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EPISODE ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-TWO:
Summer 1958, the occupant of Room 622 in the Strand Palace Hotel was Bernard Smith; a kind and decent man who was quiet and respectable. Running a successful furniture business in New York, he doted on his sisters, his niece and he would do anything for them, and likewise for him.
With his health declining, having discussed his retirement with his sisters, Bernard had sold up and moved to the UK to be nearer his family – it is what families do, they support one another.
At 12:15pm on Tuesday 3rd June 1958, Lila Gilman (Bernard’s sister) was in Room 622 helping him with a task. Last seen entering his room, moments later, he would brutally beat her to death.
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The location is marked with a sea blue raindrop by the words Charing Cross. To use the map, click it. If you want to see the other murder maps, access them by clicking here.
SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
CRIM 1/2993 – Bernard Smith (brother) murders Lila/Leah Gillman at Strand Palace Hotel, one files closed, https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C4203102
DPP FILES CLOSED - https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C10874705
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
Welcome to Murder Mile.
Today I’m standing on The Strand, WC2; three streets south-east of the Bedfordbury baby batterer, five buildings right of the last play Emmy Werner saw, directly opposite the strangled baby at the Coal Hole Tavern, and a short walk from The Strand Medical School scandal - coming soon to Murder Mile.
Opened in 1909, The Strand Palace was one of several ‘grand’ hotels built by J Lyons & Co, owners of the Cornerhouse Tearooms. Covering one square block and standing seven stories high, by the 1950s, its 600 rooms had been greatly modernised to include private bathrooms, central heating and radios.
Like many others, Room 622 has seen its fair share of action; whether by randy reprobates making the walls shake like an earthquake lasting six whole seconds, dodgy drunks replacing the over-priced mini-bar shots with cheapy shite from a nearby Spa, bored businessman falsely claiming they “fell asleep on the TV remote” and “accidentally” switched it to eight hours of ‘hot chicks with dicks’, and many possessed wives who held a pillow over her spouse’s face and pondered stopping the snoring forever.
But unlike the others at The Strand Palace Hotel, Room 622 has also been the witness to a murder.
In the summer of 1958, the occupant of Room 622 was 68-year-old American, Bernard Smith; a kind and decent man who was quiet and respectable. Running a successful furniture business in New York, he doted on his two sisters, his niece and he would do anything for them, and likewise for him.
With his health declining, having discussed his retirement with his sisters, Bernard had sold up, left America and moved to the UK to be nearer his family – it is what families do, they support one another.
At 12:15pm on Tuesday 3rd June 1958, Lila Gilman (Bernard’s sister) was in Room 622 helping him with a simple task. Last seen entering his room, moments later, he would brutally beat his sister to death.
Bernard had nothing to gain by killing Lila, and everything to lose – so why did do it?
My name is Michael, I am your tour guide, and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 182: The Quiet American.
At 12:30am, on Wednesday 4th June, twelve hours after the attack, Bernard sat in the interview room of Bow Street police station. For Chief Inspector Millington and Detective Sergeant Baker, there was no denying his guilt, as his fingerprints were in the room and he had made a full confession.
Across their careers, they had interviewed all kinds of killers – whether sadists, psychopaths, the sick and the deranged – but Bernard was different. As the epitome of a frail old man, standing just five foot six inches high and weighing barely nine stone, he looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over.
Described as “small and stooping”; he walked with an ambling gait, his thick-lensed glasses magnified his eyes to twice their size, and - having left his hearings-aid on his bed, unable to hear his own voice – with his soft words barely above a whisper, the hotel staff often called him The Quiet American.
With his clothes dishevelled and his hands bloody, before the interview had even begun, Bernard’s first words were “how is my sister?”. Being deaf, eagerly watching DS Baker’s mouth, he read the reply on his lips; “your sister is dead”. And as Bernard sat with his head in his hands, incredulous at what he had done, he repeatedly sobbed “I must be crazy, crazy, crazy. I loved my sister. How could I do it?”
