In the pitch-like darkness of London in 1942 terror stalked the blitz-shattered streets. It was not just the terror from the sky, as Hitler's Luftwaffe flew overhead. It was the terror created by a ghoulish slayer. Not since those panic-ridden days of 1888, when Jack the Ripper was abroad, had London known such a reign of terror when death - fierceful, revolting, and gruesome - came to four unsuspecting women in the heart of the metropolis.(*)
So wrote the Scotland Yard detective Fred Cherrill in his 1954 autobiography, Cherrill of the Yard, when describing the killing spree that occurred in the West End of London during the month of February 1942, soon identified as being the work of one Gordon Frederick Cummins otherwise known as the Blackout Ripper.
The London Blitz Murders began with the discovery of the body of one Evelyn Hamilton in an air raid shelter at Montagu Place in Marylebone, London on the morning of Sunday the 9th February. Given the rather rudimentary nature of forensic science at that time police were unsure of whether she'd been killed at the shelter or simply dumped there. Although her clothing was "disarranged" there were no signs that she'd been sexually assaulted, and since her handbag (believed to have contained the sum of eighty pounds) was missing, they concluded that the motive was robbery.
On the very next day, the 10th February, came the discovery of another body. This time the victim was a former showgirl turned prostitute named Evelyn Oatley otherwise known as 'Nita Ward', who was found dead in her flat at Wardour Street in Soho. She too had been strangled, but in Oatley's case her throat had subsequently been cut, and her naked body sexually mutilated with a tin opener. The police soon came to the conclusion from the pattern of the wounds that the killer was left-handed, whilst the blood-stained tin opener was found nearby and yielded a number of fingerprints although, sadly for the police, the killer had no prior criminal record and was thus unidentifiable.
Of course, at the time the Scotland Yard made no connection between the two murders since they appeared to have been carried out for quite different motives.
On the 11th February, another prostitute, Margaret Florence Lowe ('Pearl') was killed at her flat in Gosfield Street. She had been strangled with her own silk stocking and her body subsequently mutiliated by slashing with a knife and a razor blade. Detective Fred Cherrill noted the "vicious mutilations which had been wreaked upon the dead woman, and which were even more shocking than those inflicted upon Evelyn Oatley". As it happened Lowe's body wasn't actually discovered until the 13th February, and the police where in the process of carrying out their initial examination of the crime scene, when the news came in of the discovery of yet another victim.
This victim was Doris Jouannet, otherwise known as Doris Robson, killed on Wednesday 12th February at her ground-floor flat in Sussex Gardens, Paddington. Although Jouannet shared the flat with her husband she was known to be in the habit of picking up servicemen in Leicester Square. She had been strangled with a scarf and also subjected to post-mortem mutilation. The pathologist Bernard Spilsbury who examined her body, described her injuries as "quite dreadful" and offered the opinion that the "perpetrator was a savage sexual maniac".
Faced with a series of at three brutal murders all exhibiting the same signs of obvious sexual mutilation, the press naturally got very excited and dubbed the killer the 'Blackout Ripper' whilst as Fred Cherrill was to note; "So great was the terror which swept like a wave over the square mile in which these crimes had been committed that the regular street-walkers who haunted the area were too scared to venture out."
On Friday, 14th February the killer was on the prowl again. His intended victim his time round was one Greta Hayward, who agreed to go for a drink with him but later refused suggestion that he accompany her home. She was nevertheless attacked in St. Alban's Street and forced into a shop doorway where she was punched in the face and then strangled into unconsciousness. Fortunately for Hayward a passing delivery-boy was attracted by the sounds of the struggle and intervened, forcing her attacker to flee. Crucially, as it turned out, in his haste to make his escape the would-be killer left behind his gas mask. Later that same evening the same individual picked up a prostitute named Catherine Mulcahy, also known as 'Kathleen King', in Regent Street and gave her five pounds before returning to her flat in Paddington. According to Mulcahy's later testimony, after she'd undressed for her client, she noticed that "a strange look came over his face", after which he seized her by the throat. She was fortunate in that, despite having undressed, she'd decided to keep her boots on because of the cold, and she was therefore able to kick him hard in the shins. This was apparently sufficient to persuade her attacker to desist, after which he gave her another five pounds and left.
