The Lodging houses of Victorian London held no shortage of scandal and intrigue for the more imaginative Londoners in the 19th Century. The Maids and their masters, the comings and goings of a transient household and the very concept of strangers living together under one roof in an age when such situations were not seen as natural. Still, even the most imaginative of passers by could not have expected the stories that would soon come flooding out from one particular household, when in 1879, the body of an elderly woman showed up in the coal cellar of 4 Euston Square, a previously well-to-do neighbourhood in Bloomsbury, London. Not merely unidentified, it was entirely unknown how on earth it had got there in the first place.
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The Euston Square Mystery
The Lodging houses of Victorian London held no shortage of scandal and intrigue for the more imaginative Londoners in the 19th Century. The Maids and their masters, the comings and goings of a transient household and the very concept of strangers living together under one roof in an age when such situations were not seen as natural. Still, even the most imaginative of passers by could not have expected the stories that would soon come flooding out from one particular household, when in 1879, the body of an elderly woman showed up in the coal cellar of 4 Euston Square, a previously well-to-do neighbourhood in Bloomsbury, London. Not merely unidentified, it was entirely unknown how on earth it had got there in the first place. This is Dark HIstories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Boarding Houses of London
Victorian London was a city of severe duality. Alongside it’s developments in affluence, thriving middle class and ever-improving outward grandeur, it was a city mired with sewage and pollution that rolled Eastwards down the river, choking the poor who lived chiefly amongst overcrowding, filth and squalor.
Recent advancements in rail travel had seen citizens from across Britain, as well as wider continental Europe flock inwards to the bright lights and glossy promises of large cities. Metropolitan London seemed to offer opportunity around every corner, as a hub of fashion, trade and technological and intellectual advancement, it was the brightest and glossiest of them all. For many, the dreams of an urban life kindled the imagination, whether it be an intellectual, or aspirational drive, the dreams of parading through the streets in fine clothing or debating on cutting edge topics in the back rooms of dusty venues late into the night, all could become a reality with just a short train ride standing in their way. It was a huge influx and in the hundred years from 1801 to 1901, the population of London increased from one million to six million. Naturally, for most, but sadly, not all, their housing needs had to be catered for. Fortunately, a blossoming middle class oftentimes held property, but not always the ability to pay the upkeep and as such, common lodgings became a central feature of the period, a mutually beneficial arrangement between landlord and tenant. With the exception of house servants. It was a manner of living not so dissimilar to houses across British cities today. Boarding, or lodging houses were the homes of thousands of transients, or of people looking to find a foothold in their new urban life. Typical lodgers were students, migrants and single men and women, strangers who had rolled together to live under one roof.
“A glance at the advertisement sheets of the Times will. enable the stranger readily to determine in which quarter he will take up his abode. The West End is, of course, the dearest neighbourhood; but comfortable lodgings, at moderate rates, may be obtained in Pimlico. The Bloomsbury and Russell Square district is quiet, respectable, and within an easy distance of the principal places of amusement. The streets leading out of the Strand are a complete congeries of lodging-houses.”
As can be seen this passage, taken from “A Handbook for Strangers”, published in 1865, a tenant who may not be familiarised yet to the nuances of life amongst the London districts might find themselves running quite a gamble upon visiting one of the many lodging houses advertised in the paper, daily. This was not made any easier when each and every landlord or landlady would fall over themselves to present their prospective tenants with an air of perfect respectability. This was demonstrated sharp as always, in the weekly satirical magazine, “Punch”, in an article concerning Lodging houses, published in 1842,
“When introduced to the lady, she declares that everything is “clean and comfortable” especially the window-curtains, whose colour cannot be seen for the dust; and the bed-room which was fumigated by the last lodger with tobacco smoke. On inquired the terms, they are said to be “dirt cheap,” which, judging from the state of the tables and carpet, they ought to be. – “Fifteen shillings a week, and find your own bed and table-linen,” and the bargain is closed. At the end of the first week, you discover how exceedingly dear, cheap lodgings prove to be – for you are charged five shillings a week for blacking, and twelve-and-sixpence for coals. It also appears that you have had friends to supper every evening, or else what could have become of nine bottles of stout?”
Nevertheless, they were homes to many and many made the best of their living situations, congregating in shared living quarters for the evening, drinking wine with the lord or lady of the house and possibly even conversing with the other tenants.
To outsiders, Lodging houses were keenly observed with an eye of some suspicion. It was still after all, an age where such living conditions prompted the most imaginative to conjure up all manner of scandal going on, tucked behind a foot of brick wall and the tight lips of servants. So it was in the Georgian terrace of Euston Square in the 1870s. Number 4 Euston Square was an outwardly genteel lodging house owned by the Bastendorffs in the aforementioned “quiet” and “respectable” Bloomsbury area of London. By late 1879 however, this facade was set to crumble, bringing the owners and the area into disrepute via a scandal that all involved would never quite recover from.
Severin Bastendorff was born in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg in 1845. The records of his families births are patchy at best, but he was one of at least 14 children, possibly 16. He had red hair and sported a vividly characteristic full beard. He moved to Paris in 1860 but as the Franco-Prussian war ignited in 1870, he scooted across the ocean to Britain and settled in London. Whilst in paris, he had learned the art of fine cabinet making utilising bamboo in the fashionable European style of Chinoiserie and now in London, he looked to further his business in the same vein. He took a workshop and expanded quickly, eventually employing 10 workmen under his watch, three of which were his brothers Joseph, Peter and Anton. Not long after his arrival in London, but with business booming, he was able to position himself as a rather eligible bachelor and soon found a suitable wife. He married Mary Pearce, a native Londoner in 1872 and the pair able to purchase No.4 Euston Square in 1876, a large three story house in a quiet terrace set amongst a respectable yet thriving area of North West London, a stones throw to the East of University College London. Previous residents of the street had been as titled as Sirs, Reverends and Archdeacons. In 1879, there was a large population of around 30,000 German immigrants in london and many situated around Bloomsbury. Despite naturalising as a British citizen in 1878, Severin was an active member amongst this German community and attended the local Bavarian church.
