Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast - #197: The Soho Strangler - Part One - The Suicide of 'French Fifi'
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EPISODE ONE HUNDRED AND NINETY-SEVEN:
This is Part One of Two of The Soho Strangler.
On Monday 4th November 1935, at roughly noon, the body of 41—year-old Josephine Martin, a Soho prostitute known as ‘French Fifi’ was found by her maid in her own bed, having asphyxiated herself using her own stocking. Wracked with debts and depression, her death was noted as “possibly a suicide”… when in fact, it was the first killing by The Soho Strangler.
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SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
COURT RECORDS: Josephine Martin ('French Fifi') found murdered at Archer Street, W, on Monday 4th November 1935 https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C1257744
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
(1880s sounds). News vendor: “Extra! Extra! Read all about it. Jack the Ripper baffles Scotland Yard”.
1888, Whitechapel, home to East London’s sex-trade; a sinister shadow stalked its dark brooding alleys brutally slaying a slew of so-called ‘fallen’ women in a viscous spree over just a few streets. Fleeing unseen and leaving no clues, the mystery of Jack the Ripper’s identity and motive fuelled a burgeoning tabloid media baying for blood in print, making his killings as infamous today as they were back then.
Jack the Ripper was the first spree-killer of his kind… but he wasn’t the last.
(1930s sounds). News vendor: “Extra! Extra! Read all about it. Soho Strangler baffles Scotland Yard”.
1935, Soho, almost fifty years later and three miles west, an unseen slayer stalked the fog-wreathed streets of West London’s red-light district. Four woman – all poor, all foreign, all linked to the sex trade and all unnervingly similar in life or looks – were strangled alone in their beds, with escalating ferocity.
Dubbed ‘The Soho Strangler’, this lone maniac terrorised these few streets, leaving women in fear, the police at a loss, and – with no witnesses or clues - even today, all four murders remain unsolved.
Syndicated worldwide, newspapers from London to Lisbon, Chicago to Karachi fed off the fever of his killing-spree; it made Soho a byword for terror, the Strangler a sadist to be feared and it bestowed a notoriety on his four unfortunate victims - ‘French Fifi’. Marie Cotton, ‘Dutch Leah’ and ‘French Marie’.
The Soho Strangler was once the Jack the Ripper of his era…
…but with fascists on the rise, Nazis seizing power and a ‘real’ horror looming on the horizon, death would soon come (not to a few, but) to hundreds in Soho and millions across the world. And although, both of these cases were strangely similar, one remained infamous as the other was entirely forgotten.
Limitless books have tried to solve the riddle of the Ripper killings, but what stalls every investigation is the lack of evidence, as most of the documents were lost, stolen or inaccurately regurgitated by a tabloid press focussed on
speed and not accuracy. 135 years on, it’s unlikely that it will ever be solved…
…and yet, in the case of The Soho Strangler, we have everything, from court records to police files, autopsy reports, witness statements, coroner’s inquests and full histories of his victims and suspects.
Told in full for the very first time, this is the true story of Britain’s long-forgotten serial-killer…
…The Soho Strangler. (Music swells)
Archer Street, Soho; the seedy heart of the West End’s theatre and sex-trade is a cramped little slit between Piccadilly Circus, Shaftesbury Avenue and Old Compton Street. Riddled with jazz joints, jizz parlours, pubs, clubs and brothels, it hummed with the sordid bustle and stench of booze and sex.
Monday 4th November 1935, just shy of noon, elderly French maid Felicite Plaisant strolled into 3-4 Archer Street. Passing the Windmill (Soho’s infamous burlesque club), the street-door was unlocked as usual, as she ascended the staircase. The Cairo Club in the basement and the Globe Club on the first floor were silent except for the scrubbing of cleaners prepping for the late-night trade, with the second floor currently vacant, and the third and four floors sublet to four sex-workers in four single flats.
As a prostitute’s maid, Felicite worked a twelve-hour shift for a modest wage of £1 per week. Her job; to make the bed, to wash the sheets, to empty the ash-tray, to ensure the room was spick-and-span, and to generally be invisible to any good or nervous clients, and yet visible to those who were bad.
