In the second installment of the Forest City Killer series exploring the alarming rise of serial killers active in London, Ontario, Brianna sets the scene for a particular predator preying on maids in the quiet, Canadian city. This is the story of the London Chambermaid Slayer.
In this episode
Hello. Welcome back to the dark side. I’m your host Brianna! Thank you for tuning in to the second episode of our Forest City series.
I want to start the show with a shoutout to 2 of my favourite, growing podcasts – Spoils of Horror and Horror House. These guys are seriously the best and they’ve been so supportive of Dark Adaptation and they’re all-around great dudes so please give their shows a listen. Horror House is great for a binge of classic true crime and macabre content. Dom is amazing, does good research, has funny little quips, it’s great. I love Horror House. Spoils of Horror is amazing, Steven and Leo are fucking hilarious.
Are you ready to dive into this week’s episode? Like last week, I’m giving a warning for this episode. 1) I’ll mention sexual assault and 2) and again, sources state slight variations with certain details, I’m reporting the details I saw reported most frequently.
Four years before The Bedroom Strangler, Russell Maurice Johnson, would take the life of his first victim, London had produced a serial murderer who committed equally heinous crimes, but never strayed from his MO and preferred victim type. Women employed as chambermaids were being stalked and murdered by a vicious, unknown assailant branching from London to Chatham in southwestern Ontario. This is the terrifying case of ‘The London Chambermaid Slayer’.
On February 3, 1969, 62-year-old Jane Wooley’s landlord made his way to her York Street lodging house because he hadn’t seen her for several days and he was waiting for an overdue rent payment. Upon arriving, she didn’t answer the door, so he entered her unit just after 1:30 p.m., and found Jane dead on the floor. He called the police and when the investigating officers arrived, it was apparent she had been dead for several days. She was lying on her back, barely clothed with only a pair of stockings on, and her face was covered with three pillows and a sweater. When investigators moved the pillows and sweater, they saw Jane had been severely beaten, and the cause of death was later determined to be a combination of blood loss and shock from the brutal fractures she sustained during the beating. The crime scene confirmed that her final moments were horrific. The telephone had been pulled off the receiver, her clothes were scattered everywhere, and her purse was found upside down on the floor with the contents strewn about with no sign of the cash she just received from her payday. Sadly, Jane’s pet budgie was also found dead in its cage. There was enough food and water to last the bird days, but it’s believed the bird died from the stress of losing its owner, and perhaps even witnessing her murder. Lastly, it seemed like whoever this man was, Jane had invited him inside her home because the ashtray on the coffee table was full of cigarette butts – some of them had Jane’s shade of lipstick on the filters, while the others did not.
Investigators tried piecing together Jane’s final movements.
On the afternoon of January 29th, Jane was last seen leaving the London House on Dundas Street where she worked as a part-time hotel chambermaid. She was done her shift, so she collected her pay from the owner and left. No one knows exactly where she went or what she did for the next several hours after leaving work because she was a very solitary person, and no one was expecting her anywhere. When Jane failed to show up for work the next morning, no one considered her whereabouts. The London House was a dive with shady lodgers and staff and the turnover rate was high, so it was assumed that she had quit without notice and her position was filled that day by one of the hotel bar’s regulars and neither her boss nor her co-workers gave Jane a second thought.
Next, investigators talked to a downstairs neighbour who reported hearing Jane’s voice through the vents saying words to the effect of “no, stop it” followed by a thud, but this only verified the evidence at the scene – that Jane invited the wrong man into her house and paid for it with her life. There were so many questions that needed answering: how was he able to earn the trust of a reclusive senior and be invited to her apartment? Where had their initial meeting occurred? When did they meet? How?
Sadly, investigators had nothing else to go on, these questions went unanswered, and the case went cold.
It was impossible for London Police to know that Jane Wooley was the first of a specific set of murders. Using Jane’s murder as his exemplar, the Chambermaid Slayer thought he had found himself an easy victim: poor, older women employed in the local low-rent hotel industry. The slayer saw these women as naïve, lonely, and trusting, and figured they were people nobody would look for.
