Memory Lane: Evil deeds

Evelyn Oatley, a victim of Gordon Cummins, the Black Out Ripper in 1942
Evelyn Oatley, a victim of Gordon Cummins, the Black Out Ripper in 1942
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THIS week’s Then and Now is a bit different from our usual format.

Rather than focusing on local buildings, it highlights a new book, Scenes of Murder Then and Now, which investigates 150 years of crimes using a similar theme of comparison photographs.

Scene of crime plans, photographs from police files and other sources, form the background to a wide variety of murders committed between 1812 – when a Prime Minister was shot in the House of Commons – to killings on the streets of London in the 1960s.

Included are many of the so-called headline murderers such as Jack the Ripper, Dr Crippen and John Christie. The book also reveals a Fylde coast victim of Gordon Cummins, branded the Black Out Ripper for his killing spree 70 years ago next month in wartime London.

Author Winston Ramsey, editor-in-chief of the magazine After the Battle, says: “In the pitch-like darkness of the black out which enveloped London in February 1942, terror stalked through the blitz-shattered streets. It was not just the terror that rained from the sky as Hitler’s Luftwaffe flew overhead to wreak his mission of hate upon Britain.

“It was the terror created by the ghoulish slayer who, within four days, strangled and mutilated four hapless women and attempted to murder two others.

“Not since those panic-ridden days in 1888, when Jack the Ripper was abroad in the East End, had London known such a reign of terror as that which existed in that wartime February when, night after night, death – fiendish, revolting and gruesome – came to four unsuspecting women in the heart of the Metropolis.”

After being earmarked for RAF pilot training, York-born Cummins was being processed through the Air Crew Reception Centre in St John’s Wood, London, and, like other cadets, made good use of a fire escape to leave and return undetected to his billet in a block of flats.

His first victim was spinster Evelyn Hamilton, a chemist’s assistant, found strangled in an air raid shelter.

By sheer coincidence, Evelyn was also the Christian name of his second victim – “promising young actress” Mrs Evelyn Oatley (nee Judd).

She was married in Blackpool in June 1936, but when murdered was separated from her husband Harold Oatley, a retired poultry farmer, who was living in Lyddesdale Avenue, Anchorsholme.

According to the book, it was only a few weeks before the murder on February 11, 1942, that Mr Oatley discovered that his wife, who he had visited at her Soho flat, was working as a prostitute using the names Lila and Nita Ward. Before their marriage Evelyn had “obtained a situation” in the chorus at London’s Windmill Theatre.

In the book, the report of the police officer who found Mrs Oatley’s body in the bedroom of her Wardour Street flat, says: “She was a ghastly sight, as she had been the victim of a sadistic attack of the most horrible and revolting nature.”

As the book points out, the mysterious murderer “had gone straight from one crime to another almost without pause”. He was finally caught out after leaving a gas mask, with his air force number, in a doorway when interrupted in his attack on another woman. To the end, he protested his innocence, claiming another airman had picked up his respirator by mistake, but various evidence, including fingerprints, pointed to a left-handed murderer, with no previous record.

When formally charged with murder at Bow Street Police Court, Cummins was asked to sign the fingerprint form and, to quote the officer in charge: “He made no demur and signed with his left hand.”

Scenes of Murder Then and Now is published on February 15, price £39.95 and readers can get more details from the website, by emailing or ringing (01279) 418833.

Mr Ramsey says: “We are trying to find where Evelyn Oatley is buried. As her husband lived in the Blackpool area, I feel sure he would have had the body sent up there for burial. She was murdered in February, but police may not have released her body until June. If Memory Lane readers are able to help, then we will carry a follow-up in After the Battle magazine.”