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Welcome to the Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, all set within and beyond the West End.
EPISODE TWO HUNDRED AND THREE:
This is Part Seven of Ten of The Soho Strangler.
With three women dead, no witnesses to their murders and no clues to their killer’s identity, although the Police still insisted that this was not the work of a serial-killer but three different murders with remarkable similarities, the press had a suspect… a ‘Soho crime boss’ who was a known strangler, who had the money and power to corrupt an investigation.
His nickname was Red Max, but he also went by the alias… of Mr Cohen.
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SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
“Dear Boss. I keep on hearing the police have caught me, but they won’t fix me just yet. I have laughed when they look so clever and talk about being on the right track. That joke about Leather Apron gave me real fits. I am down on whores and I shant quit ripping them till I do get buckled. Grand work the last job was. I gave the lady no time to squeal. Good Luck. Yours truly. Jack the Ripper”.
The infamous ‘Dear Boss’ letter - which gave Whitechapel’s infamous spree-killer a name - is largely thought to be a hoax, concocted by two journalists at The Star newspaper, to keep a dying story alive.
As with the Soho Strangler - by mangling the facts so a mere man now morphed into a monster – their meddling had distracted the public, the rest of the press and even the police from finding the culprit.
In truth, neither killer left any clues to their identity; with no fingerprints, no witnesses and baffled police suggesting a smattering of suspects (possibly) as convenient scapegoats - with the inquests of ‘French Fifi’, Marie Cotton and ‘Dutch Leah’ concluding they were ‘murdered by persons unknown’ - the cases were closed, the killer went silent, and - with no news to report – a restless press moved on.
But who was The Soho Strangler? A man, a myth or a monster? A bohemian, a gay or a Jew? And with a taste for petite French brunettes, was a fourth victim in his sights? The Police thought he was a man, possibly a punter with a past of violence against women, where-as the Press had alluded to a suspect.
Described as ‘a gangster’, ‘ a ponce’, ‘a vice king’, ‘a dope peddler’, ‘a white slaver’, and said to be ‘the most feared man in the London underworld’, they never gave a name to this ‘crime boss’; but as a criminal who could kill at will, exuded an aura of fear and had the power to corrupt (making the Police look away and the Press pose a cunning distraction to the public), he was a real strangler in Soho…
…who was invisible, because those who knew the truth were too afraid to speak.
As a man, a myth and a monster, ‘Max le Roquin’ - also known by those who daren’t speak his name as ‘Max the Red’, ‘Red Max’ and ‘Russian Max’ - went by many aliases, some we know, most we don’t, as he assumed new names and identities to disguise his crimes; with his extensive criminal record listing him as Kemfesti, Kassenborg, Kassel, Emil Allard, Max Allard, and known locally as ‘Mr Cohen’.
Using a multitude of aliases and forged documents in multiple countries, his true history is a mystery.
Born on either the 3rd or 5th of December 1879, Meier Kassel known as ‘Max’ was one of at least two sons to Herrmann or Hyman & Mina Kassel, Russian Jews living in Riga, now the capital city of Latvia.
His past went unspoken by his sister Fanny and his brother George, and his nephew Alfred would state when questioned “I do not know where he came from, or his age… he told me he was a jeweller”.
Being barely five foot five but weighing in at a hefty 16 stone, Max was physically imposing, and as the police report declared “he had enormous strength and was greatly feared by those who knew him”.
With piercing brown eyes and fair red hair, Max the Ginger as he was also known exuded a real charm when he wanted to, but with his face and body a patchwork of past wounds - a broken nose, lost teeth and his left cheek and neck slashed in a knife fight – there was no denying that Max was dangerous.
Barking in a gruff menacing growl, those who openly spoke against him, stated he was “a violent bully”, “offensive and arrogant” and a “quick-tempered selfish thug”; who attacked the meek with impunity, who stalked the streets unreproached, who stole what he said was his, and – being fast with a ligature or his fists – he’d spit mocking barbs, laughing as his terrified victim was strangled into submission.
