Wednesday, January 19, 2011

January 19, 1873 --- The Great Coram Street Murder

Subject to almost daily derision in the press, Scotland Yard finally makes an arrest in the Christmas morning murder of a London prostitute. Harriet Buswell, found with her throat cut, had been last seen with a "pimply faced foreigner, maybe a German." Beset with a string of unsolved crimes, police worked frantically but without avail. The Times joshed that the new popular genre of detective fiction must not be in the Yard's library. A break came when Ramsgate police detained a suspicious crewman from the Wangerland, a German ship that run aground off shore.

Witnesses from London are brought to Kent to view the suspect in a line-up. The ship's chaplain, Dr. Gottfried Hessel, cheerfully agrees to take part, to his regret when each of the witnesses pointed to him as the man last seen with the victim. Other than being German, Hessel hardly matches any of the other descriptions of the likely killer; nonetheless, he is return to London in custody.  The police had trumpeted their success in the papers and a large hissing crowd gathers at Clerkenwell jail for the prisoner's arrival.  With his distraught wife sobbing from the gallery, the chaplain is remanded to jail by a magistrate. 

At Bow Street Police Court, two waiters and a greengrocer repeat their stories, although two of them now concede that the killer was somewhat taller than Dr. Hessel. A maid at Hessel's hotel in Ramsgate said he had asked for some turpentine and a strong brush and she thought she saw some bloody rags in the man's room. Dr. Hessel admits he had gone into London while the Wangerland awaited repairs after her grounding.  He insists however that he was constantly in the presence of his wife.  A hotel bootblack swears that Dr. Hessel was in the hotel on Christmas Eve.  At last, the magistrate declared. "To my mind, it has been conclusively shown that Dr. Hessel was not the companion of the murdered woman on that evening." 

The police are shamefaced.  The Times declared, "A cruel accusation has seldom been brought forward on more flimsy grounds."  The Daily Telegraph set up a fund for Dr. Hessel's legal expenses, raising 1200 pounds, including 30 quid from the Queen herself. While the "Great Coram Street Murder" was never solved, some interesting facts about the chaplain would later emerge.  Anonymous German sources would later reveal that Hessel had a fondness for "the low life" and he had boarded the Wangerland to sail for Brazil to escape mounting debts.

Some new research speculates that the unsolved murder of Harriet Buswell may even be credited to "Jack the Ripper," sixteen years before he stalked London "unfortunates."

[Bow Street Police Court today]

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