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10 Unsettling Unsolved Victorian Slayings
When you think of famous unsolved crimes of the past, one name probably always comes up: Jack the Ripper. This ruthless killer wreaked havoc in the Whitechapel area of London back in 1888. He left the police perplexed and taunted them at every turn while murdering multiple women. And yet, despite being scrutinized by both amateur and professional detectives for over a century, Jack the Ripper’s true identity remains a mystery. And considering how long it has been since he killed, we will almost certainly never know who was behind that awful series of slayings.
But here’s the even crazier part: If you’re curious enough to dive deep into Victorian history, you’ll discover he was far from the only unknown killer out there. In fact, London at the end of the 19th century was a killing ground for many ruthless and violent people. With modern police work in its infancy, murderers roamed the streets and remained unpunished. And it wasn’t only London, either—other urban areas in England suffered from similar waves of unsolved violence. Police struggled to cordon off crime scenes, and detectives lacked consistent methods for finding clues.
So the murder sprees of the Victorian era were numerous and shocking. And in this list today, you’ll learn about ten more of them. What follows are some of the Victorian era’s other unsolved slayings. Forget about Jack the Ripper—these victims were all murdered in that same time period by unknown assailants, too. Their stories captured the hearts and minds of newspaper readers and citizens at the time. But sadly, their killers were never discovered. All of these unaccounted-for killings continue to puzzle historians to this day.
10 The Thames Torso Murders
In September 1873, several gruesome finds were made on the banks of London’s Thames River. It all started when part of a human torso was spotted early that month. As the days went by, London cops recovered more body parts: the other half of the midsection, pieces of the lungs, a right thigh, a right shoulder, a left foot, and a right arm. Londoners were horrified. Then, it became even more horrifying when they stumbled upon a scalp with a face still attached. The skull it belonged to was never found.
Alarmed, investigators did their best to reconstruct the body. They even went so far as to display the severed face on a butcher block, hoping someone would recognize the victim. The public was asked to help, but nobody had any information. Even a father who suspected it might be his lost daughter couldn’t make a positive identification. For a while, then, that murder mystery sat alone and unsolved.
Then, in the following years, additional discoveries were made. Bodies washed on shore from the Thames in June 1874, May 1887, and September 1888. Chillingly, one set of body parts was even tossed over a fence into the estate of the late Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Was the body dump a dark and macabre nod to her work or just a strange coincidence?
Today, nobody can say what it was for certain. The late 19th century was a very dark and grisly period in London’s history. Thus, it remains unclear how many different people were actually responsible for murdering and dismembering women. And this case involving the “Thames Torso Murders,” as it came to be known, is one of the biggest puzzles. Today, researchers think there were at least three different killers operating near the river. Was Jack the Ripper one of them? Sadly, we will likely never know.
9 Carrie Brown
Of course, not all major unsolved murders of the era occurred in London. On the night of April 23, 1891, tragedy struck a New York City prostitute named Carrie Brown. She was found dead in a hotel room in Manhattan. From the start, it was clear she had been brutally attacked. And early on, the case appeared to be solved. A man named Ameer Ben Ali was accused of her murder and spent 11 years in jail for it. However, it was later discovered he had been innocent all along. The evidence against him had been mishandled by the investigators. And that’s where the real mystery began.
The press never reported much about the Carrie Brown case at the time it happened. Today, true crime historians wonder if it was to prevent New Yorkers from panicking. But one of the doctors who examined her body noted she had been stabbed multiple times. The killer had even tried to gut her, according to the autopsy report. For some, those similarities to Jack the Ripper—who had been killing in London for several years before this murder—were too great to ignore.
At the time, NYPD Inspector Thomas F. Byrnes publicly claimed Jack the Ripper wouldn’t stand a chance if he tried to strike in New York. That statement raised eyebrows from historians who wondered whether Byrnes was projecting a bit. The conspiracies are thick from there.
Some believe Brown’s murder was orchestrated for police to plant evidence and catch Jack the Ripper if he actually were in New York. Others think the Ripper actually was responsible for her death before fleeing back to London or somewhere else. It’s hard to say for certain what really happened. The truth is still unknown, and the mystery remains unsolved.
8 Edwin Bartlett
At the very end of 1885, London cops went through a very unusual criminal investigation in the shocking death of Edwin Bartlett. The case has remained so intriguing, in fact, that it even prompted the British Medical Journal to officially reexamine it over a century later, in 1994. But even after this reevaluation, the true cause of poor Edwin’s demise still leaves experts puzzled.
