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March 8, 2009
The Durban Castle Steamship
Dubbed "The Porthole Murder Case" by the British tabloids, a steward was sentenced to hang for the disappearance at sea of an aspiring actress.
At noon, shining Chevrolets and Fords began pulling up beside the large white steamship with the lavender hull and the black and red funnel anchored along the quayside.
From the automobiles stepped middle-aged ladies in frumpy summer frocks, comfortable shoes and small feathered hats, all clutching purses in which were the medication they were certain they would need for seasickness on the 14-day voyage that lay ahead.
At the ladies' sides were their husbands; men who were also no longer in their prime wearing their double-breasted suits cut by London or New York's best tailors and their fedoras bought in Paris or Rome.
The husbands dropped copper coins into the hands of small brown-skinned men in tattered clothing, many of them barefoot; these were the porters who would carry the portmanteaux, the suitcases and the hat-boxes up the gangplank, but who would go no further than the ship's reception lounge.
This was Cape Town, capital city and main port of the British Colony of South Africa, and it was 1947 – Friday, October 10 - and although apartheid, the system of racial segregation that would later cast a cloud over what a seafarer had once called "the fairest Cape of all" had not yet been made law, every man whose skin was darker than a cappuccino knew his place. And his place was not on the Durban Castle, set to sail to Southampton, England, at the strike of four with her 1,300 passengers of whom just 57 were in first-class.
One of the first-class passengers, Eileen Isabella Ronnie Gibson, 21, arrived in a Ford cab driven by a Lymie, the derogatory name the Afrikaners had bestowed on British immigrants. The Afrikaners were the descendants of Dutch, French and German immigrants and the ones who governed the colony. The origin of the name Lymie is not known but some say that it derives from the limes the British soldiers ate when they were based in Africa believing that these would prevent them getting syphilis. Today this derogatory name is used globally by English speakers when wishing to insult an opponent.
The young woman, a vivacious redhead, asked the cab driver to grab her a porter. With a large portmanteau as well as a large suitcase and hat-box, she was not exactly travelling light, but she was travelling towards what she believed was a future of glitz and big bucks.
Gay, to use her professional name, was an actress; having moved from her native England not all that many months previously, she'd been acting with a Johannesburg-based theatrical company. She was off to London with a promise of a West End contract. Asked, when she was still only 17, whether she had a young man, she had replied: "Oh no, all I want to do is go on the stage and be an actress."
It was just after 3 p.m., the African sun hot and high over the flat-topped Table Mountain beyond the harbor, when Gay trotted up the gangplank. At the top stood one of the ships' deck stewards. His job it was to welcome the passengers on board and to direct them to their cabins after they had produced their tickets.
James Camb – Jimmy to his wife and family, Don James after Don Juan to his fellow crew members, and by his own admission a sailor with a girl on every ship and in every port – noticed Gay instantly. "She's mine!" he supposedly whispered to another steward standing beside him.
"Her appearance was fairly striking, small and slightly plump, with deep auburn hair and the alabaster skin that accompanies it. Somewhat flashily dressed, she was what I always describe as ‘a bit tarty'," a female passenger would years later describe her.
When at 4 p.m. sharp the 17,382-ton, 594-foot (181m) ship, built in 1938 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the British Union Castle Steamship Line, lifted its anchor, Gay began unpacking.
She was in a single cabin numbered 126 on the port side of B Deck or as it was known on the ship, the Shade Deck. The cabin had a porthole and a wash-basin but no toilet or bathroom: these were across the corridor; men and women having separate amenities. Also on the Shade Deck were a hairdressing salon, souvenir and tobacco shop, the doctor's surgery and dispensary, as well as the pursers' and stewards' offices.
All the crew members were white and British nationals. Not employing non-Brits was to ensure that the crew would always be white; the company officially abhorred the racism of South Africa – its ships, all named after cities, sailed between Britain and South Africa, but business was business and no-one wanted to displease the Afrikaners. A year later, in 1948, the British Parliament would heatedly debate a case of racial discrimination on the Durban Castle. That year, the ship had arrived in Cape Town on Saturday, October 23, with racially segregated amenities. Three African male passengers, two of them preachers, had not been allowed to use the white bathrooms and toilets; they had been given a bathroom and toilet of their own, duly marked "For Non-Europeans Only." Non-European was the South African classification term for a person of color; European having been that of a white.
On the afternoon that Gay was unpacking her bags, the ship's master was Captain Arthur Patey, a tall, slim man. He didn't envisage a troubled voyage; the Atlantic Ocean would be calm, the company's weather people had informed him. There were also only one passenger who would need a little extra care and attention; Sir Vernon Thomson, the steamship company's chairman and managing director. Among the company's past passengers had been the Mahatma Gandhi, the journalist Henry Morton Stanley of "Dr. Livingston I presume" fame and Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement.