A year and a half later, on the morning of September 5, 1970, friends of 57-year-old widow Edith Authier rolled up to her country house in Merlin to drive her to work at the William Pitt Hotel in the neighbouring town of Chatham, a city over an hour west of London, where she was employed as a chambermaid. Edith didn’t answer the door, so when her friends found the door was unlocked, they entered assuming she slept through her alarm, but her bed was empty. They called out her name and went looking around the house, where they eventually found her in the kitchen, lying face-up on the floor beside the table, the wainscotting by the body covered in blood spatter. A subsequent autopsy confirmed that Edith had been repeatedly stabbed and slashed in the chest and throat with two butcher knives taken from her own kitchen drawer. The autopsy also revealed that Edith had been bludgeoned with a nearby clothes iron left out from laundry day. It was during this brutal beating that Edith was sexually assaulted, knocked unconscious, and had perimortem knife wounds inflicted upon her to ensure that she never woke up. The scene was similar in its brutality to the murder of Jane Wooley in London nearly 2 years earlier, but Edith’s murder marked an evolution and escalation of the killer’s MO. These similarities between the victims and disorganized behaviour at both scenes confirmed that the Chambermaid Slayer was targeting women of a certain age and income bracket. Both victims were of similar stature and appearance, they were older females living alone; both were chambermaids in low-rent hotels; both were heavy drinkers and smokers; both had their purses emptied and money stolen in an act of post-mortem petty theft; and apparently both were willing to take a hotel guest back to their own home with them. There were only 2 differences – first, the killer was, unfortunately, able to complete his sexual attack on Edith, and second, Edith worked in Chatham, and very little of what happened there made its way east to London. This means no one who knew of Jane Wooley’s murder knew of Edith Authier’s murder, and the cases weren’t connected at the time.
Much like Jane Wooley, no one knows how or when the Slayer managed to earn the trust of Edith Authier. Investigators had no leads, no solid evidence, no eyewitnesses, and also like Jane’s case, Edith’s went cold.
This time, it was only 4 months later when the sadistic killer struck again.
Evidently comfortable with his new hunting grounds in Chatham, the Chambermaid Slayer walked into the Merrill Hotel in search of his next victim just before midnight on January 22, 1971.
The Merrill Hotel was an old-time inn where the bar was divided into 2 sides – one for men and one for women. 0’Seated on the ladies’ side with a male acquaintance was a 57-year-old hotel chambermaid named Belva Russell, who was just beginning her weekend off. When Belva got up to head to the bathroom she was followed down the dark hallway by another patron from the bar – the Slayer. What they may have discussed when he followed her to the bathroom is unknown. It’s also unknown if the two were previously acquainted or whether she was selected purely because he realized that night that she was a chambermaid, therefore, someone who perfectly fit his victim profile. The Slayer returned to the bar by himself a short time later and asked the bartender if he could move to the ladies’ side so that he could be closer to the cigarette machine. While the Slayer was sitting there alone, most likely plotting his next move, the hotel’s waiter, William Bezzo, had just finished his shift, so he pulled up a chair and introduced himself. The mysterious lone guest shook his hand and they chatted and drank together. The small talk they made would soon prove to be incredibly useful to investigators. The mysterious man said his name was Gerald Archer, he was married with a daughter, and they had recently moved to Adelaide Street South in Chatham because he just got a job as a forestry labourer – now known to be the most common semi-skilled occupation amongst male serial killers. At the time he had also been working as a highway tree cutter along Highway 401, the very highway that allowed many predators easy access between London and the surrounding towns. What Archer said next took William by surprise: “If she doesn’t smarten up, I’ll have to kill her.” A stunned William asked who “she” was, and it was made obvious to William that Archer was talking about Belva Russell, who was now back from the bathroom and seated a few tables over, laughing and having a good time with her acquaintance. William dismissed this comment as the typical drunk talk he heard from most of the hooligans that passed through the Merrill Hotel bar and decided to call it a night. But it shouldn’t have been dismissed, and for Archer, it wasn’t just talk.
It was 2:00 am when Reginald Tomlinson bumped into an unfamiliar man running down the stairwell of his Adelaide Street apartment building. Reginald composed himself and headed up to the apartment he shared with his common-law wife, Belva Russell. Upon entering, he discovered Belva’s severely battered body lying in a pool of blood on the dining room floor. Most of her clothes had been removed, which led investigators to assume that she had been killed during a struggle with an assailant who had attempted to sexually assault her. Identical to the murders of Jane Wooley and Edith Authier, Belva had also been aggressively beaten in the face, head, and neck, suffering multiple fractures and significant trauma.
After interviewing Reginald and retracing Belva’s final movements, Chatham detectives began their investigation at the bar at the Merrill Hotel. Once they talked with bartender William Bezzo, they got a description of their suspect and learned the name of who they believed was the Chambermaid Slayer – Gerald Archer, originally from London, but currently living in house Chatham just a few blocks away from Belva Russell’s apartment.
On February 12, 1971, Gerald Archer was picked up for questioning by Chatham Police. He was fingerprinted and placed in a lineup where Reginald Tomlinson was able to identify him as the mystery man that he ran into on the night of Belva’s murder.
