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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 Thirty-Nine: On Monday 8th October 1963, George Thomas Pickering; a hard-working husband and doting father-of three, who was the epitome of a Jekyll & Hyde character and whose mania led him to brutally slay a Soho sex-worker called Rosa O’Neill. And yet, why he killed her remains the real mystery.
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Ep39 - George Thomas Pickering – The Silent Killer
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.
Today’s episode is about George Thomas Pickering; a hard-working husband and doting father-of three, who was the epitome of a Jekyll & Hyde character and whose mania led him to brutally slay a Soho sex-worker called Rosa O’Neill. And yet, why he killed her remains the real mystery.
Murder Mile contains upsetting details which may cause the easily startled to spew, as well as realistic sounds, so that no matter where you listen 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 39: George Thomas Pickering – The Silent Killer.
Today I’m standing on Brewer Street in Soho, W1; one road north of the White Horse pub where Larry Winters gunned down Paddy O’Keefe, one road west of the bombing of the Admiral Duncan and two roads north of the unsolved killing of Police informer Black Rita – coming soon to Murder Mile.
Originally called Welles Street, although this single-lane side-street (stretching from Regent Street to Wardour Street) is barely 1200 feet long, as home to the now-defunct and demolished Aryes and Davis breweries, in the late 1900’s, Welles Street was renamed Brewer Street. But for at least the last century, being crammed full of seedy sex-shops and sweaty strip joints, all occupied by spunky-handed willy-fiddlers in dirty flashing mack’s, surely it’s time to rename this mucky Soho backstreet with a more appropriate moniker, like Pervert’s Parade, Wanker’s Way, Spooge Street or Jizzy Junction?
Initially called Doc’ Johnson’s Hollywood Love Shop & Cinema, today 12 Brewer Street is called Soho’s Original Book Shop. And as a deeply dull three storey brown brick building, instantly your eyes are drawn to its dark green wooden façade on the ground-floor and its garish neon signs which flash forth with words like “sex-shop” and “triple X”. Featuring a wealth of arty erotica for the more discerning pervert, downstairs is a veritable pornucopia of mucky mags, dirty DVDs, pep pills for your percy ponker, va-va-voom juice for your vajayjay and chocolate mousse for your rusty bullet-hole, as well as all manner of strange shit like spikes, crazy crap with clamps, and - if you’ve got £150 to spare - even a life-sized and very realistic rubber bum-hole… apparently.
And yet, as much as this building is synonymous with sex, it’s also the home of death. As it was here, on Monday 7th October 1963, in the first floor flat of 12 Brewer Street, that Rosa O’Neill was savagely slaughtered by a silent killer. (INTERSTITIAL)
On Tuesday 19th November 1963, in the cold sterile surgery of Brixton Prison, dressed in over-sized prison fatigues and a pair of slip-on shoes, sat 26 year old George Thomas Pickering. With short curly brown hair, a cheeky grin and arched eyebrows which gave his impish little face an eternally surprised expression, being barely five foot six inches tall, George didn’t look like a major criminal, and yet, as a Category A prisoner, amongst all these thieves, rapists and thugs, he was considered one of the worst.
“George?”, Dr F H Brisby, the medical officer asked, but as the prisoner’s bloodshot eyes glared down at his guilt-ridden hands, he ignored him. Not owing to ignorance or the arrogance of a hardened con who refused to spill the beans to a screw, but because George was trapped in world of silence, as being both deaf and mute, George heard no words and could say nothing to reply.
“George?” Dr Brisby asked, as he softly tapped the tearful prisoner’s shoulder, stirring this broken man from those bloody visions forever burned into his retina. “George? That day. Did you know what you were doing?” he asked, but George didn’t reply. Not as a false ruse to secure an insanity plea; a ploy which his lawyer had toyed with, and the prison warden had taken seriously, having confiscated his belt, his tie, his shoe-laces and placed him (for the last six weeks) on suicide watch, but the delay was solely so his interpreter could translate the words that he could neither hear nor speak. But being polite and prompt, Dr Brisby got the reply he expected, as George simply nodded “yes”.
“George, did you know it was wrong?” Dr Brisby asked, as being eight days away from his murder trial at The Old Bailey, the doctor’s question would be the difference between life and a death sentence, and again George simply nodded “yes”. And yet, in a Police investigation which was short, swift and thrift, although George’s guilt was guaranteed, one question remained unanswered. “George?”, Dr Brisby asked “…if you knew all that, then why did you murder Rosa O’Neill?”
