WHEN LONDON BECAME THE PRIMARY TARGET of Luftwaffe bombers in World War II, one of the first responses of the government was to institute a night-time blackout. Given that the silvery ribbon of the River Thames couldn’t be hidden, and German knowledge of the whereabouts of factories and docks, the effect of the blackout was more psychological than practical. What it did do was to liberate criminals from the fear of being seen by what remained of the police force – bear in mind that most able bodied men of fighting age were very quickly drafted into the armed forces. Despite the affectionate folk myth of plucky Londoners ‘grinning and bearing it’, domestic crime rocketed. An often used wheeze was for criminals to dress up as Air Raid Wardens. In the darkness and confusion, they could raid shops and be about their dishonest business with a new freedom. Looting was not uncommon, and more than one gang discovered the effectiveness of going around the dark streets in a fake ambulance.
Thieving is one thing, however. Cold blooded murder is something else altogether. In one frenzied spell in February 1942, a handsome, well spoken and thoroughly plausible RAF man savagely murdered four women. Two more potential victims were lucky to escape unharmed before the killer made a stupid mistake and was found.
Gordon Cummins, 28, was a serving Aircraftman. Yorkshire born, his debonair and suave manner, and his hints that he came from noble stock, had earned him the nickname ‘Duke’ or ‘Count’. He had no criminal history of any kind, and was not thought to be a violent man. And yet, in the course of less than a week, he committed four brutal murders, and attempted to attack two other women.
Rather like the Whitechapel killer of 1888, the attacks became more frenzied and the mutilations more awful. Weapons used included razor blades, a can opener, a kitchen knife and a candlestick. After the frenzied killings of Margaret Lowe and Doris Jouannet, Sir Bernard Spilsbury (right), the most celebrated medical examiner of the century, remarked that the murders were the work of “a savage sexual maniac”. The press were quick to coin a new name for the killer, and for the brief period of his notoriety, he became known as ‘The Blackout Ripper’.
On Friday 14th February, Cummins was disturbed while attempting to attack Greta Hayward in a doorway near Piccadilly Circus. In the panic, he ran off, but left his RAF issue gas mask behind. It was simple work for the police to trace the issue number and identify Cummins. He had attacked another woman on the Friday evening but she, too, had escaped. When police searched Cummins’ flat they found items of clothing belonging to his victims.
Cummins was tried at the Old Bailey in April 1942, and was very quickly found guilty. The judge was none other than Lord Chief Justice Humphreys, who had been involved in many of the most high profile trials of the century. On the day Cummins was hanged on the morning of 25th June, 1942, and the hangman was Albert Pierrepoint. It is said that an daytime air-raid raged overhead when Cummins died, a bitter irony given the circumstances of his crimes.