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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 THIRTY-THREE:
At 5:15am, on the Boxing Day morning of 1948, cartoonist Harry Michaelson was found on his doorstep of Flat 75 at Fursecroft in Marylebone, nursing a bloody wound to his head. With no memory of what had happened, the police relied on the evidence. But having made a lazy assumption, they almost derailed the entire investigation.
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SOURCES: This case was researched using some of the sources below.
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE
Welcome to Murder Mile.
Today I’m standing on George Street in Marylebone, W1; one street south of the first killing by the Blackout Ripper, two streets east of the failed hit on the exiled Iraqi general, a few doors down from the deaf son’s desperate mum, and a few doors up from Dot the Deadly - coming soon to Murder Mile.
Built in the 1930s, Fursecroft is a posh ten-storey Edwardian mansion block, the kind you’d expect to see in Poirot, where for 90 minutes the famous Belgian detective twists his little moustache and jiggles his grey cells – all the while dreaming of waffles, chocolate, TinTin and moule et frites, as what else do Belgian’s do - only to conclude that – dun-dun-duuuuhn, the killer was the slutty bigamist… again.
And yet, Marylebone’s own detectives almost failed to solve a simple case owing to an assumption.
On the Boxing Day morning of 1948, 50-year-old Harry Michaelson was found on his doorstep at Flat 75. With a towel to his forehead, blood running down his face, and no memory of what had occurred, with no signs of forced entry, the police assumed they were hunting an assailant who Harry had let in.
Only he hadn’t. And although they had supposedly interrogated every detail given by the eyewitnesses who knew Harry well, it took a sharp-eyed constable with a suspicious nose to truly trap his murderer.
My name is Michael, I am your tour guide, and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 233: Sketches.
Eugene Fordsworthe said, “assumption is the mother of all mistakes”. It’s a crime we’ve all committed, as sometimes, it’s too easy to assume the most logical answer must be the right answer. For us, it’s a mistake we can make with very little consequences, but for detectives, it can derail an investigation.
Harry Saul Michaelson was born on the 14th of December 1898, being raised in a loving well-educated middle-class family and spending most of his five decades in and around Willesden and Paddington.
Being five foot six and sparsely built, those who knew Harry described him as a cheery and pleasant gentleman who was always kind, and - as a talented cartoonist and an acclaimed commercial artist – he loved to wile away his free time by sketching friends and strangers over a cup of tea and a chat.
But painting was also how he made his living. Nicknamed ‘one minute Michaelson’, Harry toured the theatres of Great Britain as a ‘lightening cartoonist’ who wowed the crowds with his speedy sketching as part of a music hall act. As an immensely creative man who brought joy to the masses, especially as the bombs of the Luftwaffe pummelled every British city while the Second World War raged on, it made sense that Harry would fall in love – possibly on the circuit - with a talented pianist called Anna.
In November 1938, they married at Willesden Registry Office, and as performers with no children, it was said that they toured together. But with Harry having contracted malaria during the First World War – and still suffering from the long-term effects of fevers, chills, aches and pains, as well as stomach problems and nerves - described by his younger brother as “highly strung”, for the sake of his health, he gave up performing, and continued working from home with a set of paints and an easel by his bed.
In 1941, Harry & Anna moved into a small bed-sitting room at Flat 75 of Fursecroft in Marylebone. As a basement flat, the view from its two casement windows wasn’t much as it overlooked the concrete wall below the corner of Brown Street and Nutford Place, but as a modern block with solid locks and being staffed by a team of porters, day and night, what they paid for was the amenities and security.
For Harry, who spent most of his days alone in this tiny two roomed flat, it had everything he needed; a kitchen-cum-bathroom with a toilet and a bath in the same room as a gas hob (which for then was normal), and a bed-sitting room with two single beds, a phone, a gas fire, a wealth of artwork, a day bed for resting while he sketched with an easel, paints and heaped stacks of magazines and papers for reference, as well as a tubular metal chair where his guests could sit as they posed for their portraits.
As a polite but solitary figure, he always greeted the porters, he went for his morning coffee at Maison Lyonese in nearby Marble Arch, and although a semi-regular guest at Sketch (an artist member’s club), not being much of a drinker owing to gastric issues, he spent most of his time alone in his flat, painting.
He wasn’t well-off but he wasn’t broke, he wasn’t a bad man just kind and quiet, and although his wife had recently recovered from an overdose of sleeping pills owing to Harry uncovering her affair with a car dealer called George Jenkinson, they had contemplated getting a divorce, but resolved it amicably.
Harry Michaelson was just an ordinary chap…
…so, who would want to kill him, and why?
Friday 24th of December 1948. Christmas Eve. Across the city, with rationing partially in force, a festive hum of excitement and frivolity rippled across this brightly lit city as the people shopped for presents.