But that was exactly the question they wanted to know…
…how could he kill his own beloved sister …
Bernard Smith was born Bernard Bernstein on the 8th January 1890 in Russia. With his father a master tailor and his mother a dedicated housewife, they lived a good life as a middle-class Jewish family. Blessed with two younger sisters; Sarah and Leah, who everyone called ‘Lila’, he doted on his siblings.
Living amid the volatile times of the pogroms where the Jews were forced from their homes; having faced persecution, violence and often death, the Bernstein’s fled to England by the end of the century.
Setting up home in Portsmouth on the south coat of England, they rebuilt their lives, their safety was assured and they enjoyed the kind of upbringing that all children deserved in a warm loving family.
In 1911, with Europe on the brink of war and keen to seek his fortune, as a quiet boy with big plans and a lot of confidence, 21-year-old Bernard moved to New York and became an American citizen.
Living in a small self-contained flat in a brownstone tenement block at 83 Hopkinson Street, Brooklyn, Bernard worked hard as a storeman; climbing his way up the ladder of success, learning his trade by day and sleeping by night. His room had very few homely touches, but it was just right for a bachelor.
After several years of hard slog, having branched out, Bernard had set-up his own business; a furniture company which not only sold bed-suites, armchairs and kitchen appliances, but – for those unable to afford to furnish a room – they could rent a piece for a period of time, or pay for it in instalments,
As an entrepreneur, across wars and depression, Bernard’s business always flourished. With no wife or kids, he supported his sisters and sent them money whenever they needed it. Bernard would state: “I love my family. I have always been very generous to them” - something they would never deny.
Living thousands of miles apart, Bernard and his sisters would stay in regular contact, even when travel was not possible: “I have been receiving letters from my family on the average of one every ten days”.
According to Sarah and Lila, as a big brother, Bernard was always a good man, he was quiet and loving. Being so focussed of the welfare of his family, they always knew he would have made a loving husband and father, but with few friends or lovers – being shy – he never found someone share his life with.
For Bernard, he was dedicated to ensuring that his family were well-cared for.
But as they got older, the sisters needed him less-and-less, having both got married to good men; Lila to a furrier called David Gilman and they moved into a spacious flat at 83 Huddleston Road in Tuffnell Park; and Sarah to an American serviceman, they had a daughter called Rene and lived in Reading.
Both sisters had the protective family unit which Bernard so badly needed…
…but living on another continent, it was never within his reach.
Since he had first set foot on American soil until the day he had left for England, Bernard had only one friend. Having moved to Chicago, with Rene as Sarah’s daughter and his niece, Bernard would visit her twice a year for three-to-four weeks at a time. But for the rest of his days, he was mostly alone.
His isolation had become a serious worry for his sisters, especially being so far away. The tiny room he lived in was little more than a cell in which he slept and ate when his work was done for the day. His job was fulfilling, but having done it for decades, he had no hobbies to occupy his mind. And with no friends nor companions, he had no-one to listen to his daily woes nor to soothe him when he felt low.
Being so introverted, his quiet nature had turned him into a recluse, a prisoner in his own mind and a hermit in his own life, who spoke to almost no-one each day but his regular clients and maybe a checkout girl. And yet, it was his health which would make the narrowness of his world even smaller.
It began in his thirties, as odd words passed him by and simple sounds were lost in a noisy morass. It didn’t seem an issue as his job was physical and he often worked in a noisy environment. But by 1940, now in his fifties, although he saw many specialists, his failing hearing had become a real problem.
The next seventeen years of his life was like a life sentence held in solitary confinement with no chance of parole. Given a bulky white box to perch on each ear, his hearing aids had a limited ability to amplify the sounds, but as his condition got worse, he could do nothing but listen as he became stone deaf.
He had learned to lip-read, but with no-one to talk to, even he described his existence as miserable.
Across those years of ever-increasing silence, unable to hear his own words or anyone else’s, the only conversations he had were the ones inside his head. Unable to walk a street for fear of being hit by a car he couldn’t see, as his eyesight declined, even simple tasks became something to be feared. And to those who didn’t know him – as he couldn’t hear his own volume – strangers often mistook him for a nutter who shouted at no-one or a weirdo who mumbled to himself, so few would come to his aid.
