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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.
Gordon Johnson; a tragic man of many misfortunes, who was side-lined by life and shafted by fate, and yet crueler still, with no reason and being so unexpected, on Tuesday 5th September 1945, in Mac’s Dance Hall in Soho, the first time he ever met, saw or even knew about his killer was in the seconds before his death.
As many photos of the case are copyright protected by greedy news organisations (and I don't want to be billed £300 for copyright infringement again), to view them, take a peek at my entirely legal social media accounts - Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
I've added the location of 41 Great Windmill Street where Gordon Johnson was murdered with marked with a purple !. To use the map, simply click it. If you want to see the other murder maps, such as King's Cross and Paddington, you access them by clicking here
I've also posted some photos to aid your "enjoyment" of the episode. These photos were taken by myself (copyright Murder Mile) or granted under Government License 3.0, where applicable.
Ep65 – The Unfortunate Mr Johnson
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 London’s West End.
Today’s episode is about Gordon Johnson; a tragic man of many misfortunes, who was side-lined by life and shafted by fate, and yet crueller still, with no reason and being so unexpected, the first time he ever met, saw or even knew about his killer was in the seconds before his death.
Murder Mile is researched using the original police files. It contains moments of satire, shock and grisly details, and as a dramatisation of the real events, it may also feature loud and 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 65: The Unfortunate Mr Johnson.
Today I’m standing on Great Windmill Street in Soho, W1; one street north of the Salted Almond where the Blackout Ripper met his fifth victim Greta Hayward, one street west of Archer Street where Larry Winters, Camille Gordon and French Fi-Fi met their deaths, and two streets north-east of the cruelly-titled “amusement” arcade where Debora Alvarez fought for her life – coming soon to Murder Mile.
As a short one-way side-street on a slight incline with Shaftesbury Avenue at the bottom and Brewer Street at the top, although very recently gentrified - with tiny shiny artisan eateries all obsessed with avocado, blatantly pointless boutiques selling “all the essentials” like mumu’s, cravats and monocles, and shallow places for preening posers who won’t purchase so much as a sixteen carat gold box to store their belly-button fluff… unless it’s delicately placed in a ridiculously tiny branded bag – amongst the sex-shops, porn theatres and brothels, Great Windmill Street is famous for more than just sex.
Since it was built in 1904, the basement of 41 Great Windmill Street has had many incarnations; as one of Britain’s earliest jazz clubs ran by the clarinettist Cy Laurie, as The Scene Club – an important home to Mod culture where fledgling bands like the Rolling Stones and The Who cut their musical teeth, and as the gym where legendary boxing promoter Jack Solomons prepared and trained such boxing greats like Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Cooper and Murder Mile’s very own Freddie Mills.
Now a supposedly very “secret” speak-easy - according to their website, their social media and several thousand listings in all the hippest magazines that in-crowd claim to buy but never actually read – the basement is now a quirky funky blahdy-blahdy-blah bar called Jack Solomons. Nuff said. And yet, in 1945, this was Mac’s Dance Hall; a half-decent place for watered-down drinks, war-time dances and secret seedy rendezvous with Soho sex-workers… later made infamous by a murder.
As it was here, on Tuesday 4th September 1945, that a man of much misfortune would have a last dance with a lovely lady… and a date with death. (Interstitial)
The unfortunate Mr Johnson was born Gordon Peacock on 11th June 1914, just two months before the horrors of World War One; to his mother Elizabeth and his father Thomas, with four siblings. As a good lad with a calm demeanour and a strong constitution, although poverty had left him a little undersized - never growing any bigger than nine stone and five foot three – being short but solid, poor but skilled, Gordon was raised to be a fine young man… but that’s a far as his good luck ran.
Aged three, his baby brother died. Aged four, his father died. Aged five, his widowed mother married a labourer called Thomas Johnson, who disliked his new step-son and the feeling was mutual. Leaving school aged fourteen and eager to earn his keep, Gordon got his first job as an errand boy at a bakers in South Bank and trained as a ‘rivet catcher’ at the Smith Dock shipyard in Middlesbrough.
As a young lad with short brown hair, light grey eyes, flushed cheeks and a boyish smile, Gordon would always be a little man in a sea of burly men, so having learned to handle himself he was never bullied, and yet this moral toughness would prove invaluable as his luck went from bad to worse.
