Twisted fate of ‘madman murderer’
On 30 November 1946 in Surrey, England, a man named Walter Coombs was walking home from work when he glimpsed a bundle of rags in an abandoned chalk pit.
Taking a closer look, he was horrified to see a body beneath an overcoat. When the police were summoned, they found the dead man had a rope and a rag tied loosely around his neck. It looked like he'd been strangled with the former and gagged with the latter.
Papers in the overcoat identified him as John Mudie, a barman at the nearby Reigate Hill Hotel. Evidence showed he had been killed elsewhere and dumped in the chalk pit.
A pathologist's report found that sometime in the past few days the man had been beaten savagely before being slowly asphyxiated.
Police made discreet enquiries for two weeks but made no progress. Then, on 14 December 1946, Scotland Yard asked the public for help in solving John Mudie's murder.
Three people came forward, confessing they had helped kidnap him. But this trio claimed to be innocent of the murder. The man responsible, they said, was former Australian state and federal politician Thomas Ley.
One of four children, Thomas Ley was born into poverty in Somerset, England in 1880. His father died in a workhouse hospital when Tom was just two and in 1886 the family moved to Australia.
Settling in Sydney, his mother and grandmother ran a boarding house and grocery store. Young Tom went to Crown Street Public School but his education was spotty because his mother put him to work.
It was on his newspaper round in Glebe that he became fascinated with the big mansions owned by politicians and lawyers. Though he was still in short pants, Tom decided that he was going to be a wealthy powerbroker when he grew up.
In his early adolescence, he was sent to work on a dairy farm at Windsor. By lantern light at night, Tom taught himself shorthand and practised transcribing lengthy political speeches printed in the Sydney newspapers.
At age 14 he got a job as a clerk and stenographer with a city solicitor. Grooming himself for the law and public office, Tom joined the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts and became a skilled debater.
In June 1898 Thomas married Louisa Vernon, who was from a well-off family. The couple lived with her widowed mother in Glebe and soon had three sons.
In 1908, now articled to another Sydney law firm, he moved his young family south to contest the Hurstville council election. He won handily and was an alderman for the next three years.
To the electorate, Thomas Ley presented himself as a force for morality and temperance. Back then the anti-alcohol movement was gaining in power and popularity and he was happy to align himself with the cause.
His nickname - "Lemonade Ley" - mockingly referred to his opposition to booze. But it was suspected that Thomas himself had invented this "insult" so he could wear it proudly as a "badge of honour".
In 1917, Ley, now a lawyer, was elected to state parliament as a Nationalist. Two years later, he switched to the Progressive Party and was re-elected.
Around this time, he was also active in the Millions Club, an organisation that promoted immigration to New South Wales. Club business took him to Perth in early 1921, where he became infatuated with a married woman named Maggie Brook.
As luck would have it, he soon be with her because her husband died suddenly - reportedly stung to death by bees. So it was that morally upstanding Ley brought Maggie to Sydney, installing her in an apartment near state parliament. She was to remain his mistress for the next quarter of a century.
In 1922 Ley was re-elected after solemnly promising the temperance movement he would move for an immediate "No Licensing" referendum. But once returned to office, he quickly doublecrossed his anti-alcohol allies by putting off the referendum for five years.
This handed a huge win to the hotel industry. Temperance campaigners claimed - correctly, as it later proved - that Ley had accepted a £3000 bribe to change his mind. Despite his reputation and nickname, Ley was also a boozer.
"In parliament," wrote Jack Lang in 1954 in Truth, "we soon knew he was a secret drinker." This even reached the press of the time, with Labor-supporting newspapers mentioning that Lemonade Ley was never known to have lunch without a bottle of red wine.
Under NSW Premier Sir George Fuller, Ley was appointed Minister for Justice, and it was in this role he revealed how ruthless he really could be for political purposes.
