Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast - #198: The Soho Strangler - Part Two - The Murder of 'French Fifi'
Nominated BEST TRUE-CRIME PODCAST at The British Podcast Awards, 4th Best True Crime Podcast by The Week, The Telegraph's Top Five True-Crime Podcasts, The Guardian and TalkRadio's Podcast of the Week, Podcast Magazine's Hot 50 and iTunes Top 25.
EPISODE ONE HUNDRED AND NINETY-EIGHT:
This is Part Two of Two of The Soho Strangler.
Having discovered the body of 41-year-old prostitute 'French Fifi' in her bedroom, the police surgeon had determined that that her death was "most probably a suicide" given all the evidence placed before him. But what it a suicide, or was this the first fledgling killing by The Soho Strangler.
CLICK HERE to download the Murder Mile podcast via iTunes and to receive the latest episodes, click "subscribe". You can listen to it by clicking PLAY on the embedded media player below.
As many photos of the case are copyright protected by greedy news organisations, to view them, take a peek at my entirely legal social media accounts - Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
The location is marked with a mustard yellow exclamation mark (!) above the words 'Piccadilly Circus'. 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.
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:
The suicide of French Fifi was a shock, but not shocking; there was no rush and no fuss, just sadness.
Felicite would state “I made a cup of tea and I took it to the bedroom, the door was half open. I saw madame on her back with her feet on the floor and with one shoe and stocking off. I thought she had too much to drink. I said ‘madam, here’s your tea’. I touched her hand. She was dead and cold…”.
Descending to The Globe Club on the first floor, in broken English, Felicite stammered “madame dead, madame dead”, as hysterical as anyone who had found their friend of 15 years, deceased. Seeing her distress, Charles Bull the manager, Joseph Phillips the doorkeeper and Lance George an actor entered the bedroom of Flat 1 on the third floor of 3-4 Archer Street, and saw her body, at peace, on the bed.
With Soho being a place synonymous with sex, the suicide of a prostitute was not an uncommon sight, given the stresses of their lives; a hopeless never-ending cycle of drink, debt, depression and abuse.
As expected; Charles Bull alerted a constable, PC Hill secured the scene and summoned a doctor, Dr Re of Frith Street pronounced ‘life as extinct’, and – as her cause of death had to be determined, as suicide was still a criminal offence – the CID of Vine Street were called in, with the investigation headed up by Divisional Detective Inspector John Edwards and Chief Superintendent Walter Hambrook.
The crime scene was assessed methodically.
The door to Flat 1 was examined by a locksmith who determined there was no tampering, no damage and no signs of break-in. The flat had three keys, one for Fifi, one for her maid and one for the landlady – Vera Richards, all of which were accounted for, with Fifi’s found in a new handbag in the bedroom.
With the light-switches to the hallway and the bedroom in the ‘on’ position, a shilling in the meter but both light-bulbs off, it was assumed she had died with the lights on, only for the money to run out.
As a spotlessly clean flat, it was clear what had been touched since the maid had left 36 hours prior; the ashtray contained several stubs of spent cigarettes (of differing brands) belonging to herself and the men she may have entertained that evening; as well as one plate, one knife, one fork and one cup, all used for a last meal before bed, with an oily pan on the hob and a pot of tea half drunk and cold.
Found days later, witnesses came forward and pieced together her last known possible movements; a chat with the doorman at Mac’s Club on Great Windmill Street at 2am and a black coffee at The Old Friar’s café in Ham Yard, before she left and headed one street east to Archer Street. Both confirm, she was alone and seemed a little lonely, but she didn’t seem harassed, and no-one was following her.
Speaking to her friends, no-one recalled anything suspicious in the days prior; no threats, no stalking and no unusual levels of assault for this struggling sex-worker with debts to several local businesses.
Speaking to the building’s tenants proved equally as fruitless, as with both clubs (The Globe and Cairo) closed, the communal street-door was locked at midnight, the second floor was vacant and the fourth floor flats were uninhabited, all the police could rely on was the account of Millie, next door in Flat 2.
At 1am, “I passed her door”, Millie would state “and I noticed her hall-light was on. This was unusual. I shouted to her but got no reply”. At 2am, in a taxi, “I came back with a friend”, William Charles-Hill known as ‘John Cow’, “he spent the night, we stayed up till about 4:30am and we heard nothing”.