Aged sixteen, whilst sailing for Canada, Gordon broke his neck, and after a failed operation to fuse the broken vertebrae, he was forced to wear a metal neck brace (one and off) for the rest of his life. Aged nineteen, having been hit by a car and sustaining severe head injuries, Gordon began to suffer from epileptic seizures. Aged twenty, having served less than a year as a private in the British Army, Gordon burst a blood vessel and was declared medically unfit. But unwilling to give up, Gordon soldiered on.
Aged twenty-one, just weeks before he married his sweetheart Beatrice Stoodley, Gordon crashed his motorbike, broke his neck and fractured his skull. Aged twenty-five, Gordon fell off a ladder, fracturing his head and neck. Aged twenty-seven, Gordon & Beatrice opened a grocery store, but having suffered a hernia when his horse kicked him in the stomach, he was forced to sell the shop. And aged thirty, whilst working as a steel erector in Scunthorpe, Gordon was partially blinded by a shot-rivet, and although his sight returned, he was scarred from his right eye to his right ear. But still he soldiered on.
In 1944, aged thirty, Gordon & Beatrice had a daughter who they called Mavis. It should have been the greatest day of his life, but with the baby not being his, Gordon & Beatrice divorced. That same year, having had both of his arms scarred, his little finger severed and (once again) his neck broken in a German U-boat attack on the trawler – the Gusando - he was declared medically unfit for active service and was discharged from the Merchant Navy.
And living in an era where medical opinion was limited to “if it’s not bleeding, it’s not broken”, with his many injuries patched-up, pinned and his neck in plaster, the unfortunate Mr Johnson ploughed on, unaware that a lifetime of severe head injuries had changed his personality forever.
On 2nd January 1945 Gordon married 23 year old Hilda Fleming, a waitress he had met at a dance four months earlier. Described by Hilda as a good man who never gambled, rarely drank and didn’t cheat, sometimes Gordon would be “kindness itself” and other times he was “violent and rude”. But with his moods being few-and-far between, lasting only a short while, afterwards he would always apologise.
Between 1st and 7th July 1945, to celebrate the end of the Second World War, Gordon & Hilda spent a week in the seaside town of Scarborough, and by all accounts, they had a lovely time. And yet, on the following Monday, as Hilda unpacked their groceries in the kitchen, Gordon barked “don’t bother unpacking, we’re splitting up”. She thought it was just one of his black moods; but by the Tuesday, he had sold their possessions, and by the Wednesday, he had gone. She never saw him again.
Something had changed in Gordon. Something was wrong. Something had snapped.
Crippled with pain and confined to a neck-brace, Gordon tried to get his life back-on-track by working as a waiter at the Milroy Club in Mayfair, living in a tiny lodging in Euston and having fallen for a lovely young lady called Lena Bell James, believing she was the one, he was happy, in love and engaged.
But being side-lined by life and shafted by fate, like everything else in the life of the unfortunate Mr Johnson, two months later he would be dead… but not owing to a cruel accident. Instead, it was over another man, who was in madly love with Lena, and his name was Joe Devine (interstitial)
Joseph Devine was a Private in the 219th Field Artillery based out the French port of Le Harve. With Hitler dead and Japan in surrender, the war over, so granted seven days leave, with cash burning a hole in his pocket and a permanent hard-on in his pants, Private Joe Devine headed into the West End.
Like Gordon, he was thirty years old, five-foot three, thin and yet thickly-set, only with black slicked-back hair, a dark hollow complexion and a US Army uniform. Both being little fellas, they were strong-willed and stubborn. And whereas with a scarred face, a slight limp and his neck in a brace, Gordon looked like unluckiest man alive; with his shoulders high, his steps short and a misguided belief that resembled Jimmy Cagney, having watched one too many movies, Joe looked like a comedy gangster.
In short, Private Devine was a smart-arse with one thing on his mind – girls – or more precisely – sex.
On the evening of Tuesday 28th August 1945, as Joe sauntered through Soho, going from bar-to-bar, he was propositioned by a girl who went by the street-name of Rita, but her real name was Lena.
