2 weeks ago
He came across like a member of the gentry, with pleasant, elegant manners and a gentleman’s demeanor. He called himself Harry Whitecliffe—Sir Harry Whitecliffe—and by all accounts no one thought to question his pedigree. He wore his title well.
The English, like much of the western world, were still coping with the aftermath of the Great War, what its merciless scythe had done to the male populations of so many nations. Perhaps the parlors and clubs were ready for some excitement.
Harry Whitecliffe, whether real or a myth, provided just that.
As described in a 1978 book by Louis Pauwels and Guy Breton about unsolved mysteries titled Nouvelles Histoires Magiques, first mentions of Whitecliffe appeared on the London literary scene in the early 1920s. His presence wasn’t much noted beyond that rarified community—an in-depth article published in an American newspaper in 1924 that gave 1923 as the year he first made himself known was the only easily found English-language account.
Whitecliffe was allegedly the author of what English writer Colin Wilson termed “pastiches of Oscar Wilde.” His work was notable, it was good—and it prompted rumors his name was a pseudonym for a more famous writer. Whitecliffe helped these rumors along by remaining out of public view for a time.
Then he came out of the shadows.
Sir Harry was a good-looking man in his early twenties, well-liked, and kind of weird, according to accounts. He threw money around as if to indicate his status. He had a love of flowers.
He was said to have written a notable play, Similia, and achieved a celebrity that would equal what we might call viral fame today.
At the pinnacle of that celebrity, as London society was celebrating his brilliance, he disappeared. He divested himself of everything and released all rights to his written work. He left London for Dresden, Germany.
Harry Whitecliffe turned out to be no different in Dresden. He remained a man of letters, going beyond just producing new productions of Similia and creating a publishing company, Dorian Verlag. The company also published poetry and highlighted the contemporary art of the day.
And in Dresden, he fell in love.
Wally Von Hammerstein was a member of the fading German aristocracy. She fell for Sir Harry quickly, drawn to his charm and to his aggressive pursuit of her. He’d become tired of living out of hotels, he said, and in sympathy the Von Hammersteins brought the elegant gentleman into their home.
He was, after all, a member of the upper class. Like them.
According to Pauwels and Breton, von Hammerstein and Whitecliffe were planning to announce their engagement on October 4, 1924. This conflicts with the account published in the June 22, 1924 San Francisco Examiner, but over time, facts can fudge and blur until they inhabit a netherworld, a land best dubbed “pseudofiction.”
Regardless of dates, accounts agree that Whitecliffe vanished again. Possibly on October 23, 1924, possibly earlier. When Wally von Hammerstein heard from him again, it was a letter written after his death, sent from a German jail.
Between 1923 and ’24, dozens of sex workers reportedly disappeared from Berlin’s red light districts. Their bodies were found later, their throats slashed. There was no question, according to Berlin police: one man was attacking and killing the city’s prostitutes.
The killer must have felt the police at his back, because soon the series of murders switched from prostitutes to postal workers. As the Examiner noted, “three postmen carrying registered mail were found, likewise with open throats and robbed.”
According to the report, the killer “would hire a room and send a registered letter to himself. Thus he knew exactly the time and place where he could carry out his deed with infernal simplicity.”
Police soon targeted a strange man seen haunting the Red Light districts, a man dubbed “Uncle Harry.” They eventually arrested him. He looked “pale and worn,” according to the Examiner, “his shoulders bent… [with] that vague look in his eyes that is peculiar to dope fiends.”
Uncle Harry confessed. He’d done it all. Murdered the “street girls,” murdered the postmen. He was, he told police, from Australia, had German parents, and his real name was Lovach Blume.
Blume was found guilty at trial and sentenced to death. Weimar Germany was efficient at death-dealing when necessary, though the Nazis would eventually elevate murder to a way of life. But Blume—”Harry”—never saw a hooded executioner. He killed himself in his cell, slashing his neck, ankles, and wrists.
Blume left a letter behind.
It was addressed to Wally von Hammerstein. In it, he’d written about what a monster he truly was. He was a vicious psychopath, according to his letter, and he’d been driven to kill every ten days. “I am driven by an irresistible urge,” he allegedly wrote, “so that until I have killed, I suffer atrociously. But as I disembowel my victims I feel an indescribable pleasure.” It seemed like the statement of a baldly honest serial killer. A serial killer who, according to his letter, was named Lovach Blume.
But Blume’s letter contained another confession, reported the Examiner: He wrote he was also Harry Whitecliffe. He’d been born in England and was indeed from a noble family. He’d traveled the world, been a soldier, a sailor, a brilliant writer. And all along he’d carried this demon inside.
“I loved you,” Whitecliffe-Blume supposedly wrote to von Hammersten, “I loved you with all my heart and soul. I ran away from you and purposely fell stupidly into the trap laid by Berlin police because I was afraid that I would kill you. Every time I saw you the obsession would gain possession of me. I wanted to kill you and was afraid of myself.”
The report in the American paper painted Whitecliffe/Blume as a man of two faces. A Jekyll and Hyde, a tortured soul who was both poet and monster. But Pauwels and Breton dug a little deeper. What they found was every indication that the tale of Harry Whitecliffe as described in breathless reports in English and German was a fiction. The true story was one of everyday brutality, and it was uncovered by no less than Thelma Holland, Oscar Wilde’s daughter-in-law.
Holland supposedly discovered that the real killer was a man named Wilhelm Blume. A newspaper report she discovered called him a “Cultured Murderer,” who had committed a “[literary] Man’s Series of Crimes.”
Blume had indeed been a gifted writer, one who was noted for his excellent German translations of English plays. He’d founded Dorian Verlag, and he’d confessed to committing multiple murders at a noted hotel in Berlin.
They weren’t the crimes of a vicious sexual psychopath. He’d simply bludgeoned postmen, seeking to rob them.
So, what’s the truth here?
Perhaps the tale of Sir Harry Whitecliffe was the end result of a game of telephone. A story that through continuous retellings morphed into something else altogether. A robber with literary aspirations in his past became a complicated imposter and killer, a man tortured by his inner demons, a man who fled from his true love to avoid his hunger for blood.
Perhaps the whole thing was a retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s depiction of one man’s tortured battle between his inner savage and the outwardly civilized gentleman. A fiction, a bastardized Jekyll and Hyde.
The truth, as Colin Wilson noted, is that the Third Reich followed the 1920s Weimar Republic, and in the end the Reich’s predations brought the wrath of the western world, destroying huge portions of Dresden and Berlin with fire. Criminal records went up in smoke. Narratives of predators and brutes turned to ash.
If Harry Whitecliffe, Lovach Blume, or Wilhelm Blume ever existed at all, the exact truth of that existence was gone, lost in the shadows of history by 1945. The campfire story was all that remained.