Running a brush manufacturing business was not exciting enough for Henry Wainwright. What he really dreamed of was being in the theatre. He lived with his wife and four children near his two brush factories, at 84 and 215 Whitechapel Road, in London’s East End. The lights, the glitter and the excitement of the stage all appealed to him in ways that brushes just couldn’t, but the closest he could get to it was to seduce actresses. Harriet Lane was his 19-year-old mistress whom he met in 1871. He paid for her lodgings and gave her £5 a week.
Even his business income couldn’t cover his expensive tastes and he found himself nearing bankruptcy, partly thanks to the cost of keeping a second permanent mistress, ballet dancer Alice Day. The truth was, he had inherited the company from his father and had no idea how to run it properly. He and his family downsized and moved to a smaller house, but he soon realised he had to do something more drastic about his ongoing expenses.
Harriet Lane was becoming a problem. Not only was she making drunken, jealous scenes about his pursuit of other women; she was costing him too much money. On September 10th 1874 he took her to his brush factory, shot her in the head and slit her throat before burying her under the floorboards in the workshop. To explain her sudden disappearance, he told everyone she had gone to Europe with a friend.
Shortly after, the factory burnt down and Henry Wainwright called on his insurers, but he was out of luck. They knew about his financial troubles and suspected deliberate arson, so they refused to pay a penny. In 1875, Wainwright went bankrupt. A solicitor, Mr Behrend, took over the lease of 215 Whitechapel Road, and all was well for a time. But as the heat of summer wore on, the tenant complained about a disgusting smell coming from the back of the workshop. Wainwright passed it off as rotting cabbages, but the tenant was unsurprisingly not convinced and quickly moved out. Behrend advertised the house for sale and Wainwright realised he had to do something, worried that the next owners might be more thorough in exploring the source of the smell.
Henry Wainwright asked his brother Thomas to help, which wasn’t for the first time. Thomas already knew about the murder and had even impersonated Harriet Lane’s fictitious new suitor, who she was supposed to have gone to Europe with. Evidently, he had an interest in the theatre like his brother. Something else they shared was a lack of business acumen, as his ironmonger’s shop had just failed. He had opened it in an old pub called the Hen & Chickens at 54 Borough High Street, but although it had gone under, he still had the keys – and the pub had deep cellars. The plan was to move the body there where it would be undisturbed.
Henry crept into the vacant house at 215 Whitechapel Road, lifted the floorboards and retrieved the remains of Harriet Lane. He had proved as inept at covering up murder as he had at business, as he had buried her in chloride of lime, which is a preservative, rather than the quicklime that would have dissolved the body quickly. He knew he would be noticed carrying her from the house, especially if she was in one piece, so he used a chopper to cut her up, placing the parts into two large canvas parcels.
They were too heavy for him, so he asked one of his former employees, Alfred Stokes, to carry one of them. Stokes was surprised by its weight and noticed an unpleasant smell coming from it. Henry realised that they would be unable to walk as far as he had planned while lugging the packages, so he went off to hail a cab. Stokes took the opportunity to satisfy his curiosity and looked inside the parcel. We can only imagine his horror when he saw a severed human hand and other body parts inside. When the cab arrived, Wainwright jumped in and thanked Stokes for his trouble.
Stokes ran after the cab and called out to two policemen to help him, but they thought he was drunk and ignored him. Stokes managed to catch up when the cab slowed down. Wainwright had spotted his still-living mistress Alice Day walking down the road, and bold as brass, he invited her to ride with him, smoking a cigar to mask the appalling smell.
Eventually Stokes came across another policeman, and puffing and panting, managed to convince him to investigate. The cab was stopped and searched, and all was revealed. Wainwright was hung on 21st December at Newgate Prison. As he stepped up to the gallows, he was said to have been calmly smoking, and stated to the crowd, ‘Come to see a man die have you, curs?’
His brother Thomas served seven years in prison for accessory to murder, although some people believed it was he who had been the real killer and that Henry had taken the blame.
Wainwright had the dubious honour of being hung by the famous executioner William Marwood, who was in his sinister line of work between 1872 and 1883. He was the one to introduce the long drop method, calculating out the length of the rope depending on the convict’s weight. This technique reduced the chances of prisoners struggling and suffocating to death slowly, and in most cases broke the neck instantly. Marwood did well out of his craft, receiving £10 for each execution in addition to a salary of £20 a year, as well as being allowed to keep the prisoner’s clothes.
Bullets from Harriet Lane’s skull, skin and hair samples, the chopper used to dismember her body, and even the cigar Wainwright was smoking when he was arrested, are all in Scotland Yard’s Black Museum. If you were hoping to get up close and personal with the case, you’ll be disappointed to hear that the Museum is not usually open to the public. It seems that Wainwright got his wish for fame after all, but not in the way he imagined.
- Bondeson, Jan; “Victorian Murders”, 2017, Amberley Publishing
- Rowland, David, “Executioners from 1850 to 1964”, 2014, https://www.oldpolicecellsmuseum.org.uk/content/history/local-historians-history/david-rowland/executioners/part_2