On the third-floor, she unlocked the door to Flat 1, seeing no movement beyond its frosted glass. With the hall often silent at this hour, Felicite crept in, as her employer – 41-year-old French prostitute Mrs Josephine Martin, known as ‘French Fifi’ – slept till mid-afternoon, having worked from 5pm to 3am.
Nothing seemed out of place or wrong; the rug had rucked up (as it always did) when madame opened the door, several cigarette butts littered the ashtray, and a half-eaten meal of eggs and tea adorned the kitchen table, but - pretty much – the flat was as she had left it thirty-six hours earlier. With no client seen, through a slightly ajar curtain, she saw ‘Fifi’ alone on the bed, fully dressed and flaked out.
As per usual, Felicite popped a kettle on the hob to make them both a cuppa for the long day ahead.
Felicite would state: “I took it to the bedroom… she was lying on her back with her feet on the floor and with one shoe and stocking off. I put the tea on the dressing table… I caught hold of her hand, I shook it, and said ‘here’s your tea madam’. Her hand was stiff and cold. I then realised she was dead”.
Having taken her own life, using her own stocking to cease her own breath, her passing marked the sad and tragic end to the turbulent life of a good woman who only wanted to be loved. Sickness, loss and depression had pock-marked her final years, only for her to succumb to a very lonely suicide.
The death of ‘French Fifi’ was as unremarkable as it was forgotten…
…and yet, unbeknownst to the world, it was the first fledgling killing of the Soho Strangler.
Long before she hid behind her alias, ‘French Fifi’ was born Josephine Mechanique on the 22nd of July 1894 in Paris; the eldest of two siblings with an older brother Albert. Raised by Russian Jews in a French suburb, the family frequently moved to flee their persecution as immigrants. And given her chaotic upbringing, it was no surprise that wherever she fled to, Josephine was always desperate to find love.
Seen as softly spoken and sensitive, she was described as “a good girl who kept her family well”, “a quiet soul who seldom spoke to anyone”, and a “woman who doesn’t just fall in love, she becomes besotted and will do anything for the person she adores”. Being ‘easy on the eye’, Josephine was a petite and slightly plump brunette, with her hair in a bob, long fingernails and a set of ruby red lips.
In 1901, for reasons unknown, seven-year-old Josephine was brought to England, leaving behind her mother, but followed one year later by 16-year-old Albert who would live off Leicester Square and worked as teacher at an Oxford Street dance school. Working alongside her tailor father in the French parts of Soho, she was educated and knew the streets well, but her English would always be broken.
Aged 14, in 1910, she returned to Paris, only her true home held nothing but horror for the young girl.
According to James Orr, a later lover of Josephine’s: “some man became acquainted with her”. Being so besotted by him that she did as he bayed “he put her on the streets”; a little girl forced to sell her virginity to seedy strangers in Rue Pigalle, the dark and dangerous streets of Paris’ red-light district.
Made pregnant by a man who had pimped her out and ponced off her illegal earnings, her illegitimate child was born in secret, adopted under a false name, and she never saw her only child ever again.
By the end of the First World War and after four years as a prostitute, ‘Fifi’ moved back to London; although it is uncertain if she fled or was trafficked by French pimps as part of the ‘white slave trade’.
Either way, from this point on, her life was no longer her own.
In September 1919 at Marylebone Registry Office, barely months after her return to Soho, 24-year-old Josephine Mechanique married British citizen Henry V Martin, a waiter at the nearby Trocadero.
I wish I could tell you that she found love and lived happily ever after, but she didn’t. It’s likely this was a marriage of convenience, possibly paid for by her pimps, so her newly established British citizenship would make it impossible to deport her for crimes she would commit to pay off her debts to her pimps.
After just six months, Josephine and Henry split and he promptly moved to America to start a new life for himself, possibly funded by the small wage he was paid for an afternoon’s work. She rarely spoke of him again, but retained his surname and the wedding ring, which would gift her some respectability.
That same year, being sick with loneliness, Josephine fell for Cesar Mary, a serial philanderer who worked at the Belgian Consulate in Belgravia. Wooing her with fine words and gifting her a good life – of a nice flat, fancy furs and lavish cocktail parties - he fulfilled her dreams. So besotted was Josephine, that on her right thigh, she’d tattooed an unfortunate epitaph, it read - ‘To my Cesar, forever till I die’.
