Tuesday, June 22, 2010
In the early 1940’s, London residents were literally living in darkness. The German Luftwaffe, essential to the blitzkrieg, constantly flew over central Europe terrorizing the skies. To avoid nighttime aerial bombings, every light in the city was switched off, light posts darkened, and the windows of buildings and factories painted black. In fact, it was prohibited for residents to show any shard of light in the streets, and people were criminally prosecuted if they deviated from this law. Citizens locked themselves indoors or hid in underground bunkers, waiting for World War two to end. The few who dared to haunt the streets at night were local prostitutes, trying to earn their living among deserted and dark alleyways.
Prostitutes, for as long as they have existed, have lived dangerous and treacherous lives. They have long since been regarded by sadistic customers as perfect victims to murder. Prostitutes often have no family to search for them when they go missing and their street chums are usually afraid of police and thus do not report an absent friend. For one week in 1942, five prostitutes found themselves face to face with England’s newest and deadliest version of Jack the Ripper.
On February 9, 1942, Evelyn Margaret Hamilton, a 42-year-old teacher, was found strangled in an air-raid shelter in Montague Place in the Marylebone area of London. There was no evidence of sexual assault or mutilation to the body. It was unknown whether the death had occurred in the shelter or if she had been placed there after death. The motive of this murder was thought to be robbery, for Evelyn’s purse and money had been snatched.
The next day, the body of prostitute Evelyn Oatley, aka Nita Ward, was found nude and strangled in her Soho flat. The 35-year-old woman’s throat had been cut and a can opener was used to rip open her torso after she was killed. Police noted that she had been brutally raped. Detective Chief Inspector Greeno of Scotland Yard presided over this case and the subsequent murders. The killings were suspected to be completely random and it was believed these murders were done out of hatred for women. Fingerprints were found on the bloody can opener and evidence from the imprints on Evelyn’s neck showed that the killer was left-handed.
The body of 43-year-old prostitute Margaret Frances Lowe, street name Pearl, was found by her 14-year-old daughter in her home in the west end of London. Margaret was nude, her body cut with a razor blade and knife. A silk stocking was tightly bound around her neck. Her panties were pulled down halfway down her thighs showing the ruthless nature of her killer’s sexual urgency. All of Margaret’s wounds were inflicted post mortem, just like the previous murders. On February 14, 1942, Doris Jounannet, also known as Doris Robson, was found strangled and sexually mutilated in her flat in Sussex Gardens, Paddington. The 32-year-old was a prostitute in the Leicester Square, although she was married to a 70-year-old Hotel Manager of the Paddington Hotel. Her husband had noted that the milk had not been taken in, and became worried upon entering the home. Eyewitnesses reported that Doris had been seen the night before her murder with a man in uniform. Doris’ body was still warm when Inspector Greeno arrived.
When the newspapers heard of the recent killings, they dubbed the murderer as the “Blackout Ripper” for two reasons. The suspect was mutilating his victims much like Jack the Ripper and had been doing so in the “blacked out” streets of London. These crimes had been done in the span of one week, and the police were earnestly searching out the killer, interviewing local prostitutes who were hesitant to disclose information, even though the police assured complete discretion. After being told what the “Blackout Ripper” was doing to his victims, the women readily gave out descriptions of men they found strange or particularly violent.
Two prostitutes came forward with the information the police badly needed. Margaret Heywood, aka Greta, admitted that she had encountered a man that deeply disturbed her. In the nights following the first four murders, Greta said she had had dinner and a drink with a man in uniform at The Captain’s Cabin, a local haunt for prostitutes. Greta believed this man to be an unsafe client after he made an oppressive attempt to put his arm around her and drag her into a doorway. The man tried to strangle her, but upon hearing her screams, a delivery man came to her rescue. The aggressive man fled the scene and left behind his RAF gas mask bearing his service number, 525987.
