Murder, Utility Knickers, and the Seamy Side of Wartime England

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Friends,

Arson investigators have a difficult job since the crime in their case, fire, can do a number on your crime scene! (as can the firefighters sometimes) That said, it leaves evidence behind also. You just have to know where to look for it. Fires leave patterns, accelerants leave traces, and people leave clues. This makes a tough task a little easier. Imagine returning to the scene of a murder only to find out that it has been bombed into oblivion. That, Dear Readers, was the task faced by the intrepid Inspectors from Scotland Yard during the Second World War.

Though often we look at times of national catastrophe or struggle as a uniting factor that brings people together, that does not negate the fact that under it all a criminal element still lurks in the shadows. In the case of the blacked out cities of Europe, those shadows grew larger and the hiding places more numerous. Even Berlin, the city at the center of Hitler’s Empire was rocked by a series of bizarre sex murders in 1940 though the government kept it secret as the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo) quietly worked the case. In fact, as we will see, secrecy was a big issue in dealing with crimes in wartime.

Sir Robert Peel created the Metropolitan Police in London in 1829 while serving as Home Secretary. This paved the way for the first large professional police force in the world. And, maybe more important, it led to police officers being called “Bobbies” or “Peelers”. In fact, the Irish (my people!) brought the term “Peeler” with them to the United States and it was the first commonly used slang for police officers in eastern cities in the US. Can’t say it is all that popular anymore. I never got called that during my time in law enforcement. But it would have been cool if I had. By the time England declared war on Germany in September 1939, the British police force and the government intelligence branches (MI 5 and 6) were up to the challenge. Just as they had with the Fire Service, the government hired thousands of auxiliary policemen to help fill the spots left open by those who left to enlist in the military. However, the detective inspectors tended to be long term men who knew their way around a crime scene.

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When I was a “peeler”, I worked weekends, holidays, and night because crime doesn’t take a vacation or sleep. Nor does it disappear just because your country is at war. As soon as war was declared, the British police force helped the government in rounding up enemy aliens and people with suspicious loyalties for internment. Some of those interned were British citizens, but that did not stop them, just as it did not stop us from interning Americans citizens with Japanese ancestry.  One question that we must consider is why did crime rates in England go up during the war years? I suppose there are a variety of factors. First, large numbers of people are thrown together in stressful circumstances. That is a major part of it. Second, we have the fact that for soldiers and civilians alike in England, death could come on any given night. This can give rise to a certain sense of fatalism and an anything goes attitude. And then you add in the increased opportunity for crime with blackouts and the like. Thus wartime England was not as safe as you might think.

To begin with, the fact that London remained blacked out for much of the war and people spent a lot of time in bomb shelters meant that your everyday burglars had a field day. Rings of mostly youth with a few professionals thrown in, would watch houses after dark. When the air raid sirens went off, they would see if the people left to go to a public shelter. If so, they could break into the house with little fear of detection. As an added plus, if the house was hit by a bomb or incendiary, then it would obliterate the evidence! Perfect! The British government took a dim view of this as they also did looting bombed out homes but with their resources already stretched thin, combating it proved to be a very tough task. Fraud and the black market also consumed resources, but more important than that was the “serious” crimes of rape and yes, even murder.

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Time and space dictate that I can only share a few cases with you. First, we have the Dobkin Case. Apparently Mr. Dobkin got tired of his wife Rachel and decided to kill her. Plenty of murders have their origins here it seems. Anyway, he murdered her and buried her body under the rubble of a bombed out church hoping that if she was discovered, the authorities would write it off as a bombing victim. Almost, Mr. Dobkin. Almost! It took over a year for anyone to discover the body and owing to the fact that she had obviously been dead a while, an autopsy was conducted. During said autopsy, the intrepid pathologist Dr. Simpson discovered that the hyroid bone was fractured, thus indicating Rachel died of strangulation. Oops! And as an added oops, Mr. Dobkin covered her body in lime hoping to speed the decomposition but he used the wrong type! (Builder’s lime rather than quicklime) That may have actually preserved the body better than it would have otherwise been! The jury convicted him in less than a half hour and he was promptly hanged. Makes you wonder if other people tried this very thing and got away with it, doesn’t it?