In the ungodly hours of 21st February 1937, a high-pitched scream wailed down the maternity ward at Stanmore Hospital; an ear-splitting sound so sharp and shrill, the patients felt as if knitting needles were being stabbed into their brains, but this was not a cry of death but of birth. And with his vocal chords set to loud and two fully functional ears which heard his beloved mother slowly soothe her baby boy to sleep, into the world came George Thomas Pickering, and he was perfect in every way.
Hailing from the seaside town of Scarborough (in Yorkshire), Margaret & Reginald Pickering were two doting parents to their beloved son George; and with no history of disability, criminality or mental illness in the family, these were good people; solid, proud and stoic, who battled through the tough times and together they triumphed, but for the Pickering family, a major test was yet to come.
After days of stiffness, dizziness, insomnia and vomiting, four year old George was rushed to hospital, gripped in a fit of fever, as (once again) his high-pitched shrill echoed the walls, but not in a cry of birth but of intense pain, as bacterial meningitis strangled his spinal cord and (like a halo of death) slowly crushed his brain. And although, his young life was saved by antibiotics, by the time he’d left hospital, the damage had been done, and being left deaf, mute and crippled by chronic headaches, the last sound that George ever uttered or heard were his own tears, as his world descended into silence.
Eager to ensure their son wasn’t hindered by his disabilities and that he’d retain his confidence, pride and independence, Margaret & Reginald enrolled George at the Royal Deaf & Dumb School in Margate (on England’s south coast), where he learned to sign, made new friends, never got into fights, and as a better than average student, he left school, aged 16, with a lust for life and a passion for wood work.
And as a solid young man who did his parents proud, George lived a very normal, happy and productive life. Having graduated, George trained as a carpenter for Kodak in north-west London, earning £12 a week and accruing a satisfactory work record. But as a recently married man and a father to twin daughters and (soon) a son, eager to be nearer his family, George uprooted and found new employment at Humphreys (a furniture makers) in nearby 161 Kingston Road in New Malden.
Life was good. He had an honest job, three healthy children, an active social life with his old school friends from Margate, and lived in a delightful little terraced house on a pleasant tree-lined street at Oxford Avenue in Merton Park (South London), with his wife Beryl (who was also deaf and mute).
And although he’d cheated death and coped with disability, the meningitis had done its damage and being crippled by headaches, the older he got, the worse they became, and as his painkillers proved pointless, it was quickly replaced by alcohol to quell the pain. But like all drugs, drink had its downside.
On 20th February 1957, on the eve of his twentieth birthday, having partied heartily with his pals, George was arrested for being drunk and disorderly, causing wilful damage and inflicting grievous bodily harm in an unprovoked attack. He was bound-over by the courts for two years.
On 15th August 1961, in another unprovoked attack, George smashed up his furniture, at work, with an axe and was committed to Shenley psychiatric hospital, where even though he was tearful, tense and complained of being wracked with deep bouts of depression, suicidal thoughts and unnaturally violent urges, he was discharged after just 24 hours, and the incident was blamed on drink.
Four weeks later, on 12th September 1961, whilst heavily intoxicated, George was arrested for inflicting grievous bodily harm in an unprovoked attack on a West End prostitute. He was sentenced to two months in prison, but – owing to good behaviour – he served only one.
Later that year, whilst carving-up the Christmas turkey, George had to be physically restrained by his family as – in an unprovoked fit of depression and rage - he tried to slit open his wrists.
Prior to his murder trial, George said to Dr F H Brisby of Brixton Prison that he felt like Jekyll & Hyde; part man and part monster; with one side of him as a good father and a loyal husband who was decent, passive and polite, and the other side was a violent, drunken, homicidal maniac.
Desperate to quell his uncontrollably violent urges, George quit drinking and (for almost a year) life returned to normal. But without a steady hit of booze to dull the incessant throbbing in his head, his insomnia increased, his depression darkened and suicide seemed a better prospect than living.
Two years later, being at his wit’s end, George Thomas Pickering made the unfortunate decision to take his own life… but strangely, it wasn’t he who would ultimately end up dead. (INTERSTITIAL)
The following is based on the original police investigation files, autopsy report, witness statements and George’s own hazy and confused recollection of the events that day, so some details are patchy.
By the morning of Monday 7th October 1963, George hadn’t slept for three whole days, and although his kids cried, with wide cracked eyes which glared vacantly at the ceiling, the only sound he heard was dull thud as blood erratically pumped from his fluctuating heart to his throbbing head.
