In February 1942, around the time that the fortress of Singapore fell to Japanese forces, London’s police force was investigating four brutal murders that occurred within a four day period. All four victims were ladies.
- On 9 February 1942, Mrs. Evelyn Margaret Hamilton, age 35, was found dead in a London air raid shelter.
- On 10 February 1942, Mrs. Evelyn Oatley (also known as Nita Ward), age 32, was found dead in her Waldour Street flat.
- On 13 February 1942, Mrs. Margaret Florence Lowe, age 45, was found dead in a flat in Gosfield Road.
- On 13 February, Mrs. Doris Jouannet, age 32, was found dead in a flat in Sussex Gardens.
Faced with its biggest murder problem in more than fifty years, Scotland Yard pack the area with police officers, including plain-clothes women decoys.
On 13 February 1943, a man had tried to murder Mrs. Greta Heywood in a Haymarket air raid shelter. When she screamed, the man ran off. She rush to a police station and told them what had happened. When they went back to the air raid shelter, they found a gas mask left behind with the man’s name and the military service number 525987. The service number was quickly traced to the gas mask’s owner: Gordon Frederick Cummins.
EVELYN MARGARET HAMILTON
Evelyn Margaret Hamilton was born on 8 April 1901 in Newcastle and became a qualified pharmacist. She had just resigned from a job managing a chemists in Hornchurch, Essex and was moving back home to Newcastle the next day. Cummins strangled Evelyn Hamilton in a door way, leaving the body in a surface air raid shelter in Montague Place, W1. Her handbag’s contents had been scattered on the ground but the £80 severance pay that was in the bag had been taken.
Called to the scene, Detective Chief Superintendent Frederick Cherrill deduced from the finger marks around Evelyn Hamilton’s neck that her murderer was left-handed.
Shortly after 8.30am on 10 February 1942, an electric meter reader knocked at the door of a first floor flat in Wardour Street. Obtaining no answer, he and a woman neighbour pushed open the unlocked door. Evelyn Oatley was lying across her bed. She had been hit around the head, strangled into unconsciousness before a six-inch cut had been made to her throat. She had then been horrifically mutilated with a tin-opener, a broken mirror and a safety razor. A pair of blood-soaked curling tongs, more razor blades and parts of a broken mirror were found next to the body.
Cherrill was able to determine that fingerprints recovered from the blood-stained tin opener and upon a section of broken mirror again indicated that the murderer was left-handed. The police could find no match for the fingerprints in their records, indicating that the murderer had no previous criminal record.
Evelyn Oatley was last seen alive by a fellow tenant Ivy Poole, who had seen her enter the property’s stairwell at about 11.40pm. Shortly after midnight, she was woken up by the load playing of Oatley’s radio.
Evelyn Oatley was married to Harold Oatley (age 36) who lived, separately from her, in Blackpool.
MARGARET FLORENCE LOWE
On the afternoon of 13 February 1942, Margaret Lowe’s daughter Barbara (age 15) visited her mother, only to be told by a neighbour that her mother had not been seen for two or three days. Whe she opened the door, she discovered her murdered mother.
Margaret Florence Lowe, age 45, was found on her bed. She had been extensively beaten around her head and then strangled with a heavily darned stocking which was still tied around her neck. Cherrill found left-handed fingerprints on a brass candlestick and a half-drunk bottle of stout.
Margaret Lowe’s body had been savagely mutilated in a manner with far more savagery than had been inflicted upon Evelyn Oatley.
Cherrill concluded that as well as robbing his victims, the murderer also “indulged in a wicked lust to perpetuate the most diabolical injuries on the women he killed” (Daily Express 10 August 2008).
The forensic pathologist Bernard Spilsbury conduct a post-mortem examination and deduced that the obscene injuries were inflicted by a left-handed man using a razor blade .
On 12 February 1942, Cummins a 25 year old Catherine Mulcahy (also known as Kathleen King) in Regent Street. She and Cummins took a taxi to her apartment in nearby Southwick Street. After entering her apartment, Cummins attacked her on the bed and attempted to strangle her. Mulcahy fought back and managed to escape from Cummins’ grasp. Cummins then ran off, leaving the blue overcoat’s webbing belt behind; with the serial number 525987 marked on it. She then ran screaming from her flat to a neighbour’s house.
