Four accounts of a shooting

The Letter (1940) was based on the murder of a William Steward by Mrs Ethel Proudlock. It was a sensational case which crossed both racial boundaries (the presence of natives in the trial was said to have caused great unease as it diminished the status of the morally superior British colonials) and conventions expected of British women.

Needless to say, differing accounts of the murder emerged. Here are some extracts (spoiler alert). Catch the screening of The Letter (1940) at the NUS Museum to add William Wydler’s account to this non-exhaustive list!

 ‘Blood, blood. I’ve shot a man’- Mrs Proudlock’s account[1]

Steward answered by grabbing her right wrist and, with his left hand, turned off the light. Frightened now, she tried to break free – and couldn’t. When Steward began to raise her dress, she seized his hand and wrenched it away. ‘He pulled me towards him,’ Mrs Proudlock said. ‘He had one arm around my waist and the other on my left shoulder.’

Steward now tried to force her against the wall and, afraid that she might fall, Mrs Proudlock reached out to steady herself. That is when her hand came into contact with a revolver, belonging to her husband, lying on the table.

‘I think I must have fired twice then,’ she said. Terror had made her mind go blank, she explained, and she couldn’t be more precise. ‘The next thing I remember I was stumbling. I think it was on the steps [of the verandah], but I’m not sure.’

Mrs Proudlock who claimed to be in a state of shock, said she did not recall following Steward out of the house, nor did she recall shooting him three times in the head while he lay, clinging to life, on the rain-soaked ground. She said it was several minutes before she came to her senses. That was when she called to her cook, who was resting in his room, and ordered him to fetch her husband.

When Proudlock, accompanied by Goodman Ambler, a teaching colleague and the man with whom he had just had dinner, arrived fifteen minutes later, his wife staggered towards him, moaning: ‘Blood, blood. I’ve shot a man.’

‘Pok, pok, pok’ – The rickshaw puller eye-witness[2]

The shots, striking Steward in the neck and chest, were heard by the rickshaw puller whom Steward had told to wait on High Street. Thinking that help might be needed, the puller was approaching the house, he later told the police, when the door burst open and Steward was clutching his chest. Fearing for his own life, the puller fled and had made it as far as the street when three more shots rang out. Glancing back, he saw Ethel Proudlock, gun in hand and still wearing her pale-green tea-gown, standing over Steward’s body.

Tan Ng Tee, the rickshaw puller, said he saw Mrs Proudlock – the ‘mem’ – follow Steward down the steps and stand over his prone body: ‘The man made a noise, “Ah.” Then he was quiet.’

Tan asked Ethel what had happened to Steward. ‘I asked twice,’ he said. ‘I got no answer. I ran away fast. When I neared the gate, I heard shots: pok, pok, pok. I was frightened. I kept on running.’

‘No, no, no..Leave me alone’ – Mrs Leslie Crosbie’s account[3]

She was very angry now. She made a movement as though to go on to the veranda, from which the house–boy would certainly hear her, but he seized her arm.

‘Let me go,’ she cried furiously.

‘Not much. I’ve got you now.’

She opened her mouth and called ‘Boy, boy,’ but with a quick gesture he put his hand over it. Then before she knew what he was about he had taken her in his arms and was kissing her passionately. She struggled, turning her lips away from his burning mouth.

‘No, no, no,’ she cried. ‘Leave me alone. I won’t.’

She grew confused about what happened then. All that had been said before she remembered accurately, but now his words assailed her ears through a mist of horror and fear. He seemed to plead for her love. He broke into violent protestations of passion. And all the time he held her in his tempestuous embrace. She was helpless, for he was a strong, powerful man, and her arms were pinioned to her sides; her struggles were unavailing, and she felt herself grow weaker; she was afraid she would faint, and his hot breath on her face made her feel desperately sick. He kissed her mouth, her eyes, her cheeks, her hair. The pressure of his arms was killing her. He lifted her off her feet. She tried to kick him, but he only held her more closely. He was carrying her now.

He wasn’t speaking any more, but she knew that his face was pale and his eyes hot with desire. He was taking her into the bedroom. He was no longer a civilized man, but a savage. And as he ran he stumbled against a table which was in the way. His stiff knee made him a little awkward on his feet, and with the burden of the woman in his arms he fell. In a moment she had snatched herself away from him. She ran round the sofa. He was up in a flash, and flung himself towards her. There was a revolver on the desk. She was not a nervous woman, but Robert was to be away for the night, and she had meant to take it into her room when she went to bed. That was why it happened to be there.

She was frantic with terror now. She did not know what she was doing. She heard a report. She saw Hammond stagger. He gave a cry. He said something, she didn’t know what. He lurched out of the room on to the veranda. She was in a frenzy now, she was beside herself, she followed him out, yes, that was it, she must have followed him out, though she remembered nothing of it, she followed firing automatically, shot after shot, till the six chambers were empty. Hammond fell down on the floor of the veranda. He crumpled up into a bloody heap.

When the boys, startled by the reports, rushed up, they found her standing over Hammond with the revolver still in her hand and Hammond lifeless. She looked at them for a moment without speaking. They stood in a frightened, huddled bunch. She let the revolver fall from her hand, and without a word turned and went into the sitting–room. They watched her go into her bedroom and turn the key in the lock. They dared not touch the dead body, but looked at it with terrified eyes, talking excitedly to one another in undertones.

 ‘the revolver went click, click’ – Mrs Crosbie revealing the truth[4]

She had been speaking in a low voice, vehemently, and now she stopped and wrung her hands.

‘That damned letter. We’d always been so careful. He always tore up any word I wrote to him the moment he’d read it. How was I to know he’d leave that one? He came, and I told him I knew about the Chinawoman. He denied it. He said it was only scandal. I was beside myself. I don’t know what I said to him. Oh, I hated him then. I tore him limb from limb. I said everything I could to wound him. I insulted him. I could have spat in his face. And at last he turned on me. He told me he was sick and tired of me and never wanted to see me again. He said I bored him to death. And then he acknowledged that it was true about the Chinawoman. He said he’d known her for years, before the war, and she was the only woman who really meant anything to him, and the rest was just pastime. And he said he was glad I knew and now at last I’d leave him alone. And then I don’t know what happened, I was beside myself, I saw red. I seized the revolver and I fired. He gave a cry and I saw I’d hit him. He staggered and rushed for the veranda. I ran after him and fired again. He fell and then I stood over him and I fired till the revolver went click, click, and I knew there were no more cartridges.’

[UPDATE 15/4] Read the 44-page-long evidence/trial record here! CO273 374 Proudlock evidence

For another account of this shooting, don’t miss the screening of The Letter (1940) at the Ngee Ann Kongsi Auditorium on 23 April!

[1] As described by Eric Lawlor in Murder on the Verandah: Love and Betrayal in British Malaya (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999), pp. 11-12

[2] As described by Lawlor, Murder on the Verandah, p. 11 and p. 25

[3] As dramatised by Somerset Maugham in his short story, “The Letter”, first published in The Casuarina Tree (London: William Heinemann, 1926)

[4] As dramatised by Somerset Maugham in his short story, “The Letter”, first published in The Casuarina Tree (London: William Heinemann, 1926)


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