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What the Psychic Saw
Tuesday, 8 April 1941. Madam Nerva led Rachel Dobkin into the living room of her small house on Underwood Road. Although it was a bright spring afternoon, the blackout curtains were drawn across the window. Madam Nerva motioned to a table and told Rachel to have a seat. A solitary candle in the centre of the table cast flickering patterns on the wall and bathed the room in a pallid light. Rachel sat down and anxiously drummed the tabletop with her fingers. For two years she'd been coming to see Madam Nerva for her special brand of guidance.
'Can you tell me something?' Rachel asked, watching the candle's flame replicate itself in the glass beads around Madam Nerva's neck.
'Give me an item,' the psychic said, 'and I'll try and get through.'
Rachel removed her wedding ring and slid it across the table. Madam Nerva traced the ring's circumference with a delicate forefinger before picking it up and gently pressing it between her palms. She mumbled quietly to herself, her brow creased in concentration as she gently rocked back and forth in her seat. Her eyes rolled under heavy lids, revealing just the whites. In her self-induced trance, Madam Nerva was no longer sitting at her living room table, but standing in a vast, grey empty space. In front of her, two forms slowly took shape: one was Rachel Dobkin; the other a building, its features not entirely distinguishable. An open door materialised in the building's façade and seemed to beckon Rachel Dobkin in. No sooner had Rachel passed through the entrance, it disappeared, trapping her inside. Madam Nerva shook herself partially free of the trance and returned to her physical self.
'You are worried and full of trouble,' she said, eyeing Rachel across the table. 'You are planning to go on a journey in a few days to meet someone. Don't go – leave it to the spirit friends and stay where you are. I see sadness for you. Will you promise you will not go?'
'I promise I won't go,' Rachel said, although she was supposed to meet her estranged husband on Friday to collect some money. Madam Nerva returned Rachel's wedding ring and urged her to simply stay at home. Rachel, sliding the ring back on her finger, said she would. She thanked Madam Nerva for her time and said she would come back the following week for another reading. The psychic saw Rachel to the front door and watched her walk down the small garden path, knowing she would never see the young woman again. Indeed, eight days later she answered a knock on her door to Polly Dubinski, a woman who introduced herself as Rachel Dobkin's sister.
'Mrs Nerva,' the woman said, 'my sister was here on Tuesday. You told her not to go see her husband, and she went – she hasn't returned yet. Could you go into a trance and tell me about her?'
Madam Nerva, first name Hilda, ushered Polly in and led her to the sitting room. She asked Polly if she'd brought any personal item belonging to Rachel, something she might touch to establish a psychic connection. Polly opened her handbag and retrieved a scarf and a jumper that Rachel had worn recently. As she handed them over, she told Madam Nerva she'd last seen Rachel at 4.30 on the afternoon of Good Friday, 11 April. Polly said she had filed a missing person's report at the Commercial Street Police Station the following day after her sister failed to return home. The on-duty sergeant took the report and entered the details on page 347 of the Metropolitan Police Department's 'Persons Missing Book'. Rachel had gone off wearing a fawn tweed coat with brown fur collar, a blue woollen jumper, two woollen cardigans – one dark blue and the other light blue – a navy blue skirt, black shoes and a brown hat. Madam Nerva said nothing and simply ran her hands over the scarf and jumper, which she laid across her lap. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the texture of the fabrics against her skin.
'I went into a full trance,' she later told investigators, 'and felt very funny.'
In her entranced state, Madam Nerva saw Rachel Dobkin standing alongside a stretch of river that wound its way through an open field. On whatever plain the two had made contact, Rachel failed to acknowledge Madam Nerva's presence. The psychic did, however, note that Rachel 'looked sad' and watched as the missing woman stared forlornly into the water rushing past. Observing the scene, Madam Nerva felt a tightening sensation around her neck, as though some invisible force were attempting to crush her windpipe. She struggled against the impending sense of suffocation, but to no avail. Gasping for breath, she shook herself free of the trance and returned to the more natural surroundings of her sitting room, where Polly Dubinski sat crying beside her. The distraught woman told the psychic what she had said in the trance about 'a strangling or choking sensation'.
'I may be wrong,' Madam Nerva said, handing back the scarf and the jumper, 'so come and see a medium who is a friend of mine.'
The two women paid a visit to Lydia Kain, a self-proclaimed 'spiritualist' who lived at 77 Luken Street, Commercial Road. A cleaning woman by trade at a chemist's office in London, Lydia had in recent years discovered her supposed ability to converse with the dead. She had developed her skills under Madam Nerva's tutelage after a chance meeting five years earlier at a West End séance. Like her mentor, Lydia described herself as 'a woman who can go into a trance, and when in this state, the spirits speak to me'. Unlike Madam Nerva, however, Lydia did not believe in capitalising on her gift, communicating with the spirit world only when close friends sought her advice. Now, on this Monday afternoon, Madam Nerva introduced the visibly distraught Polly Dubinski and asked Lydia if she'd attempt contacting 'the spirits' to ascertain Rachel Dobkin's whereabouts.
