On a warm evening in July of 1919, the body of 21-year old Bella Wright was found on a little-traveled road in Little Stretton, England, a small township near Leicester. Her bike was nearby, and there was a bullet wound in her head. She had last been seen by her uncle earlier that evening, with a “man with a green bicycle.” This man would later be identified as Ronald Light, a 34-year old World War I veteran.
Bella was a young woman of the working class, the first of seven children of an illiterate farmhand and his wife. She went to school until she was 12, and then transitioned to working in order to help her family, first as a domestic servant, and then as a factory worker. She typically stayed close, riding her bicycle the five miles between work and home.
On the night of her murder, the young woman had been traveling to see her uncle, George Measure, when her front bicycle tire came loose. A passing stranger—now known to be Light—stopped to help her and, when he did not have the necessary tools for the job, offered to accompany her on her way. They arrived together at Measure’s house; the uncle would later describe Light as “unnerving.” But, once the bike was fixed, his niece and the seemingly helpful stranger rode off together. The time was approximately 8:50 pm.
Just half an hour later, at 9:20 pm, local farmer named Joseph Cowell happened upon Bella’s overturned bike—and her motionless body—on the quiet country lane. He immediately called for help, summoning both the local doctor and police constable Alfred Hall. It was, of course, too late for the doctor’s services, and his candle-lit “autopsy” of the body pronounced her dead from a bicycle accident. Police constable Hall, however, wasn’t so sure.
In the morning, he returned to the nearby church, where Bella’s body had been moved, to more closely examine the results of her “accident.” Wiping blood and matted hair away from her face, he saw the clear mark of a bullet wound and knew, suddenly, that her death had been a murder. A trip back to the site where her body was found revealed a .45 caliber bullet, confirming his suspicions.
The story quickly spread, as did George Measure’s description of the mysterious man and his bicycle with unusually shaped handlebars. A poster was made, and all were told to be on the lookout for either the described man or, notably, his green bicycle.
It wasn’t until February of the following year that any progress was made on the matter. It was at this point that, in a serendipitous accident, the tow-rope of a coal barge snagged an important piece of debris from the bottom of the River Soar. It was the frame of the green bicycle. The remaining bits were hauled up as well, and investigators were able to identify the bicycle—despite it being dismantled, with many of the serial numbers shaved off—as belonging to one Ronald Light. Later, a laborer by the name of Samuel Holland would come forward, stating that he saw Light dismantle the bike and toss it into the river, piece by piece, from the Upperton Road Bridge in Leicester.
Also pulled from the same river? An Army-issued pistol holster, and .45 caliber bullets, matching the bullet at the scene of the crime.
Light was arrested on March 4, 1920. He claimed he was innocent of Bella’s murder. He admitted he had been with her on the night of her death, but that he had split ways with her upon leaving her uncle’s home. He cited his ailing mother as the reason that he had not come forward as being “the man with the green bicycle,” and for having attempted to dispose of that evidence. He even admitted to being the owner of the found holster, as well as having owned a revolver.
In short, he admitted to everything: except for the actual murder.
At his trial that summer, Light appeared to be quite the gentleman; the facts presented against him, however, painted a different story. Along with all of the evidence to which he had admitted, it was found that Light had also had several “incidences” in the past, including run-ins with the law. He had been fired from a number of positions; had a seemingly unhealthy fascination with fire, having attempted to light offices and a row of hay stacks; and had been accused of “inappropriate” conduct towards girls and young women over a number of years and in a variety of settings. In every incident, no charges were brought against Light.
Despite this damning information, Light’s strategic lawyer, Sir Edward Marshall-Hall—who, coincidentally, would earn the nickname “the great defender” from his successful representation of people accused of horrendous murders—presented his client as a trustworthy teacher, army man, and community member. He also offered the court a story which excluded Light from having any murderous motive. The young woman, so Sir Edward suggested, had likely been shot accidentally from at a great distance, not close-range as Light was accused.
It seemed like an obvious conviction, but Light’s professional and calm demeanor, combined with the theory that a close-range shot would have more grotesquely disfigured the victim’s face, provided the jury with enough reason to acquit the man. Light walked free, and Bella’s family and community were left wondering what happened during the last half hour of her life.
Almost 100 years later, the case remains unsolved. After his acquittal, Light moved away, changed his name, and married. He lived a quiet life, dying in 1975 at the age of 89.
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