Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast - #205: The Soho Strangler - Part Nine - 'The Strangling of French Marie'
Nominated BEST TRUE-CRIME PODCAST at The British Podcast Awards, 4th Best True Crime Podcast by The Week, The Telegraph's Top Five True-Crime Podcasts, The Guardian and TalkRadio's Podcast of the Week, Podcast Magazine's Hot 50 and iTunes Top 25.
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 FIVE:
This is Part Nine of Ten of The Soho Strangler.
On Monday 16th August 1937, in the second floor lodging of a 48-year-old casual prostitute known as ‘French Marie’, a fourth French prostitute would strangled to death by an unknown assailant, and in a way which was as identical as the others. But unlike the others, her murderer would murder her was seen, not by one witness, but by at least twenty.
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SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
MEPO 3/1722 - https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C1257764
Murder, reduced to manslaughter, of Elsie Charlotte Torchon by Robert Dixon alias Norman Stephenson at Euston Road, NW. on 16 August 1937.
STEPHENSON, Norman: at Durham Assizes on 25 February 1939 convicted of manslaughter; sentenced to 10 years' penal servitude; at Central Criminal Court (CCC) on 25 April 1939 convicted of manslaughter; sentenced to 16 years' penal servitude concurrent. PCOM 9/2030
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
(1880s sounds). News vendor: “Extra! Extra! Read all about it. Ripper kills fifth in Miller’s Court’.
With the inquest into Mary Jane Kelly’s death concluding she was ‘murdered by persons unknown’, this marked the end of Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror, as oddly the press’ interest had begun at wain.
(1930s sounds). News vendor: “Extra! Extra! China at war with Japan”.
With the Second World War looming like an ominous fog of death, the murders of three dead women in a seedy part of Soho – French Fifi, Marie Cotton and Dutch Leah - seemed insignificant. Just months before, the tabloids had slathered with talk of fear, menace and mystery as a ‘foreign monster’ with an ‘ape-like gait’ slayed a slew of unworthy women in a fevered panic amidst the West End’s sex-trade.
Whereas once The Soho Strangler was an international sensation…
… now, his crimes and his victims’ lives weren’t worth the ink.
As the public’s only source of fact, the press had misled and lied to keep a myth about a serial strangler alive, having even distorted witness testimony and derailed an investigation in the name of circulation.
It’s true, the murders were unnervingly similar, but this could easily have been a coincidence, or how they presented the ‘facts’. The press would state “his victims were petite French brunettes”. Only one was English, and given that a woman’s average height in the 1930s was five-foot-one, and most prostitutes trafficked into London were French, the law of averages would suggest they looked similar.
As with where the women were murdered, most lodgings for sex-workers in Soho’s red-light district consisted of rooms above a shop, accessed by a single street door, and subdivided into small bedsits.
As for his method of attack – knocking a girl semi-conscious with a fist to the face and strangling her with a hand or her stocking – it’s not an uncommon assault, as it happened to Fifi just one week before.
With no robbery, no sexual assault and no fingerprints, there was no conspiracy or cover-up, as being in-and-out too quick to leave any hint of his identity – as the Police had said from the start – the most likely suspect was a man who frequented brothels and had a history of violence against prostitutes. In short, they may have argued over money, he hit her, panicked and strangled her to stop her screaming.
And that’s the problem, serial-killers are front page news…
…where-as a sad cowardly little man getting angry at being over-charged for sex is not.
By August 1937, fifteen months since Leah’s inquest, with the press distracted by war, a fourth murder would draw the Police’s attention - another strangling of a ‘petite French brunette’, just north of Soho.
But this time, being seen with his victim, in broad daylight, just moments before her murder…
…this fourth and final victim attributed to The Soho Strangler would lead to a conviction.
With the press losing interest, there would be no sensationalism, fearmongering and - unlike with the reporting of Leah’s murder - she wasn’t demonised. It was as if The Soho Strangler had never existed.
Like the others, she was known by many names; Elsie McMahon, Charlotte Torchon, ‘Fifi’, ‘French Marie’, ‘French Paulette’, or to some simply as ‘The French Woman’, and like Roger Vernon’s mistress, she was also known as ‘French Suzette’. Only her life would begin far from the streets of Paris.