The ship's surgeon was Dr. Anthony Griffiths; previously he had been a general practitioner in a private North England practice. Eileen Field was the name of Gay's cabin stewardess.
All crew members wore navy-blue uniforms – pants, jackets, shirts, ties and caps – but once the ship reached the Equator all would be allowed to take off their jackets and ties and strip down to white short-sleeved shirts and plimsolls.
Behavioral rules were however to remain strict: crew members were, as the steamship company's rule-book stipulated, to "conduct themselves in an orderly, faithful, honest and sober manner," and dining-room staff had to assemble in the chief purser's office before meal times and hold out their hands to show that their nails were not grimy.
First-class deck steward James Camb
Camb, as first-class deck steward, worked the Promenade Deck, two up from the Shade Deck. He served tea, coffee and alcoholic drinks on the sun-deck beside the swimming pool as well as in the lounge, the library and in the smoking room. He also organized card games and saw to it that no-one ended up a lone wall-flower at tea-time or at night when there was dancing in the lounge. He had his own office to work from and he had an assistant, a deck man, to do jobs too menial for a deck steward.
"A very personable young man, and quite the best steward on the ship. Efficient and always cheerful," another of Gay's fellow passengers said about Camb years later.
He was thirty-one years old; he was born in Lancashire, Northern England on Sunday, Dec. 24, 1916. He started out in life working in a shoe factory, like his father. Then he joined the wartime (WW II) merchant marine and after the war, the Union Castle Steamship Line, working himself up from galley boy. In May 1946 he had made his first voyage on the Durban Castle.
Not very tall, but a looker with black hair and black eyes, and already a married man and the father of a baby daughter, he, indulging in both on-board and off-shore sexual adventures, had quickly earned his sobriquet "Don James." At school already he was known as one for the girls; ungallantly he had made a game of putting his hands up the skirts of the girls in his class.
Said the same passenger: "He was very charming, a very good steward. He showed me a picture of his little girl. I was young and much better looking then than I am now, but he never made one single play for me. Obviously he was a bit over-sexed, but there was no harm in him."
On the first morning of the voyage that will take the ship up the west coast of Africa to its home port of Southampton, Gay sat down in the Promenade Deck's lounge, her silk-stocking legs crossed at her knees. She called Camb over; she wanted rum. The two started to chat. "She told me about a man named Charles. She told me that she was very fond of him, but possible complications may have set in," he would recall when the time had come to defend himself. He asked her whether she was pregnant. "You don't mean to tell me you are going to have a baby?" he said were his exact words. She told him that it was too soon to know. "So why don't you marry him?" he asked her. Her reply was short and to the point. "He's married."
What Camb did not know because Gay did not tell him was that Charles had paid her passage. Charles Schwentafsky was part of her past, the past that she hoped the forthcoming glitz and big bucks would forever eliminate.
Gay Gibson was born in Jamalpur, India, in June 1926 where her British wanderer father worked as a blacksmith for the East India Railway. In 1943, aged 17 and a chubby schoolgirl in wartime England, she joined a tap dancing troop, The Top Hats Gay Dancing Company. (Gay meaning jolly.) Always described by the troop's manager as a "gay young thing," she soon adopted the name Gay for the stage.
After the war, 21 years old and having lost some of her puppy fat, she set off by ship – the Durban Castle's sister ship, the Carnavon Castle – for South Africa with her mother to join her father who was already living in Durban. The two women sailed steerage class as immigrants on assisted passage: At that time there was an influx of demobilized British serviceman to the colonies; South Africa, North and South Rhodesia (today Zambia and Zimbabwe), Kenya, Tanganyika (today Tanzania), Australia and New Zealand.
First in Durban and then in Johannesburg, she joined small theatrical companies. Looking older than her age, she always played a femme fatale. Critics often slammed her acting as wooden, therefore despite her dreams, she was not hailed as Hollywood's next great star.
Speaking about her later, those who knew her those years in South Africa said that she was never without a boyfriend. A woman who was on stage with her said: "She was attractive enough for all the men to go round her like bees round a honeycomb. Her response was very, very flirtatious, as any pretty girl's would be, and perhaps more so as she was sexually experienced. South African girls in those days were either good or bad ... She was crazy about men. She was always throwing her arms round them, or talking to them, or propositioning them."
One of the men she had thus propositioned, an amateur actor named Mike Abel, liked her easy approach to sex. On the day that he had first met her he told a friend: "I bet you a dollar I will have her by the end of the week".
