Since its conception in the 17th century, Soho (coined after the hunting call “So-Ho!”) has always been a hotbed of hungry artists, hot-tempered radicals and feisty free-thinkers, as a world-wide wealth of cultures clashed, jostling for space, with the privileged and impoverished living side-by-side, making Soho one of the most aesthetically dynamic, historically rich and culturally significant square miles in the lives of London’s ever expanding population.
And yet, amidst its colourful history, its cunning ability to continually reinvent itself, and its forever rising and falling fortunes (like its very own street-walker’s bedsheets); a millionaires weekday retreat is as likely to be built next to an artisan boulangerie as it is to a bawdy back-street bordello or another achingly dire West End run of a faded jaded former pop-star’s least worst hits. Soho has always been as much a blessed breeding ground for artists, thinkers and inventors, as it is a shadowy den of iniquity for drinkers, druggies and the desperately destitute. And yet, just as every square inch of London has its seedy side, Soho is no different.
What follows is a compilation of Soho’s five most shocking murders. Many of which, even the life-long locals have forgotten about, or have (perhaps, rightly) chosen to forget.
#1 – The Blackout Ripper – Soho’s very own “Jack the Ripper”
During six days in February 1942, in war-time Soho, as London was seized in fear as German bombers loomed above, a maniac prowled the dark-lit streets of Soho. He attacked by night, during air-raids, when the city was at its blackest. And every street lamps was off, every house-light was out, every curtain was closed, and every door was shut. The Press called him “The Blackout Ripper”. With darkness as his ally, fear as a useful façade and aided by his respected RAF uniform, over four nights four women were strangled, beaten, stabbed and severely mutilated by Soho’s very own “Jack the Ripper”… and his killing spree was only just beginning. His name was Gordon Frederick Cummins. You’ve probably have never heard his name or seen his face. And why should you? His murders were so shocking that, with war-time morale at an all-time-low, much of this story was supressed.
#2 – The Denmark Street Fire – London’s Forgotten Disaster
On the 16th August 1980, at 23 Denmark Street, two illegal drinking dens (Rodo’s and El Hueco) hosted a farewell party having been scheduled for closure by the council. By 2am over 150 people were packed into just two floors. But what started as a party to remember, soon descended into the epitome of hell as (out of malice, spite and petty vengeance) a drunken disgruntled punter started an inferno, so fast and fierce, that many of the revellers died still sitting in their seats. 37 people died and dozens were injured, making this “London’s deadliest blaze since The Blitz”. And yet, with many not being British Nationals, there has never been a memorial to the dead, very little has been written about it, and soon the building itself - an integral part of “Tin Pan Alley” - is soon to be demolished.*
#3 - The Soho Strangler – Soho’s Forgotten Serial Killer
Another serial killer in Soho, surely not? Well, Soho was formerly the personal playground to at least five infamous serial killers. One of which who stalked Soho’s streets in the 1930’s was dubbed by a drooling Press - always insatiable for a salacious story of blood, sex and death - as “The Soho Strangler”. But just like Jack the Ripper (just 50 years before), Police had no idea who he was, where he would strike next, nor how to stop him. Four prostitutes had been murdered all within streets of each other, but with each victim The Soho Strangler’s method would change making him harder to track. All were strangled (using anything from stockings, a scarf, copper wire and an electrical flex), and yet one was set on fire, another had her tongue symbolically severed and the last was so brutally bludgeoned that she was barely recognisable. All of which baffled the investigators, making this series of gruesome murders remain - even 80 years on - unsolved.
#4 - William Crees – The Killer Lurking Within
Eliza Horsman’s doting father approved of his daughter’s marriage to William Crees, 16 years her senior, not just because he was a prosperous and successful harness maker, a home owner (on Greek Street) and a teetotaller, but because of his respected former occupation that made William such solid marriage material. But just two weeks after her wedding… his only daughter was dead. Newly wed Eliza Horsman was found face down on the floor, a fire poker embedded in her skull. William Crees was sentenced to life in prison where he died in 1932 aged 85. At his inquest, the court concluded that it was an unfortunate side-effect from his “former occupation”, which made William such great marriage material, which also forced him - against his will - to murder the woman he loved.
