Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast - #201: The Soho Strangler - Part Five - Dutch Leah: A Forgotten Woman
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EPISODE TWO HUNDRED AND ONE:
This is Part Five of Ten of The Soho Strangler.
May 1936. Three weeks after and two street south of the murder of Marie Cotton, and just two streets east of French Fifi, ‘Dutch Leah’ a third sex-worker would be found strangled in her Soho flat, on the second floor of 66 Old Compton Street.
Again, there were no obvious signs of break-in, robbery or sexual assault. Again, the only entry point was a locked street door off a busy street. And again, the killer left no fingerprints, no clues to his identity and witnesses to the murder. It’s as if this maniac had attacked and vanished into thin air.
With two women slaughtered in similar circumstances just streets apart, again, the police had a prime suspect, a man known to the victim who had a method and a motive. But with two murders still unsolved and with no suspects, had they caught a killer, or another scapegoat for their incompetence?
With a panic rumbling across Soho, as women wondered how safe they were in their own beds, as much as the police refused to believe it, their last option was one too terrifying to consider…
…that a serial-killer stalked these very streets, who the press would dub - The Soho Strangler.
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SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
Murder of Leah Hines at Old Compton Street, Soho, on 9 May, 1936
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
(News vendor) “Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Soho Strangler baffles Scotland Yard”.
Three things made the Whitechapel Murders a media sensation overnight; two murders back-to-back, an ensuing panic and a letter which gave this mysterious blood-soaked slayer a name, ‘Jack the Ripper’.
Dubbed the Soho Murders, with a third woman found strangled, Soho had become a byword for terror with his victims so globally famous only their nicknames were needed - ‘Fifi’, ‘Marie’ and now ‘Leah’.
Syndicated worldwide on 13th September 1936, EveryWeek was one of many articles that fuelled the flames of panic and mystery. It read; “Like Jack the Ripper, this shadowy slayer of the girls of London’s dim by-ways strikes with an insane but deadly cunning, leaving no clues for the famous man-catchers.
From the winter of 1887 to the summer of 1889, Jack the Ripper committed a series of baffling crimes. (Of those who fell prey to him) all were women… and of a dubious class, just as have been the ones who fell into the clutches of the Soho Strangler. Jack the Ripper threw such a shiver of fear over Whitechapel that women were afraid to go out at night. The same is true today of women in Soho”.
With no witnesses, no clues and no concrete evidence to convict separate suspects to these identical murders - let alone a serial-strangler who stalked Soho’s seedy streets - this mystery would spawn a myth and with a third murder fuelling a panic, the press would give him a name – The Soho Strangler.
Unlike the others, the murder of ‘Dutch Leah’ would mark a shift in the killer’s motive…
…but by making this man into a monster, once again, the victim would be forgotten.
With all three women being short slightly portly brunettes prone to sickness and depression - although Leah wasn’t French, or even Dutch as her street-name would suggest, but English – one thing would connect them all, as owing to the hardship of their upbringing, they were all desperate to be loved.
Leah’s life was a fractured chaotic mess. When asked, her own mother could not remember the date of her only child’s birth, just that she was born in 1912, at East Ham Infirmary in East London.
Like so many women, Constance May Hind (as her birth certificate states) had many names for many legitimate and illegitimate reasons; with three different spellings of her surname, a married name and combined with several first-names – ‘Constance’, ‘May’ and ‘Leah’ – she had eight known aliases.
Lacking any role-model, her early life was devoid of stability or love, as Leah was bounced like a bag of dirt; between her mother Kathleen, an alcoholic fraudster who spent much of her upbringing behind bars; her father, Gordon Bodley, a miner who was neither there at her birth nor beyond; and – when not being raised by her exasperated grandmother, Sarah Ann, who “could do nothing for her” – Leah was placed into care, far from her home of London; first at St Faith’s House of Mercy, a convent at Lostwithiel in Cornwall, and later at The Devon House of Mercy, a children’s home in Bovey Tracey.
Aged 14, being legally entitled to flee the state’s care, this broken girl from a fractured family left with no money, no plan, and – unsurprisingly - her mother would state “she was unable to ever live alone”.
