Date Of Execution: 14 Aug 1907
Crime Location: On a train between Llanishen and Cardiff
Execution Place: Cardiff
Executioner: Henry Pierrepoint
Rhoda Willis was convicted of the murder of a newly-born child called Treasure.
She asphyxiated her on a train between Llanishen and Cardiff on 4 April 1907.
She was also known as Leslie James.
Rhoda Willis placed an advertisement in the Evening Express newspaper offering her services as a housekeeper. The advertisement read 'Situation wanted as Housekeeper. Comfortable home, more consideration than wages.'. A boot and shoe repairer who lived at 55 George Street in Pontypool, Monmouthshire responded and said that a woman called Leslie James answered it. Leslie James was the name that Rhoda Willis used for that position. After exchanging a few letters Rhoda Willis then went into service for the boot and shoe repairer for 2/- a week and her keep.
Rhoda Willis went to work for the boot and shoe repairer on Monday 28 January 1907 and after two or three weeks the boot and shoe repairer said that Rhoda Willis received a letter from a woman in Abertillery in reference to a child and that after reading the letter she had burst out crying. The boot and shoe repairer said that he asked Rhoda Willis why she was crying and said that Rhoda Willis told him that that three weeks before she went to work for him she had been confined and that she had given the child away with £10 to the woman in Abertillery for the woman's sister to adopt as she had no children of her own and that they had written back asking if she would take the child back adding that they would give back half the premium which would have been £5. The boot and shoe repairer said that Rhoda Willis said she didn't know what to do and so he said 'Well, sooner that the little one would be knocked about, you can bring it here and do your best for it'. He said that Rhoda Willis then told him that she wrote to the woman in Abertillery and told her to bring the child back but that she got no answer to her letter and then later on Saturday 23 March 1907 she went to Cardiff and whilst she was away a letter arrived for her. When she returned from Cardiff on Tuesday morning, 26 March 1907 he said that Rhoda Willis read the latter and then told him that the woman in Abertillery could not refund the money and so had decided to keep the child.
The boot and shoe repairer said that then, later in the first week of April 1907 that Rhoda Willis suggested that they advertise for a child to adopt with a premium. The boot and shoe repairer said that he told her that he would have nothing to do with such a thing. He said that she told him that she would look after it and that she was making her home with him and that she could be like a mother to it. He said that at last he was foolish enough to agree to advertise. He said that as such they advertised to the effect 'Lady wants to adopt baby as her own, premium' in the Evening Express with a box number.
He said that they got two replies, one from a woman in Brynteg House, Abertillery and another from a woman at Ivy Cottage in Fleur-de-lis. They had also received other enquiries which Rhoda Willis was to later follow. He said that Rhoda Willis advertised in her own name giving his address at 55 Georgeg Street, Pontypool and that after they read the replies Rhoda Willis wrote to the woman in Brynteg House saying that they would take her baby with a £6 premium. He said that the child was two weeks old at the time and that on 10 April 1907 they went to fetch it. The boot and shoe repairer said that he went with Rhoda Willis as far as Crumlin where he stayed until Rhoda Willis came back from Abertillery with the child and that they then went to Newport where Rhoda Willis bought a couple of new things for the baby and that they then went back home to Pontypool.
The boot and shoe repairer said that the child was quite well whilst it was at his house. He said that Rhoda Willis then wrote to the other woman saying that she could not wait until June and that she had had a reply from Abertillery and that she was suited. However, he said that the woman from Ivy Cottage came to see Rhoda Willis on either Wednesday 17 April 1907 or 24 April 1907 and that they met in the sitting room upstairs whilst he was downstairs working and said that he didn't know what they had talked about. The boot and shoe repairer said that he told Rhoda Willis not to have anything to do with the woman from Ivy Cottage as they ought to do their best for the little child that they had from Abertillery. He said that the woman from Ivy Cottage didn't stay for more than 20 minutes or half an hour. He said that when he went to speak to Rhoda Willis after, she had told him that the woman from Ivy Cottage was very anxious for her to take the baby and that she had offered her £5 on her hand if she would give her word that she would take it and so she had told her that she would let her know. She told him that the woman from Ivy Cottage had told her that she could stop with her for 2-3 days till the baby was born. However, the boot and shoe repairer said that he told her not to have anything to do with it and that she had given him to understand that she had finished writing to the woman from Ivy Cottage.
