With some disappearances, it is a complete mystery whether it is a case of foul play, suicide, or a simple desire to start a new life. With others, you can make a fairly educated guess what happened, but lacking a body, it is impossible to have any definitive resolution. This week, we will be looking at a notorious example of the latter, centering around a baker who rejoiced in the impressive name of Urban Napoleon Stanger.
Stanger was born in Germany circa 1843. Some time around 1870, he and his wife Elizabeth emigrated to London, where he started a bakery in the East End. Stanger was frugal, hard-working, and a dab hand with the breads and pies, to boot, so his little business was an almost instant success. The stolid, mild-mannered baker may not have been the most interesting of men, but he was a prosperous and worthy citizen.
Elizabeth Stanger was another matter. Mrs. Stanger was a flashy, indolent sort who spent money as assiduously as her husband earned it. She was also a quarrelsome, demanding woman who henpecked her meek spouse unmercifully--particularly when, as so often happened, she had had a bit too much to drink. She was even known to attack her husband with his own loaves of bread. The Stangers may not have been the ideal couple, but for some years they were a quite ordinary one.
This changed when Franz Felix Stumm entered the picture. He too was a native German who had opened his own bakery. However, his business was not nearly as successful, and he was deeply in debt. Fortunately for him, Stanger was willing to offer a helping hand to his fellow countryman, and often hired Stumm to work around his bakery. Although Stumm was married, he and Elizabeth Stanger also became friends--according to scandalized neighborhood gossip, very, very good friends indeed. Urban, preoccupied as always with business affairs, was either unaware of or indifferent to the rumors involving his wife and his chum. Even more curiously, Mrs. Stumm also seemed perfectly content with the relationship.
On the night of November 12, 1881, Stanger went out to the pub with Stumm and another of his employees, Christian Zentler. All seemed in the best of spirits. Shortly before midnight, Stanger said an amicable good-night to his friends and entered his home.
When Zentler arrived at the bakery the next morning, he was met with a surprise. Instead of being greeted as usual by his boss, he found a "little put out" Mrs. Stanger. She ordered Zentler to immediately go fetch Franz Stumm. Mr. Stanger had suddenly taken it into his head to return to Germany, she explained, and he wanted Stumm to manage the bakery in his absence.
It was soon clear that Stumm was taking Mr. Stanger's place in more ways than one. Within a few days, he completely abandoned his own home in favor of Stanger's. His creditors were paid off with checks purportedly signed by the absent Urban. Franz and Elizabeth were often seen parading through the streets arm-in-arm. Then Stumm painted out Mr. Stanger's name from the front of the bakery and substituted his own. When asked about Mr. Stanger's whereabouts, the pair blandly stated that he "was in hiding somewhere."
The neighbors began saying some very unpleasant things about Franz and Elizabeth.
In April 1882, one of Mr. Stanger's executors, John Geisal, offered a £50 reward for any information regarding the missing baker. He also applied for warrants against Stumm and Mrs. Stanger on the charge of forging checks and conspiring to defraud Urban's executors. Geisal obviously shared the universal suspicions about Mr. Stanger's mysterious "trip to Germany."
Stumm was the first of the accused to stand trial. He was sullen and uncooperative throughout the proceedings. He continued to maintain that Stanger had gone abroad to escape creditors, blithely ignoring the fact that the missing man had left plenty of money in the bank.
Mrs. Stanger, in her role as chief witness, did a bang-up job of blackening the name of her absent husband. Like Stumm, she painted Urban as a hopeless spendthrift who only managed to keep in business thanks to loans from his dear friend, Franz Stumm. She also insisted that her husband had abandoned her. She stated that they had quarreled over his money-wasting ways, which ended with Stanger declaring, "I have often told you I would leave you, and now I will go." She burst into tears and went upstairs to bed. And that, she said defiantly, was the last she ever saw of Urban. Unfortunately, until someone found Mr. Stanger--alive or dead--her story could not be proved or disproved.
As for those fraudulent checks, she stated that she, not the defendant, had signed them. She was accustomed to signing documents for her husband, so she had thought there was no harm in it. She admitted having also forged letters that her husband had purportedly sent from Germany. She only did that, she claimed, to stave off his creditors.
After a three-day trial, the jury had little trouble convicting Stumm. When Stumm heard the verdict, he erupted into a fiery storm of abuse against everyone in the courtroom. He was innocent, he shouted. His lawyers had completely bungled his case. There was, he snarled, "no justice in vile England for a foreigner."
Judge Hawkins--who was known by the charming nickname of "'Anging 'Awkins"--responded to this tantrum by fixing a cold eye on the prisoner and slapping him with the maximum sentence: ten years hard labor.
"Thank you," Stumm sneered. "I am very much obliged to you." He wanted to speak more, but warders quickly hauled him out of the courtroom. He was still muttering vile imprecations all the way back to his cell. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Stanger was also convicted of forgery. She was given a year in prison. It was universally felt that justice had been very incompletely done.
Unsurprisingly, Stumm was such a violent and troublesome prisoner he forfeited any hope of parole, and served his entire sentence. When he was freed, Stumm was reunited with his wife and his lady friend (the two women had been rooming together since Mrs. Stanger's release from prison.) This sinister menage a trois returned to Germany, and disappeared from the pages of history.
So that was that. No trace of Urban Napoleon Stanger was ever found, or even any clue indicating what became of him. Crime historians are generally of the opinion that the baker was done away with--and, as you can imagine, they are not very coy about hinting who was responsible--but if such was the case, the question of what happened to his body will never be answered.
His neighbors, however, had few doubts about what became of Stanger's remains. They noted the fact that his bakery had a nice, large oven--so handy for various purposes--and they came to distressing conclusions about where the poor man wound up.
Suffice it to say that it was a long time before East Enders felt completely at ease about eating a meat pie.
[Note: Sherlock Holmes scholar Michael Harrison believed that the Stanger mystery was the inspiration for "A Study in Scarlet."]