In the bedroom, there were no signs of disturbance; her coat was on the chair, the drawers were shut, her ornaments were on the dresser, her radio was where it sat (as determined by the slight bleaching of sunlight) and the curtains were open roughly 12 inches, meaning that at the time of her death, her bed and her body was illuminated by either a single bulb above, or the street-lights on a timed circuit.
Had this been an assault, a sense of panic and fear would have pervaded the room, but it was calm.
Her body was positioned as expected; as having sat on the bed’s edge to remove her stocking, she had tied it about her neck and fallen backwards, leaving her feet on the floor and her head on the pillow.
Her clothes were neat and undisturbed; her brown tweed skirt still fastened with a safety pin, her underwear – blue silk cami-knickers, a pair of woollen knickers and a white woollen vest – hadn’t been interfered with, and off her white linen and satin suspender belt was a fake silk stocking on her right leg fastened with two clips, as off her left leg, a stocking had been unclipped and carefully rolled down without a tear, run or rip, as she then placed her blue court shoe under her bed. Tied twice about her neck, those who found her body didn’t see the stocking, as it was concealed by a grey woollen jumper.
As seen in traumatic deaths, often the deceased dies with their last expression etched on their face – a hint of shock, fear or tears - where-as Fifi’s face was the epitome of peace, like her pain had erased.
By the night’s end, she looked as she had at the start; her lips rouged in red, her eyelids brushed black, her short brown bob kept in place with a set of Kirkby grips, and her “claw-like” fingernails unbroken.
With no suicide note found (which is not unusual), her mood was determined by the detritus of worry on her bedside dresser; Post Office receipts to send her lover Jimmy a few pounds to aid his recovery from heroin addiction, and her final fine, bail bond and court summons for the crime of prostitution.
At 1:50pm, Divisional Police Surgeon Charles Burney undertook a preliminary examination of the body in situ, ensuring it was neither touched nor moved to preserve any evidence, no matter how small.
The stocking was tied twice about her neck using a ‘half hitch’ knot, a common but carefully considered load-bearing knot which - once she had started to lose consciousness (which would have occurred early given her low blood pressure) - she would need a knot which retained its position as her hands and body went limp. Dr Burney would state that with a few of her hairs and her grey jumper’s tassel tangled within “it is possible that it was caught in the knot while she was standing or sitting up”. It was tied by a right hander, Fifi was right-handed and she had died clutching the stocking in her right hand.
Initially, her cause of death was most likely ‘asphyxia’, she had been dead for ‘8 to 10 hours’ putting her time of death at between 4am and 6am although “rigor mortis is delayed in cases of sudden death”, and asked for a suspected motive, Dr Burney would state “it was probably a case of suicide”.
But when asked how certain he was, he would state “it was fifty-fifty”.
The Police thought it was a suicide, the evidence suggested it was a suicide, the Police Surgeon had implied it was a suicide, and with very little to suggest otherwise, only an autopsy would find the truth.
By 6pm, as the body of Josephine Martin was removed to Westminster mortuary, the press had begun sniffing about the death of a prostitute in the seedy underbelly of the West End. (News vendor) “Extra! Extra! Read all about it… Italy’s big push in Abyssinia” was the headline in the Daily Telegraph, as the Second Italo-Ethiopian War raged on. With a British election looming, the Evening Standard went with “New MPs announced” and – as the tabloid moto is “if it bleeds it leads” – the press were salivating over the grisly murders of Dr Buck Ruxton; a crime so savage, that having mutilated their bodies into so many pieces, the press had dubbed him ‘the Savage Surgeon’ and his crimes as ‘the Jigsaw murders’.
The death of ‘French Fifi’ was deemed so unimportant that these small articles reporting the case were hidden deep in the newspapers, and they would have been binned had it not been a slow news day.
Keen to play up the salacious angles, the press slathered over any fact to make this dull story drip with intrigue; that she was “French”, “unmarried” and a “prostitute”. They drooled over every detail about the stocking, the flat and her habits. They added their own flourishes like “artificial respiration was tried in vain” which was untrue. They did anything to make it exciting, as suicides don’t sell papers.
