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Welcome to the Murder Mile true-crime podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, set within one square mile of the West End.
Episode Nine: Who Killed Ginger Rae? is the concluding part of the investigation into the brutal murder of Rachel Annie Fennick alias "Ginger Rae", a sweet-natured Soho prostitute with no enemies, no debts and no drug-habit, and yet someone wanted her dead.
CLICK HERE to download the Murder Mile podcast via iTunes and to receive the latest episodes, click "subscribe". You can listen to it now by clicking the green PLAY button on the embedded media player below. All transcribed versions are available in "Podcast Transcripts" (right).
As the details of the murder location was already covered in the previous blog, I've decided to include below a selection of photos which may aide your enjoyment of this episode:
And this is a photo of the Messina Brothers; Alfredo, Attilio, Carmelo, Eugenio and Salvatore; the cruel, ruthless and powerful pimps who ran a lucrative prostitution ring and protection racket in London's West End from the mid 1930's until the late 1940's. Although we only touched on who the Messina's were in this episode, I'm hoping to do a full episode about them.
Sadly, after many fruitless hours / days of searching I have been unable to track down a photo of Geoffrey Alexander Haig, but when I find one, I will add it here.
Episode 9 – Who killed Ginger Rae?
INTRO: Thank you for downloading episode nine of the Murder Mile true-crime podcast. A special thank you goes out to everyone who took part in our “listen live” event of episode eight last Sunday, and even if it didn’t answer all of your questions, hopefully it gave you a great opportunity to meet likeminded people and even chat to myself. Join us this Sunday at 9pm GMT by following the hashtag #MMPodLive on Twitter. As this is part two of The Brutal Death of Ginger Rae, if you’re a first time listener, I’d advise listening to episode eight first. For everyone else, enjoy the episode.
SCRIPT: Welcome to Murder Mile; a true-crime podcast and audio guided walk featuring many of London’s untold, unsolved and long-forgotten murders, all set within one square mile of the West End.
In today’s episode, we shall re-examine the myths, motives, suspects and theories surrounding to the horrific murder of “Ginger Rae”, a kind-faced and sweet-hearted Soho prostitute, whose death almost 70 years on, remains a mystery.
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 9: Who killed Ginger Rae?
Today, I’m not in Soho (ooh), instead I’m at the National Archives in Kew, one of Britain’s largest repositories of public records, which contains everything from maps, wills and military plans, to the Doomsday Book and even declassified government secrets. It’s an impressively ugly six-storey mishmash of concrete, steel and glass; surrounded by two pools, a fountain and with a long-metal walkway leading from its wrought iron gates to a huge glass atrium, making it look like a cross between a futuristic prison and an extravagantly posh swan sanctuary.
Security here is tight; upon entry your bag is checked by an unflinching guard, you’re ushered to a transparent locker where your personal effects are decanted into a transparent bag, your pre-approved ID is scanned, a second surly guard then re-checks your see-through sack; deprives you of any liquids, snacks, hat or jacket, before your ID is checked again, you’re ushered to a numbered box where your pre-ordered files await, and you then sit in a pre-determined seat, in stony silence, as the library guards patrol; watching, waiting and ready to pounce on any dirty-Bertie who dares to dog-ear any page. But it’s worth it, as for those who love true-crime, this… is the murder nirvana.
In front of me sits the original police file pertaining to the murder investigation of Rachel Annie Fennick alias “Ginger Rae”; it’s a tatty, brown, loose-leafed folder which is easily six inches deep, held together by a thin green cord and is chock-full of witness statements, autopsy reports, lab results and internal police memos, some of which are typed or neatly written but most are scribbled in an illegible scrawl.
And yet, inside this file lies a few new clues, which may help us unravel the mystery of “who killed Ginger Rae?” (INTERSTITIAL)
So, let’s re-examine the basic facts.
On Saturday 25th of September 1948, in her second floor flat at 46 Broadwick Street, 41 year old Rachel Annie Fennick alias “Ginger Rae”, a veteran sex-worker with 84 convictions was brutally stabbed to death. In a short but violent attack, Rae sustained six deep stab wounds to her torso, defensive lacerations to her left hand (made using a 7 inch “stiletto” blade) and a strangulation bruise across her windpipe. She was discovered by “Ted” (one of her informal boyfriends); she was slumped on the floor, at the base of her bed, semi-clad and partially covered in an eiderdown; whether she’d been posed is uncertain, whether this was a robbery is debatable, no sexual violence had taken place and her time of death was recorded between 11pm and 3am. Unusually, she’d failed to meet two male friends (Dutton & Steed) at 10pm in a local pub, and although we can account for her whereabouts until just after 11pm, the last known sighting of Rae alive was between 11:15 and 11:25pm, by three fellow prostitutes, who saw Rae talking with a “Maltese man”, and their description of him is truly remarkable. And yet, no-one saw her killer, no-one heard her die and the knife has never been found.
But what’s more perplexing is not “who killed Ginger Rae”, but “why kill Ginger Rae”? Rae was a sweet-natured woman with a big heart and a beaming smile, she was a widower with close family ties, three devoted men-friends and no enemies. And although she’d been a prostitute for twenty-three years, she actually embraced the lifestyle it gave her, and unlike many women in her situation, she had no drug issues, no drink problem and no debts. Why she was killed is a mystery.
So based on the evidence, what can we deduce about the attack? Well, oddly it’s the details that the Police report doesn’t mention that gives us more of an insight into Rae’s last moments.
With no reference to any furniture being disturbed, except the blood stained eiderdown which was used to partially obscure her body, the attack must have been located on or around her bed.
With no reference to bloodstains on the mattress, she must have been attacked and died on the floor.
With no reference to any injuries to her back, she must have been facing her attacker when he struck.
As no knife was found, the killer must have taken it with him. With no key found in her purse, and both doors locked, the killer must have locked-up and taken the key too. And with Rae being a seasoned sex-worker who knew how to handle herself, she must have been caught off-guard.
As no sex had taken place, and she was semi-clad, wearing just her stockings, a slip and a brassiere, her killer must have struck when Rae was undressing and at her most vulnerable.
As the attack was short but violent, and yet nobody heard a thing, her killer’s initial attack must have been to silence her, by forcing his thumb across her windpipe, stopping her breathing and screaming, as if she’d been stabbed first, surely she would have screamed?
And with no blood on the mattress, no injuries to her back and no bruises to the back of her neck? Rae must have been pinned to the floor as she was strangled, with her attacker trapping her legs by using his full bodyweight, before he stabbed her six times.
And yet, the murder of Ginger Rae doesn’t seem like a spontaneous action, it seems cold, calculated and cautious. He clearly knew when, where and how to attack, choosing to strike not on a street, but inside her flat, in private and behind a locked door. So was she specifically targeted? That is unknown. Was he a punter? That is unknown. Did she know her attacker? That is unknown.
Any police investigation into the murder of a prostitute is hampered by the very nature of their work; as sex work is done in secret, by two strangers, out of sight and in all exchange for untraceable cash. On average, in the United Kingdom, out of 64 million inhabitants, just under three hundred people are murdered each year, a reassuringly low figure. But if you are involved in the sex-trade, it is 42 times more likely that you will be killed, and 64% less likely that your murder will ever lead to a conviction.
And although by 14th December 1948, barely two months later, the murder investigation was closed and labelled “unsolved”, with the official line being that Rae was “murdered by persons unknown”, the saving grace of this case is that – with Rae being so beloved - more than twenty sex-workers in and around Brewer Street witnessed a wealth of possible suspects, including “The Maltese Man”.