Between 1926 and 1930, her late teenage years, there is a gap in her past. Some say she had trained as a typist and then became a waitress, but with ‘Leah Heinz’ receiving the first of eight convictions for soliciting aged 18, by the time of her death, she had been a Soho prostitute for at least six years.
Her adult life was no better, as every aspect of her existence was brief and transient; she sold sex, she drank, she accrued debts, then she fled; she met a man, she fell in love, it ended and she moved on.
Like ‘French Fifi’ – who it is unknown if she ever knew, as her name was never mentioned in the case file of her murder - ‘Dutch Leah’ as she was called (a moniker giving this Londoner an air of the exotic) was well-known and well liked among her fellow sex-workers, being chatty, pleasant and supportive.
As a creature of habit, she worked from 9pm to 2am, she picked-up punters behind the Palace Theatre (south of Old Compton Street, on the corner of Romilly Street and Greek Street) and she kept close ties to her trusted associates; Leah Cohen, Ruby Walker and Lily Joyce, the last people to see her alive.
Like many prostitutes; her clients were either faceless strangers or nameless regulars, her arrests were as common as the violence she endured (none of which led to a conviction), she charged a flat rate, she rarely haggled over a fee, she had no issues with getting naked, and - as many men refused to use the thick rubber condoms, as supplied by Sydney Bloom – they could pay for unprotected sex, as their semen would be soaked up by the thick wads of cotton wool she regularly inserted into her vagina.
In the Police report, she is described “as a common… low type of prostitute”. There was nothing about her which stood out; being just a small, plain and unremarkable woman struggling to get by in a life which had dealt her a dirty hand. In short, she was no more likely to be murdered than anyone else…
…just like ‘Fifi’ and ‘Marie’.
Leah’s mother would state “she always lived with some man. I don’t mean that she lived with a man who kept her, but with a ponce… there were innumerable men she lived with at one time or another”.
Like many aspects of her life, her lack of steady lover may seem scandalous to 1930’s morals - but living in an era when a single woman was seen as sinful and penalised to the point where it was better to live with a man whether she loved him or not, like Marie Cotton - her happiness was not considered.
Leah liked the creative types, many who were low earners and relied on her ‘immoral earnings’ to live.
In 1930, around the time of her first conviction, she lived on Whitfield Street in Fitzrovia with Jim Rich, a black music-hall artiste who performed in the West End as well as touring the UK. By all accounts, they got on well and never quarrelled, but after two years, owing to obvious reasons, the couple split.
In 1931, Leah met Robert Thomas Smith at a dance on Newport Street, they dated for a year and lived together in Wood Green, Harringay and Euston, with him always believing that she was a waitress.
By the end of the year, they had a child, “I think it was a boy”, her mother would state, but unwilling or unable to care for him “he was adopted but I don’t know by whom. I believe this is Robert’s child”.
On 29th June 1933, Robert Thomas Smith & Constance May Hind married at the Strand Registry Office, under the aliases of Robert Thomas Armstrong and May Constance Hind. With their wedding reception held at Victor’s Café at 5 Old Compton Street, he would always maintain “I don’t know for whom she was working”. But by August 1934, after just one year’s marriage, while he was in St Pancras hospital with an ulcerated throat, ”she wrote and told me she was leaving with no reason. When I came out, I made no attempt to find her” and having moved to Margate “I have not heard from her since”.
Her love-life was chaotic, so it’s impossible to pin down who she was with and when in her last months alive. In December 1935, she lived with an Italian known only as Alf above Gee’s Fish Shop at 65 High Street in Bloomsbury. By January 1936, she lived with a Frenchman using the alias of George Day at 40 Greek Street in Soho. And by February 1936, she lived on New Compton Street with William ‘Billy’ Sullivan, until his arrest that month for theft and assault. But then, all of her lovers had convictions.
Following her murder, the Police wouldn’t seek a serial-strangler whose sadistic spree had slain another sex-worker, or a sensational monster whose name made worldwide headlines, as – once again – their suspect was the most obvious one, like one of her criminal lovers who leeched off her earnings.
The Police’s key witness and suspect was her last lover…
…a part-time magician called Stanley King.
Stanley Gordon King was born on the 29th July 1912 in Aldershot. With his father having died when he was just a toddler, he supported his mother as a miner, but in 1931, aged 19, he came to London to work as a hall boy, a footman, a waiter, an MC at Mac’s Dance Hall and finally as a street magician.
