Friday, August 3, 2012

Charles Peace

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“Charles Peace, or the Adventures of a Notorious Burglar,” a large volume published at the time of his death, gives a full and accurate account of the career of Peace side by side with a story of the Family Herald type, of which he is made the hero. “The Life and Trial of Charles Peace” (Sheffield, 1879), “The Romantic Career of a Great Criminal” (by N. Kynaston Gaskell, London 1906), and “The Master Criminal,” published recently in London give useful information. I have also consulted some of the newspapers of the time. There is a delightful sketch of Peace in Mr. Charles Whibley’s “Book of Scoundrels.”
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I. HIS EARLY YEARS
Charles Peace told a clergyman who had an interview with him in prison shortly before his execution that he hoped that, after he was gone, he would be entirely forgotten by everybody and his name never mentioned again.
Posterity, in calling over its muster-roll of famous men, has refused to fulfil this pious hope, and Charley Peace stands out as the one great personality among English criminals of the nineteenth century. In Charley Peace alone is revived that good- humoured popularity which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fell to the lot of Claude Duval, Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard. But Peace has one grievance against posterity; he has endured one humiliation which these heroes have been spared. His name has been omitted from the pages of the “Dictionary of National Biography.” From Duval, in the seventeenth, down to the Mannings, Palmer, Arthur Orton, Morgan and Kelly, the bushrangers, in the nineteenth century, many a criminal, far less notable or individual than Charley Peace, finds his or her place in that great record of the past achievements of our countrymen. Room has been denied to perhaps the greatest and most naturally gifted criminal England has produced, one whose character is all the more remarkable for its modesty, its entire freedom from that vanity and vain-gloriousness so common among his class.
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The only possible reason that can be suggested for so singular an omission is the fact that in the strict order of alphabetical succession the biography of Charles Peace would have followed immediately on that of George Peabody. It may have been thought that the contrast was too glaring, that even the exigencies of national biography had no right to make the philanthropist Peabody rub shoulders with man’s constant enemy, Peace. To the memory of Peace these few pages can make but poor amends for the supreme injustice, but, by giving a particular and authentic account of his career, they may serve as material for the correction of this grave omission should remorse overtake those responsible for so undeserved a slur on one of the most unruly of England’s famous sons.
From the literary point of view Peace was unfortunate even in the hour of his notoriety. In the very year of his trial and execution, the Annual Register, seized
with a fit of respectability from which it has never recovered, announced that “the appetite for the strange and marvellous” having considerably abated since the year 1757 when the Register was first published, its “Chronicle,” hitherto a rich mine of extraordinary and sensational occurrences, would become henceforth a mere diary of important events. Simultaneously with the curtailment of its “Chronicle,” it ceased to give those excellent summaries of celebrated trials which for many years had been a feature of its volumes. The question whether “the appetite for the strange and marvellous” has abated in an appreciable degree with the passing of time and is not perhaps keener than it ever was, is a debatable one. But it is undeniable that the present volumes of the Annual Register have fallen away dismally from the variety and human interest of their predecessors. Of the trial and execution of Peace the volume for 1879 gives but the barest record.
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Charles Peace was not born of criminal parents. His father, John Peace, began work as a collier at Burton-on-Trent. Losing his leg in an accident, he joined Wombwell’s wild beast show and soon acquired some reputation for his remarkable powers as a tamer of wild animals. About this time Peace married at Rotherham the daughter of a surgeon in the Navy. On the death of a favourite son to whom he had imparted successfully the secrets of his wonderful control over wild beasts of every kind, Mr. Peace gave up lion-taming and settled in Sheffield as a shoemaker.
It was at Sheffield, in the county of Yorkshire, already famous in the annals of crime as the county of John Nevison and Eugene Aram, that Peace first saw the light. On May 14, 1832, there was born to John Peace in Sheffield a son, Charles, the youngest of his family of four. When he grew to boyhood Charles was sent to two schools near Sheffield, where he soon made himself remarkable, not as a scholar, but for his singular aptitude in a variety of other employments such as making paper models, taming cats, constructing a peep-show, and throwing up a heavy ball of shot which he would catch in a leather socket fixed on to his forehead.
The course of many famous men’s lives has been changed by what appeared at the time to be an unhappy accident. Who knows what may have been the effect on Charles Peace’s subsequent career of an accident he met with in 1846 at some rolling mills, in which he was employed? A piece of red hot steel entered his leg just below the knee, and after eighteen months spent in the Sheffield Infirmary he left it a cripple for life. About this time Peace’s father died. Peace and his family were fond of commemorating events of this kind in suitable verse; the death of John Peace was celebrated in the following lines:
“In peace he lived; In peace he died; Life was our desire, But God denied.”
Of the circumstances that first led Peace to the commission of crime we know nothing. How far enforced idleness, bad companionship, according to some accounts the influence of a criminally disposed mother, how far his own daring and adventurous temper provoked him to robbery, cannot be determined accurately. His first exploit was the stealing of an old gentleman’s gold watch, but he soon passed to greater things. On October 26, 1851, the house of a lady living in Sheffield was broken into and a quantity of her property stolen. Some of it was found in the possession of Peace, and he was arrested. Owing no doubt to a good character for honesty given him by his late employer Peace was let off lightly with a month’s imprisonment.
After his release Peace would seem to have devoted himself for a time to music, for which he had always a genuine passion. He taught himself to play tunes on a violin with one string, and at entertainments which he attended was described as “the modern Paganini.” In later life when he had attained to wealth and prosperity the violin and the harmonium were a constant source of solace during long winter evenings in Greenwich and Peckham. But playing a one-stringed violin at fairs and public-houses could not be more than a relaxation to a man of Peace’s active temper, who had once tasted what many of those who have practised it, describe as the fascination of that particular form of nocturnal adventure known by the unsympathetic name of burglary. Among the exponents of the art Peace was at this time known as a “portico- thief,” that is to say one who contrived to get himself on to the portico of a house and from that point of vantage make his entrance into the premises.
During the year 1854 the houses of a number of well-to-do residents in and about Sheffield were entered after this fashion, and much valuable property stolen. Peace was arrested, and with him a girl with whom he was keeping company, and his sister, Mary Ann, at that time Mrs. Neil. On October 20, 1854, Peace was sentenced at Doncaster Sessions to four years’ penal servitude, and the ladies who had been found in possession of the stolen property to six months apiece. Mrs. Neil did not long survive her misfortune. She would seem to have been married to a brutal and drunken husband, whom Peace thrashed on more than one occasion for ill-treating his sister. After one of these punishments Neil set a bull-dog on to Peace; but Peace caught the dog by the lower jaw and punched it into a state of coma. The death in 1859 of the unhappy Mrs. Neil was lamented in appropriate verse, probably the work of her brother:
“I was so long with pain opprest That wore my strength away; It made me long for endless rest Which never can decay.”
On coming out of prison in 1858, Peace resumed his fiddling, but it was now no more than a musical accompaniment to burglary. This had become the serious business of Peace’s life, to be pursued, should necessity arise, even to the peril of men’s lives. His operations extended beyond the bounds of his native town.
The house of a lady living in Manchester was broken into on the night of August 11, 1859, and a substantial booty carried away. This was found the following day concealed in a hole in a field. The police left it undisturbed and awaited the return of the robber. When Peace and another man arrived to carry it away, the officers sprang out on them. Peace, after nearly killing the officer who was trying to arrest him, would have made his escape, had not other policemen come to the rescue. For this crime Peace was sentenced to six years’ penal servitude, in spite of a loyal act of perjury on the part of his aged mother, who came all the way from Sheffield to swear that he had been with her there on the night of the crime.
He was released from prison again in 1864, and returned to Sheffield. Things did not prosper with him there, and he went back to Manchester. In 1866 he was caught in the act of burglary at a house in Lower Broughton. He admitted that at the time he was fuddled with whisky; otherwise his capture would have been more difficult and dangerous. Usually a temperate man, Peace realised on this occasion the value of sobriety even in burglary, and never after allowed intemperance to interfere with his success. A sentence of eight years’ penal servitude at Manchester Assizes on December 3, 1866, emphasised this wholesome lesson.
Whilst serving this sentence Peace emulated Jack Sheppard in a daring attempt to escape from Wakefield prison. Being engaged on some repairs, he smuggled a small ladder into his cell. With the help of a saw made out of some tin, he cut a hole through the ceiling of the cell, and was about to get out on to the roof when a warder came in. As the latter attempted to seize the ladder Peace knocked him down, ran along the wall of the prison, fell off on the inside owing to the looseness of the bricks, slipped into the governor’s house where he changed his clothes, and there, for an hour and a half, waited for an opportunity to escape. This was denied him, and he was recaptured in the governor’s bedroom. The prisons at Millbank, Chatham and Gibraltar were all visited by Peace before his final release in 1872. At Chatham he is said to have taken part in a mutiny and been flogged for his pains.
