Hastings' strangest deaths and unsolved murders

Strange Exits from Hastings offers – as the subtitle promises – A Cornucopia of Bizarre Deaths and Unsolved Murders.

Thursday, 30th April 2020, 10:09 am
Helena Wojtczak
Helena Wojtczak

It has been published by author Helena Wojtczak under her bijou imprint The Hastings Press at £10, available via hastingspress.co.uk, eBay and Amazon.

Helena, who has lived in St Leonards on Sea for nearly 30 years, said: “The book came about by sheer accident. In fact I often say that it pestered me to write it! As a local historian I spend a lot of time reading archive newspapers, particularly the Hastings Observer and the Sussex Express and, whilst looking for something else, I would keep stumbling over reports of weird deaths in the Hastings area; some were bizarre accidents; others were unsolved murders or mysterious suicides.

“The first strange story I saw was about a man mauled to death by a polar bear on a hot August Bank Holiday; this was followed by a world-famous tightrope walker who plummeted to his death in front of a massive and horrified audience on Priory Meadow. I had never heard about these extraordinary incidents; they don’t appear in any books, so I started collecting them electronically, with no purpose in mind other than to maybe share them in Facebook local history groups.

“Then, one day, whilst chatting to my editor and indexer, I mentioned this ever-growing collection of bizarre demises and he suggested writing them up and publishing them. This was straightforward because I’ve already written and self-published six previous books. After wavering for a while I decided to go for it.

“Taking each newspaper cutting as my starting point, I began to research every report in depth and the people and locations involved, in order to flesh out the stories and make them more comprehensive and detailed. I was able to find out more about the deceased, their life before the fatal incident, their occupation, marital status etc.

“All in all I tried to be as complete as possible, researching as diligently as I could until there was nothing more to be discovered, then edited the resulting plethora of material until the narrative was tightly written. The research also unearthed some local history that I included — even though some of it was a wild digression from the main narrative: in some cases, I simply could not bear to omit it — for example the story of a black Abyssinian princess who died in St Leonards in 1846. Because my previous book, Jack the Ripper At Last? is a full-length biography of the notorious serial poisoner and Ripper suspect George Chapman, it made a refreshing change to write a book that comprised short chapters, each one taking me into new and uncharted territory.

“I learned that Florence Nightingale’s god-daughter was murdered on a train en route to St Leonards, and that Hastings Council at one point used to sell residents’ faeces as fertiliser! There was only one story that I already knew about: the serial poisoner known as the Guestling Murderess. She was a middle aged mum who murdered her husband and two sons and was only caught when she started poisoning a third son. She was publicly hanged outside Lewes House of Correction in 1849. To my knowledge, her awful crimes have never been published in book form, so I welcomed the opportunity to correct that omission.

“Strange Exits is suitable for anyone who enjoys an intriguing whodunnit. In several chapters I try to solve a murder that the police at the time could not fathom, and I invite readers to try to puzzle it out for themselves.

“True crime buffs are already loving this book, and it will also fascinate anyone who likes mysteries, weird-but-true stories, events that are stranger than fiction and, of course, local history, because ultimately the stories contained within the book reveal the lives as well as the deaths of forty people in the Hastings area covering a period of 150 years.”

As for writing: “It all began in 2000, when I created a website to display my historical research into ordinary working women’s lives in Hastings during the Victorian era. Soon, people began emailing me, asking me to publish it in a printed format, so I issued it as two short books, which are now long out of print but still in libraries. I did another year’s research, in order to expand the books to include the whole of West and East Sussex and the City of Brighton, which resulted in two new books — Women of Victorian Sussex and Notable Sussex Women: 580 Biographical Sketches. They are both on sale via my website hastingspress.co.uk and are stocked in libraries across Sussex.

“I also wrote Railwaywomen, which is the complete story of women working on the railways of Britain since the 1830s, and it was for this groundbreaking academic research and for my contribution to labour history that I was honoured with an invitation to become a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2016.

“More recently I researched, wrote and published a biography and critical analysis of a Jack the Ripper suspect. He drew my interest because he once lived in Hastings, where he was a barber in George Street. This book has attracted wide critical acclaim, with copies being sent to readers all over the world.”

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