Under the stage name of ‘Rex Gordon’, 24-year-old Stanley performed from mid-afternoon to late into the night, on every tourist street or seedy night-spot, always struggling to earn enough to pay his way.
Being small and unimposing, he was an unlikely suspect to strangle his lover with his bare hands. But as Leah wasn’t overpowered with brute force, her ‘ligature strangulation’ was more likely from a man with nimble fingers, a swift slight-of-hand and an encyclopaedic knowledge of ropes, binds and knots.
Dressed in black, a colour on which blood is hard to see, taken into evidence from the crime scene was his ‘Magic Bag’ – a conjurer’s kit which contained everything needed to pull off the ultimate deception; like cloths, ropes and lock-picks. Interviewed about the murder weapon found in his own flat, Stanley would state “some months ago, I had about 3 ½ yards of electrical flex… it was reddish brown. I last saw it nine weeks ago. The piece of wire shown to me is not my property. I have never seen it before”.
Like the others, Stanley had criminal convictions, but they were only slight. Under the aliases of Arthur King and Archibald King, in February 1935 he was charged (but found not guilty) of stealing a car, and in June 1935, he pleaded guilty to insulting behaviour and breach of the peace by fighting in the street.
On the surface, Stanley hardly seemed like a maniac, the kind of crazed killer who would unleash such horrific levels of violence against Leah, and yet – if they were connected – make the murders of Fifi and Marie look like an accident and a suicide? But then again; everybody has secrets, everyone tells lies, everyone has limits, and maybe the reason her crime-scene looked so similar, and yet different…
…was that Leah’s murder was personal?
On an unspecified date in April 1936, in The Caprice Club at 59 Old Compton Street, Stanley met Leah. Within the week, they had moved in together, but their affair was born out of love as much as lies. He would state “she said her parents were German… she said her name was Leah Heinz”, and hiding the fact that she was still married and had a child, her biggest lie was how she earned her money.
Stanley would state "the money I earn is sufficient for myself", but as she paid the lion’s share of the rent, it made sense to hide that fact from the Police, as it was illegal to live off her immoral earnings.
On 24th April 1936, they moved into two rooms on the first floor of 1 Little Pultney Street, just off Old Compton Street, an area riddled with prostitutes, pimps and brothels. After three days, she told him the truth: “she said she was going out and meeting men. I said ‘you are not bringing men here are you’ she said ‘yes’. I said ‘I will leave you unless you get another place for us to live’… she promised me that she would not bring any more men to the place whilst we were there and I continued to live with her”.
Whether Stanley was oblivious, an idiot or a liar is unknown, as there was no denying what Leah did for work; she had prior convictions for soliciting, everyone on the street knew she was a prostitute, she worked 9pm to 2am, her handbag was full of condoms, she picked up men just one street away and brought them back to their flat, where (often) Stanley would find their coats or hats left behind.
And yet, whether this was an alibi or ignorance, he also claimed that Leah had the only key to the door and that if he wanted access to his own flat between her ‘working hours’ of 9pm and 2am, he had to wait for her to throw the key down from the window, or sit in a café until she was back in the flat.
If that seems implausible…
…that’s because it probably is.
On Monday 4th May 1936, five days before her murder, Leah & Stanley moved to a new lodging at 66 Old Compton Street; a few doors down from their old flat, deeper into the heart of Soho’s sex trade and rented off a landlord who knew she was a prostitute and had tried to evict her for non-payment.
66 Old Compton Street was unnervingly similar to 3-4 Archer Street and 47 Lexington Street.
Set on a bustling street which thronged day and night to the cacophony of life, amid the hum of pubs and clubs, market stalls and small trades, gambling dens and secret brothels, off Shaftesbury Avenue or Charing Cross Road, a stranger could easily enter this street, unseen and unheard, and then vanish.
As a very similar flat-fronted four-storey building, it was yet another almost perfect murder location. With a provisions shop called Fratelli on the ground floor, open from 9am to 6pm, the lodgings above were only accessible by a street-door, often left unlocked and open until the trades people had left.
