Hatton murder mystery — prosecution uses 15-minute time discrepancy when presenting its case

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

In the courtroom, many of the witnesses refuted the Crown’s interpretation of events, saying the blood found on defendant Robert Morran’s clothing was the result of helping his father to bleed a sick horse three days before the murder of 24-year-old Hannah Hatton.

Holland butcher Arthur Berry said he was present on March 27, 1896, when the horse was bled and saw blood squirt on Morran’s right arm. The butcher said two or three quarts of blood spurted from the puncture made in the horse’s neck by a lancet wielded by Morran’s father.

George Hatton also claimed at the trial that a shirt with a bloodstain was his and the blood came from a nose bleed, a condition that frequently afflicted him. 

There was conflicting evidence presented about a bloodstained handkerchief found in the bottom of Morran’s trunk by Constable Cox of the Manitoba Provincial Police. Morran family members said they didn’t recognize the handkerchief as Robert’s. 

There was also some question about the timeframe of the handkerchief’s  discovery. During the November 1896 trial in Winnipeg, one brother claimed the handkerchief was not in the trunk when it was first searched by the police, while other family members said it was days later that the handkerchief was found in the trunk. 

The family members came to believe the handkerchief was placed in the trunk by someone attempting to intentionally implicate Morran in Hatton’s murder which took place on a road a half kilometre outside Holland, Manitoba.

Further evidence at the trial revolved around the times and locations of Hatton and Morran on the evening of March 30.

Besides visiting Dr. Walter Scott and going to the store in Holland, Hatton was in the company of Janet Jameson between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., according to her uncle Richard Agar. They left the Agar home together, but didn’t inform the family where they were going. In his testimony, R. Jameson, the father of Janet, told the court his daughter had returned home by 7 o’clock.

Harry Lewis, the Methodist minister at Holland, was in the local printing shop folding papers when Morran walked in at about 8:20 p.m. or 8:30 p.m., staying for just 15 minutes.

George Davis testified he saw Morran in his store about nine o’clock in the evening on March 30. After remaining  15 minutes, Morran told Davis he was going home to do his chores and then go to bed. 

Hatton arrived at the Morran boarding house about 7:30 p.m., according to George Morran, the brother of the defendant. John Morran, another brother, said the time was 8 p.m. It was John who the next day found Hatton’s handkerchief on the railway tracks and handed it over to the police.

Maggie Latimer, the sister of the defendant said Hatton, Lizzie Yates and Robert Morran were in the dining room together with Robert helping Lizzie string beads. Hatton was playing dominoes with John Morran in the dining room. 

Rebecca Nesbitt, an employee of the Morran’s in their boarding house, said Hatton said goodnight to her and left about 9 p.m.

Morran left at about 8:15 p.m. for the printing shop in the village, but returned at about 9:30 p.m. with a lantern in his hand and proceeded down the hall as if bound for bed.

Robert’s mother Anne Morran told the court Hatton had left their home through the front door at about 9 p.m., while her son had come into the kitchen about 9:15 p.m. to get a lantern and went out the back door. Morran later told police he had gone to the stable with the lantern to feed the horses before going to bed.

There were some discrepancies in attributing times to both Morran’s and Hatton’s whereabouts on the evening in question, but it was the 15 minutes unaccounted for by witnesses between 9:15 and 9:30 p.m. which the Crown seized upon to make their case against Morran.

In his summation, Crown counsel Howell said “it took very little time to murder the girl.”

Nugent was highly critical of the police investigation. In his summation, he actually referred to the investigators as liars who presented conflicting evidence to the court. 

“With more legs than brains,” he commented, one detective walked from the spot where the body was found to the elevator and timed it at eight minutes, but if he ran he believed he could do it in four minutes.

“The Crown attempted to show that the murderer ran back from the scene of the tragedy. There was danger of him meeting a dozen people on the highway. Is it reasonable to suppose that he could have walked to the spot, slain his victim, placed the clothes around her and even run back, all in the space of fifteen minutes, leaving to cover a mile of ground!

“It is nonsensical in the extreme to suppose it,” Nugent asserted.

For his part, Nugent said he believed the girl had not been killed where she was found. After her murder at another location, Hatton’s body was dumped on the road, he claimed. 

The fact that the body was not immediately found, despite numerous people passing nearby, was further proof that the crime had taken place much later in the evening at a time when Morran was known to be in bed, according to Nugent.

Angus McLeod, the Massey-Harris agent in Holland, testified he “examined the stockings over the girl’s boots and found them to be perfectly clean.”

As Hatton’s rubber boots were carefully placed alongside her body and her stockings had not been soiled, this further suggested that she may have been killed in another location and her body then moved to where it was eventually found. If she had been slain where she fell, it was inferred that her stockings would have been soiled with mud from the road.

Nugent pointed out to the jury that the witnesses’ testimony about her stockings and the location of her garments showed, “She never stood on her feet on that spot. She might have been killed anywhere ...

“Are you going to hang him because he left his home about the same time as the girl!” exclaimed Nugent. “There is no evidence. There are a few circumstances. But of all the evidence, nothing is so unsafe as circumstantial evidence.”

The possibility that someone else had murdered Hatton was enhanced by Angus McLeod, the agent for the Massey-Harris Company in Holland, who testified he saw “a horse (and rider) running away that night after moonlight,” about 10:30 p.m. McLeod said he knew the exact time the rider passed as the curling meeting he attended had just ended when he started walking home.

