Thirteen steps to perdition – the tragic story of Leslie Hylton

The little-remembered Jamaican firebrand was key to the West Indies’ first-ever series win against England, but his obscurity is rooted in infamy

 

Leslie Hylton 3

West Indies squad for 1939 tour of England. Leslie Hylton is shown back row, fourth left

 

Leslie George Hylton is not a name you will find in the pantheon of great West Indian cricketers. While his short obituary in Wisden hints at unfulfilled promise, his place in the Almanack is defined by the footnote added as an afterthought some years later:

Hylton was hanged for the murder of his wife in 1955. He is the only Test cricketer known to have been executed.

A year or so ago, millions of us were transfixed by the high-definition, digitally enhanced television coverage of the trial of Oscar Pistorius as prosecutor Gerrie Nel unpicked the loose stitching of the Pistorius defence. The Blade Runner cut a miserable figure, a broken reed, sobbing and spewing in sorrow and self-pity as the trial progressively crushed his spirit and credibility and celebrity.

Sixty years earlier, in the black-and-white, analogue world of the Pathé newsreel and hot-metal composition, Leslie Hylton was arrested for shooting dead his wife. His arrest and trial was, in its time, every inch as shocking, sensational and captivating as the State v Pistorius.

This article follows a chance discovery of the Wisden footnote and a reading of the contemporary trial transcripts as reported in the Kingston Daily Gleaner and the Washington Afro-American. It attempts to retrieve a forgotten story of a fallen idol, a dramatic narrative that embraces big, tragic themes and reveals human frailties in their countless, desperate guises. This is the story Shakespeare might have told had Othello survived and been put to trial.

 

Have not we affections and desires for sport

Leslie Hylton was born on 29 March 1905 in Kingston, Jamaica. He lost his mother when he was three and was brought up by his aunt, who died when he was 12.

He left school at much the same time and took up as a tailor’s apprentice to the portentously named Henry Shakespeare. He later changed tack and became a docker, which probably better suited his burley, six-foot frame. Inhabiting the fringes of the Jamaican underclass, poor and poorly educated with an indeterminate, roughneck background, the strapping young man was good at cricket.

Hylton’s sporting talent brought him opportunity and a little celebrity. He made his first-class debut playing for Jamaica against LH Tennyson’s XI at Sabina Park in February 1927. The right-arm fast seamer and aggressive lower-order batsman played his first Test in January 1935 against RES Wyatt’s MCC in their winter tour of the West Indies.

The tourists may not have been at full strength, missing Sutcliffe and Verity, but they still enjoyed a strong batting line up with Wyatt, Maurice Leyland and Wally Hammond making a pretty useful top three.

Hylton enjoyed an explosive start to his Test career getting pace and bounce from a soft, sticky wicket still drying after heavy pre-match rain. Batting courageously to second top score behind the great George Headley and returning first-innings bowling figures of 7.3, 3, 8, 3, the young Jamaican tyro embraced Test cricket as if it were a birthright. His 13 wickets across the series, achieved with an economy of 2.6 and an average of 19.3, helped deliver the West Indies’ first-ever series win against England. These were the days before Headley became the first black player to captain the West Indies. Wyatt described the pace attack of Martingale, Constantine and Hylton as the best of its kind in the world, and they were the true forerunners of Roberts, Croft, Garner and Holding.

West Indies did not play another Test series until the 1939 tour of England. So strapped were they for cash that they could not afford to add Hylton to the 15-man squad. The outraged folk of Jamaica launched a public appeal to fund his tour costs and the popular Hylton, suitably sponsored, was packed up and shipped off to England. Sadly, while his stellar debut in the 1935 series had been bright and dynamic, his performances in 1939 faded badly, and he was dropped after two Tests.

On his return to Jamaica, Hylton retired from first-class cricket altogether, with career figures of 120 wickets in 40 first-class matches, a very respectable average of 25.62 and an economy of 2.7. He took a job as a foreman with the Jamaican Rehabilitation Service, and remained out of the public eye for the next 15 years.

 

Rude am I in my speech, and little blessed with soft phrases

Around 1940, Hylton met Lurline, the tall, pretty daughter of Philip Ezekiel Rose, sub-Inspector of Police in the Jamaican Constabulary, and his wife Constantia. Philip Rose was the first black Inspector of Police in Jamaica and later awarded the Colonial Police Medal for Meritorious Service. The colony was deeply riven by caste and class, and for all his sporting heroics, Hylton did not pass muster with Lurline’s status-driven parents. They were sniffy, middle-class churchgoers, who employed servants with better ancestry than the brutish cricketer. 

