By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Faking one’s own death is an unwise solution for life’s problems. Whether running from financial debts, a dead-end career, or a prison sentence, pretending to die and starting from scratch rarely works. A prominent South Carolina lawyer is learning the hard way.
In an increasingly bizarre conspiracy, Alex Murdaugh, a successful lawyer from South Carolina, has surrendered to police after faking his own assassination. The strange tale began when court documents attributed the death of a housekeeper at Murdaugh’s residence in 2018 to an accident, but a local coroner said no death was reported to her office nor an autopsy done. In June, Murdaugh’s wife and one of their sons were shot and killed at their home.
On September 4, a day after Murdaugh was booted from his family law firm for stealing millions, he survived a gunshot to the head and falsely claimed a passer-by had tried to kill him. It was later revealed that Murdaugh had paid a former client to kill him so Murdaugh’s surviving son could collect a life insurance policy on him.
Faking a death is never easy, and sometimes the circumstances defy belief. In her video series Forensic History: Crimes, Frauds, and Scandals, Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray, forensic anthropologist and Professor of Biology at Mount St. Joseph University, told a similar strange story—involving former British Cabinet Prime Minister John Stonehouse.
How to Disappear Completely…
“During a business trip to Florida’s Miami Beach on November 20, 1974, Stonehouse told companions he was going for a swim,” Dr. Murray said. “When he didn’t return to the hotel, investigators found a pile of his clothing on a nearby beach. Apparently, Stonehouse had either drowned or maybe was attacked by a shark.”
According to Dr. Murray, Stonehouse had enjoyed a successful political career in the 1960s. He was on his way to becoming a leader for England’s Labour Party and might have even been Prime Minister. However, failed business ventures and bad loans sent him hurtling toward bankruptcy. After his disappearance—and the publication of an obituary for him—the rumor mill began to turn.
“Some of Stonehouse’s friends and allies suspected that organized crime mobsters or opposing political factions might have killed him,” she said. “Back in the 1960s, allegations had been made that Stonehouse was a spy for the Czech government and may have been associated with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
“The U.K.’s Military Intelligence Section 5 (MI-5) had investigated those charges in 1969 after a Czech defector informed on Stonehouse, but MI-5 ultimately decided the spying allegations were false.”
…And Eventually Be Found
A month after his disappearance, on Christmas Eve 1974, Australian police discovered Stonehouse living in a resort community in Melbourne under a false name. After leaving Florida, he had flown to Hawaii and then Australia under a false name, only to travel to Lebanon, Singapore, and Denmark—where he stayed with his secretary for some time—before returning to Australia. Stranger still, when he was arrested, Australian police weren’t looking for John Stonehouse.
“Australian police had been watching him, sitting in restaurants reading British newspapers, but not because they thought the man was John Stonehouse; it was because they suspected he was Richard Bingham,” Dr. Murray said. “Bingham, otherwise known as Lord Lucan, was a professional gambler [who] had disappeared from England the month prior, after his children’s nanny was found bludgeoned to death in his estranged wife’s basement.”
Bingham, ironically, was never found.
When Australian police arrested Stonehouse, they discovered that he had established credit cards under several false names and opened accounts with overdraft loans from his U.K. bank accounts, with which he had intended to start a new life with his secretary. He was extradited to England where he pleaded a mental breakdown and split personalities.
Stonehouse served half of a seven-year sentence for fraud, deception, and theft. He married his secretary in 1981 and wrote until his death in 1988.
“In 2010, the British National Archives declassified papers confirming Stonehouse had, in fact, served as a spy for the Czech government, making him the only U.K. politician proven to be a spy, while a minister of Parliament,” Dr. Murray said. “Records show that in 1980, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher herself agreed to keep the knowledge confidential, and not prosecute Stonehouse, who was just getting out of jail at the time.”
Alex Murdaugh faces charges of conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and lying to the police.