Described as dilapidated, its smattering of tenants kept to themselves and rarely saw one another. In the basement lived a bookmaker and a variety artiste who were rarely in before midnight, on the first floor Shaw the seamstress was usually gone by early evening, the third floor was unoccupied, and on the second floor lived its newest tenants – Stanley, a magician, and Leah, a supposed ‘waitress’.
For a prostitute, the dark unlit stairs gave her slew of faceless punters the privacy to sneak in, get sex and then vanish like a gust of wind amidst an oblivious crowd. It was discrete, but it was also a place where tears fell unseen, cries were swallowed whole, and a scream of death would be lost amidst life.
Their room was small and basic; a double bed, a dresser, a wardrobe, the lights lit by a gas meter, and several odd and sods left behind by a lazy landlord, including one of the weapons used to murder her.
Barely a week later, Leah would become the third victim of The Soho Strangler…
…but what made this murder so different was that where-as with ‘Fifi’ and Marie their lives had been taken by a calm and patient killer, with Leah he had lost his cool and had lashed out in raw anger.
Just like the others, Leah’s final days and hours alive are unremarkable.
Sunday 3rd May, Leah met Kathleen, her mother for the last time: “she told me she was living with a conjurer… he was kind to her. She seemed happy and did not complain of being afraid of any person”.
Of those who knew Leah well, although open with her feelings, she never made any reference to being harassed, bullied or blackmailed; she was recently assaulted by a punter (but no more than usual); we don’t know if she had a pimp, if Stanley was her ponce or if her landlord was a ‘flat-farmer’ (part of a criminal gang who rented rooms to sex-workers at inflated prices and took a cut of her earnings); and she never spoke of white slavers, dope peddlers, sinister stalkers or a violent Jew called Mr Cohen.
She was small, but having worked the sex trade for more than six years, she could handle herself well.
Monday 4th May, Stanley & Leah moved their belongings into 66 Old Compton Street, including his ‘Magic Bag’. Knowing her past, Stanley would later claim he had implored: “will you promise not to bring anyone here”, meaning men, “she said yes”. As usual, they ate dinner together, “I left her about 11pm. She said she was going home… I arrived home at 3:30am and found her dressed and waiting”.
Tuesday 5th May, “that evening I was at Chez Bobbie’s Club until 1:15am. (Back home) she was waiting up for me, and I asked if she would give me the key to the street door. She said ‘I need the key, if you want one you must have one cut’. I became suspicious and thought she was bringing men to the room. I said to her about my suspicions but told her I was going to leave and get a place of my own. She cried and said, ‘I don’t want you to leave’…”, they made up “I stayed with her until 3pm (the next day)”.
Wednesday 6th May, Stanley arrived home a few hours earlier than usual, although it is unknown if this was due to business being light or his need to catch her out. With supposedly no key, “I arrived at 12:30am, I whistled up, she threw the keys out of the window. I let myself in and found her (waiting)“. Of course, the only witnesses who can confirm this are Stanley and Leah, one of whom is dead.
Thursday 7th May, having ate a late supper, “I left her at 11pm by Tottenham Court Road police station. I expected her to go home”. Having left Chez Bobbie’s at 3:30am, “I arrived home at 3:45am and whistled up as usual. I received no reply, and after walking round, I returned to the address at 4am, and I noticed she was looking out of the window in Old Compton Street. She was fully dressed, wearing her hat. I said to her ‘where have you been till this time?’, she replied ‘are you trying to catch me?’”.
He would later state she had been to the Caprice Club, a place he had forbidden her to return to: “She said ‘I have been out of somebody’s way for a couple of hours’… she went to the drawer of the dressing table and took out a Seaman’s Discharge Book…”. The seaman was never identified, his discharge book was never found, and according to Stanley, Leah never stated why it was there, and they went to bed.
Friday 8th May was Leah’s last day alive.
Stanley would state “I woke up at 11am and noticed a blue raincoat on top of the wardrobe. I asked her about it, she said ‘it’s always been there’. I knew this was wrong, I told her so. She said ‘Oh, well, the man that was here last night, it belongs to him and the book’, I said ‘he must have been in a hurry’”.