On his liberation from prison Peace rejoined his family in Sheffield. He was now a husband and father. In 1859 he had taken to wife a widow of the name of Hannah Ward. Mrs. Ward was already the mother of a son, Willie. Shortly after her marriage with Peace she gave birth to a daughter, and during his fourth term of imprisonment presented him with a son. Peace never saw this child, who died before his release. But, true to the family custom, on his return from prison the untimely death of little “John Charles” was commemorated by the printing of a funeral card in his honour, bearing the following sanguine verses:
“Farewell, my dear son, by us all beloved, Thou art gone to dwell in the mansions above. In the bosom of Jesus Who sits on the throne Thou art anxiously waiting to welcome us home.”
Whether from a desire not to disappoint little John Charles, for some reason or other the next two or three years of Peace’s career would seem to have been spent in an endeavour to earn an honest living by picture framing, a trade in which Peace, with that skill he displayed in whatever he turned his hand to, was remarkably proficient. In Sheffield his children attended the Sunday School. Though he never went to church himself, he was an avowed believer in both God and the devil. As he said, however, that he feared neither, no great reliance could be placed on the restraining force of such a belief to a man of Peace’s daring spirit. There was only too good reason to fear that little John Charles’ period of waiting would be a prolonged one.
In 1875 Peace moved from Sheffield itself to the suburb of Darnall. Here Peace made the acquaintance–a fatal acquaintance, as it turned out–of a Mr. and Mrs. Dyson. Dyson was a civil engineer. He had spent some years in America, where, in 1866, he married.
Toward the end of 1873 or the beginning of 1874, he came to England with his wife, and obtained a post on the North Eastern Railway. He was a tall man, over six feet in height, extremely thin, and gentlemanly in his bearing. His engagement with the North Eastern Railway terminated abruptly owing to Dyson’s failing to appear at a station to which he had been sent on duty.
It was believed at the time by those associated with Dyson that this unlooked-for dereliction of duty had its cause in domestic trouble. Since the year 1875, the year in which Peace came to Darnall, the domestic peace of Mr. Dyson had been rudely disturbed by this same ugly little picture-framer who lived a few doors away from the Dysons’ house. Peace had got to know the Dysons, first as a tradesman, then as a friend. To what degree of intimacy he attained with Mrs. Dyson it is difficult to determine. In that lies the mystery of the case Mrs. Dyson is described as an attractive woman, “buxom and blooming”; she was dark-haired, and about twenty-five years of age. In an interview with the Vicar of Darnall a few days before his execution, Peace asserted positively that Mrs. Dyson had been his mistress. Mrs. Dyson as strenuously denied the fact. There was no question that on one occasion Peace and Mrs. Dyson had been photographed together, that he had given her a ring, and that he had been in the habit of going to music halls and public-houses with Mrs. Dyson, who was a woman of intemperate habits.
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Peace had introduced Mrs. Dyson to his wife and daughter, and on one occasion was said to have taken her to his mother’s house, much to the old lady’s indignation. If there were not many instances of ugly men who have been notably successful with women, one might doubt the likelihood of Mrs. Dyson falling a victim to the charms of Charles Peace. But Peace, for all his ugliness, could be wonderfully ingratiating when he chose. According to Mrs. Dyson, Peace was a demon, “beyond the power of even a Shakespeare to paint,” who persecuted her with his attentions, and, when he found them rejected, devoted all his malignant energies to making the lives of her husband and herself unbearable. According to Peace’s story he was a slighted lover who had been treated by Mrs. Dyson with contumely and ingratitude.
Whether to put a stop to his wife’s intimacy with Peace, or to protect himself against the latter’s wanton persecution, sometime about the end of June, 1876, Dyson threw over into the garden of Peace’s house a card, on which was written: “Charles Peace is requested not to interfere with my family.” On July 1 Peace met Mr. Dyson in the street, and tried to trip him up. The same night he came up to Mrs. Dyson, who was talking with some friends, and threatened in coarse and violent language to blow out her brains and those of her husband. In consequence of these incidents Mr. Dyson took out a summons against Peace, for whose apprehension a warrant was issued. To avoid the consequences of this last step Peace left Darnall for Hull, where he opened an eating-shop, presided over by Mrs. Peace.
But he himself was not idle. From Hull he went to Manchester on business, and in Manchester he committed his first murder. Entering the grounds of a gentleman’s home at Whalley Range, about midnight on August 1, he was seen by two policemen. One of them, Constable Cock, intercepted him as he was trying to escape.
Peace took out his revolver and warned Cock to stand back. The policeman came on. Peace fired, but deliberately wide of him. Cock, undismayed, drew out his truncheon, and made for the burglar. Peace, desperate, determined not to be caught, fired again, this time fatally. Cock’s comrade heard the shots, but before he could reach the side of the dying man, Peace had made off. He returned to Hull, and there learned shortly after, to his intense relief, that two brothers, John and William Habron, living near the scene of the murder, had been arrested and charged with the killing of Constable Cock.
If the Dysons thought that they had seen the last of Peace, they were soon to be convinced to the contrary. Peace had not forgotten his friends at Darnall. By some means or other he was kept informed of all their doings, and on one occasion was seen by Mrs. Dyson lurking near her home. To get away from him the Dysons determined to leave Darnall. They took a house at Banner Cross, another suburb of Sheffield, and on October 29 moved into their new home. One of the first persons Mrs. Dyson saw on arriving at Banner Cross was Peace himself. “You see,” he said, “I am here to annoy you, and I’ll annoy you wherever you go.” Later, Peace and a friend passed Mr. Dyson in the street. Peace took out his revolver. “If he offers to come near me,” said he, “I will make him stand back.” But Mr. Dyson took no notice of Peace and passed on. He had another month to live.
Whatever the other motives of Peace may have been–unreasoning passion, spite, jealousy, or revenge it must not be forgotten that Dyson, by procuring a
warrant against Peace, had driven him from his home in Sheffield. This Peace resented bitterly. According to the statements of many witnesses, he was at this time in a state of constant irritation and excitement on the Dyson’s account. He struck his daughter because she alluded in a way he did not like to his relations with Mrs. Dyson. Peace always believed in corporal chastisement as a means of keeping order at home. Pleasant and entertaining as he could be, he was feared. It was very dangerous to incur his resentment. “Be sure,” said his wife, “you do nothing to offend our Charley, or you will suffer for it.” Dyson beyond a doubt had offended “our Charley.” But for the moment Peace was interested more immediately in the fate of John and William Habron, who were about to stand their trial for the murder of Constable Cock at Whalley Range.
The trial commenced at the Manchester Assizes before Mr. Justice (now Lord) Lindley on Monday, November 27. John Habron was acquitted.
The case against William Habron depended to a great extent on the fact that he, as well as his brother, had been heard to threaten to “do for” the murdered man, to shoot the “little bobby.” Cock was a zealous young officer of twenty-three years of age, rather too eager perhaps in the discharge of his duty. In July of 1876 he had taken out summonses against John and William Habron, young fellows who had been several years in the employment of a nurseryman in Whalley Range, for being drunk and disorderly. On July 27 William was fined five shillings, and on August 1, the day of Cock’s murder, John had been fined half a sovereign. Between these two dates the Habrons had been heard to threaten to “do for” Cock if he were not more careful. Other facts relied upon by the prosecution were that William Habron had inquired from a gunsmith the price of some cartridges a day or two before the murder; that two cartridge percussion caps had been found in the pocket of a waistcoat given to William Habron by his employer, who swore that they could not have been there while it was in his possession; that the other constable on duty with Cock stated that a man he had seen lurking near the house about twelve o’clock on the night of the murder appeared to be William Habron’s age, height and complexion, and resembled him in general appearance; and that the boot on Habron’s left foot, which was “wet and sludgy” at the time of his arrest, corresponded in certain respects with the footprints of the murderer.
The prisoner did not help himself by an ineffective attempt to prove an alibi. The Judge was clearly not impressed by the strength of the case for the prosecution. He pointed out to the jury that neither the evidence of identification nor that of the footprint went very far. As to the latter, what evidence was there to show that it had been made on the night of the murder? If it had been made the day before, then the defence had proved that it could not have been Habron’s. He called their attention to the facts that Habron bore a good character, that, when arrested on the night of the murder, he was in bed, and that no firearms had been traced to him. In spite, however, of the summing-up the jury convicted William Habron, but recommended him to mercy. The Judge without comment sentenced him to death. The Manchester Guardian expressed its entire concurrence with the verdict of the jury.
