The Murder of Francis Rattenbury & The Ghosts of the Fairmont Empress
The Murder of Francis Rattenbury & The Ghosts of the Fairmont Empress

The Murder of Francis Rattenbury & The Ghosts of the Fairmont Empress

This is a podcast transcript, originally published as part of the Crimes & Witch-Demeanors Podcast.

Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Crimes & Witch-Demeanors.  Today we’re heading back to form and covering a sensational international murder with ghosts aplenty! 

Our adventure begins in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada and then takes us across the pond to Bournemouth, England for a scandalous depression-era murder suicide…after which we’ll be headed back Victoria’s Fairmont Empress hotel to talk about the spirits that rest or, don’t, there…including the ones from England?  Yeah, it’s a complicated ghost story where the ghosts didn’t actually die on the property…or in the country…in fact they hadn’t been there in over a decade prior to their death…but, hey, that’s what we do here.  So grab a hot coacoa, put on your mukluks…and yes I know mukluks are Inuit and not of the Salish coast people…but, hey, I  don’t know of any regional-specific waterproof clothing for this intro bit…but I digress.  We’re headed on up to Victoria, Canada!

At 721 Government Street in Downtown Victoria sits an empress.  The Fairmont Empress, formerly known as the Empress is one of Victoria’s historic landmarks and also happens to be the noble host of many mislaid spirits.  Her architect, Francis Rattenbury, left an indelible stamp on the architecture of British Columbia.  Originally born in Leeds, England, he skipped across the pond and a whole continent, landing in Vancouver in 1892.  He was only 25 years old but he had incredibly grand plans; not all of them architectural.

Francis planned to take advantage of the westward expansion and building boom happening in the region.  He placed an ad in the paper led him down the path that began his life.  However, little did he know, that 42 years later an ad in the paper would also pave the path leading to his dreadful end.

Rattenbury’s advertisement claimed that he was a classically trained architect who studied under the world-renowned architect Henry Lockwood…but if anyone had read further than his headline it didn’t show—seeing as Lockwood died when Rattenbury was only 11 years old.  Even if he had taught him anything, it couldn’t have been very much.  Despite this blatant and careless lie, luck happened to be on his side.

An architectural contest had been announced in order to solicit a new design to replace Victoria’s detested parliament buildings.  Naturally, Rattenbury saw this opportunity and leapt at it.  Rattenbury entered the contest, signing his designs with the pseudonym ,“A.B.C. Architect”. His incredibly grand and overly-ambitious design caught the attention of the judges, with Rattenbury winning the competition out of 66 total entries from around the world. 

While construction on the parliament building was still underway, Rattenbury met his wife, Florence Nunn.  They married and had their first child seven months later—which was quite salacious for the time.  Francis and Florence had two children together: Frank and Mary.

The construction on the parliament building was completed in 1898, and while grand and opulent, it had run $400,000 over budget…or the equivalent of 12 million dollars in the present day.  In fact, this became a pattern: Rattenbury’s projects were known to be a nightmare to work on.  Rattenbury notoriously underestimated the cost of his bids, throwing the burden of the additional costs to the contractors, eventually driving one of them to bankruptcy.  Rattenbury would change his designs at the last moment, reject building materials he had selected earlier in favor a new whim, and would battle with anyone who dared to stand in the way of his designs.

Despite this reputation, Rattenbury was extraordinarily successful.  His portfolio came to include many high profile projects and he became the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s western division architect.  This title with the CPR is what allowed him to design ostentatious resort hotels across Canada, ultimately leading to the commission to design the Empress in 1903. 

Francis Rattenbury

However, in 1906 Rattenbury, in his typical fashion, grew frustrated with others working on the Empress project.  In his mind, Rattenbury believed that Walter Painter, CPR’s head architect, was ruining his vision for the grand hotel.  In a rage, Rattenbury left the CPR and the Empress project.  And the losses didn’t end there.  After reaching such meteoric highs it appeared to all be crashing down around him.  He lost two design contests and it was exposed that he had won others by less than honest means.  Rattenbury was being accused of money laundering and his marriage was also suffering.  One project that had the potential to save him—working on the Grand Trunk Railway—was ruined when the general manager Charles Hays died on the Titanic.

Unlike the Titanic, Rattenbury did manage to keep on enough projects to stay afloat but by the end of 1912 his marriage had hit rock bottom.  Things had gotten so bad that his daughter Mary became the middleman between him and Florence, carrying messages between the two.

In 1923, at the age of 56 Rattenbury won the bid to design Victoria’s Crystal Garden and also won the heart of Alma Pakenham, a 26 year-old flapper who had a scandalous reputation for drinking and smoking in public.  Alma had been married twice before and had a son, Christopher, from a previous marriage.

