a French-Canadian soldier of Indian birth, who murdered Joan Wolfe
in Surrey, England. This murder case is also known as The Wigwam
On October 7th 1942,
two British soldiers saw a human arm sticking out of a pile of earth
near Hankley Common, Surrey. When the woman's body was excavated, it had
almost completely decomposed. The pathologist concluded the girl had
been stabbed before receiving several blows to the head with a blunt
The victim was
identified as Joan Wolfe, a girl who had run away from home and lived in
the woods near the army base. The vicinity was scrutinized and a letter
was found, written by Joan to a certain August Sangret. The letter
informed Sangret that Wolfe was pregnant. On Sangret's clothes were
found bloodstains, and his army knife was found soon after in a
Sangret's trial began
in February 1943. He was convicted for murder and hanged on April 29th
1943 in Wandsworth prison.
J.H.H. Gaute and Robin
Odell, The New Murderer's Who's Who, 1996, Harrap Books, London
Guy Bailey, The
Fatal Chance, 1969, London
on the Underworld, 1960, London
August Sangret (28 August 1913 – 29
April 1943) was a French-Canadian soldier of First Nations birth,
convicted of murdering Joan Wolfe in Surrey, England and hanged.
This murder case is also known as The Wigwam Murder.
Joan Pearl Wolfe was born 11 March
1923. Wolfe's mother, Edith Mary Watts had married a Mr Wolfe, who
suffered from an illness believed by his neighbours to be a form of
sleeping sickness. He ended his life by gassing himself. Wolfe's
mother married twice more; Joan had a sister and a half-sister.
Joan Wolfe lived with her mother in the market town
of Tonbridge. They lived modestly in a council house in Lodge Oak Lane.
In 1938, aged sixteen, Joan had become engaged to a young man from
nearby Tunbridge Wells. Her mother had lectured her sternly about
staying out late, but the two did not quarrel angrily. Wolfe's
engagement evidently broke down and she began going out with soldiers;
although little is known of Wolfe's relationship with her mother, it
seems that she was a caring woman driven to her wit's end by he
daughter's behaviour and their relationship deteriorated. Wolfe first
left home before she was seventeen years old.
Wolfe was young, naďve, muddle headed and prone to
flights of fancy. She was brought up as a Catholic and attended a
convent school, she was outwardly pious and regularly wore a
conspicuous crucifix about her neck, but she apparently lacked any
real religious commitment. Having left home, she headed to Aldershot,
the home of the British Army and her behaviour became increasingly
promiscuous. Wolfe made her way to Godalming, looking for work.
The police intervened on several occasions; Wolfe
was repeatedly questioned because she was still a minor. Despite her
repeated claims that the police never did anything to help her, she
was in fact offered various forms of assistance with varying levels of
compulsion. She returned home more than once; always, she drifted
Wolfe became engaged to a Canadian soldier: Francis
Hearn. Hearn returned to Canada promising to marry her; she wore a
ring that he had given her and she sometimes referred to herself as
On 17 July 1942, the day after Hearn left for
Canada, Wolfe met Sangret for the first time in a pub in Godalming.
They talked and walked through a local park. They had sex that night
and parted company having arranged to meet again. As very often
happened, Wolfe did not keep her next date, but Sangret met her again
by chance a few days later when she seemed to be on a date with
another soldier named Hartnell. The three conversed for some time and
then Hartnell left. Sangret and Wolfe met regularly, if unreliably,
On 23 July, Wolfe found herself in hospital. She
wrote to Sangret:
My Dear August,
Well, my dear, I hope I am forgiven for not
turning up to see you last night, but I was in the police station
five hours and they did not help me. I was walking along the road
and suddenly came over queer. I fainted for the first time in my
whole life. The brought me to the hospital here. They are going to
examine me. I shall know whether I am all right or not then. I hope
you will come and see me, as I really want to see you very much and
being in bed all day is awful. You can come any night between 6-7
p.m. and Sunday afternoon. Please try and come. I have your picture
on the locker beside me. The nurses know you are my boy friend, they
told me to tell you to come and see me. You have to tell them my
name and ask for Emergency Ward. Well, hoping to see you soon, I
will say au revoir. God bless you. Love Joan.
Wolfe was not ill; she was, apparently, pregnant.
