The Waterloo Bridge Mystery

When I was researching the murder of Sophia Lewis I came across a couple of English newspaper cuttings that linked the murder to supposed aristocratic misbehaviour and the Waterloo Bridge mystery.

My first thought was that this was some nineteenth century conspiracy theory, but the articles did mention the cane found alongside the corpse.

Ken Oldis’s book on the Sophia Lewis murder, which I used as my principal source, also mentions the cane in the opening chapter but does not refer to it again, nor is it mentioned in any of the digitised newspaper reports on Trove that I looked at. Given the dubious nature of the trial proceedings, I’m guessing that the police conveniently forgot about it, as it incriminated one of their informers.

But that left the Waterloo Bridge mystery.

A quick google search revealed a a gruesome and unsolved mystery.

In October 1857, some boys in a rowing boat found a carpet bag with a rope attached on an abutment of Waterloo Bridge in London. When opened the bag contained bloodstained clothing and approximately 20 human body parts.

The Waterloo bridge of 1857 was not the same bridge as today – it was rebuilt in the 1930’s – and was a toll bridge operated by a private company with a turnstile for foot passengers and a toll keeper.

The bridge was notorious for suicides – Trollope’s Three Clerks contains several oblique references to this and the poet Thomas Hood published a poem in 1844 about the death of a prostitute who commits suicide by jumping from the bridge

John George Freeman has an anecdote of trying unsuccessfully to slip the toll keeper a Jersey penny on his way back home from Waterloo station after his trip to Jersey in the early 1870’s (in my edition the book says a Guernsey penny, but that is clearly a mistake – in the 1870’s Guernsey pennies had the Guernsey coat of arms, while Jersey pennies carried Queen Victoria’s head, albeit with the Wyon diadem head also used in Jamaica, and not the bun head used in England)

Back to the story.

The toll keeper on duty the night before the discovery of the bag was a Mr Etherington, who had previously been a policeman in A division of the Metropolitan police, remembered helping a woman to lift a heavy carpet bag over the turnstile at about 11.30pm.

It was surmised that the rope was used to lower the bag from the bridge to avoid attracting attention when it was dropped unsuccessfully into the Thames.

The inquest into the death revealed that the victim had been stabbed, the body violently hacked into pieces, and strangely had been cured in brine as one does pork. One of the medical experts at the inquest was Alfred Swaine Taylor, one of the early exponents of forensics.

There was no head among the body parts, making the body difficult to identify. The clothes had no identifying marks or manufacturers tags but crucially the socks were thought to be of German manufacture, and the collar of the shirt appeared to have been worn folded over the necktie, which was a fashion on the Continent at this time but not usually done in England.

The clothes were washed and put on show in the hope of someone identifying the victim. The landlady of the Prince of Wales in Kennington remembered a similarly dressed man of gentlemanly appearance who asked  for a room. When being told there were none available, the man asked if he could leave his bag and coat while he looked elsewhere.

The landlady said that the man then left in the company of a woman whose description matched that given by Mr Etherington, the toll keeper.

The man was also seen enquiring unsuccessfully about a room at the George and Dragon in Vauxhall. Both pubs were within ten or so minutes walk of each other, and it is assumed that he found a room elsewhere, as he later returned to the Prince of Wales to retrieve his coat and bag and paid the landlady sixpence (a reasonable and for that reason, memorable, sum – around £3 or a little over $A5 in today’s money).

Both pubs are around 40 minutes walk from Waterloo Bridge. While there are other bridges are closer to the location today, not all of them were in place in 1857, making Waterloo bridge a preferred crossing, especially for access to central London.

The victim was never identified, and the inquest concluded that a male person of unknown age had been murdered by a person or persons unknown.

Despite various apparent confessions in following years, no one has successfully identified the perpetrator or the victim, Perhaps the most likely suggestion is that there was a serial killer in the area, who chose foreign, and therefore unknown gentlemen, as victims and that normally the bodies were successfully disposed of in the Thames.

The fact that the body parts appeared to have been salted in brine was especially disquieting …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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