Only with his love a cruel sham, it’s likely his legitimate job was a ruse to hide his illicit affairs and – as was a familiar trick employed by the white slave trade – he gave her everything, only to take it away.
Living in poverty but fuelled by the hope of a return to ‘the good life’, as ‘French Fifi’, Josephine would be forced to pay her way, with an ever-escalating fee to her pimps, which she could never pay off.
In short, she was trapped in a circle of sex and debt…
…and yet, although little and quiet, Josephine had a fiery temper when things got a little too hot.
In 1923, after three years living under Cesar’s rule, she packed up her belongings, moved in with her brother Albert, and – doing something as brave as it was foolish – following her arrest for prostitution, she appeared at Bow Street Police Court as witness for the prosecution against Cesar. Found guilty of ‘living off her immoral earnings’ he was sentenced to one month’s hard labour and – as an illegal alien – on 6th September 1927, he was deported back to Belgium, later stating “it was Fifi who put me away”.
It is said that she never saw Cesar ever again.
But as ‘white slavers’ rely on aliases, lies and alibis…
…none of what has been said can ever be proven.
By 1927, after 17 years as a prostitute, all ‘French Fifi’ knew was sex. Shielded by a nom-de-plume, her alias gave a hint of the exotic to her working-class punters, but it also shrouded her truth in a mystery.
As a well-known and well-liked figure in Soho’s sex-district; she plied her trade on Glasshouse Street (a short thoroughfare from Piccadilly Circus to the eastern edge of Regent Street); she always dressed elegantly in fine furs, neat make-up and discrete but affordable jewellery; she was always polite, often alone, but blessed with many friends who were prostitutes, they escorted one another for protection.
Post-Cesar, it is unknown whether she had a pimp, but as Soho’s prostitution rackets were ran by a slew of foreign criminals - whether French pimps like Roger Vernon and the Marseille Collective, Red Max and the Iron Gang, or Maltese gangsters like the Messina Brothers and the Vassallo Gang – until the day of her death, Josephine would amass 74 convictions for prostitution and brothel-keeping.
‘French Fifi’ was a professional prostitute, who ate well, lived an okay life and earned a modest wage…
…and yet, that year would ignite a tragic downfall which would end with her lonely suicide.
In 1928 - buckled by cramps, bleeding and dizzy spells - 34-year-old Josephine was rushed to Middlesex Hospital, as cancer was spotted on her womb. Given an emergency hysterectomy which saved her life, although she remained under medical care, it would plague her with pains for the rest of her days. Her maid would state “Madam was always sick…”; cursed by sharp pains in her back, hot flushes to her face, dysentery, fever, shortness of breath, and a blood pressure so low she often passed out.
Discharged after three months, she went straight back to work, all broken and withdrawn.
On the 9th November 1933, Josephine moved into Flat 1 on the third floor of 3-4 Archer Street in Soho, between the Lyric Theatre and The Windmill; a busy side-street chock-full of musicians, dancers and actors, as well as pubs and clubs supplying a passing trade of drunks with ready cash and raging boners.
Split into a sitting-room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom, Vera Richards the landlady liked her French tenant as she “always kept a spotlessly clean flat” and “only once was late with her £2 rent”.
For Josephine, her professionalism was a matter of pride; her dresses were stylish, her fur coats were neat, her make-up was subtle and her stockings never had a rip or a run. To her French maid, 72-year-old widow Felicite, she was always kind, caring and never failed to pay her wage, even if she was short.
By 1935, her last year alive, times were hard for Josephine.
Described as “tight with money and always sober”, where-as once this exquisite French beauty with a doll-like frame, searing blue eyes and pouting red lips had her pick of the ten-or-so clients a night that her sultry Parisienne murmur lured in, now – cracked, faded and often bedridden for days on end – this middle-aged, lightly-greying, slightly pudgy woman struggled to muster three drunks, at best four.
According to Millie, a friend and fellow sex-worker “she didn’t have a type, she slept with anyone, Chinese, even coloureds”, and earning (if it was her own) an okay wage of £4 to £6 per night depending on the weather, “she had no regular callers, that I know of, and no-one came back for a second time”.
As a teetotaller, her limited funds rarely covered her out-goings. With her looks as her money-maker, although her long-fingernails were neat and painted, the dental-plate of her false teeth was old, she owed debts to a dressmaker, she had hocked her furs meaning she was paying £2 weekly to wear her own clothes, and – except for her wedding band to Henry Martin – she had pawned all of her jewellery.