Rattenbury first approached Florence for a divorce, but when she refused he decided to make his affair as public as possible and would flaunt Alma around in public before bringing her home to drink and fornicate late into the night…all the while Florence sat in her bedroom just above them.  Eventually Rattenbury moved out of his home, shutting off the electricity and heating when he did so, leaving his wife and children without utilities.  Rattenbury’s scandalous and downright wicked behavior ultimately led to him being shunned by his friends, his profession, and the community. 

Florence finally granted a divorce in 1925 and Rattenbury immediately married Alma and had their own son together, John.  Due to his scandal and his architectural style falling out of favor with more modern times, Rattenbury and Alma faced financial hardships.  They remained in Canada for some time and in 1929, the same year his ex-wife Florence died, they moved to Bournemouth England.

Rattenbury hoped that moving across the pond would improve their finances, however once they moved into the Villa Madeira on Manor Road things only worsened.  By 1934 Francis Rattenbury was nearly deaf, impotent, and suicidal.  Needing assistance around the house, the Rattenburys placed an ad in the Bournemouth Daily Echo seeking a “willing lad” who was “good-natured and honest”  This ad would be the beginning of the end of Francis Rattenbury.

18 year-old George Stoner responded to the advertisement and was promptly hired by Alma.  Stoner was a quiet, shy, friendless young man and was grateful for the work.  Alma was entranced by George and his youthful virility, something that her husband lacked—Alma and Francis hadn’t had intercourse since the birth of John.  She was still rather young and was growing tired of her situation.  And so, after three months of his employment, Alma seduced Stoner.  Not long after the passionate affair began, George went from being their chauffeur and gardener to Alma’s live-in lover, taking up residence in a spare bedroom.

It was said that Rattenbury acknowledged and silently excused the affair: he was well aware of his advancing age, ill health, and alcoholism.  However, neither Rattenbury nor Alma could anticipate the rage and violent jealously that dwelt within the quiet Stoner.  As their affair progressed, George would become exceedingly mad if Alma had spent any time with her husband, no matter how trivial.  Alma tried to break off the affair on a number of occasions, but this would also send George into a rage, at one point trying to strangle her.

Things came to a head, so to speak, on March 24, 1935.  Alma and Francis had just returned from a trip to London.  As was usual, Francis was particularly depressed and Alma had decided to arrange another trip the following week to visit a friend, in hopes of cheering him up. George was already furious that Alma had spent the weekend away with her husband and the news of yet another trip sent him over the edge.  He went to his parent’s home and asked to borrow a carpenter’s mallet that he said he needed to erect a fence at the Rattenbury’s residence.

When George returned to the Villa Madeira he threatened to shoot Alma with a gun, but was quickly dissuaded.  Later that evening, around 10 p.m., Stoner made his way downstairs with the carpenter’s mallet and bashed in the head of Francis Rattenbury.  Stoner had hit Rattenbury with such force that his false teeth fell out and half of his skull was removed by the blows.  Despite the brutal injuries, Rattenbury did not die.

When the police arrived early that Monday morning, Alma appeared sleepless, disturbed, and under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  “I’ve done him in, I’ve done him in, I’ve done him in” she repeated over and over to the police officers.  The police arrived the next day where she repeated this confession and she was arrested for attempted murder.

While Alma was in prison, George Stoner allegedly confessed to the housekeeper that he had been that made the attempt on Rattenbury’s life.  This confession led to him also being arrested on attempted murder charges.

However, both Stoner’s and Alma’s charges were elevated to murder when Rattenbury succumbed to his injuries on that Thursday.  After Alma’s eldest son visited her in prison, she quickly recanted her earlier confession saying she was in a state of shock at the time.

The trial was an absolute sensation, mainly due to the rumors of Stoner’s cocaine addiction and the scandalous affair.  In fact, due to the local popularity of the case, the trial had to be held in London’s Old Bailey instead of the Winchester.  By the time of the trial, both defendants had entered a plea of “not guilty” and had taken back their previous confessions.  Alma was acquitted and released but Stoner was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging.

The public felt an immense amount of sympathy for Stoner and villainized Alma as a temptress who seduced him into committing the crime.  As she left the Old Bailey that day, a free woman, onlookers booed her.  Awful things were said about her in the paper and people called for her death.  Distressed, Alma took a train from Waterloo to Christchurch.  She walked across the meadows to the Three Arches Railway bridge.  She sat down at the bank for a while, casually smoking a cigarette, before getting up, walking to the water’s edge, pulling out a dagger, stabbing herself six times in the heart before falling into the River Stour at Christchurch.

A note in her handbag read “It has been pointed out too vividly that I cannot help him, and that is my death sentence”

Despite being initially being a villain in the media, over 3,000 individuals attended her funeral; a stark contrast to the “only a few” that attended her late husband’s.  Rattenbury didn’t even receive a headstone and was buried in an unmarked grave.

People line up to sign the petition to acquit Stoner.

