Who Killed Little Johnny Gill? is a piece of fiction heavily based on a true crime committed in Manningham, a town to the north of Bradford in West Yorkshire in December 1888.
Johnny Gill was eager to help the local milkman out on his rounds, at just seven years old his mother insisted that he wear his warm coat as protection against the cold December morning. She expected him back as usual for his breakfast but he didn’t turn up. His mother first sent his older sister to look for him, then when she couldn’t find him went running up and down the nearby lanes looking for her eldest son, with his fair hair and sweet face. When his father Tom returned home and day turned to nigh and with still no clue as to where their son was, they went and reported him missing.
I’m not going to lie, the descriptions of the scenes when the small boy’s body was found in a nearby stable are hard to stomach. The crime may have been committed well over a hundred years ago but in some cases, the distance of time makes no difference to the horror felt.
Kathryn McMaster recreates the time and place using meticulous research as well as that of the crime investigations, including the speculation that Jack the Ripper had travelled to this northern town to commit a further atrocity.
The chief suspect wasn’t Jack the Ripper though, it was the milkman, William Barrett, a married man with a baby, who had recently moved to the town and who Johnny had joined on the milk round the morning he disappeared. William Barrett insisted he dropped the boy off before he returned to pick up more milk and start the second half of the morning round but no-one had seen the boy since. Due to the lack of concrete proof all the police had was a whole heap of circumstantial evidence, you will need to read the book to see if this was enough to convict anyone for the crime.
Fictional books of real crimes are tricky to get right, especially when the time period is so very far in the past, but both this book and Blackmail, Sex, Lies and Lies by the same author, concentrates the fiction to bring the personalities, and emotions, of those involved to life, thereby hitting exactly the right spot. We witness the terror and grief of both Johnny’s parents. The bewilderment of the locals that someone, possibly from within their community had carried out such an act and the support the milkman had from his boss and his wife. Intriguingly there was a fund set up to help pay for the twenty-eight year old’s court costs at the time, something that says such a lot about the sympathy and support that this young man garnered at the time.
Who Killed Little Johnny Gill? was an absolutely compelling read although not for the faint-hearted. The fictionalisation is subtlety and expertly woven between the known facts and documents from the time.
This is the 17th book I’ve read and reviewed as part of my Mount TBR Challenge for 2018. I am aiming to read 36 books across the year from those purchased before 1 January 2018. Who Killed Little Johnny Gill was purchased on 16 December 2017 thereby qualifying.