Bartlett passed away on the evening of December 31, 1885. His death came after significant dental treatment for deteriorating gums, decaying teeth, and extremely unpleasant breath. His dental issues had become so unbearable, in fact, that he and his wife resorted to sleeping separately. Those sleeping arrangements had been going on for most of 1885. Then, in August of that year, a maid discovered Edwin’s wife Adelaide Bartlett in—how shall we put this—a compromising position with a religious tutor: the Reverend George Dyson.
After learning about the recent affair, prosecutors pegged Adelaide as a natural suspect upon Edwin’s late December death. She and Dyson both found themselves standing trial at Old Bailey soon after, having officially been accused of her husband’s murder. One of the most damning pieces of evidence against her was her request for Father Dyson to purchase chloroform a few days prior to Edwin’s death.
Adelaide claimed it was meant for a personal health issue Edwin had been going through that he was too ashamed to reveal. But during the trial, it was revealed the chloroform had disappeared before his death. Even worse, an autopsy disclosed a significant quantity of it in the poor man’s stomach after death. So it appeared to be a straightforward case, pointing to Adelaide’s guilt.
Surprisingly, Dyson was swiftly acquitted. His position was that Edwin believed himself to be terminally ill and was not murdered but rather succumbed to suicide. Dyson’s claim shifted the court’s perspective toward the possibility of suicide. In turn, it also resulted in a not guilty verdict for Adelaide. Skepticism remained among many Londoners who questioned the suicide theory. But the skepticism didn’t matter much for Adelaide or Dyson—they both walked free after the strange and much-followed murder trial.
7 Charles Bravo
London resident Charles Bravo died an agonizing and confusing death in 1876. At the time, he was married to a wealthy woman named Florence Bravo. That year, he was poisoned by a substance called antimony. We know that now, but when it happened, it wasn’t clear what was going on in his body. In fact, antimony kills very slowly—and very subtly. So Bravo wasted away in slow agony before anyone could save him.
What made things even more confusing is that Charles himself never came forward during his dying weeks to suggest he was being poisoned. The man simply withered over time until he finally succumbed to the effects of the antimony. After his death, though, questions began to fly. Was it a slow-motion suicide? Or was somebody in his life trying to quietly rid themselves of the man? Why had a seemingly healthy adult male just keeled over and died?
As far as suspects go, police had quite a few. And because of the high-end social scene in which Charles and Florence found themselves, the case was big news all over town. However, for years after Bravo’s passing, even amid police inquiries, nobody knew what to make of it. Decades later, the puzzle persisted.
By the mid-20th century, even mystery writer Agatha Christie got in on investigating the death. Some sleuths claimed Florence was responsible for poisoning Charles. She was worried about the possibility that he might get her pregnant again. She’d been sickly for much of her adult life, and she was worried a pregnancy—or another abortion to avoid it—could kill her. So as the story went, she supposedly poisoned her husband to keep him from impregnating her.
Other modern-day investigators claimed Florence’s doctor was responsible for killing Charles. The medical man had given Florence a prior abortion. In the process of their dealings, he had supposedly become her lover. Thus, he may have wanted Charles out of the picture while moving in on Florence. And there was one more suspect: the family’s maid.
She was about to be released from service with the rich London couple at the time of Charles’s death. Some said she was behind Bravo’s slow-motion slaying to seek revenge for her work fate. Modern analysts have focused much of their conclusions on Charles’s wife, Florence, in this one. But with all parties long since dead—and with plenty of suspect testimony at the center of the story—this murder will never officially be solved.
6 The Gatton Siblings
Back in 1898, three Australian adult siblings named Michael, Norah, and Ellen Murphy were on their way home after a day out. They had planned to attend a dance that evening, but it got canceled. Little did they know the end of their journey would turn into a horrific and mysterious tragedy. It remains unsolved to this day. And for more than a century, it has captured the attention of people across Australia.
Late in the evening of Boxing Day, when the Murphy siblings didn’t return home, their brother-in-law set out to search for them. What he discovered was a scene of unimaginable horror: all three of them had been killed. Their clothes were torn, their bodies had been brutally beaten, and the skulls of both Michael and Ellen had been completely crushed. The killer or killers even heartlessly shot the Murphys’ horse.
It was evident a tremendous amount of rage and violence had been unleashed upon them. The fact that Michael was a member of the Mounted Rifles made it even more suspicious. Here was a man known for his toughness and fearlessness in Queensland. Why had he been killed so terribly with seemingly no resistance?
Queensland Police launched an extensive investigation. In total, they questioned over a thousand people. But sadly, the investigation was marred by astonishingly large gaps and shortcomings. Not only was there contamination at the crime scene, but some people from the public had taken mementos before cops could fully secure it. The police and the media engaged in a heated dispute because of that. Each organization accused the other of incompetence. All that in-fighting didn’t help with the case, though.
