Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast - #202: The Soho Strangler - Part Six - Dutch Leah: A Monster in the Making
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EPISODE TWO HUNDRED AND TWO:
This is Part Six of Ten of The Soho Strangler.
By May 1936, three women had been strangled, by an unknown assailant, in their own homes in Soho. With the Police investigation drawing to a familiar terrifying conclusion, that – with no witnesses or suspects – once again, the murder of a Soho prostitute will go unsolved.
With no suspect to pin the murder on, the press conjure up a name – The Soho Strangler, and a myth is born. But did this help or hinder the investigation?
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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:
(Morse). By the time Divisional Detective Inspector Burt arrived at 66 Old Compton Street, constables were holding back a gaggle of eager gorpers, as reporters feverishly quoted any old pleb who said they had seen or heard something sinister, as some snuck into the Swiss Hotel opposite, to try and spy the corpse through the second-floor window. Six months earlier, a dead Soho prostitute barely filled a few lines, but now the murders were front page news, in many local, national and – by the next day – even the international papers, as – once again – Soho became infamous as a den of sex, drugs and death.
This crime-scene was eerily reminiscent, but as with the others, it was assessed methodically.
Again, there were no signs of a prior break-in; as both sash-windows were shut, the neighbouring flats were inaccessible (with the only tenants being two floors below who had slept soundly until the arrival of the Police), and the doors to the flat and the street had been locked by whoever had taken her key.
Inside, the room was dimly lit as the sunlight pierced the partially open curtains, but again, with the gas lights set to ‘on’ and the shilling expired, only in death was the room plunged into near darkness.
This bed-sitting room was small; comprising of a wardrobe and a dresser which hadn’t been ransacked, a settee on which the victim’s coats still lay, under the bed sat three half-full untouched suitcases as the tenants had just moved in, and on the mantlepiece an open handbag gave the illusion of a robbery.
Leah’s body lay diagonally across the bed, having prepared herself for sex with a punter. “She was wearing shoes, with her stockings neatly rolled down to the ankles… and her (blue spotted dress) rucked-up to her waist”, as she lay with her legs widely spread. “Under the wardrobe, a pair of lady’s knickers were found, they were wet and dirty”, although who removed them and when is uncertain.
As before, with no evidence of natural death nor obvious sexual assault – although the cotton wool balls inside her vagina were “soiled and foul smelling” – no recent sexual intercourse had taken place.
Either trusting her assailant or never sensing any threat, “she had died in the position her injuries were inflicted”, as her body had barely moved during the assault, and there were no defensive wounds. Her injuries showed a logical order, as if inflicted by someone who could kill with both speed and silence.
“A large bruise to the left lower jaw” may have rendered her semi-conscious, “abrasions to the neck and a fractured larynx suggested that the throat had been gripped by an assailant’s hand”, but – as if he lacked the strength to finish it – again, he grabbed a ligature. Not a stocking, but a black electrical flex wound around her neck, looped and held, as he slowly throttled her, staring at her terrified eyes.
Barely breathing and with her left pupil blown, phlegm and vomit in the airway confirmed she was still alive when he strangled her, although – a mystery remains – why he didn’t knot it, to ensure her death.
Was this a mistake, a new technique, had he developed a sadistic streak, or was her death personal?
Either way, this murder would be different.
Lying on a pink bedsheet – as if to hide from himself the horror he would unleash - “it was pulled over her head, covering her face…” and with her nose and mouth peeping through a rip, he grabbed a one-kilo flat iron from the dresser, raised it high, and brought it down hard upon her face and her head.
“The skull was broken into depressed fragments, the fractures extended to the base of the skull and into the roofs of the ocular orbits… and the exposed brain matter was deeply lacerate and pulped…”. With blood in her airway, she was still alive as her head was caved in; pear-drop shaped blood-spatter had spread across the walls, floor, ceiling and door; and the mattress was so saturated, “blood had penetrated through the bed… which had oozed through the bedclothes and onto the suitcases below”.