The boot and shoe repairer said that Rhoda Willis got the £5 premium from the woman in Abertillery and that the woman had given her the other £1 later as well as a parcel of clothing, a feeding bottle and some milk.
However, the boot and shoe repairer said that Rhoda Willis left him on 7 May 1907 after saying that she had got a letter asking her to meet her cousin at Cardiff about some money that her uncle had left her, about £320, and had told him that she was going to take the baby to a friend's house in Llanishen saying that they would take care of it and that she then had to go to Birmingham.
The same eveing the child was found lying at the door of a Salvation Army Home at 48 Charles Street, Cardiff at 10.15pm with an anonymous letter written in the disguised handwriting of Rhoda Willis saying that it belonged to one of the Salvation Army girls who had gone wrong. The child was found by a Major in the Salvation Army that had stepped out onto the doorstep and trod on it and then heard it cry. He said that the child was wrapped up in a piece of red flannel and a piece of sacking. The child was taken to the workhouse where it died a week later from diarrhoea. The note had read 'Dear Kaptain do take my baby in i ham won of your girls but gon rong i will come back if you forgie me i bring sum muny'.
When the child was admitted to the Workhouse it was apparently 7 weeks old and ill-nourished and suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea (Gastro-enteritis) which caused death. It was stated that the child had been exposed for an hour in inclement weather with little clothing on and that such exposure would have lessened the chance of life of any child suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea.
The next day Rhoda Willis took lodgings with a woman at 132 Portmanmoor Road, Moors in Cardiff. That same afternoon Rhoda Willis brought another baby home with her that came from a family in Salford who had answered Rhoda Willis's advertisement in March 1907. She had arranged to take their child as soon as it was born. The child was born on 5 May 1907 and handed to her on 8 May 1907 in Cardiff along with a £5 premium with £5 to follow. However, Rhoda Willis induced her new landlady to adopt the child within a day or two of receiving it, telling her that it was her own and giving her a premium of £1. Rhoda Willis then continued to lodge at 132 Portmanmoor Road with the landlady and helped to look after the child.
On 16 May 1907 the boot and shoe repairer said that he went to meet Rhoda Willis in Cardiff and that they went to her lodgings at 132 Portmanmoor Road and went into her room on the first floor. He said that after they had been there a while she made some tea and asked the landlady to join them at the table and then soon after the landlady fetched her baby and he said 'What a fine child' and that she said 'Yes'. He said then that the landlady told him that it was Rhoda Willis's child and that it was only a fortnight old.
The boot and shoe repairer said that he stayed with Rhoda Willis until about 9pm after which they walked to the station and that on the way she had told him that she was greatly disappointed over her share of the money that she was to receive, and that she could not get it until November owing to the long vacation and that her cousin had paid her 5 weeks rent and advanced her 4/- a week for her combined room and had also given her £1 besides for extras.
The boot and shoe repairer said that he went to see Rhoda Willis on 23 May 1907 at 132 Portmanmoor Road but didn't stay long as she was drunk and he didn't care for it and came home from Cardiff on the 4pm train. He said that Rhoda Willis later wrote to him and in one letter apologised for being drunk but said that he didn't see her again.
However, in the meantime she had continued to communicate with the woman from Ivy Cottage and had arranged to take her sisters child, Treasure, as soon as it was born. Then, on 3 June 1907 Rhoda Willis got a telegram saying that the woman from Ivy Cottage's sister had given birth and she went to Hengoed to fetch it, telling her landlady that she was going to see the father of the child that she had adopted. Treasure was handed over to Rhoda Willis that afternoon in a healthy state. Rhoda Willis left Hengoed at 6pm with Treasure and arrived back at 132 Portmanmoor Road at 8pm with a paper parcel that was thought to have contained the body of Treasure.