“Few persons,” it wrote, “will be found to dispute the justice of the conclusions reached.” However, a few days later it opened its columns to a number of letters protesting against the unsatisfactory nature of the conviction. On December 6 a meeting of some forty gentlemen was held, at which it was resolved to petition Mr. Cross, the Home Secretary, to reconsider the sentence. Two days before the day of execution Habron was granted a respite, and later his sentence commuted to one of penal servitude for life. And so a tragic and irrevocable miscarriage of justice was happily averted.
Peace liked attending trials. The fact that in Habron’s case he was the real murderer would seem to have made him the more eager not to miss so unique an experience. Accordingly he went from Hull to Manchester, and was present in court during the two days that the trial lasted. No sooner had he heard the innocent man condemned to death than he left Manchester for Sheffield–now for all he knew a double murderer.
It is a question whether, on the night of November 28, Peace met Mrs. Dyson at an inn in one of the suburbs of Sheffield. In any case, the next morning, Wednesday, the 29th, to his mother’s surprise Peace walked into her house. He said that he had come to Sheffield for the fair. The afternoon of that day Peace spent in a public-house at Ecclesall, entertaining the customers by playing tunes on a poker suspended from a piece of strong string, from which he made music by beating it with a short stick. The musician was rewarded by drinks. It took very little drink to excite Peace. There was dancing, the fun grew fast and furious, as the strange musician beat out tune after tune on his fantastic instrument.
At six o’clock the same evening a thin, grey-haired, insignificant-looking man in an evident state of unusual excitement called to see the Rev. Mr. Newman, Vicar of Ecclesall, near Banner Cross. Some five weeks before, this insignificant- looking man had visited Mr. Newman, and made certain statements in regard to the character of a Mr. and Mrs. Dyson who had come to live in the parish. The vicar had asked for proof of these statements. These proofs his visitor now produced. They consisted of a number of calling cards and photographs, some of them alleged to be in the handwriting of Mrs. Dyson, and showing her intimacy with Peace. The man made what purported to be a confession to Mr. Newman. Dyson, he said, had become jealous of him, whereupon Peace had suggested to Mrs. Dyson that they should give her husband something to be jealous about. Out of this proposal their intimacy had sprung. Peace spoke of Mrs. Dyson in terms of forgiveness, but his wrath against Dyson was extreme. He complained bitterly that by taking proceedings against him, Dyson had driven him to break up his home and become a fugitive in the land. He should follow the Dysons, he said, wherever they might go; he believed that they were at that moment intending to take further proceedings against him. As he left, Peace said that he should not go and see the Dysons that night, but would call on a friend of his,
Gregory, who lived next door to them in Banner Cross Terrace. It was now about a quarter to seven.
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Peace went to Gregory’s house, but his friend was not at home. The lure of the Dysons was irresistible. A little after eight o’clock Peace was watching the house from a passage-way that led up to the backs of the houses on the terrace. He saw Mrs. Dyson come out of the back door, and go to an outhouse some few yards distant. He waited. As soon as she opened the door to come out, Mrs. Dyson found herself confronted by Peace, holding his revolver in his hand. “Speak,” he said, “or I’ll fire.” Mrs. Dyson in terror went back. In the meantime Dyson, hearing the disturbance, came quickly into the yard. Peace made for the passage. Dyson followed him. Peace fired once, the shot striking the lintel of the passage doorway. Dyson undaunted, still pursued. Then Peace, according to his custom, fired a second time, and Dyson fell, shot through the temple. Mrs. Dyson, who had come into the yard again on hearing the first shot, rushed to her husband’s side, calling out: “Murder! You villain! You have shot my husband.” Two hours later Dyson was dead.
After firing the second shot Peace had hurried down; the passage into the roadway. He stood there hesitating a moment, until the cries of Mrs. Dyson warned him of his danger. He crossed the road, climbed a wall, and made his way back to Sheffield. There he saw his mother and brother, told them that he had shot Mr. Dyson, and bade them a hasty good-bye. He then walked to Attercliffe Railway Station, and took a ticket for Beverley. Something suspicious in the manner of the booking-clerk made him change his place of destination. Instead of going to Beverley that night he got out of the train at Normanton and went on to York. He spent the remainder of the night in the station yard. He took the first train in the morning for Beverley, and from there travelled via Collingham to Hull. He went straight to the eating-house kept by his wife, and demanded some dinner. He had hardly commenced to eat it when he heard two detectives come into the front shop and ask his wife if a man called Charles Peace was lodging with her. Mrs. Peace said that that was her husband’s name, but that she had not seen him for two months.
The detectives proposed to search the house. Some customers in the shop told them that if they had any business with Mrs. Peace, they ought to go round to the side door. The polite susceptibility of these customers gave Peace time to slip up to a back room, get out on to an adjoining roof, and hide behind a chimney stack, where he remained until the detectives had finished an exhaustive search. So importunate were the officers in Hull that once again during the day Peace had to repeat this experience. For some three weeks, however, he contrived to remain in Hull. He shaved the grey beard he was wearing at the time of Dyson’s murder, dyed his hair, put on a pair of spectacles, and for the first time made use of his singular power of contorting his features in such a way as to change altogether the character of his face. But the hue and cry after him was unremitting. There was a price of L100 on his head, and the following description of him was circulated by the police:
“Charles Peace wanted for murder on the night of the 29th inst. He is thin and slightly built, from fifty-five to sixty years of age. Five feet four inches or five feet high; grey (nearly white) hair, beard and whiskers. He lacks use of three fingers of left hand, walks with his legs rather wide apart, speaks somewhat peculiarly as though his tongue were too large for his mouth, and is a great boaster. He is a picture-frame maker. He occasionally cleans and repairs clocks and watches and sometimes deals in oleographs, engravings and pictures. He has been in penal servitude for burglary in Manchester. He has lived in Manchester, Salford, and Liverpool and Hull.”
This description was altered later and Peace’s age given as forty-six. As a matter of fact he was only forty-four at this time, but he looked very much older. Peace had lost one of his fingers. He said that it had been shot off by a man with whom he had quarrelled, but it was believed to be more likely that he had himself shot it off accidentally in handling one of his revolvers. It was to conceal this obvious means of identification that Peace made himself the false arm which he was in the habit of wearing. This was of gutta percha, with a hole down the middle of it into which he passed his arm; at the end was a steel plate to which was fixed a hook; by means of this hook Peace could wield a fork and do other dexterous feats.
Marked man as he was, Peace felt it dangerous to stay longer in Hull than he could help. During the closing days of the year 1876 and the beginning of 1877, Peace was perpetually on the move. He left Hull for Doncaster, and from there travelled to London. On arriving at King’s Cross he took the underground railway to Paddington, and from there a train to Bristol. At the beginning of January he left Bristol for Bath, and from Bath, in the company of a sergeant of police, travelled by way of Didcot to Oxford. The officer had in his custody a young woman charged with stealing L40. Peace and the sergeant discussed the case during the journey. “He seemed a smart chap,” said Peace in relating the circumstances, “but not smart enough to know me.” From Oxford he went to Birmingham, where he stayed four or five days, then a week in Derby, and on January 9th he arrived in Nottingham.
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Here Peace found a convenient lodging at the house of one, Mrs. Adamson, a lady who received stolen goods and on occasion indicated or organised suitable opportunities for acquiring them.
She lived in a low part of the town known as the Marsh. It was at her house that Peace met the woman who was to become his mistress and subsequently betray his identity to the police. Her maiden name was Susan Gray.
She was at this time about thirty-five years of age, described as “taking” in appearance, of a fair complexion, and rather well educated. She had led a somewhat chequered married life with a gentleman named Bailey, from whom she continued in receipt of a weekly allowance until she passed under the protection of Peace. Her first meeting with her future lover took place on the occasion of Peace inviting Mrs. Adamson to dispose of a box of cigars for him, which that good woman did at a charge of something like thirty per cent. At first Peace gave himself out to Mrs. Bailey as a hawker, but before long he openly acknowledged his real character as an accomplished burglar. With characteristic insistence Peace declared his passion for Mrs. Bailey by threatening to shoot her if she did not become his. Anxious friends sent for her to soothe the distracted man. Peace had been drowning care with the help of Irish whiskey. He asked “his pet” if she were not glad to see him, to which the lady replied with possible sarcasm: “Oh, particularly, very, I like you so much.” Next day Peace apologised for his rude behaviour of the previous evening, and so melted the heart of Mrs. Bailey that she consented to become his mistress, and from that moment discarding the name of Bailey is known to history as Mrs. Thompson.
