PCV Accused of Murdering His Wife in Tanzania
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64; APCD Ethiopia 1965-67; PC/W & NY 1995-2000)
OVER THE FORTY YEARS OF THE PEACE CORPS more than one PCV has slipped a thick blank-paged journal into their luggage, ready to record their experience while on this great new adventure. Many, of course, think that perhaps someday they’ll turn all the notes into a novel or a memoir.
Paul Theroux, for example, used his journals in writing his 1989 novel, My Secret History, which is set partly in Malawi and Uganda. Mike Tidwell turned to his journals when he wrote The Ponds of Kalamabayi about his time in Zaire. And Kathleen Coskran used the journals she kept in Ethiopia for several of her stories in her prize-winning collection, The High Price of Everything.
But it was the journal of another PCV, William Kinsey, which first brought Peace Corps writers into international headlines.
In 1966, five years after the founding of the Peace Corps, PCV William Kinsey was accused of murdering his wife in up-country Tanzania. His Peace Corps journal was used as evidence against him in his court trial.
William Kinsey was just out of college in the summer of 1964 when he went off to training at Syracuse University for a Peace Corps assignment to Tanzania. At Syracuse, Bill met Peverley Dennett, a trainee assigned to teach in Malawi. Peverley had her county of assignment changed to Tanzania by PC/W and ninety-four days later they married. The couple spent their honeymoon in transit to Africa and started their Peace Corps service as secondary school teachers in up-country Maswa, Tanzania.
A year and a half later, in March of 1966, Bill was arrested for killing Peverley while they were picnicking near their school. He became the first Peace Corps Volunteer ever to be charged with murder.
Bill maintained that Peverley had accidentally slipped and fatally injured herself in a 20-foot fall from a rocky ledge. The state prosecutor of Tanzania said Kinsey, inflamed by jealousy, had battered his wife to death with a length of iron pipe.
When Kinsey was arrested at the picnic site by a Maswa policeman, he was being held captive by 100 local people who said he had been trying to flee the scene. Nearby, the arresting officer found a rock and metal pipe caked with fresh blood and some threads of human hair. Kinsey’s shirt was also blooded.
Bill told the Maswa police that the pipe was part of his camera equipment, and he did not know how the piece of metal had become bloodstained. His clothes, he said, had blood on them because he tried to help his wife after she had fallen.
Later Bill told the Tanzanian court that Peverley and he had spent the weekend grading papers and then late on Sunday afternoon had left for a picnic at the rocky site. Because they were going so late in the day, he decided to leave his camera and other photographic equipment behind. The piece of metal, wrapped in a towel, had been left by mistake in the picnic basket. The pipe was used, Kinsey told the court, as a lightweight tripod for his 400 mm telephoto lens.
Kinsey explained that after bicycling to the picnic site, he and Peverley climbed to the top of the hill to get a better view. At the time, Peverley was carrying a book and a bottle of beer.
Kinsey was standing one or two yards away from Peverley and looking away when he heard the sound of breaking glass. Glancing around, he saw Peverley had slipped from the top of the ledge, falling twenty feet to the rocky base.
He ran to help her and as she tried to stand he held her down. “She was struggling, kicking and kept on calling my name,” he said at his African trial. “I sat on her stomach and was trying to keep her from moving. I managed to get a towel and folded it underneath her head. She still struggled. I was shouting at her not to move. Sometime later she did not struggle. I got up — I heard some people shouting — I shouted to the people and signaled to them to come to assist me. No one came.”
Finally, he placed her in the shade and went for help, but people threw sticks at him, shouted and snatched his bicycle. He tried to run towards the nearby town of Maswa, but others surrounded and stopped him. Desperate now, he sent a student of his to get the school headmaster.
But when the help arrived, it was too late. He returned to the hill and found that Peverley had died.
Kinsey’s trial lasted three weeks. The courtroom was filled — mostly with Peace Corps Volunteers from Tanzania and other countries.
According to Ededen Effiwatt, the Nigerian-born Senior State Attorney, Kinsey had induced his wife to go with him for a picnic, and had concealed the piece of iron wrapped in a towel in a picnic basket. They had ridden on their bicycles to lonely, rock-strewn Impala Hill, two miles from their school.
Once there, Kinsey had taken his wife between two huge boulders where he had set upon her, beating her on the head with the piece of iron. There was fierce fighting between them, but Peverley was soon overpowered. Apart from the piece of iron he also made use of a stone to kill his wife, Mr. Effiwatt alleged.
Effiwatt claimed that Kinsey’s diary that the police had found in the couples’ house contained written passages that tended to show unfaithfulness and implied a murder motive. The passages were not, however, Kinsey’s own prose. They were taken from Wright Morris’ novel, Ceremony in Lone Tree. Kinsey said he had simply copied the passages as examples of fine writing, and that they had nothing to do with questions of infidelity in his marriage. In fact, he told the court, he had never suspected his wife of being unfaithful to him, and that he loved her. He said that he had copied the extracts because they reflected a character in the book, were particularly descriptive or they were humorous. He said he often did this and had kept similar notebooks over a period of years.
A prosecution witness claimed in court that he had seen two people fighting from a distance of 140 yards. He said he saw a woman fall on the ground and there was a white man on top beating her with a “black tool.”
The case, however, turned on two defense testimonies.
A Nairobi pathologist testified that Peverley’s injuries were more likely to have been caused by a fall than by bludgeoning. And then on the closing day, in a dramatic gesture by the defense, Peverley’s mother, who had flown in from her home in Connecticut, testified that her daughter’s marriage had been “very happy and comfortable.”
Referring to her daughter by her nickname of “Peppy,” she told the court that she received many letters from Peppy and an occasional letter from her son-in-law during their time at Maswa. “I never had any letter indicating my daughter was unhappy in her marriage. None whatsoever. I was delighted with the marriage.” She said she had visited the couple at their school the year before, and “There was never any hint of trouble in their marriage.”
Two “assessors” (including a USAID official from Tanzania) recommended Kinsey’s acquittal, and British-born Judge Harold Platt brought in his judgment. Kinsey’s guilt, he ruled, had not been “proved beyond reasonable doubt.”
After the verdict
After having spent five months in jail (where he spent most of his time teaching English to fellow prisoners), Kinsey flew immediately home, saying only that he wanted to be reassigned to Tanzania.
Instead of being reassigned, Bill worked in PC/Washington for slightly more than a year and then went to Stanford for an advanced degree. Years later, remarried, he returned to West Africa as a relief worker.