No-one knows when or why he left Riga, but in 1901 – as a well-dressed respectable Jewish boy with an honest trade - 20-year-old Max was running a bootmaker’s in the Paris suburb of Rue Pigalle. It was a decent business which made a little money, paid its bills and drew no attention from the authorities. But that was the point; as using an alias, this little shoe-shop was a front to hide his real income - sex.
Rue Pigalle was Paris’ red-light district – the French Soho or Whitechapel – where cruel men like Max pimped out barely pubescent girls, selling their virginity to seedy strangers for a fee they’d never see. Whether he sold her is unknown, but one girl pimped in Pigalle would be known in Soho as French Fifi.
But with pimping being precarious, having been arrested on several charges of larceny, dope-dealing, running a brothel, living off immoral earnings and the assault of ‘his girls’ as he called them (known in the trade as ‘the meat’), in October 1903, under the alias of Kemfesti, Max was deported from France.
For any honest individual, this banishment would be crippling…
…but by adopting a new alias, Max simply started again.
From 1905, he ran a café in the Belgian city of Antwerp as a front to his ever-expanding strangle-hold on the white slave trade, until 1914 when he was prosecuted (but ultimately dismissed owing to a lack of evidence) and was expelled for ‘inciting minors into debauchery’. Max did not care about the ‘meat’ he sold, even though with the age of consent being just 13, some of his girls were only children.
Fuelled by money, power and arrogance, Max travelled where he pleased and having established a network of brothels in Buenos Aires, Antwerp, Paris, Montreal and London, shipping a fresh slew of pretty young girls to distant cities, as to English punters even French girls have a taste of the exotic.
Exported like cattle to a strange new land; a wonderful dream would be dangled before every girl, she would be hastily married to make deportation impossible, stripped of her passport and sold into the sex trade. Isolated, threatened, beaten and living in fear, they would be indebted for life to their pimps and ponces, serving a never-ending procession drunk and violent men, until – as unloved middle-aged spinsters with debts, criminal records and addictions – they were physically and mentally spent.
By 1914, Max was shipping girls between almost every continent including Australia, having acquired a French/Canadian passport under the alias of Emil Allard, with his cover as a West End jeweller.
As with many elements of criminality, it is said (but unprovable) that Max ran ‘The Iron Gang’, a feared group of pimps, extorters, heroin dealers and white slavers in Soho, until 1925 when all were charged with running a ‘bogus marriage scheme’ for the purpose of prostitution. With one witness described as a ‘prostitute’ and ‘an informer’, four men were deported, but Max was not convicted or charged.
In 1933, three years before the murders, Max Kassel alias Emil Allard, a well-dressed man - in a sharp suit, a Trilby hat, gold rings and cufflinks, who carried a magnifying-glass as he sold jewellery bought from Debenhams - had moved into very modest 1st floor flat at 37 James Street in Marylebone, where he lived alone with his white highland terrier. He was so anonymous; it was almost as if he didn’t exist.
With his wealth hidden, his identity unknown and his businesses seemingly legit, when the police were hunting Leah’s killer - “a man with a history of violence against women and prostitutes” - one of the reasons Red Max didn’t appear on their list was that he didn’t have a criminal conviction in England.
As a ‘crime boss’ in Soho, Max had the ability to be powerful and yet invisible.
In 1937, after The Soho Strangler had seemingly gone silent, the United Press reported: “Mad the Red, a big shot in the white slave trade and dope gang… in Europe, Africa and North & South America specialised in bringing foreign women to Britain though ‘fixed’ marriages… the women were set-up in West End apartments, while Max Kassel and his mob made a handsome rake-off from their girl’s earnings together with protection money to keep their territory free from molestation by rival gangs”.
With most white slavers making £3000 a year (£250,000 today), the vastness of Max’s empire cannot be counted, but – as later stated in the News of the World – his influence was one of intimidation, violence and fear , “as among Paris gangsters and their women… Red Max was a name of terror…”.
Max had power, money, influence and control. As the ‘crime boss’ of Soho’s sex-trade, he chose who rose and fell, or who won and lost, with each man’s life and death – literally – in the palm of his hands.
It was said, “every man in Soho feared the wrath of Red Max”…
…and as for the women? To him, they meant nothing.