Life in Nottingham was varied pleasantly by burglaries carried out with the help of information supplied by Mrs. Adamson. In the June of 1877 Peace was nearly detected in stealing, at the request of that worthy, some blankets, but by flourishing his revolver he contrived to get away, and, soon after, returned for a season to Hull. Here this hunted murderer, with L100 reward on his head, took rooms for Mrs. Thompson and himself at the house of a sergeant of police. One day Mrs. Peace, who was still keeping her shop in Hull, received a pencilled note saying, “I am waiting to see you just up Anlaby Road.” She and her stepson, Willie Ward, went to the appointed spot, and there to their astonishment stood her husband, a distinguished figure in black coat and trousers, top hat, velvet waistcoat, with stick, kid gloves, and a pretty little fox terrier by his side. Peace told them of his whereabouts in the town, but did not disclose to them the fact that his mistress was there also. To the police sergeant with whom he lodged, Peace described himself as an agent. But a number of sensational and successful burglaries at the houses of Town Councillors and other well-to-do citizens of Hull revealed the presence in their midst of no ordinary robber. Peace had some narrow escapes, but with the help of his revolver, and on one occasion the pusillanimity of a policeman, he succeeded in getting away in safety. The bills offering a reward for his capture were still to be seen in the shop windows of Hull, so after a brief but brilliant adventure Peace and Mrs. Thompson returned to Nottingham.
Here, as the result of further successful exploits, Peace found a reward of L50 offered for his capture. On one occasion the detectives came into the room where Peace and his mistress were in bed. After politely expressing his surprise at seeing “Mrs. Bailey” in such a situation, one of the officers asked Peace his name. He gave it as John Ward, and described himself as a hawker of spectacles. He refused to get up and dress in the presence of the detectives who were obliging enough to go downstairs and wait his convenience. Peace seized the opportunity to slip out of the house and get away to another part of the town. From there he sent a note to Mrs. Thompson insisting on her joining him. He soon after left Nottingham, paid another brief visit to Hull, but finding that his
wife’s shop was still frequented by the police, whom he designated freely as “a lot of fools,” determined to quit the North for good and begin life afresh in the ampler and safer field of London.
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II. PEACE IN LONDON
Peace’s career in London extended over nearly two years, but they were years of copious achievement. In that comparatively short space of time, by the exercise of that art, to his natural gifts for which he had now added the wholesome tonic of experience, Peace passed from a poor and obscure lodging in a slum in Lambeth to the state and opulence of a comfortable suburban residence in Peckham. These were the halcyon days of Peace’s enterprise in life. From No. 25 Stangate Street, Lambeth, the dealer in musical instruments, as Peace now described himself, sallied forth night after night, and in Camberwell and other parts of South London reaped the reward of skill and vigilance in entering other people’s houses and carrying off their property. Though in the beginning there appeared to be but few musical instruments in Stangate Street to justify his reputed business, “Mr. Thompson,” as he now called himself, explained that he was not wholly dependent on his business, as Mrs. Thompson “had money.”
So successful did the business prove that at the Christmas of 1877 Peace invited his daughter and her betrothed to come from Hull and spend the festive season with him. This, in spite of the presence of Mrs. Thompson, they consented to do. Peace, in a top hat and grey ulster, showed them the sights of London, always inquiring politely of a policeman if he found himself in any difficulty. At the end of the visit Peace gave his consent to his daughter’s marriage with Mr. Bolsover, and before parting gave the young couple some excellent advice. For more reasons than one Peace was anxious to unite under the same roof Mrs. Peace and Mrs. Thompson. Things still prospering, Peace found himself able to remove from Lambeth to Crane Court, Greenwich, and before long to take a couple of adjoining houses in Billingsgate Street in the same district. These he furnished in style. In one he lived with Mrs. Thompson, while Mrs. Peace and her son, Willie, were persuaded after some difficulty to leave Hull and come to London to dwell in the other.
But Greenwich was not to the taste of Mrs. Thompson. To gratify her wish, Peace, some time in May, 1877, removed the whole party to a house, No. 5, East Terrace, Evelina Road, Peckham. He paid thirty pounds a year for it, and obtained permission to build a stable for his pony and trap. When asked for his references, Peace replied by inviting the agent to dine with him at his house in Greenwich, a proceeding that seems to have removed all doubt from the agent’s mind as to the desirability of the tenant.
This now famous house in Peckham was of the ordinary type of suburban villa, with basement, ground floor, and one above; there were steps up to the front door, and a bow window to the front sitting-room. A garden at the back of the house ran down to the Chatham and Dover railway line. It was by an entrance at the back that Peace drove his horse and trap into the stable which he had erected in the garden. Though all living in the same house, Mrs. Peace, who passed as Mrs. Ward, and her son, Willie, inhabited the basement, while Peace and Mrs. Thompson occupied the best rooms on the ground floor. The house was fitted with Venetian blinds. In the drawing-room stood a good walnut suite of furniture; a Turkey carpet, gilded mirrors, a piano, an inlaid Spanish guitar, and, by the side of an elegant table, the beaded slippers of the good master of the house completed the elegance of the apartment. Everything confirmed Mr. Thompson’s description of himself as a gentleman of independent means with a taste for scientific inventions. In association with a person of the name of Brion, Peace did, as a fact, patent an invention for raising sunken vessels, and it is said that in pursuing their project, the two men had obtained an interview with Mr. Plimsoll at the House of Commons. In any case, the Patent Gazette records the following grant:
“2635 Henry Fersey Brion, 22 Philip Road, Peckham Rye, London, S.E., and John Thompson, 5 East Terrace, Evelina Road, Peckham Rye, London, S.E., for an invention for raising sunken vessels by the displacement of water within the vessels by air and gases.”
At the time of his final capture Peace was engaged on other inventions, among them a smoke helmet for firemen, an improved brush for washing railway carriages, and a form of hydraulic tank. To the anxious policeman who, seeing a light in Mr. Thompson’s house in the small hours of the morning, rang the bell to warn the old gentleman of the possible presence of burglars, this business of scientific inventions was sufficient explana- tion.
Socially Mr. Thompson became quite a figure in the neighbourhood. He attended regularly the Sunday evening services at the parish church, and it must have been a matter of anxious concern to dear Mr. Thompson that during his stay in Peckham the vicarage was broken into by a burglar and an unsuccessful attempt made to steal the communion plate which was kept there.
Mr. Thompson was generous in giving and punctual in paying. He had his eccentricities. His love of birds and animals was remarkable. Cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea-pigs, canaries, parrots and cockatoos all found hospitality under his roof. It was certainly eccentricity in Mr. Thompson that he should wear different coloured wigs; and that his dark complexion should suggest the use of walnut juice. His love of music was evinced by the number of violins, banjoes, guitars, and other musical instruments that adorned his drawing-room. Tea and music formed the staple of the evening entertainments which Mr. and Mrs. Thompson would give occasionally to friendly neighbours. Not that the pleasures of
conversation were neglected wholly in favour of art. The host was a voluble and animated talker, his face and body illustrating by appropriate twists and turns the force of his comments. The Russo-Turkish war, then raging, was a favourite theme of Mr. Thompson’s. He asked, as we are still asking, what Christianity and civilisation mean by countenancing the horrors of war. He considered the British Government in the highest degree guilty in supporting the cruel Turks, a people whose sobriety seemed to him to be their only virtue, against the Christian Russians. He was confident that our Ministers would be punished for opposing the only Power which had shown any sympathy with suffering races. About ten o’clock Mr. Thompson, whose health, he said, could not stand late hours, would bid his guests good night, and by half-past ten the front door of No. 5, East Terrace, Evelina Road, would be locked and bolted, and the house plunged in darkness.
Not that it must be supposed that family life at No. 5, East Terrace, was without its jars. These were due chiefly to the drunken habits of Mrs. Thompson. Peace was willing to overlook his mistress’ failing as long as it was confined to the house. But Mrs. Thompson had an unfortunate habit of slipping out in an intoxicated condition, and chattering with the neighbours. As she was the repository of many a dangerous secret the inconvenience of her habit was serious. Peace was not the man to hesitate in the face of danger. On these occasions Mrs. Thompson was followed by Peace or his wife, brought back home and soundly beaten. To Hannah Peace there must have been some satisfaction in spying on her successful rival, for, in her own words, Peace never refused his mistress anything; he did not care what she cost him in dress; “she could swim in gold if she liked.” Mrs. Thompson herself admitted that with the exception of such punishment as she brought on herself by her inebriety, Peace was always fond of her, and treated her with great kindness. It was she to whom he would show with pride the proceeds of his nightly labours, to whom he would look for a smile when he returned home from his expeditions, haggard and exhausted.
Through all dangers and difficulties the master was busy in the practice of his art. Night after night, with few intervals of repose, he would sally forth on a plundering adventure. If the job was a distant one, he would take his pony and trap. Peace was devoted to his pony, Tommy, and great was his grief when at the end of six months’ devotion to duty Tommy died after a few days’ sickness, during which his master attended him with unremitting care. Tommy had been bought in Greenwich for fourteen guineas, part of a sum of two hundred and fifty pounds which Peace netted from a rich haul of silver and bank-notes taken from a house in Denmark Hill. Besides the pony and trap, Peace would take with him on these expeditions a violin case containing his tools; at other times they would be stuffed into odd pockets made for the purpose in his trousers. These tools consisted of ten in all–a skeleton key, two pick-locks, a centre-bit, gimlet, gouge, chisel, vice jemmy and knife; a portable ladder, a revolver and life preserver completed his equipment.
