Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast - #199: The Soho Strangler - Part Three - The 'Mysterious' Death of a Landlady
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EPISODE ONE HUNDRED AND NINETY-NINE
This is Part Three of Ten of The Soho Strangler.
Five months later, the murder of Soho prostitute ‘French Fifi’ was forgotten. On Thursday 16th April 1936, the body of 43-year-old French national Jeanne-Marie Cotton was found dead in her flat. Initially mistaken for an accident or natural causes, a more in-depth-investigation would prove it to be murder, only no-one had noticed the shocking similarities between the mysterious death of Marie Cotton and French Fifi, just two streets south.
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SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
Murder of Jeanne Marie Cousins at Lexington Street, Soho, on 16 April, 1936
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
The morning of Friday 17th April 1936 was deathly still, as a damp fog hung. Drenched in sober silence, a small crowd bowed their heads, as down the staircase and through the street-door of 47 Lexington Street, two men in mournful suits carried a black wooden coffin into the back of a black waiting van.
Like a rabid virus, word had quickly spread across Soho that Jeanne-Marie Cotton had been murdered; strangled in her own flat, with her own scarf, in a motiveless attack by an unknown killer. And although some of the crowd said a prayer for this quiet little lady, others only came to giggle and gorp, as keen to gossip to their pals - until more details were released - their half-baked theories would be ceaseless.
Fuelling the fire, that day Marie’s murder was headline news in many national papers. Hastily recycling any salacious titbits (whether fact or false) to get the scoop, many like the Daily Mail and the Leicester Evening Mail both went with ‘Beautiful woman murdered in Soho’ – as its faster and cheaper to copy and paste from a press release, rather than to dispatch a reporter to ‘do their job’ – and having already connected a few of the dots – the Nottingham Evening Post went with ‘Second Beauty Slain in London’.
The story of ‘French Fifi’ was as dead and buried as her body, but now they had a reason to remember her; ‘New Flat Riddle for Scotland Yard’, ‘Is there a link with stocking crime?’, ‘Both victims strangled and French’. Overnight, the unremarkable deaths of two forgotten women had gained notoriety, but only because their murders had sex, death, mystery, and a faceless killer who stalked in the shadows.
Focussed on speed rather than accuracy, the press bastardised the facts; ‘fingerprints of killer found at murder’, only they actually belonged to the first PC on the scene; ‘Police took away a bloodstained door’, which was wrong as the pool of blood about her nose hadn’t splashed nor spread; and ‘£14 found in cupboard’, which was false as according to Carlo “nothing was missing”, not even a penny.
The very next day, the Evening Standard quoted Superintendent Walter Hambrook as stating: “this case cannot be associated with the ordinary class or murder”, which – in the minds of the newspapers and its readers - put the deaths of Marie Cotton and ‘French Fifi’ upon a pedestal, above any other.
The problem was… he never said those words, as many details published in the press were twists on truths or all-out lies. But if you print it, it becomes fact, and the more you repeat it, it becomes proof.
The death of ‘Marie Cotton’ would have been as unremarkable as it was forgotten…
…and yet, as the gossip brewed, a myth about ‘a strangler in Soho’ began to stir.
As the word ‘murder’ rippled with unstoppable speed about the West End, as often happens, theories as to the culprit spread and the usual bigoted band of society’s villains were blamed; like gays, Jews, foreigners, bohemians, the insane and the disabled - choosing to believe it was ‘them’ and never ‘us’.
Every witness had a theory as to who had done it, but like the crime-scene, the police were methodical.
Although Josephine Pouliquen would state “I feel certain she was murdered by Mr Lanza, he is a brute and often kicked Madame Cotton… as did Remo”. Carlo Lanza was seen by many reliable independent witnesses at work during the hours she died. As was Remo, his son, who found her body. As well as Dintis her lover, who Dorothy described as “a dangerous man”, his movements were accounted for.
Last seen alive by her lodger, Dorothy Neri - who was having sex in her room, a few feet away, with her ‘Jewish’ boyfriend Braham Alban when Marie was murdered – neither were suspected as culprits. And as her ex-husband was dead and the mysterious ‘Mr Cohen’ could not be proven to even exist, the Police toyed with other theories, such as a chance encounter, a secret in her past, a failed burglary, or that – living on the same floor as a Soho prostitute – that her death was a case of mistaken identity.