At roughly 11:20pm, Thomasina Ingram, Alice Nolan and Rebecca Howland witnessed Rae politely chatting with a man in his mid-30’s; he was six foot tall, well built, with a dark complexion and dark brushed back hair, clean shaven, with a roman nose, thick lips and had uneven and unclean teeth. He was wearing a well-cut dark brown suit, a white shirt, tan shoes and was carrying a light tan raincoat. And based on the way he kept looking at Rebecca Howland’s mouth, she guessed he was possibly lip-reading, and that his accent was either “Spanish, Greek… or Maltese”. And yet, as excellent as this description is, this man was never identified and never questioned…
…but who is he? Was he one of Rae’s gentleman callers, who all (supposedly) had alibis?
“Ted”, born Edwin George Peggs, a British-born, 41 year old, 5 foot 10 inches tall, well-built man was sighted in Hoxton (5 miles away) on the night of the murder, and having discovered her body at 1pm the next day, prior to his pre-arranged chicken dinner with Rae, his grief and shock was obvious. So no, Ted’s alibi holds up and his description doesn’t match.
Even Antonios Ioannou, the 28 year old chef who’d recently split-up with Rae, owned “stiletto” style knives, had a vague alibi and was Greek (the other nationality Rebecca Howland said the Maltese Man may have been), co-operated fully with the Police, having met Rae just two days prior on “good terms”, and his chef knives and clothing were examined by the Police laboratory and no blood was found.
In fact, including Steed & Dutton, none of Rae’s men-friends had any reason to kill her, none were seen with her, and if they were, the many prostitutes who were in Rae’s social circle – and knew Ted, Ioannou, Steed & Dutton – would have mentioned it in their witness statements, which they did not.
But what if Rae had another man? A new man to lavish her affections on? Hidden in a brown envelope inside the murder file was a news article from the Today newspaper, dated 28th April 1962, and written by Betty Sinclair, a close friend of Rae’s who witnessed her bloody body. Betty Sinclair wrote: “the bedroom was like a battleground, chairs and a table were overturned in her struggle to stay alive. The other room was in complete contrast; the table was laid, the cloth spotless and not a speck of dust to be seen… two places had been laid; chicken, wine and candles were on the table… she had taken a lot of trouble to please someone, and had been repaid with murder”.
So who was this man? Was he the reason Rae failed to turn up to her 10pm date at the Sun & Thirteen Cantons pub with Steed & Dutton? And why had Rae prepared the chicken she’d bought for her regular Sunday lunch date with Ted? Was he the Maltese Man? Or is this… just bullshit?
There’s one vital element that’s missing in Rae’s casefile, which any investigation into the murder of a sex-worker should contain, as “if Ginger Rae was a prostitute, then who was her pimp?” As it’s rare to find an independent prostitute, who’s worked for so long, in the same area, who hasn’t been coerced, conned, strong-armed and even threatened into “needing protection”, with many prostitutes being beaten, bloodied and even killed by their own pimps, and even rival pimps, for stepping out of line.
Obviously, no written record exists of who Rae’s pimp was, but the most prominent pimps in Soho, from the mid 1930’s to the late 1940’s were the Messina Brothers. Born to a Scilian father and a Maltese mother, Salvatore, Carmelo, Alfredo, Eugenio and Attilio Messina were five brothers born and raised in Alexandria (Egypt) and Valetta (Malta), who ran a chain of brothels in both countries, before all five brothers decided to expand their illegal operations in England, as of July 1933.
Having only semi-legally entered the UK, and being self-financed, tax-dodging and independently wealthy, the Messina’s began buying-up West End businesses (in Mayfair, Holborn and Soho), setting up a protection and prostitution rackets, all under the noses of the Metropolitan Police, having bribed key members, which gave them free-reign of the city. So powerful were the Messina’s that Attilio Messina was arrogantly quoted in the press, as saying: "We Messina’s are more powerful than the British Government… we do as we like".