In early 1924, a poverty-stricken music teacher named Edward Williams was losing his mind as he tried to care for his three little girls in a single room in Paddington. His wife was a patient in a lunatic asylum and Williams was increasingly sure one of their daughters was showing signs of the same madness.
He was also terrified his children would end up in state care and become prostitutes. When one of his girls said innocently that she would very much like to go to heaven, Williams became convinced this was the only course left open to him.
On 4 February, just before midnight, he slit the throats of his sleeping daughters, later confessing that he did it out of love and to send them to heaven.
At his trial, medical experts found Williams sane. The jury found him guilty, through strongly recommended mercy. Yet the judge sentenced him to death.
There was an outpouring of public sympathy for this forlorn figure. Demands for mercy came from prison reform groups, a women's organisation and the Labor Party. But it was Minister for Justice Thomas Ley who'd have the final say.
Opposition leader Jack Lang led a deputation of Labor and Nationalist politicians and unionists to Ley's office to ask him to intercede with cabinet. Hanging an obvious lunatic, they argued, was cold-blooded murder. Ley was unmoved.
He said capital punishment was the law of the land. "It is murder," he said, "and there are no circumstances in which it can be justified." On the 29 April 1924, Edward Williams was hanged at Long Bay Gaol.
Ley's decision might have been seen as the principled stand of a moral conservative, except for how he handled another man who'd killed a child. In May 1923, in Arncliffe, an English immigrant named Leonard Puddifoot had caused the death a five-year-old boy named Percy Carratt.
Trying to sexually assault the child, he'd clamped a hand over his mouth to stop him screaming. The boy suffocated. Remarkably, the jury accepted he had not intended to kill the boy and convicted him of manslaughter.
Then the judge added insult to injury by sentencing Puddifoot to just three years. There was statewide outrage and Ley responded by promising legislative reform to stop sex criminals from re-entering society so quickly and easily. But this was just political posturing he'd turn on its head if convenient.
That moment came in 1925 after the defeat of the Fuller government. While Ley had kept his seat, he was soon to vacate the ministry of justice. And so he tossed a hand grenade into the lap of the incoming Lang government by secretly ordering the release and deportation of Puddifoot, just 18 months into his sentence.
Ley's plan was that by the time this became public, it'd be a problem for his political enemies to clean up. But the ship that was to take Puddifoot back to England was delayed by a wharf strike and the incoming justice minister countermanded the order.
Ley responded to the uproar by arguing he'd only tried to save the state from the release of a monster.
By November 1925, Ley had given up state politics and now contested the federal seat of Barton, going up against Labor politician Frederick McDonald.
Now it appeared that Ley used the Puddifoot controversy against himself to make it look like he was the victim of a vicious Labor smear campaign. At one of his rallies he made a startling claim.
"It is being bruited about this electorate," he said, "by people who are plumbing the depths of vicious misrepresentation that Puddifoot is the illegitimate son of an abandoned sister of mine and a New Zealand knight. Is there no limit to the wicked fancies these disordered minds can conjure up? To put the record straight, my sister died twenty years ago - two years before Puddifoot was born!"
No-one had heard this "rumour" before. Painted slogans appeared around the electorate, saying no child was safe and accusing Ley of being a monster. Again, it was suspected Ley had had them daubed to make it look like he was being unfairly attacked.
Then came an actual political bombshell. On 10 November, with the election just four days away, Frederick McDonald made a speech in which he accused Ley of trying to bribe him to withdraw from politics.
As Justice Minister, he said, Ley had offered him a government job if he'd resign his seat when Ley was ready to run. More recently, he'd offered £2000 worth of shares in a Kings Cross apartment block if McDonald would fake sickness and bow out close to the election. The Labor candidate claimed he'd strung Ley along, hoping to get solid evidence, but that Ley had become suspicious and then never mentioned the bribes again.
Ley responded by saying McDonald was a lunatic and instructed his legal partner Harry Andrews to issue a writ of £15,000 for slander. Tellingly, he also said.
"My opponents have accused me of just about every crime except the most serious one of all. But … I am sure that someone some day will make out a plausible case against me of murder."