In 1872, Severin and Mary had their first child, a daughter named Christine, followed by their first son, Peter in 1875. Mary gave birth to two more children, Severin jr and Rosa in 1877 and 1888 respectively. The family lived moderately, but comfortably, employing a young maid named Sarah Carpenter and renting the remaining rooms in their house to various lodgers. Mary was the Lady of the household, whilst Severin occupied himself with his furniture business in his workshop to the rear of the house.
The ground floor of the house opened up to a large drawing room, with a piano, fireplace and soft furnishings. The room played the role as a communal social area for those lodgers that wished and were invited downstairs by Mary bastendorff. On the first floor, a large front bedroom sat alongside a communal bathroom. The French window of the first floor bedroom opened out onto a small, roofed balcony that overlooked the street below. On the second floor, were two more bedrooms, the larger in the front of the house and smaller in the rear, and on the third floor were three smaller bedrooms, the front once again the largest which was occupied by Mary and Severin, whilst the two rear bedrooms were of around equal size, each a half of the larger and played host to the Bastendorff children. In May of 1879, the first floor bedroom was vacant. The Bastendorffs were expecting a new lodger to arrive around the 9th of May, which would have been some relief as the room commanded the highest rent in the house. On top of the three floors above ground, there was a basement floor that consisted of two coal cellars in the very front of the house. As the name suggests, these were used to store coal and fuel for the household and were fitted with a chute that ran to the street above, capped by a manhole that allowed a Colier to drop coal directly from a delivery cart into the storage rooms. Number 4 both cellars to store coal for the residents as well as timber and bamboo for the furniture business. The rear of the basement held the kitchens, washrooms and narrow corridors that culminated in the rear yard, opening out onto a Mews which housed Severins workshop.
In general, the Bastendorff household appeared like any other lodging house. A quietly chaotic churn constrained within the confines of everyday domesticity. On the morning on the 9th May however, as the Colier arrived to deliver the houses allocation of fuel things were about to take a sharp decline.
The Secret in the Cellar
The morning of May 9th was grey and wet. As the rain fell in the street above, 15 year old William Strohman, the houses local errand boy was tasked with digging out coal from the cellar to clean it out and prepare it for the use of the expected new lodger. As he dug, however, he came across a gruesome find. Quite aside from the filthy coal, he found what appeared to him to be a human foot. Startled, he raced to the Workshop to the rear of the house to get assistance. There, he met with Joseph Bastendorff, who in no uncertain terms, told the boy he was talking nonsense and called over Albert Bastendorff to accompany the distressed young boy back to the cellar to see what he was so concerned about. When they reached the cellar however, Albert quickly confirmed that the boy had uncovered a human foot. The pair went back to Joseph, who resigned to go and see, joined them as all three re-entered the soot ridden room. As they dug through the pile of coal, the full picture of the macabre find became clear. There in the cellar, half buried amongst a pile of coal lay a badly decomposed body of a human. William Strohman was sent out to find a police officer and Joseph went upstairs to find Mary Bastendorff to try and explain, somehow, the most unusual and disturbing find. Upon relaying the news and confirming that he had sent for the police, he collected a bag of quick lime to scatter around the cellar through fear of the smell of the decomposing remains becoming overpowering. He tossed the powder around just as George Fulcher, the colier arrived, crouching down into the room to see what the hold up was. He had been waiting in the street above to deliver coal to the house and had more deliveries to make that morning. He wasn’t appreciating the setback. As he entered the room however and took stock of the situation, the deliveries fell from his mind. Fulcher ran back up the stairs too to go and find help from the local police. It was 9:30am when he ran into Police Constable Thomas Holman in nearby Drummond Street, about a half mile from Euston Square. The pair returned to the scene shortly before William Strohman returned with Constable Isaac Dowling in tow. The two policeman conferred for a brief period and then PC Dowling went to fetch Doctor Henry Davis who lived three doors down at No.1 Euston Square. Meanwhile, amongst all of the commotion, Mary Bastendorff was alerted to the gravity of the situation and went upstairs to wake up her husband with the grim news.
Doctor Henry Davis arrived in quick fashion and began observing the body. He found that though it had been covered in an oilcloth, it had decomposed considerably, suggesting it had been in the cellar some time, possibly even several years. It had one foot missing and a chord had been wrapped around the neck at least twice. Though decay had destroyed much of the clothing, it was clear from the amount of lace that the body was that of a woman, but little else could be determined. Davis ordered the body to be collected and removed to St Pancras Hospital for a full inspection. By now however, word had already been sent to Scotland yard and nothing further could be done until the scene had been visited and scrutinised by a detective. Once Detective Inspector Charles hagen arrived, further investigation on the scene uncovered an ornamental brooch and a large silk shawl wrapped around the body. Satisfied they had noted all they could, the body was moved out of the house.
Once in the morgue, the doctor could take out a full examination of the body, though there was little left, such was the state of decomposition. The clothing had almost entirely disintegrated, mingled now with the coal dust in the cellar of 4 Euston Square. Still the doctor was able to ascertain that the woman had been dressed in an elaborate, black lace and silk dress adorned with a fancy silk cloak. There were no marks on the head to speak of and no signs of violence on the body itself, aside from the cord tied around the neck which appeared to be further up, below the jaw, a trait found more often in a hanging victim than a murder victim, as the weight of the body pulled the rope tight around the top of the neck. Though there was little skin to speak of, there were small patches of bright auburn hair, whilst there remained only a few original teeth in both the upper and lower jaw. From the state of the teeth, the doctor estimated the woman to have been around 55 to 60 years old upon her death. She was around 5’ tall and had a distinctive curve in her spine and both her arms and legs had become detached, though this was chalked up to decay rather than violence. He concluded that whoever the mystery body was, she had been dead at least a year and possibly up to three.
The medical examination answered very little but opened up a slew of questions, who she was and how had she died were immediate mysteries, but rather more troubling was the question of how on earth the body of a woman had lain in the cellar of a busy household in the center of London for a minimum of 12 months, entirely undiscovered.
As the story hit the press the next day with the headline “Euston Square Mystery”, onlookers began to gather outside the house. The story had invoked such an interest in fact, that two policemen had to be employed simply to keep control of the mob that extended in queues down the street. Amongst this chaos, it fell to Inspector Hagen to try to get to the bottom of what the papers had dubbed a “sensational mystery”.