So Abel did, but the relationship soon ended.
And it ended very openly.
Gay was overheard by the rest of the theatrical troupe accusing Abel of having made her pregnant. The argument became violent – on her side; she kicked him and tried to scratch his face. Then she fell down in a faint. "Come on, you bitch, you are acting!" he shouted at her and walked off. She picked herself up after a few minutes of lying motionless on the floor and walked off as well.
Fainting was something she did. Whenever something or someone upset or excited her, she slid to the floor. Like Abel, all believed that it was an act to draw attention to herself. But a few did wonder whether she might not be suffering from the after-effects of an undetected bout of malaria or perhaps from tuberculosis; she was often very wheezy.
Polish-born Charles Schwentafsky had arrived in South Africa via Kenya. Later a friend of his would sum his life up as one of "to put it crudely, screwing. It wasn't his fault, because the girls literally threw themselves at him. He wasn't particularly handsome, but he was a charmer with a becoming smile, very sexy, penetrating eyes, blond hair."
He also had a beguiling bedside manner, always sending flowers before and jewelry after.
As had happened with Abel, Gay also claimed that he had made her pregnant. He, also like Abel, denied it, telling all who cared to listen that he had not even had sex with her. "I promise you she didn't appeal to me sexually one little bit," he would say.
But he wanted her out of the way all the same and when she bemoaned the fact that she did not have the £500 needed for a passage to England, he gave her the money.
Romancing the Starlet
For the first seven days of the sea voyage north, Camb and Gay played a kind of musical chairs of the emotions.
Each morning she sat down in the Promenade Deck's lounge. She always sat at the same table. He was always waiting with a glass of rum for her.
He would later say: "Perhaps it was an unlucky chance for both of us that she was the only attractive young woman on my deck. The first morning she asked for a drink but in such a way that I felt instinctively that I need not be lonely on the 14-day voyage back to Southampton.
"She had the trick of tucking her long legs under the chair, clasping her knees with her hands and throwing back her head as she spoke. I found myself watching her sitting in this quiet corner of the lounge as I was serving drinks to other passengers. When the lounge filled just before dinner we would steal glances across the crowded tables. When she was chatting to friends she had made on board, I felt her eyes following me."
She kept on asking him to bring her a late-night cup of tea to her cabin. He never himself took the tray to her cabin, but always sent another steward. On her eighth morning on board – Friday, October 17 - she loudly reprimanded him for having forgotten about her request for the late-night cup of tea.
That night, the ship off the coast of Sierra Leone, the air was hot and humid. In the lounge some of the passengers were enjoying themselves dancing to the ship's band playing Glen Miller. Gay sat at her usual table. Alone. Three times she called Camb to bring her rum. When she took to the floor, which wasn't often, there was not an eye in the lounge that was not on her. She wore a clinging off-the-shoulder black evening gown and high-heeled silver shoes. "A pretty red-head but a very excitable girl," one of her ex-boyfriends would also later describe her.
That night twirling in the arms of the husbands of her fellow female passengers to "In the Mood," beads of perspiration formed on her perfectly made-up face; she was in a high state of excitement.
Camb, although he was rushing around serving drinks, did not fail to notice. "I have a bone to pick with you, and a big bone at that," he was heard to say to her.
"Why?" she asked
The darkness of the night not cooling the air, some passengers discussed going for a swim. Gay said that she was going to join them. She went down to her cabin to get her swimsuit. A few minutes later she was back in the lounge; she couldn't find her swimsuit, she said. Meanwhile, the plan to go swimming had been abandoned and only a handful of men were still in the lounge; their womenfolk having gone to bed. The band had packed up for the night. Camb asked Gay if she wanted another rum. "I've got a good mind to bring one down to your cabin and to join you there," he told her.
"Please yourself. It's up to you," she replied.
Taking their drinks with them, she and the men went out on to the deck hoping it would be cooler there.
At 12:45 a.m. the lounge deserted and in semi-darkness, a steward named Bill Pott joined Camb in the Promenade Deck's pantry; the deck steward was washing, drying and packing away glasses. Pott, Camb's cabin mate, offered to help but he was told that it would not be necessary. "Go down to the cabin, I won't be long," said Camb.
Pott having left, Camb started to carry in deckchairs that had been left out on the deck. He saw Gay leaning over the rail, a glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Beside her stood her table companion, a man named Frank Hopwood, an official from the steamship company, on his way back to England after a holiday in Cape Town. They were chatting.
Not very many minutes later Camb, back in the pantry, saw Gay walking past. She was walking in the direction of the elevator; to retire for the night obviously.
