Welcome to the Murder Mile true-crime podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous (and often forgotten) murder cases, all set within one square mile of the West End.
Episode Four: The Mysterious Death of "Dutch Leah" is one of Soho's most mysterious murder cases, which was not only shocking and brutal, but more than 80 years on, the case remains unsolved with no known suspects. Or is there? In this episode, we re-examine the case.
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Episode 4 – “The Mysterious Death of Dutch Leah”
Intro: Thank you for downloading episode four of the Murder Mile true-crime podcast. Don’t forget, that each episode comes complete with an interactive murder map, available via my website murder mile tours.com / podcast. Before we begin, please note, this episode contains graphic descriptions of murder and very realistic sound effects, some of which you may find disturbing. Thank you. Enjoy the episode.
SCRIPT: Welcome to Murder Mile; a true-crime podcast and audio guided walk of London’s most notorious (and often forgotten) murder cases, all set within one square mile of the West End. Today’s episode is a guided walk of the murder of the West End prostitute ‘Dutch Leah’, and even though her brutal and violent death is often attributed to the infamous Soho Strangler, her actual killer has escaped justice for more than 80 years, but by re-examining the evidence, many aspects of which the Police overlooked, maybe we can discover “who killed Dutch Leah”? Murder Mile contains vivid descriptions which may not be suitable for those of a sensitive disposition, as well as photos, videos and maps which accompany this series, so that no matter where you’re listening to this podcast, you’ll feel like you’re actually there. My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide and this is Murder Mile. Episode 4: The Mysterious Death of Dutch Leah.
Today I’m standing on Old Compton Street, in Soho, W1, in the pumping heart of London’s West End, wedged between infamous tourist traps like Piccadilly Circus (to the south), Oxford Circus (to the west), Tottenham Court Road (to the north) and Cambridge Circus (to the east).
If you’re an avid listener to the Murder Mile true-crime podcast, and this description sounds slightly familiar, that’s because I’m standing just two-hundred and fifty feet from where (in episode #2) the brutally cruel gangster Anthony Benedetta Mella met a sticky-end in a Dean Street gutter.
At just eleven hundred feet long and thirty feet wide, Old Compton Street consists of an odd mix of four storey buildings; all roughly identical in height and shape, but they are as uneven and discoloured as a toothy grin in a smashed mouth.
Currently, Old Compton Street (like most of Soho) is desperately trying to scrub itself clean and erase its seedy image, after decades of decline, having been a home to the destitute, the desperate, the debauched, the drugged and the drunk. The Soho of yesteryear was synonymous with one thing – sex – with some of its seedier street awash with a swarm of sex-shops, peep-shows, nudie-booths, clip-joints, walk-ups and brothels, amidst the dizzying haze of flashing neon signs all proclaiming “live sex”, “nude girls” and (everyone favourite euphemism) “massage”. Soho was dirty, grimy, exciting and dangerous. And yet, even today, above the dull drone of street sweeper, if you listen carefully… you may be able to still hear the screams of “Dutch Leah”.
Now neater, cleaner and slathered with a fresh lick of paint; booted out are the hotdog vendors, ushered in are the vegan delicatessens; out go the off-licences, in come the wineries; and shutdown are the sex-shops, only to be replaced by high-class S&M boutiques for Soho’s more discerning sadist.
But even today, Soho is still a hotbed of prostitution, hence the murder of prostitutes will be an all-too familiar recurring theme in Murder Mile, as with roughly 300 murders happening in the UK every year, if you are a sex–worker you are 42 times more likely to be murdered, and yet it’s 64% less likely that your death will ever lead to a conviction. And the death of “Dutch Leah” is a prime example.
Prostitution is a dangerous occupation – and “Dutch Leah” knew that – as it all revolves sex, money and secrecy; as a lone female ushers a procession of drunken strangers into her bedroom, with the lights off, the doors locked, a series of loud noises (maybe a moan, maybe a yelp, maybe a scream) and all topped off by silence… as he dashes away into the night, his hat on, his collar up, looking furtive, with no names given, no numbers shared and no paper-trail to follow, just a clandestine affair in exchange for untraceable cash. It’s almost the perfect situation for a murder.
