The Leytonstone Murder: how a merchant’s madness over money led to a horrific death

It was an ordinary weekend in the autumn of 1904,  and the Dover police were about to have the relative peace broken by William Hoffman.

“I wish to surrender myself,” he said to one of the police officers, an Inspector Lackwood, as he entered the police office. Lackwood looked the man up and down. He appeared very depressed, and Lackwood wondered whether he had been drinking, but there was no sign of it. He was not drunk, and neither was he hallucinating.

He did, however, appear familiar. Lackwood remembered a note circulated by the Metropolitan Police recently, which featured the description of a man they wanted to question: this stranger in Dover matched that description.

Lackwood immediately got in touch with his fellow officers in Hackney, east London, prompting Detective Inspector George Wallace to make the slow journey down to the south coast. It was the following morning when he walked into the police office, and saw Hoffman.

“I am a police officer,” he told the stranger, “and I should arrest you for wilful murder.”

“I will say nothing,” responded Hoffman: “I have said all I wish to say.”

But Hoffman had not said everything; although he had also talked extensively to Inspector Lackwood, prior to Wallace turning up, on the train from Dover back to London, he once more gave a full statement, confessing to a heinous crime. He had, as the Met strongly suspected already, murdered his own housekeeper, Helen Walden, in the cellar of 11 Park Grove Road in Leytonstone.

William Hoffman was aged around 41, and was originally from Chesham in Buckinghamshire. He had been living in the house for around five years, and with his brother, Thomas, ran a business from there, as coal, coke and wood merchants (although the 1901 census actually records them at the address as greengrocers). Helen had started work for them as a servant in around 1901, when she would have been around 16.

Hoffman was an unlikely looking murderer. He wore a neat blue reefer coat, and had a well-trimmed, albeit long and bushy, black beard.

He looked, it was said, like a ‘rather quiet-looking man’ with a ‘peaceful state of mind’, although his quietness could have been due to his partial deafness.

The peaceful attitude he displayed to police and, later, to a judge and jury, belied the crime with which he was soon charged. Helen Walden, who was just 19 years old,  had been discovered in the cellar with her throat ‘cut from ear to ear’.

It later emerged that Thomas Hoffman had gone out on a coal round at 8am on the morning of the murder, leaving Helen and William alone at home. The Hoffmans’ shop was on the ground floor, and William had worked there in the morning, as several customers laters attested. Helen, meanwhile, was starting the week’s washing in the cellar, which was directly underneath the shop.

At around 11am, William was seen leaving the shop, carrying a black bag. When his brother arrived home two hours later, he found that both the shop and the side entrance were locked, and he couldn’t get in. He knocked at both doors, then on the windows, but the house seemed empty. Eventually, he broke open the side entrance, and started calling for William and Helen. No answer. The house was, it was later said, ‘as silent as the grave’.

Thomas searched the rooms for his brother and servant. Eventually, he came to the cellar – and found the body of Helen Walden, lying on her back in a pool of blood. A horrified Thomas immediately ran to the local police station, and soon he was running back, this time accompanied by two detectives.

Two doctors arrived shortly after, and found that Helen had been dead for several hours, although her body was still warm. There was no doubt about the cause of death – her throat had been cut from right to left, ‘in a jagged fashion’ – but her face was also covered with fingerprints, grey with coal dust.

Later, William confessed that he had gone down into the cellar, where Helen was working, and asked her for money she owed him. This amounted to around £19, and William had previously accused her of stealing it, a charge that she had furiously denied.

Yet it seems that she had a history: nine months earlier, as it emerged later, she had admitted to stealing 30s from one of the Hoffman brothers, but had been allowed to repay it in weekly instalments of 2s – still quite a sum, as her wages were only 5s a week.

William obviously had some sympathy with the young woman, to the extent that Thomas Hoffman had told his brother they should turn her out of the house, ending her employment, after she had admitted the earlier theft; William refused, because she had no parents still alive and he was concerned about what would happen to her if she left.

It may, then, have been understandable that when a further sum went missing, William suspected Helen – and it seems that she had received the money, but perhaps thought William had given it to her, or at least lent it to his long-serving servant. In his account, anyway, she admitted having had the money; but she no longer had it in her possession.

“I can’t get it,” she responded, “I have given the soldier £10 and Madge Harrington [a friend] £9, and they won’t give it me back.”

The ‘soldier’ was her young man, who was in the 2nd Battalion of the Buffs (the Royal East Kent Regiment), stationed at Dover.

“If that is so,” answered Hoffman, “I shall have to do something.”

Helen was not scared off. “If you want anything out of that, you will have to take my life,” she napped, and then lay down on the floor, on her back, and put her arms up. “Come on, cut my throat!”

This, at least, was Hoffman’s version of events. Taking Helen’s words literally, he immediately cut her throat with a white-handled knife, before wiping it clean of blood on Helen’s own clothes. William even claimed, rather ruining his story, that as he cut Helen’s throat, she helped him: “she turned over on her face and then on her back again. I didn’t struggle with her at all, as there was no occasion to do it.”

After committing the murder, Hoffman had calmly walked away from the house, and to the train station, where he caught a train down to Dover. He checked into the Standard pub on Commercial Quay, and there he had stayed from Wednesday to Friday, when he first walked to the police station, with the aim of confessing.

On getting there, however, his courage failed him, and he had returned to the pub. Eventually, though, that weekend, he succeeded in telling the police what he had done. He argued that his main reason for coming to Dover was to find Helen’s soldier, and to either get the money she had given him back – or kill him.

Hoffman appeared at Stratford Police Court immediately after reaching London again, on a charge of murder. Although his appearance attracted crowds outside the court, the public were not allowed to come in and watch proceedings. His appearance was brief, and ended with him being remanded into custody.

He was eventually tried at the Central Criminal Court in December 1904, and, despite medical evidence – from Dr Scott, medical officer at Brixton Gaol, where Hoffman had been held  – that he was insane at the time of the murder, was convicted. William’s comment in court, shortly before being sentenced, was said calmly:

“I think it is a great shame, after a man has been robbed of over £300 [sic], that he should have his life taken away. I have treated this girl to the best of everything.”

William Hoffman was sentenced to death; however, after a medical examination by Home Office doctors – ordered, perhaps, in part because of a protest there had been after his conviction by those against the death penalty being carried out against a man who had been declared insane – he was granted a respite. William may have felt that Helen had got away with theft, but he had, in a way, got away with murder.

 

Illustrations from the Illustrated Police News of 5 November 1904, p.3 and the Clifton and Redland Free Press, 4 November 1904, p.4, accessed via the British Newspaper Archive.