Constance May Hind, alias ‘Dutch Leah’ had died between 12:30pm and 3am. With no witnesses, no clues to her killer’s identity, the electrical flex of no known origin or owner, and fingerprints found which matched Leah, Stanley, the landlord, the last tenants and innumerable unidentified clients, Dr Charles Burney and Sir Bernard Spilsbury unanimously confirmed that Leah had been murdered.
But by who?
Several suspects were ruled out of the investigation; Robert Smith, Leah’s husband who hadn’t seen her since she had left him was seen by several witnesses in the seaside town of Margate. Her mother, Kathleen, a known fraudster stayed the whole night at a friend’s house on Percy Street. Gordon Bodley her wayward father was tracked down but wasn’t in London that week. And her ex-lovers and known ponces– Jim Rich, William ‘Billy’ Sullivan and George Day – were all in prison at the time of the murder.
The last sightings of Leah heralded a few likely suspects: Leah Cohen saw her 10:50pm on Old Compton Street and stated “she was scared of a man, he was jealous as she was living with someone else”, but when investigated, this turned out to be ‘Billy’ Sullivan. Ruby Walker stated “at 11:30pm, I met Leah at the corner of Old Compton Street … a Greek came up and tried to ‘get off’ with her...”, she rejected him as they had previously had a dispute over money. But being local, he was identified and ruled out.
At 12:30am, Emilio Plantino, hall porter at The London Casino on Old Compton Street, who had known Leah for six years “soliciting at the rear of Palace Theatre”, saw Leah “proceeding on the south side of the street with a man – “30 years old, 5 foot 7 inches tall, fair complexion, brown brushed back hair, slim build, in a dark raincoat and no hat”. Confirmed by Nellie Few, a friend of six years, she saw Leah enter 66 Old Compton Street with a man, and her description is close to Emilio’s – “aged about 25, 5 foot 5 inches, medium build, fresh complexion, brown hair, clean shaven, long black coat and no hat”.
Described as reliable witnesses, both Nellie & Emilio were shown photos of known ‘persons of interest’ by the Police, including any potential suspects, “but they failed to identify the person they had seen”.
For the detectives, “whoever is responsible for the murder undoubtably accompanied the prostitute to her room ostensibly for the purpose of sexual intercourse. This theory is supported by the position of the body… it is also reasonable to assume that robbery was the motive as her handbag was found open and no money in the room… it is also very improbable that she would have consented to have prepared herself for sexual intercourse without first receiving payment” – which was a logical theory.
“…careful consideration has been given to the possibility of the murder being one of revenge on the part of a ‘ponce’, but if such were the case, one would expect to find evidence of a row and disorder”.
Assuming the assailant would have prior convictions: the Police Commissioner requested all local and county divisions investigate anyone with a history of violence against women and/or prostitutes, who also resembled the suspect. With 103 men later questioned; all had alibis, some weren’t in London, many were in prison, and – when visually compared – most of the men “did not match the suspect”.
But which suspect?
Stanley King was the most logical suspect – a jealous boyfriend with a tenuous alibi, and timings which could not be categorically verified by others - but with the evidence against him being circumstantial, the Police report states: “…the deceased was last seen alive entering 66 Old Compton Street with the man who, in all probability, was responsible for her death… it is possible that she met a further man, but despite exhaustive enquiries of those known to frequent the area, no one saw her after this time”.
Once again, a Soho prostitute had been strangled in her own bed by an unseen assailant, and having questioned hundreds of witnesses and suspects, for a third time, the investigation had hit a brick wall.
The Police report concludes: “it is most unfortunate that we have to admit defeat in our investigation into this case, following so quickly on from the undetected murders of Josephine Martin and Jeanne Marie Cousins. There is nothing to show, however that there is a connection between any of these cases, despite the most exhaustive enquiries, no evidence could be found upon which even suspicion could be attached to any known person, and it is unlikely that these crimes will ever be solved”.