The Roses strongly disapproved of Hylton’s relationship with their daughter, and Philip even trawled through police records for evidence of criminality. Finding none, they reluctantly gave consent for the marriage, which took place in October 1942.

The marriage was uneventful and seemed to pass happily enough. Their son, Gary, was born in 1947, and four years later the Hyltons moved in with Constantia, by then three years a widow.

 

Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore

Lurline was a dressmaker by trade and from April 1951 she spent lengthy periods in America to train in the art of French couture and advance her career as a fashion designer. An initial year in New York City was followed by a second from April 1953. On each occasion, her brother Jasper stood surety for her return, presumably as a visa condition. Hylton agreed to the lengthy sojourns as the plan was for her to pave the way for the family to emigrate to the United States, though he won’t have been particularly joyous spending awkward months alone with a prickly mother-in-law, who barely tolerated him.

Six months in to her second stint, Hylton began to get edgy about his wife’s continued absence. Lurline wrote to her husband, startling him with her intention to extend her stay in New York by a further two years. Three days later, on or around 17 April 1954, Hylton received an anonymous letter, a 642-word, typewritten, lurid description of Lurline’s alleged adultery with a notorious Brooklyn womaniser called Roy Francis. 

The letter, signed ‘Your Old Friend’ underpinned the brazen, scarlet-letter openness of the affair, with Lurline and Francis even attending a function given in honour of ‘Mr Manley,’ a reference to Norman Manley, the political campaigner and future prime minister of Jamaica.

That afternoon, a seething Hylton sent two curtly phrased cables to America. The first, to his wife, read –

Come home immediately, do not ask questions.

The second was sent to Jasper Rose demanding that he –

Withdraw bond re Lurline immediately. Will explain later.

Constantia Rose claimed Hylton reacted badly to the letter, causing an uproar, weeping and making noise in equal measure. With his temper swelling in a storming rage, he threatened to go to America himself and shoot Lurline if she did not return to Jamaica. He roared with self-righteous, fateful fury that no jury would convict him because of the anonymous letter. Hylton denied making the threats.

 

I think my wife be honest and think she is not

Whether Lurline returned of her own free will or under threat of deportation, she arrived back at Kingston’s Palisadoes Airport (now the Norman Manley International Airport) on 2 May 1954. According to Constantia, her daughter again denied the accusations of infidelity and placated her husband with conjugal cordiality, or as The Daily Gleaner so quaintly put it,

The matter was settled in true matrimonial form.

But Hylton’s fevered jealousy was not so easily cured, and his suspicions, barely stored and locked away, were soon enough unpacked when he spotted the garden boy sneak a letter from Lurline to the nearby post box. Late on 5 May 1954 or the early hours of 6 May, he confronted his wife in a new rage, claiming in a bluff that he had seen the address on the envelope and knew it was to Francis. It was a deceit fathered by nagging, gnawing doubt.

When police later rescued the letter from the post office, it did turn out to be a billet-doux to Francis. It was a long, angst-ridden letter jumping to and fro from mundane, practical matters to neurotic questions that touched on Francis’s dubious character. She gushed declarations of love for him and betrayed her feelings towards her husband in barbed, hate-ridden dismissals –

Can you imagine me trying to stand another’s affection? It gives me a feeling like I’d want to vomit … I’m going to force my man’s hand as soon as I think I can and I feel my mom is behind me.

According to Hylton’s testimony, when she was confronted in the small hours, Lurline admitted her love for Francis, claiming the last few days with her husband had been torture. She was said to have screamed hysterically at him –

I should have followed my parents’ advice and not married you. You are out of my class … You are a hindrance to me … Roy is a better man than you. I love him. Just the sight of you makes me sick. I can’t bear to touch you. I can’t bear you to touch me … You brute … I have found the man I love, you cannot stand in my way … Yes, I have slept with him. I have never felt that way with you. My body belongs to him. I am Roy’s, Roy’s, Roy’s!

With the words still ringing in her husband’s ears, Lurline lifted the flimsy pink shortie nightgown she was wearing, and taunted her cuckolded husband with her naked body.

 

Tis here, but yet confused

The tragic events of the next few minutes cost two lives. The cold facts are horrifying clear, but the precise framing of events between the two emotionally fuelled protagonists is less certain. Hylton’s own testimony, as transcribed in the contemporary reports of The Daily Gleaner and the Washington Afro-American weekly, was at times hesitant and imprecise, yet it remains the principal source of the unfolding tragedy in all its wretched confusion. Key Crown witnesses gave evidence that clashed and collided in a clutter of contradiction, not just with each other but also with their own earlier statements. Prejudice and failures of recollection ran like a dark and woolly thread through the whole warp and weft of the trial.

