THE ACTRESS, THE PLAYBOY AND THE FRAUDSTER(S)

Billie Carleton, John Darlington Marsh and Gilbert Marsh
Papaver somniferum - the opium poppy.
Papaver somniferum - the opium poppy.
Photograph by Magnus Manske via Wikimedia Commons.

There are two particular graves in Epsom Cemetery - number H89A, which is Florence L Stewart (aka actress Billie Carleton), 22, of 65 Savoy Court, Strand, buried 4 December 1918, and number F479A, John Darlington Marsh, 47, of 33a Savile Row, London, buried 25 March 1919. Any connection? Yes, very much so.

The Marsh Brothers

According to newspaper reports, John Darlington Marsh (JDM) always appeared to be rich, but he was mysterious and no one knew the source of his money, especially as he died intestate leaving only 244. I think that the answer was twofold - marrying rich Americans and being a con artist (not mutually exclusive).

In 1908 at Rye, Sussex JDM married wealthy American divorcee Mrs Sarah Hershey Eddy. Since I cannot find any birth/census records for JDM, I do not know his date of birth, but, working back from his death record, he would have been about 36 in 1908 and therefore born c.1872. Mrs Eddy was supposedly around 17 years older than her previous husband, organist Clarence Eddy, (there had been another husband called Judge Brannan before him), which made her roughly 74 at the time of her third wedding.

The fact that Mrs Eddy possessed more than a sparse handful of cents can be inferred from a 1908 report in the New York Times, which said that she had built a very fine country manor house, costing $2 million (about $37 million today), on the banks of the Seine at Poissy. Mrs JDM died of pneumonia in 1911 (age given as 70 in the newspapers, first two husbands mentioned, but not the third). It seems that JDM had exploded on to the overseas social scene as a 'wealthy playboy' and then managed to charm/net himself a rich wife.

The New York Times of 16 June 1915 reported, beneath the headline 'Texas Oil King's Widow Weds John Darlington Marsh of London', that Mr Marsh, who was 'wealthy and not in business', had married Mrs James C O'Connor (her forenames were Ivor Tate) of Paris in Lewisburg, West Virginia on 14 June 1915; she was the same sort of age as JDM. In November 1916 this Mrs JDM obtained a divorce, the court being told that a detective had followed JDM from Liverpool to Australia and Vancouver; the names of several women were mentioned as co-respondents and he did not contest the suit.

There is little I can tell you about the background of JDM's brother, Gilbert Marsh, born c.1876, except that he was ostensibly an engineer, contractor and metal manufacturer; from about 1918 (possibly a little earlier) to perhaps 1925 he co-owned Bruce Lodge, 57, Burgh Heath Road, Epsom with a man named Naughton: this was a racing establishment, later run by trainer Billy Larkin.

Bruce Lodge.
Bruce Lodge, Burgh Heath Road 04 February 2006
Image source: Epsom & Ewell Local & Family History Centre © 2014

We know also that Gilbert had been involved in a business deal with his brother, which comprised purchasing all the attractions and restaurants for the Ghent International Exhibition of 1913 (more later). The Sunday Post (Lanarkshire) of 29 August 1920 told that, when JDM went to Ghent to discuss the exhibition deal, he was informed that 40,000 was needed; he then 'groped in his pocket and blandly remarked that he had only 20,000 on him at the moment but he would cable for the balance'.

The Marshes were also involved in patents. In 1921 Gilbert, acting as administrator of the estate of JDM, filed a patent with one George Henry Forrester concerning 'an apparatus for building concrete structures'. I rather imagine that Forrester was the inventor and JDM the backer, but who knows.

Billie Carleton

Billie Carleton.
Billie Carleton.
Image source: Daily Mirror, 2 January 1919.

Billie was born Florence Leonora Stewart in 1896, the daughter of an unmarried mother; she was brought up by her Aunt Catherine and the Oxford DNB tells us that she left home at 15 to go on the stage - apparently both mother and aunt were performers. JDM met her in about 1916. She was fortunate enough (or not, as it will turn out) to be 'spotted' by the impresario C B Cochran and he gave her a big part in the revue 'Watch Your Step' (1914) which, although it had music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, did not contain any of his more memorable songs. However, she was sacked on account of her personal life, which, it seems, already featured opium.

Sadly, Billie became more famous for what happened to her than her performances on the stage; she was said to be attractive and vivacious, but it seems doubtful from what has been said about her that she would have become a major star. Here is a film clip of her.