On Tuesday 9th June 1936, coinciding with the delayed inquest of Jeanne-Marie Cotton, the death of Constance May Hind was concluded at Westminster Coroner’s Court. With witnesses called, evidence examined, and suspects questioned – although Leah’s mother and uncle openly blamed her boyfriend – nothing concrete could prove that Stanley King had anything to do with her murder of ‘Dutch Leah’.
Concluded that same day, the Coroner, Mr Ingleby Oddie would state of both women’s deaths: “there is no doubt that she has been murdered by person or persons unknown”, as he had with ‘French Fifi’.
Again, another murder had gone unsolved. With the inquest concluded and the case closed, no further details would furnish the newspapers front-pages, as the Press feverishly tried to piece together the clues as to which ‘lone killer’ had strangled three women in a spree across Soho’s red-light district.
The murders of ‘Fifi’. Marie and ‘Leah’ would easily have been forgotten…
…but with the killer described by the coroner as “a homicidal maniac” (as if recalling the terrifying days of Jack the Ripper) that was all that was needed to fan the flames of conspiracy, suspicion and panic.
The Daily Mirror went with “Soho is scared… a fourth woman strangled in a Soho flat”, which was untrue, and it left the Police trying to quell the public’s fears. The Sunday Pictorial headlined with “Dutch Leah feared murder… she always prophesied she would not die a natural death”, and although this did not appear in any statement, it ran rampant as a fact. The Mirror ran with “maniac’s three Soho women victims… girl’s friends fear to talk…stating ‘it may be our turn next’”, even though not a single sex workers questioned spoke of ‘being afraid’. And some articles, such as in EveryWeek, even created their own facts, as if the case wasn’t salacious enough – stating of Dutch Leah “the woman’s tongue was badly mutilated…” - it hadn’t been touched but they went on - “this deliberate mutilation is a serious warning to Soho – ‘this woman talked too much. Take heed, lest you get the same dose’”.
It was all lies… but if you print it, it becomes fact, and the more you repeat it, it becomes proof.
Throughout, the press repeatedly made reference to ‘a strangler in Soho’, ‘a strangler gang’ and even ‘Soho’s serial strangler’, but it wasn’t until the 23rd May 1936, two weeks after Leah’s death, that – in connection to a fourth alleged strangling of a Soho prostitute called Dorothy Raphael, for whom no police or incident record exists – The Evening Dispatch would first use the words – The Soho Strangler.
Like the unknown maniac who once stalked Whitechapel, Soho’s very own killer was given a name.
But by mythologising a man, and making him into a monster…
…again, the victims would be forgotten.
Everybody loves a villain and Jack the Ripper is possibly the most infamous. Almost 140 years since his killing spree, Jack has morphed from a mere man with either mental health issues or a maniacal bent, to a monster of a God-like status; who “outwitted the police with his cunning”, who “had a surgeon’s skill”, who as a moral guardian “cleaned up the city of disease-raddled whores”, who “was possibly a genius painter”, and he evaded capture as he had “friends in high places”, as high up as The Queen.
It makes for a fascinating tale, but – lacking any credible evidence - it’s most probably bollocks.
The truth is Jack the Ripper attacked lone, hungry, vulnerable women in the dark and then he fled. In short, he was a coward. But no-one buys books about cowards, and it’s harder to worship a weakling.
The same is true of most serial-killers; we know their names, but rarely their victims. Disregarded as mere props for his pleasure, or pieces of meat to be hacked to bits, the way we make a monster more palatable to a moral eye is by dismissing the victims till all that remains is their name, age and injuries.
It’s impossible to destroy the memory a ‘pretty little girl’, but it’s easy to eviscerate a ‘fallen women.
Examine any newspaper about the murder of Constance May Hind and the same formula is repeated; the first paragraph is an overview of the crime, the subtext of the second paragraph is why it was acceptable that she was murdered, and the third paragraph and beyond is the mythology of the killer.
As their only source of information - not all of which was true - the public were informed not to mourn her passing, as her murder was clearly preceded by her own life choices and moral transgressions.