Meanwhile, one of the two early prime suspects—a butcher who had no alibi for the night of the murders—disregarded police orders to hand over evidence. Instead, he washed away the bloodstains from his shirt before it could be tested. The brazen act only added to the mishandling of the case. Tragically, due to all these blunders and missteps, the Murphy family was denied the justice they deserved. Their killer(s) have never been found.
5 Elizabeth Jackson
On the afternoon of June 4, 1889, three boys were playing around in the Battersea area on the banks of the Thames River. They noticed something foreign looking in the brush, so they went down to get a closer look. To their horror, they discovered several severed body parts. There was a human thigh, a torn-apart hip, and a severed knee. Alarmed, the kids gathered and wrapped the body parts and rushed them to the police. And just as cops were filing reports on those grisly findings later that day, another alarming call came in: five miles down the river, the rest of a woman’s lower body parts had washed ashore.
Police put two and two together—and put the body together—and opened an official inquiry into what they naturally presumed to be a murder. Then, over the next week, even more body parts began popping up. A gardener in Battersea Park found a package containing human flesh. An empty human torso and rib cage washed up elsewhere on the Thames. And down at Covington’s Wharf on the other side of the city, an arm, a right leg, and a foot were all found. Those items were wrapped up in a skirt and a tweed coat. Cops hoped the clothing items might give them their first big break in the case. But still, a week into the investigation, they had little to go on.
Then, on June 11, more evidence washed ashore. Multiple full organs, multiple more pieces of ripped-apart organs, an empty pelvis, a thigh bone, a left arm, and two hands all washed on shore. The next day, the worst part of it all: a male fetus, estimated to have died roughly at the six-month mark of gestation, was washed ashore too.
Finally, the police were able to put together all the clues. Using the washed-up hands, they determined the body was that of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Jackson. She’d been a young prostitute who had been reported missing by her family less than a month before. They also confirmed she was roughly five or six months pregnant when she went missing.
While police had virtually all of her body and the fetus, they didn’t have a clue as to what happened. There were two major theories at the time, though. The first posited that Lizzie had been killed during an illegal and highly dangerous back-alley abortion. The second was more sinister: Cops believed she had been murdered by an unknown hand.
Theories flew around that she may have been one of Jack the Ripper’s victims. Others suggested she was murdered by another killer altogether, and there were far more monsters than just Jack floating around London. Whatever the truth is, we’ll never know it. Cops could never definitively conclude what happened to poor Lizzie Jackson.
4 Emile L’Angelier
Emile L’Angelier and Madeleine Smith had a very unlikely and sordid mid-century affair. Their story began way back in 1855. That year, their unmarried sexual liaison was scandalous. It went against the strict norms of Scotland’s high-class Victorian society. Through their letters to each other, it was clear they were engaged in a sexual relationship deemed unthinkable at that time for unmarried people. Their in-person meetings further scandalized the city of Glasgow. Wherever they went together in the 1850s, their romantic interest in each other was a topic of hot debate by those who observed them.
Sadly, things took a dark turn for L’Angelier when Smith developed an interest in another man. This enterprising new gentleman met with her family’s approval, too, and Smith readied to marry. Enraged at that, L’Angelier resorted to blackmail in an attempt to maintain their close connection. But then, suddenly, his health turned inexplicably sour.
In his personal diary, Emile expressed suspicions of being poisoned. He linked the moment he first fell ill to right after a contentious encounter with Smith. He even told an acquaintance that he would forgive her if she were to poison him—quite a curious thing to offer. Tragically, he never had the chance to do that. L’Angelier passed away far before his time on March 23, 1857.
Investigators were suspicious of his untimely death from the very start. Emile’s letters wondering about the possibility of poisoning only made things more mysterious. So Smith faced trial in the aftermath of L’Angelier’s death. She presented herself confidently during her testimony and wowed the court with her beauty and poise. She had an answer for everything, too.
To explain her recent acquisition of arsenic, she claimed she’d been using it as a facial cleanser—and not as a deadly poison. Amazingly, those peculiar Victorian beauty routines made for a successful legal defense. She was acquitted of murder and quickly set free. No one else was ever charged in his death. Today, the truth behind L’Angelier’s demise remains unsolved.
3 John Gill
John Gill was a young boy who was about to turn eight when he was murdered at the end of 1888. That winter, while the Ripper was on his killing spree down in the capital city, Gill was slain by an unknown killer. At the time, many people believed Gill’s murder was connected to the Ripper killings because of the timing—and the brutality. Gill went missing on December 27 in Bradford, a town about 150 miles (241 kilometers) north of London.
Two days later, his body was found in a stable near his house. The body was laid out in the young boy’s clothes, and the crime scene was beyond horrific. Gill’s arms, legs, and ears had been cut off. His internal organs were removed and placed on top of him. And sickeningly, his shoes were found inside his chest cavity.
Bradford police sought help from a skilled chemist who carefully examined the body and the area around it. He found some clues using a microscope. It turned out the boy had eaten a currant-filled bun before he died, perhaps as a bribe. The body was wrapped in a newspaper from Liverpool. However, the name and address on it didn’t lead them anywhere. The police eventually arrested a local man in connection with the murder, but there wasn’t enough evidence, so he was never prosecuted. No one else was ever charged in Gill’s murder, either.
The tragic fate of John Gill continues to haunt the true crime world. His murder, while likely not connected to the infamous Ripper, remains a mystery. To this day, it captivates the dark side of curiosity and makes us question the worst aspects of human nature.
2 Eliza Grimwood
Critics are everywhere, right? Even famous writers face their fair share of negative opinions. Take Charles Dickens, for example. When he released his novel Oliver Twist, many critics were particularly disturbed by the murder of Nancy. This scene was considered too intense by many readers. It was very often excluded from stage adaptations. But Dickens didn’t pull the grisly scene out of thin air. In fact, he based Nancy’s murder on the real-life killing of a woman named Eliza Grimwood.
On May 26, 1838, Eliza’s cousin discovered her lifeless body in her home in the Wellington Terrace area of London. The murder was just as awful as the one depicted in Dickens’s book. Eliza had been brutally attacked, her throat slashed, and her body covered in wounds. There was so much blood that it indicated she’d had a fierce struggle with her assailant. The room was nearly completely covered in blood too.
In the end, multiple deep stab wounds were documented during the post-mortem examination. And yet, despite having a few suspects early on, cops lost the trail quickly. Witnesses recalled seeing Eliza with a respectable-looking man the night before. But beyond that, details were few and far between. Sadly, her murder was never solved. In fact, it might have been lost to history had it not been for Dickens’s use of the storyline in his iconic literary masterpiece.
There are two peculiar aspects to this case. One theory from that time proposed Eliza may have been a victim of a hired hit squad. The squad, the far-fetched theory went, was employed by newspapers to create sensational stories on slow news days. Another intriguing footnote is that the killer may have “struck” again in a very different way three decades later.
This time, the story goes, the killer “targeted” Dickens himself. The author had a great fondness for the scene in Oliver Twist, you see. He would regularly perform it on stage with great passion. But there was so much fire in his performance that Dickens’s friends believed it affected his health. When he suffered a deadly stroke in 1870, his closest friends swore it was these performances that brought on the fatal blow.
1 Harriet Buswell
Historians occasionally group Harriet Buswell’s tragic death with others perpetrated by Jack the Ripper. But if that’s true, Jack took a long break from killing after he murdered her. On Christmas morning in 1872, Harriet was killed in London. The sequence of events that led to her awful demise started on Christmas Eve.
That night, she went to the city’s Alhambra dance hall. Once there, she encountered a well-dressed foreign man. Many who witnessed the two of them together later told cops they believed him to be German. Regardless, nobody knew his identity. When she decided to go home with him later that night, she inadvertently sealed her fate.
The following morning, Harriet’s landlady discovered her lifeless body with multiple cuts on her throat. Despite the gruesome scene, Harriet had a peaceful expression on her face, according to the police. Soon, detectives launched a full investigation for justice. In just a few days, it led cops to a German man named Gottfried Hessel. A doctor, Hessel was in London for a few days while preparing to travel to the western hemisphere. But that’s where things turned cold.
In those days, forensic science was not advanced as it is now. To make matters worse, the police lacked sufficient evidence to accuse the upstanding doctor. Dr. Hessel was eventually cleared due to his good character and alibi. The alibi in question? It was provided by hotel neighbors who claimed they saw his boots placed outside his hotel room. The boots supposedly indicated he couldn’t have left the establishment to commit the murder. (There’s no word on whether Dr. Hessel owned more than one pair of boots, but whatever.) But curiously, the hotel maid testified she had washed several bloodied handkerchiefs for him on the night after the murder.
That may seem suspicious to you, but not to London cops. After a brief interrogation, Dr. Hessel was released. After he was let loose, London newspapers criticized the police for suspecting such an upstanding citizen of committing a terrible crime. Gradually, the murder faded from the headlines. In the years after, no one else was ever arrested in connection with Harriet Buswell’s tragic case.