A British Pathé clip of Billie Carleton (no sound)
Video Source: YouTube

Notwithstanding her career difficulties she led an opulent lifestyle, with a flat in central London. The money was coming from John Darlington Marsh and it was 'looked after' by a Dr Frederick Stuart of Knightsbridge, her friend and doctor. She also had a close friend called Reggie De Veulle (Raoul Reginald De Veulle), born in Le Mans in about 1881, son of a diplomat and a grandson of Sir John De Veulle, at one time a High Bailiff of Jersey: In 1911 he was to be found, described as an actor, living at the home of the Viscount Hill (Rowland Richard Clegg-Hill) - Viscountess not at home - in Half Moon Street, Piccadilly and in 1916 he married Clarisse A P Gay (known as Pauline); he was employed as a theatrical costume designer at the time of the events I am about to describe.

Cochran was persuaded to use Billie again, but she flopped and another impresario, Andre Charlot, gave her some work. She was not doing too badly on the stage, although far from a star, and had made a friend of the actress Fay Compton, who was then just tasting her first successes and went on to be a considerable stage actress (and an excellent television performer in her later years).

Fay Compton.
Fay Compton.
Image source: Library of Congress

Billie's death

These days we are sadly familiar with personalities dying from substance abuse, but back in 1918 it caused a huge sensation because possession of cocaine had become illegal only in 1916, as a consequence of the Defence of the Realm Act. It's distasteful to think about what was going on with these hedonistic people while millions had been dying and suffering horribly across Europe in the First World War, but we have to deal with it and, indirectly, it was the war that brought about Billie's death - or, shall we say, hastened it.

On 27 November 1918, just days after the Armistice, there was a Victory Ball at the Royal Albert Hall; by then Billie was living in Savoy Court Mansions behind the Savoy Hotel, courtesy of JDM no doubt, with whom she had taken tea that afternoon. The ball was a huge affair, attended by thousands of people in fancy dress (Billie wore a diaphanous creation designed by De Veulle), and went on into the early hours. Next day Billie was found dead in bed, apparently from a cocaine overdose.

The inquest

It is hard to believe that some of the characters unveiled at the inquest were real, but they were. Lest you think I am making up what follows, it is merely a much-shortened version of what was reported in The Times newspaper between 4 December 1918 and 24 January 1919.

First up was cinema actor Lionel Belcher, who had been introduced to Billie by De Veulle - he didn't know why. No, he was not a drug addict - although he had tried cocaine and heroin two or three times. And no, he had never given drugs to Billie. After an adjournment his memory improved remarkably (aided by consultation with his solicitor and a voluntary visit to the police): it transpired that there was an Egyptian in Notting Hill and Belcher had been there about three months previously when Billie came in with Reggie De Veulle - they had asked for cocaine. Belcher also said that the Egyptian had given him heroin at times, which apparently came from a chemist's near Leicester Square. De Veulle had complained about the quality of some cocaine he had obtained from a Chinaman in Limehouse called Lo Ping. Belcher then admitted that he had attended opium parties at the Egyptian's flat and other places with his mistress, Olive Richardson, Billie and De Veulle. The opium was cooked by Ada, Mrs Lo Ping. The litany of remembrances went on, but the gist was that his previous testimony was all lies. Fay Compton was also called and said that, although she knew Billie took drugs and had tried to dissuade her, she had never taken them herself.

Lionel Belcher.
Lionel Belcher.
Image source: Daily Mirror, 3 January 1919.

On 13 December Ten Ping You (the same person as Lo Ping - the name/spelling varies in the newspapers) pleaded guilty to being in possession of opium and, separately, his wife Ada was charged with supplying opium to Billie Carleton.

The Times of 21 December, relating to the court appearance of Ada (who was not Chinese but Scottish, which makes the next bit even more incongruous if you can manage to visualise it), contained an interesting description of an opium party at the flat of Mr and Mrs De Veulle. It said, 'After dinner the party adjourned, at about ten o'clock, to the drawing-room of the flat and provided themselves with cushions and pillows, placed these on the floor and sat themselves thereon in a circle. The men divested themselves of their clothing and got into pyjamas, and the women into chiffon nightdresses. In that manner they seemed to prepare themselves for the orgy. There were about five or six of them. Miss Carleton arrived later at the flat from the theatre and she, after disrobing, took her place in this circle of degenerates. In the centre of it Mrs Ping You officiated. She had an opium tin and the lamp, the opium needle and all the accessories. She prepared the opium'. Apparently the participants were in a comatose state until three o'clock the next afternoon. Ada got five months in prison with hard labour; her husband received a modest fine.