Though often called a serial killer, our next dealer of death is really more of a spree killer. In serial murders, the killer has a “cooling off” period in between according to the almighty F.B.I. Young Gordon Cummins did not. He went on a six day murder spree earning him the very English name, “The Blackout Ripper”. On February 10, 1942, the body of a 40 year old woman was found in an air raid shelter. She had been strangled and her handbag was stolen. Inspectors and the pathologist surmised that the killer may have been left handed. The next day, a prostitute was found murdered in her apartment. The victim had been strangled, had her throat cut, and had her sexual organs mutilated with a can opener which was left at the scene. The scene was eerily reminiscent of Scotland Yard’s most famous open case, Jack the Ripper, as it looked like one of his crime scenes. Luckily, they were able to get prints off the can opener. The Home Office clamped down on the story as they did not want to spark a panic. However, worse was to come. And quickly.

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Gordon Cummins

The next day, yet another prostitute was discovered murdered in her apartment. The scene was one of the most brutal you could encounter back then. She had been strangled with a stocking. The killer took the time to mutilate her with several objects and to violate her body with a candlestick. The next day, he struck again. This time the victim was not a prostitute but a 32 year old married woman. She too was strangled and mutilated. Word reached the press despite the wishes of the Home Office and they dubbed the killer the “Blackout Ripper”. Unlike Jack, this guy wouldn’t quit. He took a day off after his fourth murder and on Valentine’s Day, he struck again. This time his dastardly deeds were interrupted by the arrival of a delivery boy and his victim survived. She reported he was wearing an RAF uniform and when he made his getaway, he left his gas mask and its case behind! Hours later a prostitute reported she had been approached and then attacked by a man in an RAF uniform too. She fought him off and he left his belt behind during his escape.

His gas mask had a serial number and inspectors tracked it to a Gordon Cummins. Upon searching his apartment, they found items belonging to the victims and matched his prints to the one on the can opener. Naturally, he was promptly convicted and even more promptly hanged, during the middle of an air raid, no less! He may have killed other women and there were some within Scotland Yard who believed he did.

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Evelyn Oatley, the beautiful second victim.

As much as we would think that hard times bring a country together, as you can see, the worst elements of our society are still very much present for duty also. When the Americans arrived in England, our cousins across the pond liked to blame the presence of our soldiers for the increase in crime. They said at the time that the problem with the Americans was that they were “overpaid, oversexed, and over here!” I doubt that had all that much to do with the increased crime rates though it not doubt added to the rate of unwed pregnancies, after all, some of the English women wore utility knickers. One Yank and they were off! VD rates soared as did prostitution. I’ve seen estimates that one out of every ten American soldiers in Europe during the war contracted some sort of “unwanted guest” but I do not know how accurate those statistics are.

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Hey lady, on a scale of zero to America, how free are you tonight?

As tempting as it is to complain about working conditions, and Lord knows I did enough of that when I was a peeler, at least you don’t have to work whilst bombs fall around you. Air raids tend to make a right cock up of crime scenes. Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about bombs. Rookie patrol officers on the other hand……

My name is Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who never met an English girl wearing utility knickers, unfortunately.

P.S.: For more along these lines, check out Murder on the Home Front by Molly LeFebure and the PBS film by the same name.

Murders in Paradise

Postwar Los Angeles, where prostitutes and pimps, perverts and panty sniffers mingled with detectives and derelicts, cowboys and conmen. As the city’s population exploded with a postwar housing boom, organized crime exploded as well. Bugsy Siegel set up the Flamingo Hotel where his buddy Mickey Cohen ran a gambling racket. In 1947, the mob had Siegel bumped off after they grew suspicious that Siegel and his insanely attractive, if a little off in head, girlfriend Virginia Hill were skimming money. Someone popped Siegel with an M-1 Carbine through the window. Was it really money? Or did his own girlfriend set him up? We’ll never know. Virginia was found dead in a park in Austria in 1966, an apparent suicide. After Siegel’s death, Cohen grew more influential along with his top lieutenant, bag man, and enforcer Johnny Stompanato. Handsome Johnny went on to date the gorgeous Lana Turner until her thirteen year old daughter stuck a knife in him. A kid punched the most dangerous man in town’s ticket for him. Officials ruled the death a case of self defense.