And yet, the life of the Soho prostitute “Dutch Leah” is even more mysterious than her death. You see, “Dutch Leah” wasn’t Dutch, and neither was her real name Leah.
She was born Constance May Hinds in 1914 at the East Ham Hospital in East London, one of the most deprived areas in that era. Her father was unknown, she had no known siblings and her mother – Kathleen Hinds - was a career criminal, a convicted thief, a raging alcoholic and a seasoned prostitute, who would later mysteriously change her name to Doreen Sempler. Constance had a tough upbringing; being poor, hungry and unloved, she was often cared for by friends and neighbours during her mother’s frequent periods of incarceration and intoxication, as they ran from place-to-place, with no sense of stability in her young impressionable life, just a series of squalid lodgings and a slew of male strangers, all until the money ran out, the debts piled up and – once again - they’d both vanish.
By the tender age of 14, Constance was alone and living on the streets, having ran away from her hovel of a home to escape the worst role-model a young girl could ever have, but by then, the damage had been done. By the age of 18, she’d shacked-up with a rag-tag bag of unsavoury characters and already had eight convictions for prostitution, all of which funded her rampant alcoholism. And by the age of 22, she’d been married twice, once to a waiter from Margate called Robert Thomas Smith, and once (scandalously for this era) to a “black entertainer” called Jim Rich, with whom she had given birth to a baby-girl, who she later gave up for adoption.
By 1936, the year of her death, aged 22 years old, Constance May Hinds had been a prostitute for almost a decade and like many London-born prostitutes she’d adopted a street-name that made her sound more “exotic”, she had become “Dutch Leah”. She was short, slim, petite, with dark bobbed hair and dark brown eyes, all set within a sweet-face which belied her horrifying upbringing. But “Dutch Leah” wasn’t her only non-de-plume, as in every shop, on every street, she was known by a variety of names to disguise her deeds; including three different spellings of her surname, as well as Leah Hind, Leah Smith, Connie Smith, Connie May Hinds and Constance Smith, having officially signed her marriage certificate to Robert Thomas Smith as “May Constance Hind”, and she was also affectionately known as “Stilts Leah” on account of her love of wearing very high heels.
And just like her mother before her, everywhere that “Leah” went, she hastily ran from shabby lodging to hideous hovel, leaving behind a trail of unpaid bills, overdue loans and angry debtors. She’d spent her whole life running… but soon, her running would stop.
By the end of April 1936, she’d moved into a dilapidated second-floor lodging at 66 Old Compton Street. Today, over 80 years on, although pristine-white, the four-storey building has hardly changed; except it now houses Rushes Post-Production, with a series of high-end edit-suites where “Dutch Leah” breathed her last. But back then, it was rundown, leaky and cheap; with a seamstress called Shaw’s (who repaired ripped clothing) on the first floor, a chemists called Fraser’s (who sold cures, tonics and condoms) on the ground floor, and the house was smack-bang in the centre of Soho’s clubs, pubs and red light district. Either the best or the worst place for a hooker with an alcohol problem.
This was the thought of Stanley, Leah’s new boyfriend of just four weeks, who was now sharing the cost of this rancid little flat, and within a few short days of moving in, he wanted them both to move out, but having already paid a month’s rent upfront, they couldn’t afford to.
Born in Aldershot in 1912, Stanley Gordon King was a small-framed, sweet-natured, caring but easily-duped 24 year old semi-professional magician who performed conjuring tricks for a living in the local flea-pits to a series of disinterested punters as an easy distraction between booze and boobs. Having met her in a bar, just a few weeks prior, their courtship was brief, loving and passionate, but as much as Stanley was smitten with the still-married Leah, or Constance, or May, or whatever her name was that day, their relationship was built on a lie – as Leah had told Stanley that she was a waitress.