Inspector Charles Hagen was a German born, rising star of the recently formed Criminal Investigations Department in Scotland Yard. Prior to his police service, he had worked as a bodyguard to the Prince of Wales, but in 1879, with his background in languages and connections within the German community of London, he was nailed on as the lead investigator for the case in 4 Euston Square.
Hagens first steps were to inspect the house itself and question the Bastendorff family. He scoured the rooms from top to bottom, but found little of any interest that might help him to identify the body in the cellar, nor why it had turned up there The residents appeared to have no clues as to the identification of the body and merely bandied about theories that there may have been a chance it was a drunk who had fallen into the cellar from the street before they had arrived, though this seemed unlikely as there were bars at street level that made access to the front of the house all but impossible, whilst entry from the rear would have involved crossing the workshop and the mews, which was gated and locked t all times. He did however, come across one unusual event when he reached the attic and upon attempting to open the hatch, found it bolted shut. He enquired with Severin bastendorff who told him that it was always left unlocked and when eventually forced, he came across a wicker basket tray containing small items including an eyeglass. Whilst seemingly innocuous, he nevertheless sent it to the station for further inspection.
The previous owner of the house, a Mr Milnes was contacted and questioned though this once again lead nowhere. Milnes was a sculptor and had been in the habit of entertaining life models from time to time. There was some speculation that the lady had been one such model,m though her age did shed some shade on this train of thought. As it turned out, Milnes had now moved to the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, some 130 miles West of London on the England Wales border. After initial questioning, suspicion quickly fell away and he was written out of the picture.
The first new piece of information came when, upon reading the press report on the mystery in their home in Devon, William and Susan Dobbs contacted police to enquire about their daughter, Hannah, who they had not seen or heard from in six months and who they knew had been in the service of and had deeper connections with, the Bastendorffs.
Hannah Dobbs was the third daughter of William and Susan Dobbs. Born in Barnstaple, Devon in 1855, her family had moved to a farm on the outskirts of the town shortly after her birth. After school she worked on the farm as a milkmaid for a short period before setting her sights on more genteel work. At the age of 16, she boarded a train and headed for the nearby town of Bideford, finding work there as a dairymaid and quickly meeting a young man who she became involved, and engaged to. It was in this position, however, that she showed the first signs of a problem that she would carry throughout her career whilst working in the service industry. Keen on a hat she had seen in a shop window, she placed a deposit to purchase it in the form of a cheque for £3. The problem was however, that the cheque did not belong to her, rather belonged to a member of her household. She was swiftly relieved of her position when it came to light and with her engagement cancelled, forced to return to the family farm. In 1873, aged 18, she once again grew tired of the slow pace of life in North Devon and yearned for something more. This time, she decided to travel further afield and boarded a train to London. Unfamiliar with the city as she was, she took lodgings in a less than stellar district of South London. A far cry from the glamour she had hoped for and unable to find any working positions as a housemaid, within London, she took a position in the Surrey town of Redhill, 20 miles South of the city. She worked there for a full fifteen months before she once again sacked, this time for stealing a piece of silk and £13, a sum equivalent to about a years wage for a lady in her position. Now for the second time she was forced to return to Devon, though once again, this would be a short lived trip. With renewed vigor and a better sense of London life, she boarded a train once more for the bright lights and quickly landed a position as Cook in Torrington Square. Her new workplace was perched on the very edge of University College London and was in an area a step up from her first foray into London. It was also a short, five minute walk from Euston Square and was to be where she met Severin Bastendorff and the story of Hannah Dobbs takes a quite unusual turn.
In November of 1878, Hannah Dobbs, now fully established in london, visited her home in Devon. She was not alone however. She had bought along her husband, a young German man named Mr Bastendorff. During the trip, she told her parents that she would soon be visiting Germany so after she left, her parents were not particularly concerned after not hearing news from their daughter in the six months past. Now they read the story in the paper however, new worries struck them. They contacted the local police who in turn, contacted the Metropolitan police in London. The reply came back swiftly and was a further shock to the Dobbs family. Their daughter, hannah was not in germany at all, but safely living in London. Extremely safely as a matter of fact, as she was serving time in prison for petty theft. If this was strange news for the Dobbs, they had to strap themselves in. It was simply the beginning of an ordeal that would drag their daughter into the limelight of the national papers soon enough.
The inquest for the body found in Euston Square begun on May 16th, 1879. Throughout, several members of the bastendorff household would stand to give evidence and a few rather unusual stories would creep out of the woodwork. Severin Bastendorff was the first to begin the peculiar tales of life behind the walls of 4 Euston Square. He told the inquiry that over the previous three years, about 20 or so lodgers had come and gone and painted a picture of a churning, transient household, though he was quick to confirm that they were all “A genteel lot of people”, after all, the house had a quickly deteriorating reputation to uphold. He told of how the cellar had never been locked and had rarely, if ever been cleared out fully before. It was only being cleared out on the fateful morning of the 9th to make room for the incoming lodger, Mr Brooks, who had requested the use of the cellar for his fuel. After this, he relayed a story to the court that most would likely to have found relatively shocking at best.
“I went into the cellar about Christmas and picked up a bone, which I thought was a sheep’s bone, and it had some flesh on it. I took it into the kitchen and showed it to my wife, saying “What a wasteful girl that servant must be, throwing away a half leg of mutton”, for that is what I took it for. I went and threw the particular bone back again into the cellar. I am not a judge of human bones.”
Further to this macabre tale, Sarah Carpenter, the houses current maidservant then stood and told of a similar story, that only two weeks prior to the body being found, she had come across a bone that she had taken it to show Mrs Bastendorff. It was her impression that the bone was that of a human foot. Mrs bastendorff was quick to discard this line of thought, telling her not to be so silly and that it must have come from a Wild Boar that the family had recently eaten. Miss Carpenter, with little else to do, returned to the cellar and simply tossed it back inside. A few days later she found another bone, about the size of her finger, rather than show the lady of the house this time, however, she tossed it in with the rest fo the house garbage.
With these bizarre stories told, then came the turn of the doctor, Mr Davis, who had inspected the body. He shed absolutely no light upon the case whatsoever, simply stating with a fantastic level of non-commital, that the body
“Might have been there 3 years or more than 3 years, or it might have been but 1 year.”