By the late 1940’s, during the height of their power and the year that Rae was murdered, the Messina brothers were operating at least thirty brothels in the West End, with hundreds of prostitutes under their “protection”; some having been trafficked from overseas and others being local girls, lured in by the promise of a clothes, money and even marriage to a wealthy Mediterranean businessman, before being bullied into prostitution, and all under the threat of “being carved-up”.
So, could Attillo Messina (or either of the Messina Brothers) be the Maltese Man?
Well, he certainly fits the description being 38 years old, five foot ten, well-built, with a Mediterranean complexion, a roman nose, clean shaven, with a taste for expensive suits and they were all of Maltese descent. But whether any of the Messina’s had bad teeth, or were deaf? That we shall never know.
And yet, if any of the Messina Brothers were this infamous Maltese Man? Surely every prostitute in Soho could easily recognise such a prominent pimp, who’d ruled Soho since the mid 1930’s? Or maybe, they were too terrified to go to the Police, to testify against him, or even mention his name? But then again, by the late 1940’s, the Messina’s weren’t the only Maltese gangsters in Soho.
Having muscled in on the Messina’s territory, Carmelo Vassalo and his crimial cohorts; Paul Borg, Anthony Mangion, Michael Sultana and Romeo Saliba were arrested having tailed Eugenio Messina’s Rolls Royce to his Kensington home, equipped with a hammer, a cosh and a knuckle-duster. During the trial, three prostitutes (Janine Gilson, Martha Watts and Blanche Costaki) all testified against Vassalo’s gang, exposing their prostitution and protection racket, which led to Vassalo’s gang being found guilty on 23rd April 1947 and sentenced to short custodial sentences. And yet, when Vassalo’s laywer cross-examined them, fearing they had been paid to fabricate their testimony, all three women, who were experienced Soho sex-workers, denied having ever heard of the Messina Brothers.
So, was Carmelo Vassalo the Maltese Man? That is unknown. Was the murder of Ginger Rae caused by a rift between Vassalo’s gang and the Messina’s? That is unknown. Was Carmelo Vassalo the new gentleman caller who Ginger Rae was meeting that night, over a delightful chicken dinner having ditched her date with Steed & Dutton? No. That I can safely say as a fact, as Betty Sinclair’s article in the Today newspaper was bullshit.
And here’s why:
#1 – Sinclair states “the bedroom was like a battleground, chairs and a table were overturned in her struggle to stay alive”. None of which was corroborated by Ted who found her body, her neighbours who lived upstairs, or even by the police report itself.
#2 – Sinclair states “…two places had been laid; chicken, wine and candles were on the table”. And yet, Ted clearly stated he saw the uncooked chicken and the unwashed salad in the kitchen basin.
And #3 – Sinclair claims to have witnessed the murder scene of her “good friend”, and yet, not once in any witness statement is Betty Sinclair ever mentioned, except in this sordid tabloid news article, published on 28th April 1962, 14 years after the death of Ginger Rae.
Sadly, like most murder cases, the more infamous they become, the more they are peppered with false leads and outright lies, and this murder is no exception. For example: On 8th November 1950, Catherine Martin stated to the Police “a china-man named J T Sang Foon took Jonny Perera to a prostitute on Broadwick Street about the same time as Ginger Rae was murdered… I want you to know what a depraved man Perera is and he might have done it”… only to top-off her statement with the line “he is a black man”. On 8th July 1949, William Connors, an inmate at Broadmoor Asylum, stated he’d received a letter claiming his brother had killed Rae in 1942, a full six years before she was even murdered. And again, in August 1962, having read Betty Sinclair’s bullshit article, George Hobson of Birmingham (118 miles away) claimed that in East London, one week before the murder, his friend loaned a knife (which doesn’t match the “stiletto” blade) to a short scrawny youth who doesn’t match any description of any man that Rae was seen with that night. This particular piece of witness testimony takes up almost a fifth of Rae’s casefile, as well as ten additional years of police work.