In the Daily Herald dated the 5th November 1935, her death made front-page news; “Woman’s Death Mystery in West End Flat. Strangled by her own stocking. Scotland Yard officers investigating the death mystery of a woman in a Soho flat had not ruled out the possibility that she had been murdered”.
The autopsy to determine her cause of death was still taking place…
…and yet, this detail was enough of a ‘seed’ to plant a ‘hint’ of a mystery of a ‘possible murder’.
With the public only able to get their “facts’ from newspapers, by the time that witnesses to Fifi’s last sightings were unearthed, their details had already been sullied by what they had read. Interviewed days after her death, the doorman and the café owner were deemed reliable witnesses, although it couldn’t be determined if they had actually seen her on the night of her death, or hours to days prior.
Witness statements are notoriously flawed, often being riddled with elaboration, confusion, fibs, false facts and downright lies, as everyone has their own reason to aid an investigation. Some may be good Samaritans simply keen to do what is right, whereas others are in it for fame, spite or personal gain.
Head Waiter at the Criterion in Piccadilly stated he saw ‘French Fifi’ with two women in the Grill Room at 3:30am. This turned out to be a different French brunette, as by that point, she was already dead.
Taxi-driver Charles Branch confirmed in his logbook that at 1:30am on the night in question, he picked up a small woman from 3-4 Archer Street, drove her to Caledonian Road near King’s Cross, where she waited for a man, he drove them back to her address and they both entered via the street door. He stated, “owing to her mannerisms, it struck me at the time that something was wrong”. Police would determine that she had climbed the stairs to the third floor and entered her flat with the man. Only this woman was Millie, Fifi’s neighbour in Flat 2 and the man was Millie’s friend William Charles Hill.
And then there was Sydney Bloom, a Jewish seller of contraception to prostitutes in the West End who had volunteered information that between 9:15pm and 10pm he saw Fifi on Glasshouse Street with a man. But being “an incorrigible rogue” with nine convictions for larceny, he had “offered his assistance to the police” having first informed them of his own “impending trial”, a tit-for-tat scam he had done several times prior. Discounting his sighting, Sydney Bloom was sentenced to four months hard labour.
As with newspapers, witnesses can be unreliable for a variety of reasons, as not everything in print is a cast iron fact and (being littered with omissions, opinion and bias) It’s hard to tell what the truth is.
In the investigation into the death of Josephine Martin, known as ‘French Fifi’…
… the police would rely on the most infallible piece of evidence - her autopsy.
On Tuesday 5th November 1935 at 11:30am, the autopsy began at Westminster Mortuary, conducted by the Home Office pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, in the presence of the Police surgeon Dr Charles Burney and Divisional Detective Inspector John Edwards. In it, the following was agreed:
Time of death: “difficult to determine as the heating was meter-powered and the window was partially open making the room temperature inconsistent… the body was rigid and putrefactive gases were felt beneath the skin…” therefore this would place her time of death nearer to the hours of 1am and 3am.
Condition: “the deceased was healthy with no natural disease to account for her death”, she was small and often sickly but “she was well developed and could have put up a good resistance” to an attack.
Sexual motive: with no torn clothing, no bruises to the thighs and no semen inside her vagina, “there is no indication of any recent act of sexual intercourse, or any attempt at the time of her death”.
Bruising: “some recent and old bruises, but nothing within the last day”, but later found hidden amidst the purple swelling of her neck was a fresh bruise to her left jaw. Although, given the abuse they often endure, the Police would state “try find a West End prostitute who does not have bruises to her neck”.
Digestion: in her kitchen, she had made a last meal for one, but with her stomach only containing “a brown liquid” (most likely the tea) and “tomato or apple skin” (not found in the flat), with no trace of a fried egg in her gastric juices, either she ate them earlier that night, or someone else ate the eggs?
Both doctors confirmed that her cause of death was “asphyxia by strangulation” - as her larynx was crushed, her tongue swollen, her eyes protruded from their sockets and she had wet herself. But Sir Bernard would query “if she had died by ligature strangulation, I’d have expected to see more lividity”.
Her face was ‘at peace’ when she died, but “that is no guide as to whether it was murder or suicide”.
