Number 4, Euston Square, seemingly so prosperous, well-run and attractive, was a boarding house filled with unease; a house that was restless at night; a house with secrets. Soon it would seem like a gigantic doll’s house, open to examination by the entire nation.
In Victorian London in 1879, a macabre discovery was made in a coal burner in the basement of a Bloomsbury lodging house: the remains of an older woman, her hair still styled in ringlets and a rope still around her neck. She’d been dead almost two years, and the house had been a busy center of life and commerce during that time, teeming with a large family, full-time servant, a cabinetmaking business, and plenty of lodgers. How did a murder and a woman’s remains go unnoticed for so long?
The first mystery is solved fairly quickly – the victim was Matilda Hacker, an older, wealthy lady who’d been a lodger at the Euston Place boardinghouse for a short time. Hacker is a fascinating character in her own right, coming to life in the story through the observations of those who knew her well or else had vivid, lasting recollections thanks to her eccentricity.
Hacker’s style, wardrobe and behavior are described as “bordering on a kind of whimsical anarchy” and demonstrated “the insulating effect of money.” Although much of her life remains enigmatic, the glimpses we get of her are enough to make her one of the more delightful characters in this grim story, even though she’s dead. It’s one quirk of a book that’s filled with many.
The other remarkable aspect of her story, the one that still resonates today, is one woman’s determination to live outside of all social conventions, blithely stepping away from any kind of responsibility. As well as the horror, there is also a curious element of liberation in her story.
The suspects are limited to those living and working in the house, whose behavior as it comes under scrutiny is incredibly odd. This close nature and the certainty that the crime had to have been committed by someone familiar with the house and its habits has an insular, tense effect and creates an atmospheric “dollhouse” environment.
The boardinghouse was run by an immigrant from Luxembourg, Severin Bastendorff, and his English wife, Mary. The Bastendorffs, including Severin’s brothers, and their maid, Hannah Dobbs, air their not-insignificant dirty laundry in highly publicized trials, and thanks to Dobbs’ authorship of a pamphlet alleging to spill the scandalous, salacious, sexy details that she knows about the murder and its lead-up, challenging the supposed rigid morals of Victorian society. But nothing is really what it seems, there’s always another twist to come in this case. I’m not even going to touch on the “insanity” of the subtitle in this review; rest assured there’s a lot to unwrap in this story.
McKay excellently weaves the mystery into the social context of London at the time, including the German-speaking immigrant community and the working-class conditions affecting Dobbs and others of her social station. Overarching everything is London’s growth and the menace that held: a city swelling with people, influxes of immigrants, the perceptions of morality being pushed to the back burner and of senseless crimes involving upstanding citizens gaining in prevalence.
It was not just the idea of murder; it was the additional tragedy that the corpse could not be identified. Here was a body of a finely dressed, clearly refined lady to whom no-one could lay any claim. This, it seemed, was a grim parable of a modern city filled with almost four million souls: the realisation that some of these souls might vanish and not be missed by anyone.
This was one of the reasons why the case was so fascinating for the newspaper and periodical reading public…this sense of London having become so vast and so amoral that even a fine lady could be murdered in circumstances of gothic anonymity.
This change includes the concept of boardinghouses themselves, this form of communal living viewed with suspicion: “There was a sense here not merely of the flinty anonymity of streets and crowds; but also the unsettling and unheimlich transience of boarding houses.”
It has some unintentionally hilarious moments of levity, like the testimony of someone named Dr. Pepper. This book is filled with delights.
It’s twisty and turny and I often thought I saw the answer coming only to be dead wrong. It does stray into some less than compelling territory here and there, but McKay establishes enough of a sinister atmosphere to keep interest from waning too much. And I think I should give fair warning, and I hope this isn’t a spoiler, but the final word on what actually happened to Hacker doesn’t exist. The truth is somewhere in the stories we get here, it’s just not definitively conclusive. Some readers will hate that, I was also somewhat frustrated, but I loved the mystery anyway.
I’m iffy on historical true crime if it’s pre-1940s-ish, and I’m also not particularly fond of the less-than-compelling trial aspect of many true crime books, and much of the content here comes from trials and inquiries. But in this telling, it’s for the most part very interesting, both in what it reveals about the case and of society at the time. This book challenged a lot of my assumptions and won out.
A bonus of McKay’s writing that deserves mention is his incredible vocabulary. I think I hadn’t seen some of these words since SAT prep and he uses them to brilliant effect. I’d like to reread it, now that I’m not just tearing through to discover what happened, and try to absorb and acquire more of them.
Intelligently written, engrossing historical true crime and social history of London’s changing face in the immediate pre-Ripper years. A little frustrating since some mystery remains, but overall a fascinating and well done blend of crime and history.
The Lady in the Cellar:
Murder, Scandal and Insanity in Victorian Bloomsbury
by Sinclair McKay
published October 30, 2018
by Quarto Publishing Group – White Lion Publishing