That day, from his Post Office savings account, Harry withdrew £3 (roughly £130 today) to purchase a “a chicken and a piece of lamb”, as well as £2 in silver so he could tip the porters over the holidays.
The Christmas Day itself was bright, but with no snow, a cold wind whistled down George Street. Being a man whose body swung from fevers to chills owing to a distant bout of Malaria, even though it was barely above freezing, for the last seven years he’d left his thin bedroom window and his flat door ajar to help circulate the fresh air, but with a trusty team of porters on duty, Harry had always felt safe.
Rising at 8am, as always, their little flat hadn’t a single Christmas decoration up, as being Jewish, they didn’t celebrate the holiday, so it didn’t bother them in the slightest that they would spend it apart.
At 9am, hired to perform at a slew of hotels in the seaside town of Bournemouth until just after Boxing Day, Anna kissed Harry goodbye and headed off, not knowing that she would never see him again.
For Harry, it was a simple day. Throughout the afternoon, as he came across them, he handed each porter several shillings as a thank you for their work and said to one-and-all “here’s wishing you all the best”, He asked the head porter if he could pop the chicken and lamb in their freezer ready for his wife’s return. And at 6pm, 8pm and 10pm, he left via the main door, as having run out of bread – being Jewish – he had also forgotten that today being Christmas Day that most of the bakers would be shut.
At 10pm, he returned, and was greeted by the night porters - Samuel Freeland and Frederick Newman - who said that (as usual) he was in a good mood and - although breadless - he wished them both well.
As was his routine, Harry undressed, putting his brown striped suit on the chair, his shoes by the bed, a glass of water by the bedside phone, and having finished a good book, in the single bed nearest the door, he drifted off to sleep, snoring loudly, as the fresh winter air ventilated this usually stuffy flat.
For the two porters, it was a busy night, as of the 300+ tenants at Fursecroft, several Christmas parties ensured that a steady stream of guests entered and exited via both sets of main doors. Being routine, both were locked at midnight, only the porters had the keys, every guest or resident was only escorted in or out after that hour by the two night-porters, and both doors were only unlocked at 7:30am.
Samuel and Frederick both confirmed that it was an uneventful night…
…only for Harry, it was a night that (if he could) he would never forget.
At 5:15am, night porter Samuel Freeland heard a voice he recognised calling from downstairs, as Harry shouted “Porter! Porter!”. At the door of Flat 75, dressed in his pyjamas and a robe, the ghostly white frame of Harry stood, holding a towel to his head, as a stream of blood ran down his panicked face.
Samuel asked, “what happened?”, at which Harry bluntly replied, “never mind, call an ambulance, I’m bleeding like a pig”. Only what Samuel, and possibly Harry, didn’t realise was that Harry already had.
With the ambulance on its way, as the porters led Harry to the reception, stumbling and trembling, it was clear that he was terrified, and although he cried – “I am a finished old man. I am dying. I can feel it in my bones and the blood pumping in my brain” - it was clear he had no idea what had happened.
The porters assumed he’d had an accident, as nobody had heard a break-in, a scream or an assault.
Arriving at St Mary’s hospital at 5:38am, with a single wound to his right temple which was no different to any other injury caused by a domestic slip or tumble, x-raying this 1 ½ inch laceration, a fracture to the skull was identified, a blood clot was removed, and although initially conscious, Harry repeated “I can’t tell you what happened. I don’t know. I have not been in a fight or been drinking. I have not hit my head. All I know is that I discovered a lump on my head which is bleeding and I know I won’t live”.
Drifting into a coma, the next day at 12:45pm, Harry died of his injuries…
…unable to tell the Police anything about his “accident”.
With the investigation headed up by Superintendent Beveridge, DDI Jamieson and Inspector Grange, Harry’s flat didn’t seem like the scene of an assault. Far from it. It was messy, but there was no sign of a struggle. With all three windows locked from within, there was no forced entry. And with blood dotted in a steady line upon the carpets between the bedroom, bathroom and hallway, he grabbed a towel to stem the wound, he made a call for an ambulance, and then he collapsed upon his bed.
If it was an attack, it was motiveless, as nothing seemed to be missing; his cheque book was on the side, he had 16 shillings in his suit pockets, and several pieces of saleable artwork hadn’t been touched.
With no obvious weapon found, and only Harry’s hair and blood identified, it didn’t seem like a break-in by a stranger, so the police assumed that – if Harry had been attacked – he had let his assailant in.
Several suspects were considered: every guest at the Christmas parties in that block were questioned and George Jenkinson (his wife’s former lover) was quizzed, but all had a cast iron alibi. With a wealth of sketches featuring unknown people who had posed for Harry found in his bedroom, although it was assumed that he may have sketched his killer before the attack, this was proven to be unlikely. And even though two of the porters had criminal records with one for violence, all eight were ruled out.