Cherrill had just returned to his office after examining the scene of Margaret Lowe’s murder, he was contacted to say that another murdered victim had been found in a flat, in Sussex Gardens, Paddington. As with the other cases, Jouannet was found on the bed, having been strangled and then severely mutilated.
Doris Jouannet was the wife of Mr. Henry Jouannet, the French manager of a Sloane Square hotel. While her husband worked at the hotel, she entertained clients in the flat. Her husband found the body when he returned from work.
GORDON FREDERICK CUMMINS
Gordon Frederick Cummins was born at New Eastwick, Yorkshire. He went to Llandoveris County School and moved with his father to Harlestone, Northampton, where he attended Northampton Technical School. After leaving school he worked in the laboratory of a firm at Swiss Cottage, London. Cummins joined the Royal Air Force in November 1935, and had achieved his ambition to be accepted for pilot training.
In 1936, Cummins married Marjorie Stevens, the secretary of a West End theatre producer.
On the 13 February 1942, the police issued the following description of a man who may be able to give them information regarding the murder of Evelyn Oatley.
His description is: Aged 25-26 height 5 feet 8 inches, fresh complexion, hair chestnut or medium brown, wavy in front, frizzy on the crown, brown eyes, small mouth and thin lips, clean shaven, protruding chin. Dressed in electric blue overcoat with fine grey line and square check.Daily Mirror newspaper, 14 February 1942.
With the service number and name from the gas mask (abandoned by Cummins when he attempted to murder Mrs. Greta Heywood) and the number from the overcoat belt (abandoned by Cummins when he attempted to murder Catherine Mulcahy), the police contacted the RAF Military Police.
The day after the attack on Mrs. Greta Heywood, 14 February 1942, the police arrested Officer Cadet Gordon Frederick Cummins at his RAF Camp in St. John’s Wood. When arrested, Cummins told the police that the whole thing was ridiculous. However, his alibis quickly unravelled. Cherrill noticed that Cummins used his left hand to sign the fingerprint authorisation documents.
The case was then taken over by Chief Inspector Edward Greeno.
At an identity parade, Catherine Mulcahy was unable to pick out Cummins as the man that attack her. Greta Haywood had no such doubts and identified Cummins.
As well as Cummins’ fingerprints matching those left on objects at the murder scenes of Evelyn Oatley and Margaret Lowe, Cummins was found to have in his possession: Evelyn Hamilton’s pencil, Evelyn Oatley’s cigarette case and Margaret Lowe’s cigarette case.
On 16 February 1942, Edward Greeno went to Brixton Prison to interview Cummins. Cummins insisted that he had never encountered any of the murder victims and claimed not to recognise their photographs. He claimed that the victim’s possessions were taken from another gas mask that Cummins had accidently picked up. Greeno then informed Cummins that he would be charged with the murders of Evelyn Oatley, Margaret Lowe and Doris Jouannet.
THE TRIAL OF GORDON CUMMINS
Cummins’ trial for the murder of Evelyn Oatley began at the Central Criminal Court, London, on Friday 24 April 1942, before Mr. Justice Asquith. Superintendent Cherrill, Scotland Yard’s fingerprint expert, was giving evidence when he noticed that the jury appeared somewhat puzzled. He told the judge that he thought the jury had been given the wrong exhibit. The judge told the jury that the wrongly presented exhibit could have caused the jury to draw certain inferences which would prevent them from trying this case. The judge discharged the jury and said that the trial would begin again with a new jury.
On Monday 27 April 1942, a new trial began before Mr. Justice Asquith, with the prosecution case presented by Mr. Christmas Humphreys, K.C. and Mr. G. B. McClure, K.C. The Cummins’ counsel were now John Flowers, K.C. and Victor Durrand, K.C.