#5 – The Sad Sorry Story of William Bousfield (Mass-Murderer)
William Bousfield was a hopeless dreamer, burdened by life’s limitations, with a need to fulfil and a family to feed, none of which he achieved. So with Sarah Bousfield as the family’s only breadwinner, her exasperated father offered William an ultimatum he couldn’t refuse; a substantial sum of money and a one-way ticket to America… but only if he left Sarah and the children behind. William snapped. The next morning Sarah Bousfield was found dead on the matrimonial bed, a single stab wound to her neck which sprayed blood across the four walls of their tiny back parlour for as long as her heart would pump… but it wasn’t until the Police moved her body that they saw the full horror of the scene.
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Of course, not all of Soho’s most notorious murders are shocking, some are just completely baffling. What follows are five murderously strange Soho slayings which defy logic.
#6 - The Bloodless Body of Red Max Kassel
“Red Max” Kassel was not to be trifled with; a prosperous pimp, a ruthless enforcer and a coldblooded killer with a penchant for strangling anyone who got in his way. But on the 24th January 1936, his lifeless body was found dumped in a hedge, 25 miles from home (in St Alban’s), and although he’d been shot five times, there were no shell-casings found at the scene… and more mysteriously, no blood. And yet, if it hadn’t been for a keen-eyed Soho policeman who had noticed glass fragments speckled with blood on a pavement in Soho’s red-light district, Red Max’s murder would have remained unsolved, and neither would a recent spate of stranglings.
#7 – The Bizarre Defence of William Stoltzer
On Silver Place (Soho), in 1843, William Stoltzer stabbed Peter Keim in the stomach with a bookmaker’s knife, fearing arrest he ran back to his lodgings on Bentinck Street and tried to hang himself in the outside loo with a scarf, but the pipe was rusty, it snapped, and he concussed himself on the toilet seat. At his trial, his defence was that he wasn’t trying to “kill Peter Keim by stabbing him in the stomach”, he just “wanted to cut his cock off”. William Stoltzer was sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to “transportation” meaning he got to spend the rest of his life in lovely sunny Australia… even though he’d been declared insane.
#8 – Mystery of the Sleeping Angel
24th September 1940 at 11:38pm, an SC50 (the most common bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe during The Blitz) killed three people in Orange Yard; the first was vaporised by the intensity of the heat, the second died as a piece of shrapnel embedded into her head, whereas the third died over 100 feet away, but unlike the others… she had no injuries of an kind. No cuts, no bruises, no grazes and no burns. As the rescue teams arrived, and saw her lying in the street, untouched, unruffled, a strange grin on her face, they thought she was asleep, but she wasn’t… she was dead. Nicknamed “the sleeping angel”, she wasn’t the first victim to be found like this, and she wouldn’t be the last.
#9 – The Double Murder of Soho’s Kings of Sleaze
In 1963, Anthony “Big Tony” Mella and his life-long friend Alfred Melvin bought The Grill Club at 48 Dean Street. But on January 28th 1963, Big Tony burst out of his club having been shot three times in back; the first bullet punctured his lung, the second ripped right through his stomach, his hand struggling to hold his guts in, and the third tore a hole in his heart. He collapsed just shy of Romilly Street and died face down in the gutter, his last few pints of blood pumping down the drain. Inside the club, Tony’s best friend lay dead; a skilful single gunshot had blasted a hole through his head, blowing his brains up the wall. Police suspected this to be the work of rivals trying to muscle in on Big Tony’s patch… but a small note inside Alfred Melvin’s pocket suggested something very different.
#10 – The Cocky Barman of The White Horse
In the early sixties, the barman of The White Horse public house was a 37 year old Irishman called Paddy O’Keefe, who liked to boast that he was a “crook tamer” and could pacify any aggressive customers just by staring them in the eye, like a circus-trainer would to dominate a lion. But on the night of 14th June 1964, the White Horse was robbed by 21 year old Larry Winters, who a psychiatrist would later describe in court as “an abnormal man with violent psychotic tendancies”. As Larry Winters rifled the till, seizing £47 whole pounds, Paddy O’Keefe confronted him, his palms flat on the bar, back straight and fixed the robber with one of his trademark stares. Larry Winters shot Paddy O’Keefe twice; once in the heart, the other in the eye. He was dead before he even hit the floor.
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Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious (and often forgotten) murder cases, featuring 18 murderers, 3 serial killers, over 21 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
* For purists, Denmark Street is not in Soho, it’s in St Giles, but with 23 Denmark Street soon to be demolished, “The Denmark Street Fire” is a vital part of London’s forgotten history, which – even just to remember those we have lost –is a true story that must be shared and retold.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime historian, writer, podcaster and tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious and unusual things to do in London".