In a turn of fate it turns out that Stoner was saved from death.  A petition signed by over 300,000 people commuted his sentence to life imprisonment instead of hanging.  Even stranger still, Stoner only served seven years of his sentence and was released in 1942 to fight in the second World War.  After the war he married and had a daughter.  He lived a quiet and fairly uneventful life until 1990 when he was arrested for indecently exposing himself to a 12 year old boy in a public bathroom.  He received only two years’ probation for this incident.

During his life he had stated that it was actually Alma who murdered her husband.

Curiously, in the year 2000 George Stoner a died in a hospital at Christchurch…less than half a mile from the scene of Alma’s suicide, and on the 65th anniversary of the murder of Francis Rattenbury.   

In 2007, 72 years after his death, Francis Rattenbury finally received a headstone which was paid for by a family friend.

Despite dying across the pond in England, Francis Rattnebury’s ghost does not dwell in Bournemouth.  If you spend a night at the Fairmont Empress back in Victoria you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Old Man Ratz.  What better place for his ghost to dwell than his greatest pride?  An opulent structure that reminds him of a time when his life was full of elegance, opulence, and prestige.

The last thing I expected when starting my research on the ghosts of the Fairmont Empress was to wind up in Bournemouth learning about a scandalous murder suicide!  I synthesized a few sources to get the most accurate and well-rounded view of the murder.  Even shaky sources were fairly accurate except they said the murder was conducted with a croquet mallet which is…just…not true?  I guess it sounds more English, or something?

The one thing I don’t understand about this haunting is…why?  Why?  WHY?

Yes, Francis Rattenbury designed the Fairmont Empress and it was one of his greatest designs…but…he left the project before it was completed.  He was known to be rotten and controlling and he abandoned the project because things weren’t going his way…so why would he haunt it?  It doesn’t make sense to me.

I don’t have any evidence that he spent any time at the Empress after it was finished and just judging by his personality I don’t think he would have.  This is obviously all conjecture but am I the only one that thinks that?  Plus, Rattenbury died 4,700 miles away in a place that he then considered to be his home.  That doesn’t add up, especially since ghosts who die in traumatic circumstances typically tend to haunt the location of their death due to being trapped there.

Take Lizzie McGrath for example, whose tragic and unexpected death at the Fairmont Empress has led to her being spirit being one of the most active ghosts at the hotel.

The story goes that Lizzie McGrath was a chambermaid at the Empress Hotel and in those days, maids and other employees actually lived at the hotel.  Being an Irish immigrant she was a devout Catholic and would say the rosary on her fire escape every night.  However, one night in 1909 Lizzie McGrath opened her window and got onto the fire escape…except there was one problem…the fire escape had been removed for renovations and she plummeted to her death on the walkway below, right at the entrance of the hotel.  Her ghost is said to haunt the ___ floor and she can also be seen at the spot where she died.

I liked this story a lot and decided to investigate.  Lizzie McGrath or Elizabeth McGrath is a very common name so I knew I had to narrow it down to 1909…but I couldn’t find anything—even with a limiter to the city of Victoria.  It turns out the Elizabeth died in 1910, not 1909.  I’ve corroborated this with Victoria’s death index, her gravesite, and newspaper articles from The Victoria Daily Times.

Lizzie McGrath died on July 30, 1910 at 50 years of age.  The newspaper articles say that she was a native of Halifax, which I’m assuming would be Halifax, Nova Scotia…though there is a Halifax in England…neither of these would indicate she was an Irish immigrant.  The article also states that her family all resides in Victoria with an exception of a few “in the east” which to me would indicate Nova Scotia or thereabouts.  However, newspapers are known to be wrong quite often.  McGrath is quite an Irish name but Elizabeth was actually married so I don’t know her surname so it makes it difficult to find immigration records without spending a lot of time on it.

Lizzie also didn’t die at the Empress as stated in all the stories; she died at St. Joseph’s hospital.  It did also seem strange that she wouldn’t know that the fire escape had been removed, but there was prosecution where they were found guilty for not notifying the residents.  It seems that this story, despite some minor details, is true!


Another popular ghost at the Empress is that of an elderly woman.  Her identity seems to be unknown, although she has been given the name Margaret by Ian Gibbs, the author of Victoria’s Most Haunted.  Allegedly Margaret is an old woman who used to stay at the hotel every year for the winter season.  She died on the sixth floor where her residence was, seemingly of natural causes.  After her death they stopped renting out the room because of the weird things that would happen and eventually, because of this, it was chosen for the area where the new elevators would be installed.

Strange…seeing as they probably should have been installed where they would make architectural and structural sense?  Maybe. 

Regardless, those staying at the hotel may receive a knock on their door in the middle of the night, and if they answer it may find an elderly woman who says that she’s lost.  If you are kind enough help her find her room on the sixth floor, she’ll promptly vanish at the spot of the elevator.

