Let me show you the Peeler’s things, while you are here. I know you’ll be captivated by them.
A 1920s hunting knife. The six-inch blade is curved for the skinning and preparation of game and is of the finest quality, made from Sheffield steel and wickedly sharp even after all these years. The handle is crafted from bone and was carved by the Peeler himself: you can clearly see ‘M.M.’ worked into the rear quillon. The workmanship is excellent, I think you would agree?
The knife shows every sign of careful maintenance, but was clearly not fully cleansed after last use. The blood of the final victims, Matthew and Annabel Wright, remains on the blade and spine. The trailing point of the knife retains a few tiny globules of desiccated fat from when the lower portions of the farm hand and his daughter were flayed while they hung suspended from the rafters of the Peeler’s barn. The tendency to remove the skin and subcutaneous layers was of course why Dr Marshall was given his nickname by the locals of the Fens, but this was not the main reason for the act of killing itself. The motivation was pure curiosity, the flensing a stage of preparation to allow greater learning.
Also of interest are the hairs tied around the front quillon. I have inspected these with a hand lens and count twenty-three slender locks, all individually knotted with great precision and care. Each lock has a distinct colour and texture, which leads me to hypothesise that there were at least twenty-three separate victims. Only eight were found during the period the Peeler was active, but of course the Fens are extensive and disposing of the bodies in the marshes would not have been difficult. That the disappearance of so many people in a relatively sparsely-populated area did not cause more alarm is perhaps surprising, but the period after the Great War and the repeal of the Agriculture Act was full of turmoil and lots of farm workers and their families were displaced. Some of the victims were probably itinerant labourers and their children.
The tales this knife could tell! It’s probably my favourite piece in the display. The most visceral, at least.
A rag doll, finely stitched with blue eyes and curly red hair in a pink dress. Heavily stained. Since the records suggest that Morris Marshall had no daughters–at least none that were registered–this is probably another tool used in his pursuit of knowledge, a means of reassuring some of the children he explored. Small brown fingerprints can just be made out on the doll’s dress, upon close examination. This item would probably be worth a lot to a period collector, but its value as an insight into a killer’s mind and as a physical link to the macabre is incalculable.
I often ponder on the sights its threaded eyes must have seen.
Four ligatures made from coarse cotton rope. These probably also came from the last victims, as the strands of the rope are encrusted with blood and dirt and are unlikely to have been re-used. You can see a few dry wisps of skin clinging to the knots, from when the victims struggled against their torments. One pair of the ligatures has a smaller diameter than the other. I would suppose that they were for little Annabel’s wrists, though that is only speculation. There are of course other candidates.
A degree certificate in medicine from the University of Cambridge, in a glass frame. Morris Marshall read medicine at Cambridge, graduating in 1920, probably only a year or two before he became the Peeler. Whether his empirical interests were piqued by his studies, or whether he had started his private investigations before that is uncertain, but there are no records of flayed corpses being found in the Fens, or indeed in Cambridgeshire, before 1921. It is quite probable that the enlightening influence of Cambridge, followed by the deleterious effect of Marshall’s return to the Fens, pushed him into a deranged state. He was extremely bright, and it seems likely that his curiosity could not be sated after his return home. This may be why the evisceration and flensing of the first victim found, Master Thomas Rippon, was so severe. Frustration makes martyrs of us all.
Marshall never practised medicine, I should add. His personality probably did not lend itself well to a caring bedside manner. He contented himself with his farm, and his research.
A butcher’s cleaver. A workmanlike exhibit, but intriguing nonetheless. This is the very artefact with which the Peeler dismembered many of his victims, after they had been skinned and examined in sufficient detail. The cleaver’s blade is clean, as the last victims were not chopped into pieces, just left hanging in the barn. But the many chips along the blade’s edge speak to the number of bones split apart over the years, the tally of red, wet muscles severed. Yes, a powerful addition to the collection overall.
A black and white photograph of a naked woman reclining on a chaise longue, head resting on one arm, legs slightly spread to expose the vulva. The breasts have been neatly flayed and are shining black against the whiteness of the skin. The eyes are glassy but do not seem lifeless, and the body looks to be holding itself in position, so I am confident that the subject was not dead by this point. The intimate nature of the photograph and the fair hair point to the likelihood that this is Elizabeth Marshall née Fuller, Morris Marshall’s wife. Their marriage was recorded in 1925, but there is no further record of Elizabeth to be found. By the time of the 1931 census she certainly seems to have vanished. We know that she had at least one son, but there is no official record of him.
Yes, she does have a remarkable resemblance to you. The hair, the figure, the breasts. Uncanny. You are both beautiful.
So there we have it. Grisly, but each item imbued with meaning, rich in history. I guess they should be in a museum somewhere. I’d like more people to see them, I really would. But Morris Marshall was never caught, you see. He died long before I was born, somewhere in France. Called to the war like so many others, never to return.
These heirlooms have great sentimental value to me, a link to a grandfather I never knew. Oh no, I wouldn’t use them, of course. I wouldn’t want to desecrate them. No, I have my own tools for my work.
Let me show you.
Rob Francis is an academic and writer based in London. Since 2015 he has had around a dozen stories published in various online magazines and anthologies, including SQ Mag, SpeckLit, Every Day Fiction and You Are Here: Tales of Cartographic Wonders.
Image by David