Leah was an outsider of her own making, as (along with Fifi and Marie) she was described as ‘living a bohemian lifestyle’, with never an example to prove this, just that she was living among ‘undesirables’.
Next-up to be critiqued was her name, her many aliases – like Leah Smith, Leah Heinz, Constance May Hind and May Constance Smith, to name a few – most which were legitimate but whiffed of criminality with the repeated use of her street-name of ‘Dutch Leah’ to remind us that she was a prostitute.
Often the headlines heralded her as a “young pretty brunette”, as if it was her fault that her looks led a killer to take her life, and yet, had she been fat, old and ugly, he probably wouldn’t have bothered?
As with ‘Fifi’ and Marie, many articles reference that they French, but also ‘Russian’ and ‘Jewish’, with it all written in bold capital letters to play-upon this post-World War One xenophobia even further, and - even though she was English born and bred – many state “Leah Hinds is of German extraction”.
And as if her brutal murder was destined owing to who she loved, the newspapers never failed to state that she was a ‘morally loose woman’, who was ‘married’, ‘separated’ and ‘lived with men’, with her own mother’s lack of knowledge proving a boon, as she’d state: “I never saw her marriage certificate”.
Never once did they mention her tough upbringing, only her dubious life and her criminal record. So, when “this dead girl” was “found on a bed”, with her body described as being “partially clothed”, “in a state of undress” and in “just her underwear”, the fault was not laid at her killer, but at her.
Basically, the prostitute known as ‘Dutch Leah’ was someone we should never mourn.
In the eyes of the readers, she died cruelly because of the world she inhabited, Soho; a sinister place of foreigners, a seedy cesspit of vice, a plague of undesirables and a den of ‘the criminal underworld’.
As with Whitechapel in the 1880s, Soho in the 1930s reflected our socio-political anxieties, and The Soho Strangler embodied the publics fears. By 1936, still reeling from the First World War – with Hitler violating of the Treaty of Versailles by remilitarizing the Rhineland, Mussolini invading Abyssinia, and Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy forming the Rome-Berlin Axis - a Second World War was being mooted.
With talk of Communists, Fascists, Nazis and swarms of ‘aliens’ upon our shores, just as Jack the Ripper was a villain who embodied their fears, The Soho Strangler reflected ours, as society blamed the usual band of ‘undesirables’, such as foreigners, gays, Jews, bohemians, the insane and the disabled.
In all likelihood, The Soho Strangler was merely a man.
But afraid that this man was one of ‘us’…
…the press made him a monster, who was one of ‘them’.
The Police’s prime suspect in the murder of ‘Dutch Leah’ was the man seen with her, by Emilio Plantino & Nellie Few. Their combined statements describe him as “aged 25-30, 5 foot 5 to 7 inches high, slim to medium build, fresh complexion, clean shaven, brown brushed back hair, long black coat or raincoat and no hat”. That could be her killer, the problem is that it matches the average male in the 1930s.
As descriptions go, it’s ordinary and unremarkable. But when readers slather over a blood-spattered story about a ‘homicidal maniac’, they don’t want the killer to be just a man… they want a monster.
It took the tinkering of hundreds of tiny details to transform The Soho Strangler from a possible punter “last seen walking along Old Compton Street with Leah”, to become a predatory serial-killer of Soho’s sex-workers who “baffled Scotland Yard” and “strikes with an insane but deadly cunning”.
To many, the changes were barely noticeable. The Liverpool Echo wrote “he is believed to be an artist or a foreigner” – this is unknown, but it fits with the idea that a bohemian would kill his own kind. And more bizarrely, The Daily Herald stated “he was ‘coloured’ or ‘Greek’ – which neither witness said.
Within the day, other newspapers had adapted the same description - as issued by the Police - with a few subtle changes to make this man more monstrous; suddenly he had “long hair”, “a thin face”, “a dark grey cap” (probably to hide the devilish hunger in his blood-red eyes), and with “hair in the nape of neck”, as he “walks with a slouch”, this deformed beast would stalk Soho with an “ape-like gait”.