Therefore, with Stanley out plying his trade from dusk till dawn, it must have seemed to him perfectly reasonable that Leah (as a waitress) would know a lot of men, whether waiters, chefs or customers. It must have seemed perfectly reasonable that Leah (as a waitress) working shorter hours than Stanley should have the only key to their second-floor flat. And - of course - it must have also seemed perfectly reasonable that if Stanley wanted to enter his own flat, that he had to stand outside in the street and whistle up to the two windows of their bedroom… and wait to be let in by Leah.
Everyone knew about “Dutch Leah”; whether barmen, bouncers, club-owners or landlords, everyone from Charing Cross Road to Shaftsbury Avenue, right through Cambridge Circus, everyone knew that when Stanley was out “performing magic”, Leah was “turning tricks” for 10 shillings a pop. Everyone knew… except Stanley. No-one knows where, when or how Stanley found out the truth, no-one knows what was said, but what is known is that – being so smitten and seeing only the best in her – Stanley asked Leah to go straight and quit the sex-trade forever. She promised she would. But she never did. Leah was living a life which was all about lying and running. And not long after that, Leah was dead.
On Friday 8th May 1936 at 3pm, Stanley left for work carrying his magician’s bag containing cards, hankies, dice, cups, a wand, a top-hat and a cornucopia of conjuring tricks. Not long afterwards, Leah headed east on Old Compton Street, down Moor Street and onto Cambridge Circus (outside of the Palace Theatre which was her regular patch for picking-up punters).
By 11:30pm, she had already had sex with six men, and at 10 shillings each (which is roughly £32 in today’s money) she’d earned the equivalent of £192, which was enough to cover this week’s rent, buy some food and maybe pay off a few bills. But by midnight, she was short on cash, having squandered it on gin, trinkets and gambling, and then set-off down the slowly dying bustle of Shaftsbury Avenue, the theatres and pubs having emptied, the neon lights switching off, and “Dutch Leah” went looking for another punter.
At a little after midnight, Emilio Piantino, a 26 year old hall porter at the London Casino (which is now the Prince Edward Theatre), witnessed Leah walking west along Old Compton Street towards Wardour Street with a man, who he described as being of “fair complexion, slim, clean shaven, with light brown hair, brushed straight back which was thinning on top, who wore a dark raincoat but no hat” (a fact which was unusual for that era).
Roughly thirty minutes later, Lily Joyce and Nellie Few (a close personal friend of Leah’s) saw her turn off Wardour Street, walk east along Old Compton Street and enter her flat at number 66, she was accompanied by a man, described as in his 30’s, five foot eight, foreign looking, with long dark hair and a slouching gait, wearing a dark overcoat and a dirty cap.
This is the last known sighting of “Dutch Leah” alive.
At a little after 03:30am on the morning of Saturday 9th May 1936, Stanley finished his four-hour shift as a conjuror at Billie’s Club on Little Denmark Street (now renamed Flitcroft Street) and walked down Charing Cross Road and onto Old Compton Street, barely a five minute walk. As was his routine, and not having his own key to the flat, Stanley stood in the street and whistled-up to second floor windows, hoping to get his girlfriend’s attention, but there was no reply. “Maybe she was out?” he thought. “Maybe she was sleep? Or maybe she was drunk?” Either way, Stanley would have to wait.
At 08:45am, Stanley tried again, but still there was no reply, except inside he could hear their six-week old puppy whimpering, its child-like cries emanating from inside their bedroom. Growing concerned, Stanley started knocking on the communal door, his loud hammering alerting the seamstress from Shaw’s on the first floor, who’d arrived two hours prior and promptly let him in. Stanley raced up the stairwell to their flat and tried the door, but it too was locked. The harder he knocked, the more the puppy’s cries grew pained, desperate and terrified… and yet still his girlfriend didn’t answer.
With brute force, Stanley tried to break down the wooden door, but as a man of slight stature, more used to magic tricks than manual labour, the door barely budged, so he dashed across the street to a nearby café where his friend James Adams (a builder by trade) was eating breakfast. Moments later, with a loud CRACK, and a BANG, the door broke wide open. Inside the flat was the petrified puppy… and so was Leah.