By May 1936, three petite brunettes of similar circumstances were strangled in their Soho flats by an unseen assailant. The Police would state “there is nothing to show that there is a connection between any of these cases, despite the most exhaustive enquiries, no evidence was found upon which even suspicion could be attached to any known person, and it is unlikely that the crimes will ever be solved”.
In the hunt for the killer, the Police searched far and wide…
…and yet, not once in any of the murder files does Red Max appear as a suspect.
Three streets south-east of Lexington Street where Jeanne-Marie Cotton once lived, two streets south of Old Compton Street and Archer Street where ‘French Fifi’ and ‘Dutch Leah’ plied their trade, and over Shaftesbury Avenue in an area now called ‘Chinatown’, lived a sex-worker called ‘French Suzette’.
Her tragic story is not dissimilar to those you have already heard.
Born in Paris, on an unspecified date in 1910, Susanne Baudoin came from very little and sought (what was said to be) a better life in England. As a pretty young brunette with a girl-like frame, a dark bob and rose-bub lips, sex-work was an obvious choice for an unskilled woman who lured in lustful men.
In 1924, at the tender aged of just 14, Susanne married Emil Bertron, a violin maker, and together they had a daughter called Lucette. Little is known of their married life, but already working as a prostitute, it was said that Susanne had “abandoned them”, fleeing to England and leaving her husband and child.
Like many ‘pieces of meat’ shipped into Soho’s red-light district, on 18th March 1933, Suzanne married John Naylor, a man she had never met before, and having been paid £2 for his time, after a few months of ‘married life’, they later split, leaving Mrs Naylor with a passport and immunity from deportation.
French Suzette had many convictions for prostitution, but unlike the others, she lived in relative luxury.
Many prostitutes were flat farmed, as with the law decreeing that a brothel consisted of “two or more prostitutes living or working in a single dwelling”, the solution was simple; a series of flats subdivided into smaller lodgings by a partition, with a bed and a hot-plate installed to add an heir of respectability. Just like ‘French Fifi’s flat on Archer Street, although who actually owned that flat will never be known.
In contrast, 35-36 Little Newport Street was a spacious four-storey maisonette covering two floors, which was furnished with art-work, soft furnishings, an electric massager and a portable gramophone.
Always dressed in fine furs, expensive cosmetics and Parisienne perfumes, although she still had sex with men for money, her clients were exclusive, her prices were higher and her life was easier than most, being the mistress of Roger Vernon - an infamous white slaver and now a bitter rival of Red Max.
Susanne Baudoin alias ‘French Suzette’ was a petite brunette, who lived and worked as a prostitute, in a 2nd floor lodging above a shop which was accessed only via a street-door - the similarities are stark.
Barely two streets south and just two months after the killing of Soho prostitute ‘French Fifi’, it was here on Thursday 23rd January 1936, that another strangling took place. Only, just like ‘Dutch Leah’s…
…this murder would be different.
What’s most baffling about the Soho Strangler killings is the lack of motive. Every murder has a motive; whether robbery or revenge, pride or politics, insanity or mistaken identity, bloodlust or sexual urges.
These murders had none of that; each death was silent and swift, each crime-scene untouched and clean, and each corpse (in two cases) were mistaken for something innocent, with Leah’s either being personal or - having not used a stocking - the flat iron only became essential to silence her. He didn’t post letters to the police, he didn’t take souvenirs and he didn’t daub taunts on a wall written in blood.
These three crimes could have been a coincidence, a cock-up, or controlled by someone with power.
On the night of Sunday 3rd November 1935, ‘French Fifi’ willingly invited her assailant into her Archer Street flat and it’s likely she made him a cup of tea and maybe a plate of eggs. In the bedroom, no sex nor assault took place, but - in an action described by her friends as “odd” - she calmly removed only her left stocking, in which she kept her money, which went missing. But did he take it, or was he owed it? And having cleared her debt, did this man who felt he owned her, close her account with her death?
A few weeks before her murder, her neighbour Millicent Warren heard Fifi “argue and struggle with a foreign man in her flat… “ who Fifi later said “got hold of my throat”. Who this man was is unknown, but being a prostitute – and therefore “untrustworthy” - Millie’s account was not investigated further.
