chief Justice. “I do not know nothing about it,” said Sousa.
Harry was Pronounced guilty and sentenced to hang on the anniversary of Margaret’s death. After the sentencing, Harry confessed to police that Bermie had also killed Margaret but it was too late. Bermie was rushed out of Bermuda, and was stationed in Germany. He went on to have a good life.
Sousa’s lawyer, who was a very interesting personage in his own right, made an appeal to the Privy Counsel in London, but it failed.
But the story is not over. Harry Spent the evening before his execution playing cards with two of his guards, who were also Portuguese Bermudian. At some point they left him, and Harry climbed up on the toilet and then squeezed through a seven inch gap in the window. The jail was then located on Reid Street.
The next day began an Island wide man hunt for Harry. Everyone got into the action including 50 Pictou Highlanders. He was eventually found hiding in a cave in Pembroke. Apparently there was some area down there known as The Ducking Stool. A man named Harold Motyer found Sousa. As soon as Sousa realized he had been found he jumped into the water and started to swim out to sea. An inspector stood on the shore and said in a loud firm voice, “Come in, Sousa”. Sousa was hauled back in the boat and taken back to prison. He was hung the next day and buried on Burt’s Island. The grave was later destroyed and grassed over to make way for a camp ground.
Margaret was buried at St John’s Church in Pembroke.