But no; very quickly she was back on deck. The ship's maintenance man, Bill Conway, saw her leaning over the rail; Hopwood had gone to bed. Conway walked up to Gay and she told him that it was too hot down below to sleep. After a while she slowly walked off, back to the lounge and towards the elevator.
|First-Class Cabin on the Durban Castle|
What happened next only Camb knew. He would later say that shortly before one o'clock he had gone down to her cabin. He knocked but the door remained closed. He then returned to the Promenade Deck; he thought that Gay had stepped out on the deck yet again, so he went to have a look. The deck was deserted. He waited an hour and went downstairs to Cabin 126 again. He knocked and felt the knob; it turned. It was going on two in the morning. He walked into the cabin and closed the door behind him.
Gay was wearing a yellow quilted dressing gown and slippers. The seductive black evening gown hung on a clothes hanger. She was flushed; she had had three rums in the lounge and another one or two out on the deck. Camb had another with him. She took it and for a while she sipped it, then she put the glass down on the night table and lay down on the bed. So did Camb.
"As I pulled her towards me and kissed the nape of her neck, I had second thoughts about the unlocked cabin door. She smiled and said, ‘It doesn't matter no-one will come in. We will be quite safe'," he would remember.
Finally, the two had stopped playing musical chairs of the emotions; what was to follow would be for real.
When day came – Saturday, October 18 – Gay Gibson was nowhere to be found. Eileen Field, her cabin's stewardess said that her nightgown, a pair of black silk pajamas and her slippers were gone too. Her black evening gown still hung on the clothes hanger. There was no sign of a struggle in the cabin; the bed had been slept in as a dent in the pillow and a yellow stain on the bottom sheet bore witness.
Had she fallen overboard? Had she jumped overboard? Had she been pushed overboard?
At 9:45 a.m. a message was broadcast over the ship's loudspeakers. "A first-class lady passenger, Miss Eileen Gibson, cannot be found. Any person who knows where she is or can give any information concerning her, please report at once to the purser."
Forty-five minutes later Captain Patey turned the ship round; it was his duty to go and look for a missing passenger. The other passengers joined him and his crew in leaning over the rails to search the shark-infested ocean with their eyes and with binoculars. There was no sign of the red-headed starlet.
The captain also sent an S.O.S. over the ship's radio alerting other vessels in the area that a passenger was believed lost overboard. The passenger, female, might be wearing black silk pajamas under a yellow quilted gown and possibly bedroom slippers.
Camb was calmly preparing the Promenade Deck for the day's drinking and jovialities. He had started at 6 a.m.
What happened to Gay
Later that morning, while Cabin 126 was being sealed on orders from the steamship company's London headquarters, Captain Patey called those crew members connected to the Shade Deck to his office for statements on their whereabouts and activities the previous night. There were eight such crew members, Camb being one. The captain also took a statement from passenger Hopwood.
It appeared from what he heard that the previous night had been somewhat different from what the crew was used to.
At 2:58 a.m. the silence of the tropical night was broken by two emergency buzzers sounding simultaneously on the Shade Deck. One summoned the deck's head steward; the other the deck's stewardess. Both were off duty and asleep in their cabins, so it would be two night-watchmen, Jim Murray and Fred Steer, who ran up the stairs to see from which cabin the urgent calls had come. An indicator board at the top of the stairs showed that Cabin 126 had buzzed. Murray and Steer rushed to it and saw that from underneath its door came light. Steer grabbed the knob and it turned in his hand. He pushed open the door but a man behind it blocked his way. "It's all right!" said he and slammed the door. He wore blue trousers, a brown leather belt and the white short-sleeved shirt and plimsolls of a member of the Durban Castle's crew. "That's Camb in there," said Steer to Murray.
Later, back on the Promenade Deck, Murray told another crew member about the buzzing from Cabin 126 but he did not say that the man in Gay's cabin was Camb. He did though go down to the cabin yet again just to make sure that the young woman was indeed all right. It was 3:20 a.m. and the light in the cabin was still on but the cabin was silent. Having a good idea what was going on in there, he returned to the Promenade Deck. Steer thought that he should also go down to the cabin just to make sure that the young starlet really did not need help. It was 3:40 a.m. and the cabin was not only silent but dark.
The rest of the night had passed calmly.
As for Camb, told that he had been seen in Cabin 126, he denied that he had been anywhere near it on that night or on any other night.
Having heard all out, Captain Patey wrote in the Durban Castle's log: ‘18/10/47. At 11:40 a.m., after hearing statements of the aforementioned persons (he named them), it was assumed that Miss Gibson disappeared sometime between 3 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. today and that no reasonable hope could be entertained of recovering her by retracing ship's course any further. To confirm this assumption the ship's doctor was consulted and he agreed. The Master then gave orders to resume the ship's normal course."