Lydia agreed and took the scarf and jumper from Polly. She closed her eyes and tightly clutched the garments. When she declared several minutes later that 'bad vibrations' were preventing her from establishing meaningful contact, Madam Nerva suggested Lydia try her luck with Polly's pearl necklace. Lydia took the pearls and draped them around her fingers. Again, she closed her eyes and almost seemed to drift off.
'There is a passing out,' she said in a thick voice. 'A sudden death.'
She opened her eyes and sat staring momentarily at some distant point only she could see. She handed the pearls back to Polly and said that while in the trance, she had been overwhelmed by a 'choking sensation'. Polly, weeping, gathered her belongings, bid the two mediums a good afternoon and left the house in a hurry. Madam Nerva, also clearly upset, thanked Lydia for her time and returned home.
'After that,' Madam Nerva later told investigators, 'one afternoon, I was lying down and I saw Rachel and I started to cry, as she looked so sad. She didn't give me a message, but just looked at me. Then I went to sleep.'
Fearing for her sister's wellbeing, Polly Dubinski returned to the Commercial Street Police Station at 5 o'clock on the evening of Tuesday, 15 April, and said her sister's estranged husband, Harry Dobkin, was responsible for Rachel's disappearance. She said Rachel had planned to meet Dobkin the day she vanished.
'She said that Harry had promised to give her a pound of onions as a present,' Polly explained, adding that she had little faith in her one-time brother-in-law. 'My sister's husband has been very cruel to her. She has received severe blows from him at different times and for the past few years has been unable to follow any employment on account of the treatment she received.'
Polly recounted one episode in particular when Rachel 'received a blow on her head from her husband in the street, when she met him'. The incident, having occurred four months ago, resulted in Rachel being hospitalised. 'This blow caused her to have a mental lapse,' Polly said. 'Shortly afterwards, we – her family – received a message from the police at Commercial Street to the effect that she was in St Clements Hospital, Bow. I went to this hospital ... and seeing that it was a mental hospital and that my sister was perfectly sane, made an application for her release.'
It was unlike Rachel to simply run off and not tell anyone of her whereabouts, Polly said. So there would be no room for doubt, she told the on-duty sergeant she believed Harry Dobkin 'had some hand in Rachel's disappearance'.
The sergeant asked Polly if she'd ever heard Dobkin make threats against her sister.
'He has never threatened my sister in my presence,' Polly said, 'although he has frequently spoken very badly of her. I cannot say anything definite against him, but I do feel he knows something about her disappearance. None of the family have seen him since my sister disappeared.'
The sergeant typed up Polly's statement and had her sign it in front of Divisional Detective Inspector A. Davis of City Road Station, 'G' Division, who assumed the role of lead investigator. Davis escorted Polly out and offered her a few words of assurance before returning to his desk. His immediate thoughts didn't swing in any particular direction. In the chaos of a city at war, missing persons were hardly uncommon. Going by Polly Dubinski's statement, it seemed there was little incentive for the unemployed and routinely abused Rachel to stay in London. True, she had a son – but the lad, according to Polly, was now 19 and had recently registered for military service. Nevertheless, standard enquiries would be made at all London hospitals and casualty wards. Detectives would review air raid casualty lists, and a photograph of the missing woman would be forwarded to the Central Air Raid Casualty Bureau. In the meantime, Davis would focus his attention on the missing woman's estranged husband. He would have him brought in the following morning for questioning.
Night came and the lights went out. War Reserve Constable Charles Moore patrolled No. 16 beat that evening, covering Kennington Lane, Vauxhall Street, Black Prince Road and various side streets. Shortly after 2 in the morning, he noticed a red glow casting buildings far down Vauxhall Street in silhouette. He ran in the direction of what he immediately knew to be a fire and, at the junction of Vauxhall and Kennington Lane, saw flames clawing at the sides of a church. Moore broke the glass and pulled the bar of a nearby fire alarm. Joined by War Reserve Constable Alfred Remant, Moore ran toward the burning building and tried to gain entrance. As the two officers pulled boards from the bomb-damaged windows, they were approached by a stout, round-faced man, wearing a dark grey suit and a trilby hat.
'Come this way gentlemen, if you want to get in,' he said.
Moore assumed the man was the firewatcher assigned to the premises but failed to ask given the situation's urgency. The man led the constables around to the side of the building and approached what appeared to be two large garage doors, which he swung open with little effort.
'I'm glad you've come,' he said. 'What a blaze this is!'
The constables followed the man through the doors into a large room that appeared to be a storage space for various ledgers and deed boxes. The three men ran past rows of neatly organised boxes and leather-bound folders before passing through another set of doors, which opened onto the back of the church. It was immediately apparent to Moore there was nothing he could do. The flames had by now devoured the boards nailed across the windows. Thick columns of black smoke climbed skyward; from inside the church, came the sound of breaking timber. Along the front of the building, on Kennington Lane, members of the Auxiliary Fire Service attacked the blaze with their hoses. All Constable Moore could do was watch.