It took almost no time to make him real but also fictional, one of ‘them’ but not one of ‘us’. This was emphasised even further as with the killer prowling known “haunts” - as the press called them - like he was a ghoul as opposed to a guy. And stating: “police were searching all lodging houses and second-class boarding houses”, it was clear that the killer could never be middle or upper-class, but scum.
With it being thrilling to label him as “insane” and “a maniac” who unleashed “a ferocious attack”, he could simply have been a drunken punter who had a history of assaulting women and prostitutes, yet had never served time as it was hardly regarded as a much of a crime. But what’s thrilling about that?
And with the constant repetition of how he “vanished” rather than “fled”, how he “disappeared” rather than “ran away like a coward” and how he “evaded capture” rather than “walked into a busy street which was full of strangers minding their own business”, even his movements became mythic.
Keen to play-up a recurring theme which had embedded into the local and national press in the years before The Soho Strangler killings, The Sunday Dispatch and The Daily Independent exclaimed that the case would be cracked as “detectives are convinced that there is a ‘crime king’ in Soho, who knows all the secrets and all the culprits”. With all three murders – ‘French Fifi’, Marie Cotton and ‘Dutch Leah’ linked without question – it was said that “all three women had connections to the white slave trade”.
It all began, they would state, with Josephine Martin known as ‘French Fifi’, “found dead in her Archer Street flat… strangled with one of her silk stockings… she was said to have acted at various times as an agent for white slavers and for peddlers of ‘coke’”, with the Sunday Pictorial confirming to its eager readership, hungry for new ‘facts and ever more thrilling stories “...it is believed by Scotland Yard to be a vendetta which has already claimed three victims in a reign of terror” against Soho’s underworld.
On 12th May, the Evening Dispatch used the headline “Soho Strangler gang?”, implying an extortion racket in the West End, where women were forced into marriages of convenience, and shipped in and out of London or Paris, to work as prostitutes to pay off an impossible bill to their pimps and ponces.
On 23rd May 1936, ‘The Soho Strangler’ was first used in print… and the name stuck. (Out)
With no evidence to link any of the murders to a criminal gang, a lone killer, or even that their most likely suspects, the murders of ‘French Fifi’, Marie Cotton and ‘Dutch Leah’ were reluctantly closed.
As the national and international press drooled over three unsolved murders, an incompetent police force, a city suburb in terror and a killer with a very quotable nickname – just like the media sensation fifty years earlier which was Jack the Ripper - they bade for more blood and - with it - more murders.
But with an odd eery silence descending over Soho – although they still spoke of “panic grips Soho”, “another girl dead”, and most bizarrely “Soho Strangler caught” – as the killings stopped, so did the reader’s attention, and with the press looking elsewhere for news, The Soho Strangler was forgotten.
They didn’t even bother to wrap it up with a conclusion as to a possible suspect, they just stopped.
On 13th September 1936, EveryWeek posted a full-page article syndicated across the world which read “The Soho Strangler who baffled Scotland Yard”. It filled the space, but by the next day, it was being used as chip paper. In the late 1940s, the press dangled the same carrot about ‘The Soho Strangler’ striking once again, as four more prostitutes were murdered, all within streets of each other – ‘Ginger Rae’, ‘Russian Dora’ , ‘Margaret Cook’ and ‘Black Rita’ – but this time, the public didn’t bite.
The case may never be solved, as with the police having exhausted every avenue of investigation and the press having manipulated the sightings of the suspect - to such an extent that every witness after its publication gave a similarly false story, including Stanley King – the mythologising of the monster and the demonising of his victims has turned three murders into nothing but a gory story the sake of our entertainment. More than eighty years on, the truth about The Soho Strangler is lost forever.
And yet, the press did leave us a very real suspect...
…a Jew, known only as ‘Mr Cohen’.
Part Seven 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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