Legal Lore: the real case behind The Unseeing – guest post by Anna Mazzola

Today I’m pleased to welcome Anna Mazzola to the blog. Anna’s atmospheric and absorbing debut novel, The Unseeing, is published by Tinder Press on 14 July 2016. You can read my full review here.

Anna has kindly written a guest post on the real case behind The Unseeing.

Legal Lore: the real case behind The Unseeing 

In December 1836 a man called James Greenacre murdered a woman off the Wyndham Road in Camberwell, dismembered the body and then transported the head by omnibus to Stepney, where he threw it into the Regent’s canal. I first read of the case in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, where it is mentioned only briefly. It wasn’t just the surprising method of transporting body parts that surprised me, but the fact that the crime occurred on a road not far from where I live; on my bus route, in fact. Any normal person might have left it there, but as a lawyer with a love of history and the macabre, I looked up the case on Old Bailey online – a database of trials held at London’s central criminal court.

   There are many interesting and horrible things about the case: the gruesome treasure hunt for the body pieces, the fact that the poor woman’s head was pickled in a jar so that she might be identified, the arrogant and deceitful nature of James Greenacre himself. What most interested me, however, was not Greenacre but the woman who was accused with him: his lover, Sarah Gale. In mid-December Greenacre had told Sarah and her four-year-old son to leave his house to make way for Hannah Brown, the woman he announced he intended to marry. By Christmas day, Hannah Brown was dead. A few days later, Sarah returned to live with Greenacre. When the pair were arrested in March 1837, Sarah Gale was found to be in possession of some of Hannah Brown’s jewelry and clothing. During the subsequent trial, the prosecution claimed that she had helped Greenacre to conceal the crime, including by cleaning the blood from the floor. Despite these allegations, Sarah said nothing, even when invited to do so. She gave only a short statement via her barrister to the effect that she had known nothing of the murder. That seemed very strange. She was facing the death sentence, and she had a young son. Why was not speaking out? Why were her lawyers not properly defending her?

    Little has survived to give us an idea of who Sarah Gale really was, or to explain what might have motivated her. Numerous newspaper reports exist, but they are contradictory and in some cases they are obvious lies. Pamphlets, books, ballads and poems were written about Gale and Greenacre, but they too are works of fiction. The glimpse I had – or think I had – of the real Sarah was someone damaged and deprived. Someone who had lied in order to protect herself, but whether that was from Greencare, from justice, or for something else entirely I never decided. She remains an enigma. 

    I have recently been back to the Old Bailey archives while researching my second novel. Although it is set in Skye and not based on a real crime in the same way as The Unseeing, I wanted to look at cases where witchcraft or superstition had played a part in crimes, as, without giving too much away, that is relevant to the story. I was not disappointed. Indeed, I have come away with ideas that have altered the course of the plot. 

    I still think about Sarah, and I may return to her story one day. Above the table where I wrote most of The Unseeing is a framed sketch of Sarah Gale and James Greenacre from the Old Bailey trial. In it, she seems sad, thoughtful, troubled. But of course that too is the artist’s interpretation.




You can find out more about Anna on her website, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

About the book:


“For any fan of THE SUSPICIONS OF MR WHICHER or GILLESPIE AND I, this a startling historical crime debut based on a true Victorian murder

Set in London in 1837, Anna Mazzola’s THE UNSEEING is the story of Sarah Gale, a seamstress and mother, sentenced to hang for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of her wedding. Perfect for any reader of Sarah Waters or Antonia Hodgson.

‘With this intricately woven tale of trust, self-trust and deceit, Anna Mazzola brings a gritty realism to Victorian London. Beautifully written and cleverly plotted, this is a stunning debut, ranked amongst the best’ MANDA SCOTT

After Sarah petitions for mercy, Edmund Fleetwood is appointed to investigate and consider whether justice has been done. Idealistic, but struggling with his own demons, Edmund is determined to seek out the truth. Yet Sarah refuses to help him, neither lying nor adding anything to the evidence gathered in court. Edmund knows she’s hiding something, but needs to discover just why she’s maintaining her silence. For how can it be that someone would willingly go to their own death?”



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Great post… I do love hearing about the back stories & events that inspire novels; the Old Bailey site sounds a fantastic source to mine!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      It is a fascinating site, easy to spend hours on there! I’m like you, I’m always interested in the inspiration 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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