The range of Peace’s activities extended as far as Southampton, Portsmouth and Southsea; but the bulk of his work was done in Blackheath, Streatham, Denmark Hill, and other suburbs of South London. Many dramatic stories are told of his exploits, but they rest for the most part on slender foundation. On one occasion, in getting on to a portico, he fell, and was impaled on some railings, fortunately in no vital part. His career as a burglar in London lasted from the beginning of the year 1877 until October, 1878. During that time this wanted man, under the very noses of the police, exercised with complete success his art as a burglar, working alone, depending wholly on his own mental and physical gifts, disposing in absolute secrecy of the proceeds of his work, and living openly the life of a respectable and industrious old gentleman.
All the while the police were busily seeking Charles Peace, the murderer of Mr. Dyson. Once or twice they came near to capturing him. On one occasion a detective who had known Peace in Yorkshire met him in Farringdon Road, and pursued him up the steps of Holborn Viaduct, but just as the officer, at the top of the steps, reached out and was on the point of grabbing his man, Peace with lightning agility slipped through his fingers and disappeared. The police never had a shadow of suspicion that Mr. Thompson of Peckham was Charles Peace of Sheffield. They knew the former only as a polite and chatty old gentleman of a scientific turn of mind, who drove his own pony and trap, and had a fondness for music and keeping pet animals.
Peace made the mistake of outstaying his welcome in the neighbourhood of South-East London. Perhaps he hardly realised the extent to which his fame was spreading. During the last three months of Peace’s career, Blackheath was agog at the number of successful burglaries committed in the very midst of its peaceful residents. The vigilance of the local police was aroused, the officers on night duty were only too anxious to ef- fect the capture of the mysterious criminal.
About two o’clock in the morning of October 10, 1878, a police constable, Robinson by name, saw a light appear suddenly in a window at the back of a house in St. John’s Park, Blackheath, the residence of a Mr. Burness. Had the looked-for opportunity arrived? Was the mysterious visitor, the disturber of the peace of Blackheath, at his burglarious employment? Without delay Robinson summoned to his aid two of his colleagues. One of them went round to the front of the house and rang the bell, the other waited in the road outside, while Robinson stayed in the garden at the back. No sooner had the bell rung than Robinson saw a man come from the dining-room window which opened on to the garden, and make quickly down the path. Robinson followed him. The man turned; “Keep back!” he said, “or by God I’ll shoot you!” Robinson came on. The man fired three shots from a revolver, all of which passed close to the officer’s head. Robinson made another rush for him, the man fired another shot. It missed its mark. The constable closed with his would-be assassin, and struck him in the face. “I’ll settle you this time,” cried the man, and fired a fifth shot, which went through Robinson’s arm just above the elbow. But, in spite of his wound, the valiant officer held his prisoner, succeeded in flinging him to the ground, and catching hold of the revolver that hung round the burglar’s wrist, hit him on the head with it. Immediately after the other two constables came to the help of their colleague, and the struggling desperado was secured.
Little did the police as they searched their battered and moaning prisoner realise the importance of their capture. When next morning Peace appeared before the magistrate at Greenwich Police Court he was not described by name–he had refused to give any– but as a half-caste about sixty years of age, of repellant aspect. He was remanded for a week. The first clue to the iden- tity of their prisoner was afforded by a letter which Peace, unable apparently to endure the loneliness and suspense of prison any longer, wrote to his co-inventor Mr. Brion. It is dated November 2, and is signed “John Ward.” Peace was disturbed at the absence of all news from his family. Immediately after his arrest, the home in Peckham had been broken up. Mrs. Thompson and Mrs. Peace, taking with them some large boxes, had gone first to the house of a sister of Mrs. Thompson’s in Nottingham, and a day or two later Mrs. Peace had left Nottingham for Sheffield. There she went to a house in Hazel Road, occupied by her son-in- law Bolsover, a working collier.[10]
[10] Later, Mrs. Peace was arrested and charged with being in possession of stolen property. She was taken to London and tried at the Old Bailey before Mr. Commissioner Kerr, but acquitted on the ground of her having acted under the compulsion of her husband.
The Old Bailey
The Old Bailey
It was no doubt to get news of his family that Peace wrote to Brion. But the letters are sufficiently ingenious. Peace represents himself as a truly penitent sinner who has got himself into a most unfortunate and unexpected “mess” by giving way to drink. The spelling of the letters is exaggeratedly illiterate. He asks Mr. Brion to take pity on him and not despise him as “his own famery has don,” to write him a letter to “hease his trobel hart,” if possible to come and see him. Mr. Brion complied with the request of the mysterious “John Ward,” and on arriving at Newgate where Peace was awaiting trial, found himself in the presence of his friend and colleague, Mr. Thompson.
Newgate Jail
Newgate Jail
In the meantime the police were getting hot on the scent of the identity of “John Ward” with the great criminal who in spite of all their efforts had eluded them for two years. The honour and profit of putting the police on the right scent were claimed by Mrs. Thompson. To her Peace had contrived to get a letter conveyed about the same time that he wrote to Mr. Brion. It is addressed to his “dearly beloved wife.” He asks pardon for the “drunken madness” that has involved him in his present trouble, and gives her the names of certain witnesses whom he would wish to be called to prove his independent means and his dealings in musical instruments. It is, he writes, his first offence, and as he has “never been
in prison before,” begs her not to feel it a disgrace to come and see him there. But Peace was leaning on a broken reed. Loyalty does not appear to have been Susan Thompson’s strong point. In her own words she “was not of the sentimental sort.” The “traitress Sue,” as she is called by chroniclers of the time, had fallen a victim to the wiles of the police. Since, after Peace’s arrest, she had been in possession of a certain amount of stolen property, it was easier no doubt to persuade her to be frank.
In any case, we find that on February 5, 1879, the day after Peace had been sentenced to death for the murder of Dyson, Mrs. Thompson appealed to the Treasury for the reward of L100 offered for Peace’s conviction. She based her application on information which she said she had supplied to the police officers in charge of the case on November 5 in the previous year, the very day on which Peace had first written to her from Newgate. In reply to her letter the Treasury referred “Mrs. S. Bailey, alias Thompson,” to the Home Office, but whether she received from that office the price of blood history does not relate.
The police scouted the idea that any revelation of hers had assisted them to identify “John Ward” with Charles Peace. They said that it was information given them in Peckham, no doubt by Mr. Brion, who, on learning the deplorable character of his coadjutor, had placed himself unreservedly in their hands, which first set them on the track. From Peckham they went to Nottingham, where they no doubt came across Sue Thompson, and thence to Sheffield, where on November 6 they visited the house in Hazel Road, occupied by Mrs. Peace and her daughter, Mrs. Bolsover. There they found two of the boxes which Mrs. Peace had brought with her from Peckham. Besides stolen property, these boxes contained evidence of the identity of Ward with Peace. A constable who had known Peace well in Sheffield was sent to Newgate, and taken into the yard where the prisoners awaiting trial were exercising. As they passed round, the constable pointed to the fifth man: “That’s Peace,” he said, “I’d know him anywhere.” The man left the ranks and, coming up to the constable, asked earnestly, “What do you want me for?” but the Governor ordered him to go on with his walk.
It was as John Ward, alias Charles Peace, that Peace, on November 19, 1878, was put on his trial for burglary and the attempted murder of Police Constable Robinson, at the Old Bailey before Mr. Justice Hawkins. His age was given in the calendar as sixty, though Peace was actually forty-six. The evidence against the prisoner was clear enough. All Mr. Montagu Williams could urge in his defence was that Peace had never intended to kill the officer, merely to frighten him. The jury found Peace guilty of attempted murder. Asked if he had anything to say why judgment should not be passed upon him, he addressed the Judge. He protested that he had not been fairly dealt with, that he never intended to kill the prosecutor, that the pistol was one that went off very easily, and that the last shot had been fired by accident. “I really did not know,” he said, “that the pistol was loaded, and I hope, my lord, that you will have mercy on me. I feel that I have disgraced myself, I am not fit either to live or die. I am not prepared to meet my God, but still I feel that my career has been made to appear much worse than it really is. Oh, my lord, do have mercy on me; do give me one chance of repenting and of preparing to meet my God. Do, my lord, have mercy on me; and I assure you that you shall never repent it. As you hope for mercy yourself at the hands of the great God, do have mercy on me, and give me a chance of redeeming my character and preparing myself to meet my God. I pray, and beseech you to have mercy upon me.”