When Rhoda Willis returned she went straight up to her room where she remained for about half an hour and then came down and showed the landlady some gold that she said she had got from the father of the child the landlady had adopted. Rhoda Willis didn't sleep in her own room that night but slept in the room of another female lodger whose husband was away.
The next morning, Rhoda Willis went out with the other lodger and the landladies adopted child, and came back at about 2pm very drunk carrying the baby upside down. She was put to bed in her clothes in her own room where she stayed for the rest of the evening.
The following morning the landlady was startled by hearing Rhoda Willis fall out of bed, making a thud noise on the floor, and that when she went in she found Rhoda Willis lying on the floor still in her clothes. The landlady said that they were unable to lift Rhoda Willis into bed and so they made her as comfortable as they could on the floor. The landlady said then that as she went to straighten the bed she found a heavy parcel between the bed and the mattress which she opened and found the body of a dead child tightly rolled up. She said that when she asked Rhoda Willis what it meant Rhoda Willis told her 'Hush, don't say anything, I'll get rid of it tonight'. However, the landlady said, 'No my God you don't I will go and report you'. She said that Rhoda Willis caught hold of her and begged her not to go to the police but that she got away and went to the police station where she reported the matter.
The medical evidence showed that the child had died from suffocation, having in all probability been tied up tight in the parcel while still alive. Rhoda Willis said that the child was given to her wrapped up and that during the journey home she had not looked at it and that when she came home and undid the shawls she found that it was dead.
However, it was noted that the landlady’s son had seen her alight from a tram on the evening of 3 June 1907 and come into the house carrying only a parcel wrapped in paper. The landlady said that Rhoda Willis then went straight upstairs and that she had something under her left arm wrapped in paper. She said that she thought that it was a parcel with baby’s clothes that the father's sister had given her.
It was also stated that if Rhoda Willis had intended to bring the child back alive that she would have told the landlady about it.
Also, it was noted that the medical evidence stated that considerable force must have been used in suffocating the child.
It was said that the reason that she didn't dispose of the child on her way home was because it was dressed in its clothes and would have been identified.
The woman from Ivy Cottage said that she was the wife of a collier and that her unmarried sister who lived with their mother in Fleur-de-Lis was in the family way. She said that she saw an advertisement in the Echo for a lady that would take a baby away from birth with a premium. She said that she answered the advertisement and received a latter from Rhoda Willis who was calling herself Leslie James and using the address of 55 George Street in Pontypool. She said that she then went to see Rhoda Willis and told her that her sister was likely to be confined in May 1907 and arranged that she should take the baby and give her £6 down with £2 to follow, and arranged to let her know when the child was born. She said that when she later corresponded with Rhoda Willis, Rhoda Willis told her that she had removed to 132 Portmanmoor Road and that she afterwards corresponded with her at that address.
The woman from Ivy Cottage said that her sister was confined on 3 June 1907 at about 6am and that the child was a girl and seemed strong and well. She said that she then sent a telegram to Rhoda Willis and arranged to meet her at Hengoed Railway Station at about 2.45pm and that they went back to Ivy Cottage where she showed her the baby and that Rhoda Willis then went back to Cardiff with it at 6pm. She said that she gave Rhoda Willis £6 in gold and promised to send her £2 later. And that that was the last that she saw of her.
Rhoda Willis was executed at Cardiff by Henry Pierrepoint on 14 August 1907. She was said to have confessed to her crime at the last moment and to have walked calmly to the scaffold where her execution was quickly carried out.
During her last visit in prison she had said that she had suffered terrible remorse during the time she had been awaiting the fulfilment of her death sentence and had never before realised how many golden opportunities she had lost. She had said that she hoped that God would pardon her for her offence and that although her punishment had already been terrible she was then quite resigned to her fate. She had said that she had never appreciated the singing of birds and the beauty of the sunshine so much as during the past two or three days.
see National Archives - ASSI 72/33/2, HO 144/861/155396
see Hull Daily Mail - Wednesday 14 August 1907
see Sheffield Evening Telegraph - Wednesday 14 August 1907