Having been photographed, the stocking was removed and sent to the laboratory.
Twisted taut, bound twice and tied tightly about her neck, the stocking had been fastened with a half hitch knot under her right ear, suggesting it had been secured by a right-handed person, like Fifi. And although the suddenness of the unconsciousness could account for the lack of scratches or struggle, Sir Bernard would comment “she had either died or was at the point of death when the ligature was tied… after the hand was removed from the neck, she gave a gasp or two, the bloodstained mucus in the airways was then inhaled, vomit got into the airway and then the stocking was passed around her neck twice, tied in a half hitch and held for a while”. When found, the ligature was tight and secure.
Of that, Sir Bernard would quip “I have never known a woman to strangle herself with her own hand”.
Partially obscured by the stocking and its ensuing swollen wounds, bruises were observed; four fingers to the right of her neck and a thumb mark to the left. Larger than her own, their origin impossible was to date for a prostitute who had recently been attacked by “a foreigner who got hold of her throat”.
At the back of her bloodied mouth having bitten her tongue, her dental plate (of four teeth mounted on Vulcanite) was found shattered into three pieces. Possibly linked to the bruise on her jaw, Sir Bernard would state “in my opinion, the breaking of the dental plate is indicative of murder”. And with “haemorrhages in the bladder, intestines and rectum” a knee had been pressed hard on the abdomen.
With so-many variables – like; were her injuries the result of two different assaults on the same or separate nights, an assault which led to her suicide, or an attack which led to her murder - although Dr Spilsbury was emphatic “this was a homicide”, Dr Burney was torn, as “this could still be a suicide”.
The two experts would debate this for the next three weeks, leaving Detective Inspector Edwards to conclude his report of the 9th November 1935, “the whole circumstances of the case are mysterious”.
The Police needed ‘time’ to compile the ‘evidence’ to find the ‘truth’…
They had several possible suspects:
Henry V Martin, her ex-husband by a (possible) ‘marriage of convenience’ was later traced to America, having not seen her in more than a decade. Albert Mechanique, her brother had an alibi for the night of her death and – although dubbed ‘a common criminal’ who was ‘always in debt’ - it made no sense for Albert to murder his sister, as she had been financially supporting him for the last few months. Even though an anonymous letter to the Police branded French Albert “as a rascal… and a ponce”.
As for her lovers? Caesar Mary was in Brussels with an alibi, and – although he stated “it was Fifi who put me away” – he wasn’t angry, upset and - after his deportation - he never made any threats against her. As for Jimmy Orr, he arrived at Caldicott Hall in Nuneaton two days earlier to begin his drug detox, and he didn’t leave the premises – as confirmed by his doctors – until he was made aware of her death.
With no regular clients and those she was in debt-to being pals, the Police interviewed hundreds of witnesses, suspects and anyone with a history of violence against prostitutes, but they came up blank.
The public fed them their suspicions – usually ex-lovers and former friends in the hope of getting them into trouble – as well as usual bigoted band of society’s villains who were blamed for everything simply because they were different; such as foreigners, gays, Jews, bohemians, the insane and the disabled.
With nothing new to say, the Police went quiet…
…and with nothing new to report, the Press into overdrive.
6th November, the Daily Herald, “Silk Stocking Riddle Baffles Police. Nearly two days after the discovery of the body… Scotland Yard are unable to state how she died… acquaintances of ‘French Fifi told us they had always feared that “sooner or later she’d be killed by some man”. The source of that quote was never found, and by then her death was still listed as a suicide, but then suicides don’t sell papers.
The Herald incorrectly wrote; “…detectives believe that robbery was the motive… friends declare ‘Fifi’ had large sums of money in her flat” - which was untrue as she was broke and only 1p was found. The Evening Standard also declared “£9 Gone from Stocking of Dead Woman”, and although “she kept her money in the heel of her left stocking”; it’s impossible to say how much she earned or what happened to it; whether spent, stolen, sent it to Jimmy (and subsequently lost) or – as the Police suspected – “it is possible that it may have been stolen by those who found her body”, most of whom were criminals.
Awaiting the outcome of the autopsy; the press wrote about ‘plain-clothed officers patrolling Soho’, ‘suspicious men being followed’ and unverified quotes by mystery sources about ‘imminent arrests’.
