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The tragic murder of the bearded lady buried in an unmarked grave

Written by on 14/11/2020

When Thomas Parkin dropped William Ratcliffe off at his home after a night out drinking in Sheffield city centre, Thomas had no idea that would be the last time he would see his friend alive.

It was a neighbour who raised the alarm sometime after 6am after finding William lying in the doorway of his home in Boden Lane in a pool of his own blood.

Neighbours answered the call and tried to make William but medical help wasn’t forthcoming and by the time the “parish doctor” arrived 14 hours later, there was nothing that could be done to save his life.

Instead he was given ailments to reduce his suffering before his death prompted an investigation as to who carried out the violent attack which killed William on Sunday, October 7, 1883.

First, it’s important to know a bit about William’s backstory.

He was a 45-year-old man who sometimes worked as a fortune teller and was described in newspapers at the time of his death as “wretchedly poor”.

He had previously worked as a burnisher and for a time he was successful having amassed a small fortune and got married.

However, William soon became idle. He stopped working, squandered all the money he had and soon his marriage fell apart.

It was at this point that William began to behave and dress like a woman, prompting him to become known as “the bearded lady”.

He was known for his feminine appearance and mannerisms bar his distinctive beard and he appeared at fairs as a bearded woman.

An inquest into William’s death soon established that he died after beign bludgeoned over the head in an apparent attack that just could not have been an accident with some initially assuming William may have tripped over an object in the doorway.

He died of bleeding to the brain and although it was clear that this was a murder, police were reluctant to launch an inquiry and instead it was William’s inquest that saw murder suspects emerge.

One of William’s acquaintances, William Henry Jones, was initially seen as the man who may have inflicted the fatal blow as he had stayed that night with a neighbour called George Richardson because he was too drunk to make it home.

However, he had no visible blood upon his person or clothing when he arrived at Mr Richardson’s address and there just wasn’t enough evidence to mount a case against him.

Another lead saw a member of the jury in the inquest reveal that he had been approached by a woman who claimed that William had told her just hours before he was attacked that a man known in the Sheffield area as “Pork Pie” had threatened to kill him.

Although, perhaps surprisingly, this man was tracked down, he was found to be working on the night of William’s death and it was back to square one at the inquest.

Due to a lack of evidence and with the police unwilling to treat William’s death as murder, what is now called an open narrative was recorded with the jury only able to confirm that William died of a fractured skull.

All the evidence pointed towards William opening the door and being attacked by a thug in his doorway – but after 137 years, the question of who inflicted that fatal blow has still never been answered.

William was never close to his family with relatives shunning him after his decision to dress as a woman.

It is thought this lack of pressure could have been behind the police’s death to not open a murder investigation and that, coupled with the lack of evidence, made it easier for them to put his death down as a tragic – and potentially drunken – accident.

However, William’s lifestyle also could be seen as a reason for police not focusing their efforts on finding his killer.

He was a Victorian transvestite who was living in poverty at the time and the stigma surrounding his lifestyle choices could well have played a part and could have been a motive for William’s murderer.

Was this a hate crime that saw someone take their prejudices too far?

Unfortunately, we will never know, and sadly even after death, there was no legacy for William after he was buried in an unmarked grave in Section X of City Road Cemetery, with the letter X used to signify the ‘unknown or mysterious’.

Find out more about William’s death and more unsolved murders in Scott C Lomax’s book Unsolved Murders in South Yorkshire which can be purchased on Amazon here.