Later giving a full statement to the Police, Joe said “I wanted to make use of a few dollars I had on me so I went to Piccadilly. This girl came long; I looked at her and said ‘where are you going kid? You look like the real thing’. Offering him five pounds for full sex, Joe said “yeah, she was a nice looking kid, so I says to her ‘hey, that’s a lot of cabbage’, but clearly he thought she was worth every penny.
As a twenty-two year old girl who still lived at home with her mum in West Ham and often stayed with Gordon (her fiancé) in Euston, Lena took him to a cheap discrete haunt. With the film over, at the back of Warner’s Cinema in Leicester Square, Lena handed the night-watchman ten shillings to sleep on the sofa. Getting comfortable, Joe later said “she put her hair up like she was at home, I guess if she had a stove she’d have cooked some eggs, I got a real kick out of it”.
Having spent an awkward night together on the cinema’s sofa, Joe later said “I took a real liking to her, she looked pretty good”, so having cashed in forty-seven pounds (almost two thousand pounds today) “I took ten for myself, tossed the rest to her and said ‘here kid, we’ll have a real swell time’”.
Having booked into a hotel in Victoria, for five nights they partied; swigging whiskey at Salted Almond, chowing down at the Lyon’s Corner House and cutting-a-rug at Mac’s Dance Hall. And then, on the sixth night “she didn’t show up. I figured something must be wrong. I spent a few days looking for her. That’s why I went to the dance hall, to talk to her, and then I see her with this guy”.
On Monday 3rd September, having exploded in a fiery rage with a fellow waiter at the Milroy Club over something he couldn’t recall what it was even about, Gordon left his fifth job in as many months and made plans to meet Lena, having not seen her for most of that week. The next day, he would be dead.
Tuesday 5th September 1945 was a bad day...
Being sick with worry at her sudden disappearance and a tad angry that - having blown more than a month’s wage on her – he may have been dumped, unable to sleep for forty-eight hours, a crumpled and creased Private Joe Devine trawled the streets of Soho looking for Lena. His mood was black.
At 8am, whilst skirting along the north side of Piccadilly Circus, standing in line outside of the Lyon’s Corner House tearoom, he spotted a friendly face… well, sort of. Having both been busted for going absent without leave and imprisoned for a week in the Army stockade, Private Joe Devine’s cell-mate was Private Thomas Croft of the 529th Reinforcement Company.
To say they were opposites was an understatement; as being fair-haired to Joe’s brunette, stocky to Joe’s squat and six feet tall to Joe’s barely five, they truly were like chalk and cheese, and whereas Joe talked ten-to-the dozen ending each sentence with stock phrases like ‘doll’ and ‘kid’, Thomas did not.
Private Croft didn’t say much, if at all. Being of a large build, with a stern expression, deep heaving breath and small staring eyes etched into a square head like a badly built snowman, he could be quite imposing. And although they didn’t know each other well, being together was better than being alone.
After a hearty breakfast, having not slept, Joe booked them into The Imperial, a cheap hotel in nearby Russell Square, where they bathed, they slept and had their uniforms pressed. As Private Croft blacked his paratrooper boots, Joe saw inside a nine inch Trench knife; a jagged dagger with seven inches of steel in a brown leather sheath, brought as a souvenir, prior to him being shipped home.
Feeling refreshed, Privates Croft & Devine headed out into Piccadilly. Fed-up with eating duck (which wasn’t actually made from duck but off-cuts of meat offal mashed into small balls and served in a thick gravy), with a deep distain for British cuisine - “you know how these English meals are”, they hit a few bars, supping back beers and scotch, and eager for something swanky like a shrimp cocktail.
That day, Joe led and Thomas followed as - all the while - on his mind was Lena.
Gordon & Lena met mid-afternoon on Shaftesbury Avenue; she wore pea green dress, a fake leopard skin coat and hat to match, he wore a white shirt, a tie and a dark brown suit. His brace itched like hell as the summer heat caused his neck to swell, and although he felt ropey, they popped out for a few drinks and eager to please her, at 9:15pm, they went to Mac’s Dance Hall at 41 Great Windmill Street.
As a man of many misfortunes; as they entered the dance hall via the back entrance in Ham Yard, Gordon wasn’t knocked unconscious by the double doors. He didn’t fall down the dingy stairs breaking his neck for the final time as he tumbled in a crumpled heap down to the basement. And neither did he prick his finger on an infected splinter, awkwardly trip over a tatty sofa nor was he poisoned by an unclean bottle of beer.