But he wanted to have another word with Camb.
Later, Camb would recall: "Stewards exchanged glances. Officers hurried past us without speaking. Then I felt the ship turning. We were going back to search. I went down to my quarters for a smoke, to calm my nerves. I must not crack. I wondered whether I was suspected of having something to do with Gay's disappearance. I was soon to know the answer. The chief steward told me that Captain Patey wanted to see me in his cabin immediately."
Elsewhere on the ship, the passengers had no idea that Camb was under suspicion. So the tarty passenger was nowhere to be found, so what? One female passenger would recall: "She (Gay) had been seen on deck late at night by a member of the crew and many people reckoned she had committed suicide and just jumped overboard. There was no indication that Camb had anything to do with her disappearance."
Camb though was told that when the ship called in at Funchal, Madeira, he was to stay on board. It led to him writing a letter to the captain. He again denied having been to Cabin 126 on that night or on any other night. He signed off, "I am, sir, yours faithfully. J. Camb, Deck Steward."
Meanwhile, the ship's doctor, Anthony Griffiths, examined Camb to see if he had any bruises or scratches on his body. He did. He had some dry scratches on his left collar bone and some fresh scratches on the back of his right shoulder and another 12 fresh scratches on his right wrist. The doctor described the wrist scratches as "of an intriguing interest." He said some were "linear, some crescentic, running more or less horizontally across the inside of the lower right arm, commencing four to five inches above the wrist."
The examination resulted in a second letter from Camb to the captain. "The slight scratches on my left shoulder and wrist, also a few on my right wrist were self-inflicted three or four nights ago whilst in bed. I was feeling terribly hot and itchy, and I must have scratched myself during sleep. I remarked during the following morning that I'd damned near scratched myself to death. Also early last week I broke a small patch of skin on my neck by a too vigorous rubbing with a very rough towel."
On the night of Friday, October 24, eight days since Gay Gibson's disappearance and 14 days after having sailed from Cape Town, the Durban Castle docked in Southampton. As discreetly as possible detectives arrested Camb.
"I believe that you were in Miss Gibson's cabin at about three o'clock on the morning of the 18th of October," said Detective Sergeant John Quinlan of the Southampton police to Camb.
"That puts me in a tight spot," he replied.
"Are you in the habit of visiting female passengers in their cabins?" he was asked later at the Southampton station house.
"Yes," he replied, "some of them like us stewards better than the passengers."
A few hours later he admitted to having been to Gay Gibson's cabin on the night of her disappearance. He said that he had wanted to speak of this before but he waited for a moment when no Union Castle Steamship Line official would be present.
"I had no right to go to her cabin. But I did go at about 11 o'clock that night to ask her if she wanted some lemonade with her rum."
Then after yet a few hours had passed he asked if what he would be saying next could be taken down.
"Can you take this down in shorthand? I want to make a quick and short statement."
He was told to go ahead, his words would be taken down.
"Whilst in the act of sexual intercourse she suddenly clutched at me, foaming at the mouth. I immediately ceased the act, but she was very still. I felt for her heartbeats but could not find any. My wife must not know. If she does I will do away with myself. "
Quinlan replied: "James Camb, I charge you with the willful murder of Eileen Isabella Ronnie Gibson."
"My God is it as serious as that?" Camb wanted to know.
Ten days after having docked in Southampton, the Durban Castle was back on her way to South Africa. Cabin 126 did not have a passenger; it had no bed. The bed had been ripped out; it was needed as evidence in court. So was the bed's bottom sheet; police pathologists had identified the yellow mark on it as human urine. No-one had asked Camb to hand over the clothes he had worn on that Friday night; no-one had in fact even looked at them.
Camb faced capital punishment; if found guilty of willful murder he would be hanged.
Camb in the Dock
Five months later, on Thursday, March 18, 1948, the Porthole Murder Case, as the media called it, opened in Winchester Court House, nine miles (14 kms) away; Southampton Court House had not yet been rebuilt after WW II bombing. The court room was packed. As the media would report, most in the public gallery were women. James Camb, all the ladies agreed, was one very handsome hulk of a man. After the first day, admission would be by ticket only; one woman who would not be applying for a ticket would be Margaret, Camb's wife.
In court, Camb pleaded "Not guilty," in a firm voice. He stuck to the story he had already told the police and his team if lawyers, Geoffrey Wells, Joshua Casswell and Joseph Molony.