The confusion around the date of death was further placed into the mire, when at the final inspection, carried out by Doctor Davis, this time joined by a police surgeon named Doctor Jakins. Davis reiterated that he believed the body to have been placed in the cellar three to four years prior, though Jakins was not so sure and suggested it was rather more recent. In conclusion of the report, the doctors theorised that it may very well have been dumped in the cellar during the 6 months between ownership of the house by Mr milnes and the Bastendorffs where it lay vacant.
With the body still throwing up no new leads, Hagen once again took to questioning Severin bastendorff. The question of Hannah Dobbs, the maid from Devon and it so transpired, that she had in fact worked for the Bastendorff house up until the 17th of September in 1878, though she had since left their service. He was, however, aware that she was now in prison for theft.
Inspector Hagens Hunch
The next breakthrough came via a quite ingenious piece of lateral thinking on behalf of inspector Hagen. Hagen theorised that the lady, who had been dressed in fine silks and elaborate lace, would not have been the type to have not looked after herself. As she had so many missing teeth, he supposed that it was likely that she would have had dentures made and would have kept appointments for dentistry. Message was sent and enquiries were made to Dentists offices throughout the local districts of St Pancras, Bloomsbury, Somers Town and Kentish Town and remarkably, after just a few days, a dentist working nearby to Euston Square contacted police concerning a patient he had seen two years prior. It transpired that this patient had come to see him to enquire about getting a set of denture made and the dentist had created a cast of the ladies mouth. After this initial work however, she had never returned. Hagen took the cast and tested its fit alongside the jaw of the body found in Euston Square and like pieces of a jigsaw, it fit perfectly.
Hagen also began scouring the local pawn shops for items which may have had a connection to the body, results of which would pay dividends later on down the line, for now however, he had to meet a man named Edward Hacker. Edward had been to see the police on a hunch that the body may been that of his estranged sister. Despite living in close proximity toi one another, the two had rarely seen each other socially and he had not heard from her in over two years. He went with police to view the body and positively identified both the clothing and the patches of hair to match those of his sister, one Matilda Hacker. He told the police of a gold watch that she would always carry and sure enough, the watch was found in a pawn shop in nearby St Pancras. Inspector Hagen took the watch along with the patches of hair to Edward and Matildas hometown of Canterbury, where a local police officer too confirmed them to belong to Matilda, a strange lady he had, it turned out, had several run ins with in the past.
Matilda Hacker was born in 1811, in Canterbury. She was the daughter of John Hacker, a builder and stone engraver and his wife, Mary. John Hacker had done well for himself locally, established in the local community as a talented stone mason. He was an active member of the local church and in part funded the erection of a Parish clock, with the not insubstantial sum of £50. Through ihs wealth he had built a small property empire within Canterbury and in 1850, moved into a large house in Wincheap, naming it Wincheap house. Along with her brother Edward, Matilda had a younger sister, three years her junior, named Amelia. Amelia and Matilda were well known throughout the area, neither had married, instead they held the company of one another and it was often commented that the pair were inseparable. They were daily seen parading through the streets together, wearing identical clothing, all of which were brightly coloured and extravagant, or to those with less kind words, clothing of “extraordinarily pattern and grotesque style”. The locals simply called them the Canterbury Belles or the Wincheap Dolls. After their father’s death, the property fell to the children and they managed the rents, tenants and upkeep themselves, living comfortably from the profits. Whilst they were regarded as eccentrics, it’s not such a stretch to imagine a level of envy towards the sisters, who appeared to live carefree of societies chains, dressing in the clothes of 16 year old women at the tender age of 60.
Troubles came for Matilda after the death of her beloved sister in 1871. She became more and more reclusive and begun refusing to pay property rates, despite clearly having the means to do so. So to did she begin to neglect her role as landlady and disgruntled tenants were forced to seek help from her brother, who had recently moved to Camden in london to work as an artist. Life appeared to get on top of Matilda, who by now had already spent a short stint in Westgate prison for refusing to pay her debts. Rather than learn her lesson, she instead devised new ways to avoid her charges by moving around various rented properties in Canterbury, brighton and London under false names in an effort to avoid detection from the authorities. She eventually moved to London for good in 1875, under the name Miss Bell and though she had no previous references to rent, she found that her money and educated background meant she could often pass into reasonable lodgings without much suspicion. Despite her efforts, police did manage to catch up with her in london and she eventually cleared her debts by selling jewellery. In 1876, she moved to Chelsea and then on to Mornington Crescent under the name Miss Sycamore where she begun reading tarot from a popular fortune telling book of the time known as “The book of Dreams”. In 1877, she finally moved to 4 Euston Square under the name of Miss Uish. After years of transience and constant upheaval, this move was to be her fateful last.
With a positive ID finally on the body, the papers wasted no time in printing the name of Matilda Hacker, including details of her eccentricities. Few were particularly kind in their descriptions of the old lady.
“For the last fifteen years Miss Hacker and her sister, who were natives of Canterbury, had been well-known objects of ridicule and amusement. On the death of their father, the two sisters lived together in a house m the suburbs of the city. They kept no servant,and though comfortably off, their habits were of the most penurious description. Notwithstanding their age, they insisted upon dressing in the style of girls of 18, and presented such a ridiculous appearance that they became the laughing stock of the street boys.”
On her life in 4 Euston Square, the descriptions continue in a similar vein,
“She was very quiet and very friendly with the Bastendorffs and gave them little trouble, and lived very economically. Her dress, however, was of the most fashionable kind, and even in the house she wore a bright sash round the waist. On Saturdays she was in the habit of walking to Rotten Row. Although sixty-six years of age she was active and invariably in the best of spirits. Her hair is described as being of a most luxuriant kind,- and when curled in the morning it resembled more the tresses of a girl of 16 than a lady of 66.”
Meanwhile, the investigation continued full steam ahead. Inspector Hagen organised a lineup in the Tothill Fields Prison that included the Bastendorff’ former maid Hannah Dobbs and the pawnbroker who had bought the gold watch belonging to Mrs Hacker was taken to see if he could identify the seller. Without any hesitation, he fingered Dobbs, whom he was well aware of. In fact, as the papers pointed out,
“It was merely a matter of formality to visit her at all, as he remembered her perfectly well and indeed knew that the watch and chain had been pawned with hm by her.”
