The most famous murderer in British criminal history is probably Jack the Ripper. But he’s not the worst.
While researching Lucifer Falls, I stumbled across the story of another killer whose murders were just as frenzied and even more prolific: he was known as the ‘Blackout Ripper’.
In 1942, London was reeling from the Blitz. The streets were scarred by bomb craters, streetlights were unlit, windows painted over, and few people ventured out at night.
But one smooth-talking sexual sadist was about to turn the blackout to his advantage.
It began one morning in February when the body of Evelyn Hamilton was found strangled in an air raid shelter. At first, she was thought to be the victim of a robbery gone wrong.
That same night, actress Evelyn Oatley was murdered in her flat in Soho. She was one of the ‘Piccadilly Commandos’, as sex workers were then known. She had been strangled and sexually mutilated with such sickening brutality that even hardened Scotland Yard detectives were stunned. The murder scene revealed a level of sadism not seen since the Ripper’s stomach-churning crimes in Whitechapel almost sixty years before.
Fingerprints found at both scenes revealed that the killer of both these women was left-handed. But his prints did not match any on file.
Two nights later, a man tried to strangle prostitute Catherine Mulcahy, but she had taken the precaution of keeping her boots on in bed. She used them to defend herself and he fled, throwing money at her as he went.
Undeterred, he met Doris Jouannet just a few hours later. He strangled her with her own silk stocking then mutilated her body.
The police had only just found her remains when they received reports of another woman, Margaret Lowe, who had been similarly butchered, but whose body had lain undiscovered for two days.
The newspapers soon gave the killer a name: the Blackout Ripper.
The press were demanding action; but catching a murderer in wartime London was not that easy. Police resources were under huge strain; crime rates had risen 50% during the blackout, and many of the younger police officers had been conscripted.
So the killing spree might have gone on much longer, but the Ripper was about to make a vital mistake.
On the night of the 13th February a delivery boy heard a commotion in a doorway and ran over to find a woman, Mary Heywood, half-throttled and unconscious. Her assailant ran off but dropped his respirator, with his service number, 525987, printed on it.
The Blackout Ripper’s bloody orgy had come to an end. The number on the killer’s respirator led investigators to an RAF billet in St John’s Wood.
A search of the suspect’s possessions uncovered a pen engraved with Doris Jouannet’s initials and a cigarette case belonging to Margaret Lowe. The money he had thrown at Catherine Mulcahy was traced to his payday records. Fingerprints tied him to the tin opener used to mutilate Evelyn Oatley and to a glass found in Margaret Lowe’s flat. Dust in the respirator was matched to the air raid shelter where Evelyn Hamilton was found.
He was also linked to the murders of at least two other women, but police could not prove their suspicions.
What they had was enough. It took a jury just half an hour to convict him.
Who was the brutal killer who murdered and mutilated four women in six days?
His name was Gordon Cummins, a Leading Aircraftman in the RAF. He had been brought up in Yorkshire, the son of a civil servant and had received a private education in Wales.
After being fired from many jobs due to insolence and dishonesty, he enlisted in the RAF in 1935, earning himself the nickname “The Count” from fellow servicemen because he wanted them to call him ‘the Honourable Gordon Cummins’, claiming to be the bastard son of an aristocrat. He even affected an upper-class drawl.
He had been married for five years, though little is known about his wife. He never gave any reason for what he did and because of the war, neither his crimes nor his victims received the level of attention as those of his Victorian predecessor.
‘Jack’ slaughtered five women in three months; Cummins murdered four in just five nights and probably killed two others.
He was hanged on June 25, 1942, at Wandsworth Prison.
In one final irony, the execution took place… during an air raid.
If you love crime fiction, here’s my own crime series featuring DI Charlie George:
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