After Gay had told him not to worry about the unlocked door, she took off her slippers and gown and he saw that she was naked underneath. He loosened his belt and unbuttoned the fly of his trousers, but he did not take off his clothes. Sexual intercourse took place in the "missionary style."
He said: "I lay on top of Miss Gibson. I was face down … her head was in the crook of my left arm, my right arm resting on her hip. Her right hand was around my neck and her left hand holding my right arm. Just as intercourse would normally have come to an end she suddenly heaved under me as though she was gasping for breath, as though she was taking a deep breath… her body stiffened for a fraction of a second and then relaxed, completely limp … her right arm was still round my neck when she heaved against me. That arm automatically tightened, and the left arm, holding my right forearm gripped tightly. All this happened in a matter of seconds."
He added that Gay's nails had at first dug into his flesh then her whole body had stiffened in his arms and her back had arched in a violent spasm.
"She heaved a long, tired sigh and her head lolled awkwardly to one side. Her eyes opened wide and fixed me with a sightless stare."
He said that he must have held her for several seconds before jumping off the bed. He thought she must have fainted. Her mouth was slightly open and bubbles gathered in the corners of her mouth. The bubbles were a muddy color as if blood-speckled. He felt for her pulse, there was none. He put an ear to her chest but could not hear a heartbeat. For 20, perhaps 25 minutes, he tried to bring her back to consciousness. He massaged her stomach upwards towards her heart, he pumped her chest, he slapped her face, rubbed her hands, massaged her arms and legs hoping to restore her blood circulation.
Just at that moment there was a tap on the door and someone started to open it. He jumped to it, said "It's all right", and locked the door.
Then he panicked.
Being in a passenger's cabin was against the rules; he would certainly lose his job and what would he say to Margaret caring for their little girl Evelyn or Tootsie as they called her up in Glasgow, Scotland? But he might still have got around that problem, but how was he going to explain the passenger being naked – and dead?
|Detectives examine the porthole through which Gay Gibson's body
The solution, the only one he could think of, was to push the body through the porthole.
"I confess it sounds very foolish but I hoped to give the impression that she had fallen overboard and deny all knowledge of having been in that cabin in the hope that the captain's further inquiries would not be too severe."
The porthole was just short of 16 inches in diameter (41 cm), but right above the bed.
"I lifted her up to a sitting position and then lifted her with my hands just above her hips to the porthole and pushed her arms through and then her head," he explained.
Next, he pushed her body and legs through. She hit the water, some 25 feet (eight meters) below, with a loud splash.
"I was sure nobody could have heard the splash. The ship's motion gives a certain amount of backwash and the initial wave of the bow cutting through the sea washes back past the ship and creates a suction noise," he said.
He did not throw her nightgown, pajamas and slippers out as well. He had no idea what had happened to those. He said that he had not even seen a pair of black silk pajamas in the cabin; she wore nothing under the nightgown.
The body gone, he switched off the light and went to his and Pott's cabin and crawled into his bunk to lie awake for what was left of the night on the high seas.
Truth or Rumors
Without a body nor with hard, damning evidence that Camb was in Gay Gibson's cabin on the night of her disappearance, the prosecution had to prove that the starlet, on her death, was in excellent health and that the cause of death was strangulation either during or after violent non-consensual sex.
The prosecution's pathologist, Dr. Donald Teare, pointed out that on death by strangulation the human body empties itself of waste. Therefore the yellow stain on the bottom sheet, identified as human urine, proved that the victim was strangled to death. It also of course therefore proved that she was dead on hitting the water; her family did not have to fear that she had been thrown into a shark-infested ocean alive.
The defense team however argued that Gay had a history of inexplicable faints and that these might have been caused by a serious undetected and consequently untreated heart condition. And the human body did, the team added, empty itself of waste on death, whether death had been natural or not. Gay having urinated on death did not therefore prove that Camb had strangled her. She probably died of a heart attack.
Passenger Hopwood testified that the young woman had appeared tired when he had chatted to her out on the deck. He also described her as having often been not in a cheerful mood. He thought something was worrying her. "She was more or less like that all the time except for one evening when she seemed to brighten up."
Worried about what? About being pregnant perhaps and having to find an abortionist in London; not only was abortion illegal but also very costly.
As not all of both the prosecution and the defense's witnesses were able to make the voyage from South Africa, the absent ones had sent affidavits; the defense alone had as many as 22. All these affidavits painted a picture of a sexually uninhibited, hard-drinking, hard-playing young woman.