Curiously, she had pawned the watch under the pseudonym Rosina Bastendorff and what’s more, the watch was not the only item of Matildas that she had pawned under that name, she had also pawned several items of clothing. Further to this, upon her leaving the service of the Bastendorff house, several items of clothing and an eyeglass were left behind by her which appeared to have belonged to Matilda. They were passed around until eventually, items such as the eyeglass were placed in the wicker tray that ended up in storage in the attic of 4 Euston Square. The evidence appeared to begin to stack heavily against Hannah Dobbs. In a report in the papers, they also mentioned the case of a cash box apparently owned by Matilda,
“The other discovery is a cash-box, alleged to have boen one in which Miss Hacker kept her money and valuables. Mr Bastendorff being asked about this, stated that one day while Hannah Dobbs was in his service, he found his children playing with a cash-box, of which the lid had been wrenched open. Mr Bastendorff asked where this had come from, and Hannah said it was hers, and having lost the key, she had to break it open, and it was.now useless. Mr Bastendorff took it from the children, to whom Hannah had given it as a plaything, and put his own private documents in it, and put it in his wine cellar”
After extensive questioning, to which she appeared to have cooperated with inspector Hagen entirely, and a visit to the morgue to examine the body, Hannah Dobbs went from Petty Thief to prime suspect in a murder investigation at remarkable pace, indeed, the press were already printing theories as to how, and when, she had carried out the murder. A pre-trial was set in Bow Street court and she found herself formally charged with Wilful Murder, her only response was to say,
“No, not me.”
As details of Hannah Dobbs’ time at the Bastendorffs began to leak out into the press, so to did the investigation began to nail down their suspicions as to timing of the murder and motive. Hannah Dobbs had worked as a maid for the Bastendorff household up until September of 1878, 8 months before the body was uncovered in the cellar. More curiously however, it transpired that Matilda Hacker had lodged in the house only until October of 1877, this meant that if Hannah Dobbs was the killer, she had continued to work for the Bastendorff house for almost a full year after the murder had taken place, all the while, the body of her victim would have been hidden in the coal cellar just a few metres beneath her feet.
Though the precise date was still unknown of her death, it was thought to have been between the 10th and 15th october, as dated letters sent from Matilda proved she was alive on the 10th, however, she apparently left the house in something of a rush on the 15th, never to be heard from again. The exact date of her murder was proving so difficult to establish, as no one in the Bastendorff home could confidently explain her departure, nor prove to have been a witness to it. As it happens, throughout questioning, Mrs Bastendorff appeared to distance herself almost entirely from the day-to-day runnings of the house, pushing almost all of the responsibilities onto the servant. This of course, had the knock on effect of too, distancing herself from any suspicion of knowledge of murder.
“although her mistress was unable to fix the exact date either of her departure it was certain that Miss Uish, or Hacker, was lodging there at the time, because the Maid brought downstairs to her mistress a £5 note in payment of the rent due from the lady, who paid 12s. per week for her room. The bill, he believed, amounted to £1 16s.,and Mrs. Bastendorff receipted the account, which had been sent up to her previously, and gave the maid the change to deliver to Miss Uish, after deducting a sum of 2s. which was charged for a Iamp- glass alleged to have been broken by the lodger. It was only from a statement made to her at the time by the maid that Mrs. Bastendorff became aware of the fact that the deceased lady contemplated leaving her apartments, and it was not till some time after the latter were vacated that Mrs. Bastendorff went upstairs to see the room. She then noticed the broken lamp-glass and she observed a large stain upon the carpet, which had the appearance of something having been washed out. She remembered saying to the maid on that occasion that if she had known of this before Miss Uish left the house she would certainly have charged her for the damage done to the carpet. She did not remember the maid making any reply to this remark. It would appear that Mrs. Bastendorff did not see the lady when she left the house, and never saw or heard of her afterwards. She never suspected that anything wrong had happened to her”.
So it appears that Matilda Hacker left the Bastendorff house on the 15th of October, entirely unseen by anyone except Hannah Dobbs, who settled her rent bill personally. The stain on the carpet was inspected by the police and a section cut away and sent for testing. It was also heard that on Sunday, 14th October, Mr bastendorff was out of the house for the weekend attending a bird shoot in kent with a friend named Mr Whiffling, whilst his wife, Mrs Bastendorff was out visiting the rmother, who lived nearby. This gave the police room to place a time that the killing could take place, as on that Sunday, the only people at home in the Bastendorff household would have been Hannah and Matilda. She then presumably concocted the story of her swift departure the following day to cover for the crime. At the end of the hearing, a full trial against Hannah Dobbs was put into motion.
All of this had happened in such a flurry, that the inquest itself to determine the cause of death had yet to have concluded. At the final stage of the hearing, yet more revelations were to unfold, rather excitingly for the public, they involved a good deal of scandal. The court heard that whilst in employment with the bastendorffs, Hannah Dobbs had in fact been seeing Severin bastendorffs brother, Peter, who worked with him in the workshop to the rear of the house and that she had in fact fallen pregnant, though she had eventually lost the baby due to illness. Finally the conclusion on the cause of death came from Dr Pepper, who told the court that the body had been dead between one and two years, that no skull damage existed, nor signs of violence. There had been no traces of mineral poison and though they had not checked for it, presumably there were no traces of organic poison. They also concluded that the rope tied around the neck of the body was conducive to that of a hanging, suicide or strangulation. Wrapping up the hearing, the court heard the verdict,
“That the deceased Matilda Hacker, was found lying dead in a coal cellar at Number 4, Euston Square and we further say that some person or persons unknown did feloniously, and with malice and aforethought, kill and murder the said Matilda Hacker, Against the peace of our sovereign lady the Queen, her crown and dignity.”
The Trial of Hannah Dobbs
The trial against Hannah Dobbs opened in June of 1879 to a packed courthouse in the New Court at the Old Bailey. The story was still running good copy in the press and people were keen to see the outcome for themselves. In the prosecution’s opening statement, a rather curious line of attack was outlined, foreshadowing what was to be presented to the court in the coming days,
“Many cases of murder depend on circumstantial evidence but such evidence might happen to be stronger and even more trustworthy than direct evidence”
This line was apparently delivered with a straight face. The Jury heard of how the stain on the carpet that Hannah Dobbs had told Mrs Bastendorff had come from a broken lamp, had now been tested and was in fact, blood. This was perhaps the strongest forensic evidence delivered, as the doctors involved then told the court that with strangulation, one might expect a flow of blood to erupted from the nose, eyes or mouth, but no evidence of this had been found on the body. Both Doctor Davis, the original doctor on the scene and Dr Pepper, the pathologist backed this point up and when asked if there was any sign or trace of evidence that might suggest an unnatural death, they confirmed that there was not. Even the rope, they suggested were more likely to have been from a hanging or from the body being tied around the neck after death and dragged to the cellar.