 

Thieves, thieves! Look to your house, your daughter and your bags!

The Hyltons possessed a Smith & Wesson Colt revolver, which had been given to them by Lurline’s brother Manley Rose back in 1949, shortly after the death of their father. It was their habit to keep the gun in a bureau drawer and bring it out at night as protection against intruders. In a bizarre ritual, both Lurline and Hylton occasionally fired off rounds into the night sky as a warning to any nefarious types within earshot. It emerged from the ballistic evidence at the trial that the gun was not in good condition. It had a stiff trigger and the cylinder did not always align properly with the firing pin. It was known to jam.

In the last week of April 1954, in separate incidents, their next-door neighbour had been burgled and Hylton had lost his wallet to a pickpocket. Fear of thieves, said Hylton, prompted him to fret about the lack of ammunition for the revolver. The day before Lurline arrived back in Jamaica, he bought 15 rounds of .32-calibre revolver cartridges from the local sports shop. Much was made at the trial about the timing of the purchase and whether it was predicated on premeditation or self-preservation.

 

Thy bed, lust-stain’d, shall with lust’s blood be spotted

According to Hylton, he responded to Lurline’s taunts with –

I am your husband. You can never get rid of me, I promise you that.

At which point, a red mist descended on his wife, who made a grab for the revolver and attempted to shoot her husband. There was a click, but the gun did not go off.

In the struggle that followed, Hylton described a dizzy madness that rid him of reason and recollection. All he could see were fevered images of his wife and Francis in sexual congress. He came to from a blackout and –

saw blood, blood all over and I realised that I had shot my wife … I was frightened. I decided to end my life.

The trial would have to wrestle with the gruesome comedy of the alleged suicide bid.

A shaken Hylton emerged from the bedroom, told a terrified Constantia that he had shot her daughter and then rang the police and other family members, who rushed to the house. No one thought to check the body or call a doctor. Had they done so, they would have found that Lurline was still alive. Left bleeding and unattended, the poor woman died at some later stage, her body, broken and exposed, no longer coping with blood loss and shock that eventually closed down her vital organs.

The first policeman to arrive was an officer till recently assigned to traffic duties. He failed to caution Hylton, a material omission in total breach of Judges’ Rules designed to protect a suspect from self-incrimination. Hylton rambled nervously with garrulous incoherence while detained without arrest, all the while fielding hostile questions from the officer and Lurline’s horrified family.

 

Keep leets and law-days and in session sit

The home-circuit courtroom in October 1954 was packed to the rafters, with hundreds if not thousands more jostling for position outside old Cenotaph Square, all eager to hear the grisly details of one of the most ghastly killings in Jamaican history. The Daily Gleaner carried the story almost verbatim in nine potboiler episodes across 40 pages of ink-smudged drama. It observed that

reports in the newspapers were read in homes and in barber shops and under community trees. Every day.

In spite of the horrific killing, there was a good deal of communal sympathy towards the former cricketer, and it was said that the crowds cheered loudly whenever they caught sight of Hylton’s defence team.

He was represented by Vivian Blake, an able advocate and future QC; the instructing solicitor was Noel Nethersole, Hylton’s captain in the Jamaican cricket team of the 1930s.

The presiding judge, Mr Justice Colin MacGregor, was a highly regarded lawyer, who went on to become Jamaica’s first chief justice. But he was also considered harsh and class conscious. Norman Manley’s biographer, Jackie Ranston, in her book Lawyer Manley described MacGregor as stern, strong and dedicated to detail, which some might justifiably interpret as pedantic. A recent piece in The Jamaica Observer called him tough and not always delivering justice to working-class defendants. MacGregor, it seems, was not above berating and even dismissing a jury for reaching a verdict that did not comply with his particular world view.

The transcripts of the Hylton trial suggest that MacGregor was an irritable judge, repeatedly intervening to scold the poorly educated and confused Hylton, creating an impression that the accused was being evasive. It seems more likely that Hylton, mentally exhausted during two days of cross-examination, simply did not always understand the subtlety of the prosecution’s questions.