All were examined but dismissed, as the Police had a prime suspect…
…someone who had a method, a motive, and a reason to kill.
It’s hard to pin down who he was as he riddled his life with so many lies. To some he said he was from Yorkshire, but to others, that he was from Norfolk. He said he was an orphan, only his mum was still alive, and his dad had only just died. And although many called him ‘Jimmy’, ‘Graham’ and ‘Peter Graham’ – three aliases he was known to use to hide his crimes - his real name was James Allen Hall.
Born in 1907 in Shelton, a parish 12 miles south of Norwich, his father was an Inn keeper, his mother was a housewife, he had one older sister called Dora, and – to keep the coffers coming in – a lodger.
Branded as ‘unruly’ and ‘selfish’, what sparked his aggression is unknown, as although educated, he would stumble into petty thievery to fund a lifestyle of drink, fashion and sexual experimentation.
On an unknown date in the late 1920s, James married May, making her Mrs May Janet Hall. How they met and why they wed is a mystery, as with misery pervading their home - for reasons of his own - he only married her to hide the truth, and drinking heavily, he often assaulted her. In 1931, May applied for a divorce, but before her solicitors could issue him with the papers, he had already fled to London.
Being ‘on the run’, James worked as assistant clerk to his father at the Southgate Burial Board in North London, processing monies for the plots and gravestones of the recently bereaved. In early 1933, his father died, and by the May, he had fraudulently cashed two cheques totalling £59 (or £4500 today).
As was his habit when things got hot, before he could he arrested, he fled leaving his widowed mother to fend for herself. He hunkered down in lodging houses, he hid under aliases, he racked-up debts and being booted out for misbehaviour, lewd acts and drunkenness, he always left a trail of destruction.
Drink, sex, violence, and money – four words which were hardly the calling card of The Soho Strangler; a killer so calm and controlled that he never left a single witness or piece of evidence as to his identity.
But then again, maybe as a fledgling killer finding his feet…
…his lack of capture was as much down to luck, as it was to his cunning.
In the spring of 1935, James worked as a clerk at Denard Manufacturing, a gown manufacturer at 65 Margaret Street in nearby Fitzrovia. On 3rd October 1935, having interviewed twenty applicants for an intern role – all being young slim boys - he hired 18-year-old Donald Ross, the one he fancied most.
Donald would state “I wasn’t corrupted until I met Hall”, but as homosexuality was still illegal, maybe he was defending himself, protecting his reputation or laying the blame on the police’s key suspect.
Having dated for three weeks – with trips to the cinema, drinks at known gay pubs and playing billiards – they began dating. Staying at James’ lodging at The Trafalgar at 37 Craven Terrace, “I agreed (to stay) and slept with him in one bed… he did not attempt to interfere with me”, Donald would state. But with the landlady objecting to two men sharing a bed, James went in search of a new lodging.
On 15th November 1935, James spotted an advert in a newsagent’s window: ‘single room, £1 7s a week plus room cleaned and sheets washed, J Lanza, 47 Lexington Street’. It was affordable, discrete and – with Soho having a long-history of tolerance towards homosexuals – this could be their little love-nest.
Moving in the next day, this small front room was furnished with a dresser, a table, a bucket as a toilet (with the feted stinking waste tipped into the communal cesspit out back each day), and a thick double mattress with fresh bedsheets every two weeks. It was comfortable. And although they had to a share a bathroom, Donald would state “we did not get food in the house” as they had no access to kitchen.
According to those who were there, James Hall the lodger got on well with Jeanne-Marie Cotton the landlady; she was quiet and didn‘t bother them, he paid on time and rarely spoke to her. Donald would state “I never heard him have any quarrels with her, nor did I ever hear him threaten her in any way”.
As a moral woman who didn’t like his immoral ways, in private to Dorothy she would openly call them ‘Nancy boys’, just as in private to Donald, he would lambast her as ‘the bitch on Lexington Street’. It was no secret that they weren’t on friendly terms, but that was hardly a solid motive to murder her.