Feeling like his body was a deadweight; with his head like lead, his feet like they were stuck in peat and his limp arms like they were anchored to the bed, George lay prostrate, an empty hollow man devoid of hope. But as a good dad, with bills to pay and mouths to feed, like a pre-programmed automaton with one basic function – to earn, as George crawled out of bed and his lifeless legs thudded to the floor, he didn’t feel like he normally did, he felt… strange.
It started like any ordinary day, only slower and less certain, as all he could think of was his own death.
Off the hard wooden floor, George dragged on last night’s clothes - a blue corduroy jacket, a dark blue shirt, a brown jersey, light brown trousers and black boots – all splattered in yesterday’s stains, which (he surmised) no-one would spy when the corduroy which covered his corpse was bathed in his blood.
For the last time, he hugged his kids; their voices he had never heard before and their sweet faces he would never see again. And as his soundless lips softly kissed Beryl’s cheek, as he signed his wife a sweet “goodbye”, he left his home for the very last time, never to return.
At 7:30am, George walked out of Oxford Avenue and trudged south to Kingston Road; the sky was dull, grey and full of foreboding as dark ominous clouds loomed large. And as the interminable British drizzle soaked him to the bone, on any other day he’d have turned right and headed off to work at Humphrey’s, but (in a rash decision which would ruin his life forever) he turned left.
At 7:45am, as he stood alone on the packed platform of Raynes Park station - isolated and trapped in a solitary silent world – feeling the violent rumble under his feet as the train thundered near, as he stared at the bare track, he pictured 200 tonnes of roaring steel wheels slicing over his soft neck, severing his head and leaving behind a lifeless bloody stump… but his feet wouldn’t budge.
By 8:10am, as his train sidled into Waterloo station, George lumbered aimlessly towards The Strand, on the south-side of the West End, but with his full focus being on what way was best to meet his death, as the hard heavy thump of his boots sent a dull throbbing pain into his brain, with his every movement making him even more nauseous, although he’d been teetotal for weeks, his only thought was the pain-free lure of liquor.
And then, for the next three hours, George disappeared; no-one knows where he went, or what he did, not even he, but with every pub and off-licence closed till lunch, at 11am, by the time he had stumbled into Soho, George was drunk. And being part man and part monster; as the meek, mild and timid man within him slunk into shadows, the other side of his Jekyll & Hyde took over.
With an unquenchable thirst, at a little after 11:30am, having staggered passed The White Horse pub and stumbled into Edward Roche & Co, an off-licence at 33 Shaftesbury Avenue, as its young assistant eyed with suspicion this strangely silent man, having handed over 17 shillings, the only sound that George heard was the heavy gulping as he necked great glugs of 66 per cent proof vodka.
Being deaf, dumb and (now) blind drunk; stuck in a deep dull depression which booze couldn’t shift and eager to give his spirits a lift, George stumbled into the garish neon haze of the nearby Cameo Moulin Cinema, to watch ‘Women by Night’; a tawdry sexploitation film full of tits, tush and tassels.
But as his glazed-over eyes gazed at the soundless screen, ogling bums and boobs, amongst a salty sea of sad bastards, whose hands all bobbed about their pants like they’d all lost their last pound; George hated what he saw, where he was, and who he had become. And as his suicidal thoughts stewed, so too were his unnatural urges and strange stirrings within; as bubbling to the surface came a hatred, a rage and an uncontrollable desire for violence.
Desperate to die, at a little after 1pm, George staggered into Cutlers Tool Makers at 52 Brewer Street, pointed to a shiny stainless-steel blade, and having handed over 10 shillings, he stumbled out, into the bustle of Brewer Street, brandishing a six inch filleting knife, one step nearer to slitting his wrists.
What happened next is debatable, as with no slashes to his arms, cuts to his neck or puncture wounds on his body, whether he sobered-up, cooled off or got cold feet, George suddenly decided to forgo his suicide and – instead – headed east to 12 Brewer Street (where Soho’s Original Book Shop now sits) and where George would fulfil a very different and uncontrollable urge. The time was 1:15pm.
On the ground floor, to the left of the store, was a black wooden door. Instinctively, although he would never hear it, George rung the bell, and waited in the doorway, as he swayed unsteadily on his feet.
Opened by the housekeeper (Sophie Georgina Willis), although he was obviously arseholed, without a sound, just a smile, she ushered him up to the first-floor, with a wave which said ‘you know the way’.