‘Lottie Asterly’ as her birth certificate states was born on 15th December 1889 at Croydon Workhouse in south London. Known as Elsie Charlotte Asterly, she was the illegitimate child of Norah Asterly, a English domestic servant, and although unlisted, her father was possibly an Irishman called McMahon.
Although described as a ‘petite French brunette’, with a billowy cloud of reddish-brown hair, she was a little taller, older and – although all were slightly curvy – she was larger and bustier than the others. But with her life riddled with abandonment, this rather merry woman was always looking for love.
As a toddler, Marie (as she liked to be known) was placed into care and raised at the ‘Our Day of the Day’ convent at Boulogne-sur-Mer in France, which is why – being a fluent speaker with a Cote d’Opale accent and only able to speak in broken English – those who knew her often mistook her as French.
No longer a ward of the state, in 1905 she returned to England living in the West End with her mother, and that year, aged 16, Elsie Charlotte Asterly married Victor Torchon at St Pancras Registry Office in a very brief marriage of just six months, before she fled to France with a man known only ‘Mr Richard’.
Said to be in newspapers, she followed him from England to France and onto Guadeloupe for six years – how they lived, what they did and for what reason will never be known - until with the outbreak of the First World War, she returned to London. And being an unskilled woman unable to divorce, she would furnish her meagre wage as a chambermaid as well as her addictions with ‘casual prostitution’.
On 13th October 1920, Elsie McMahon (as her criminal record states) was convicted at Marlborough Street Police Court “in possession of cocaine” and sentenced to three months in prison. And on 3rd April 1924, at Bow Street, she received her first and only conviction of ‘soliciting for prostitution’.
Sex-work filled a financial hole, but it was the hole in her heart which left the biggest gap.
Investigated, but with proven alibis for the day of her murder, Marie had two men who she loved. Jean Emile Armonde was a French bigamist, who she called ‘Papa’ and lived with on Chitty Street. And although it’s unknown if he was her pimp, she aided his deportation, and she hadn’t seen him since.
Second was Norris Norton, a married draper’s shop owner, educated in Belgium, fluent in French, and a man who clearly loved her, as for twelve years, he saw her nightly for meals, treats and sex. Letters in her flat spoke of his undying love, but having grown tired of her binge drinking, their relationship had begun to drift. One week before her murder, he politely suggested they split, he didn’t see her after this date, and when the Police informed him of her death, he looked genuinely heartbroken.
In her 48-years alive, Marie’s life was often loveless and hard, but she never gave up. Often homeless, she didn’t slept rough, as casual work could fund her a night in a refuge, or through ‘prostitution’, she would get men to buy her a drink, a meal and a place to sleep, in return for sex and a little money.
As far as we know, she didn’t have a pimp or a ponce, and as a part-time prostitute, ‘French Marie’ was widely liked but known by few. She hadn’t been threatened, she had no known connections to the other victims, and she sometimes suffered assaults by drunken punters, which went unreported.
Struggling to hold down a job owing to her drinking, having been admitted to the Temperance Hospital on the Hampstead Road in Euston for a week, by Christmas 1936, she was employed as a cleaner at the Ross Institute for Tropical Diseases on Kepple Street, and - supplemented by sex-work - she moved into a small one-roomed lodging on the second floor at 306 Euston Road; where she lived, sold sex…
…and - just a few months later - would be strangled to death…
…by a man who many witnesses had seen and met.
With the myth about a monster, and the story of The Soho Strangler as dead and buried as his victims, although most articles about this murdered woman was relegated – once again - to a small paragraph hidden within, the press’ reporting was almost accurate, any mistakes weren’t malicious just lazy, and their factual coverage of the case was reflected in the truthful testimony of the subsequent witnesses.
Monday 16th August 1937 was Marie’s last day alive, and it was an ordinary as any other.
Dressed in a dark green jumper, a dark green frock and a little black hat but no scarf, as per usual, at 11:30am she entered the Goat & Compass pub at 341 Euston Road, a short walk from her flat.
Served two pints of Reid’s Stout by Patrick Jordon the barman, who had known this regular but heavy drinker for a few months, said she quietly sat in the corner with an unseen person, and left at 12pm.
