Between 1964 and 1965 a serial killer was operating in London who due to his modus operandi was soon given the moniker ‘Jack the Stripper’. The name came from the famous Jack the Ripper murders in London in 1888 and while this killer did not kill with a knife, he left all his female victims stripped naked and asphyxiated, many with their teeth knocked out, around the Hammersmith area of London and near the River Thames.
Also known as the ‘Hammersmith Nude Murders’, six victims have been attributed to this one individual with a possible two earlier murders which he may have also carried out as practice runs to perfect his technique and ensure he could get away uncaptured. As with the Ripper, there have been many theories and suspects put forward to try and solve the mystery of Jack the Stripper but to date, none have been able to provide conclusive evidence of this man’s identity.
On 17 June 1959 the naked body of a young woman was found on a towpath in Chiswick. The area was secluded and known as Dukes Meadow lying next to the River Thames. Later identified as 21-year-old Elizabeth Figg, she had been strangled and dumped with no clothes or personal belongings on or around her body. Elizabeth was a prostitute who worked on the streets nearby and police theorized she had been murdered by a man who had picked her up for sex the night before. With little evidence and no leads the case into her murder soon went cold.
Four years later a rubbish dump on the banks of the River Thames was being cleared and in amongst the debris, the body of 22-year-old Gwynneth Rees was found on 8 November 1963. Gwynneth, like Elizabeth Figg, was found naked and strangled and she too had been a prostitute working in the area. She had been missing for nine days with the last known sighting of her being getting into a van on 29 September. Although similarities to the murder of Elizabeth Figg, no links were made at that stage and the case of Gwynneth Rees joined the many other London unsolved murders lying cold in the police case files.
On 2 February 1964, the body of 30-year-old Hannah Tailford was found in the Thames River by a passing boat. When pulled out of the water, Hannah was found to have her stockings around her ankles and her underwear forced into her throat and some of her teeth missing. At post-mortem it was determined that Hannah Tailford had drowned, leading some to question, despite her injuries, whether her death was murder at all. Her death at inquest was officially ruled as an open verdict. Across the next 12 months a further five bodies would be found. All young woman, all prostitutes and all found stripped and either drowned or strangled.
26-year-old Irene Lockwood was found on 8 April 1964. Like Hannah Tailford she was found dead in the River Thames just a few hundred yards away from where Hannah’s body was found, and her cause of death was also ruled as drowning. Her death also had suspicious aspects with police suspecting murder. Weeks after the discovery of her body, a local caretaker 57-year-old Kenneth Archibald confessed to killing Irene Lockwood at a Notting Hill police station and was subsequently charged with her murder. When the case came to trial at the Old Bailey in London on 19 June 1964, Archibald changed his plea to not guilty, telling the court he was depressed and confused which is why he had falsely confessed. After considering the evidence which was entirely based on Archibald’s confession, the jury returned a not guilty verdict after just 30 minutes and Archibald was free to go.
Just days after the discovery of Irene Lockwood another body was found giving police their third suspicious death of a young prostitute in less than three months. 22-year-old Helen Barthelemy was not found in the River Thames, but on top of a rubbish heap in Brentwood behind a row of residential houses about a mile away.
The area was fairly secluded with playing fields on either side allowing the killer privacy to dispose of the body. Helen had been strangled, most likely up to 24 hours earlier and her body was covered in coal dust along with tiny specks of coloured paints. This discovery led police, who by now had started to suspect they were dealing with a serial killer, to believe the killer had connections to a vehicle paint spraying facility. He may have been a paint-sprayer himself and may have stored the body of Helen Barthelemy there before dumping her.
Next, 30-year-old Mary Fleming was found nude on 14 July 1964 lying dead on the street following the same modus operandi as the previous four women. Her dentures were missing and it was thought she may have smothered to death. Paint specks were also found on her body just as with Helen Barthelemy. For the next three months all went quiet until 25 November, when 21-year-old Margaret McGowan was found. Missing for a month she was found in Kensington, naked and with the same traces of paint flecks on her body.
The final murder was that of 27-year-old Bridget O’Hara last seen in early January 1965. Her body was found on 16 February hidden in amongst bushes on the Heron Trading Estate in Acton. It was this final murder that would provide the most clues in the case of Jack the Stripper and lead detectives to the place where the murderer was storing the bodies of his victims before dumping them in different locations. Bridget O’Hara had been strangled and was missing several of her teeth.
The hunt for Jack the Stripper was led by Detective Chief Superintendent John Du Rose, a man who was selected by Scotland Yard to coordinate the large-scale investigation and who was determined to find the killer. Following up leads from the paint particles found on the bodies, almost 700 premises across London were searched looking for any clues that the bodies of these women could have been held there before they were dumped.
