Monday, December 11, 2023

Cardinal Sins: Murder of actress changes pop culture

By Bryn Fawn

The high seas are beautiful, but also deadly. The waves lap up against the hull of the ship Durban Castle as the crew buzzes about. The smell of salt hangs in the air. You would never guess that your fellow shipmate would be the biggest threat to your life as opposed to the lingering nazis in the world.

It’s the late 1940s, and the world is still recovering from the shockwave that was the second world war. James Camb was a steward aboard Durban Castle sailing from Cape Town, South Africa to Southampton, England in March of 1947.

Camb had a single victim, Camb killed Eileen Gibson, often going by the nickname Gay Gibson. Gibson was born in Jaipur, British India and was an actress. She was on a theater tour at the time, and was returning to London to do more performances in a local theater. Gibson was 21 years old at the time, while Camb was 30 years old. 

Gibson was under Camb’s care, in cabin 126, B deck, sailing first class. The two were seen being friendly with one another, which was against company policy. Camb was reprimanded for his behavior.

The night Gibson lost her life was March 17, 1947. She had been dancing late into the night, and was brought to her room by two friends around 11:30 p.m. There was no sign of her until 3 a.m. as Frederick Steer, a watchman, was awoken by a summoning done from Gibson’s cabin. As Steer approached her room, he noticed the duty steward and stewardess were also called, indicated by Gibson’s lights by door.

Gibson did not answer the door, but it was Camb who greeted Steer. Camb lied and said that everything was alright and Steer took Camb by his word. 

As the sun rose over the sea, a stewardess came to clean Gibson’s room. 

The stewardess noted the bunk was empty, there were strange stains on the sheets and the porthole was open. It was brought to the attention of an officer of the ship, who then interviewed Camb about where Gibson had gone and what happened. 

Originally, Camb denied being in Gibson’s room in the first place, but once Steer testified he saw Camb, Camb quickly spun a story the ship’s captain and doctor could believe. Camb claimed that he and Gibson had consensual sex, yet somehow during the act, Gibson died. A freak accident.

Camb said he panicked at the realization that Gibson was dead, claiming he feared losing his job and the support for his family, and so he disposed of Gibson. His method was to toss her out the porthole of her cabin, which is why this case has been given the moniker “The Porthole Murder.”

The ship was near London at the time. Police were on scene for a “complication” on board as it came to dock, the captain said overcommunication. Gibson’s cabin was locked so as to not destroy evidence. Camb was arrested and placed in custody as an investigation took place.

Because of how Gibson was disposed of, her body was never found.

Camb’s trial was rather remarkable at the time, due to the lack of a body. It also gained attention because the details felt like a novel, with Gibson being a beautiful actress and her murder being a crime of passion.

Police and investigators found urine on the sheets, a sign that Camb may have strangled Gibson.

After 45 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Camb guilty and sentenced to death. However, British law changed soon after his conviction and so Camb was never executed. Camb served a prison sentence until 1959. However, Camb was later incarcerated again for assault. He remained imprisoned until his second release in 1978. Camb died a year later from a heart attack.

Camb denied ever killing Gibson, but the murder has since become a part of pop culture, spurring novels, like “Death of an Actress” by Antony M. Brown. The tale of a young actress at sea, only to be taken advantage of and discarded like trash enthralled readers and media. 

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