January 1, 1961
Dunmow, Essex, England
Willis Boshears (29) strangles 20-year-old Jean Constable, ostensibly while he sleeps
Boshears’ wife and children were away on holiday in Scotland at the time of the murder, and he decided to celebrate the New Year by drinking at a tavern. There, he met a man named David Salt (or Sault) who was in the company of Jean Constable. The trio drank together and eventually moved to Boshears’ flat to continue the revelry.
As the night continued, Boshears asked his guests if they planned to stay the night. Both confirmed they would. Boshears brought out mattresses to place on the floor of the living room and all three fell asleep. Salt woke around midnight at which point Boshears called him a taxi before falling back asleep next to the still-sleeping Constable.
“The next thing I remember was something scratching and pulling at my mouth,” Boshears later recounted. “I opened my eyes and Jean was lying there under me and I had my hands around her throat. She was dead then. That sort of sobered me up.”
The next thing I remember was something scratching and pulling at my mouth.Willis Boshears
While still groggy, Boshears took Constable’s body into the bathroom, used a kitchen knife to cut her hair which he then burned in the fireplace, and dressed her semi-nude body before placing it in a spare bedroom. Boshears then fell back asleep in the living room. He woke in the morning and assumed the events of the night before had been a dream until he discovered Constable’s body in the spare bedroom. He concealed the body for two days, then loaded it into his car to discard it.
Constable’s body was found on January 3 in a ditch near an isolated lover’s lane. Detectives quickly traced Constable’s last known movements back to Boshears who admitted he “must have” killed her in his sleep, and explained what he had remembered of the night.
Boshears’ trial hinged upon a homicidal somnambulism (sleepwalking) defense. A pathologist testified that, while it was unlikely Boshears could have used enough force to strangle Constable without waking himself in the process, it was not outside the realm of possibility. He was acquitted of murder in February of 1961.
Upon hearing the verdict of acquittal, a newspaper reporter overheard Boshears mutter to himself, “I like British justice.” Lawyers, however, feared the case would set a precedent by a defense of “killing while asleep,” and some citizens were angered by the verdict. “It gives a man that privilege of committing any crime from mayhem to murder,” one angry reader wrote into a local newspaper, “so long as he is asleep or drunk.”
Boshears, who was a Staff Sergeant for the United States Air Force while he was stationed in England, was granted $800 (nearly $7,000 today) in back-pay and a three-day leave to spend time with his wife following his acquittal.
Stratmann, Linda. More Essex Murders. The History Press, 2011
Haines, Max. “He knew he’d killed her, but how?” The Citizen [Ottawa, Ontario]. August 20, 1977
Deaths Registered In January, February And March, 1961. England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, via Ancestry.com (digitized: https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/7579/images/ons_d19611az-0267?treeid=&personid=&hintid=&queryId=22008b76d0b9288b308f9ff3364417aa&usePUB=true&_phsrc=Ghf1&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&_ga=2.138326642.311096691.1609524040-1974064398.1608518424&pId=42630575)
Hagen, Nancy. “He killed in his sleep.” The Arizona Daily Star [Tucson, Arizona]. July 23, 1961
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“Court Docket.” Daily Reporter [Dover, Ohio]. January 5, 1961