What’s undeniable is that during this era, with crime endemic and rival gangs vying for control, violent attacks and even the murder of West End prostitutes (supposedly by their pimps) had become a regular occurrence; including Margaret Cook on 10th November 1946 just one street away in Carnaby Street; Doris Violet Green alias “Black Rita” on 8th September 1947, two streets away in Rupert Street and Helen Freedman alias “Russian Dora” on 5th September 1948 in an uncannily similar attack to “Ginger Rae”, who was murdered just three weeks later. And yet, all of these cases remain unsolved.
Given how well-loved “Ginger Rae” was, both the Police and those who knew her, felt her murder was less likely to be a personal attack, and more likely to be at the hands of a maniac. And even though she was a tough cookie who had scratched previous attackers in the face with her keys, marking them with easily identifiable scars, a madman clearly got the better of her. But who? Who was this maniac? Well, let me wrap-up this case by telling you two very different stories.
On the 24th July 1948, eight weeks before Rae’s murder, Soho prostitute Hermione Hindin met a man on Brewer Street and took him back to her flat at 7 Kingly Street (just two streets from Rae’s flat) for the purposes of sex; he mid-30’s, five foot 10, well built, dark brown hair, wearing a dark suit and a raincoat, he was clean shaven and had uneven and unclean teeth. As she stood by her bed and started to undress, her attacker grabbed her by the throat, and pulled from his jacket a long bladed knife. Having wrestled herself free, she screamed for the Police, the man’s mood changed and he fled supposedly shouting “I have no time for you bloody people, I’m going to do all prostitutes in”. Oddly, on the same night that Rae was killed, in a street just off Brewer Street, this same man also tried to strangle Thomasina Ingram. And although his description was circulated, he was never caught.
Then… on Sunday 26th September 1948 at 1:30am, during the critical four hour window when Ginger Rae died, 39 year old Geoffrey Alexander Haig was found staggering in Piccadilly Circus (barely a three minute walk from Rae’s flat) in a drunk, angry and agitated state, his bloodied face scarred with four cuts. Haig then took a cab back to his Kilburn flat with a local prostitute named Anne Lancaster, and in her words he proceeded to maul her. The next day, when questioned by Detective Sergeant Bilyard (the first officer on the scene at Rae’s murder), Haig claimed he had no memory of the previous night, no idea how he got there and no idea what had happened, how he got the scratches on his face, how he ended up in bed with a prostitute, or how he’d got “someone else’s” blood on his blue woollen suit, and then blamed the entire incident on having run a 4 ½ mile race that day and having not eaten. All of which could be a coincidence?
Geoffrey Alexander Haig was a civil servant who was knighted by the Queen in the 1946 Honours List and was made an OBE. On the bottom of many of the witness statements given by the “common prostitutes” (as they were titled) who had provided such an excellent description of the men who Rae was with in her final few hours, the Police had written that they were “liars” and “unreliable”. And yet, on Haig’s testimony, Detective Sergeant Bilyard wrote “Mr Haig is a man of substance and excellent character”, before Haig was released without charge.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for listening to Murder Mile. But don’t worry, this is not the end of Ginger Rae’s story, as over the coming weeks we shall be investigating some of the other murders mentioned in this story, which I hope will shine new light on this tragic case. Don’t forget to join us for Murder Mile live this Sunday @ 9pm GMT, by using the hashtag #MMPodLive. And, if you’re in London, pop along to Murder Mile Walks, and these murder locations for yourself.
Murder Mile was researched, written & performed by myself, with the main musical themes written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name.
Next week’s episode is Alfredo Zomparelli and the Golden Goose.
Thank you and sleep well.
DOWNLOAD this episode Murder Mile Episode #9 - Who Killed Ginger Rae?
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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 main musical themes was written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name.
Next episode: Alfredo Zomparelli and the Golden Goose (due Thursday 14th December 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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