As suspects go - compared to Carlo her violent partner, Dintis her absconding lover, or the mysterious ‘Mr Cohen’, a man so threatening that he made her physically shake – James Hall hardly fits the bill.
He could be The Soho Strangler given that he lived near or with each victim – although others did too; given that he had a history of violence against woman – but only against his wife; and given that he used aliases and short-term lodgings – and yet, who wouldn’t if they were on the run for cheque fraud?
If he was The Soho Strangler; maybe these murders were merely failed robberies, maybe he did them in a drunken haze, maybe he had a split personality, maybe they weren’t sexually assaulted as James was gay, or maybe, it’s just a coincidence that both victims were small mid-forties French brunettes?
James was the most unlikely suspect in the search for The Soho Strangler; as he wasn’t punter, a pimp, a ponce, a white slaver, a gang member, a foreigner, a stranger, or (the press’s chief suspect) a Jew.
And yet, the Police hadn’t got it wrong…
…they weren’t searching for a serial strangler stalking Soho’s sex-workers - as no-one even knew that one existed - they were simply seeking the most likely suspect in the murder of Jeanne-Marie Cotton…
….and that was James Allen Hall.
James was a despicable man; a violent drunk, a selfish thug, and the kind of callous thief who had no qualms about stealing funeral funds from bereaved widows, and - as the police would suspect – an arrogant man who could take the life of innocent person over something entirely pointless and trivial.
Barely any of which made it into the press, as being gay – an outcast who was blamed for corrupting society – his real crime was his sexuality, as every detail of his life was tagged with the words; ‘lewd’, ‘depraved’, ‘sick’ and ‘disgusting’. Although if we were to ask French Fifi or Marie Cotton what deeds their staunchly heterosexual partners or punters did to them, I’m sure ‘foul’ would be a fine word.
Sadly, this was a reflection of the era, as the police investigation also focussed heavily on James’ sexual activities, even though The Soho Strangler killings – of both Fifi and Marie – had no sexual motive.
When 18-year-old Donald Ross was interviewed about his relationship with 28-year-old James Hall, the Police flagged buggery, masturbation and added “there is abundant evidence to prove that Hall is a sodomite”. Implying that he was coerced, Donald would state “after going to Lexington Street with Hall, he had an unnatural connection with me on several occasions and used a tube of Vaseline”.
A few days after they had moved in, James invited a kilted solider back to the room. Donald would state “I saw them both in bed. Hall said to me ‘I have brought a lady home tonight for a treat’…”, the kilted soldier was naked. “I saw Hall and the solider holding and rubbing each other’s persons. Hall asked me to get in bed, but I refused”, later “I got into bed with them. Hall caught hold of my person and rubbed it. After this, I went to sleep. This was the first time that Hall had been indecent to me”.
With their sexual exploration becoming ever regular, “on subsequent nights, Hall masturbated me and himself… and he had an unnatural connection with me up my back passage about half a dozen times”.
At first, Marie let their passions slide, as the sounds of man-on-man sex permeated the partition wall. But unhappy with their noises, she asked them to stop or she would ask them to leave, and they did.
“I never heard them argue”, Donald would state. But as these ‘foul sex acts’ and ‘sadistic orgies’ - as the press would describe them - began again, tensions arose between the landlady and the lodger.
It may not seem likely that James was The Soho Strangler, but regarded as ‘a deviant’, it took no leap for society to assume that any ‘gay sadist’ had an appetite for ‘strangulation’… even of a women.
So, putting The Soho Strangler aside for a second, was James Hall a killer…
…or as Marie’s murder had no other suspects, Fifi’s had gone unsolved, and with the press’ readers feverishly baying for ‘blood’, had the Police simply bagged themselves a very convenient scapegoat?
The dispute between landlady and lodger occurred over a rather minor matter of morals and hygiene.
A few days before 30th January 1936, while Marie was cleaning James’ room (as per their agreement), she spotted “stains on the bed linen caused by excreta, semen and Vaseline”, owing to gay anal sex. Not wanting to cause any fuss, she left a note. Donald would state: “Mrs Lanza spoke to me about this matter. (She) was not upset with me, and as far as I know, she was not unpleasant with Mr Hall”.
