Grace Blackaller was born in 1909 and murdered on 9 April 1925. She was a sixteen-year-old amateur dancer who loved going to the cinema. Her murderer was her boyfriend, Ernest Rhodes, aged nineteen. Grace’s murder provided tabloid fodder for about two weeks in April 1925 and has since been completely forgotten. The murder of women by their partners sadly remains so commonplace that it is still treated as ‘normal’. In Grace’s case, newspapers were also quick to suggest her own behaviour was somehow at fault.
The newspaper reports immediately after the murder, which are reasonably sympathetic to Grace, hint at a family set-up that is not straightforward. Grace lived in a lodging in Nevern Square, a few minutes from Earls’ Court tube station; according to her landlady she had lived there for four years so since they age of 12. Her mother, however, lived on Challoner Street, which is on the other side of Warwick Road near West Kensington tube. Both locations are about a 15- minute walk apart.
It was on the corner of Challoner Street that Grace was attacked on that Thursday evening. She managed to get to her mother’s doorstep where ‘Her mother found her on the doorstep of her flat with a wound in her throat. Miss Blackaller could only mumble “a man attacked me” and died in hospital without revealing the secret of her murderer’s identity or any detail of the attack.”
The mystery of the attack was sufficient for a number of tabloids to give the story front-page news, and to include a picture of Grace with the reports as well. Grace’s landlady told the Daily Mirror that Grace was working as a dressmaker and a dance teacher, and although ‘she went out a great deal at night to dances and things’ this was ‘like most girls these days’ and Grace had ‘never seen (…) with a boy.’ The Express printed a similar line, that ‘Miss Blackaller was not known to be on friendly terms with any particular man.’ In these initial reports, when it is assumed that the attack was conducted by a random stranger, Grace’s behaviour is represented as normal for the period and no moral judgements are made about her.
The newspapers only changed their tune about Grace when the story developed further, and a murderer came forward. Press reports no longer presented Grace as a wholesome girl who had fallen victim to a random attack when it became apparent that Grace had been killed by her boyfriend, Ernest. Ernest turned himself in to the police on 11 April, when he read in the newspaper that Grace had died – he claimed that he had thought he only injured her.
According to his account, on the 9th of April the couple went to the Blue Hall Cinema in Ravenscourt Park. They got back to West Kensington at about 11pm, and Ernest walked Grace home. Ernest thought his girlfriend had been stringing him along, and he suspected her of seeing other boys. When she did not take his concerns seriously, he took a razor from his pocket and slashed her throat while they were kissing.
This revelation changed the press’s coverage of the case. Sympathy for the ‘pretty young dancer who was fond of gaiety’ gave way to concerns about young girls’ ‘double lives.’ At the final day of the inquest, the coroner read out a letter he had received from a concerned citizen. According to the coroner, the letter expressed ‘common-sense views,’ including the notion that girl murder victims ‘were forward minxes and made advances to young men, stayed out late at night, frequented cinemas and dance places, and had evidently been allowed to run loose.’ Suddenly, the previous reports that Grace’s interests in dancing and cinema were normal for girls her age, were inverted to suggest that the fact that these habits were normal was an indication of a moral and social problem.
The text of the letter was uncritically reprinted in several daily newspapers. The Director of the Liverpool Women’s Patrol stated publicly that she agreed with the letter-writer’s assessment of young girls’ lives. The coroner’s decision to read out this letter during the inquest demonstrates that it was accepted that he would have an opinion on the moral aspects of the case as well as on forensic facts.
The opinion of a single member of the public was presented by the coroner as the belief of the general public, and its subsequent endorsement by the conservative press cemented it as the commonly held view. According to a contemporary journalism trade journal, voicing concerns about the modern girl sold newspapers in the interwar period the way a sensational murder sold them before the First World War.  In the reporting on Grace Blakaller, the popular press had managed to combine both ingredients into a successful multi-part story which reaffirmed that it was safer for a woman to stay at home and not have romantic relationships.
To further demonstrate how deeply the narrative that Grace was at fault for her own plight was embedded, these were Ernest Rhodes’ lawyer’s comments when Rhodes was committed for trial: ‘without eliminating the question of provocation, (…) my defence will be – and I shall call on the highest medical evidence to support it – that he [Rhodes] did not know the nature and quality of the act or that, if he did know, he did not know he was doing wrong.’
In other words, the first line of defence was that Grace provoked Ernest, which, it was implied, would diminish his culpability. The second line was that Rhodes did not know that running a razor across someone’s throat could lead to that person dying; and the third line was that Rhodes did not realise that committing an act of violence was wrong. It was this final argument that would be successful; Rhodes was committed to an asylum rather than prison and was released for good behaviour in 1933.
Again, the press reporting partially paved the way for this, as Rhodes was described as ‘a boy with rather a lot of peculiarities’ who was ‘constantly talking about Norman Thorne’ – a young man who had killed his girlfriend in December 1924 and who was awaiting his execution in April 1925. Obsession with a killer was presented as a sign of insanity which, in combination with the narrative that had been constructed around Grace’s ‘provocative’ lifestyle, allowed Rhodes’ legal counsel to mount a successful defence. The daily press was instrumental in influencing the public’s opinion about this case which limited public sympathy for Grace and painted her as culpable for her own murder.
You can read more about Grace Blackaller in my book, Interwar London after Dark in British Popular Culture.
 Except by amateur historians and true crime enthusiasts who have pored over the story on internet fora
 ‘Murdered Girl: Woman’s Story’, Daily Mirror, 11 April 1925, p. 15
 ‘Dance Girl Murdered in London’, Daily Express, 11 April 1925, p. 1
 ‘Murdered Girl: Woman’s Story’
 ‘Girl Murdered in London’, Daily Express, 11 April 1925, p. 7
 ‘Dead Girl Dancer: Story of Youth’s Written Confession’, Daily Mirror, 14 April 1925, p. 2
 ‘Murdered Girl: Woman’s Story’; ‘Double-Life Girls’, Daily Express, 23 April 1925, p. 2
 ‘Dancing Girl’s Death’, The Times, 23 April 1925, p. 14; ‘Dead Dancer: Boy For Trial’, Daily Mirror, 23 April 1925, p. 21; ‘Double-Life Girls’.
 ‘Girls’ Double Lives’, Daily Mirror, 24 April 1925, p. 2
 Newspaper World, April 1927, as quoted in Adrian Bingham, Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 48
 ‘Dance Girl Drama’, Daily Mirror, 29 April 1925, p. 2