In fact, having only just arrived at Mac’s, with the band switching from a tango to a rumba, having arrived safely, Gordon sashayed by the bandstand with Lena … and yet death was only moments away.
At 9:25pm, being several beers merrier, Privates Croft & Devine crossed Piccadilly Circus, sauntered up Shaftesbury Avenue and turned left onto Great Windmill Street. One hour earlier, Joe had popped into Mac’s to see if Lena was there – clearly in love with her having spent five night of passion together and blown almost two grand – but the club was almost empty. So being busier, Joe tried again.
Granted permission by the manager to pop in, peep around and come straight out, being little and harmless-looking (if a little too cheeky) Joe headed back into Mac’s, where-as the towering Thomas Croft was stopped dead; his imposing bulk blocking the back door, as if an unscrupulous deliver-driver desperate to get home for his dinner had dumped a one tonne granite statue. But with patience not being for forte, with the manager’s back turned, Private Croft snuck in to seek out his pal.
With the bar busy and the dancefloor full, briefly forgetting his aching love for Lena as two pretty girls passed the tiny GI – who acting like a twelve year old with a perpetual hard-on – felt that because he fancied them, he had to pull their hair, which (unsurprisingly) they did not appreciate. Having blown off their disgust with a cocky “ah come on girls, don’t think I’m getting fresh, lemme buy you a drink”, Croft looked on incredulously, supping a solo beer, as he sat, by himself in an empty booth.
The night was a wash-out, Thomas was bored and Joe was about ready to leave…
…and then, he saw Lena.
“So I see my girl dancing with this spiff. I walked over to cut-in and tap him on the shoulder. He pushes my arm away, so I socks him twice”. Smacked squarely in the face, Gordon fell across the bandstand, hitting his head on the side of the piano, as Lena screamed “Joe, don’t hit him, he has a broken neck”.
Seeing his fiancé being manhandled, as Joe dragged Lena away (maybe feeling that he owned her and, so far, that he hadn’t got his monies worth), Gordon stepped in to protect her, and although he could barely see left or right as his head was held rigid by the neck-brace, he knew how to handle himself.
Sadly, Joe did not.
And as Frederick Lipmann, the piano player shouted for the manager (Mr Sedley! Mr Sedley!); on the dancefloor, as Joe the pint-sized pugilist swung wild punches at his love-rival, one fist missed Gordon and smacked Lena in the face. Both men stopped, gasped and as her right cheek bled, her tears rolled.
It didn’t look good, a soldier thumping a disabled man. It didn’t look good, any man punching a woman. And although Joe pleaded “I’m sorry baby, I didn’t mean it”, just like the war, the fight was over and as their anger quelled, being thoroughly ashamed of himself, Joe had the good sense to walk away…
…but for the unfortunate Mr Johnson death was approaching.
Very little is known about his killer; his life, his past or his reasons why. But being sat alone, silently seething, seeing his prison pal punched in the face by some brown-suited ‘spiff’, from his paratrooper boot he pulled a long dark sheath. And prowling like a panther, he slowly circled the dancefloor, his back to the wall, a shiny glint in his balled-up fist, his small staring eyes solely focussed on his prey.
Shocked at the sight of Lena’s bleeding cheek, as Joe skulked away, Gordon turned to check that his fiancé was okay, cradling her tear-soaked face, his back to the dancefloor… and his killer.
Through the dingy darkness, he didn’t see the danger loom large. Over the booming band, he didn’t hear someone scream “he’s got a dagger”. And as he grabbed Gordon by the right shoulder and spun the crippled civilian to face him, for the first time in his short and tragic life (having never spoke, met or heard anything about the other) Gordon Johnson saw Private Thomas Croft; the hulking great man towering almost a foot taller, as at eye-height, balled-up in his fist was a nine inch trench knife.
It was unfortunate for Gordon that his fiancé (Lena) was cheating on him. It was unfortunate that (Joe) the other man she was seeing was a soldier. It was unfortunate that Lena loved to dance. And it was unfortunate that – at 8am, that morning, in a breakfast queue in Piccadilly – an angry and love-sick Joe Devine stumbled across an old friend, who was silent, armed and unstable. And having survived his neck being broken four times before, that’s when Gordon’s luck finally ran out.
