In 1888, amidst the pitch black alleys, the fog wreathed streets and the shadowy nooks of London’s East End, a sadistic maniac dubbed by the press with the macabre moniker of “Jack the Ripper”, fuelled by an insatiable lust and hatred for the gin-soused street-walkers, seized a terrified city in fear as he soaked the cobbled stones of Whitechapel with their blood…
Of course, there is no evidence that “Jack the Ripper” ever existed. The fact is that during Jack the Ripper’s so-called reign of terror, London’s most notorious serial killer either killed three women, or five, or seven, or nine, or eleven, or as many as twenty-two, depending on which theory you choose to believe and what book you’ve just read, over a period of somewhere between three months and three years, and for whom not one single piece of evidence nor victim can conclusively be linked to one of the one hundred and six current suspects.
So why do we still believe (even after 128 years) that “Jack the Ripper” exists, if he probably didn’t? Because “Jack the Ripper”, as commonplace as his crimes were in an ever-expanding city (divided by wealth and health, with a barely fledgling Police force) was nothing more than a very clever construct of media manipulation; a convenient if slightly sensational character created by eager journalists during the birth of tabloid to sell newspapers.
Admittedly, in a morally uptight Victorian era, there was nothing newsworthy about the nightly violence inflicted on the city’s sex-workers - destitute by destiny, shunned by society and regarded by many as “ten-a-penny” - whose attacks by drunken punters, were seen as little more than an occupational hazard. Crimes such as these of often went unrecorded, unreported and unsolved.
But… by connecting these crimes together, giving their murderer a motive, a mission and a memorable name that is easily whispered from person to person? And you’ve got yourself something sensational. Therefore in a very short space of time, just the idea of “Jack the Ripper” created mass-panic, a climate of fear, a society fuelled by suspicion, speculation and sensationalist theories, and a media feeding frenzy, which still exists, even today. So, was there ever a “one-man ripper” slaughtering prostitutes in London’s East End? Probably not.
But… there was in the West End.
After the Blitz of 1940-41, as London was gripped in a continual state of fear as German bombers loomed overhead, a maniac prowled the seedy 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.
His name was Gordon Frederick Cummins. But you won’t have heard of him. Very few people have. As during war-time, with London’s debilitated public morale at an all-time-low after a constant barrage of nightly bombardments and for fear of starting a panic, much of this story was suppressed. The Press called him “The Blackout Ripper”…
…he brutally slaughtered four women…
…and attempted to murder two more…
…all in just six days.
Sunday 9th February 1942: Pharmacist named Evelyn Hamilton was strangled in an air-raid shelter in Montague Place using her own stockings. With no signs of assault and her handbag containing £80 missing, Police suspected this was a simply robbery.
Monday 10th February 1942: Unemployed actress and part-time prostitute Evelyn Oately (known locally as “Nita Ward”) was found murdered in her Wardour Street flat by a workman who had come to read the meter. She’d been strangled, beaten, stabbed, and severely mutilated with a can-opener.
Tuesday 11th February 1942: Veteran sex-worker Margaret Lowe (“Pearl”) was also strangled, beaten and stabbed, but as The Blackout Ripper’s confidence grew, so did his sadism, and he mutilated her with whatever household utensils came to hand.
Wednesday 12th February 1942: Doris Jounette (alias “Doris Robson”) was the fourth victim of “The Blackout Ripper”. So horrific were her injuries even Home Office Pathologist Bernard Spilsbury would only comment that they were “quite dreadful”. But, as The Blackout Ripper’s confidence grew even further, so did his arrogance, and it is that which would bring about his downfall.
Friday 14th February 1942 “Valentine’s Day”: Fuelled an overwhelming compulsion to kill again, “The Blackout Ripper” picked up two more prostitutes – Greta Hayward and Catherine Mulcahy - in quick succession. Both women were attacked in broad daylight. Both women survived. And both women gave the Police an identical description of their attacker… which wasn’t enough to identify him… or it wouldn’t have been, had he not left behind his RAF issue belt and gas-mask, inside which were inscribed three important details; his name, rank and serial number.
Gordon Frederick Cummins (“The Blackout Ripper”) was tried at The Old Bailey on the 24th April 1942. So conclusive was the evidence against him that over just a one-day trial, the jury found him guilty in just thirty five minutes. He was executed on the 25th June 1942 at Wandsworth Prison by the famed executioner Albert Pierrepoint, ironically… during an air-raid.
Oddly, Gordon Frederick Cummins didn’t fit the usual profile of a serial killer; he had no prior convictions, no known mental illnesses and no history of violence, he was married, well-educated and he came from a good family. But Scotland Yard would later confirm that he had murdered two other women, just five months earlier in October 1941, whilst on a “day-trip” to London. But it wasn’t until 1942 that he was assigned to the Regent’s Park RAF Reception Centre on a three week course. By the time of his arrest, Gordon Frederick Cummins, dubbed “The Blackout Ripper” by the press…
…had brutally slaughtered four women…
…and attempted to murder two more…
…all in just six days…
…but (had he not been arrested) he could have gone on to kill for another twelve.
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 12 murderers, 3 serial killers, over 15 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
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".