Mrs Bastendorff was questioned extensively on the stand, though her answers were vague and not particularly helpful in the tracking of dates or details, however, it was confirmed by her that on the Sunday, 14th october that the house had been presumed empty, Hannah Dobbs had, in fact, been placed in the position to look after the Bastendorff children. This raised obvious questions as to when or how she may have found the time to murder an old lady, with several children in tow.
The second day saw the turn of the defence, though Hannah Dobbs was not permitted to speak for herself at any point, as the laws of the time did not allow for suspects of murder to speak in their own defence. Mrs Bastendorff confirmed that the stain on the carpet was not there before Matilda Hackers stay, but was there after, though at what point, she was not sure. She was also equally vague on the status of the children, simply saying that Hannah Dobbs was in the habit of caring for the children, though whether or not she could be sure if she was caring for them on the 14th, she “could not say”, eventually suggesting that they were and it was even possible that Hannah Dobbs had taken them out for the day to Hampstead Heath. This lead to an outburst from the judge, who exclaimed to the court,
“I never saw such a witness. We cannot get answers to questions which ought to be answered.”
So far, the trial had not uncovered anything particularly new to satiate the public’s veracity for scandal, this, however, was all about to change, when Mr bastendorff was called to the stand and asked a simple question. Had he been “Keeping company” with the accused? He denied it outright, though the defence continued that he knew of a local pub owner who would tell otherwise. He then asked if Mr Bastendorff knew of the Princes Hotel, on Argyle Street and if he had ever been there with Hannah Dobbs. Again Mr Bastendorff denied it sternly. Continuing to push the line of questioning, he then asked if Peter Bastendorff, Severins brother, had voiced concern about the closeness of the relationship between Mr Bastendorff and his maid? Had he ever given her gifts? Finally Severin bastendorff conceded that he had once given her a cabinet that he had made. The defence asked if he had ever given her a gold watch and chain and told her to tell people that it was bequeathed to her from a dead uncle, in order to conceal it as a gift from him? Severin denied it.
It would have been an uncomfortable series of questions and raised a considerable amount more, both on the part of the Jury and the Bastendorff household. Still the defence pushed. Had Mr Bastendorff ever borrowed money from hannah Dobbs? Severin admitted that once, in order to take delivery of a cask of imported French wine, he had asked hannah to pay as he had not the time to visit a bank, though he ensured the court that he paid the money back within days. Finally he was permitted to stand down and the remainder of the day was chiefly spent hearing witnesses of Severin bastendorffs shooting friends who testified to him being at a shoot on Sunday 14th October, but the damage was likely done. When his brother Peter was called to the stand and asked whether or not he had concern for Severin and Hannah’s relationship, which he denied, the imaginations of the public and the jury were already alight. This was not helped when Peter then contradicted himself by stating,
“I thought to myself that there was something between Hannah Dobbs and my brother and I complained of it both”
After hearing rumours of a relationship between Hannah, whom he was supposed to be seeing romantically, and his brother.
During his summary, the defence, put to the jury a heavy burden, twice commenting that their decision bore the responsibility of a woman likely to see capital punishment if they were to find her guilty. He then questioned how, if she had murdered Matilda Hacker, had she managed to do so with the bastendorff children around all day. Sharply he pointed out that the only evidence against her with any strength, was that of the gold watch and chain and there was now evidence which appeared to show that being given to her by Severin Bastendorff himself.
“What evidence there was, was stronger against the Bastendorffs”.
He concluded. The trial over, the Jury stepped out to make their deliberations and within 25 minutes they returned to deliver their verdict. On the evening of July 6th, 1879, Hannah Dobbs was found Not Guilty of Wilful Murder against Matilda Hacker. The trial was over, but with it, only more questions had been asked and none answered. Hannah Dobbs had watched on the entire time she was on trial with a stoicism that bordered on indifference, now however, she was free to defend herself and she was not best pleased.
The Housemaids Revenge
Though she had been acquitted of the charges of murder, hannah Dobbs still had to serve her time for Petty theft. When she was released a few weeks later, she began working on her own form of revenge. George Purkess, a journalist who ran the often sensationalist, weekly tabloid, The Illustrated Police News, was keen to tell Hannah Dobbs side of the story and Dobbs was all too happy to oblige. In October of 1879, Purkess published a 16 page pamphlet that detailed Hannah Dobbs side of the story, entitled “The Euston Square Mystery – An extraordinary statement made by Hannah Dobbs – Her life and early career – History of Miss Hacker while in Euston Square – Harrowing details – Story of the murder”
As soon as he was made aware of the publication, Mr Bastendorff attempted to carry out an injunction against Purkess to stop its publication, however a judge threw out the case, ordering Bastendorff to pay the costs of the hearing. If the line of questioning during the trial concerning his relationship with Hannah Dobbs had been tough, this was nothing compared to the bombs that were about to be dropped.
The leaflet detailed a household that revelled in scandal and salaciousness that Purkess was a master of creating. It told of how Hannah had met Severin bastendorff whilst cleaning windows in her position at Torrington Square and of how he had taken a liking to her immediately. The pair arranged to meet that same night after the lady of the house had fallen asleep, though Hannah missed the first appointment. The next night however, they did meet at 11:30pm and then after, she met him several more times, before Severin maneuvered her a position into his own household, even offering to make up the £1 difference in wages.
“I learnt that his wife would soon be in want of a servant, and that the wages were £11 a year and that the difference might be made up in another way to me.”