Present to give evidence was a Johannesburg-based physician, Dr. Ina Schoub. Gay had consulted her the week before the Durban Castle's had sailed from Cape Town; she wanted to be fitted with a contraceptive device. Schoub had to examine her internally and she was adamant that the young woman was not pregnant. Gay had told her that she had moved to South Africa because she suffered from asthma. She also told her that she often missed a period. Schoub, the wife of a theater director and someone who therefore knew Gay's social history, suggested to her that her lifestyle – the partying, the drinking, the excitability – might be a little hectic and it could certainly upset her menstrual cycle, but she need not believe that she was going to have a baby.
Gay's mother Ellen, called Daisy, described by the media as "a pleasant, round-faced, middle-aged Englishwoman, just like millions of other English mothers, with the same pride and the same loyalties; a tragic figure in the witness box," said that her daughter had always enjoyed excellent health. She dismissed Schoub's claims that her daughter had consulted her about missing periods and asthma.
She also dismissed as rumors what had been reported about her daughter's sex life. "She was not really keen on anybody. She was not particularly interested in men or marriage. She had one interest in life and that was a theatrical career."
As for a man having paid her daughter's passage, she said: "She was going to pay him back. She was a hardworking conscientious girl and she was hoping to become successful in her career."
Former lover, Mike Abel, was in court too and his evidence contradicted that of Mrs. Gibson. In detail he described the sex he had had with Gay. One act had taken place in his car and she had fainted. He described how her lips had turned blue and she complained of a pain in her left arm.
Abel's testimony was backed up by Schoub, who said that Able had told her, speaking of Gay, "She nearly died on my last night. I was screwing her in my car and she passed out. I thought she was dead. Then she came round."
Other witnesses spoke of how Gay used to pass out at parties after having had too much to drink. Once they had found her lying unconscious out in the garden. "I'm sorry," she apologized when they got her back on to her feet.
Dr. Anthony Griffiths, the ship's physician, admitted that he could not with certainty say that the scratches on Camb were caused by a woman's long nails. Neither could he testify to their freshness. And he also said that the scratches on Camb's wrist could have been caused by gripping during a seizure.
It was Counsel Joshua Casswell's task to plead for Camb's life.
On the first day of the trial he had addressed the jury by saying that all that his client could be blamed for was having thrown Gay Gibson's body through the porthole of her cabin. "We must remember that we are not here to decide whether he ought to have disposed of the dead body, nor is the charge that of having concealed a dead body. What he is charged with is having murdered that girl, and it is for the prosecution to prove to your satisfaction that he did murder her before you can find a verdict of guilty. It is not a question of suspicion; it is not a question of probability. It must be a question of certainty in your minds beyond reasonable doubt; not a flimsy doubt, of course, but by bringing your minds to bear upon it as men and women of the world. That is why you are here so that you may bring common sense to your deliberations."
At the end of the trial he said: "In any case of this sort which comes before a jury, there is suspicion. If there were no suspicion there would be no trial, but you will realize that suspicion, and even probability, falls short of what is required before you can return a verdict of guilty."
There were 12 jurors. They would be described by the media as "predominantly male, middle-aged, middle-minded and middle-class." Only two were female.
Forty-five minutes after they retired to consider their verdict, they were back in the court room.
They did not look at Camb; to those in the public gallery it meant they had found him guilty of murder. They had.
The judge, Justice Sir Malcolm Hilbery of the King's Bench, asked Camb if he had anything to say.
"My lord, at the opening of this case I was asked to plead guilty or not guilty. I pleaded not guilty and I repeat that statement now," he replied.
A clerk balanced a square piece of black cloth on the judge's wig and then, all in the court room standing, the judge said: "James Camb, the sentence of the court upon you is that you be taken from hence to a lawful prison, and thence to a place of execution, and that you there be hanged by the neck until you be dead, and that your body be buried within the precincts of the prison within which you shall last have been confined before your execution, and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul."
Camb did not react.
Camb did not die on the gallows. At that time the British Parliament was debating abolishing capital punishment and a moratorium was in force so that his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Soon though the death sentence was reinstated but the commutation of his sentence was upheld. He would spend the rest of his life locked up and he would probably die forgotten. (Capital punishment was abolished in 1965.)
But, James Camb would be in the news again.
In 1959, having served almost 12 years and 43 years old and as handsome as before, Camb was paroled for good behavior.
Camb, now long divorced from Margaret, who remarried, took a job as a waiter in Radcliffe, a town in his native Lancashire. Soon afterwards he met a barmaid and married her; and he adopted her 6-year-old daughter.
In 1967, eight years later and 51 years old, he was back in court for having made lurid gestures to a young girl, a friend of his adopted daughter. He lost his job, but did not have to return to jail.