Suddenly, the room was gripped with an earie silence as Stanley stood there, staring at his girlfriend; too scared to scream, too numb to run and too terrified to turn away.
Leah was lying across their double-bed, partially dressed, with her stockings rolled down and her slip rucked-up around her midriff, almost as if she was getting ready for her next punter, but no sex had taken place. Instead, around her neck, a thin copper wire from an electric light cord was tied, having been used to brutally garrotte her, the force of the strangulation causing the length of her tongue to jut out of her mouth like it was trying to escape the purple swelling of her screaming face, as the whites of her eyes ruptured, appearing almost black, as if they’d burst.
Beside the bed was a rusty flat-iron, which - being made of cast-iron and weighing over two kilos was as heavy as it was deadly – was found, matted with dried blood, skin and hair, having been used to repeatedly and brutally batter her over the head, rendering her senseless and splattering her blood up the walls, door and floor, as in her arms, lay the terrified puppy.
Constance May Hinds alias “Dutch Leah” was twenty-two years old.
A short investigation was conducted by Chief Inspector Sharpe of Scotland Yard, alongside the Home Office’s chief pathologist (and the pioneer of forensic science) Sir Bernard Spilsbury, as with four Soho prostitutes having been murdered in just a few short months, panic had started to spread that there was a serial killer on the loose. Hundreds of witness statements were taken, three sets of fingerprints were discovered on the stone mantelpiece at 66 Old Compton Street (two being Stanley and Leah’s and a third was never identified) and although the numerous men who had sex with Leah that night were asked to come forward, none of them ever did. Therefore on the 9th June, just four weeks later, the Coroner Mr Ingleby Oddie at Westminster Coroner’s Court concluded that the death of Constance May Hinds was inconclusive. And the verdict? “Wilful murder by person’s unknown”.
She was buried on Thursday 21st May 1936 under her married name Constance May Smith. The day after her funeral, her mother Kathleen Hinds (now renamed Doreen Sempler) who was living just a few streets away in Percy Street, was found slumped in her kitchen, next to an open unlit oven, having tried to kill herself, being wracked with grief at the death of her daughter.
So who are the suspects?
Stanley King, her boyfriend and the person who discovered her body, was initially the Police’s prime suspect, but was ruled out owing to a cast-iron alibi. One; Stanley did not have access to the flat as he didn’t have his own key. Two; Stanley was confirmed by three witnesses (Emilio Piantino, Nellie Few and Lily Joyce) as not being either of the men who entered the flat with Leah shortly before her death. And three; he was working at Billie’s Club on Little Denmark Street between 11:15pm and 03:30am, and the pathologist recorded Leah’s death as having occurred at 12:55am or a little after that.
The Police also interviewed her previous boyfriends, lovers and husbands, all of whom had alibis. Robert Thomas Smith, the Margate waiter and her estranged husband had been out that night with friends in Kingston-upon-Thames (12.5 miles away), and as much as the tabloid journalists drooled over the detail that the Police were “seeking a coloured man in connection with the murder”; Jim Rich, Leah’s former boyfriend, father of her baby girl and a “black entertainer” at the notorious Shim Sham Club on Wardour Street, was proven not to be her murderer, as at the time of her death, he was in prison.
And as much as the tabloid press were less eager to actually report the facts, and were more fixated on attributing the violent death of another dead hooker to the infamous ‘Soho Strangler’, a maniac who had (allegedly) murdered three prostitutes over the previous nine months, which is a ridiculous theory I shall happily debunk in a later episode? The investigation ground to a halt.
So what about Leah’s last two customers? The man who Emilio Piantino saw with Leah on Old Compton Street just after midnight, described as “fair complexion, slim, clean shaven, with light brown hair, brushed straight back which was thinning on top, who wore a dark raincoat but no hat”, and the man who Lily Joyce & Nellie Few saw at roughly 00:30am and described as “in his 30’s, five foot eight, foreign looking, with long dark hair and a slouching gait, wearing a dark overcoat and a dirty cap”? Sadly, neither of those two men were ever traced.
