BODY PARTS

04.02.14

Death Became Her: Molly Lefebure’s Wartime Years of Murder and Suicide

Bodies in mortuaries, bodies in ponds, bodies under houses, and in dank boarding houses. As the bombs fell on London in World War II, Molly Lefebure saw death up close and very personally, as her stunning memoir reveals.

If there is something very English about Murder On The Home Front, it is not just the setting—the topsy-turvy, dank, chaotic London-in-flux of World War II—but also the phlegmatic voice of the author, Molly Lefebure. In the war years, Lefebure was secretary to forensic pathologist Dr. Keith Simpson, and wrote of her experiences of the deaths they investigated—suicides, murders, accidents—in her 1955 book, Evidence For The Crown.

The catchier title it is presented with in 2014 is down to the name of the TV drama adapted from it last year. The book is full of horrors, but related with Lefebure’s crisp, clear voice. Heads might be detached from bodies, and prisoners swinging from the gallows, but Lefebure’s storytelling has a Mary Poppins-like briskness to it. A former journalist, she evokes the physical and emotional terrain of crime scenes and the circumstances of death with adroit detachment, yet also authoritative depth.

Appositely enough, Simpson approaches her for the job in an East London cemetery: up until then “Miss Molly,” as she became known to her colleagues, had been a court reporter. A fellow journalist encouraged her to take on the job of Simpson’s secretary as she was so interested in crime. Another motivation, she confesses, was to discover what went on in mortuaries.

She found out on her first day on the job in 1941, when confronted with two bodies laid out on gleaming white porcelain tables. She was far from scared or grossed out: “Postmortem work in the hands of an expert is amazingly clean, absolutely fascinating, quite devoid of horror,” Lefebure writes. The only thing she did not like about postmortems in the early days was “the sound of a saw raspingly opening a skull,” which is fair enough.

But she soon became used to having afternoon tea in a room that was a “gleaming array of specimen jars in which floated grotesque babies, slashed wrists, ruptured hearts, stomach ulcers, lung cancers, bowel tumors, cerebral aneurysms and the like.”

One “gallant old doctor” says he finds it unsuitable she is in a mortuary. She counters, why shouldn’t she be there. He calls her a suffragette. “I had delightful visions of myself chained to the mortuary railings, waving my typewriter and vociferously demanding the right to work among corpses.”

Lefebure is very funny, because every comic line is as drily delivered as the seriously gross: when her landlady brings her a plate of chops after a day among the bodies, “I realized, with a jerk, that I must either eat them, resolutely, or become a vegetarian for life.”

Moments of physical love and moments of murder are ephemeral; they cannot be preserved in the memory.Everything in murder and love is ‘felt.’

She conveys the ugliest things with matter-of-factness, helping to demystify death. In one mortuary, she observes the very hairy body of a dead fascist, “the nearest human thing I have ever seen to a gorilla.” The standout detail is that this thuggish looking corpse is holding, across his chest, a posy of snowdrops, which a relative has asked for. At another mortuary, “a very stout matron” has frozen to the metal refrigerator tray and must be chipped from it.

When her boss needs a hand taken from the body of a window cleaner who has committed suicide, but with no means of transporting it across town, he asks Miss Lefebure if they may use the pretty candy-striped bag she has in her possession after buying some gloves. She pops the gloves on, and pops the hand in the bag.

The horror and misery of the death scenes are as precisely conveyed as the dark humor: the murder of an old woman by a seaman she had befriended; the stabbing of a 24-year-old woman by her fiancé, who says, “I have stabbed the girl and I hope she is dead and that I die too;” and the vision of an “ugly weather-beaten prostitute of about thirty five to forty, dirty and slovenly, daubed with lipstick, rouge and river mud.”

At a suicide at a pond, “clots of blood and fragments of brain still floated, like exotic crimson water flowers.” Corpses talk plenty, says Lefebure, “but it did look as though it would require a miracle to extract much more than a peep from this one.”

She evokes the death scene of one suicide: “a picture dramatic and ruthless as a Hogarth, dark and haunting as an El Greco …” It is a dismal room, with filthy bedclothes, wallpaper seeping with despair. “His arms were flung out in a gesture of wild pain and final surrender. The right hand was deformed; close to these twisted fingers glittered a newly bought knife, streaked with blood.” The dead man’s stomach was full of Lysol; he had stabbed himself presumably because the effects of the self-administered poison were too horrific.