Cathleen Mulcahy, aka Kate King, also came forward to the police. The same night the serviceman had tried to kill Greta, Kate was working the streets in Paddington. After meeting an amiable and seemingly polite man, she escorted him back to her flat in Southwark Street. While Kate was undressing for the assumed sexual encounter, the man grabbed her from behind and tried to strangle her. Kate was used to men with bad tempers and vile demeanors and fought this man furiously, causing the man to flee quickly. He left his uniform belt behind, which had his service number etched into it.
On February 16, 1942, RAF serviceman Gordon Cummings was apprehended by police after tracking him down from the numbers listed on his belt and gas mask. Gordon said that the gas mask wasn’t his, but when he couldn’t prove why his number was on it, he did however have an alibi: His name was listed on the log book at his billet, showing he was at his post during the killings. But Inspector Greeno soon found that at the price of a drink or pack of smokes, other servicemen would sign in for absent colleagues. In his possession Gordon was found to have the cigarette cases that belonged to Margaret Lowe and Evelyn Oatley and a fountain pen owned by Doris Jounannet. Gordon’s fingerprints were also found on the can opener used to cruelly tear out Evelyn Oatley’s torso. Gordon was also left-handed, proving that the handprints imprinted on the victim’s throats had been his.
Gordon Frederick Cummings enlisted in the RAF (Royal Air Force) in 1939. He quickly earned the nickname “The Count” because of his consistent bragging remarks to his contemporaries that he was the illegitimate son of noble heritage. Cummings was a handsome and well built man, standing at attention as pictured in his army photograph at age 27. Not only did his wife find him appealing with his false upper class accent, but so did the prostitutes he often visited in the poor districts of London. Not much is known about Gordon Cummings’ personal life before 1939, except for the fact that he was fired from many jobs for his dishonesty and insolence. Cummings’ main aspiration in life was to become a dignified upper-class gentleman. His feeling was that since he claimed to have come from a wealthy and dignified background, living as a pauper for the rest of his life was not something he was willing to settle for. Cummings was a thief, stealing money and trinkets from his many visits to prostitute’s homes. He apparently had no qualms about stealing from the underprivileged.
Cummings’ motive for killing was thought to be out of hatred for women, but no other motive was clearly outlined. He might have been suffering from a mental illness that suddenly sparked one single week in February 1942, leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake. Cummings appeared to have no history of violence before 1942; he was pleasant and kind to his wife and got along well with the other RAF servicemen. His crimes were almost completely without reason. Mutilating his victims in such a precise and evil manner, Cummings might have been dreaming of committing these murders for years. If he had not been caught so quickly, he might have continued his spree of crimes for months, even years. The fact that he left behind evidence proving he was present at each killing shows he was hasty and had not planned them out as well as he had hoped.
While in jail, awaiting his trial, Cummings’ wrote a letter to his wife, saying, “Although I don’t know, I think I must be guilty – the evidence is overwhelming.” This statement seems to imply that Cummings perhaps was not aware he had committed murder, losing lucid consciousness or blacking out during the killings. Or, he might have made this statement in an attempt to calm his wife’s fear that the man that she married was not the serial murderer involved in the shocking brutal crimes. The image she had of her husband might remain untainted if he claimed he was somehow innocent or not sane. Either way, Cummings did have a large amount of evidence against him, and it was nearly impossible to prove he wasn’t at least a suspect in the “Blackout Ripper” case.
The trial on April 27, 1942 at the Old Bailey Courthouse lasted only two days. He was charged with only the murder of Evelyn Oatley. If acquitted, the police planned to charge him with the three other murders. The verdict from the jury took only 30 minutes to find Gordon guilty. The judge, Justice Asquith, demanded a death sentence. Gordon appealed the sentence, but Lord Chief Justice Humphries dismissed it and ordered that Gordon go to the gallows. Albert Pierrepoint was the official hangman and performed the execution at Wandsworth Prison on June 25, 1942. Ironically, the sound of sirens during an air raid sang out while Gordon was being hanged. Gordon’s killings went down in criminal history as the first to chiefly use fingerprinting as a significant role in finding a killer.
A fifth murder was uncovered after Gordon Cummings’ death. A woman named Mrs. Church was murdered in October 1941, Gordon’s fingerprints all over her body.