“It was three o’clock when I left the room”, Stanley would state “I asked her if she wanted me to meet her (for supper)”, as they usually did, “she said ‘no, I’ll see you tonight’ and – according to him – “she asked me to be home definitely at 2am”. Although whether he kept that promise, we shall never know.
But in Stanley’s own words “that was the last time I saw her alive”.
That night there were several reliable sightings of Leah - a local sex worker who was well known-and well-liked – in and around the usual places she picked up punters, as seen by her closest friends.
Leah Cohen, a fellow prostitute and her old flatmate, saw her 10:50pm on Old Compton Street. “She was alone. When I left, she was dressed in a small dark hat, a fawn coat and a blue spotted frock”. At 11:30pm, Ruby Walker saw her “at the corner Charing Cross Road… talking to ‘Ginger Joan’… she said “I haven’t been off tonight”, meaning she hadn’t had a punter, “and there is no money coming in”.
The last confirmed sightings of Leah were at 12:30am; the first was by Emilio Plantino, a hall porter at The London Casino, who saw Leah walking east on the south-side of Old Compton Street with a man, and – just minutes later – Nellie Few, a local prostitute who had known Leah for six years, saw her enter the street-door of 66 Old Compton Street with a man matching that description: “about 25, 5 foot 5 inches, medium build, fresh complexion, brown hair, clean shaven, long black coat and no hat”.
With no-one left in the building, except the sleeping lodgers three floors below…
…what happened next was only witnessed by Leah and her killer.
Stanley’s sightings are less accurate and cannot be verified by others. When questioned by the Police, he would state: “I went to Chez Bobbie’s”, one street east on Charing Cross Road, “and I stayed there until 3:30am”. Even though, according to him, Leah “had asked me to be home definitely at 2am”.
At 4am, “with the street-door locked. I whistled up, but got no reply”. Later stating, “I went to Jack’s snack bar on Charing Cross Road where I had a cup of coffee”, although the owner could not confirm this, “I walked around till just before 5am”. Ringing the bell, which was unheard by any other lodger, “I again returned to the address at about 6am, but again, no reply”. Seemingly unconcerned, “I went to café in Bloomsbury”, although one was open opposite, and at 6:30am, he told a labourer called James Adams of his issue, and – after a little breakfast – this convenient witness agreed to help him.
At 8:45am, with the provisions shop on the ground-floor opening up, Stanley got a second witness, Mr Fratelli to unlock the street door, and hearing Leah’s puppy whining, James broke down the door.
Discovering her body, Stanley ran to the junction of Great Windmill Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, and reported to PC Davidson “Oh constable, will you come along, I think my girl has been murdered”.
With his ‘Magic Bag’ back at the lodging, Stanley King was said to be visibly shaken and upset. (Out)
The crime scene was unnervingly similar to the two previous killings by The Soho Strangler.
With the street-door in perfect working order and the lock to the flat untampered with, except for the obvious damage, there was no sign of a break-in. Inside, there was no state of disorder; the drawers were not ransacked, and except for her black handbag – left open on the mantlepiece – with only two pennies and a small envelope for rubber sheaths, a robbery could neither be proved nor disproved.
Leah hadn’t feared her killer, as lying obliquely on the bed, “with her stockings neatly rolled down to the ankles… her knickers removed… her legs widely parted… and her cotton dress pulled up to the waist leaving the pubis exposed… she had prepared herself for the purpose of sexual intercourse…”.
Only, once again, there were no signs of any sexual assault, as her undressing was of her own volition.
About her neck, again, the killer had fashioned a found item as “a piece of black flex was tied around her neck”. Only, it wasn’t this strangulation which would take her life - as with the scene described as ‘the work of a maniac’, his usual calmness cast aside, and having grasped a second deadlier weapon - he had unleashed an unparalleled fit of violence and anger upon her, as if Leah’s death was personal.
With Dr Charles Burney and Home Office Pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury jointly confirming that she had died between 12am and 4am, they both took a anonymous opinion – “this was a murder”.
The Police’s prime suspect was Stanley King, a man with a method, a motive and a tenuous alibi. But was he her killer, or – with two strikingly similar unsolved murders, across neighbouring street, over a few months, and with a third heading that way – once again, had the Police collared a very convenient scapegoat, rather than face the unthinkable, that The Soho Strangler was stalking their streets?
Part Six 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.
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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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