At noon, she entered alone the Adam & Eve pub at 284 Euston Road, a place she visited daily. Across a public bar and a saloon, it was sparsely filled with just ten customers and a barman; many of whom knew, liked and would chat with her that day, later to be joined by the man who would murder her.
Unlike the post-midnight sighting on Old Compton Street of the man who may have murdered ‘Dutch Leah’, the bars were brightly lit, relatively quiet and there were few obstructions for these witnesses.
Barman, Joseph Clancy served Marie a large glass of Australian wine and she engaged in conversations in French and broken English with several customers. 1:05pm to 1:50pm, Reginald Marshall, George Pratt & Dominic Napolitan, three shopfitters on a lunchbreak recalled seeing Marie happily chatting to two of her friends; May Kenny, a housewife, and Charles Damey, an electrician. May was drunk and slurring, but – with a high tolerance for booze – Marie held her own. Their mood was said to be normal.
Throughout the next two-to-three hours, several customers entered the bar to buy off-sales, with the bottles of takeaway beer being stamped and dated with the pub’s details as was the legal requirement.
At 2pm, Marie spoke in broken English to Gertrude Calthorpe, a local waitress. Being a few drinks in, Marie was swaying and slurring, but never being unpleasant or aggressive, she was described as merry.
At 2:20pm, while Marie chatted with May who needed holding up, her killer entered the public bar. He didn’t sculk, he didn’t hide and he wasn’t in disguise, he just went to the bar and ordered a pint.
Being by himself, Frederick Thomas Dobson, an unemployed miner living in a men’s hostel in Camden Town struck-up a polite conversation with him, and the two strangers enjoyed each other’s company.
Later questioned about the man he had spoken to for roughly 40 minutes, in daylight and at a distance of barely two feet, Frederick described him as “mid-thirties, 5 foot 4, medium build, full face, sallow complexion, fair/brown hair parted to the side, clean shaven, thick jaw, dressed in a dark brown suit with a distinctive stripe on his soft collar, tie and waistcoat”. He also “spoke with a Newcastle accent”.
Oddly, he didn’t look ‘foreign’, he didn’t sound ‘menacing’ and he didn’t walk with a ‘ape-like gait’. This monster who was just hours away from strangling ‘Marie’, looked as normal as any other man.
Many of the witnesses gave similar descriptions of this man; with the ages ranging from early 20s to mid-40s, and physically described as short and thin, with a pasty roundish face, flushed in the cheeks, and wearing a brown suit with no hat. In truth, he was 24 years old, 5 foot 3 high, 10 stone in weight, with a pale flushed face and brown brushed-back hair, but he was spot-on about the Newcastle accent.
To be honest, it didn’t take much detective work to determine that Marie’s killer came from this city in Northern England, as over a pint, he openly chatted about his life, both past and present. Frederick would state: “he said that he ‘worked as a miner in Wales’ and Newcastle for roughly six years”. During this conversation, Fredrick saw Marie look across the bar, in their direction, and smile at the man.
It seems odd, that a man so hellbent on murdering ‘petite French brunettes’ would walk into a public bar and openly disclose the facts about his life – all of which were true - to an eyewitness, but he did. And then again, being so ordinary, if a murder hadn’t happened, would anyone have remembered him?
At 2:40pm, as Marie chatted to Gertrude, she waved at the man and he smiled waving back. She wasn’t afraid of him, and she told no-one anything about him, but to her pal she laughingly remarked, “I am getting off”, which is prostitute slang for having sex with a punter, suggesting he was not a stranger.
At 2:50pm, that same man chatted to George Bakewell, and although he didn’t disclose his name, “he spoke about being born in Newcastle… about how his last boxing match with a man named McGuire had ruined him… that until Monday morning he worked at the Central Hotel in Marylebone but was fired for upsetting a milk churn...” and - with him being unemployed and homeless - “he showed me his work cards” and the two men arranged to meet up again later, so George could help him out.
George waited at the pub from 5:30pm to 6pm as agreed, only the man failed to turn up.
But then, why would a killer agree to meet, if his warped mind was so fixated on murder?
At 3pm, with the pub due to close (as was the law), Marie ordered two of pint bottles of Guinness as off-sales, each bottle was stamped and dated with the pub’s details and placed in a brown paper bag.
