Dernière Chanson: Harry Fragson Et La Belle Époque

The toast of Edwardian London and Paris, as 1913 drew to a close, Harry Fragson looked forward to his continuing reign as the leading man of European music hall, his thrilling stage performances, wax cylinder song recordings and even a starring role in the 1912 film, Entente Cordiale having won him a legion of admirers on both sides of the Channel, including King Edward VII. But like the peace Europe had enjoyed for nearly half a century, Fragson’s life was foreshadowed by impending catastrophe.

Léon Philippe Pott was born in Soho, London, on 2nd July 1869, to a Belgian yeast merchant, Victor Pott, and his French wife, Leontine. Dashing his father’s hopes that he would follow him into the yeast business, from an early age Léon displayed an extraordinary ability for writing and performing songs, learning to play the piano in London before studying music in Antwerp. Coupled with brilliant comic timing and, as one friend described, ‘a mobile face’ and ‘a spiritual eye,’ the era’s immensely popular music halls beckoned as the most obvious outlet for Léon’s outstanding talent.

Yet Léon struggled to find fame and consequently changed his name to the more English sounding, Harry ‘Fragson,’ a play on the words ‘frog’s son,’ and a humorous nod to his continental roots. After performing at Le Chat Noir in Paris, Fragson’s career gained the boost it deserved after he met the revered café chantant entertainer, Paulus, who took the aspiring star under his wing. Discovering a particular gift for mimicry, Fragson learnt to imitate Paulus and other respected chanteurs, which brought him to the attention of French audiences. Adapting his act accordingly, whilst in England, Fragson  portrayed himself as the archetypal music hall comedian and became associated with pantomime, through his appearances in a 1905 performance of Cinderella in Drury Lane, Sinbad the following year, and Babes in the Wood in 1907. In France, however, he was known as a singer of sophisticated and romantic songs, with titles such as Amours Fragiles, Tendresses d’ Amant and Dernière Chanson. Written by Fragson in 1911, the Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso was so captivated by Dernière Chanson’s refrain, the he called one of his own works, Ma Jolie, in homage to it.

Above: A recording of Harry Fragson singing Dernière Chanson (1911)

Continue reading

A Hopeless Dawn: Mary Jane Kelly’s Last Day

‘You would look in vain now for Dorset Street. It is still there, but under another name,’ wrote Inspector Walter Dew one of the first police officers to see the horrifically mutilated corpse of Jack the Ripper’s last canonical victim, Mary Jane Kelly. The sight of Kelly’s body, found lying on her bed in her dingy room in Miller’s Court, an offshoot of Dorset Street, was so terrible that Dew never forgot it, reliving the discovery in graphic detail in his 1938 memoir. By  1904, in an attempt to distance the street from its grisly past, it had been renamed Duval Street and by the 1920s, a great many of the slums and doss houses that once dominated it had been demolished, including Miller’s Court. Now a nameless alley running between a modern car park and several large warehouses, few who walk there would ever suspect that the ground beneath their feet was once ‘the worst street in London.’

And what of the young woman whose violent end was met in that dark, grimy little room there, where misery was ‘written all over the place’ and ‘depths below the lowest deep’ were plumbed? We still have no idea who killed her and why, nor do we know for certain who she was either. Known variously as ‘Black Mary,’ ‘Ginger’ and ‘Fair Emma,’ in spite of the tireless and exhaustive efforts of Ripperologists, such as the late Chris Scott, we know as little about her as her contemporaries and confirming even simple details like her hair colour, height and more importantly, her name, has proved to be somewhat problematic. The information we do have, comes to us almost exclusively via her last lover, Joseph Barnett, and has been almost impossible to verify. Census records and official documents have failed to yield any conclusive results.

According to Barnett, Mary Jane Kelly was 25 years of age at the time of her death, which would make her year of birth 1862 or 1863. She was born in Limerick, but moved to Camarthenshire at the age of 6 after her father, John Kelly, found employment at an ironworks there. Kelly came from a large Catholic family, with six brothers and one sister; one elder brother, Henry, nicknamed ‘Johnto’ (although she may have meant that he was called John ‘too,’ like her father) was in the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards. When she was 16, Kelly married a Welsh collier called Davies, who was tragically killed in a mining accident three years later. Early reports after her death suggested that Kelly may have had a child with Davies, but such claims were unsubstantiated and Barnett made no mention of them. Following the death of her husband, Kelly moved to Cardiff to live with her cousin, and after a severe illness landed her in an infirmary for several months, she turned to prostitution to support herself. In 1884, she left Cardiff for London, a decision that would lead to her untimely death.

To begin with, her fresh-face and comely figure helped Kelly find work at a West End brothel, but her fondness for drink was incompatible with her continued employment there. Nevertheless, Barnett recalled how Kelly was apparently much sought after during time at the West End ‘gay house’ and had even accompanied one gentleman on a trip to Paris where she lived the life of ‘a lady,’ she returned after only a few weeks but adopted the name ‘Marie Jeanette,’ as a remnant of her brief time in France.

Continue reading

Monster Of Cinkota: The Murders Of Béla Kiss

Recoiling in horror, the terrified man ran to police station – believing a large tin drum in the yard of Béla Kiss’s house to contain gasoline, he had punctured it, but it hid a dark secret, one which were it not for the harsh realities of war, might never have come to light. As soon as he had pierced the tin, the overpowering stench of decaying flesh hit him and he recognised it at once as the scent of death.

Detective Chief Károly Nagy was the first senior police officer to arrive at the scene, and would take charge of the ensuing investigation. Tentatively, he removed the drum’s lid and his fears were realised as soon as he saw the partially preserved naked body of a young women, her long dark hair wrapped around her face as a shroud. There were six more drums – each one containing the corpse of another woman whose life had been violently ended. Forensic evidence showed that they had been strangled with a rope and, even more disturbingly, not only had their bodies been drained of blood, puncture wounds were found on their necks, a fact that evoked fears of vampirism.

A further search of the house and garden uncovered another seventeen bodies, all young women. For Nagy it was a now a question of finding out why and more importantly, who was responsible for these appalling murders. After alerting the military and issuing a warrant for an arrest, Nagy was told that Béla Kiss, had recently died of typhoid in a Serbian military hospital. Whether Kiss really had succumbed to the illness was the subject of much speculation and rumours of his true whereabouts continued for the next twenty years. What is certain is that he was never brought to justice for the shocking crimes of which he was accused.

Four years earlier in 1912, Kiss, a strikingly handsome man of about forty with piercing blue eyes that all those who recalled him commented upon, had moved to Cinkota then a separate town which eventually became a suburb of Budapest in the 1950s. Kiss worked as a tinsmith, and there are conflicting reports as to whether he arrived in Cinkota alone or accompanied by his much younger wife, Marie. Some say his wife soon left him, for a local man named Paul Bikari, and that Kiss reported her as missing in December 1912. Others claimed that he was a bachelor who enjoyed the company of a string of glamorous women, either way it seems that Kiss’s personal life remains as much a mystery as what finally became of him. By all accounts Kiss was a remarkably intelligent and cultured man who was well liked in Cinkota, yet gossips claimed that his frequent trips to Budapest were to visit the city’s brothels. Continue reading