Sangret was born on 28 August 1913 in Battleford,
Saskatchewan. He was of mixed race, called in French Bois-Brűlés
("burnt wood"), part French Canadian and part Cree. Little is known of
Sanget's early life, but his family was poor and Sangret received
little education - he was illiterate, but not unintelligent. As well
as English, he spoke the Cree language and learned some of the
traditional skills of his ancestors, including the construction of
sturdy shelters or wigwams made from long poles covered by sheets of
birch bark, the tools for this task include a small crooked knife that
is unique to the Cree.
He was unable to find work in the 1930s, but from
1935 to 1939 he served in the Battleford Light Infantry, a militia
regiment which trained for two weeks each year. On 19 June 1940,
Sangret enlisted as a full-time soldier in The Royal Regina Rifles. He
had a criminal record, including six months in gaol for a violent
assault in 1932. He was not a model soldier; he was repeatedly
punished for minor infractions of military discipline and had repeated
spells on the sick list and he was at least twice treated for venereal
disease requiring five admissions to hospital. He arrived in Britain
on 24 March 1940 and was initially stationed in Fleet.
He was then sent to Aldershot and in July he was
posted to a newly formed Educational Company which ran a course for
men lacking elementary education. It was at this time that Sangret met
When Wolfe was released from hospital, the couple
spent a great deal of time together. Sangret made a shack or wigwam in
woodland behind the officers lines. Here Wolfe would stay most of the
time and Sangret would visit whenever he could, including many nights
when he should have been in camp. The couple talked about their future
plans, including marriage. When they could not meet, Wolfe sent
letters to Sangret that would be read out by Sergeant Hicks. Wolfe got
work, but she was totally unreliable and her various employments only
lasted a few days. Wolfe drifted away for a few days to London and
soon after she returned she was again picked up by the police and
spent a few more days in hospital — not because she was ill, but
simply so that she would be looked after.
When Wolfe returned, the couple were discovered in
a wigwam by Private Donald Brett, a soldier attached to the military
police. Brett told them to disassemble the wigwam and move away. Wolfe
was once again taken to a hospital by the police. By the time she
returned, Sangret had built a second wigwam made waterproof with his
rain cape and gas cape. When Wolfe returned, the couple walked into
town to try to find a room in town without success. That evening,
Wolfe was detained by the military police who questioned her; she was
sent to a hospital again and Sangret was arrested for "keeping a girl
The couple had to explain themselves to the
authorities, they explained that their plans included getting married
and they were treated sympathetically. On leaving hospital, Wolfe
again returned to Sangret. They tried again to find a room in town,
but ended up sleeping together in an unlocked cricket pavilion. Over
the next two weeks, they spent a number of nights at the old pavilion
and then, on 14 September, Wolfe disappeared. The affair between
Sangret and Wolfe had lasted 81 days.
Discovery, evidence, and arrest
Hankley Common was then an army training ground
regularly used for military exercises. On 7 October 1942, Royal Marine
William Moore was patrolling the area on a routine march when in one
of the many tank tracks that criss-crossed the area he saw what looked
like a human hand protruding from a mound of earth. As he looked
closer, he saw that two of the fingers and the thumb had been gnawed
away by rats and nearby a foot also protruded from the earth; Moore
realised he had found a human body.
Moore did not interfere with the body, but
immediately reported his find to his sergeant who passed the
information to Lieutenant Norman McLeod who called the police. By
evening, a full scale police investigation was underway. Among the
investigators was forensic pathologist Cedrick Keith Simpson and his
secretary Molly Lefebure.
The body was that of a female placed face down in a
shallow grave which had then been disturbed by a passing vehicle,
probably a half-track. The exhumation began the next day. There was a
strong smell of putrefaction, and flies and maggots were everywhere.
The body was badly decomposed and the head practically fell apart.
Among the decomposing remains were clothes. The body was removed and
taken to Guy's Hospital.