By 1957, aged 67, two decades into his deafness, what little sounds he could hear had been replaced by the maddening thrum of tinnitus; a persistent ringing which couldn’t be cured and wouldn’t be stopped. Whether awake or asleep, this tone rang in his head like the endless torture of a cruel sadist.
Every day, every night, every moment, all he heard was ringing, until eventually he snapped.
By the winter of 1957, having had a nervous breakdown, Bernard was seen by a doctor, suffering from depression, memory loss, paranoia, and having been diagnosed with early on-set dementia. He wasn’t so sick he had to be hospitalised, but it was enough to force him to change his lifestyle forever.
Bernard would say: “In every letter, my sisters expressed their anxiety at me being alone in New York. They wanted me to come to England to settle down, so that I would receive the care and attention I needed”. And just as their big brother had cared for them, his little sisters would care for him.
Concerned for his welfare - as the families of elderly relatives often do – they packed up his belongings into suitcases and provided him with everything he would need for his retirement. They transferred his money to a joint-account, co-signed by his niece Rene, to protect his life savings. And having sold his business, in January 1958, Bernard moved back to England – to the place he had once called home.
Given sanctuary among the warm embrace of his siblings, far from the stresses of New York, Bernard had gone from barely existing in a wall of silence, to being surrounded by those he loved on a daily (and if needed, hourly) basis. With someone always there to talk to and to listen, the sadness of his usual solitary snack sat alone on the sofa had been replaced by the vibrant bustle of family meals.
In his time of need - just as he had for them - his sisters had come to his aid when he needed it most. Bernard was a good man, who was quiet and kind, and loved his family above everything else.
And yet, with every ounce of his strength…
…he would kick his beloved sister to death.
On the 13th January 1958, clutching a suitcase and a steamer trunk, Bernard disembarked a passenger liner at Southampton Dock. It had been a decade since he had last set eyes on his sister Sarah and her family, and although they had grown older, it was the change in him which shocked them the most.
Her big brother had somehow become small, thin and frail; a doddery old codger whose movements were slow, whose thoughts were several seconds behind everyone else’s, and who required every question to be repeated slowly and clearly three or more times, every time a request was spoken.
And yet, his decline was not only physical, but also mental.
Their plan for his well-earned retirement was simple; Bernard would temporarily live with Sarah and her family, they would introduce him to their circle of friends, and he would seek out a little cottage in the country for himself, half way between his sisters – with Sarah in Reading and Lila in London.
Only his behaviour would change their plans before things got any worse.
In Sarah’s eyes, Bernard had always been kind and considerate, a softly-spoken man who never raised his voice and always put others needs before his own. But even Bernard would admit he had become difficult; “since the day I sold my business, I changed, something happened inside my mind”.
His moods were like the switch on the side of his hearing aids, it had just two settings – on and off. In one moment, he would be like a man at peace with the world, and the next, a fiery mess of abuse; with arms flailing and mouth screaming, as a temper from deep-down within burst out of nowhere.
This quiet man was instantly rude, irritable and foul, but never violent. And just as quickly as his fit had erupted, his face would droop, the tears would flow and his apologies would be heartfelt.
Bernard would stay at Sarah’s for four months, but unable to cope with his moods, he would need to move out. What had happened to him, only he would know; maybe it was the dramatic change to his life, maybe it was the torturous sounds in his ears, or maybe it was his suspicions of his sister’s plans?
Every few days, Bernard had noticed a scurry of surreptitious phone calls between Sarah and Lila, but never himself. When he asked what they were about, he was always told “it’s personal”. At least once a week, letters arrived and were sent in his both sister’s handwriting. And when he asked to read them, he was told “I don’t have to show you the letters, it’s my business”. But he was family too?
Being kept out of the loop and feeling he was being treated less like a loved-one and more like a loony, his paranoid suspicions of his sisters could have been entirely real, or merely part of his dementia?
There were two ways to look at it; his sister’s way, being that Bernard was an elderly loved-one in dire need of protection, who was mentally declining owing to a loss of sleep, hearing and independence. Or his way, that he was forced by his nagging sisters to sell up his life and to live under their control.
Bernard would state: “up to now, they always respected me because I was always generous to them. I have transferred my money and had put it in a joint account which my niece could draw on. It was about $21,000 dollars”. Today, that is the equivalent of almost a quarter of a million dollars.
