The Met missed a trick when 27-year-old actress and prostitute Clara (or Harriet) Buswell was stabbed to death on Christmas Eve 1872. A chance to take forensic odontology a step further went begging. 

Morton landscape

James Morton

According to her landlady, the man Buswell had picked up and who left her dead on the bed at around 6.30am on Christmas Day ‘appeared like a foreigner’. A half-eaten apple was found in the room. A waiter remembered serving Buswell and a man at the Cavour Restaurant, while stallholder George Fleck thought he had sold them two apples that evening. A cast of the apple bite was made but it did not match Clara’s teeth. 

The German brig Wangerland had recently run aground on Goodwin Sands and a surgeon’s assistant, Karl Wohlebbe and the ship’s chaplain, Dr Gottfried Hessel, had been staying at Kroll’s hotel in London. Wohlebbe was arrested and put on an ID parade, with Pastor Hessel also standing as a foil. Fleck and the waiter unhesitatingly picked out Hessel, who was promptly charged. 

The evidence against Hessel was almost wholly that of identification. The witnesses stuck to their guns and there was some support from a maid who said she had seen someone who looked like Hessel leaving Clara’s address. Housekeeper Jane Somers said that when Hessel returned to his Ramsgate hotel, he asked for turpentine to clean his clothes and sent some badly bloodstained handkerchiefs to the laundry. 

Kroll, the hotel proprietor in London, said he had heard Hessel coughing in the night and the next morning his only pair of boots had been left out for cleaning. Wohlebbe said he had last seen Hessel at 10pm in the hotel dining room looking distinctly unwell.

Bow Street magistrate James Vaughan refused to commit Hessel for trial and he left with a letter of apology from prime minister Gladstone and £1,225 contributed by the British public, including £30 from Queen Victoria. Curiously, no one appears to have tried to match the marks in the apple with his bite and the general opinion is that Hessel got away by the skin of his teeth.


James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor