Murder Without Motive

On Christmas Day, 1872, the body of  Harriet Buswell – who was also known as Clara Bruton – was found dead in her bed at the lodging house in which she was residing at 12, Great Coram Street.

It was evident that she had, in fact, been murdered, and several newspapers opined about another murderer being at large in London,

The Times broke the story of the crime in its edition of Friday, 26th December, 1872:-


“Yesterday afternoon about 3 o’clock, a shocking discovery was made at No.12, Great Coram-street, Russell-square.

The second-floor back room was occupied by a girl named Clara Bruton, said to be connected in some way with a theatre. As she did not come downstairs, and as no answer was returned to calls, the landlady had the door broken open.

The girl was then found to be quite dead, her throat having been severely cut. Spots of blood were detected in different parts of the room, the bed exhibiting a dreadful appearance.

The door had been locked on the outside and the key removed, but no marks of blood could be seen there.

On the forehead of the deceased there was an identation, apparently caused by a thumb, and a little further down the print of a hand.

It transpired that on the previous night the deceased was visited by a German, who left the house after other occupants had gone to bed.

Inquiries are being actively prosecuted by the police.”

A portrait of Harriet Buswell.
From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 11th January, 1873. Copyright, The British Library Board.


On Saturday, 11th January 1873, The Penny Illustrated Paper pondered the fact that there was no apparent motive for the crime, and opined on the victim’s lifestyle:-

“Murder without motive seems to be the problem which all London is trying to solve during the inquiry into the Great Coram Street mystery.

Horrible as the whole dreadful story is, there have come out some details which are both warning and instructive, since the evidence discloses particulars of a mode of life not understood by the majority of respectable readers of the public journals.

The life of an abandoned and profligate woman has, unfortunately, to some extent, become familiar to a large number of persons. It has been constantly revealed in police and criminal court cases; it has been the theme of innumerable novels, not only the Holywell-street kind, but of that sort which are subscribed for by Mudie’s, advertised and noticed in newspapers, and smuggled home for family reading; it has been over and over again half presented on the stage.


On the other hand, there is a certain degree of knowledge concerning the miserable existence of the lower order of poor destitute fallen women.

Attempted suicide; disorderly, drunken conduct in the streets; unsustained or proven charges of robbery; desperate attempts to obtain the rough justice of revenge against some wretch whose victim they have been; or an appeal against outrage and brutal ill-usage by an inhuman paramour, bring them frequently before our attention.


There is a middle condition of infamy, however, of which we hear very little; if one might speak, respectable prostitution, which goes on quietly, inhabits seemingly reputable houses, neither flaunts its vice nor abandons itself to conspicuous excesses, and may almost pass for decent propriety, with only a suspicion of a flaw, which is more the fault of misfortune than of vice.

It is only at places like the Alhambra and at adjacent supper-rooms that the real position of certain women is understood and accepted.

There they are known by the barmaids and attendants by some short, familiar name. They are served with what they ask for without hesitation, because they seldom or never exceed a certain limit in drink; they are sure either to pay or to be paid for, and they have a quiet, kindly word for the attendants, who are, it seems, also known and called by some familiar and significant appellation.


“I knew the deceased as a customer,” says a barmaid at the Alhambra, in her evidence before the Coroner’s jury on the murder of Harriett Buswell. She was not a drunkard. She used to drink whiskies. I don’t remember that gentlemen paid when she had anything to drink. I never take notice of that.”

“I knew her as Clara,” says another barmaid at the same place. “She used to come two or three times a week in the evening.”

“She was a very ladylike woman,” says a third, “I never saw her tipsy. I think she drank three or four sixpenny whiskies in an evening. A gentleman paid for two whiskies and two brandies at my bar that evening, amongst a party, and he paid two shillings. I am not sure, however, whether there were two gentlemen and two ladies. The deceased called out, “Two whiskies and two brandies, Fairy.”

So runs the strange story of that Christmas Eve, when murder was done in cold blood in that house in Great Coram-street where this quietly-conducted unfortunate had lodgings and led her life of shame amidst “respectability.”

It is not to cast a stone of reproach upon her memory that these things are mentioned.


She may have dated her fall and its consequences to a first visit to one of those theatres or music-halls where shameless prostitution flaunts itself among the audience in accordance with shameless performance on the stage, and so may have joined the dreadful ranks of the poor creatures who are treading the road to ruin, though her pace was slower and more measured than theirs.


The strange revelation is the constitution of the establishment in which she lived.

Her friendly intimacy with the landlady, the remarkable isolation in which each inmate of a London lodging-house may live as regards knowledge of other persons under the same roof.

One could understand this condition in a Parisian establishment, where each etage is subdivided or occupied like a separate house, of which the staircase is the street, and the concierge the landlord.

One could imagine it in an Edinburgh flat, or even in one of those model lodging-houses, where, however, the porter is supposed to have a vigilant eye upon irregularities on the part of inmates.


Here, however, is an ordinary “respectable” house in a “respectable” street; and the woman herself is so respectable as apparently to give no cause of suspicion or complaint to other inmates or to the virtuous landlord, who as a rule objected to letting lodgings to single women.

Had the establishment been what is generally known as a “disorderly” house, the murderer would have had far less chance of getting away unobserved.


As it was, his crime was committed with a cool, scientific accuracy which needs another De Quincey to comment upon. It is a new exhibition of  “murder considered as a fine art.

It was worse than “brutal,” this deliberate, silent, sudden, surgical slaying of the victim; and its motive is to some extent unaccountable, because the imagination cannot at once receive, nor the reason accept, the only present apparent motive – that of making off with the small booty which would scarcely have induced even an ordinary footpad to use much violence for the purpose of obtaining it.

Finding the body of Harriet Buswell in her bed.
From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 4th January, 1873. Copyright, The British Library Board.


One piece of evidence may, however, be supposed to point to this most horrible explanation of the crime.

Long after midnight on Christmas Eve, a greengrocer’s shop was open in Compton Street.

To that shop the woman went on her way home, accompanied by the man who was to kill her before the dawn of Christmas Day. They bought a few nuts and oranges there, and she asked him treat her to some grapes, a request which he refused in a manor so gruff and repulsive as to at once attract the attention of the greengrocer, who seems to have been a quick and not unpractised observer.


Is it possible that reluctance to part with his money, and a regret that he should have paid what may have amounted to eight or nine shillings, may have set in motion the wild, eager greed of intense selfishness in the ruffian’s heart, and so he may have come to the resolution to get his money back with interest?

It is nearly inconceivable; but when we are told with almost certainty of the man’s nationality, and remember how often there have been instances of the lowest class of his countrymen having all their vilest passions roused for a small pecuniary advantage, it seems less improbable.


But for the evidence which points to the fact of the man having been a stranger to her, it would be more in accordance with probability to suppose that she had previously given him some cause for jealousy, and had renewed it by some reproach or sudden quarrel.

The mode and appearance of deliberate intention of murder would indicate previous intention; but, on the other hand, that is no necessity of the case.

A very important question may arise as to the kind of instrument with which the wounds were inflicted. Could it have been with a leather-dresser’s or furrier’s knife?


There is so much more evidence as to the appearance of the man, and even of some peculiarities with regard to his face as well as his costume, that the reward for his apprehension may yet be claimed.


That reward has been largely increased, and above and beyond the reward is the inducement to our detective police-officers to vindicate their character, which has long suffered from a series of undetected crimes.

Let us fervently, hope that the police may not be too eager to “make a case,” and so lose the real criminal in the attempt to piece together evidence that will fit somebody else who is only just suspected, or who may be indicated as a “blind” to put them off the real track.”