The issue for the jury was fairly straightforward. Was the killing of Lurline premeditated murder or was it manslaughter based on the partial defence of provocation? The challenge for Vivian Blake was to show that Lurline’s taunts and actions on the night of 5/6 May were such as would cause in any reasonable person a sudden and temporary loss of self-control. Central to this was how should a reasonable man be defined? Was it, as Blake contended, a passionate, hot-blooded Jamaican man in Spanish Town or was it a laconic Englishman on the Clapham omnibus? The clash of cultural perspectives proved critical.

 

And what’s he then that says I play the villain?

The most damning evidence against Hylton came from Dr Vernon Lindo, the pathologist who performed the post mortem. He identified seven gunshot wounds in the victim’s body – two in the groin, one in the midriff, one in the left breast, one in the left shoulder, one in the neck and one in the left cheek. Several wounds showed signs of scorching, meaning the shots were fired from just six to eight inches.

Lindo also revealed that Lurline had been recently pregnant and undergone an abortion shortly before she returned home from America. None of this was known to Hylton at the time of the killing, and her letter to Francis, intercepted by the police on 6 May, puzzlingly refers to an extant pregnancy, even though it had been terminated by that time. 

Constantia described the gunshots she heard as being separated by several minutes. Lurline’s last known words were –

Don’t come, mommy, he’s going to kill you, too.

As Constantia ran for help, further shots rang out. If her testimony is to be trusted, it touched on the question whether or not Hylton had lost self-control. On the evidence presented by his mother-in-law, the shots seem to have been discharged over a measured time rather than in an uncontrolled moment of helpless frenzy. 

Another Crown witness said in her preliminary statement that the shots were fired in rapid succession, only to change her testimony at the trial remembering, more clearly five months after the event, hearing shots discharged over a more prolonged period.

 

Killing myself, to die upon a kiss

The revolver was a six-shooter, so if Lurline had been shot seven times, Hylton must have reloaded the gun, which prima facie drove a coach and four through any claim that he had suffered sudden and temporary loss of self-control. But Hylton testified that when he came out of his stupor, he reloaded the gun with two cartridges intending to kill himself. The reliability of the gun caused one shot to fire accidentally, he said, and a trembling hand caused the second to miss his targeted temple, before he lost courage with the sorry enterprise. Hylton was never asked why, bent on suicide, he needed to reload the gun with two cartridges.

Forensic evidence at the trial confirmed that eight shots were fired. Ballistics and pathology identified four bullets removed from the body, one left in the body, two that exited the body, and one bullet fired directly into the wall. It is self evident that a seventh bullet, following reloading, hit the stricken Lurline.

Hylton’s alleged threats to shoot his wife at the time of the anonymous letter, the purchase of the cartridges the day before she returned home from America, and the discharge of eight bullets, including a pause for reloading, pointed to cold, calculated murder.

Letters written by Lurline to her mother and to Francis suggest that it was not entirely improbable that she provoked Hylton as he described. One of the spent cartridges bore a double firing-pin impression consistent with an attempt to fire that jammed and supporting Hylton’s claim that Lurline tried to shoot him. His bungled, trauma-wrecked attempt at suicide might explain the reloading of the revolver. 

Both the Crown and defence produced credible stories of sorts, incredible only to the extent that they could not each be true. The fog of confusion and contradiction in the evidence of nearly all the witnesses suggest that between the two strands of argument, coiled and joined by cold, common facts, there was room for some reasonable doubt.

The question of intent is probably contained in the story of the seventh bullet, and while this can be told and believed one way or the other, the seventh bullet probably killed Leslie Hylton as surely as it did for his wife.

In the Pistorius trial, the defence had to show that the athlete subjectively believed he was acting in self-defence and that a reasonable man would believe that his actions in firing four shots into the bathroom door were consistent and proportionate with that belief. Thokozile Masipa and her fellow judges decided, with the whole world watching, that Pistorius failed the ‘reasonable man’ test and sentenced him to five years for culpable homicide.

Mr Justice MacGregor spent the morning of 20 October 1954 summing up and giving guidance to the jury on the material issues. His summary, delivered with lofty but dubious disinterest, offered balance that favoured the Crown and detachment that undermined the defendant.

MacGregor admitted that the arresting officer failed to caution Hylton in breach of Judges’ Rules, but excused the officer on grounds of his inexperience and allowed the defendant’s potentially incriminating statements to be admitted as evidence – 

There are many persons that took the view that in our law we err on the side of helping the criminal to escape.

MacGregor preferred to err the other way.

On the question of provocation, MacGregor directed the jury that neither Lurline’s abusive words nor her confessional taunts nor her attempt to shoot her husband amounted in law to a provocation. This was a very narrow and unhelpful interpretation of the law at the time, and effectively removed from the jury any responsibility for considering provocation or assessing the ‘reasonable man’ test.