Police notified Herbert Burgess, the church's minister, shortly after 5 that morning. Burgess left his home in Montford Place and arrived at the church within the hour to inspect the damage. He entered the building through a small door that faced out onto St Oswald's Place and noticed a still-smouldering stack of charred wood lying on the floor. The church's schoolroom was separated from a larger room in the back of the church by a wooden partition, which, along with two American-made organs, had been completely incinerated.
Burgess said nothing as he stepped over the charred wood-and-brass remnants of the organs and moved into what had been the church's recreation room, built directly over the cellar. The fire had burned two large holes through the floor: one adjacent to where the gas fireplace had been, the other along the base of the wall of the main chapel area. Although no fire expert, it appeared to Burgess that flames had burned through the floor from underneath.
Curious, he made his way down to the cellar and saw a straw mattress lying in the middle of the floor. It was evident someone had ripped the mattress open using a sharp instrument; a small pile of heavily singed straw lay beside the mattress. Burgess had never seen the mattress before and guessed some individual had dragged it from one of the bombed-out houses nearby. The great oak beams directly above the mattress, which supported the floor of the chapel, were severely burned, arousing the minister's suspicions that the fire had been deliberately set. Wood panelling on the walls and floor was also charred; a portion of ceiling in the right-hand corner of the cellar had collapsed and caved in the floorboards. At 11 that morning – Wednesday, 16 April – Burgess paid a visit to the Fire Brigade Headquarters at Albert Embankment to find out what he could regarding the blaze. The cause of the fire, he was told, remained under investigation.
A short, round-faced gentleman with a thick neck and squat build, 47year-old Harry Dobkin was brought in for questioning that afternoon, picked up by detectives at his home in Navarino Road. He came along without protest, not once expressing any concern at being summoned by the police. In the interrogation room at Commercial Street Police Station, he appeared totally indifferent to his surroundings. Davis entered the room, pulled up a chair and introduced himself by name and rank. He said he was making enquiries into the disappearance of Rachel Dobkin. The mentioning of his wife's name did nothing to alter Harry Dobkin's calm façade. The affable smile stayed in place without so much as a quiver and he willingly provided information when Davis began his questioning. He readily admitted to living a life of quiet desperation. Like his father before him, Dobkin worked a market stall, selling leather aprons and pockets. When the war arrived, business dried up. Only two weeks earlier, to supplement his diminished income, Dobkin had taken a job as a night watchman and fire-spotter – a job not intended for timid individuals.
Come nightfall, the bombers arrived and gutted great swathes of the city. The mournful wail of air-raid sirens warned of the coming devastation and dragged weary Londoners from their beds. They retreated to their garden shelters, or sought solace in the Underground, crowding the platforms, stairways, corridors and escalators, listening to the thunderous cannonade above. While others scurried for shelter, Dobkin – and the city's 3,500 fire spotters – did their best to direct emergency services to the flames. Even before the first bombs fell, London's skyline changed as observation towers appeared atop the tallest buildings. Each evening at 7 o'clock, Dobkin reported to the Vauxhall Baptist Church at 302 Kennington Lane. The schoolroom at the rear of the church was being used by a London-based firm of solicitors to store legal documents, and it was Dobkin's responsibility to ensure the place did not burn down in the event of a raid. German bombs had blasted the church and surrounding areas on the night of 4 October 1940, killing 100 people. The church, miraculously, had not caught fire – but the night before Dobkin was brought in for questioning, a freak blaze had broken out in the chapel.
His nocturnal duties aside, Dobkin was less than thrilled with his domestic situation. He had married Rachel Dubinski at Bethnal Green Synagogue on 5 September 1920. 'The marriage was arranged in the Jewish fashion by a marriage broker,' he said, 'and has been a failure from the start.'
The couple took up residence in a small flat in Brady Street, a location Dobkin thought was too far from his place of business. His insistence that they move resulted in a separation after only three days together. The 27-year-old Dobkin moved into his mother and father's house on Flower and Dean Street, leaving Rachel the Brady Street flat. The landlord, taking pity on Rachel, allowed her to live there rent-free. After three tumultuous months of matrimony, the couple agreed to a legal separation. Rachel Dobkin appeared before a magistrate at Old Street Police Court and secured a maintenance order against her husband for £1 a week.
'I have never had much at that rate,' Dobkin said, 'and got in arrears and was sent to prison. The order has been varied from time to time and at present stands at 10s per week. At the present time, I am not in arrears.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dark City"
Copyright © 2019 Simon Read.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 What the Psychic Saw,
2 A Skeleton in the Cellar,
3 Murder in the Dark,
4 A Secret Life,
5 Secrets to the Grave,
6 The Luton Sack Murder,
7 Dreams of Molls and Mobsters,
8 The Cleft-Chin Murder,
9 A Body of Lies,
10 The Killer Inside,
11 The Man Downstairs,
12 An Innocent Man,
13 The Vanishing,
14 Acid and Blood,
15 Body of Evidence,
Bibliography and Sources,
About the Author,