This story, like Lizzie’s makes sense: she died in the hotel and she is lost, both spiritually and physically since her old room no longer exists.  However, I couldn’t find anything to verify this information since there isn’t much for me to go on.

As usual, I wanted to try and find some firsthand encounters and stories about the ghosts in the hotel.  I checked reddit and hotel reviews and I sadly came up rather empty-handed.  Most people said that they felt that the hotel should be haunted because it looks it – the period wallpaper and the old portraits on the walls.  One particularly privileged man said his experience was haunted because he couldn’t’ find a king size bed and their accommodations weren’t up to his standards?  Gross.

But someone did ask a question on TripAdvisor.  I wish you could read it, it just says “Has anyone had a ghost experience here LOL” No questions mark.  Lol in all caps.  It’s great.

The answers are “We stayed on the sixth floor and there was an odd feeling” okay, supports the old lady.  Another says “Yes, late at night on the 6th floor near room 657” okay, Wayne Carl…care to elaborate?  Some of us have podcasts to make.  What a cliffhanger.  please feel free to elaborate.  Another says they saw “something”  They put something in quotes.  WHAT DID YOU SEE DARREN? Another kind soul lets us know he did see spirits…in his glass.  Wow, FERD, so original.  HAVEN’T HEARD THAT ONE.

And that’s another one for the books! Until next time: stay spooky, and don’t cheat on your lover! Bye!

Sources

Accidental Death is Jury’s Verdict: Rider Against Contractors Recorded in Inquest on Death of Mrs. Elizabeth McGrath. (1910, August 2). The Victoria Daily Times, page 5.

Adultery, jealousy and murder: How the Rattenbury case gripped the nation. (n.d.). Bournemouth Echo. Retrieved December 24, 2020, from https://www.bournemouthecho.co.uk/news/13217933.adultery-jealousy-and-murder-how-the-rattenbury-case-gripped-the-nation/

Bournemouth’s most sensational murder | Dorset Life—The Dorset Magazine. (n.d.). Retrieved December 24, 2020, from https://www.dorsetlife.co.uk/2006/08/bournemouths-most-sensational-murder/

British Columbia, Canada, Death Index, 1872-1990—AncestryLibrary.com. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://search.ancestrylibrary.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&dbid=6093&h=463325&tid=&pid=&queryId=65f42413adf181b27bd90780bad3225e&usePUB=true&_phsrc=eBA210&_phstart=successSource

Cold spots, scandals and Victoria’s Empress Hotel – The Superstitious Times. (n.d.). Retrieved December 23, 2020, from http://www.superstitioustimes.com/cold-spots-scandals-and-victorias-empress-hotel/

Elizabeth B. McGrath (Unknown-1910)—Find A… (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/121312245/elizabeth-b.-mcgrath

Five haunted hotels with true-crime stories. – The Washington Post. (n.d.). Retrieved December 23, 2020, from https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:wA5SdAuQMGkJ:https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/travel/like-a-good-scare-here-are-five-haunted-hotels-with-stories-fit-for-true-crime-files/2018/10/25/ddd4e70e-d3cb-11e8-b2d2-f397227b43f0_story.html+&cd=6&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

Francis Rattenbury. (2020). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Francis_Rattenbury&oldid=995725423

Has anyone had a ghost experience here LOL. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://www.tripadvisor.com/FAQ_Answers-g154945-d155472-t3751444-Has_anyone_had_a_ghost_experience_here_LOL.html

Mrs. Alma Rattenbury Found Dead in a River: Man Tells of Seeing Her Fall, Knife in Hand, Vain Efforts to Save Her, Six Stab Wounds. (1935, June 5). Gloucestershire Echo, Page 1.

Murder comes with a question mark. (2011, October 30). Vernon Morning Star. https://www.vernonmorningstar.com/life/murder-comes-with-a-question-mark/

Staveley-Wadham, R. (n.d.). A Seaside Drama – The 1935 Murder of Francis Rattenbury. Retrieved December 24, 2020, from https://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/2020/03/06/the-murder-of-francis-rattenbury/

The Ghostly Guests of the Empress Hotel. (n.d.). Retrieved December 24, 2020, from https://www.flightcentre.ca/blog/the-ghostly-guests-of-the-empress-hotel/

The Outrageous Life and Death of Francis Rattenbury. (2018, November 13). MONTECRISTO. https://montecristomagazine.com/community/the-outrageous-life-and-death-of-francis-rattenbury

Untitled. (1910, August 1). Victoria Daily Times, Page 3.

Villa Madeira, the home of home of Architect Francis Rattenbury and… (n.d.). Getty Images. Retrieved December 24, 2020, from https://www.gettyimages.dk/detail/news-photo/villa-madeira-the-home-of-home-of-architect-francis-news-photo/551907551

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