On resumption of the inquest Dr Frederick Stuart gave evidence, saying that he had known Billie since 1915 - she was a friend and had consulted him professionally. He had been called to her flat more than once to treat her for the ill effects of opium and claimed that he had tried to make her give it up: however, he had also given her other medicinal drugs and small doses of morphia to alleviate toothache - to which the Coroner retorted, 'If everyone took hypodermic injections of morphia, we would have the country filled with morphia'. No one asked why he hadn't sent her to a dentist. The Coroner also noted that Billie had made large payments to Stuart, to which he replied that she thought the money lasted longer if he looked after it.

Dr Stuart in the witness box.
Dr Stuart in the witness box.
Image source: Daily Mirror, 17 January 1919.

John Marsh, described as a man of independent means, of Savile Row, then took the stage and said that Billie could have had anything she wanted from him, in reason; he had given her 1,050 to get her jewellery (most of which he thought he had given her originally) out of pawn for the Victory Ball and had no idea that she took drugs. And that was it. He was spared the considerable grilling that other witnesses had received, which might not have been the case had they known as much about him as we do. Reggie De Veulle was up next, but despite the Coroner's persistence, he still denied giving Billie cocaine.

On the final day of the inquest Reggie was questioned by counsel (plural) for other interested parties and it was clear that if anyone had to be blamed for Billie's death then it wouldn't be them. He was accused of cross-dressing, drug-taking, accepting money from older men (on which subject there was a strong suggestion that he had blackmailed one of them) and generally they threw the kitchen sink at him. In summing up the Coroner began, 'We are approaching the conclusion of this somewhat disgusting case and I am sure we are all very glad to have got to the end of it.' He went on to evaluate the evidence, but it was plain that he considered De Veulle had supplied the fatal cocaine. The jury duly returned a verdict of manslaughter against him and he was taken into custody - although the arresting officers had to walk a considerable distance, with their prisoner in tow, to find an available taxi.

Reggie De Veulle.
Reggie De Veulle.
Image Source: Daily Mirror, 3 January 1919.

The trial

Fear not, I shall not repeat all the evidence from the inquest! At his first appearance before the Bow Street magistrates Reggie was taken ill in the dock and proceedings were adjourned. Meanwhile, Fay Compton had sued the News of the World for libel because they had published her photograph alongside those of others aforementioned, implying that she was involved in 'dope parties'; representation by Sir Edward Marshall Hall KC, an apology and a donation to charity settled the matter.

On 2 April 1919 the case opened at the Old Bailey and after three days it was obviously a horse with three legs, which couldn't run very well. Firstly, it needed to be proved that Billie had died of a cocaine overdose, but the experts could only say that her death was caused by narcotics, the probability being that it was cocaine (they had run so many tests that eventually they ran out of material to sample). If the jurors were satisfied that cocaine had been the cause, they then had to consider if De Veulle had supplied it to her and, if the answer was yes, had he been negligent in the sense that he knew she would use it recklessly. There were a lot of ifs in there and unsurprisingly the jury took just 50 minutes to find him not guilty, but he was required to return on Monday to answer a charge of conspiring with Ada Lo Ping You to procure cocaine. On Monday Reggie decided to plead guilty to that one and was sentenced to 8 months in prison.

Gilbert Marsh

As mentioned earlier, Gilbert Marsh was said to own Bruce Lodge in partnership with a man named Naughton. Gilbert had racehorses, reckoned to number between 20 and 30; his name first came to press attention in a conspiracy case heard at the Old Bailey in 1920. Without getting into too much detail, a man called Peter Christian Barrie was running ringers in races. The scam worked very simply (when it did work): Barrie would buy two horses, one a good runner and the other hopeless and then dye the latter to look like the former. The hopeless horse would be run in races and would of course lose, with the odds getting longer each time. Then he would run the real horse, which would win (he hoped) and clean up on bets. The court case concerned several animals and races and involved the stables of a trainer called Horace Samuel Berg at Downs House, Epsom. Marsh was not one of the six people prosecuted and convicted but his name was freely bandied about and, at a subsequent appeal hearing, one of the defence counsel said he suspected that Marsh was a moving spirit behind the whole thing.

Although he escaped prosecution in 1920, Gilbert found himself in big trouble the following year. Events began in April when a Mr Robinson of Stockton-on-Tees brought an action to recover 2,685 that he had paid to Marsh concerning a wager on a game of cards. Superficially this seemed a mean act by Robinson, who was trying to take advantage of a recent court decision concerning betting payments made by cheque, and he won.

