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mysteries of b.c.

Francis Rattenbury, left, and Alma Rattenbury: The dashing architect designed both the B.C. Legislature and Victoria’s Empress Hotel, but his scandalous affair with the woman who became his wife, not to mention her own flamboyant behaviour, set tongues wagging among the town’s social elites. He was killed in 1935.

The ghost of Francis Rattenbury is said to rattle around in the hallways of the B.C. Parliament Buildings and the Empress Hotel, two of his landmark creations that have dominated Victoria's harbour view for more than a century. It's a popular story featured in the haunted walking tours of the city.

The accomplished architect was murdered in 1935, his head caved in by the force of multiple blows from a carpenter's mallet. His wife's teenaged lover, George Stoner, was convicted of the crime. The sensational story of sex, drugs and betrayal has inspired several books, a London stage play and television dramas. Now an opera is in the works.

Some still believe Mr. Rattenbury's murderer eluded justice. Because, as rich as the storyline is, there is a more tantalizing theory – that the real killer was his wife, Alma Rattenbury.

She was cast for the part of a villain in her day: Her scandalous behaviour led her to be shunned by the upper crust of Victoria society. First, she entrapped the successful but married architect. They carried on a highly indiscreet affair before he divorced his less-attractive wife to wed her. If that wasn't shocking enough, she smoked and drank in public. Then, in her middle age, Alma led the young Mr. Stoner, the hired help, astray.

The murder took place in the Rattenbury home in in the English seaside town of Bournemouth, where the family had settled after fleeing the harsh judgment of Victoria society. By this time, Mr. Rattenbury's glittering career had crashed. After a string of brilliant commissions – his design for the B.C. legislature buildings won him fame and fortune at the age of 25 – he no longer could find work in Canada.

His relationship with his second wife faltered as well. In March, 1935, the bloodied and senseless Mr. Rattenbury was found in his sitting room. He died days later from his injuries. His wife initially confessed to murder, but denied it when she testified in court.

Mr. Stoner, who was hired as the family chauffeur, did not give evidence in his defence and was sentenced to be hanged. He had confessed to another member of the household staff, and suggested he was addled by cocaine.

Ms. Rattenbury was acquitted, but booed by the crowds outside the Old Bailey courthouse.

Days later, convinced that her lover was about to die, she stabbed herself in the heart six times before tumbling into a river, dead.

But Mr. Stoner's life was spared. A petition signed by more than 300,000 people begged for leniency – it was his lover, branded a sexual predator, who bore the brunt of the public's scorn. He spent seven years in jail, then served in the Second World War before living out the rest of his life in the same English seaside town where the murder took place.

Ross Crockford, author of Victoria: the Unknown City, said the tale of murder remains compelling, a combination of the extraordinary cast of characters and the fact that the verdict was never fully accepted.

"Rattenbury is Victoria's most-celebrated architect, the city as we know it would not exist without him," he said. "And then there is the intrigue of his murder under mysterious circumstances."

Mr. Crockford dug into the story looking for fresh detail for his guidebook, and discovered that the local press in Bournemouth never let go of the story.

"What intrigued me, after this extensive trial, and decades later, still questions are being asked about what had actually happened. Reporters kept going around to visit George Stoner for years after."

After decades of silence, Mr. Stoner made a statement to a reporter from The Bournemouth Daily Echo in 1999 which did not clarify matters but left the door open to the notion that he at the very least had a partner in the murder: "The whole crime was committed on an emotional basis. Both I and the lady involved were in a highly emotional state."

Mr. Stoner died in a nursing home a year later. Mr. Crockford still hopes that a diary may surface but, most likely, Mr. Stoner took the answer to this mystery to his grave.