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Virginia Hill…..femme fatale. In my mind, I picture her as a redhead. Femme fatales always have red hair.

Gangsters imported reefer and H while Hollywood stars basked in the Golden Age of American films. High ranking officials within the city and the police department were on the take as well. LAPD ran a Red Squad to track known and suspected communists as well as protection rackets. High ranking police commanders looked the other way while gangsters slung dope, preferring to target black teenagers and pachucos for drug offenses without targeting the supply side. Who were the good guys? Who were the bad guys? Who knows! Everybody was out to make a quick buck. And there were plenty of opportunities for that in the City of Angels.

There were plenty of opportunities for murder as well. The defense industry in Southern California boomed during the war years and with the end of a shooting war and the beginning of the Cold War, it showed no signs of letting up. During the war, single women made their way to the city to work, renting rooms in flophouses, hotels, or private residences. The men came home after 1945 and brought domestic homicide with them. Couples fueled by alcohol battled with fists. Sometimes, the wife ended up dead. Women offed their husbands sometimes too. And, of course, you have the murder suicides. The police had little difficulty solving domestic homicides and sent plenty of men to the gas chamber at San Quentin. But was there something else stalking the city? Some diabolical fiend out to torture, murder, and mutilate women?

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Ora Murray

On the night of July 26, 1943, Ora Murray, 42, went out dancing with her sister at the Zenda Ballroom. She hooked up with a dapper man who called himself Paul. He offered to drive her around a show her the sights in Hollywood. Orra agreed. Several hours later, a dog owned by a the caretaker discovered the partially nude and badly beaten body of a woman on a golf course. It belonged to Ora. Her undergarments had been violently ripped away and the killer removed her dress and then wrapped it around her body. He also placed a white gardenia on her shoulder. Odd, that. Strangulation was the official cause of death. Now this murder took place just outside the city limits and so the Sheriff’s Department handled the investigation, which went nowhere fast. Meanwhile, the bodies continued to stack up.

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Georgette Bauerdorf, a life lost too soon.

She was young, rich, beautiful, and, on Oct. 11, 1944, very, very dead. That night, Georgette finished her shift as a hostess at the Hollywood Canteen where she danced with servicemen. When she drove away in a Pontiac Coupe, it was to her own rendezvous with death. At 11:00 am the next morning, a maid found her body floating in the bathtub with the water still running. She wore the top part of a pajama set, indicating that she returned home unmolested and prepared for bed. Her badly bruised knuckles and scratches on her bare thighs told detectives that she did no go gently into that good night. The police believed she returned home, ate a snack, and was attacked by a person whom she may have known. They further postulated said person might have been lying in wait. A neighbor said they heard her yell “Stop! You’re killing me!” around 2:30 am but they ignored her cries as they assumed it was a simple domestic dispute. (Other than the “You’re killing me part, I guess.)  Though the killer beat Georgette and put her face down in the bathtub, the police found a bandage shoved down her throat which caused her to asphyxiate. The killer drove off in her car which was found abandoned later, gas tank empty. The case went cold and investigators never found her killer.

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Elizabeth Short. The Black Dahlia.

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The Crime Scene.

