This Sunday 8th May 2016, Murder Mile Walks marks the 80th anniversary of the brutal murder of the Soho prostitute Constance May Hinds alias “Dutch Leah” in her second floor lodgings at 66 Old Compton Street. Her death was attributed to Soho’s very own “Jack the Ripper”, a man who was never identified or caught, and dubbed by the press as “The Soho Strangler”. And so, 80 years on…
…the murder of “Dutch Leah” remains unsolved.
So who was “Dutch Leah”, why was she killed, why was her murder attributed to “The Soho Strangler” and – more importantly – who killed her? Murder Mile Walks investigates.
Born Constance May Hinds in 1912 to mother Kathleen Hinds (a career criminal, convicted thief, alcoholic and prostitute) and an unknown father, Constance had a tough upbringing, which didn’t get any easier the older she got. By the tender age of 18 years old, she’d been married twice, dated a slew of unsavoury characters, was forced to give her own daughter up for adoption, and had eight convictions for prostitution, which funded her rampant alcoholism.
Nicknamed “Dutch Leah”, Constance Hinds was born and raised in London, and had no connection to Holland at all, except having – like most London-born prostitutes – adopted a street-name that made her sound more “exotic” than she really was. By 1936, the year of her death, “Dutch Leah” was known by a range of non-de-plumes including Leah Hinds, Connie Smith, Connie May Hinds, Constance Smith, and was affectionately known as “Stilts Leah” on account of her love of wearing very high heels. But with arrears spiralling, she frequently moved from shabby lodging to hideous hovel, leaving a trail of angry debtors behind her.
On the evening of the 8th May 1936, “Dutch Leah” – having partied a little too hard and drank a little too much in a local Soho gin palace– was last seen entering her lodgings at 66 Old Compton Street with a “gentleman friend”. The next morning, her diminutive husband - Stanley King – knocked on the door, but got no reply. Not having a key, and fearing the worst, he procured the help of a passing labourer called Addams, who broke down the door.
Stanley found his wife lying on their matrimonial bed. Her dress was rucked up around her midriff, her genitals exposed, as if she was awaiting a customer - but no sex had taken place - instead she’d been violently strangled with a thin copper wire, and her head had been brutally bashed in with a rusty flat iron, splitting her skull wide open.
So, who was this “gentleman friend” she was last seen with? Was he “The Soho Strangler?” Unfortunately, no-one knows, as the man dubbed “The Soho Strangler” was never caught. What we do know is that her “gentleman friend” was “tall, slim, clean shaven, foreign, had long hair and a slouching gait, and he wore a dark raincoat… but not a hat (unusual for the period)”. Three sets of finger prints were found in the room by Police; Dutch Leah’s. Stanley King’s… and one other - never identified.
And that is all the evidence we have. Unfortunately, in 1936, forensic science was still in its formative years, with Home Office Pathologist Sir Bernard Spilbury’s “murder kit” (a suitcase for evidence gathering) only introduced a few years earlier. Which is why no corroborative evidence exists on many of London’s earlier and most infamous murder cases – especially “Jack the Ripper” - as during the birth of the Police Force, “beat officers” were effectively little more than untrained “moral guardians”, who – upon discovering a murder – would often reposition the body, remove the murder weapon, and would have the blood-soaked street washed down for fear of offending the public’s moral decency.
So, was “Dutch Leah” murdered by “The Soho Strangler”?
No. Of course she wasn’t. “The Soho Strangler” is just a name; a convenient yet slightly sensational character, created by eager-journalists, during the early days of tabloid, to sell newspapers. Just as they had done fifty years earlier in the “Jack the Ripper” case. With literacy amongst the British working class starting to blossom, newspapers had stopped being the preserve of the educated elite, and tabloid news born, with an eye towards sensational stories to lure the “less educated” readers in.
So, there wasn’t a “Soho Strangler”? It’s possible, but unlikely. As with the Jack the Ripper case, there are as many similarities as there are dissimilarities between each of the victims, which can easily skew your perception of “who killed who”, either one way or another. So, let’s look at what the Press purported to be “facts”:
Fact #1: “All four victims of the Soho Strangler were prostitutes”? Incorrect. Although Paulette “French Marie” Estelle, Josephine “French Fifi” Martin and Constance “Dutch Leah” Hinds all worked in the sex trade, the third victim – Marie Jeanette Cotton – had no prior convictions for soliciting, no pimp and (unlike the others) no known street name.
Fact #2: “All four of the victims of the Soho Strangler were murdered in Soho?” No. The first victim of the man dubbed "The Soho Strangler" by the Press was actually murdered in Bath Row… which was in Euston, one and a half miles away.
Fact #3: “All four Soho Strangler victims were strangled?” – Yes, all were strangled, but each in a different way, which suggests they weren’t strangled by the same perpetrator.
Three facts, purported by the Press, all with big gaping holes.
Still that didn’t stop unscrupulous tabloids like The Mirror proclaiming “Maniac’s Three Soho Victims! Girl’s Friends Fear to Talk”, even though they seemed to find enough “friends” willing to talk in the article itself, even though the Police confirmed that they could find “no clear link between either of the women”.
The Press had also wrongly attributed the “Soho Strangler” murders to Soho’s very own Kings of Sleaze and the pimps of the West End’s red-light district (1920’s to the mid 1930’s) Roger Vernon and his partner "Red Max" Kassel (photo on right). Unfortunately, their proof is easily dispelled.
Fact #4: Although Roger Vernon and “Red Max” were Soho pimps – just like most illicit relationships between pimps and prostitutes, very little connection is provable or ever written down.
Fact #5: Yes, “Red Max” had a fondness for strangling, hence he was the Police’s number one suspect in the strangulation of “French Fifi” who lived & died in his flat, but…
Fact #6: …although “Red Max” was a Soho pimp, and the prime suspect in the murder of the Soho Strangler’s second victim, before murders #3 (Marie Jeanette Cotton) and #4 “Dutch Leah”, Red Max Kassel was already dead and Roger Vernon was in prison.
So, if we remove this whole myth about “The Soho Strangler” and what facts are we left with?
And if she was murdered by a punter – given that prostitution is a notoriously dangerous profession – why was she not raped, and not robbed? Was “Dutch Leah’s” murder the work of someone with an intolerable hatred for prostitutes, a vendetta against “Dutch Leah” herself, or simply - given the severity of her murder – had a severe mental illness, such as Neurosyphilis (a common illness of that era, the symptoms of which include headaches, mood swings, hallucinations and violent rages)?
Unfortunately, we shall never know.
And yet, one piece of the puzzle still perplexes me? Stanley King, “Dutch Leah’s” husband had to break down the door of their second floor flat on 66 Old Compton Street (see photo on left), as he “didn’t have a key”? But with the “Dutch Leah’s” key still in her handbag, the door must have been locked from the inside? So, if that’s true, how did her killer escape? Her flat’s two stories up, with nothing to grip onto?
Had the British tabloid press chosen to accurately investigate the murders of “French Marie”, “French Fifi”, Marie Jeanette Cotton and “Dutch Leah”, instead of concocting a sensational if slightly ludicrous story such as “The Soho Strangler”, then maybe these murders would be solved today? Instead they sold an eager public a lie, to sell newspapers, just as they’d done fifty years earlier in the Jack the Ripper case. And so, 80 years on…
…the murder of “Dutch Leah” remains unsolved.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 18 murderers, 3 serial killers, across 21 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime historian, writer and tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious and unusual things to do in London".