The Police report would state “there is no doubt that she was heavily in debt and was living a hand-to-mouth existence”, as – of the debts that we know of – by the time of her death, she owned £106 4s and 6d, roughly £8,352 today, just shy of the average annual wage in 1935. But her debt wasn’t a silly lady struggling to look pretty, as being “a good girl who kept her family well”, she supported her brother Albert and his wife for months, and often bailed him out of prison, when he needed her most.
Always frugal, she wasn’t a spender, a lush or a squanderer, it was compassion which was her curse, as fuelled by a longing to be loved “she became besotted and would do anything for those she adores”.
In the summer of 1932, at the Lyon’s Corner House tearoom in Piccadilly, Josephine met 29-year-old James Orr known as ‘Jimmy’, a car dealer from Chicago whose handsome looks had got him bit-parts in the movies. What blossomed was love, real love, to a good man who loved her back, and although her life as a convicted prostitute may have put some men off, Jimmy loved Josephine no matter what.
It could have been something wonderful… only Jimmy had a demon – heroin. Cursed with the sickness of addiction, although not a drug-user herself, Josephine loved this man who was decent, kind and through his struggle she supported him through poverty, pain and torment to try and save his soul.
All she wanted was to be loved… and yet, love would be denied her.
By the autumn of 1935, as the nights drew longer and punters grew fewer, as a 41-year-old slightly portly lady with no savings, few family, a recurring sickness, a burden of debt and unable to move on as she was legally-wed, after quarter of a century in sex-work, her tawdry little life was to be her lot.
Felicite would state “I have not heard her threaten to commit suicide… but almost daily she’d complain about things being ‘none too good’ but it was a regular remark in conversation… she was fed-up”.
On Friday 18th October 1935, two weeks before her death, Josephine appeared at Great Marlborough Street Police Court on her final charge of prostitution. As was easiest, she pleaded guilty and paid the 40s fine to the court’s jailer - PC Frederick Pragnall. At her inquest, he would state “she seemed very depressed, she said ‘I’m fed up with this life. I’ve a good mind to finish it. I’m sick of it all’”. Stuck in a vicious cycle of sickness, debt and loneliness, her unremittingly empty life was hard, getting harder…
…and – worse still – it was dangerous.
For prostitutes, violence is an all-too-common part of daily life. One week before her conviction for prostitution, Millie, her neighbour in Flat 2 “heard a quarrel in her room and I knocked on the wall”. Later, Josephine admitted “I had a struggle with a foreigner who got hold of my throat”. But for Millie “it was quite usual for Fifi to have rows with the men she brought home. She would demand more than the agreed price, refuse to undress and was always in a hurry to get the man out of her flat”.
She was last assaulted four days before her death. On Thursday 31st October at roughly 9:30pm, Millie heard Fifi shout ‘come on, give me the money first’, as the foreign ‘bilk’ as she would call him, tried to get the sex without paying. “I banged on the wall and the noise stopped”. The next day, barely shaken, Josephine showed Millie the bruises to her arms (seen at her autopsy) and stated she wasn’t afraid.
It was said that she could handle herself when she had to…
…and too often, she had to.
Having been robbed and burgled more times than she could recall, “she would never take her stocking off in front of a man and she very seldom undressed before him”, not just to speed up the sex, but “she always kept her money in the heel of her left stocking”, as witnessed by her maid and friends.
‘French Fifi’ was tiny and tough, but maybe that last attack was an attack too far for a fed-up woman?
Saturday 2nd November 1935 was her penultimate day alive, and with it came a tidal wave of emotions. Having seen and supported Jimmy every day for the last two years, as much as she would miss him for the next three months, she helped him get into Caldicote Hall, a home for ‘inebriates and drug addicts’.
Without a quibble, she paid his bills, made him meals, gifted him an allowance and would sacrifice her own needs by sending him “to get clean”, 91 miles north-west in the Midlands town of Nuneaton.
That day, she so wanted to kiss him and wish him goodbye, but having left his hotel, it was not to be.
The rest of her day was an ordinary as any other, only her mood was predictably melancholic.