She is perhaps the most famous dead girl in American History, a young woman drawn to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood with dreams of becoming an actress. But like so many would be stars, reality soon set in. Her mutilated and bisected corpse was found in a vacant lot on 49th and Norton in Los Angeles on January 15, 1947. Elizabeth Short was only 22 when she died. Journalists dubbed her The Black Dahlia, and her murder has inspired much speculation in the decades which followed. I’m not an expert on her murder, though I’ve read widely about it. There are numerous suspects, though none were ever charged. What the person or persons responsible for her death did almost defies even the most diabolical minds. They kept her alive for at least a short period of time.  Bound, tortured, forced to eat feces, the official cause of death was determined to be bleeding from multiple deep lacerations to the face coupled with shock from repeated blows to the head. It is the most heinous of crimes, and Elizabeth Short never got the justice she deserved.

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Jeanne French.

Not even a month after Elizabeth Short died, another woman, Jeanne French, met her death at the hands of a fiendish killer. She was 45 years old, a nurse, a pilot, and the former wife of a rich Texan in the oil business. A construction worker on the morning of February 10th saw what he thought was a pile of women’s clothes. He walked over to investigate and saw a fur coat. When he lifted it, the man received quite a shock. Underneath the coat was the brutally beaten, nude body of Jeanne French. The killer struck her in the head with a blunt instrument, perhaps a socket wrench, and the proceeded to beat and stomp her to death. The blow to the head didn’t killer her. Internal bleeding from her fractured ribs did. It took her a long time to slowly bleed to death. The coroner believed she was probably unconscious after the blow the head, a small mercy for sure. The killer then removed red lipstick from her purse and wrote “Fuck You, BD” (or maybe PD) on her body. She’d had a fight with her estranged husband the night before her death, but his whereabouts at the time of the murder were attested to. Jeanne was last seen alive at a club in the company of a “swarthy” man. They left together. But this, as the others, went cold. Police rounded up the usual suspects, but came away with nothing.

From the file labeled weird comes the strange case of the murder of 15 year old Lillian Dominguez. On the night of October 2, 1947, young Lillian attended a school dance. When it ended, she set out for home with her sister and a female friend. As they passed the intersection of 17th Street and Michigan Avenue in Santa Monica, the trio crossed paths with a man who walked by them in the darkness. They walked a few feet and Lillian told her sister “That man touched me.” A few steps later she yelled “I can’t see!” and promptly collapsed and died on the pavement. The cause of death? Stabbing. The killer stabbed her straight in the heart with either a stiletto knife or maybe an ice pick. Though she had two companions with her, they were unable to give any description to the police other than the fact that the killer had been male.

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Death prowled these streets.

And there were others. Too many to give full attention to, as they deserve. Evelyn Winters, 42, found nude, beaten and strangled to death in March of 1947. Laura Telestad, 37, found nude and strangled with a strip of cloth. Body dumped in a vacant lot. Rosenda Mondragon, 20, found nude, tortured and strangled. Body dumped a mile from where Evelyn Winters’ body was discovered. Gladys Kern, 50, a real estate agent found dead in a house she was scheduled to show in 1948. Beaten and stomped to death. Louise Springer, kidnapped in her car. Found beaten, strangled, sexually assaulted and sodomized with a tree branch. Jean Spangler, 27, had been a roommate of Elizabeth Short. Jean disappeared and her body was never found.

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Was Los Angeles in the grips of a fiendish serial killer? The short answer is maybe. I’m not an expert in homicide. When I was a detective, arson was my specialty, but I’ve received training in homicide investigations and have been around them, so I know a bit. The manner and method of some of these cases would indicate that the police may have had one assailant on some of them. But others don’t really fit given the age or manner of death of the victim. I do think we can say with some certainty that some of these cases were the work of one person. Murders are not new. Crime is not new.

If anything, the study of history teaches us that f—-d up people have been around forever. Serial murder is not a recent phenomenon, nor are sexual homicides. Though we look back with a bit of nostalgia, the truth is Los Angeles was trapped in its own true life noir tale in the 1940s. With the police and city administration on the take, evidence could be made to disappear (as happened with the evidence associated with the Dahlia case). Cases could be penned on a minority to protect a well connected individual. Though the police were able to do more forensically at the time than you might think, it wasn’t enough. Given the time that has passed, these women will never get justice. Their killers got away with it. And that, Dear Readers, is a tragedy.

Hutch