Peace’s assumption of pitiable senility, sustained throughout the trial, though it imposed on Sir Henry Hawkins, failed to melt his heart. He told Peace that he did not believe his statement that he had fired the pistol merely to frighten the constable; had not Robinson guarded his head with his arm he would have been wounded fatally, and Peace condemned to death. He did not consider it necessary, he said, to make an inquiry into Peace’s antecedents; he was a desperate burglar, and there was an end of the matter. Notwithstanding his age, Mr. Justice Hawkins felt it his duty to sentence him to penal servitude for life. The severity of the sentence was undoubtedly a painful surprise to Peace; to a man of sixty years of age it would be no doubt less terrible, but to a man of forty-six it was crushing.
Not that Peace was fated to serve any great part of his sentence.
With as little delay as possible he was to be called on to answer to the murder of Arthur Dyson. The buxom widow of the murdered man had been found in America, whither she had returned after her husband’s death. She was quite ready to come to England to give evidence against her husband’s murderer. On January 17, 1879, Peace was taken from Pentonville prison, where he was serving his sentence, and conveyed by an early morning train to Sheffield. There at the Town Hall he appeared before the stipendiary magistrate, and was charged with the murder of Arthur Dyson. When he saw Mrs. Dyson enter the witness box and tell her story of the crime, he must have realised that his case was desperate. Her cross-examination was adjourned to the next hearing, and Peace was taken back to London. On the 22nd, the day of the second hearing in Sheffield, an enormous crowd had assembled outside the Town Hall. Inside the court an anxious and expectant audiience{sic}, among them Mrs. Dyson, in the words of a con- temporary reporter, “stylish and cheerful,” awaited the appearance of the protagonist. Great was the disappointment and eager the excitement when the stipendiary came into the court about a quarter past ten and stated that Peace had attempted to escape that morning on the journey from London to Sheffield, and that in consequence of his injuries the case would be adjourned for eight days.
What had happened was this. Peace had left King’s Cross by the 5.15 train that morning, due to arrive at Sheffield at 8.45. From the very commencement of the journey he had been wilful and troublesome. He kept making excuses for leaving
the carriage whenever the train stopped. To obviate this nuisance the two warders, in whose charge he was, had provided themselves with little bags which Peace could use when he wished and then throw out of the window. Just after the train passed Worksop, Peace asked for one of the bags. When the window was lowered to allow the bag to be thrown away, Peace with lightning agility took a flying leap through it. One of the warders caught him by the left foot. Peace, hanging from the carriage, grasped the footboard with his hands and kept kicking the warder as hard as he could with his right foot. The other warder, unable to get to the window to help his colleague, was making vain efforts to stop the train by pulling the communication cord.
For two miles the train ran on, Peace struggling desperately to escape. At last he succeeded in kicking off his left shoe, and dropped on to the line. The train ran on another mile until, with the assistance of some gentlemen in other carriages, the warders were able to get it pulled up. They immediately hurried back along the line, and there, near a place called Kineton Park, they found their prisoner lying in the footway, apparently unconscious and bleeding from a severe wound in the scalp. A slow train from Sheffield stopped to pick up the injured man. As he was lifted into the guard’s van, he asked them to cover him up as he was cold. On arriving at Sheffield, Peace was taken to the Police Station and there made as comfortable as possible in one of the cells. Even then he had energy enough to be troublesome over taking the brandy ordered for him by the surgeon, until one of the officers told “Charley” they would have none of his hanky- panky, and he had got to take it. “All right,” said Peace, “give me a minute,” after which he swallowed contentedly a couple of gills of the genial spirit.
Peace’s daring feat was not, according to his own account, a mere attempt to escape from the clutches of the law; it was noble and Roman in its purpose. This is what he told his stepson, Willie Ward: “I saw from the way I was guarded all the way down from London and all the way back, when I came for my first trial, that I could not get away from the warders, and I knew I could not jump from an express train without being killed. I took a look at Darnall as I went down and as I went back, and after I was put in my cell, I thought it all over. I felt that I could not get away, and then I made up my mind to kill myself. I got two bits of paper and pricked on them the words, `Bury me at Darnall. God bless you all!’ With a bit of black dirt that I found on the floor of my cell I wrote the same words on another piece of paper, and then I hid them in my clothes. My hope was that, when I jumped from the train I should be cut to pieces under the wheels. Then I should have been taken to the Duke of York (a public-house at Darnall) and there would have been an inquest over me. As soon as the inquest was over you would have claimed my body, found the pieces of paper, and then you would have buried me at Darnall.”
This statement of Peace is no doubt in the main correct. But it is difficult to believe that there was not present to his mind the sporting chance that he might not be killed in leaping from the train, in which event he would no doubt have done his best to get away, trusting to his considerable powers of ingenious disguise to elude pursuit. But such a chance was remote. Peace had faced boldly the possibility of a dreadful death.
With that strain of domestic sentiment, which would appear to have been a marked characteristic of his family, Peace was the more ready to cheat the gallows in the hope of being by that means buried decently at Darnall. It was at Darnall that he had spent some months of comparative calm in his tempestuous career, and it was at Darnall that he had first met Mrs. Dyson. Another and more practical motive that may have urged Peace to attempt to injure seriously, if not kill himself, was the hope of thereby delaying his trial. If the magisterial investigation in Sheffield were completed before the end of January, Peace could be committed for trial to the ensuing Leeds Assizes which commenced in the first week in February. If he were injured too seriously, this would not be possible. Here again he was doomed to disappointment.
Peace recovered so well from the results of his adventure on the railway that the doctor pronounced him fit to appear for his second examination before the magistrate on January 30. To avoid excitement, both on the part of the prisoner and the public, the court sat in one of the corridors of the Town Hall. The scene is described as dismal, dark and cheerless. The proceedings took place by candlelight, and Peace, who was seated in an armchair, complained frequently of the cold. At other times he moaned and groaned and protested against the injustice with which he was being treated. But the absence of any audience rather dashed the effect of his laments.
The most interesting part of the proceedings was the cross- examination of Mrs. Dyson by Mr. Clegg, the prisoner’s solicitor.
Its purpose was to show that Mrs. Dyson had been on more intimate terms with Peace than she was ready to admit, and that Dyson had been shot by Peace in the course of a struggle, in which the former had been the aggressor.
In the first part of his task Mr. Clegg met with some success. Mrs. Dyson, whose memory was certainly eccentric–she could not, she said, remember the year in which she had been married–was obliged to admit that she had been in the habit of going to Peace’s house, that she had been alone with him to public-houses and places of entertainment, and that she and Peace had been photographed together during the summer fair at Sheffield. She could not “to her knowledge” recollect having told the landlord of a public-house to charge her drink to Peace.
A great deal of Mrs. Dyson’s cross-examination turned on a bundle of letters that had been found near the scene of Dyson’s murder on the morning following the crime. These letters consisted for the most part of notes, written in pencil on scraps of paper, purporting to have been sent from Mrs. Dyson to Peace. In many of them she asks for money to get drink, others refer to opportunities for their meetings in the absence of Dyson; there are kind messages to members of Peace’s family, his wife and daughter, and urgent directions to Peace to hold his tongue and not give ground for suspicion as to their relations. This bundle of letters contained also the card which Dyson had thrown into Peace’s garden requesting him not to interfere with his family.
According to the theory of the defence, these letters had been written by Mrs. Dyson to Peace, and went to prove the intimacy of their relations. At the inquest after her husband’s murder, Mrs. Dyson had been questioned by the coroner about these letters. She denied that she had ever written to Peace; in fact, she said, she “never did write.” It was stated that Dyson himself had seen the letters, and declared them to be forgeries written by Peace or members of his family for the purpose of annoyance. Nevertheless, before the Sheffield magistrate Mr. Clegg thought it his duty to cross-examine Mrs. Dyson closely as to their authorship. He asked her to write out a passage from one of them: “You can give me something as a keepsake if you like, but I don’t like to be covetous, and to take them from your wife and daughter. Love to all!”
Mrs. Dyson refused to admit any likeness between what she had written and the handwriting of the letter in question. Another passage ran: “Will see you as soon as I possibly can. I think it would be easier after you move; he won’t watch so. The r–g fits the little finger. Many thanks and love to– Jennie (Peace’s daughter Jane). I will tell you what I thought of when I see you about arranging matters. Excuse this scribbling.” In answer to Mr. Clegg, Mrs. Dyson admitted that Peace had given her a ring, which she had worn for a short time on her little finger.