The lack of evidence was driving the detectives towards a dangerous assumption, that “we believe he knew his killer”, and although “the theory that he was attacked by a walk-in thief has not been ruled out”, it didn’t seem logical that a stranger would break-in, steal nothing and leave as if he wasn’t there.
On closer examination, Anna found that Harry’s black leather wallet was missing from inside of his suit jacket, and hidden by the steady stream of blood drops by his bed, on the leg of the metal tubular chair lay a finger and palm print which didn’t belong to Harry, Anna, the police or any of the porters.
With the autopsy conducted by Dr Donald Teare, identifying two crescent shaped fractures to the right of his skull, one 5 ½ inches and the other 2 ½ inches long which split into sharp shards and punctured his brain, it was confirmed “that the tubular steel chair was the most likely cause of the wounds”.
This was no accident. This was a murder.
But who had killed Harry, and why?
Three weeks after his death, the police had hit a brick wall. They had assumed that he had known his assailant, but with Harry being a solitary figure, they had exhausted every suspect, and with no sign of a break-in or a struggle, his killer was unlikely to be a burglar – so who had attacked him was unknown?
The breakthrough in the investigation came down to an off-duty constable, unconnected to the case.
On Tuesday 18th of January 1949, PC Walsh spotted two men in dark clothes acting suspiciously in St John’s Wood, outside of two affluent houses on Grove End and Hamilton Terrace. And as they dipped between the shadows, slipped down dark alleys, and furtively peeped in through unlit windows, calling for backup, at 5:55pm, PC Walsh arrested 26-year-old Thomas Collier and 21-year-old Harry Lewis.
With the details of every local burglar being passed to the murder squad, taking their fingerprints, police found a perfect match to the murder of Harry Michaelson, which were linked to Harry Lewis.
Questioned at Paddington police station, Harry Lewis would swiftly confess “it has come at last. I didn’t think I would get away with it. When I read about it in the newspapers, I knew he was the man I hit”.
But who was he, and why had he murdered Harry?
Born 28 years before and 170 miles north-west of Harry Michaelson’s birthplace, Harry Lewis was the illegitimate son of Annie Lewis, a single mother. Unable to support herself, being admitted to the Poor Law Institution at Hawarden in north-east Wales, aged three, Harry Lewis was abandoned and for the rest of his childhood, he would be bounced from foster parents to orphanages and penal institutions.
From ages three to nine, he spent in the dark depressing gloom of the Cottage Homes orphanage in Holywell, where a lack of love left him feeling abandoned, lost and angry at the world. For one year, he was briefly boarded-out to a Mrs Williams in Leeswood, and although she said he was “likable and well-behaved”, getting sick, he was sent back to the orphanage where he would stay for nine years.
Aged twelve, with the Second World War having erupted, against his will, he was sent to the Nautical Training School at Portishead, where destitute and neglected boys were giving hard military discipline, being barked at and bullied by authority figures, with the aim to find him a role in the Merchant Navy.
Subjected to four years of compulsory discipline, his report describes him as “unsatisfactory… with numerous instances of dishonesty and theft… he is a boy greatly lacking in decent moral principles”.
Booted out of the Nautical Training School and bounced back the Public Institution at Holywell, his file lists him as “troublesome, insolent, unmanageable and a confirmed thief”, and lasting a few weeks as a labourer at the Steel Works in Shotton, Harry was seen as “a poor workman and mentally weak”.
What followed was a series of committals to institutions and petty criminal acts.
In December 1943, aged 16, he was placed on probation back at the Holywell Public Institution, where he absconded. In January 1944, he was sentenced to 28 days for stealing cigarettes. The next month, he was committed to two years at the Approved Probation Home for Youths in Stonebridge Park. And although aged 17, having enlisted as a private in the Middlesex Regiment to avoid more time in borstal; he was fined £7 in Chester for forgery, sentenced to 2 years at Marylebone for theft, and discharged from the Army for theft and assaulting a woman, that had been his entire life up unto the age of 20.
On 7th December 1948, just 18 days before, Harry Lewis was released from Wormwood Scrubs prison.
Described as “a violent and undisciplined man whose record reveals no redeeming features”, even though he was married and had a three-year-old child; he didn’t have a job, he didn’t have a home, his wife had – rightfully – fled from her violent abusive husband, and he had nothing. Abandoned, just like he had been as a baby, he drifted across the city, with no money, no hope, no life and no future.
By the Christmas Day of 1948, Harry Lewis had never met Harry Michaelson…
…he didn’t know him, and he had nothing against him - he was a stranger.
