#MyrtleMondays: Victorian True Crime–the Ardlamont Mystery

A real-life murder trial threads through the Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries. Myrtle is an avid newshound, and follows the story as it unfolds in the background. Her next adventure, Myrtle, Means, and Opportunity (October 24) takes her close to the site of these dramatic events, which captivated the British public. Let’s take a look at The Ardlamont Mystery of 1893.

In August of 1893, three young men went hunting at a country house in Scotland. Only two of them returned. Was Cecil Hambrough murdered by his tutor, Alfred Monson, and Monson’s shady friend Edward Scott? Or was it really, as Monson claimed, a tragic accident? Even a Scottish jury couldn’t decide.

Account of Alfred Monson’s murder trial, from The Graphic, December 1893.

Windsor Dudley Cecil Hambrough, age 20, was the heir to nearly £200,000 (around $1 million today). Alfred Monson, engaged by Hambrough’s father, had a history of insurance fraud, failed business ventures, and skipping out on debts—and, apparently, of convincing the wealthy to trust him.

Ardlamont House in 1893. This country home would lend its name forever after to one of the most infamous mysteries of the Victorian age. (It’s still available to rent, should you want to arrange your own shooting party.)

On the surface, the events of August 1893 seem straightforward. Monson had rented Ardlamont House for hunting season, and brought along his family and pupil, Cecil Hambrough. Some time later they were joined by Monson’s friend Edward Scott, and on the morning of August 10, the three men went hunting.  Within minutes of their departure, workers on the estate heard a gunshot, and saw Monson and Scott return to Ardlamont House—alone.

Cecil Hambrough, the unfortunate shooting victim

Here’s where things start to get murky. Scott and Monson explained that Cecil’s shotgun went off accidentally, fatally injuring him. But Cecil wasn’t shot with the gun he’d left with; his injuries came from Monson’s gun. And Scott and Monson immediately cleaned their guns upon returning to Ardlamont House, before notifying anyone of Cecil’s accident.

Then there’s the boat. The night before the hunting accident, Hambrough and Monson went fishing in what turned out to be a leaky boat—a boat that had clearly been tampered with. Young Cecil could not swim, but the boat sank close to shore, so no harm done.

Would you trust this man with your children?

Poor Cecil’s holiday seemed doomed to be unlucky and accident prone. But when it emerged that Monson had taken out two life insurance policies on his pupil, questions and suspicions congealed into a murder charge.

The Solicitor General (like the DA in an American trial) questions the ballistics expert about Hambrough’s gun

The trial was a sensation. Monson’s shady dealings came to light. Edward Scott turned out to be an alias for Monson’s bookie—who skipped town before the trial and was never tracked down. The prosecution presented testimony from some of Britain’s foremost experts on forensic science, including Scottish surgeon Joseph Bell, well known even then as the inspiration behind Sherlock Holmes. It should have been an open-and-shut case, but the battle of the experts left the jurors conflicted over the physical evidence.

Monson’s trial lasted ten days, with newspapers breathlessly recounting every moment of the testimony. Defense experts (not unexpectedly) shot down every point the prosecution made. What was a jury to do? Well, as it happened, they did something uniquely Scottish.


Unlike English and American courts, Scottish juries have a choice of three verdicts in criminal trials: guilty, not guilty, or not proven—an indication that the prosecution has not made its case beyond a reasonable doubt, yet plenty of suspicion still hangs over the head of the defendant.

The story doesn’t end there, of course. Alfred Monson, showing a consummate ability to make a quid out of anything, published a memoir of the events: The Ardlamont Mystery Solved. And when Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in London dared to include him in its rogue’s gallery of famous criminals, Monson sued them for defamation.

The sordid details of the case, and the shocking verdict, made–and keep–the Ardlamont Mystery such a fascinating Victorian mystery.

Read More: The Ardlamont Murder by the Surgeons’ Hall Museums

The Ardlamont Mystery: The Real-Life Story Behind the Creation of Sherlock Holmes by Daniel Smith

And for much more Scottish criminal mayhem, be sure to pre-order Myrtle, Means, and Opportunity!