During her time at the Bastendorffs, she began stealing small items and pawning them around the local Pawnbrokers. Though she defended her actions by stating that she only did so to make up for the fact that she was not receiving pay for the first 4 months of her service there. Throughout the entire time that she worked in the residence, Severin would visit her in her room, which she shared with his own children, after his wife was asleep to sleep with hannah. This eventually led to Hannah falling pregnant with Severins child. He agreed to cover her financially but told her that in order to cover their affair, she must also begin seeing his younger brother Peter and claim that the baby was his. As the pregnancy progressed, they would plan for her to go home to have the baby and that she must write home to tell her parents she was to be married to Peter Bastendorff. She then carried on the affair with Severin behind both the backs of Mrs bastendorf and Peter, even to the point after she had left Euston Square in what she told both Peter and Mrs Bastendorff was for a trip home. In reality she told of how she stayed in various places paid for by Severin and of how she would sneak into 4 Euston Square at night to sleep with him.
This might have been scandal enough as it were, but hannah was just getting started on the depravity of the Bastendorff household.
She went on to tell of a previous lodger named Mr Findlay, who had owned a revolver. Severin and Mr Findlay had become close during his time at the Bastendorffs, however, one day he simply up and vanished. Shortly after, Severin gave her a watch and chain that were too big, and that she supposed had belonged to Findlay.
“What has become of Mr Findlay? That was the question which was asked at the trial, but never answered.”
Then came the story of Matilda Hacker. She told of how she had received the £5 note for rent from Matilda and that she had taken it from a large sum of money she had hidden in her petticoat. When she took the note downstairs to get change, she had told Severin Bastendorff of seeing the old ladies money. On the Sunday of the supposed murder, she explained how she had visited Hampstead Heath all day with the bastendorff children, even getting them photographed, a photograph which still existed. She then found, upon her arrival home, that Matilda had “gone away” suddenly by Severin, that she had gone to the countryside, “fancying a change”. A few days later, Severin gave Hannah Matildas watch and chain, which was broken, along with the money to repair it in exchange for the oversize, mans watch he had given her previously. She must, he said, tell anyone else that she had received it from her dead uncle in a will. The implications that Hannah made in the pamphlet were crystal clear. And they went on.
One day, whilst working at the Bastendorffs, she had gone into the cellar to fetch some wood. There, she came across a small homeless boy, sheltering in the corner. She went upstairs to tell the family and when they chased him out, an unnamed member of the group “Hit him with a poker”, the boy later died in the workshop.
“I don’;t think he could have been more than ten years old. All his clothes were gathered together and burned at the workshop fire.”
She later uncovered the body of Matilda Hacker in the same workshop, bundled in an oilcloth.
“They said if I spoke of it, I should be implicated too , as I had pawned the old ladies things. I became a partner in the dreadful secret. Other feelings weighed with me, I had been a bad woman, but I had some of a woman’s feelings. Scores of times I thought I would go and drown myself and now I am possessed with same feeling. I stayed on in the house enduring the torments of hell”.
The coal cellar, she said, which had previously been unused, was now full of coal. Amongst it, she had found the partial remains of the young boy, she was told that the remainder had been fed to one of the lodgers pet dogs. This is a new level of depravity that Hannah was bringing to the table, as well as a further two suggestions of murder. Already enough, she gave one last story of how Joseph Bastendorff, one of the workshop workers related to Severin had been given a puppy and after several weeks of caring for it, the brothers grew tired of it, so they shot at it in the garden whilst it was tied up, took it into the workshop, skinned it alive and ate it. This was, perhaps, the final nail in the coffin for the Bastendorffs. Violence against humans in Victorian london could be tolerated to a certain degree, but violence against animals was far beyond the pale for most. In august of 1878, Hannah Dobbs returned home to Devon for two weeks and upon her return to Euston Square, found herself being accused of theft by Mrs Bastendorff. She was relieved of her position after serving a months notice. Whilst this left her out of work, she still found herself under the control of Severin Bastendorff, who was continuing on with their affair, paying for her to rent whilst she looked for a new position. In an attempt to escape her nightmare, she told of how she stole and pawned items to try and rid her reliance on Severin so she could finally rid her life of his influence.
“I was apprehended by police for the theft I had committed. I told them the truth, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 8 months imprisonment which I richly deserved.”
Throughout it all, she maintained that fear of repercussions stopped her from telling all concerning the matters she had witnessed in the Bastendorff household. When she was questioned by Inspector Hagen concerning Matilda Hacker, she cooperated only so far as she answered what she was asked and that she had not realised she was a suspect, nor that she would be standing trial for her murder until she arrived in court. After the trial and her acquittal, she apparently told Inspector Hagen everything, only to be dismissed out of hand. “We don’t want any of your lies” he had told her.
Now, with no options left, she had told all in the published pamphlet. And what a pamphlet it was.
“Let the authorities ask the men in the workshop if they remember the bell being violently rung on the day I was at Hampstead with the children. The men remember the day, as they joked with me when I came back about donkey riding. Let the police ask if they remember the bell being rung second time and then one of their number being asked to go upstairs. And also let them be asked whether they heard pistol shots, screams for police. And the smash of glass.”
“Have the police tried to find the glazier who mended that window? If he can speak to the date, he will declare it was before Sunday October 14th. Have they tried to find Mr Ross the lodger, who took Miss Hackers room the day after I went to Hampstead and was living in that room on October 14th? The lodger discovered a pistol in the water closet on the day following his arrival at the house.”
“If the police act on the suggestions thrown out, and work on the facts of the case instead of their own theories, the murder of miss Hacker will no longer be known as the Euston Square Mystery.”
The pamphlet was finished with a copy of Hannah Dobbs handwriting, signed and dated and confirming that the story was her own. If the Bastendorff houses reputation had suffered until now, it had been nothing. As a lodging house, it simply lay in ruins.
The Trial of Severin Bastendorff
In the wake of the pamphlets publication, both Severin and Mary Bastendorff put out public statements denying everything that Hannah Dobbs had either expressed clearly or alluded to, whilst Hagen released a statement saying only that investigations into the truth or falsehood of the allegations were being looked into.
Severin bastendorff struck out against George Purkess for publishing the pamphlet, igniting a charge of Libel against him. Purkess was no fool however, in retaliation, he filed an allegation of Perjury against Severin Bastendorff. Under Oath, Severin Bastendorf had told the court during Hannah Dobbs trial that he was not having an affair with the maid. It appeared as if at least some of the allegations were true and further, that at least in the case of the affair, Purkess had evidence. Severin Bastendorff found himself not only under fire from the allegations made in the leaflet, but he now find himself facing a court trial in which he was the defendant.