It’s a strange thought, but while the city celebrated Christmas, both Harry’s were sat alone; with Harry Michaelson in a basement flat in Marylebone, and Harry Lewis in a cheap B&B in Euston. And whereas one made his living bringing joy with his sketches, the other knew nothing but theft, “It was early on Sunday morning”, Harry Lewis said, “I’d no money and I thought I’d break into a house and get some”.
It was between 2am and 3am, when passing the corner of Brown Street and Nutford Place, that Harry Lewis happened to stumble upon a thin window left open a crack, by a man whose dose of malaria 30 years before had left his body swinging from fevers to chills, even on a cold night like this. “There was a big drop down into the basement, so I jumped the railings and dropped”, far from the porter’s view.
Hidden in the dark, as the convicted burglar crept along this concrete slit, “I opened the window and heard a man snoring”. Breaking into a dark but occupied flat was riddled with risks like injury, capture, arrest and even death, but being desperate, it was worth the risk, just as long as Harry was silent.
“I climbed in. It was dark. I was feeling my way round and came to the bottom of a bed at the far end”. That being Harry’s bed, in which he slept, his slumber just a single sound from being broken. “A man’s trousers was lying on a metal chair, I took a wallet, some coins, and I then went out into the hall”.
As a stranger staggering about in an unfamiliar flat, he had no idea that the hall only led to the kitchen-cum-bathroom with very little in it, the corridors of Furzecroft which were patrolled by night porters, a set of main doors which had been locked many hours before, and that the only item of any real value which was worth stealing was the wallet. Harry didn’t know that, but by then, his luck had run out.
“When I got into the hall, a chap sat up in bed and said who’s there”, Harry: “who’s there?”. With the owner awake, the only way out was through him and the window from which he’d entered, “the chap was just getting out of bed. I was frightened of getting caught… so I picked up the metal chair. It was the first thing I could put my hands on, and I thought I could knock him out with it, just a bash on the head. He fell, but started getting up again. I swung the chair again and gave him another bash. He was then leaning against the wall on his left side. I then dropped the chair and left, the way I come in”.
Fleeing into the cold night, and hopping into a taxi on Edgware Road, the burglar of 75 Fursecroft got away with four £1 notes and two 10-shilling notes, barely enough to last him until the end of the week.
It was a random attack by a total stranger for the sake of some quick cash. Harry Michaelson was small and sick, so there was unlikely to be a struggle. And with the attack swift, very little to steal, and no obvious point of entry or exit, the detectives had made a lazy assumption based on the evidence they had, but it was wrong, and they wouldn’t realise the truth until Harry Lewis made a full confession.
Back in the flat, slumped upon his bed, as blood poured down his head, the detectives wouldn’t suspect that the thin casement window was how the burglar had got in, as – doing what anyone else would do having been attacked in their home – Harry Michaelson had locked it and drew the curtain.
It’s tragic, but Harry could have survived his attack.
Only, being helpless and alone, with his wife many miles south, the porters above and his neighbours asleep having heard nothing, stumbling about his lonely flat with no memory of what had happened, the sharp shards of his fractured skull dug into his brain, leaving him confused, bleeding and afraid.
It’s likely he’d spent at least two hours, maybe three, either collapsed on his bed or wandering about unsure why his head was bleeding. But having momentarily regained a short sense of consciousness, he phoned for an ambulance at 5:12am, and called the porter “Porter!” three minutes after that.
Thirty-three hours later, Harry Michaelson was dead. (End)
Tried at the Old Bailey on 9th of March 1949, before Lord Chief Justice Goddard, Harry Lewis pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the murder of Harry Michaelson. He didn’t deny the burglary or the attack, stating “I saw in the newspapers a photo of the window I had got through, and I realised the man I had hit was dead. I did not know the dead man. It was just a chance shot that I entered the place that night. And although I hit him hard, I did not mean to kill him. I did it just to get away without being caught”.
That same day, although one of the jury had to be expelled as he objected to the death penalty, a jury of ten men and two women deliberated for 35 minutes and unanimously found him guilty of murder.
Sympathising with his tragic upbringing, the jury recommended mercy for Harry Lewis, but with his appeal was dismissed on the 21st of April, he was executed by hanging that very same day. Harry Michaelson was buried in East Ham Jewish Cemetery and Harry Lewis was buried in Pentonville Prison.
That said, the murder of Harry Michaelson might never have been solved, had the detectives not been so dogged as to assume that he had let in his killer. As Eugene Fordsworthe said, “assumption is the mother of all mistakes” and by making a simple assumption, they had made the mother of all mistakes.
And although there was a small chance that as he lay in his hospital bed, that ‘one minute Michaelson’ could sketch his killer as the detectives hoped, by that point, that’s all his memory was – sketches.
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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