Slamming the knife down deep, Private Croft plunged seven inches of hard steel into the left of Gordon’s chest, piercing his heart, as he instantly collapsed onto the bandstand, a river of red pumping through his white shirt, spurting up his pale face and forming a thick pool around his slumped frame.
It all happened in seconds, so hearing the screams but not seeing the stabbing, “…I saw the civilian was on the floor, I figured I had killed him and so I’d best beat it outta there. I reached a screen door next to the bandstand and tore it out. I jumped out a window and up the back-stairs”, as four men tackled Private Croft to the floor, disarming him and dragging him to the basement to await the Police.
Being a cocky little prick, as Joe fled - leaving a woman bloodied, one man dying and his friend pinned to the floor - dashing into the fire escape and looking confused, Robert Franchi (the projectionist at the New Cameo Cinema next door) pointed and said “that’s the way out”, to which Joe barked “don’t tell me the way out, or I’ll do you buddy”. And so, having gone the wrong way, Joe ended-up stuck.
With the dance hall being full of gawkers, all eager to get an eye-full of a dying man drenched in blood but willing to do nothing to help, as Lena cradled his pale head encased in its metal brace; his pulse was faint, his breathing was weak and his last word was lost forever, so by the time the ambulance had arrived, just six minutes later, the unfortunate Mr Johnson was dead. (End)
The next day, reading about the stabbing in the newspaper, with his cockiness finally silenced, Private Joe Devine gave himself up to the American authorities and was promptly discharged from duty. Lena Bell James accompanied Gordon’s body to the hospital but two years later, she too died, although we may never know why. And on the 5th September 1945, having denied everything stating “I don’t know the guy. I didn’t use a knife. I wasn’t near him”; with his fingerprints found on the blade and the sheath, and his boots and socks soaked with his victim’s blood, supported by a wealth of eye-witnesses, Private Thomas Croft was handed over to the US Military Police and the case was closed.
In an attack which Sir Bernard Spilsbury described as a ‘savage’; the full length of the seven inch blade had penetrated deep, breaking his breast bone, severing his left lung, splitting his heart’s main artery, vein and aorta, and embedding its tip in his ninth rib, at the back of Gordon’s chest.
Court-marshalled at the US Army headquarters in Grosvenor Square, on 21st September 1945, 22 year old Private Thomas Edward Croft was found guilty of murder, and being a brutal and unprovoked killing, although the prosecution asked for the death penalty, he was dishonourably discharged from military service, had to forfeit his pay and was confined to hard labour for the rest of his natural life.
31 year old Gordon Johnson could have died at any time during his short life; whether by starvation as an impoverished child, by disease which befell his baby brother, by conflict having served his country in the Army and the Navy, or any of many injuries and accidents which almost rendered him paralysed or dead. But through pluck and moral toughness, unwilling to give in, he soldiered on. So the question we have to ask, is was fate smiling over him, or was he truly the unfortunate Mr Johnson?
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
And so, if you’re a murky miler, to stay tuned for extra dribble after the break, but before that, here’s my recommended podcasts of the week; which are MensRea and Writing About Crime. (PROMO)
A huge thank you goes out to my new Patreon supporters, who are Nick Smith, Jules Barrett and Eozdil, as well as a thank you to old patrons, regular listeners, anyone who has posted a review, and anyone who has told their friends about the podcast. Those personal recommendations are really appreciated.
As you know, you can dedicate an episode of Murder Mile to a loved one. This week I’m dedicating this episode to my grandad – Bob – as today (as I write this) is the 27th anniversary of his passing. Bob was a good man; always singing, always happy, always polite, a lovely man who defended his country as a Royal Marines Commando, who worked as a truck-driver to provide for his wife and child, and yet, cursed with cancer, he never got to enjoy his well-earned retirement. Bob may have been gone for many years, but there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about him and thank him.
If you’d like to dedicate an episode of Murder Mile, and treat someone to a very unique gift, either for a birthday, an anniversary or as a memorial, and financially help support this podcast, you can do so, by going to the Murder Mile Merch shop.
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 as used under the Creative Common Agreement 4.0.
The music featured in this episode include:
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tor 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 50 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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