Dates vary, but on Saturday 8th February, James quit the lodging. And as a very literal ‘dirty protest’ against his landlady’s intolerance – her nose wrinkling in disgust each time he called his boy ‘darling’ or ‘sweetheart’ - James took the half-full bucket of pee and plop, and tipped it over the fresh sheets.
Returning hours later, Marie was hit by the stench of rotting shit and the feverish buzzing of flies, as several litres of steaming human waste soaked the sheets, the mattress and the floorboards below.
Angry and disgusted, finding both men lodging at Winnie MacDonald’s house in Oakley Square, Marie showed Winnie, Donald’s sister, the festering mattress dumped by the cesspit. She didn’t want a fight or to take this any further, what she wanted was £2 and 10s as her rightful compensation for damages.
Confronted by Winnie, with James refusing to pay Marie a penny, Winnie took charge; she booted him out of her house, she ordered her little brother Donald back to Edinburgh (which he was “more than happy to do”), and – to help Marie get the money she was owed - she gave her James’ work address.
Aided by her new lodger, Dorothy Neri, on Tuesday 17th March 1936 at 6pm, Marie ascended the stairs to the third floor of 65 Margaret Street in Fitzrovia, where James worked at Denard Manufacturing. As the office was shut, she slipped a note under the door, which he later said “annoyed him”.
Hoping to resolve it amicably and eventually face-to-face, they communicated by letter. But as James had no intention of paying, treating her request with distain, it had a become a game of cat and mouse.
Thursday 19th March, James wrote “Dear Madam. I am sorry that I was not able to call, but business made this impossible. As regards this evening I have already made my plans… perhaps you could call me tomorrow night at 6pm, when I shall be in, but to call before that time will be of no use as I shall be out on business. Hoping this will be convenient. Yours faithfully. J Hall”. She called, but he was out.
Saturday 21st March, “Dear Madam. If you let me know the amount, I will see what I can do in the next few days. I enclose an envelope for your reply, as it is useless to keep calling. As soon as I hear from you, I will give the matter my immediate attention. Yours faithfully. J Hall”. She did, only he didn’t.
Sunday 22nd March, Marie replied “Dear Mr Hall… owing to your own arrangements, I have lost two evenings work. I shall not waste more time over this matter…” and having already threatened to “take it further”, on Thursday 26th March, she wrote “Dear Mr Hall. Seeing you have not kept to your word, will you kindly call and see me as soon as you can… if not I shall take it to court. Mrs J Lanza”.
For anyone else, a soiled mattress would amount to a minor misdemeanour and a paltry fine. But as he was on the run from one set of solicitors seeking to issue him a divorce petition for ‘violent conduct’ and a second set for the criminal charge of embezzlement, any court action risked his imminent arrest.
Unwisely having chosen to pay her nothing, on Thursday 9th April - the same day that Marie was shaken by the fear of the mysterious Jew who hunted her, known only as ‘Mr Cohen’ – Marie & Dorothy handed in an application for the summons of James Hall at Great Marlborough Street Police Court.
With the legal wheels now in motion, on Friday 10th, Saturday 11th and Tuesday 14th April, just two days before her death, Marie & Dorothy visited his work. Again, as he was out (or possibly hiding), they made anyone who was passing aware of his ‘filthy habits’ and ’bed debts’, ruining his reputation.
“She asked my advice”, said Sydney Cohen, a ladies’ tailor on the same floor, “I told her to go to the police”, which she did. As not only was the soiling of a mattress a criminal act, so was homosexual sex.
Thursday 16th April 1936 was Marie Cotton’s last day alive.
From 7am onwards, she was seen by several witnesses having an unremarkable day, with her last seen at 5:15pm, when Dorothy took a bath, and left Marie washing and cleaning in her unlocked kitchen.
From 9am to 5pm, James would state he was at work, half a mile north-west on Margaret Street and a ten-minute walk from Lexington Street. Her time of death was between 5:30 and 7:30pm, but no-one saw him on Lexington Street at all that night, and yet, he was never more than a few streets away.