The pre-trial against Severin Bastendorff was swift. Hannah Dobbs had been well trained in the lead up and when questioned, she answered anything not related to the affair with an assertive decline to answer. Witnesses were called, in particular Hannah Dobbs old colleagues at Torrington Square who confirmed that Severin was the man they had known Hannah to be “stepping out with”. The case was deemed fit to be put to trial, the date of which was set just a few days later, in the dying days of November 1879.
The trial was not a pretty one for Severin bastendorf. Hannah Dobbs took the stand as witness and wasted no time in delving into the gory details of the affair. This time she was rather more explicit, giving express details of places the pair had spent time together, nor in what they got up to during that time. She also dropped Severin in rather more trouble, by stating that he had often needed to pawn items in order to pay for another young French girl that he had gotten pregnant and now was faced with keeping. The only moment she slipped was when questioned on who Inspector Dogberry and Noodle-Dum were, two fictitious police names used in the pamphlet by Purkiss as a scathing attack on the police. Hannah Dobbs however, was not so quick on picking up on the joke and she merely stated that she didn’t know them and had never met them. This might have seemed cruel to a degree, but it showed to the Jury how little control and input she had personally had on the details in the pamphlet.
Then came a long line of further witnesses, key of which was an inn owner from Redhill that the pair were said to have stayed at together. Despite questions on the length of his beard, the inn owner remained adamant that the man she had seen with Hannah was Severin. Further witnesses came and went, all friends of Severin’s who claimed to his good character and then the closing speeches were spoken to the jury, whereby the defence called The Illustrated Police News,
“Literary garbage of the police cell, brothel, gaol and gallows.”
Scathing it might have been, but it fell on deaf ears, the Jury were out for two hours to deliberate before returning to give their verdict. Severin Bastendorf was found guilty of Perjury for lying to court about his relationship with Hannah Dobbs. He was given his sentence a week later, 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.
As he was escorted from the court, he may well have spared a moment to wonder how on earth he had found himself in such a position. He would have 12 months to stew on the question and stew he would.
The papers reporting on the trial were quick to report their frustrations that no new information had come to light on the Euston Square Mystery. There was, after all, still a murder waiting to be solved. Nor were the press entirely on the side of Hannah Dobbs, one calling her
“A thief, a strumpet and an accessory after the fact to murder.”
As for the Bastendorffs, the lodging house reputation was ruined. Secrets which were to be contained behind the walls and out of site of the public were now common knowledge in the national eye. The cabinet making business that he had worked hard to keep afloat throughout the trial too, was now looking at destruction. Worse, Mrs Bastendorff was also found to be pregnant. The birth of his fifth child was due whilst he would be locked up behind bars in the Clerkenwell House of Detention. To add to this, the relationship between Mary and Severin was now in tatters.
One year later, Severin was finally released and one might think he would put the whole sordid affair behind him. This was not to be however, he had spent a year angry in prison. He immediately filled for a libel case against Purkess, a trial was set, though it ended prematurely when Purkess settled with Severin for the sum of £500, a fortune at the time. He was now tasked with the business of trying to save his cabinet business and reforging ties with his family. The cabinet business, amazingly, picked up for a while, his relationship with his wife however, did not. Though he lived for a time in 4 Euston Square, all appearances seemed to point towards the couples married life being at an end. Finally Severin broke down. He walked out of work one day and took a stroll to Camberwell where the police picked him up due to his erratic behaviour. When he explained that he had been hearing voices telling him what to do, he was duly dispatched to the Lunatic Ward of the Camberwell Workhouse. After a fortnights stay there, he was discharged, though it would not last. Mrs Bastendorff almost immediately applied to get him committed to Colney Hatch Asylum, a modern asylum specialising in Mental Health patients that would become infamous in time, due to it’s housing of several Ripper suspects.
His stay in Colney Hatch lasted several months before he was discharged once again. Rather strangely, he once again tried to rebuild his life at 4 Euston Square, though it would not last and by October of 1885, he was living in the nearby Midland Hotel. In may of 1887, he was charged with being a “lunatic, under proper control”. He had apparently decided that it was a arather grande idea to waltz into a local police station and declare,
“I have been sent by almighty God to claim £50,000. My brother Peter and his wife murdered Miss Hacker!”
His medical notes from Colney Hatch read:
“He has the delusive idea that God speaks to him, that he speaks in English, French and German – That sometimes God’s voice is audible close to him – Sometimes it seems as if at distance – That when I ask him a question – He listens – Hears the voice of God which dictates the answer and then he answers. He will not wear the ward dress being as he says directed by God not to do so. He says God’s voice is distinct like music, that God came on a cloud and he saw him. Verdict: Mania.”
He thought he could perform miracles and became increasingly paranoid, convinced that he was being monitored by the wards telephones and spoke to doctors only when covering hius mouth. In 1909, aged 62 years old, Severin Bastendorff died of Heart Complications.
The Mystery of 4 Euston Square, remained completely unsolved. The police had, once or twice attempted to revive the case, but to no avail. Outisde of all the various court appearances, no new evidence came to light and no new information was gleaned. The information written in the pamphlet published by Hannah Dobbs and George Purkess was never confirmed to have been truth in full, in part, or entirely false.
Whether or not Peters “wife”, mentioned in the police station by Severin, was in fact, Hannah Dobbs is unlikely to ever be known, for she had disappeared off the map completely. Though it doesn’t seem terribly unlikely that she had simply changed her name. Peter later moved to Paris and it could easily be feasible that she now lived alongside him, married with an entirely different name and a fresh reputation.
Euston Square itself, after enjoying a reasonable reputation had suffered too. Eventually the residents of the street petitioned to change the name to stop the dark tourism that continued unabated and the poor reputation the properties now had. The petition was granted and the street later changed its name to Endsleigh Gardens. The name it still holds today.
The scandal may have titillated the public for a time, but in the end, the core questions still remained. Who killed Matilda Hacker and how? How had her body remained in the cellar for over a year without detection? Whilst it might be safe to say that much of the pamphlet detailing Hannah Dobbs’ statement was undoubtedly sensationalist in nature, designed to profit from the back of a brewing scandal, exactly how much of it was true? If it was even just a small fraction, then the activities going on behind the walls of 4 Euston Square were very dark indeed.