But as the days of radio silence turned into weeks with no solid facts, the Press needed to find a fresh angle to keep their readers interested, some of which was been born out of a tiny nugget of truth.
The Press had already decided two things; one that she had been murdered, and two, “as the police intensified their search of scores of cafes and nightclubs in the West End…” in an “intensive combing of the underworld”, that her murderer must be local, working-class, possibly foreign and a criminal.
One day after her death, the Daily Herald declared “(we) understand that the woman was believed to have given evidence which this year had led to a sensational court case”. Of course, there is record of a court case, no mention of it in her police file and not one single newspaper reported this “sensational court case” in the months prior to her death - but if you print it, people will believe it to be a fact.
On 27th November 1935, The People stated “Death of ‘French Fifi’ baffles yard… was she the victim of a gang of white slavers… some believe she made statements which led to their arrests”. Now this was true with Cesar Mary, but as a French prostitute, there is no evidence she was ever trafficked.
On the 1st December 1935, the Sunday Pictorial, a sleazy tabloid rag raised the stakes higher; “French Fifi was White Slaver. Murdered by Gang Because She Knew Too Much”. Which there was no proof of, but given that she was dead, they could print whatever they liked, even if it was entirely false. It read;
“French Fifi had an amazing career in the underworld which the police are now fully aware” - this was a lie. “She is said to have been an agent of a gang of white slave traffickers” - she wasn’t. “For months, Scotland Yard has been waging war on marriages of conveniences” - this was true, although her only known link was a suspiciously short marriage, and “some days before French Fifi was found murdered a Scotland Yard inspector called to see her to obtain information about gang members… the gang had communicated with her, for letters from one of its members were found in the flat… ’French Fifi’ had undoubtably paid the penalty for knowing too much” – not a single shred of which could be proven.
Sadly, for simple-minded readers of such tabloid trash who couldn’t comprehend that a newspaper’s role is as much to inform as it is to entertain, a simple fact had entirely passed them by. if Fifi was a white slaver, why was she so poor, why did she work alone, and why did she still sell her body for sex?
Part of this misinformation is down to their need to sell salacious stories, as well as the Police’s attitude during the investigation; as although solid statements were given, the report claims “…her associates are prostitutes and criminals which has made it difficult to get truthful and coherent statements”, she is repeatedly described not as “the victim” but as “the dead prostitute”, and – with robbery suggested as a possible motive – the ensuing attack was blamed on her, as “she was getting old, fat and ugly”.
After three weeks of deliberation, Sir Bernard Spilsbury and Dr Charles Burney resolved their findings into the autopsy of Josephine Martin, alias ‘French Fifi’. Re-opened on Tuesday 26th November 1935 at 2pm, the inquest into her death was held at Westminster Coroner’s Court, by Mr Ingleby Oddie.
With several witnesses giving evidence, including; her friends Freda Miller, Clara Bennett & Lilly Hayes, her neighbour Millicent Warren and Home Office pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the inquest was concluded the same day, with the coroner declaring her death as a “wilful murder by person of persons unknown”, although the pathologists would state this is a likelihood of probability, not a cast iron fact.
With no suspects to be questioned and no eyewitnesses to her murder, both the investigation and the inquest were closed, as every possible avenue had been exhausted, resulting in no charges nor arrests.
Just like Jack the Ripper - three miles east and almost fifty years earlier - the murderer of ‘French Fifi’ had fled unseen, leaving no clues as to his motive or his identity. Having vanished into thin air, it was as if he didn’t exist. And with this death initially mistaken for a suicide, no-one knew that this was the first fledgling killing by a serial killer who stalked the sex-workers of West London’s red-light district.
By 1935, the Soho Strangler was nothing, being barely a whisper on the breeze. But with his killing spree just beginning, soon this man would become a monster, a sadistic slayer who would unleash terror on the streets, making him as infamous (in his day) as Jack the Ripper… and then, be forgotten.
Part Three of the Soho Strangler continues next week.
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 crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
Subscribe to the Murder Mile true-crime podcast
Note: This blog contains only licence-free images or photos shot by myself in compliance with UK & EU copyright laws. If any image breaches these laws, blame Google Images.