Even under the shadow of these allegations, Ley still won the election. He was now a Federal Member of parliament - and he wanted a ministry in Stanley Bruce's government.
But the Prime Minister - who'd known McDonald for three years and thought him a decent and fair man - was suspicious of Ley and wary of any scandal attaching itself to his government.
As 1926 started, Ley's worries got worse. McDonald petitioned the Court of Disputed Returns to have the election declared void because of the alleged bribery. If he succeeded, Ley might lose his seat, his cabinet dreams and even his freedom.
Ley offered McDonald a truce. He'd withdraw the slander writ if he revoked his petition. McDonald refused. Ley threatened to sue him into the ground.
McDonald's nerves suffered and, realising he was facing financial ruin, in March 1925 he backed down, withdrawing his charges.
Ley responded by ending his slander action, saying he'd accept McDonald's apology officially as soon as he officially withdrew the court petition. But McDonald had a fit of remorse.
He now refused to withdraw the petition, saying he had to see it through in the interests of truth.
On 14 April 1926, McDonald met his wife in a Sydney Hotel. Things were looking up for the couple. She's done a lucrative property deal in Tasmania and he'd been summoned to meet with Premier Jack Lang about a job with the Education Department.
The following day they had lunch at a Castlereagh Street restaurant and arranged to have dinner at 6pm. At 2.40pm they parted company because McDonald was due to meet Premier Lang in 20 minutes to discuss his new job. Frederick McDonald was never seen again.
On 16 April, a letter was hand-delivered to parliament for Premier Lang. Signed Frederick McDonald, it said he stood by his accusations that Ley had tried to bribe him.
But it also apologised for leading on Ley, for not reporting the bribery attempt at the time and for subsequently withdrawing the charge. He said he was on "the verge of the grave - eternity" and that he "must leave".
The hints at suicide and admission of culpability meant that to protect McDonald's honour, Jack Lang didn't make the letter public for nearly 30 years. He later gave the letter to Dan Morgan, whose 1979 book The Minister of Murder is the definitive study of Ley.
The author had a graphologist compare the handwriting to known samples of Ley's penmanship. The expert concluded there was a high probability that Thomas Ley had written the letter.
If this was true, it meant that Ley had cunningly included accusations against himself to deflect suspicion. It was the same tactic he'd used to insult himself as Lemonade Ley and as the victim of a Puddifoot smear campaign.
Despite an extensive search, Frederick McDonald's body was never found. With him gone, there was no longer a challenge to Ley as the Federal member for Barton.
But Ley couldn't keep out of trouble. He was soon the chief force behind a company called S.O.S. Prickly Pear Poisons Ltd, established to sell a patented chemical that could kill the feral cactus that had rendered tens of millions of acres unusable for farming and property development. Ley convinced many of his fellow politicians to invest heavily, and the public followed by buying shares.
Initial tests of the patented poison were promising and, in April 1927, the company reported it was already making healthy profits. But Ley knew this was a sham. There had been no patent issued and the profits were conjured with creative bookkeeping. The day after shareholders were told how well SOS was doing, Ley sold 4400 of his 5000 shares - for which he hadn't paid a penny - for £9200, equivalent to about $750,000 today. He and his mistress then took off for a six-month European holiday.
By the time Ley came back to Australia, the Prickly Pear debacle threatened again to ruin him. Prime Minister Stanley Bruce now distanced himself further from the member for Barton. Meanwhile, Ley's law partner, Harry Andrews, had severed their professional ties and was representing Prickly Pear shareholders wanting their money back.
But Ley's most vocal opponent was NSW state politician, Hyman Goldstein, who'd also invested and who was now leading an investigation into the company. Goldstein was set to give evidence in mid-September 1928 in a case that, if successful, would open the floodgates for other shareholders to sue Ley.
On 3 September Hyman Goldstein's battered and broken body was found at the foot of a Coogee cliff.