Another letter ran: “If you have a note for me, send now whilst he is out; but you must not venture, for he is watching, and you cannot be too careful. Hope your foot is better. I went to Sheffield yesterday, but I could not see you anywhere. Were you out? Love to Jane.” Mrs. Dyson denied that she had known of an accident which Peace had had to his foot at this time. In spite of the ruling of the magistrate that Mr. Clegg had put forward quite enough, if true, to damage Mrs. Dyson’s credibility, he continued to press her as to her authorship of these notes and letters, but Mrs. Dyson was firm in her repudiation of them. She was equally firm in denying that anything in the nature of a struggle had taken place between Peace and her husband previous to his murder.
http://i.cdn.turner.com/trutv/trutv.com/graphics/photos/gangsters_outlaws/outlaws/charles_peace/Charles-Peace-in-the-dock200.jpg
At the conclusion of Mrs. Dyson’s evidence the prisoner was committed to take his trial at the Leeds Assizes, which commenced the week following. Peace, who had groaned and moaned and constantly interrupted the proceedings, protested his innocence, and complained that his witnesses had not been called. The apprehension with which this daring malefactor was regarded by the authorities is shown by this clandestine hearing of his case in a cold corridor of the Town Hall, and the rapidity with which his trial followed on his committal. There is an appearance almost of precipitation in the haste with which Peace was bustled to his doom. After his committal he was taken to Wakefield Prison, and a few days later to Armley Jail, there to await his trial.
This began on February 4, and lasted one day. Mr. Justice Lopes, who had tried vainly to persuade the Manchester Grand Jury to throw out the bill in the case of the brothers Habron, was the presiding judge. Mr. Campbell Foster, Q.C., led for the prosecution. Peace was defended by Mr. Frank Lockwood, then rising into that popular success at the bar which some fifteen years later made him Solicitor-General, and but for his premature death would have raised him to even higher honours in his profession.
In addressing the jury, both Mr. Campbell Foster and Mr. Lockwood took occasion to protest against the recklessness with which the press of the day, both high and low, had circulated stories and rumours about the interesting convict. As early as November in 1878 one leading London daily newspaper had said that “it was now established beyond doubt that the burglar captured by Police Constable Robinson was one and the same as the Banner Cross murderer.” Since then, as the public excitement grew and the facts of Peace’s extraordinary career came to light, the press had responded loyally to the demands of the greedy lovers of sensation, and piled fiction on fact with generous profusion. “Never,” said Mr. Lockwood, “in the whole course of his experience–and he defied any of his learned friends to quote an experience–had there been such an attempt made on the part of those who should be most careful of all others to preserve the liberties of their fellowmen and to preserve the dignity of the tribunals of justice to determine the guilt of a man.” Peace exclaimed “Hear, hear!” as Mr. Lockwood went on to say that “for the sake of snatching paltry pence from the public, these persons had wickedly sought to prejudice the prisoner’s life.” Allowing for Mr. Lockwood’s zeal as an advocate, there can be no question that, had Peace chosen or been in a position to take proceedings, more than one newspaper had at this time laid itself open to prosecution for contempt of Court. The Times was not far wrong in saying that, since Muller murdered Mr. Briggs on the North London Railway and the poisonings of William Palmer, no criminal case had created such excitement as that of Charles Peace. The fact that property seemed to be no more sacred to him than life aggravated in a singular degree the resentment of a commercial people.
The first witness called by the prosecution was Mrs. Dyson. She described how on the night of November 29, 1876, she had come out of the outhouse in the yard at the back of her house, and found herself confronted by Peace holding a revolver; how he said: “Speak, or I’ll fire!” and the sequence of events already related up to the moment when Dyson fell, shot in the temple.
Mr. Lockwood commenced his cross-examination of Mrs. Dyson by endeavouring to get from her an admission; the most important to the defence, that Dyson had caught hold of Peace after the first shot had been fired, and that in the struggle which ensued, the revolver had gone off by accident. But he was not very successful. He put it to Mrs. Dyson that before the magistrate at Sheffield she had said: “I can’t say my husband did not get hold of the prisoner.” “Put in the little word `try,’ please,” answered Mrs. Dyson. In spite of Mr. Lockwood’s questions, she maintained that, though her husband may have attempted to get hold of Peace, he did not succeed in doing so. As she was the only witness to the shooting there was no one to contradict her statement.
Mr. Lockwood fared better when he came to deal with the relations of Mrs. Dyson with Peace previous to the crime. Mrs. Dyson admitted that in the spring of 1876 her husband had objected to her friendship with Peace, and that nevertheless, in the following summer, she and Peace had been photographed together at the Sheffield fair. She made a vain attempt to escape from such an admission by trying to shift the occasion of the summer fair to the previous year, 1875, but Mr. Lockwood put it to her that she had not come to Darnall, where she first met Peace, until the end of that year. Finally he drove her to say that she could not remember when she came to Darnall, whether in 1873, 1874, 1875, or 1876. She admitted that she had accepted a ring from Peace, but could not remember whether she had shown it to her husband. She had been perhaps twice with Peace to the Marquis of Waterford public-house, and once to the Star Music Hall. She could not swear one way or the other whether she had charged to Peace’s account drink consumed by her at an inn in Darnall called the Half-way House.
Confronted with a little girl and a man, whom Mr. Lockwood suggested she had employed to carry notes to Peace, Mrs. Dyson said that these were merely receipts for pictures which he had framed for her. On the day before her husband’s murder, Mrs. Dyson was at the Stag Hotel at Sharrow with a little boy belonging to a neighbour. A man followed her in and sat beside her, and afterwards followed her out. In answer to Mr. Lockwood, Mrs. Dyson would “almost swear” the man was not Peace; he had spoken to her, but she could not remember whether she had spoken to him or not. She denied that this man had said to her that he would come and see her the next night. As the result of a parting shot Mr. Lockwood obtained from Mrs. Dyson a reluctant admission that she had been “slightly inebriated” at the Half-way House in Darnall, but had not to her knowledge” been turned out of the house on that account. “You may not have known you were inebriated? suggested Mr. Lockwood. “I always know what I am doing,” was Mrs. Dyson’s reply, to which an unfriendly critic might have replied that she did not apparently know with anything like certainty what she had been doing during the last three or four years. In commenting on the trial the following day, the Times stigmatised as “feeble” the prevarications by which Mrs. Dyson tried to explain away her intimacy with Peace. In this part of his cross-examination Mr. Lockwood had made it appear at least highly probable that there had been a much closer relationship between Mrs. Dyson and Peace than the former was willing to acknowledge.
The evidence of Mrs. Dyson was followed by that of five persons who had either seen Peace in the neighbourhood of Banner Cross Terrace on the night of the murder, or heard the screams and shots that accompanied it. A woman, Mrs. Gregory, whose house was between that of the Dysons and the passage in which Dyson was shot, said that she had heard the noise of the clogs Mrs. Dyson was wearing as she went across the yard. A minute later she heard a scream. She opened her back door and saw Dyson standing by his own. She told him to go to his wife. She then went back into her house, and almost directly after heard two shots, followed by another scream, but no sound as of any scuffling.
Another witness was a labourer named Brassington. He was a stranger to Peace, but stated that about eight o’clock on the night of the murder a man came up to him outside the Banner Cross Hotel, a few yards from Dyson’s house. He was standing under a gas lamp, and it was a bright moonlight night. The man asked him if he knew of any strange people who had come to live in the neighbourhood. Brassington answered that he did not. The man then produced a bundle of letters which he asked Brassington to read. But Brassington declined, as reading was not one of his accomplishments. The man then said that “he would make it a warm ‘un for those strange folks before morning–he would shoot both of them,” and went off in the direction of Dyson’s house. Brassington swore positively that Peace was the stranger who had accosted him that night, and Mr. Lockwood failed to shake him in his evidence. Nor could Mr. Lockwood persuade the surgeon who was called to Dyson at the time of his death to admit that the marks on the nose and chin of the dead man could have been caused by a blow; they were merely abrasions of the skin caused by the wounded man falling to the ground.
Evidence was then given as to threats uttered by Peace against the Dysons in the July of 1876, and as to his arrest at Blackheath in the October of 1878. The revolver taken from Peace that night was produced, and it was shown that the rifling of the bullet extracted from Dyson’s head was the same as that of the bullet fired from the revolver carried by Peace at the time of his capture.
Mr. Campbell Foster wanted to put in as evidence the card that Dyson had flung into Peace’s garden at Darnall requesting him not to interfere with his family. This card had been found among the bundle of letters dropped by Peace near the scene of the murder. Mr. Lockwood objected to the admission of the card unless all the letters were admitted at the same time. The Judge ruled that both the card and the letters were inadmissible, as irrelevant to the issue; Mr. Lockwood had, he said, very properly cross- examined Mrs. Dyson on these letters to test her credibility, but he was bound by her answers and could not contradict her by introducing them as evidence in the case.