Even so, when the jurors returned to the court after deliberating for one hour 27 minutes, the foreman advised the judge that they could not reach an unanimous verdict. MacGregor sent them away to think some more with words that must have come close to a misdirection in a capital trial –

It makes for great public inconvenience and expense if jurors cannot agree, owing to the unwillingness of one or more of their number to listen to the arguments of the rest.

After a further hour and 19 minutes, the solemn, haggard-looking foreman announced the unanimous verdict – guilt of murder with a strong recommendation for mercy. The verdict of guilty was greeted with groans in the public gallery and pandemonium in the large crowd waiting outside. Had the obiter recommendation for mercy suggested some nagging sympathy in the minds of the jurors, perhaps even reasonable doubt but for the intervention of the judge?

 

Then have we a prescription to die when Death is our physician

The black cap was placed on top of MacGregor’s wig and the death sentence was passed. Over the next six months, the various appeals procedures were progressively exhausted, with the alleged misdirection in the judge’s summing up a central feature of the defendant’s appeal case, but to no avail. The last hope for Hylton was to petition Sir Hugh Foot, governor of Jamaica, for a reprieve. Foot was a great fan of West Indian cricket, but for all his undoubted admiration of the fiery bowler’s past glories, on a day free of gentle rain, mercy did not season justice and Foot did not commute the sentence.

Word emerged from the prison that Hylton’s hair turned white overnight as he waited for the orange glow of dawn to break on the morning of 17 May 1955, the date set for his execution. Twelve-hundred miles away to the east, Barbados was hosting the fourth Test between West Indies and Australia. 

The Windies’ opener was JKC Holt, who was going through a poor run of form. Tony Cozier, in his 1997 obituary of Holt in The Independent recalled –

Not only had he to endure declining returns but, during the fourth Test, the biting and ghoulish sense of humour of the crowd. After he dropped more catches than they were prepared to accept, spectators turned up with a placard reading ‘Hang Holt, Save Hylton’.

Holt’s father had played cricket for Jamaica with Hylton, and perhaps part of the gallows humour on display at the Kensington Oval reflected the crowd’s continued regard for Hylton, who, never quite the fallen idol, was about to be dropped for the last time.

 

Reputation is an idle and most false perception

Hylton could not bring himself to eat the substantial last breakfast of banana porridge, eggs and toast. He dressed himself in a light grey tropical suit and a white shirt before being escorted to the scaffold. Thousands of people blocked the approach to St Catherine District Prison in Spanish Town in wretched, waitful vigil. The former Test cricketer and convicted killer approached his own death with quiet dignity and calm resignation. An end denied his wife.

Taking some comfort in his newly adopted Catholic faith, he ascended the 13 steps to the gallows. His death certificate was posted outside the prison gate at 8:37am. He was buried within the prison compound in a 20-foot pit that already held the remains of a prisoner executed a month or so earlier. 

Reeva Steenkamp and Lurline Hylton did not deserve to die. They were the victims of dreadful, unlawful killing and their deaths must stay central to the stories. As counsel for the Crown said in 1954 –

If Lurline Hylton were not virtuous, if she were no paragon of wifely virtue, she still had a right to life.

Within that primary paradigm, it is striking how the two cases show just how ambiguous justice can be, defined, rolled out and interpreted according to the mores of its age. Based on the same evidence, would a jury today have found Hylton guilty of capital murder? I doubt that an appellate court today would let Colin MacGregor’s interventions go uncorrected. In a modern trial, I am sure that the changing and contradictory testimonies of partial witnesses would be subjected to greater scrutiny and scepticism.

Hylton was, perhaps, unlucky to have had the arch-colonial, irascible MacGregor presiding over the trial. Just two years after the execution, the new Homocide Act reformed the partial defence of provocation, making the ‘reasonable man’ test the sole responsibility of the jury. This change came too late for Hylton, since it might well have brought about a different outcome.

No one will ever know whether Leslie Hylton was a cold, wilful murderer or a hot-tempered wife killer uncontrollably driven by alleged provocation. Neither is a badge of honour. His complex, tragic story, like his Wisden obituary, will always be an awkward, embarrassing footnote.

© 2015, Tregaskis

 

A shorter version of this article was originally published in the March 2015 edition of the Cricketer magazine.

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1 Comment

Filed under Leslie Hylton

One response to “Thirteen steps to perdition – the tragic story of Leslie Hylton

  1. jennyah46

    A gripping if tragic tale, beautifully written.

    Like

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