A match was found in a workshop on the Heron Trading Estate, the same area that the body of the final victim, Bridget O’Hara had been found. Furthermore, opposite the paint straying workshop was an electricity substation with crawl spaces running underneath to accommodate the cables needed to distribute the electricity to homes in the surrounding area. Inside that crawl space the same paint flecks were discovered which forensics were able to match exactly to those found on the bodies. John Du Rose concluded it was here that the killer was storing the bodies before he dumped them which also explained why some were partially mummified on discovery due to the heat in the space from the substation.
In total, 120,000 people were interviewed and over 3,000 forensic samples were collected for analysis, all, however, yielded no information on the identity of the killer. Female police officers went undercover on the streets of London, blending themselves in with the street workers in the hope of catching the killer, all to no avail. Du Rose decided to hold a press conference and announced his team had narrowed their suspect list down to just 20 individuals. In subsequent conferences held in quick succession he reduced this number, first to 10 and then to three in the hope it would shock the offender into thinking the police were closing in. After months of searches and interviews the case reached a dead end and with no new murders after February 1965, no further evidence was gained.
John Du Rose did eventually reveal that the team had a prime suspect in the case and this individual had taken his own life in 1965 not long after the final murder and Du Rose’s press conferences. He was a man who had worked at the Heron Trading Estate at the time of the killings, however, as no arrests had been made or charges brought with no conclusive evidence, he did not name him publicly. This man was later named as Scottish man Mungo Ireland.
Mungo Ireland worked as a security guard at the industrial estate where Bridget O’Hara’s body was found and where the paint flecks had been traced to, giving police a possible link between suspect, victim and crime scene. In March 1965, a month after the final murder attributed to Jack the Stripper, Mungo Ireland committed suicide, gassing himself inside his garage. He left a suicide note which said ‘I cannot stand the strain any more.’ His decision to take his own life and the timing aroused further suspicion that Mungo Ireland was indeed Jack the Stripper.
Some serious doubts have been raised, however, on Ireland being a credible suspect when it was discovered he had only worked at the industrial estate for three weeks before he killed himself and he was back in Scotland at the time of Bridget O’Hara’s murder. If the killer was not Mungo Ireland, the case of Jack the Stripper remained very much unsolved.
Various speculative suspects have been put forward, including light-heavyweight champion boxer Freddie Mills who shot himself in the head in July 1965, five months after the final Jack the Stripper murder. Some believed Mills was the killer and had taken his own life as he thought the police were getting close to arresting him; however, no evidence has ever been found to link Freddie Mills to the killings. Furthermore, there are many including Mill’s family who believe he was in fact murdered on that night shattering the speculation that guilt and fear of capture caused him to commit suicide.
Tommy Bulter, who was a Scotland Yard Superintendent at the time of the murders, is another name which appeared as a possible suspect although he was pointed to by former criminal Jimmy Evans in a book he wrote about his life. His allegation was quickly dismissed as being offered by a man with a grudge against a police officer with no evidence to back up his claims.
Another more credible suspect is that of Welsh double-child killer Harold Jones who was known to be in the London Hammersmith area across the 1964-1965 period. Author Neil Milkins stumbled across Harold Jones being a viable suspect for the Jack the Stripper murders after writing his book “Every Mother’s Nightmare” on Jones’s criminal past. Harold Jones murdered two young girls in 1921 in Abertillery in Wales when he was just 15-years-old and spent 20 years behind bars.
When he was released in 1941 against the advice of the psychiatrist treating him who said he was a psychopath and remained a danger to young women, Jones changed his name and moved to London, living just streets away from the Heron Trading Estate at the time of the Jack the Stripper murders. He is believed to have moved out of the area very soon after Mungo Ireland, who also lived in that area killed himself.
Criminologist David Wilson has said about Neil Milkins theory:
“We know that a serial killer — Harold Jones — was living in the streets around the Jack The Stripper murders and, in my experience, there is no such thing as ‘coincidence’ when dealing with serial killers. So, for me, there is quite compelling evidence.”
Jack the Stripper is believed to have killed more victims than his infamous namesake Jack the Ripper yet this case remains one that many are unaware of. In the 52 years since the last victim Bridget O’Hara was found there have been a number of names put forward as possible suspects and no doubt names will continue to flow as time moves on. An unsolved series of murders of this magnitude is a case that those who are aware of it are keen to try and solve. With the passage of so much time and such little evidence to go on it is likely the question of who was Jack the Stripper is one that will continue to go unanswered.