The man, known as Joe, had killed himself because he saw disturbing visions of St. Peter. His landlady was sympathetic and listened to his ravings as much as she could, but tells Lefebure and her colleagues, “I didn’t like it at all—my house has always been respectable.”

In letters, female friends always pressed Lefebure for details of the job. “Do give me the latest news of any good murders, darling,” they would write. “And how are the mortuaries getting on? Still as great fun as ever?” A male friend’s epistle would read, “Next time you write, please don’t mention stiffs. They give me the willies.” (No Anglicized pun intended.) However, in person the roles were reversed. Men wanted to hear the gory details, women demurred. “Women are much harder-boiled than men,” writes Lefebure, “but they’ll fight to the last ditch before they let men know it…”

The ghoulish public fascination with death, she notes, is evident at the public hunger for executions—historically evident at the famous Tyburn site in London, where they were carried out for around 600 years until the late 18th century. The writer Samuel Richardson spoke of the crowds there expressing “a kind of mirth, as if the spectacle they had beheld had afforded pleasure instead of pain.”

After that, they took place in special areas of jails (capital punishment was finally outlawed in Britain in 1965). Lefebure and her colleagues asked Albert Pierrepoint, the then-public executioner, if his work upset him. “No … It’s a job that must be done by somebody, and it must be done as well as possible.”

Lefebure intrigues the reader most when she takes us into the specifics of a case, and then encourages us to accept that whatever the pathologist knows, whatever can be stitched together by forensic investigation and testimony, witnesses and confessions, we can never really know why—in that moment—a life is taken.

Lefebure describes two murderers wretchedly turning on one another in court, their wayward lives inexorably leading to their own executions; and the man who tried to pass off the murder of his wife as a result of German bombs dropping on London. (The particularly insidious “doodlebug” bombs—Lefebure notes—would drop indiscriminately, and seemed to follow the same route as she and Simpson took on their dark journeys around the capital, from one death site to another.)

Murder fascinates her the most. “Moments of physical love and moments of murder are ephemeral; they cannot be preserved in the memory,” she writes. “They cannot be adequately described because they are simply experienced in the flesh, the mind never has a chance to reflect. Everything in murder and love is felt.”

Detectives can reconstruct whatever they are able to, but “it is the ultimate secrecy of each one of us which makes the story of everyday life so fascinating. Each one of us has a secret room which is inviolate.”

She is such a wonderful, arch, thinking, intelligent guide to this strange underworld that you don’t want Lefebure’s wonderful tales to end. It comes as a surprise, given how spunky and assertive she is, to arrive then in 1945 and an end to wartime, and for Lefebure to briskly decide—as briskly as she undertook the job—to give it up for marriage and child rearing. Her “future husband” is set to return from war, and as a “determined careerist,” she sees a dedication to a “profound bout of matrimony” in the same stout terms as devoting herself to her death-streaked profession.

She must find her successor, first. “Women don’t seem to be able to run and they don’t seem to be genuinely keen on dead bodies,” she says to her sister, who finds her pronouncement “terribly funny.”

But a suitable candidate is found, and Lefebure, writing in the mid-’50s, says she still pops into a familiar mortuary occasionally, where “the same nostalgia grips me” when she sees a body lying on a post-mortem table. Her time with Dr. Simpson formed “the happiest and most absorbing years” of her life.

She is happily married, she emphasizes, but amidst the noisy din of tea with her children, Lefebure recalls how “nice and quiet the corpses were. How altogether better balanced my nerves were, in those days when I devoted myself to crime, and autopsies and violent deaths and gruesome murders … Murders are infinitely less exhausting than motherhood.”

Lefebure, who went on to become a scholar in the works of Coleridge, died last year, aged 93, and in death has bequeathed us a book which teaches so much about death—taking away much of the worst kind of fear and mystery around it, while reminding us that so much about it remains necessarily unknowable. It’s a lesson imparted with the best kind of wry smile.

Murder On The Home Front: A True Story of Morgues, Murderers, and Mysteries during the London Blitz is published by Grand Central Publishing, $14