The Euston Square Mystery

by Arthur Machen


Decidedly; the murder of Matilda J. Hacker in Euston Square, in the year 1878, is one of those cases that are to be marked with an “and yet....” No doubt the verdict of the jury was the right verdict, according to the rules of the law; but....

Miss Hacker, if she had lived in an earlier age, would undoubtedly have been one of those “Characters,” of whom we were talking. Like Miss Betty Bolaine, she lived at Canterbury; like Miss Bolaine she had an aversion from the spending of money. But, born in a later age, she did not appear in polite company as an animated and malodorous rag-bag, nor did she make her meals of rotten meat picked up in the gutter and roasted on a fire of cabbage stalks. We have long lost the courage of our opinions; and Miss Hacker expressed herself in a purely negative way—she would not pay her rates at Canterbury. She was a well-to-do old woman, but she did not like paying rates. Accordingly, she absconded. She took various names, and lived in various places, so as to avoid being traced and proceeded against by the Canterbury authorities. At length, she called herself Huish, and took lodgings at 4, Euston Square—the place changed its name in consequence—a house kept by a Mr. and Mrs. Bastindoff. Like many other “Characters” of the chronicles, she was accustomed to keep a good deal of money by her in a cash-box.

On the 10th of October, 1878, she wrote a business letter to her agent about some property, the reply to be addressed to “M. B., Post Office, Holborn.” On Sunday, October 14, Mr. and Mrs. Bastindoff were out for the day, and Miss Hacker was alone in the house with the servant, Hannah Dobbs. Next day, Mr. Bastindoff told the servant to go up to the old lady and get some rent due to him. Hannah, Mr. Bastindoff declared, ran upstairs with alacrity, saying, “I'll go,” and came down again with a £5 note. The note was changed, the rent owing deducted, and the balance handed to Hannah Dobbs; it does not appear why. But one would think that the lodger would have received the balance. And now a very singular point. Mrs. Bastindoff said afterwards in the witness-box that on the morning of Sunday, October 14, Hannah had told her that she thought that Miss Huish (otherwise Hacker) was going to leave the lodgings that day; indeed, that she believed the old lady had already gone. This statement seems to have produced little effect on the Bastindoff family, since Mr. Bastindoff sent up his servant to collect money from his lodger on the Monday morning, and collected it. It is not recorded that he said: “So she hasn't gone, after all,” or made any remark in particular. But after the successful embassy of the £5 note, it would appear that the lodger's disappearance was gently allowed to steal on the family consciousness. Still, nobody troubled to go into the old lady's rooms for a couple of days, and then only to get them ready for a new lodger. In these rooms, Mrs Bastindoff declared, she saw a stain on the carpet, and also clear evidence that someone had tried to wash the stain away. Still, Mrs. Bastindoff did not seem afraid with any amazement. A lodger had disappeared, probably on Sunday morning; had handed over five pounds on the Monday; her room, on the Wednesday, was found to be darkly stained; afterwards, analysis showed that this was, indeed, the stain of blood. But, so far as we can see, all these odd circumstances were accepted by the Bastindoffs as being completely in the natural order of things.

And there were other queer things, that appear to have aroused no particular comment at the time of their occurrence. Soon after October 15 Hannah Dobbs showed one of the Bastindoff children a Dream Book, which, she said, had belonged to Miss Hacker. She gave another child a funny toy, the lodger's cash-box—with a broken lid. She also mounted a watch and chain which no one had ever seen about her before. But she explained that the watch and chain had been left her by an old uncle, lately dead at Bideford. She pawned them, later, under a false name, and it turned out at last that they were originally the property of Miss Hacker. It was found that there was no uncle at Bideford, and, naturally enough, therefore, that he hadn't died. Soon after the disappearance of the old woman, Hannah Dobbs left the Bastindoff service, and went into lodgings. She could not pay her rent, so left her box as security. Eventually it was opened, and several articles in it were identified as having been the property of Miss Hacker.

So much for Miss Hacker's disappearance; now for her reappearance. Seven months later, in May, 1879, the cellar at No.4, Euston Square, was cleared out, as one of the lodgers wanted to store coal there. Then Miss Hacker reappeared; very dead down in that cellar, with a rope about her neck. But the body was identified beyond doubt, and some pieces of jewellery found by the body were known to have been the property of the dead woman. A pretty strong case, as Montagu Williams observes, and yet Hannah Dobbs was acquitted. The judge was Mr. Justice Hawkins, who was not generally supposed to be unduly favourable to prisoners at the bar. But the point, it seems, was technical. Hannah Dobbs was, undoubtedly, in possession of various pieces of property that had belonged to Miss Hacker; but that was no proof that she had murdered Miss Hacker; it was not even proof that she knew that Miss Hacker had been murdered. I do not know whether it were proved that Hannah Dobbs must have seen the watch and chain (for example) in the dead woman's possession; even so, they might have been given to her by another person and that other person might have assured Hannah that they were a gift to him from Miss Hacker.

Then followed a very odd sequel. Hannah Dobbs became a popular heroine. The proprietor of the Police News took up her case, and issued a pamphlet, which pretended to tell Miss Dobbs' true story. Miss Dobbs declared that there had been certain relations between herself and Bastindoff, before she entered his service, and during her residence in his house. Then Mr. Bastindoff filed an affidavit, denying these allegations. And on that affidavit he was indicted for perjury. Again the Judge was Hawkins. Hannah Dobbs, who had been rather shabby at her own trial, turned up smartly dressed in the witness-box. She swore that the relations between herself and Bastindoff began in the autumn of 1877, when she was in service at 42, Torrington Square. Hannah and another girl were cleaning windows, and Mr. Severin Bastindoff spoke to them.

“In consequence of that conversation he and I went out together that night or a night or two afterwards, and from that time until I entered his service we frequently went out together. The relationship was kept up during the time I was an inmate of his house.”

This story was corroborated by Hannah's fellow-servants. Two of them said that one night they were waiting for Bastindoff and that all three fell asleep before the kitchen fire, leaving the area door open. Two policemen noticed the open door, entered, woke the girls up, and partook of a little coffee with them. The girls identified the prisoner as the man they had seen, but explained that when they had met him below stairs his beard was differently cut. Mr. Justice Hawkins then directed that a witness, once a partner of Bastindoff's, should be recalled, and he gave a description of the prisoner's beard, old style, which confirmed the statement of the servant girls. A Mrs. Carpenter, keeper of an inn at Redhill, swore that in the year 1877 Dobbs and Bastindoff passed the night together at her hotel. It was observed that this Mrs. Carpenter was violently antagonistic to the accused man. Hannah Dobbs was cross-examined. It appeared that she had been convicted of theft, and her little life story led Mr. Justice Hawkins to declare her “a most infamous person.” The defence was that on the day on which Bastindoff was said to have been at Redhill with infamous Hannah, he was really fishing in quite a different part of the country; and that the man who was with Hannah was really brother Peter Bastindoff, who was just like Severin. But, unfortunately, the people who swore that Severin was fishing, swore that Peter was fishing too, a statement making confusion very much worse confounded, but not helpful to the defence.

There is only one gleam of light in this strange, tragical, most horrible case: Severin Bastindoff's best witness was his mother-in-law. One would have thought that this affecting circumstance would have melted brassy bosoms and hearts of flint; but it was not so. In the result, Severin Bastindoff was found guilty of the crime of perjury, and sentenced to twelve months hard labour.

There is no happy ending to this queer story. Nobody was hanged, though it seems pretty clear that somebody, perhaps several somebodies, would have been “nane the waur for a hanging,” as the humorous Scots justice observed on one occasion.