It looked like suicide but this meticulous man had left no note. An inquest concluded he'd gone for one of his frequent early morning walks without putting on his glasses. All but blind without them, he'd fallen to his death.
The spectacles were never officially accounted for. Had he left them at home? Had they been knocked off his head when he hit the rocks? Or had they been knocked off when he'd been hit in the head by an assailant?
Hyman Goldstein was well known for taking these regular walks. It was feasible that Ley - or someone he'd hired, for, as former justice minster he had access to a lot of criminals - could have pushed Goldstein to his death. However it happened, for the third time in less than a decade, one of Ley's rivals had met a sudden, unexpected and unusual demise.
But this sudden death didn't help Ley. The Prickly Pear lawsuits went ahead, costing him thousands in out-of-court settlements, money he raised by selling off his properties.
With too much of the stink on him, Thomas Ley lost the seat of Barton in the 1928 federal election. He was now washed-up in Australian politics. So he and Maggie Brooks struck out for England.
There, over the next fifteen years, Ley dabbled in shady businesses. He promoted a £1m sweepstakes that was a scam in which only he came away with full pockets. He did some honest property dealings but then, with his son Keith, tried to renege on a transaction using forged and slanderous documents. Ley and his son avoided jail but had to pay nearly £20,000 in damages.
While Louisa - Ley's wife - had moved to London in the early 1940s, he still spent much time with Maggie Brooks. But in the year after the end of the war, he came to suspect his 66-year-old mistress was having an affair with 35-year-old barman John Mudie. In reality, Maggie and John Mudie had barely met.
Nevertheless, Ley wanted vengeance. Needing accomplices, he concocted a story that Mudie was Maggie's former lover and that he was now blackmailing her. Ley took this tale to a building foreman he knew, Lawrence Smith, and a similar version to a former wrestler named John Buckingham. What Ley wanted - and what he'd pay handsomely for - was these men to help him abduct Mudie. Once they had kidnapped him, Ley said his plan was to extract a signed confession to the blackmail. Then he'd give Mudie £500 and tell him to leave the country for good.
John Buckingham enlisted his son and a friend named Lillian Bruce to be part of the scheme. The ruse they settled on was that Lillian would pose as a wealthy hostess and strike up a conversation with Mudie at the hotel. She'd say that she needed a bartender for a party she was throwing and hire him for the job. On 27 November, they ran the scam and Mudie agreed.
The next night the conspirators picked up Mudie and delivered him to Ley's house. There a rug was thrown over his head and he was tied up. Then the Buckinghams and Lillian Bruce left.
Thomas Ley and/or Lawrence Smith then savagely beat and strangled Mudie. Later, Smith sloppily disposed of the body at the chalk pit, which a witness had already seen him scoping out the previous day. Crucially, this meant that he had known in advance that Mudie was to be murdered.
After Scotland Yard's public appeal on 14 December, Lillian Bruce and the Buckinghams came forward with what they knew. Two weeks later, police arrested Ley and Smith.
The trial at London's Old Bailey was a sensation, known around the world as the "Chalk Pit Murder". Ley maintained his innocence but the testimony of the other conspirators was damning, as was the money trail he'd left paying them all for their efforts.
On the 24 March 1947, after deliberating for just under an hour, the jury found Ley and Smith guilty of the murder of Mudie. Lord Goddard sentenced both men to death, with the executions set for the 8 May.
Yet, unlike poor Edward Smith some 25 years earlier, Ley's plight fell on compassionate ears. Examining the prisoner, two doctors reported he had been suffering from paranoia when he had plotted the murder. Three days before Ley was to hang, his sentence was commuted to life in prison. His accomplice Smith's sentence was also commuted.
Thomas Ley - now officially a madman murderer - was transferred to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. But the 66-year-old wasn't to escape his fate for long. On 23 July 1947, he suffered a massive stroke, and he died the next day.
- Michael Adams is the creator of the podcast Forgotten Australia where you can find many more amazing true stories.