Simpson examined the body. Based on the
hydrolysation of body fats saponification and taking into account the
extra heat that would be generated by the maggots, Simpson estimated
that the victim had died in mid-September. Simpson carefully
reconstructed the skull by wiring together all the fragments that
could be found, clearly revealing a large impact site. Simpson
concluded that the victim died as a result of a single massive blow to
the head while the victim was already lying face down. The blow which
caved in the skull and simultaneously broke the jaw and dislodged
teeth. The murder weapon was a pole or bough. Simpson found knife
wounds on the body, inflicted before the victim had died. The wounds
on the arms, particularly the right arm, suggested a struggle in which
the victim fended off stabs to the face; the cuts were unusual in that
tissue had been pulled out of the lesions. There were knife wounds in
the head too; one of the wounds in the reconstructed skull was
particularly unusual, it was a round countersunk hole. Simpson
concluded that the knife had a blade resembling a parrot's beak.
The police quickly realised that the body and
clothes matched the description of the missing Joan Wolfe. A search of
the area where she was found was carried out by sixty police
constables. Finds included a missing shoe, a tuft of hair, a fragment
of skull, and a tooth. Later, Wolfe's bag was found with personal
effects and identity papers; and a bloody bough was found that was
certainly the murder weapon. A letter was found, written by the victim
to August Sangret, informing him that she was pregnant. On Sangret's
clothes were found bloodstains, and his army knife was found soon
after in a drainpipe.
Sangret was arrested and taken to Godalming police
station. He was interviewed at length by inspector Edward Greeno. The
questioning went on for days and Sangret's statement, which was then
the longest statement ever made, took a policeman five days to write
out in longhand. Sangret was charged with Wolfe's murder.
Trial and punishment
Preliminary hearings were held at Guildford on 12,
13, 19 and 20 January 1943. With the committal proceedings complete,
Captain Creasey noted in his diary that the case was "medium strong,
circumstantial case only."
The judge finished his summary with the words:
That the girl (Wolfe) was murdered is not in
dispute; that she was murdered by some man is also quite plain; and
the only question you have to determine is: Have the Crown satisfied
you beyond all real doubt that the prisoner, August Sanget, is the
man who murdered her?
I can only conclude by saying what I said at the
beginning; when dealing with a case of circumstantial evidence you
must be satisfied beyond all doubt before you find the prisoner
guilty. If you come to the conclusion that, on the facts as proved
to you, no real doubt is left in your minds that his was the hand
which slew this unhappy girl, then you will convict him.
The jury, who took two hours to reach their verdict,
made a strong recommendation to mercy. Before sentence of death was
passed, Sangret declared, "I am not guilty. I never killed that girl."
Sanget's appeal was heard on 13 April. The appeal
was dismissed and the jury's appeal for mercy was not a matter for the
courts, but for the Home Secretary. Then Home Secretary Herbert
Morrison found the jury's recommendation surprising, even
inexplicable. Seeing no good reason to interfere, he let the law take
its course. Sangret was held in the condemned cell at Wandsworth
Prison where he was hanged on 29 April 1943.
In his memoirs, published in 1960, Edward Greeno
made his opinion quite clear:
I had interviewed thousands of people in this
case and seventy-four of them went into the witness-box. The case
was so watertight that, as Sir Norman Kendal said later, Sanget's
appeal against the death sentence 'was almost a farce'.
One small doubt remained. Sanget murdered the
girl because she was expecting his child—but was she? Was she
expecting anybody's child?
The doctors didn't think so on the occasion that
the police sent her to hospital, and when her body was found it was
too late to tell.
But this is certain: Sangret did murder her. He
confessed before he died, and this is where I quarrel with the
rules. It is never announced when a murderer confesses. But why not?
There are always cranks and crackpots to argue that some wicked
policeman has framed some poor fellow. So why make an official
secret of the fact that the policeman did his job?
Private August Sangret, Royal Canadian Infantry
Corps, is commemorated on the Brookwood Memorial. His entry can be
found on Panel 23, Column 3. Other executed criminals present on the
Brookwood Memorial are Ernest James Kemp and Theodore Schurch.
The Sangret case was dramatised twice by Harry Alan
Towers. Firstly as "The Case of the Hunted Hunter" in the series
Secrets of Scotland Yard in approximately 1949, then on the series
The Black Museum in 1952 under the title of "The Brass
Button". The case was featured in the Discovery Channel television
series Crime Museum UK in the episode "Strange Weapons". It was
also featured in the Discovery Channel series Crime Museum UK,
with Martin Kemp.
The case is the subject of non-fiction book The
Wigwam Murder by M. J. Trow.