“Once they got my money, I don’t know what happened”, he would say, “Well, I fell for it. I believed them. I had a nervous breakdown and I disposed of a very profitable business to come here and join my family. I sold up because they had promised to give me care. After I had made over the money to my niece, an account she could draw on without my signature, everything changed. They abused me”.
And yet, the question would always remain, who was abusing who?
On the 24th April 1958, Bernard moved into Room 622 of The Strand Palace Hotel. Needing his own space, it suited his needs. As a small room with a single bed and its own bathroom, it was not unlike his little flat back in Brooklyn, although modernised with a radio, central heating and homely touches.
As a bachelor, the hotel provided him with everything he needed. Every day – Ruby Richardson – the chambermaid would change his sheets, a porter sent his clothes to the cleaners, the bar hosted nightly musicians to keep him entertained, and for an agreeable fee of just 37 shillings a day, he got comfy bed and a decent breakfast, as you’d expect from J Lyons & Co.
According to the staff, Mr Smith was no bother at all, being a gentleman who was polite and kind. Often sleeping in till noon, they rarely saw him, and speaking in a soft whisper, they barely heard him.
As the perfect long-term resident; he always paid his bills, he kept to himself and yet they knew little about him as (being deaf) “he was hard to understand”. He never had guests, he never saw friends, he always left a tip and each night he would head to Tuffnall Park to have dinner with his sister – Lila.
Bernard would remain at the hotel for five weeks…
…with his stay only broken when he murdered his sister.
His evening routine was always the same. At roughly 5pm, he would take the Northern Line tube from Charing Cross to Tuffnell Park, and – in checked-jacket and pressed slacks - shuffled the four-minute walk to Lila’s house at 83 Huddleston Road, a three storey terrace she shared with her husband David.
He loved his sister, he liked her cooking and he appreciated their company, but there was always an undercurrent of tension around the table, as not only were Lila & David not used to Bernard having such a foul and unpredictable temper, but he had begun to question his relationship with his sisters.
On Monday 2nd June 1958, the day before her death, their heated discussions would come to a head over dinner. As he would state “whenever we got together, they always abused me”. For Bernard, his retirement was a mistake; as an American, he missed his home; as a businessman, his missed his work; and although he had no friends nor family in New York, he didn’t feel he had family in England either.
Realising that all of this was a huge mistake, he had begun to pack his bags, he had booked a ticket to New York on board a boat sailing the next day, and he wanted his life back, as well as his money.
There were two ways to look at this situation; his sister’s way, as fearing that their elderly brother in his declining years would once again be so far away that they could no longer protect him; or Bernard’s way, that he was simply fighting to stop his greedy scheming sisters from stealing his fortune.
That night, as forcefully as he could (which wasn’t all that forceful), Bernard insisted that Lila gave him the letter relating to his finances that his niece Rene had sent him, courtesy of Lila and David. When asked, they would deny any such letter existed – but was this the truth, or part of his paranoia?
With that, he left his sister’s home, and would never return.
Tuesday 3rd June 1958 was to be Bernard’s last day in the UK.
With so much to do, Ruby the chambermaid was surprised to see Bernard awake at such an early hour as 10:15am, but there he was - fully-dressed and bright as a button. Listening carefully to his barely audible whisper, he softly asked her if she would mind tidying his room next, as his sister was on her way over to the hotel. Last night, having snapped out of his mood, he had apologised as always and – being a good sister – she had agreed to help him pack, before bidding her big brother a goodbye.
As a man who was easy-to-spot and impossible not to miss, as sometimes his voice was too loud, a wealth of witnesses would see the final hour of Lila Gilman’s life, and it was as ordinary as any other.
Arriving at The Strand Palace Hotel at 11am, as planned, she enquired at reception “I’m here for my brother, Mr Smith”, and a few minutes later, he came down, and they sat in the bar drinking coffee. With Bernard in checks and slacks, and Lila in a green cardie and a pink hat, they were unmistakable.
According to the other diners, their conversation was calm and pleasant, but no-one heard its content.