As a result of overwhelming circumstantial evidence, Archer was charged with the murder of Belva Russell. Archer had exploited the area’s awkward assemblage of police jurisdictions and was never linked to or charged with the murders of Jane Wooley and Edith Authier. In just under two years, he had killed three women in three different locations and involved three different police departments. He managed to prey on victims whose deaths saw only limited media coverage. He knew from experience that the unsavoury hotels where he liked to go boozing employed aged housekeepers who he believed could be easily conned. He knew these women would often tolerate the risk of taking a stranger home in exchange for a little company. He used cruel and sadistic ruses, but in spite of the obvious pattern in victimology, a lack of tangible evidence at the time meant that he was only ever charged with the murder of his final victim, Belva Russell. Archer’s trial began in June 1971, in Kent County. The jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to life in prison, but Archer knew he had beaten the system because a life sentence isn’t actually a life sentence in Canada. The disgusting ghoul was taken out of the courtroom screaming, “That’s only the first strike against me! The ball game isn’t over yet!”
He had killed three women but had only been caught for one, and his metaphorical bravado was more literal than anyone realized at the time.
So, who is this ghoul? All we know is this:
Gerald Thomas Archer was born in London, Ontario in 1932 and by 1950 he had a criminal record for offenses that included robbery, breaking and entering, and possession. He began corresponding with a woman named Mary in 1966 and met her in person in December 1967. The two got married eleven days after they officially met and moved to Merlin, the same town Edith was murdered in. They lived in Merlin until October 1970, a month after Edith’s death, then moved to Adelaide Street South in Chatham, blocks away from where Belva Russell lived.
Since life imprisonment doesn’t mean you spend your life behind bars, Archer was paroled in 1985 at the age of 53 or 54 and walked out a free man with only one condition: he was never to go back to the places where his murderous actions took place. He spent the next 10 years as a nomad, drifting from town to town throughout Ontario and staying in many of the low-rent dives where he used to go roaming for his victims. During those 10 years, there is no evidence that he ever harmed another chambermaid or anyone else. In 1995, at the age of 63 or 64, Archer died of heart failure, alone and penniless, and was buried in a potter’s field after his remains went unclaimed. But he wouldn’t stay in the ground for long.
After his death, Archer’s estranged wife and daughter went to the police and explained that more than two decades earlier Archer had confessed to killing Edith Authier. The spontaneous admission attributed more to boasting than confessing, had been made after a story about Edith’s murder had been published in a local newspaper and Archer had a few drinks in him. Like William Bezzo at the Merrill Hotel, his wife and daughter had initially dismissed the confession as a drunken cry for attention. Once Archer was convicted for the murder of Belva Russell they thought he could be the Chambermaid Slayer but had been too afraid to mention anything sooner. When they finally came forward, they mentioned having heard about something called the DNA Identification Act and new techniques that could help solve cold cases. They were right.
Investigators and scientists had been looking at London as a natural starting point for using new advancements with respect to genetic profiling. The successes of the Human Genome Project were the driving force behind a combined effort to clear the backlog of unsolved sex crimes and murders from the city’s past. Project Angel was a task force that consisted of the London Police and the OPP. They were assigned to the ground-breaking, high-profile initiative of exploring new DNA technology, and they delivered when it came to testing a particular DNA sample.
In 2000, five years after Archer’s death, a disinterment order was made, his body was exhumed, and tissue samples were taken to be compared to the crime scene samples from both the Jane Wooley and Edith Authier murders. While the Chambermaid Slayer had apparently confessed to killing 57-year-old Edith Authier, the way in which the crime scene was processed, and the evidence mishandled made it impossible to determine if Archer was involved in her murder. The murder of Jane Wooley was a different story. It turned out that DNA from one of the cigarettes without lipstick collected from the ashtray in her apartment was conclusively shown to belong to Archer. It was now strike 2 – and after nearly thirty years, the identity of “The Chambermaid Slayer” had finally been resolved. While technically Edith Authier’s murder is unsolved since it could never definitively be credited to Archer, the detailed anecdotal evidence about his confession and all other factors linking her murder to him have led investigators to consider the case closed, making it, finally, strike 3 for The London Chambermaid Slayer.
And that, my lovely listeners, is the story of Jane Wooley, Edith Authier, Belva Russell, and the gross ghoulish Gerald Thomas Archer.
Thank you everyone for tuning in this week. Be sure to visit our website, darkadaptationpodcast.ca where you can support the show by buying us a coffee if your lovely little hearts desire, follow us on Instagram @darkadaptationpodcast, share the show with the spooky bitches in your life, listen to Spoils of Horror, and Horror House. Thank you for the support and kind words, and we’ll catch you on the dark side.