One of the curious pleasures of undertaking historical research , especially research linked to unusual characters with local connections, is stumbling upon someone who seems to confound ordinary description! Such is the case with Heinrich Hensoldt, writes Mike Guilfoyle, vice-chair of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries.
Heinrich was born in 1856 in Wetzlar, Germany , the son of Moritz Hensoldt (1821-1903 ) who was a well known pioneer in the field of optics and microscopes.
Following an apprenticeship served with his father, Heinrich (sometimes anglicised to Henry) completed a university education and appears to have travelled to Ceylon (Sri Lanka ) during the 1870’s before becoming the English agent for his father’s optical company in London. He married a Prudence Henderson in 1884.
As a member of the Quekett Microscopical Society (founded in 1865) he exhibited slides of minerals and other hard substances, operating from business premises in nearby Nunhead, forming a business partnership with a John Ernest Ady.
In the mid-1880’s without much warning he moved to live in Cedar, Texas ( USA) The birth of a daughter, Ella was recorded as being born there.
When a German Immigrant found an unusual boulder on his farm, Heinrich recognised this as a meteor, acquired it, selling it on for profit and welcome scientific exposure.
Moving to New York , this time describing himself as Dr. Hensoldt , a designation he would retain, he gave talks to scientific audiences as well as publishing works on geology. It seems that although accomplished at presentations his educational qualifications were fabricated.
Indications soon began to emerge that not all was what it appeared with H
einrich, and suggestions that he might indeed be a ‘charlatan’ were confirmed in one official letter sent to the American Microscopical Society.
“We request you to give this information publicity in your Journal so as to warn your readers and the public from purchasing or believing in the assertions of this swindler.”!
In the early 1890’s he married an Augusta Chormann ( heir were no indications from records that he was divorced from Prudence).
He proceeded to deliver well attended and remunerated lectures in the US on Eastern Mysticism and Occult Science (purporting to have spent 11 years travelling in India and the East) in spite of well voiced concerns that Heinrich had never been to India.
In 1895, he married a third time in Colorado, unabashed by any bigamist scruples, and promptly disappeared with $5,000 (his abandoned spouse understandably divorced him for desertion).
In 1908, he disappeared with $35,000 after a fourth marriage to a wealthy Australian called Ada Wythes, a heartless deception captured at the time by the Chicago Tribune ,
‘The couple were married in Sydney, Australia on Jan 15 after a typical romance. The professor, who had travelled around the world several times and lived nine years in India, edited an occult magazine in Sydney.
Dr. Hensoldt told his bride he received $350 a month income from his father’s estate in Coburg, Germany. The professor seemed to be a little hazy about his family ties. Mrs. Hensoldt has magazine articles and personal papers showing the professor was once on the faculty of Columbia University, and that he had received decorations from the magistrates of Germany, Italy, Turkey, and France as tributes to his lectures and articles on various subjects’.
Other victims of deception alerted to Heinrich’s international notoriety came forward to describe fraudulent investments and the Chicago Police department charged him with ‘wife abandonment’.
So what became of the ‘wanted felon’ Heinrich Hensoldt after this time? It appears that he adopted the name of a Paul Bornsen, travelling between England and the US.
However his penchant for the confidence trick remained undimmed and in 1915 he self-published a 36-page pamphlet entitled Radium in the Light of Recent Discovery.
At that time people were very excited about the new discoveries of radioactivity, and its potential benefits.
He espoused this wonderful elixir of life, a discovery he called “Radio-Strontium”. But since he was practising medicine without a licence, this scam soon fell apart.
But by this time the Federal Bureau of Investigation, better known by the acronym, FBI ( founded in 1908) were onto his trail.
With war fever alive in the midst of the Great War (US neutrality coming under strain) the last reports of Hensoldt/Bornsen from FBI files date from 1917.
It appears that he may well have then adopted another identity before disappearing into obscurity, as no record of his death has yet been discovered.
One former business accomplice and victim of his swindling believed that his former partner “had a dual personality … if he is not a real Jekyll and Hyde then there never was one in the world.”
What motivated this errant son of a distinguished inventor to become a serial bigamist, fraudster and swindler?
Another informed contemporary opinion offers this timely insight: “Heinrich changed from being a strictly retiring, abstemious, modest man of science and letters … he became a wine-imbiber, a follower of women and erratic in many ways.
“But always there were periodic returns to his real and better nature when he became completely absorbed in his work, seemed to forget that he had ever deserted the calm road of science for the primrose path, and when he amazed and astounded all who came in contact with him by his erudition, his philosophy and his truly wonderful intellectual development.”
Where does Ladywell feature in this roller coaster picaresque tale of the strange case of Heinrich Hensoldt ?
In the 1907 Post Office London County Suburbs Directory is registered “Hensoldt, Heinrich, PhD, 112 Ladywell Road, Lewisham.
For a fuller account of the many lives of Heinrich Hensoldt, the reader might be interested in this source ( hich was invaluable in enabling this article to be written)http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/artoct13/bs-sg-HensoldtH.pdf