A sad story, with no ending

The case of Harriet Buswell is perhaps too ordinary to merit interest 150 years after the event. But I find it haunting. Of the four dozen or so cases I looked at researching The Invention of Murder, this is the one I can’t get out of my mind. Maybe because it’s unsolved, but I don’t think so. I think it’s because of the lack of mark it made, similar to the lack of mark Harriet Buswell made – the lack of mark women like her continue to make. These sad ghosts of women, who were ghosts long before they died.

Harriet Buswell was ‘connected’ to a theatre – she danced, said her child, ‘at the Alhambra in silk tights’. In actuality, she sometimes appeared in onstage, but more often earned her living by prostitution.

In the last week of her life, Harriet Buswell was living in lodgings in Great Coram Street, Bloomsbury. At ten o’clock on Christmas Eve 1872, she borrowed a shilling from a fellow-lodger, and went out. She was seen walking to the Alhambra in Leicester Square, and then later she was seen at Regent Circus (now Piccadilly Circus) waiting for a bus with a man. A few hours later, between midnight and one o’clock, she returned to her lodgings with the same man, or another. She took him upstairs before coming back down carrying a bag of apples, oranges and nuts, which she showed her landlady as she stopped off to pay her rent with a half-sovereign (10 shillings) coin.

Other residents heard the man’s footsteps the following morning around 6.30, leaving the house. At midday, when Harriet had still not appeared, the landlady went up: the door was locked. Such was the anxiety, however, that the door was forced. Harriet was found lying with her throat cut, ‘the bed exhibiting a dreadful appearance’, covered in blood, and on Harriet’s forehead was a blood-stained thumb-print. Her purse, a few small bits of jewellery (including a pair of earrings she had borrowed to wear the previous night) and a pawn ticket for five pairs of drawers (underpants) were missing. There was no key on the inside of the door: it had been locked from the outside and removed.

The following month, the police went down to Ramsgate with evidence that led to a German brig, the Wangerland. The German consul assisted them and ‘some Germans’ were taken to the town hall, where a waiter from the Alhambra and the greengrocer who had sold Harriet the fruit and nuts were waiting to identify the man they had seen with Harriet. They both agreed that Dr Henry James Bernhard Gottfried Hessel, the ship’s chaplain, staying in Ramsgate with his wife, was the man. Hessel was arrested, and brought up before the magistrates.

At the magistrates-court a barmaid at the Alhambra corroborated their identification: she had seen him with Harriet on the bus. Hessel had been absent from Ramsgate, on a trip to London, on the night in question. The chambermaid at the hotel in Ramsgate where Hessel was staying with his wife testified that three days after the murder she had been given a parcel of laundry by Mrs Hessel containing ‘several’, ‘six or seven’, handkerchiefs stained with blood. One was, she said, ‘saturated’. On his return from London, Hessel had himself asked for turpentine and a clothes-brush.

However, other witnesses said just as confidently that they did not recognize Hessel. The servant at Great Coram Street who had identified the man leaving Harriet’s lodgings was found to have seen him from across the road, before dawn, with the street light out. A friend of Hessel’s testified he had seen him at Kroll’s Hotel in London when he was supposed to have been with Harriet, and ‘heard him in his room’, while he saw his boots outside the door. Hessel’s request for a clothes-brush and turpentine was for Mrs Hessel’s dress, which had brushed against some wet paint at the hotel in Ramsgate.

There was no reconciling the two stories. Hessel was discharged.

Keith Skinner and Alan Moss, in their The Scotland Yard Files: Milestones in Detecting British Crime (Kew, National Archives, 2006), note that after the case was dismissed by the magistrates, and all the newspapers trumpeted their shock that a clergyman and a member of the middle classes had even been suspected, Hessel’s respectable façade began to unravel. The clergyman, they note, was a ship’s chaplain because he had been discharged from his congregation for drink, and for running up debts.

But he was not, of course, accused of being an alcoholic, or profligate, and neither of those things proves that he was a murderer. He may have been, and he may not. For that was that. No one else was ever arrested.

Harriet Buswell’s body was claimed by her brother and buried. No mention was made afterwards of what happened to her child.


The detail is drawn from reports of the inquest and magistrates’-court hearings, mostly from the Times. The afterlife of Hessel I learnt from Skinner and Miss, The Scotland Yard Files: Milestones in Detective British Crime (Kew, National Archives, 2006).