Having visited her several times prior, George had always liked Rosa. And even though he never knew her name, age, history, or (because he was deaf) he never heard that this well-rounded woman in her early forties, with an obvious Irish surname like O’Neill, had a Polish accent; none of those details mattered, as being one of the few Soho sex-workers who didn’t mock, pity or shun him, he liked Rosa. And with no heirs, no graces and no pretence - to many young men - she was just a nice lady.
As George drunkenly stumbled up the white wooden staircase, bouncing off the floral wallpaper and almost tripping-up over the soft green carpeting underfoot, at the top of the stairs stood Rosa O’Neill. Being five foot four at a push, fourteen stone at her lightest, and with a motherly yet matronly face, dressed in a pink quilted dressing gown and slippers, although George was drunk (as he always was), she smiled and welcomed him in, like a loving aunt who’s first words would be “you fancy a cuppa?”
But being part man and part monster; with the meek, mild and timid man having shifted into the shadows, and the other side of his Jekyll & Hyde now making strange stirrings within; as from his heart to his head his blood heavily thumped, inside pumped a dark and hollow rage.
George would later state “I don’t know what happened, I just went berserk”.
With his eyes wild and his knuckles white, from inside of his blue corduroy jacket, George pulled the filleting knife. With his left hand having roughly grabbed the scruff of her bathrobe to steady his terrified target, having raised the blade high, he plunged the full length of the six inch steel deep into the left of Rosa’s chest, and – using all of his force, anger, hatred and rage – he repeatedly stabbed the sliver of stainless steel into her torso, slashing at her flailing arms and slicing her splayed fingers, as the bloodied blade sunk four inches deep, into her right lung, her liver and gut.
Desperate to fight off her frenzied attacker, as Rosa shoved her short assassin, over the soft green carpeting underneath, George stumbled, and as his sticky red hands left thick bloody smears over the white wood, Rosa slammed the door shut, and George fled.
As her housekeeper rang the alarm, feeling queasy, Rosa lay face-up on her bed, a damp flannel on her forehead to cool her sweaty brow, as wrapped in a duvet, she was suddenly gripped with the icy cold chill as slowly her body drained of blood. And although they had called for a doctor, by the time he’d had arrived, just seven minutes later, Rosa O’Neill was dead.
The next morning, although the previous day was a booze-soaked blur, seeing his clothes crumpled on the floor, his dirty corduroy caked in crusted blood, as he slowly sobered-up, George realised he’d done something truly awful. And being wracked with guilt, having unsuccessfully tried to kill himself by swallowing 300 aspirins, George handed himself in a Wimbledon Police Station.
The Police investigation was swift. Having fully confessed to the crime, with a wealth of evidence and having been identified by the three witnesses, in a trial which barely lasted a day, on 27th November 1963, at The Old Bailey, George Thomas Pickering was found guilty of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility owing to insanity or illness, and was sentenced to life in prison.
Four years later, eager to quell his thundering headaches which had haunted his every waking moment since the spinal meningitis had robbed him of all speech and sound, on Tuesday 8th May 1967, in the D Wing rec’ room of Wormwood Scrubs prison, having no access to alcohol to halt the incessant hammering in his head, George drank a homemade cocktail made from orange juice and copier fluid.
And as the mix of acetone and methylated spirits inflamed his stomach, drowned his lungs, and as he drifted into a coma, having already been rendered deaf and mute by illness, (in a sad twist of irony) the booze which blocked the throbbing in his brain, had robbed him of another sense and rendered him blind. And after a slow and agonising death, which lasted almost a week, on Sunday 14th May 1967, George Thomas Pickering died of alcohol poisoning, and (once again) his whole world was silent.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
Don’t forget to stay tuned to Extra Mile after the break, but before that, here’s my recommended podcast of the week, which is Redhanded (PLAY PROMO)
And if you’ve ever in London, why not book a ticket onto my five-star rated Murder Mile Walks; it’s a guided walk of Soho’s most infamous murder, and you get to see my big fat bald head, and you get to say “oh, is that what he looks like? Ah, that’s a shame”. And on Saturday 8th September 2018 at The Salisbury pub, at 90 St Martin’s Lane in London, Murder Mile will be attending the True-Crime Meet-Up, along with many of your favourite British true-crime podcaters. Join us!
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.
Thank you for listening and sleep well.
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), and the music written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name. Additional music was written and performed by various artists, as used under the Creative Common Agreement 4.0. A list of tracks used and the links are listed on the relevant transcript blog here
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”, nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British podcast Awards 2018", 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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