It may seem strange for a murder to be mistaken with a suicide, by such experienced detectives, a doctor and a pathologist… but it was. At the crime scene, they found no fingerprints to pinpoint to a suspect (but maybe he wore gloves?), no witnesses were spotted (but possibly they were too scared to speak?), by her bed were letters suggesting a suicidal depression (or maybe the scene was staged?), and with her autopsy taking three weeks to come to the conclusion of “murder, based on probability”, were these professionals simply trying to get to the truth without jumping to a hasty decision, or was the delay deliberate? The Daily Herald would later state “for the police to allow such a time to elapse between the body’s discovery and the cause of death being announced is almost without parallel”.
What we do know of the culprit is that – having rendered her semi-conscious and shattered her dental plate in a single punch – that he was a big man, strong and violent, who could charm and control her.
On Thursday 16th April 1936, the body of 43-year-old French national Jeanne-Marie Cotton was found strangled in her flat. Again, with no fingerprints, clues or witnesses, the Police collared a gay lodger who had soiled a mattress, but with the evidence purely circumstantial, James Hall was dismissed.
The investigation described ‘Marie Cotton’ as “a woman of good character and there is no evidence to suggest that she had at any time been a prostitute”. And yet, she had possible links to the sex-trade; her lodger (Dorothy Neri) was prostitute, she married briefly to an Englishman which sealed her British citizenship, she lived on a known thoroughfare occupied by sex-workers, her boyfriend Carlo reputedly paid for her sex and – it was said by just days before her death –he had accused her of having ‘a ponce’.
Marie Cotton spoke only to her closest friends about her fear of ‘The Jew’, an unidentified man who had “helped her out in the past”, who was “reclaiming his debt”, whose surname she had only said once, possibly by mistake, and whose impending arrival had left her shaking with fear. On Tuesday 14th April 1936, just two days before her death, she had left a note by her door which read ‘Mr Cohen. Shall not be long. Gone to Marlborough Street. J Lanza’ - this was handed in to the Police as evidence.
That night, the mysterious Mr Cohen failed to show up. With scant information, the Police stated that “finding him was an impossible task”. And although Mr Cohen was mentioned at the inquest, Red Max was not. Oddly, it was amidst the police’s own papers, that ‘Mr Cohen’ was listed as a known alias for Red Max. And yet he wasn’t considered a suspect in Marie Cotton’s murder? But why?
On Saturday 9th May 1936, a few streets from both murders, ‘Dutch Leah’ a 24-year-old prostitute was found strangled and bludgeoned to death in her own bed. Again, there were no fingerprints, suspects or clues. She wasn’t French, but being a small brunette, maybe some of these details are coincidental?
The links between Leah and Max are scant as you would expect. When questioned, Ruby Walker stated “I don’t know that Leah has been to France, or if someone had come from France to murder her. I knew ‘Fifi’ but I did not know Max. I have never seen ‘French Fifi’ and Leah Hinds together”. Even though they were both two pleasant prostitutes who had lived and worked streets apart for six years.
The links are tenuous; it’s likely that Leah was flat farmed, as her landlord had offered her another flat having first threatened to evict her owing to ‘debts’; it’s possible that being a British prostitute Leah was killed for selling sex on a patch run by French ponces like Max, we know Leah was married briefly using aliases to Robert Smith, and - in an odd connection - they held their wedding reception at 5 Old Compton Street, the home of a “French ponce” as the police file states “which Red Max did frequent”.
And yet, if Max was the last man seen with Leah and whose description – “aged 25-30, slim to medium build, fresh complexion, brown hair, long black coat and no hat” - was fed to every police force in the country and led the course of the investigation, why doesn’t it match Max? Who was aged 55, well-built, scarred complexion, with a mop of fair-reddish hair and dressed in an expensive three-piece suit.
Was this accurate, a mistake, or as a deception concocted by a corrupt police force, funded by a Soho crime boss and aided by the press who added their own ‘monstrous’ flourishes, was the aim to ensure that these murders would never be solved, and that The Soho Strangler would never be caught?
With three Soho prostitutes strangled, no suspects charged and each case closed, a killer still roamed free. And although the Press had gone silent, another petite French brunette would be murdered…
…and she was known as ‘French Suzette’.
