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Unsolved murders of women in Victorian London

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When discussing unsolved murders of women in late Victorian London, most people think of the depredations of Jack the Ripper, the Whitechapel Murderer, whose sanguineous exploits has spawned the creation of a small library of books. But Jack the Ripper was just one of a string of phantom murderers whose unsolved slayings outraged late Victorian Britain. The mysterious Cannon Street, Great Coram Street, Euston Square, and West Ham murders were also talked about with bated breath, and, like Jack The Ripper's crimes, were never solved.

Cannon Street, 1866

In the Cannon Street Murder of 1866, the elderly housekeeper Sarah Millson was murdered inside a large warehouse in the City of London. The police found that she had been subjected to blackmail, and arrested the Eton never-do-well William ‘Bill’ Smith, who had been in the habit of extorting money from her, for the repayment of an old loan. A star witness from the crime scene identified Bill Smith as the man she had seen leaving the Cannon Street murder house, but it turned out that she had received some ‘help’ from the police in doing so. On trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of Sarah Millson, Bill Smith was defended by a crack legal team, who were able to prove a rock-solid alibi; he was found Not Guilty and the murder was never solved. There is reason to believe, however, that Sarah Millson had more than one skeleton in her cupboard: she had married bigamously after her first husband had deserted her, and this may well have left her open to blackmail.

Great Coram Street, 1872

Harriet Buswell, a penniless London prostitute, lodged at No. 12 Great Coram Street. On Christmas Eve 1872, she went to the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square, where she was picked up by a foreign-looking man who spoke with a German accent. He bought her a bag of fruit and nuts, and came with her to her room in Great Coram Street. The following morning, Harriet was found in her blood-soaked bed with her throat cut from ear to ear. The murderer had been seen leaving the house by a housemaid, who described him as a rough-looking German laboring man with a blotchy complexion and long stubble, as did several witnesses who had seen Harriet with her sinister ‘customer’ on Christmas Eve. The police suspected an apothecary named Carl Wohllebe, from the German emigrant ship Wangerland that was undergoing repairs in Ramsgate Harbour. When an identity parade was arranged for the London witnesses to see him, with some other Germans from the Wangerland making up the numbers, the detectives were non-plussed when several of the witnesses instead picked out the ship’s chaplain Dr Gottfried Hessel! And indeed, Pastor Hessel had also gone to London on December 23, and the police found out that he had a bad reputation for various shady financial transactions in the past. A marathon set of police line-ups was held: some witnesses picked Hessel out as the man they had seen with Harriet, others thought he resembled the killer but could not swear to him, and an impressive number ruled him out completely. Hessel had been ill with bronchitis, and a number of hotel servants gave him an alibi for Christmas Eve. The Bow Street magistrate declared that Dr Hessel was certainly innocent, but the police still suspected him. The case against him had been stronger, however, if he had been known to visit London to seek the company of prostitutes. The ghost of Harriet Buswell is said to have haunted the murder house for decades.

“Darkness reigned among the shrouded streets of Bloomsbury that sinister Christmas night: as little children lay dreaming of reindeer, sleigh-bells and the delight of Christmas presents, and their parents dreamt of turkey, pudding and the delight of Christmas food, an invisible vortex of Evil, as silent as Death, surrounded the shabby lodging-house at No. 12 Great Coram Street, and the Devil waited, quivering, for Murder!”

 

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The murder of Harriet Buswell is discovered. (Famous Crimes Past & Present)

Euston Square, 1878

In the late 1870s, the lease for the large terraced house at No. 4 Euston Square was held by the bamboo furniture maker Severin Bastendorff. When Miss Matilda Hacker, one of the lodgers in the house, disappeared in 1878, nobody bothered much since she was in the habit of frequently changing her lodgings. But the following year, when a coal cellar on the premises was cleared out, the mummified remains of Miss Hacker were found. Since she had clearly had been murdered, the country lass Hannah Dobbs, a former servant (and mistress) of the bushy-bearded Severin Bastendorff, was soon the prime suspect, since she had taken possession of various valuables stolen from Miss Hacker, and brought some of them to a pawn-shop nearby. Hannah Dobbs was tried at the Old Bailey for the murder of Matilda Hacker, but found Not Guilty due to lack of evidence. It seems likely that both Severin Bastendorff and his brother Peter knew more about the murder than they admitted in court, and that they used Hannah Dobbs to dispose of Miss Hacker’s worldly goods. The Euston Square murder house also became notorious for its persistent haunting.

West Ham, 1882 - 1899

In the 1880s and 1890s, a number of young girls disappeared in West Ham and its environs, some without trace, others being found murdered and raped. In all, there were seven victims from 1882 until 1899. The highest-profile case among the ‘West Ham Vanishings’ was the murder of Amelia Jeffs: this 15-year-old girl disappeared on January 31 1890, and was found murdered and raped in an empty house in the Portway two weeks later. At the coroner’s inquest, there was suspicion against Joseph Roberts, the builder who had constructed the terrace of houses in the Portway, and against his father Samuel, who served as night watchman on the premises, but there was not sufficient evidence for either of them to be charged with the murder. The West Ham Vanishings are likely to be the handiwork of a serial killer with a perverted liking for young girls, or possibly two killers from the same family. But whereas Jack the Ripper has become a household name for his sanguineous handiwork in Whitechapel, his West Ham counterpart has remained an obscure figure until now.

By Jan Bondeson

 

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