It was however the discovery of the gas mask, dropped by the killer during his assault on Greta Hayward, that proved to be the turning point in the case. The gas mask was marked with the identifying number 525987, which Scotland Yard soon identified as being the RAF number belonging to one Gordon Frederick Cummins. Naturally they arrested said Gordon Frederick Cummins at his barracks at RAF St Johns Wood on on the 16th February and brought him back to Bow Street Police Station for questioning.
Born at New Earswich, near York in 1914 of "highly respected parents", his school record was described as poor, as indeed was his subsequent employment record, being generally regarded as an unsatisfactory and irresponsible worker. That is until he signed up for the Royal Air Force as a flight rigger in 1935, and appeared to have made a reasonable fist of career in the air force and by 1942 had advanced to the status of Leading Aircraftsman and was an Officer Cadet training to fly Spitfires. Along the way he'd got himself married to a girl named Stephens who worked as a secretary to a theatrical producer, who appeared to have no inkling of her husband's alternate life and remained faithful to him until the end. The odd things about Cummins was that he apparently liked to refer to himself as the 'Honourable Gordon Cummins', claiming that he was the illegitimate son of some unspecified member of the aristocracy and was therefore known as 'The Count' and the 'The Duke' to his RAF comrades.
Interviewed at Bow Street Police Station, Cummins denied everything and claimed that he had an alibi, since the records showed that he was present at the base at the time that Evelyn Oatley, Margaret Lowe and Doris Jouannet had all been killed. The police however established that it was common practice for airmen at St Johns Wood to sign each other in at the base, and soon found another airman who testified that both he and Cummins were in the habit of sneaking out at night via an unguarded fire escape.
In any case the police soon established a sequence of fairly damning evidence linking Cummins to the murders beginning with a cigarette case belonging to Margaret Lowe (victim no 3) which was found in his tunic pocket. A search of his quarters then revealed a fountain pen belonging to Doris Jouannet (victim no 4). More damning still, his finger prints matched those on the bloodstained tin opener used to mutilate Evelyn Oatley (victim no 2), whilst an examination of the gas mask revealed the presence of brick dust which was identical to that discovered at the location where Evelyn Hamilton (victim no 1) had been found dead. (This last piece of evidence being what led the police to the conclusion that Cummins was responsible for that murder as well.)
As a result George Cummins duly appeared at the Old Bailey before Mr Justice Asquith on the 27th April 1942 charged with four counts of murder and two of attempted murder; he pleaded not guilty on all counts. The trial began on the 27th but had to be abandoned when the prosecution produced the wrong exhibit. The trial subsequently recommenced on the 28th in front of a fresh jury, when the prosecution proceeded with the evidence on the single specimen charge of the murder of Evelyn Oatley. (It was a short trial, and later that same day the jury took just thirty-five minutes to find Cummins guilty as charged, with the judge subsequently sentencing him to death by hanging. His subsequent appeal being dismissed on the 9th June, the sentence was duly carried out at Wandsworth Prison on the 25th June 1942, the hangman being Albert Pierrepoint, with a Harry Kirk assisting, neither of whom appeared at all unnerved by the air raid in progress at the time.
Scotland Yard later came to the conclusion that Cummins had also been responsible for the earlier murders of two more women in October 1941.
(* NOTE - The source used for this quotation records the word 'fierclich' rather than 'fierceful'. There is, of course, no such word as 'fierclich', (at least it isn't in the OED) which the source recognises by appending the label '(sic)'. However since the same source misquotes the the name of 'Jouannet' as 'Jorianmet' - the rendering of the letter 'u' as 'ri' being a fairly common OCR error - one suspects a similar error here. 'Fierceful' seems the most likely match in the circumstances.)
- The London Blitz Murders
- Gordon Frederick Cummins at
- The "Blackout Ripper" - The "War Time Jack the Ripper"
- Aircraftman On Triple Murder Charge Remand For Special Hearing,The Times Saturday, Feb 21, 1942;
- Trial Reopened Before New Jury, R.A.F. Cadet Accused Of Four Murders, The Times Tuesday, Apr 28, 1942;
- R.A.F. Cadet Sentenced To Death, The Times Wednesday, Apr 29, 1942;
- Murder Appeal Dismissed, The Times Wednesday, Jun 10, 1942;