In 1971, he did go back to jail. He received a 12-year sentence for "lewd, indecent and libidinous practices" towards three girls; two were 11 years old and the other 10. He was working as a waiter in the bar of a hotel and broke into the bedroom of the girls on a school outing. His second wife then left him.
In 1978 he walked free for a second time. He was 62 years old and ill with heart disease. He set off for Leeds in West Yorkshire, not far from Lancashire, and despite his health took a job as a waiter at a golf club. Gray, thin and not so steady on his feet, he was quickly popular with everyone; they called him Jimbo.
He had only a few months to live though. He died behind the golf club's bar of a heart attack on July 7, 1979.
An old aunt of his named Florrie had asked him when he was on trial for murder: "In the name of God, Jimmy, why?" He had replied: "I must have needed by head tested."
He had by his own confession only ever loved one woman: his first wife Margaret.
After having been sentenced to death he had written her a letter. "I do not know what I am going to say – what can I say?" he began.
He wrote of the torment she must be suffering and what a handicap his name would be to the future of their daughter.
He told her that whatever she decided to do he would not oppose her.
"I beg of you to always be sure that you have been my one true love and no matter what the future holds for me I shall go on loving you and loving Tootsie, our sweet child."
He ended the letter: "God bless you both, my dear wife and daughter. Jimmy."
Did he or did he not kill her?
At the time of the trial the British and South African public had little sympathy for Gay. People said that she was a bad girl and that she certainly had not died defending her honor or fighting off a rapist.
James Camb on the contrary was liked. He was described as intelligent and articulate and even as a "very debonair fellow."
His male supporters said that he had an open invitation to Gay's cabin and that any man would have followed it through. They also believed that Gay died the way he had described; so did his female supporters.
"Actress Had Fainting Fits," London's Daily Telegraph headlined. The page-one headline of another London newspaper, the Sunday Express, was, "Gay Gibson died in my arms says Camb. Doctor says: I think that story is perfectly possible."
Eight years after the trial one of the defense's forensic pathologists, Dr. Denis Hocking, made it clear in a letter to a colleague that he also believed that Gay had died of natural causes: "I have always thought that very odd fun and games went on in that cabin that night."
He mentioned masochism saying that Gay was probably a sadomasochist. He also mentioned oral sex.
In some of the affidavits sent to Camb's lawyers it was claimed that Gay indulged in both in South Africa.
"To an undoubtedly highly-sexed man like Camb, this may have proved an irresistible attraction …," wrote Hocking in the letter.
In 1947 words like masochism, sadomasochist and oral sex could not however be mentioned in a court of law; they could not even be written in a newspaper. The jury therefore heard only that "sexual intercourse in the missionary style" had taken place.
So why did Gay Gibson die?
Since Dr. Hocking's letter to his colleague, the case has frequently been discussed in books about forensic pathology. The experts all point out that sudden death during sexual intercourse happens more often than one realizes.
One cause of such sudden death is ischaemic heart disease (IHD) when the blood supply to the heart muscle is reduced or halted.
Another is cardiomyopathy, weakness of the muscle of the heart due to an inadequate oxygen supply. Three of its symptoms are apnea (interrupted breathing), fainting and hyperventilation. Signs of the latter are lightheadedness and slurred speech with the sufferer consequently mistaken for being under the influence of alcohol or narcotics.
But if Gay's death were due to one of the above, who buzzed for assistance from her cabin? And what happened to her pajamas, nightgown and slippers?
Today, British criminologists say that as both buzzers sounded at the same time it means that it was Camb who had summoned help. A woman's hand being smaller than that of a man, Gay could not have hit both simultaneously. Also, if Camb had killed Gay either willfully or accidentally during violent sex, he would certainly not have buzzed for help. He would have had only one idea: to vacate the cabin.
But that the two buzzers were pressed simultaneously and in such a way to make the two night-watchmen think that there was something very wrong up on the Shade Deck, showed that all that Camb could think of at that moment was to get someone, perhaps the doctor, to the cabin urgently. Then, after one or two minutes of reflection while waiting for help to arrive, he decided that it would be wiser to deal with the situation himself.
As for the pajamas, nightgown and slippers, the criminologists say that Camb shoved those through the porthole as well hoping that it would be thought that Gay had either jumped or fallen overboard.
The final word should perhaps go to Camb's old Aunt Florrie.
Asked, after Camb's death, by a journalist to describe him, she said: "I couldn't say he was a bad man. Apart from the women side, he never did any thieving or robbery. Just women. Stupid, isn't it? All his trouble because of the women thing."
The Durban Castle's Fate
The Durban Castle continued to sail between South Africa and Britain until 1962 when it was sold for $288,000 (£200,000; €224,000) to a German firm based in Hamburg to be broken up.
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