At 6:40pm, Leonard Theyes met James at the Angel & Crown pub on Warwick Street in St James, and from that point onwards, he was seen at several pubs, until he returned to his lodging at The Trafalgar. Those who drank with him said, he seemed his normal self; not upset, dishevelled, fearful or anxious.
In truth, there was nothing suspicious about James’ actions on the day of the murder…
…and yet, the following day smacks of a man living in fear.
The morning of Friday 17th April 1936 was deathly still. As a damp fog hung low and an excitable crowd hung their heads in silence, a small black coffin was mournfully carried into the back of a black van. At about the same time, James opened the doors of Denard Manufacturing before anyone was even in, and wrote himself four cheques, in the name of his employer, totalling £13 14s and 6d (£1100 today).
With the cheques cashed, James fled, his employer was alerted, CID issued a description, posters were put up seeking a ‘ruddy-faced 28-year-old wanted for fraud’ and – having found Leonard Theyes in his list of ‘known associates’, as James had written to him whilst serving in Wandsworth Prison – on the 24th April, James was tracked down to The Sutherland Public House on Vigo Street, and was arrested.
But did he flee because of the court summonses, or because he was guilty of murder?
On 29th June 1936, James Allen Hall was tried at The Old Bailey. Found guilty, he was sentenced to 12-months hard-labour… for six counts of embezzlement.
Delayed for three months, the inquest into the death of Jeanne-Marie Cotton was resumed on 9th June 1936 at Westminster Coroner’s Court. With her cause of death certified as ‘ligature strangulation’ Dr John Taylor, the pathologist stated “strangulation could not have been self-inflicted”. with police divisional surgeon Dr Charles Burney confirming “there was no suggestion of her having been hanged”.
Police had identified “two indentations on the side of the bed and cigarette ash which pointed strongly to someone having entered the flat who knew her”. But with no fingerprints, no witnesses, no clues and no confession by the Police’s prime suspect – although Superintendent Walter Hambrook would state “Hall gave a most unfavourable impression in the mind of the jury. Nothing, however, is capable of proof against anybody so far as murder is concerned and the crime is a complete mystery”.
The Coroner, Mr Ingleby Oddie would conclude “the only person against whom it may be said she had a grievance, and who may be said to have had a grievance against her is Hall. His grievance against her is not a very serious one, and hers against him is not a very grave one … that provides a very inadequate motive”. And with the evidence slim and circumstantial, the inquest was closed, James was dismissed, and the death of Jeanne Marie-Cotton was listed as “murder by persons or persons unknown”.
No longer deemed a viable suspect, James Allen Hall was returned to Wandsworth Prison to complete his sentence for fraud, and he was later arrested for another offence ‘indecency… on a man’. (Out).
With two women murdered, over five months across a few streets, in similar circumstances and with no clear motive or suspects, the Police were at a loss and many accused them of grasping at straws. With no answers to the question ‘how safe are we?’, a panic began to spread, as the sinister idea of a serial killer stalking Soho’s streets had been planted in the eye of the public, the press and its readers.
In its day, Jack the Ripper was not an instant sensation, as some of his early victims were dismissed as merely unremarkable events or one-off incidents of fallen women, many of whom would be forgotten. And yet, all it took was ‘a panic’, ‘another murder’ and a ‘name’ for the pieces to be put together.
Three streets east and three weeks after the murder of Marie Cotton, The Soho Strangler would strike again; this time, another prostitute in Soho, strangled to death by an unseen stranger, in her own bed.
But whereas, although the deaths of Fifi & Marie were initially mistaken for a suicide and an accident owing to how serene the crime-scene seemed, this next attack could not be confused with anything but a horrifying murder, as the walls, floor and door was saturated and dripping in his victim’s blood.
Had the killer lost his usual cool and composure, had his mania given him a taste for blood, or with the press having almost ignored his two previous murders, did this serial-killer crave a public‘s attention?
By May 1936, only one man was on the people’s lips…
…and his name was ’The Soho Strangler’.
Part Five of Ten 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".
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