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Authors: Molly Lefebure

Murder on the Home Front

BOOK: Murder on the Home Front
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Editor’s Note

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Foreword

by Keith Simpson

Few young journalists can have had the remarkable experience that befell Molly Lefebure on her translation from “crime and news” reporter on a London newspaper to a job then quite unique—private secretary to a pathologist engaged in scientific crime detection in and around the Metropolis. These were the days when Spilsbury was fading and the “Yard” team for crime investigation was plainly due for a reshuffle: a war of chaos was on overhead, and the perpetual war against the underworld of crime had nevertheless to be maintained below.

Miss Lefebure, with her delightful flow of interest in people and things, in humor and pathos, in crime and its personalities, discourses here, with both purpose and an engaging restraint, on the colorful days that flowed by so ceaselessly; on people and on strange happenings—stranger indeed than fiction. She did a remarkable job remarkably well, and the following pages bear no small testimony to her intense interest in her singular occupation.

Guy’s Hospital,
London

CHAPTER
1

A Good Job for Corpses

The murdered baby had been discovered in a small suitcase. Dr. Keith Simpson, Home Office pathologist doing the postmortem on the child, wanted it photographed in the suitcase exactly as it had been found. So he asked the Southwark mortuary keeper, West, and his secretary, myself, to take the case, complete with baby, around to Guy’s Hospital to be photographed.

The case with its pathetic contents was quite heavy, so West carried it while I tripped along beside him. The journey from Southwark mortuary to Guy’s was a short one across a desolate bomb site. As we were walking across here, West suddenly began to grin and chortle, as if at a marvelous joke. I asked him what it was, and he replied he’d like to see a copper stop us and ask to see what we had in the case.

The notion appalled me. We should certainly look a very desperate couple: a suitcase with a murdered baby in it! Luckily, however, nobody stopped us. (It would have been interesting, of course, to have seen the expression on the face of an eager war-reserve constable, say, had he asked to inspect our bag. The radio series
P.C. 49
would have been dull entertainment in comparison.)

West and I often joke about this adventure now when we talk over old times; those years when I worked with Keith Simpson in London’s public mortuaries on a nonstop round of postmortems, investigating murders, suicides, manslaughters, infanticides, accidents, criminal abortions, and those multitudinous cases that West calls “straight ’uns.”

Besides the nonstop postmortems were the coroners’ courts, the police courts, the magistrates’ courts, the assize courts, the Old Bailey. Frequent visits to Scotland Yard. The work in prisons, hospitals, asylums. The never-ending exploration of London: the alleys and filthy courtyards and tenements of Limehouse, Rotherhithe, Poplar, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Stratford-by-Bow, the amazing no-man’s-land of the suburbs, the ever-fascinating backwaters of Kensington, Fulham, Walham Green, Streatham, Battersea, Wandsworth, East Ham, Walthamstow. The West End, a complete and intriguing contrast, plushy, well-washed, but with its sordid secrets in Chelsea, Westminster, Marylebone.

The journeys into the country on murder cases with the bodies in ditches, the bodies in spinneys and copses, the bodies among the cabbages and in squalid cottages, the bodies in pubs and on country cricket pitches, the bodies in select little villas and in old tin barns.

Those endless bodies, anything from ten to twenty-eight in a day, five and sometimes six days a week. All the public mortuaries from Portsmouth to Paddington. Five years of mortuaries, prying into the secrets of thousands, literally thousands, of bodies, each with a tale to tell.

There are people who say corpses don’t talk, but indeed they do. They talk of easy lives in pleasant homes, of hard, dirty lives in rooms where lice crawl up and down the walls and the ceiling drips, like a decaying skin, in clammy stinking drops to the floor. They talk of hopes that were not fulfilled, joys that ended in sorrow, of tragedy, broken hearts, stupidity, cruelty, depravity, perversion, crime of every kind, and of goodness, devotion, motherhood, sacrifice, every kind of love, everything you have ever thought or heard of, and a great many things you would never have imagined in your wildest moments.

There they all are on the p.m. table: the coster’s wife who killed herself because her husband sold his pony, the one creature in the world she had ever really loved and been loved by. There is the baby whose mother left it to starve while she had a good time hitting the hay with American soldiers. The little girl whose new party dress caught fire. The old gentleman who lived in Leytonstone sixty years and never departed once from his wife, his job as a railway clerk, his bowls club, and the interminable straight and narrow. The soldier who came home on leave to find his wife in bed with another man and gassed himself. The sailor who came home from sea to find his wife in bed with another man and shot her. The old lady who put her head in the gas oven because she was certain the wireless had given her cancer. The airman who bailed out and his parachute didn’t open. The bright young thing who didn’t want a baby. The tart who picked up a killer for a client. The pansy who couldn’t face life anymore. The treasurer who embezzled the funds, the typist who discovered she was married to a bigamist. Yes, there they all are.