The first prosecution witness was Detective Chief Superintendent Frederick Cherrill. He stated that he was prepared to stake his professional reputation on the fingerprints found on the tin opener and broken mirror found at the scene of Evelyn Oatley’s murder were identical to the fingerprints of Gordon Cummins. When questioned by Cummins’ defence, Cherrill stated that the shape of fingerprints can be extended by the amount of pressure applied to the fingers when they are pressed against an object.
The next prosecution witness was the forensic pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury. He testimony was concerned with the post-mortem he had performed on Evelyn Oatley. He stated that the cause of death had been the deep cut to her throat. He estimated the time of death had occurred approximately at 12:30am on 10 February 1942.
Miss Ivy C. Poole, occupant of the flat next door to Evelyn Oatley, testified that she saw Evelyn Oatley, accompanied by a man in civilian clothes, went into her flat.
Felix Johnson, an air cadet, said that on that night he and Cummins met two women and then parted. When he returned to their billet alone, Cummins was asleep. Later, Cummins told Johnson that he had got back between 3.30am and 4.30am.
Cummins testified in his own defence. He denied murdering Evelyn Oatley, insisting he had been with another woman before returning to his billet. Cummins admitting lying to Detective Chief Inspector Edward Greeno, claiming that Greeno had intimidated him by telling Cummins that “We have a rope around your neck and we are going to hang you with it.”
On 28 April 1942, both counsels made their closing arguments and the judge made his summing up of the case stating the murder was
a sadistic, sexual murder of a ghoulish type.The Daily record newspaper, 29 April 1942.
At 4pm the jury retired to consider their verdict. Thirty-five minutes later the jury returned and found Cummins guilty of the murder of Evelyn Oatley. When the judge asked Cummins if he had anything to say, Cummins replied “I am completely innocent Sir.” The judge then sentenced Cummins to death.
Cummins was also indicted for the murder of three other women as well as on two charges of attempted murder, but no reference was made to these during the trial.
To the end of the trial, Cummins’ young wife had faith in her husband. She heard the verdict in the hall outside the court where she had waited with her sister and visited Cummins in the cells before he left.
On 9 June 1942, Cummins appeal against his conviction was heard at the Criminal Appeals Court before the Lord Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Humphreys and Mr. Justice Tucker. Cummins was represented by Mr. D. N. Pritt, K.C. and Mr. Victor Durand; the prosecution by Mr. G. B. McClure.
Folders of the photographs were handed to the judges to enable them to follow criticisms of the finger-print evidence used in the trial. Mr. Pritt submitted that the jury’s evidence was against the weight of evidence. He said that the trial judge was not emphatic enough in his warning to the jury that they had to decide the case on the evidence alone. He also stated that all the newspapers had been telling anybody who might be put on the jury that Cummins was charged with four murders.
Giving the judgement dismissing Cummins’ appeal, Mr. Justice Humphreys said they unhesitatingly took the view that the evidence was overwhelming, that the fingerprint evidence was vital and of deadly significance.
APPEALS and EXECUTION
The People’s Common Law Society sent a petition with 10,000 signatures to the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison for the execution to be delayed so that new evidence might be examined.
On 24 June 1942, both Cummins and the society were informed that Mr. Morrison had failed to find sufficient ground to advise interference with the sentence.
Both the society and Cummins’ father then sent a final appeal to the Home Secretary. Cummins’ father told the Home Secretary
There is an accumulation of independent evidence now available to establish a prima facie case of miscarriage of justice.The Daily Herald newspaper, 25 June 1942.
On 25 June 1942, Gordon Frederick Cummins was executed at Wandsworth Prison, London. After a post-mortem, conduced by Sir Bernard Spilsbury, and an inquest, Cummins was buried within the prison.
BROOKWOOD 1939-1945 MEMORIAL
Prior to his execution, Gordon Cummins was discharged by the Royal Air Force, so when he was executed Cummins was a civilian. The Army failed to discharge convicted murderers before their execution, therefore they met the criteria for commemoration by the Commonwealth War Grave Commission; which is why there are 17 murderers and 1 traitor commemorated on the Brookwood 1939-1945 Memorial.