Published by White Lion Publishing on October 30, 2018
Genres: True Crime
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Standing four storeys tall in an elegant Bloomsbury terrace, number 4, Euston Square was a well-kept, respectable boarding house, whose tenants felt themselves to be on the rise in Victorian London. But beneath this genteel veneer lay a murderous darkness. For on 9th May 1879, the body of a former resident, Matilda Hacker, was discovered by chance in the coal cellar. The ensuing investigation stripped bare the dark side of Victorian domesticity, revealing violence, sex and scandal, and became the first celebrity case of the early tabloids.
Someone must have had full knowledge of what had happened to Matilda Hacker. For someone in that house had killed her. So how could the murderer prove so elusive?
In this true story, Sinclair McKay meticulously evaluates the evidence and, through first-hand sources, giving a gripping account that sheds new light on a mystery that eluded Scotland Yard.
In general, true crimes don’t interest me. Give me a fictional and a quirky fictional detective who will definitely solve the case and I’m usually happy. However, this year I’ve been trying to broaden my reading habits to include more non-fiction and classics. The Lady in the Cellar is a fascinating book examining the murder of Matilda Hacker in the 1870s and the events surrounding the body’s discovery and the trials that resulted.
In a lot of ways, The Lady in the Cellar is similar to the fictional detective stories I enjoy. We have a quirky cast of characters, including the victim herself, who was a well-off woman but did not behave in the way single women of her age were supposed to in that era. We have a semi-famous detective, Inspector Charles Hagen, who had already been in the papers a few years earlier as the bodyguard of the Prince of Wales and was a rising star in the Criminal Investigation Department. We have several suspects, including the boarding house owner and a maid who he may or may not have been having an affair with, his brother who may also have been having an affair with the same maid, and the other boarders in the house.
McKay does an excellent job of leading us through the discovery of the body, the investigation and the trial. Courtroom dramas can get a little tedious sometimes, but the story here really is gripping. The people act as outrageously as they do in fiction, telling lies, ignoring things that are right under their noses. The body was in the cellar for two years, bones were found, but the people living in the house would have us believe they didn’t have any suspicions. There’s a murder trial and the suspect is acquitted. She then goes on to allow a published to produce a tell-all pamphlet that alleges even worse incidents occurring in the house. Then we have a couple of trials for libel. The mystery keeps the public, and the reader, enthralled.
I found it interesting that the public was so engrossed in reading about the case. “One of the effects of the 1870 Education Act was a dazzling fast rise in rates of literacy; but this improvement had, in turn, been fuelled by the increasingly salty and sensational nature of popular newspapers, periodicals and newspapers. Reading as a mass pursuit had become a terrific source of escapist entertainment . . . And there was no question that for readers around the country, lurid real-life stories of murder were particularly satisfying.”
The descriptions and period details bring the era to life. The people, places are events are real, no matter how unbelievable that may seem. McKay also does a good job of letting us see how today is not that different from then: the alienation people can feel in cities, the obsession with real life crimes (just look at tabloid headlines), the stigma of mental health issues, how class can effect the way the justice system treats an individual.
The case is not solved. McKay gives us a rather strong possibility, but that’s all it is – a possibility. The Lady in the Cellar is well-researched and easy to read. It’s full of facts and details, but it flows well and kept me interested.