1935 and 1936 saw the swift decline of Max’s once great empire. With Maltese gangs like the Messina Brothers and the Vassallo Gang muscling into the French-run sex-trade, 55 year old Max was far from the man he once was. Money was tight, ‘Mr Cohen’ was cracking down on debtors, and one week before the murder, Max had his finger sliced in a knife-fight in a Berwick Street café over a few quid.
In Britain, Max had always maintained his duality (that of a seemingly legitimate West End jeweller to hide his illicit gains) which kept him free from police suspicion and even helped him evade deportation when (everyone but him in) the ‘Iron Gang’ was convicted back in 1925. He had no criminal record in this country, which made him invisible, but following the arrest of an associate for the possession of a firearm, Max was “put under surveillance”, and (said to be “a police informer” in London and Paris) that Max had handed over his associates to save his own skin. Again, it could be a coincidence, but…
…The Daily Herald would state “(French Fifi) was believed to have given evidence which recently led to a sensational court case”. Her real name nor none of her aliases appear as a witness in the reporting of that case. But then again, with this trial beginning on the 21st November 1935…
…’Fifi’ had been murdered just two weeks before.
On Thursday 23rd January 1936 at about 6pm, Max left his modest flat at 37 James Street. With times hard and his pride dented, even his nephew would state “he did not appear to have much money”. In Soho, once he ruled the roost but being overweight, old and alone, his glory days had long since gone.
To compound his shame, to raise his volcanic blood pressure and to cause his thick hairy fists to clench whenever this debt was mentioned, 18 months earlier, he was forced to go cap-in-hand to get a loan of £25 (£1300 today) from a white slaver who ruled large swathes of Soho’s sex-trade.
This man was a French pimp called Roger Vernon, and now he ran this local ‘meat’ market, not Max.
With the debt being called in, Max unable to pay and Roger spreading word that this so-called king pin hadn’t got two halfpennies to rub together – having strolled through Soho, past the murderous haunts of The Soho Strangler - at 6:50pm, he rang the doorbell of 35/36 Little Newport Street; an elegant little lodging beyond a street-door, occupied by one of Roger’s prostitutes, who was also his mistress…
…a small petite brunette called ‘French Suzette’. (Out)
With menace and (possibly) murder on his mind, Max didn’t draw any attention as he waited for the door to open. He didn’t wear a disguise – just a grey suit, a dark overcoat, a shirt and a tie – but then he didn’t need to. As the black street-door opened, Max removed his hat, his face clearly visible to those in this busy market street, as he knew no-one who valued their life would dare speak his name.
Even on a street full of traders, he could appear and vanish, like a gust of wind floating on a breeze.
In his pockets, he didn’t carry a weapon – no gun, knife nor ligature - as being a well-built brute who was handy with his fists, he could easily crush a man’s neck with two hands and a woman’s with one.
Opened by Marcella, the prostitute’s maid, as Max asked “Is Madame in?”, this trembling help led him up the narrow stairs, past the closed club and to the private room above to meet with ‘French Suzette’.
The Soho Strangler would murder four women in total, although his motive would remain a mystery.
But was Red Max this maniac? Did a corrupt Police force hide his crimes? Did an eager press distract the public with its lies? Did this ‘crime boss’ order the murders of ‘French Fifi’, Marie Cotton and ‘Dutch Leah’ to usurp any rivals and erase any informers? Or was this as simple as a once-great white-slaver, who had fallen on hard times and was recouping his debts or exacting revenge, no matter how petty?
Given enough power, money and control, surely it would take a criminal king-pin – someone like Max - to make a murder look like a suicide, to vanish any witness, to erase any evidence, to lead the police to collar a series of scapegoats, and to ensure that none of these murders ever went to criminal trial?
‘Red Max’ alias ‘Mr Cohen’ is the most likely suspect to be The Soho Strangler… and yet he wasn’t.
Only this wasn’t corruption, a deception or incompetence by the Police, and we know that as a fact, as before the Marie Cotton and ‘Dutch Leah’ were even murdered… ‘Red Max’ was already dead.
Part Eight 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 of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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