Outside, several witnesses including George Bakewell the match-seller, Frederick Dobson the ex-miner and Phyllis Kingham a friend of Marie’s heard this exchange between Marie and her killer, as well as being witnessed by two passers-by; Thomas Leith, a fishmonger and Henry Boon, a newspaper boy.
He said “are you going to take me home?”, she said “have you got any money?”, to which he put his hand in his right trouser pocket and pulled out what looked – to anyone less drunk than Marie – to be a fistful of coins. But as some of those who saw this would state “it was no more than half a crown”.
As they walked away, heading down Euston Road and onto Hampstead Road, Marie shouted to Phyllis “I’ll see you tonight”, and she laughed as the man tried kiss her with a cigarette still in his mouth.
Within the next two hours, ‘French Marie’ would be murdered…
…and being seen in broad daylight, there would be no mystery as to her killer.
At 3:20pm, Marie and the man turned onto Seaton Place, a bustling market where you could buy fruit and vegetables, clothes and shoes, meats, fish and takeaway foods like Pease-pudding and saveloys.
When questioned, although many struggled to recall such an ordinary sight, numerous eyewitnesses gave identical statements and descriptions to the police. There was no criminal king-pin threatening the witnesses to remain silent or locals being too afraid to speak; these were just ordinary people seeing a woman they knew to be a prostitute, walking her punter along her regular route, back to her flat. It was so ordinary and normal, that by the time it had happened, they had probably forgotten it.
At 3:25pm, Gertrude Calthorpe, Marie’s friend from the pub saw her heading west, being held up by the man, she looked happy and appeared to be browsing several of the stalls on her way to Bath Row.
Most notably though, at 3:30pm, Sadie Gibber, fruiter’s assistant saw Marie: “she had clearly been drinking… the man was trying to coax her… as staggering along, she held his man’s right hand…” and with the neighbouring stall closed that day “she was annoyed as she couldn’t get meat for her cat”.
About the same time, Rueben Packcroft, a bookseller who often sold Marie copies of ‘True Detective Stories’, stated “she was not steady on her feet…”, the man he described as “a jolly chap”, held her by the arm, “he was amused and laughing”. In court, Rueben would testify “I have known her to be in the company of this man two or three times prior”, suggesting that her murderer was a regular punter.
It makes sense; as with her killer (potentially) being a person she liked and trusted, she would willingly let him into her home, maybe make him a cup of tea and possibly prepare him a meal. If all he stole was the money he paid had her, it would be impossible to prove whether a robbery took place. Having assaulted her, there may not have been any sex or rape as his mind would have been on his escape. And with no hint of fear, she may have been strangled before her mouth could utter a single scream.
Being angry and drunk, he may have fled before he could leave any fingerprints, and as an ordinary bloke, he could vanish – not through his own devious cunning – but because no-one had noticed him.
Just like ‘Dutch Leah’, at 3:40pm, on a well-lit side street on a bright summer’s day, Marie and her killer were seen entering her home at 306 Euston Road, where she would be later be found strangled.
Henry Radley, a fishmonger from next door was outside the address pumping up his bike tyre, when they both passed him at the entry to Bath Row; “the woman was in front…she opened the door with a key. The man, as he was on the steps, turned to me and smiled”, as they both entered the building.
But unlike ‘Dutch Leah’, two tenants saw them inside the building. Mrs Kathleen Ullah on the first floor passed them on the stairs; and living one floor above Marie – as she emptied her bins – Eva Shladover saw her “being assisted up the stairs by the man” and then enter her second-floor lodging, together.
At roughly 4pm, Marie put on her wireless radio, as was typical, “I heard them singing and clapping to the music”, it remained on for the rest of the afternoon, and “as far as I know” Marie did not leave.
At some point during the music, ‘French Marie’…
…was murdered by a serial strangler.
As before, no-one saw or heard the last sounds of her demise, but why would they, when everyone’s focus was living their own life. Thuds go mistaken, cries drift on a wind, screams get drowned out by horn honks, and even an ordinary murderer could vanish unseen, being just a face in a bustling crowd.