McLeod said he was on the sidewalk near the Methodist Church when he saw the horse and rider passing. “The man was leaning over the horse’s neck. I couldn’t see the face ... Morran’s place is in the northeastern part of town. The church is about the centre of the town ... The horse was running at full speed.”

The identity of the mystery man riding a galloping horse from the direction of the murder into town was not established in court, nor was there further evidence presented indicating the police had attempted to pursue the lead.

One lead the police did pursue was Morran’s alleged purchase of a butcher knife in Treherne days prior to the murder. Ben Englevaine testified Morran was in his store purchasing a dozen table knives and forks, but could not remember the Holland man buying a butcher knife. Thomas Waldon, a commercial traveller, was in the store at the time of purchase, and testified that he only witnessed Morran being shown silver spoons.

As it turned out, there was a perfectly valid reason for Morran’s purchase — the spoons and forks were a wedding gift for his sister, who recently married Robert Latimer.

Nugent told the jury the Crown attempted to show that his client had bought a knife in Treherne on March 25, “(but) would a man do that and at the same time leave his name and address with the storekeeper as Morran did when he bought the wedding present?”

Those investigating the murder turned to a jailhouse informant in an attempt to link Morran with the weapon used to kill Hatton. Prisoner James Armstrong related in court a conversation he overheard between a provincial constable and Morran.

“I have turned over the nuisance ground (garbage dump) and found nothing,” Constable Smart was alleged to have said.

“You will find nothing there belonging to me,” replied Morran.

Following Hatton’s death, a search had been made of the landfill as the most likely place for her killer to have dumped the murder weapon. John Morran said nearly all the boys from the town took part in the search “for the instrument of death,” including himself and his brothers George and Robert, the defendant. 

Expert defence witnesses said, based upon the nature of the two wounds to Hatton’s throat, the murder was most likely committed with a surgical instrument rather than a butcher knife. Police and expets could only speculate about the type of weapon used as the murder weapon was never found. 

Armstrong asked Morran about the two letters the police had uncovered. Morran only admitted to Armstrong that he had written one and Hatton the other. In the end, Armstrong was unable to provide any real information linking Morran to the murder.

During Nugent’s closing remarks to the jury, the Manitoba Free Press reported, “Young Morran moved to the end of the box while the appeal for his life was being made. He was more attentive and thoughtful at (that moment than) any time during the long seven days that he sat in the box. Mr. Nugent’s burst of eloquence worked the accused into a state of excitement which was apparent when, with trembling lips and flushed countenance, he asked the Free Press representative as soon as Mr. Nugent concluded, what he thought of his chances now.”

At the end of prosecutor Howell’s remarks, Morran told the same reporter, “I wish I could have a chance to explain to the jury some of the things he (Howell) mentioned. A great deal of the time he didn’t know what he was talking about. Well, I’m glad it’s nearly over. This time tomorrow I’ll be a free man, will be with my father and mother and go home with them.”

After Justice Dubuc’s instructions to the 12-member jury, it took them four hours to arrive at a not guilty verdict.

“A great cheer went up from the crowd of spectators,” reported the November 13, 1896, Manitoba Free Press. “Ladies waved their handkerchiefs and added their voices to the tumultuous approval of the jury’s verdict. In vain did the officials call for order ...”

Despite his early confidence expressed to the Free Press reporter:  “For an instant the prisoner did not seem to realize the meaning of the words that said he was not the murderer of Hannah Hatton — that after nine months of imprisonment and nine days of trial made him again a free man.”

A Free Press reporter standing near Morran offered his congratulations, but the young man was only able to say in a trembling voice, “Is it so?”

When assured he had been pronounced not guilty, Morran left the courtroom and was greeted outside by a throng of well-wishers. He left in the company of his father, as his mother could not bear the tension preceeding the verdict and had already left the courtroom.

Nugent’s defence of his client was regarded as the pinnacle of his skill as a lawyer. The Free Press obituary the day after Nugent’s death on July 5, 1937, said: “Robert Morran, the accused, was acquitted, and the ability shown by his counsel was recognized far and wide, the case having developed into one of the most sensational in the provincial records.”

“Morran’s acquittal will not be the end of the Hatton murder mystery,” predicted the Free Press at the end of Morran’s trial. “The atrocious crime has yet to be atoned, and the authorities will prosecute the search for the gentlemen with more vigor than ever.”

But it would be years before the facts of the murder were revealed through a deathbed confession rather than a police investigation.

“Twenty odd years later the solution came,” wrote Porter in his 1943 Tribune article, Dying Admission Solves Old Murder. “On his deathbed the doctor on whom the girl had called on the night of her death confessed that he had killed her and placed the body where it was found. His motive was never disclosed.

“He had returned to Ontario some time after the trial, and his belated confession was printed in Winnipeg newspapers. Robert Morran had long since been acquitted in the public mind as in the courts — if, indeed, anyone ever did think seriously that he was guilty. This was one of Manitoba’s most dramatic criminal trials.”

Bill Harrison, a relative of Robert Morran, told the WREN that family oral history related few details of Hatton’s murder other than Morran’s innocence and that Dr. Walter Scott confessed to killing the young woman 20 years after the fact.