In May Marsh and others were charged with conspiracy to defraud on three separate counts involving betting on horse races and games of cards. The total sum involved was over £25,000 (around £1m today). The victim was a Mr Hall of Eastbourne, who had been targeted by an accomplice of Marsh on a ship from Australia; Marsh then put bets on for Hall which, after an initial win, resulted in heavy losses. Similarly, the conspirators organised card games where Hall was a winner at first and then, when the 'pot' was enormous, he lost. Prosecuting counsel at the committal proceedings commented that one of the scams 'revealed such genius and ability on the parts of the defendants that it was a pity they had not turned their talents in some direction useful to society'. When Hall gave evidence, saying that he had lost nearly £26,000, the magistrate remarked, 'And you got nothing except a lunch?'

On resumption of the proceedings in June evidence was given by Detective Sergeant Edgar Wright (who later published his serialised memoirs, about which a review in the Derby Daily Telegraph of 25 January 1929 began 'The wiles of a gang of society tricksters, led by the notorious John Darlington Marsh, and their exploits in all parts of the world …'). Wright said that he had gone to arrest Marsh at Dover (whether he was inbound or doing a runner is not clear) and they went on the boat to fetch Marsh's bag. Marsh then - accidentally he said - dropped something over the side which proved to be a book containing names and addresses.

Later in June 1921 a further charge was added; Marsh was now accused of conspiring with the elusive Naughton, who had not been caught, to defraud a Mr Eric Brockdorf of Maidenhead to the tune of £3,600: it was the same trick as before - a winning bet followed by a day of losses. Marsh, who had been out on bail, was then remanded in custody. In July he and his co-conspirators were found guilty on all counts and sentenced to 5 years penal servitude apiece. An appeal against conviction was dismissed and in December 1921 the Jockey Club warned Marsh off Newmarket Heath.

By 1925 Marsh had obtained a ticket of leave from Parkhurst Prison and found himself in court again, in connection with the 1913 Ghent Exhibition business. It seems that he had been suspected of fraud in this matter and had been made bankrupt in Belgium; the Belgian authorities now believed that he had inherited a large amount from his brother and was concealing it from them - they therefore applied for his extradition. The application was denied owing to lack of evidence and Marsh then seems to have disappeared into the mists of time, apart from several trips abroad up to about 1931 and some patents filed in 1926: these applications mostly concerned golf clubs and cricket bats.

It does seem that both Marsh Brothers were crooks. There was never any hint that JDM might have had a job and we have seen how he supplied Billie Carleton with money - yet, there was virtually nothing in his estate (although there may well have been undisclosed assets which passed to Gilbert via the back door); he had been made bankrupt in 1915, his creditors being unable to find him.

Postscripts

John Darlington Marsh died of pneumonia on 21 March 1919; newspaper reports say that this occurred at Epsom, but the probate record says London. Presumably he was the one who had Billie buried in Epsom Cemetery and I imagine that Gilbert arranged for him to be buried nearby. Although I do not know what happened to Gilbert ultimately, some of the other characters reappeared later. Dr Stuart was fined in 1929 for signing prescriptions for morphine and heroin without entering them in the register (he claimed his actions were due to overwork) and his authority to possess or supply raw opium, coca leaves and Indian hemp was withdrawn as a result. Then, in 1932, he appeared as an apparently innocent witness in a case against the actress Brenda Dean Paul, advising that she was suffering from an internal complaint and should be removed to a home for treatment. It surely cannot have been a coincidence that he popped up in this case, for Brenda was a hopeless drug addict, caught in possession of a large amount of illegal drugs - and yet, no one seems to have wondered why Stuart was lurking in the wings. Brenda was a complete tragedy: she was an incorrigible addict and there are more details of her life on the website http://brendadean.blogspot.co.uk/.

Lionel Belcher's career was more or less ruined by his involvement in the Carleton affair; in 1919 his wife, Gladys, attempted to divorce him because of his adultery with Olive Richardson, but was offered only a judicial separation (which she declined), since she admitted her own adultery. In 1924 he was imprisoned for 14 days for thrashing his wife with a cane in the street (this wife was called Marie-Louisa) and the following year she died of natural causes - tuberculosis and chronic alcoholism, no trace of cocaine found - at the age of 31.

Reggie De Veulle apparently continued to work as a dress designer in London, but then moved to Paris for some years; he died in 1956 in Islington district.

Linda Jackson © 2014