I was looking for a drowned girl. My old friend, Professor Swaine Taylor had provided the grisly forensic detail in his Medical Jurisprudence: ‘the eyelids livid, and the pupils dilated; the mouth closed or half-open, the tongue swollen and congested, frequently pushed forwards to the internal edges of the lips, sometimes indented or even lacerated by the teeth …’
I needed an inquest on said drowned girl; this is where the British Newspaper Archive came in. There were drowned girls aplenty in London in the decade 1840-49. Poor things, dragged from the Thames, the Regent’s Canal, the Surrey Canal, the New River, the Serpentine, the lake in Regent’s Park, from under Waterloo Bridge, a favourite spot for those seduced and abandoned girls. There they lie stretched out on muddy shores and banks, their bonnets askew, one boot missing, or both, their faces pale, or more likely, bloated and bruised, or half-eaten by decomposition – or rats. Their bodies sometimes float, buoyed up by petticoats – the effect of air retained by the clothes, or the presence of gases. Sometimes a thin hand grasps a clump of weed which, according to Professor Taylor, indicates that the victim went into the water alive. Did she fall or was she pushed? Suicide, most often.
I needed an unknown drowned girl, unclaimed, buried at the expense of the parish, and forgotten. The Morning Post in February 1842 explains: ‘In London the bodies are taken to any obscure vault, public house, or police office. The Coroner directs the parish to advertise the body, often in vain.’
I found several cases of unidentified females in the newspaper archive. In July 1841, according to The Morning Advertiser, a young woman was pulled from the London Dock. She was never identified. I was intrigued by the report’s dark observation that ‘No one could walk into that water by accident.’ Unknown, too, was the identity of the ‘fine-made ’young woman taken from the Serpentine in October 1845 and deposited at St George’s Workhouse. Yet she had a distinctive mole on her left cheek, dark hair and hazel eyes. And I couldn’t help wondering for which moustachioed seducer she had worn her white straw bonnet trimmed with pink and white ribbons and the lilac-coloured gown. Surely somebody noticed her. Seduced and abandoned, perhaps, like poor Eliza Luke found in the New River in April 1844.
However, this was to be a crime story, so, naturally, I needed a drowned, unknown, murdered girl. This was more difficult. Such is the damage done by the water, or the bridge, or the rocks of some lonely reach that it is often impossible to find enough evidence of murder. However, there was the case of Eliza Rayment found in the River Thames in October 1847. There was a deep cut under her chin. Four inches in length, an inch in depth, so reported Mr Bain, the surgeon, at the inquest, and there were ‘two arteries divided’. The wound might have been inflicted by the deceased, but ‘a person using the right hand would naturally make an incision on the left-hand side.’ Eliza Rayment was right-handed. The first incision, identified by its depth, was on the right-hand side. Mr Bain attributed death to the loss of blood from the wound, but no one could say whether Eliza had been murdered. Likely though, but not exactly what I was looking for.
Poor Emma Ashburnham, who was formerly Emma Meyer, had once lived ‘in some splendour’ in York Road under the protection of ‘a gentleman of fortune’, but it was not known how she came to be in the river at Waterloo Bridge with a deep and ugly stab wound in her side.
Blood brings me to Ellen Tyrell and her nose. Ellen was found in the Surrey Canal in August 1845. Mr John Hawkins, the surgeon, found an abrasion on the right side of the nose, but from the decomposition of the body he was unable to distinguish any other external marks of violence. Given that she was seen in the company of a man, not her husband, the night before she disappeared, the inquest was adjourned for the purpose of producing further evidence.
Oh, Eliza Rayment, what a mystery, what a suggestive tale, a married woman whose whereabouts were unknown for some days before your death. Who were you with? Emma, who was that ‘gentleman of fortune’? Alas, neither of you was for me, and Ellen, your nose, telling though it was, did not serve my dark purpose. Oh, that I had been content with a cut throat, or a stabbing, but, in the interests of my plot, the victim must be strangled or I would have to rewrite the whole thing. There had been a good deal of strangling already. A serial killer, you see.
There is evidence I did like: the 1847 case of the unknown drowned young woman wearing a false plait at the back of her hair; the one in 1842 in which an umbrella was found nearby, bearing on its ivory handle the initials ‘F.H.’ No one came forward to claim poor F.H. She’ll have been a Fanny, I daresay. Not Hill, I trust. I browse the Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames – just looking. Haddock – yes, watery, but hardly tragic. Hadman? A little suggestive, perhaps. Hagg – rather cruel in the circumstances.
I dug deep into the newspaper archives and I found the case I wanted – just the one, and the indefatigable Mr Bain was on hand to assist. The body was found in October 1848 near Battersea Bridge, much decomposed, appearing to have been in the water some time. Nevertheless, Mr Bain found evidence of a ligature encircling the neck, though what this might have been he could not say.
It was quite enough for me. Possible death by strangulation.
Oh, all right, I admit it: the body was that of a sailor. But, it did happen. Evidence of a ligature was found. I would put an ‘s’ before the ‘he’. No one would know. Fanny Hubble, she was. A touch Dickensian – but he would be investigating, of course, in At Midnight in Venice, his fifth case.