At 11:30am, with his ship sailing from Southampton at 3pm, they rose in the lift to the sixth floor, and entered his room, even though the chambermaid hadn’t finished. On the bed were two half-packed cases, and according to Ruby, “they appeared very normal”, there were no bad words nor sour looks.
Moments later, Ruby left the room promising to return and complete her work…
… that was the last time that Lila was seen alive.
(Street sounds and silence).
It’s unclear exactly what happened during the forty-five minutes that they were alone.
At 12:15pm, Ruby heard Bernard shouting, but as a deaf man prone to loud words, she took no notice.
With the windows open, Elisabeth Mortimer, a secretary in an office directly opposite on Exeter Street heard a woman’s screams: “I looked out, I could see two figures inside struggling”. The Room was 622.
One hour later, hearing no sounds and believing they had left, Ruby went to finish cleaning the room.
Below a half-open window, Lila Gilman lay slumped on the floor. A vicious fight had clearly taken place as her pink hat was across the other side of the room, and her dislodged earrings lay several feet apart.
With nothing stolen, there was no robbery. With no weapon, the murder was not premeditated. And yet - with her blood having pooled about her head and thick droplets having spattered two feet up the wall - her death had been savage and brutal, as with all of his strength, he had kicked her to death.
Curled up, with extensive bruises to her hands and arms, as she had tried to defend herself from her attacker; her breast bone was fractured, two sets of ribs were broken, and with multiple lacerations and abrasions to her face, chest and neck, he had stamped on her head with a lot of pent-up rage.
Certified dead at 3:05pm, her cause of death was brain haemorrhage, caused by kicking and stamping.
With no denying who the guilty party was – as his fingerprints were in the room, alongside his hearing aid and his American passport – Police sent out an alert for a wanted killer called Bernard Smith. (End)
Every dock, station and airport were searched, his photo was issued and his description given, but no-one had seen him. Nine hours later, on Waterloo Bridge, barely a minute’s walk from the hotel, PC Robert Richardson spotted Bernard Smith and he calmly gave himself up. When asked where he had been, he admitted he had aimlessly been walking around, unable to comprehend what he had done.
Examined at Bow Street police station, Bernard – who was helpful and co-operative, if hard of hearing – gave a full confession, being soaked through from his socks to his knees with Lila’s blood. When he heard that she was dead, he broke down, howling “I must be crazy, crazy, crazy. I loved my sister”.
In his recollection of the events leading up to her murder, Bernard would state: “I asked her why I couldn’t see the letters from my niece. She was rude to me and went to hit me with her bag. Everything came up in me which had been accumulating, I went crazy and (then everything went) blank”.
Examined at Brixton Prison, the Quiet American was deemed mentally competent and fit to stand trial.
Tried at the Old Bailey from the 8th to the 11th July 1958, having pleaded ‘guilty’ to manslaughter by diminished responsibility, Bernard was sentenced to life in prison. As a US citizen, he was deported back to New York, where he served the remainder of his sentence, until his death a few years later.
Upon investigation, Police found no letter from Rene to Bernard in the possession of his sister Lila.
** LEGAL DISCLAIMER
The Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast has been researched using the original declassified police investigation files, court records, press reports and as many authentic sources as possible, which are freely available in the public domain, including eye-witness testimony, confessions, autopsy reports, first-hand accounts and independent investigation, where possible. But these documents are only as accurate as those recounting them and recording them, and are always incomplete or full of opinion rather than fact, therefore mistakes and misrepresentations can be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast is a 'dramatisation' of the events and not a documentary, therefore a certain amount of dramatic licence, selective characterisation and story-telling (within logical reason and based on extensive research) has been taken to create a fuller picture. It is not a full and complete representation of the case, the people or the investigation, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity, speed and the drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, and therefore it will contain a certain level of bias and opinion to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated. Murder Mile is just one possible retelling of each case. Murder Mile does not set out to cause any harm or distress to those involved, and those who listen to the podcast or read the transcripts provided should be aware that by accessing anything created by Murder Mile (or any source related to any each) that they may discover some details about a person, an incident or the police investigation itself, that they were unaware of.
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 nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British Podcast Awards".
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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