The night was cold and glum, as a bitter wind whistled down Archer Street. But drizzle aside, between 9pm and 11pm, ‘Fifi’ picked up three men (unseen by Felicite) and being quick and quiet “they only stayed for 10 minutes”, with the £2 and 5s she made being posted to Jimmy, and a 2s tip for her maid.
Having changed the sheets and left the flat pretty much as she would find it 36 hours later, at roughly midnight, as Felicite exited the door, Fifi’s last words to her were “Goodnight, I’ll see you on Monday”.
Of course, she wouldn’t… as she would take her own life.
At 12:30am, she met Millie at the Continental Café on Shaftesbury Avenue and lamented her loss as her lover was gone. At 1:15am, she handed her brother 6s as she often did to keep him out of debt, and from 1:30am to 6am, she stayed with her friend Frieda, smoking cigarettes and eating pies. That night, they planned to meet up again later, only this would be the last sighting alive of ‘French Fifi’.
The last 18 hours of her life will always be a mystery.
At 5:30pm, Frieda called Fifi’s phone in her flat, “she sounded happy and said she’d see me later” as they often escorted each other on their patches; Frieda on Green Street and Fifi on Glasshouse Street. As agreed, Frieda waited for her pal at their pre-planned place and time, only oddly, Fifi never arrived.
Interviewed days later, there were a few possible sightings of Fifi, only the details cannot be verified.
Between 9:15pm and 10pm, Sydney Bloom, a Jewish seller of contraception to prostitutes in the West End said he saw Fifi “on her patch and get off with a client”. At 9:20pm, Millie in Flat 2 heard Fifi shout ‘I can’t see the money, you haven’t put it down’, they briefly row and the man left. At 2am, James Weller, doorman at Mac’s Club at 41 Great Windmill Street, a road west of Fifi’s flat said “she wanted to come in… I said no, as woman can’t come in unless escorted by a gentleman”, they had a laugh and “she seemed normal and then left”. And seeing her turn left into Ham Yard, Beatrice, the owner of the Olde Friars Café at 16 Ham Yard served her semi-regular customer a black coffee. According to Beatrice “she sat alone, her arms were folded, no-one spoke to her, and I thought she looked really tired”.
If those dates and times were right, at a little after 2am, one street east, she entered 3-4 Archer Street.
Only nobody saw her, and - with the clubs closed and the tenants out - nobody heard her. (Out)
Alerted by her maid Felicite Plaisant, at 1:50pm Divisional Detective Inspector John Edwards and Police Surgeon Charles Burney conducted an in-situ examination of the body and the scene. With every door and window locked and in good working order, there were no signs of a break-in. With no hint of a robbery, a disturbance or a struggle, foul play was not suspected. And with a half-eaten meal for one of fried eggs and a pot of tea on the kitchen table, it looked like she had dined alone and went to bed.
With the lights out and the curtains still partially drawn, even at night the bedroom would have been lit by the streetlamps outside and the flats opposite, revealing the cold dead body of ‘Fifi’ on her bed.
Lying on her back and fully clothed as if she was merely dozing, her face was described as ‘peaceful’, like her pain had been taken away. As on her dresser, lay painful reminders of her sad little life; Post Office receipts to fund Jimmy’s recovery, and a recent court summons for the crime of prostitution.
As if her suicide was a last-minute decision; her hair was still tidy, her clothes weren’t disarranged, her fingernails were unbroken, and – as she only did when she was alone – she had removed the stocking from her left leg, she had unclipped it and carefully rolled it down so didn’t have a tear, a rip or a run.
Keen to find peace, she wrapped it twice about her neck, tied a half-hitch knot to take the load and as she pulled it tight, her low blood pressure made her to pass-out and the stocking stopped her breath.
With rigor mortis delayed by sudden trauma, her time of death was established as 8 to 10 hours prior, and with no recent bruising, Dr Burney concluded “it was probably a case of suicide”. Released by the coroner Mr Inglby Oddie, four days later her body was buried, paid by a Jewish charitable organisation.
By the evening, a few local papers reported the death by suicide of a Soho prostitute known as ‘French Fifi’. Only, being hastily written by tabloid hacks, many were short and inaccurate, as if nobody cared.
The suicide of ‘French Fifi’ was as unremarkable as it was to be forgotten…
… and yet, unbeknownst to the world, it was the first fledgling killing of the Soho Strangler.
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.
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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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