And setting aside the suspects for a second, what was the motive? Why was “Dutch Leah” killed?
There are three possibilities.
#1 Rape? Not possible, as the murderer launched his brutal attack on Leah as she was sitting on the bed, rolling down her stockings, and the pathologist confirmed that sex had not taken place.
#2 Robbery? Possible, as Police found only two pence in her handbag, but given that she was “short on cash” before her final customer, why did her killer not steal anything else from the flat? And if this was a robbery, why did he strangle her, having bashed her over the head with a flat-iron?
#3 Murder? Also possible, as owing to the way the electric flex had been tied (crossed at the back of her neck and brought forward), her murderer clearly wanted to look into her eyes as the life drained from her body. But who’d want to murder her? Maybe someone who was angry? Maybe someone who was jealous? Maybe someone who was upset?
Let’s rethink the evidence.
#1 - If the murder was pre-meditated, why didn’t her killer bring a weapon with him, rather than using the flat-iron and the electrical flex from Leah’s bedside lamp, all of which were in the flat?
#2 - If the murder was a spontaneous crime of passion, why (having brutally bashed her head in) did he then take the time to stage a robbery, and lock both doors behind him, taking the only key?
#3 - If the murderer didn’t take the key, and both doors were locked from the inside, how did he get out of the second floor flat, given that there was no drainpipe nor ladder to climb down?
#4 - Home Office Pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury put Leah’s time of death as being “12:55am or shortly after, but no later than 3am”. But can any of this evidence be trusted? Given that Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the notoriously arrogant father of forensic science, whose own evidence (it is alleged) led to the infamous Dr Crippen being tried, convicted and executed for a crime (that modern pathologists agree) he did not commit?
So who killed “Dutch Leah?”
The Police’s original chief suspect was her boyfriend, Stanley Gordon King. His alibi was that he was performing magic tricks at Billie’s Club on Little Denmark Street between 11:15pm and 3:30am, which is just a five minute walk or a two minute run from 66 Old Compton Street, and yet how can anyone vouch for the whereabouts of one person, in busy nightclub, on a Friday night, for the full four hours that he was supposedly there?
He also claimed that he didn’t have a key. But why would a man who is (rightly) suspicious that his new girlfriend is still a prostitute - given that she’s a ten year veteran of the sex trade, who lives smack-bang in the middle of Soho’s notorious red-light district – why would he allow there to be only one key to the flat that they both shared?
Having discovered she’d broken her promise to quit the sex=trade forever, was he angry, was he jealous, was he upset that his girlfriend was sleeping with other men, in his home, in his bed and on his sheets, the sickening smell of a strange man’s fluid staining on her lips?
And having whistled up to Leah’s window several times between 03:30am and 04:40am to be let in (an unusual act in its own right), and then trying again at 08:45am? What did Stanley do during those five fours that he was alone? Why are there only three sets of fingerprints at the scene; Leah’s, Stanley’s and one other? And finally why, if Stanley was at work, did the Police remove from the murder scene and put into evidence something they would describe as a “conjuror’s apparatus”? Was this “apparatus” always in the flat, or (having used it in a show, and no-longer needing it) did Stanley return home with it earlier that night?
So who murdered “Dutch Leah”?
Was it Stanley King, her jealous boyfriend? Was her cruel and violent murder just a conjuror’s “trick” to make her disappear, and was his alibi simply a magician’s “slight-of-hand”? Unfortunately, that is something we shall never know, as now, over eighty years on, the murder of “Dutch Leah” remains unsolved.
A special thanks to Lottie for her acting skills, and even though she's an old dog, she played the part of a six-week old puppy to perfection.. when she wasn't licking her bits and eating poo. :-)
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Credits: The Murder Mile true-crime podcast was researched, written and recorded by Michael J Buchanan-Dunne, with the sounds recorded on location (where possible). The music was written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name.
Next episode: The Bombing of the Admiral Duncan (due on Thursday 9th November 2017).
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster 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 curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London” and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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