At 6pm - a time verified by Mary Connell who heard the whistle at the Scent Factory blow – she saw thick plumes of dark smoke pour from a second-floor window. Alerting Gulum Mustafa, an Indian waiter from the ground floor and Eva Shladover from the third, they spotted smoke seeping into the hallway from the slightly ajar door of Marie’s room. Mustafa knocked, got no reply, so they entered.
As a small bed-sitting room barely big enough for a small bed, a table, an armchair, a chest of drawers and a washstand, a fire was lightly smouldering as an oil lamp had (probably) smashed in the sink, igniting a few rags, maybe a towel or a flannel and a curtain which encircled the washstand for privacy.
Gulum stamped the burning cloths out, Eva opened a window for air and as the smoke cleared, on the bed they saw Marie; fully clothed, her feet on the floor, her legs apart and a cloth covering her face – not unlike the other three murders, only they would never make the connection. As a drunk, prone to mishaps and afternoon naps, they thought she was sleeping and - with the fire out - they let her rest.
Switching off the music to give her peace, they closed the door, unaware that she would never wake.
It was another murder mistaken for an accident and in one case, a suicide. But it was nothing clever, it wasn’t premeditated, and there was no criminal mastermind pulling the strings of conspiracy.
As with everything in life, we see what we want to see. If we believe this is the work of a cunning serial strangler stalking Soho’s streets in search of similar-looking sex-workers, who has planned each crime-scene down to the tiniest details – then that is what we will see. But (if like the Police) we see a drunken punter whose anger sparked a moment of madness, who hastily erased the briefest traces of himself from a crime scene he had barely been in, before fleeing unseen – then that is what we will see.
The press will write that they write, and the reader will choose to believe that they will believe. But if you write it, it becomes fact. If you repeat it, it becomes proof. And if it appears in enough books, read by enough people, willing to accept it as ‘the truth’… it becomes irrefutable as cast-iron evidence.
An hour later, long after her killer had vanished amidst the thick city smog, Gertrude Calthorpe had her daughter deliver a letter to Marie. With her still seemingly sleeping as soundly as they had left her, Mustafa and Eva accompanied the girl, and on the silent bed, they tried to rouse this motionless lady.
Mustafa shook her arm, but she did not wake. Eva called her name, but she did not stir. Having pulled the cloth from her face, the threesome didn’t recoil in shock as her face wasn’t a twisted mess of pain. If anything, it looked peaceful. But most do, when a person has been strangled whilst unconscious.
With no ligature around her neck and her face an odd shade, they checked her pulse but could not find a single beat. Suspecting that this chronic alcoholic had died in her sleep, they called the police.
The first PC arrived at 7:25pm, an ambulance followed, and with her certified as dead, Dr Alexander Baldie, the Police Surgeon followed and - as was protocol in a suspicious death – the CID came too.
Within the hour, the Police would confirm that ‘French Marie’ had been murdered. (Out)
With no witnesses, no obvious robbery, no signs of struggle and no ransacking of the room, it looked unnervingly similar to the other three murders, but was it connected? She had been strangled, only the ligature missing, she had treated him to a small meal, a drink, and at some point, they had sex.
It was a crime scene as similar, as each murder before was different, with neither being a copy of the other. But what made this one stand-out was a crucial clue; as not only had twenty people seen his face, with some even hearing his (possible) life history, but this time, he left behind his fingerprints.
Since Fifi’s murder, the Police had dismissed any notion of a serial-killer, stating in a report dated 9th September 1937 “the newspapers suggested that this murder (Marie’s) was connected with the cases of strangulation of prostitutes in Soho in 1935 and 1936… we have convinced them they are wrong”.
By this point, the press had lost interest, and fixated on the belief that the most likely suspect would be a punter with a history of violence (especially strangulation) against prostitutes, who had links to Soho and the West End, and who (most likely) matched the suspect last seen with Dutch Leah, they went in search for a suspect – not crime boss, a monster, a bohemian or a Jew – but an ordinary man.
This tried and trusted technique had failed three times before, with each inquest concluding that these women were murdered by person’s unknown. Only this time, it was different; this time they had a face, this time they had his history, this time they had his fingerprints, and – exactly as they has stated – they would arrest a man who had recently been convicted for strangling two sex-workers.
The Police’s most promising suspect in the murder of ‘French Marie’…
…was a young, brown-haired, serial-strangler who visited prostitutes in Soho.
The final part 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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