The Harriet Buswell Slaying
In poverty-ridden Victorian London, many women felt they had no choice but to sell their bodies simply to survive. But working as a prostitute was not only unpleasant, it was also very, very dangerous. Famously, Jack the Ripper targeted ladies of the night, but he was far from the only one. Indeed, there are countless instances of prostitutes being killed on London’s streets during the Victorian era. And, while some slayings were solved and the murderers brought to justice, other killers were never caught. Harriet Buswell was one victim who never got to enjoy justice from beyond the grave.
Harriet was an aspiring actress and dreamed of performing on the stage. According to her own daughter, she did have a few, small roles at the famous Alhambra Theatre, but it these were never enough to pay the rent. Instead, she worked as a prostitute, meeting men in the West End and then entertaining them at her rented room in Bloomsbury. On Christmas Eve of 1972, she did just this. Witnesses saw her with a âGerman-looking gentleman’ at the theatre. The pair headed back to her flat, where her landlady noticed them, then they locked the door for the night.
The neighbours heard heavy footsteps – assumed to be the strange man’s – at around 6:30am the following morning. But there was no sign of Harriet. By midday, her landlady had grown concerned. She went up the stairs and forced the door open. What she saw made her blood freeze. Harriet was lying face-up in bed, covered in blood. Her throat had been cut and she had been left to bleed to death. A few small items were found to be missing from the room, but nothing of great value. After all, Harriet was an impoverished prostitute, so the police ruled out robbery as a motive.
The following days, the police pursued the only lead they had – that the culprit was a German-looking man. Their investigation led them to the port of Ramsgate and the German-owned ship the Wangerland. The ship’s crew were brought in to be examined by the witnesses. Two of them independently identified the ship’s chaplain, Dr Henry Hessel, as the man they had seen with Harriet that night. It also emerged that Dr Hessel had asked a chambermaid at the Ramsgate hotel he was staying in with his wife for some spirits to clean some bloodied handkerchiefs.
Despite the mounting evidence, no charges were brought against Dr Hessel. Some historians believe that he was most definitely guilty – he had a history of violence against women – but that the police refused to believe that an educated, well-spoken chaplain could be capable of such a violent crime. Was Harriet his first victim? Or even his last? Or, as some have more recently speculated, was Harriet’s killing one of Jack the Ripper’s earlier crimes? Did the infamous serial killer practice the art of killing behind closed doors before taking it out onto the streets years later?