And my goodness, how they talk! Everything about them talks. The way they look, the way they died, where they died, why they died. In the mortuary, under the skilled hands of Dr. Simpson, they yielded up their secrets, talking of everything from natural death to murder.

While sitting beside him at her little table, typing away for dear life, was Miss Lefebure, typing the postmortem reports which the pathologist dictated as he worked. And in the courts there she was, too, taking shorthand notes. There she was in the hospitals, in the prisons, at the scenes of crimes. Carrying her notebook and the little buff envelopes into which she popped the hairs and the fibers, the buttons and the cigarette butts, and all the other small but vital things that are found on or near the bodies and on which a five-day trial at the Old Bailey may ultimately hinge.

“A horrible job. I’d never allow a daughter of mine to do it,” declared one of my father’s friends.

“A fas-cin-ating job, darling. How I’d adore it!” gasped a girl who worked at the Board of Trade.

“You’ve a nasty, morbid, unfeminine streak in you, I’m afraid,” wrote a boyfriend.

“You’ll never regret going to work in the mortuaries, Miss Molly,” said a coroner’s officer of my acquaintance. “You’ll find there’s never a dull moment with the bodies around. It’s a real good job for corpses, seeing as how you’re interested in corpses.”

But whoever they were, and however they reacted to the job, they all asked me the same question: “How did you get the job?”

  

I was working as a reporter on a chain of East London suburban weeklies, and it was the first year of World War Two. I had earlier taken a secretarial course, to attain good shorthand, and I had studied journalism at London University. Now I was a junior reporter, struggling in the throes of an existence to be advocated only to those training for the Olympic Marathon, or doing penance for some appalling crime. I walked on an average twelve miles a day, at a conservative estimate, worked from eight thirty in the morning till ten thirty at night, seven days a week, starting at a pound a week. In my case I was ambitious to be a writer, and any person nursing such a lunatic and unwholesome aim in life should be subjected to every chastisement possible, to drive the devil out, as it were.

So for nearly two years I toiled and sweated around the eastern suburbs, covering everything from Boy Scout meetings to the blitz. The assignments I most enjoyed were the court ones: Coroner’s Court and Stratford Police Court. The fascination of these places was for me never-ending.

The Coroner’s Court was Walthamstow, where Dr. P. B. Skeels, then coroner for Metropolitan Essex, sat twice weekly. Dr. Skeels—who unhappily died recently—was the first coroner I ever met; I came to know him well, and became very fond of him.

Scarlet like a turkey-cock when angry, genial as the sun when in a sociable mood, interested in everything and everybody, energetic, enthusiastic, uncompromising, he was affectionately and loyally regarded by his coroner’s officers, who among themselves called him “Papa Squeals.” He was undoubtedly Victorian, but in the best sense of the term, and everyone who knew him esteemed him. He was scrupulous to a degree, honest, with much dignity when he appeared in court, beautiful manners, and strong moral convictions. He applied his high standards to himself as strictly as he applied them to others. He hated thoughtless, indolent people who brought about the death of others, not through vice or malice, but casual couldn’t-care-lessness. Such people made him so very angry he would sit in his big chair, scarlet in the face, quite unable to speak for a second or two and indeed nearly choking. I recall a mother who had lightheartedly placed her baby in an iron bath of scalding water. With her Dr. Skeels was the image of wrath indeed. But with another mother whose baby had accidentally suffocated in its cot he was all sympathy and kindness and went off into a detailed discourse on why a baby’s pillow must be hard, advocating that favorite of his, the hay pillow.

He detested half liars. A man was once giving evidence upon his alcoholic father, trying hard to avoid making any mention of whiskey. “He was addicted to a nightly beverage,” explained the devoted son. “Do you by any chance mean whiskey?” rapped Dr. Skeels. “His favorite beverage,” murmured the son. “You would describe whiskey as a beverage?” “Yes.” “Ah-ah. And your father partook of this…ah…this…er…beverage to an excess?” The edge to Dr. Skeels’s voice was deadly.

Dr. Skeels quite often lingered in court after the morning’s hearing to chat with the reporters—a courteous gesture which we all appreciated, for too many people treat reporters like bits of something the cat has brought in. On one of these occasions he began talking about Dr. Keith Simpson, the young Home Office pathologist who often gave medical evidence at the court. Dr. Skeels told us that Dr. Simpson had a brilliant career ahead of him, that he was already spoken of as Spilsbury’s successor, and was worth watching: “For you should, as pressmen, know who are the up and coming men and he is certainly one of them.”

Now I had already for some time been eyeing Dr. Simpson with great interest. He certainly looked remarkable; there was a something of genius about him, a hint of lightning flashes and thunderbolts. I frequently mused upon his unique but intriguing occupation, wondering whether cutting up bodies all day long had any effects upon the cutter-upper, so to speak, and I also wondered what it was like in a mortuary, and I wished I could go in one and view a postmortem, for I felt I should like to know what I looked like inside.

BOOK: Murder on the Home Front
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