Mr. Lockwood in his address to the jury did his best to persuade them that the death of Dyson was the accidental result of a struggle between Peace and himself. He suggested that Mrs. Dyson had left her house that night for the
purpose of meeting Peace, and that Dyson, who was jealous of his wife’s intimacy with him, had gone out to find her; that Dyson, seeing Peace, had caught hold of him; and that the revolver had gone off accidentally as Dyson tried to wrest it from his adversary. He repudiated the suggestion of Mr. Foster that the persons he had confronted with Mrs. Dyson in the course of his cross-examination had been hired for a paltry sum to come into court and lie.
Twice, both at the beginning and the end of his speech, Mr. Lockwood urged as a reason for the jury being tender in taking Peace’s life that he was in such a state of wickedness as to be quite unprepared to meet death. Both times that his counsel put forward this curious plea, Peace raised his eyes to heaven and exclaimed “I am not fit to die.”
Mr. Justice Lopes in summing up described as an “absolute surmise” the theory of the accidental discharge of the pistol. He asked the jury to take Peace’s revolver in their hands and try the trigger, so as to see for themselves whether it was likely to go off accidentally or not. He pointed out that the pistol produced might not have been the pistol used at Banner Cross; at the same time the bullet fired in November, 1876, bore marks such as would have been produced had it been fired from the pistol taken from Peace at Blackheath in October, 1878. He said that Mr. Lockwood had been perfectly justified in his attempt to discredit the evidence of Mrs. Dyson, but the case did not rest on her evidence alone. In her evidence as to the threats uttered by Peace in July, 1876, Mrs. Dyson was corroborated by three other witnesses. In the Judge’s opinion it was clearly proved that no struggle or scuffle had taken place before the murder. If the defence, he concluded, rested on no solid foundation, then the jury must do their duty to the community at large and by the oath they had sworn.
It was a quarter past seven when the jury retired. Ten minutes later they came back into court with a verdict of guilty. Asked if he had anything to say, Peace in a faint voice replied, “It is no use my saying anything.” The Judge, declining very properly to aggravate the prisoner’s feelings by “a recapitulation of any portion of the details of what I fear, I can only call your criminal career,” passed on him sentence of death. Peace accepted his fate with composure.
Before we proceed to describe the last days of Peace on earth, let us finish with the two women who had succeeded Mrs. Peace in his ardent affections.
A few days after Peace’s execution Mrs. Dyson left England for America, but before going she left behind her a narrative intended to contradict the imputations which she felt had been made against her moral character. An Irishwoman by birth, she said that she had gone to America when she was fifteen years old.
There she met and married Dyson, a civil engineer on the Atlantic and Great Western Railway. Theirs was a rough and arduous life. But Mrs. Dyson was thoroughly happy in driving her husband about in a buggy among bears and creeks. She did not know fear and loved danger: “My husband loved me and I loved him, and in his company and in driving him about in this wild kind of fashion I derived much pleasure.” However, Mr. Dyson’s health broke down, and he was obliged to return to England. It was at Darnall that the fatal acquaintance with Peace began. Living next door but one to the Dysons, Peace took the opportunity of introducing himself, and Mr. Dyson “being a gentleman,” took polite notice of his advances. He became a constant visitor at the house. But after a time Peace began to show that he was not the gentleman Mr. Dyson was. He disgusted the latter by offering to show him improper pictures and “the sights of the town” of Sheffield.
The Dysons tried to shake off the unwelcome acquaintance, but that was easier said than done. By this time Peace had set his heart on making Mrs. Dyson leave her husband. He kept trying to persuade her to go to Manchester with him, where he would take a cigar or picture shop, to which Mrs. Dyson, in fine clothes and jewelry, should lend the charm of her comely presence. He offered her a sealskin jacket, yards of silk, a gold watch. She should, he said, live in Manchester like a lady, to which Mrs. Dyson replied coldly that she had always lived like one and should continue to do so quite independently of him. But Peace would listen to no refusal, however decided its tone. Dyson threw over the card into Peace’s garden. This only served to aggravate his determination to possess himself of the wife. He would listen at keyholes, leer in at the window, and follow Mrs. Dyson wherever she went. When she was photographed at the fair, she found that Peace had stood behind her chair and by that means got himself included in the picture. At times he had threatened her with a revolver. On one occasion when he was more insulting than usual, Mrs. Dyson forgot her fear of him and gave him a thrashing. Peace threatened “to make her so that neither man nor woman should look at her, and then he would have her all to himself.” It was with some purpose of this kind, Mrs. Dyson suggested, that Peace stole a photograph of herself out of a locket, intending to make some improper use of it. At last, in desperation, the Dysons moved to Banner Cross. From the day of their arrival there until the murder, Mrs. Dyson never saw Peace. She denied altogether having been in his company the night before the murder. The letters were “bare forgeries,” written by Peace or members of his family to get her into their power.
Against the advice of all her friends Mrs. Dyson had come back from America to give evidence against Peace. To the detective who saw her at Cleveland she said, “I will go back if I have to walk on my head all the way”; and though she little knew what she would have to go through in giving her evidence, she would do it again under the circumstances. “My opinion is,” she said, “that Peace is a perfect demon–not a man. I am told that since he has been sentenced to death he has become a changed character. That I don’t believe. The place to which the wicked go is not bad enough for him. I think its occupants, bad as they might be, are too good to be where he is. No matter where he goes, I am satisfied that
there will be hell. Not even a Shakespeare could adequately paint such a man as he has been. My lifelong regret will be that I ever knew him.”
With these few earnest words Mrs. Dyson quitted the shores of England, hardly clearing up the mystery of her actual relations with Peace.
A woman with whom Mrs. Dyson very much resented finding herself classed–inebriety would appear to have been their only common weakness–was Mrs. Thompson, the “traitress Sue.” In spite of the fact that on February 5 Mrs. Thompson had applied to the Treasury for L100, blood money due her for assisting the police in the identification of Peace, she was at the same time carrying on a friendly correspondence with her lover and making attempts to see him. Peace had written to her before his trial hoping she would not forsake him; “you have been my bosom friend, and you have ofttimes said you loved me, that you would die for me.” He asked her to sell some goods which he had left with her in order to raise money for his defence. The traitress replied on January 27 that she had already sold everything and shared the proceeds with Mrs. Peace. “You are doing me great injustice,” she wrote, “by saying that I have been out to `work’ with you. Do not die with such a base falsehood on your conscience, for you know I am young and have my living and character to redeem. I pity you and myself to think we should have met.” After his condemnation Mrs. Thompson made repeated efforts to see Peace, coming to Leeds for the purpose. Peace wrote a letter on February 9 to his “poor Sue,” asking her to come to the prison. But, partly at the wish of Peace’s relatives and for reasons of their own, a permission given Mrs. Thompson by the authorities to visit the convict was suddenly withdrawn, and she never saw him again.
III. HIS TRIAL AND EXECUTION
In the lives of those famous men who have perished on the scaffold their behaviour during the interval between their condemnation and their execution has always been the subject of curiosity and interest.
It may be said at once that nothing could have been more deeply religious, more sincerely repentant, more Christian to all appearances than Peace’s conduct and demeanour in the last weeks of his life. He threw himself into the work of atonement with the same uncompromising zeal and energy that he had displayed as a burglar. By his death a truly welcome and effective recruit was lost to the ranks of the contrite and converted sinners. However powerless as a controlling force–and he admitted it–his belief in God and the devil may have been in the past, that belief was assured and confident, and in the presence of death proclaimed itself with vigour, not in words merely, but in deeds.
In obedience to the wishes of his family, Peace had refrained from seeing Sue Thompson. This was at some sacrifice, for he wished very much to see her and to the last, though he knew that she had betrayed him, sent her affectionate and
forgiving messages. These were transmitted to Sue by Mr. Brion. This disingenuous gentleman was a fellow-applicant with Sue to the Treasury for pecuinary recognition of his efforts in bringing about the identification of Peace, and furnishing the police with information as to the convict’s disposal of his stolen property. In his zeal he had even gone so far as to play the role of an accomplice of Peace, and by this means discovered a place in Petticoat Lane where the burglar got rid of some of his booty.
After Peace’s condemnation Mr. Brion visited him in Armley Jail. His purpose in doing so was to wring from his co-inventor an admission that the inventions which they had patented together were his work alone. Peace denied this, but offered to sell his share for L50. Brion refused the offer, and persisted in his assertion that Peace had got his name attached to the patents by undue influence, whatever that might mean. Peace, after wrestling with the spirit, gave way. “Very well, my friend,” he said, “let it be as you say. I have not cheated you, Heaven knows. But I also know that this infamy of mine has been the cause of bringing harm to you, which is the last thing I should have wished to have caused to my friend.” A deed of gift was drawn up, making over to Brion Peace’s share in their inventions; this Peace handed to Brion as the price of the latter’s precious forgiveness and a token of the sincerity of his colleague’s repentance. Thus, as has often happened in this sad world, was disreputable genius exploited once again by smug mediocrity. Mr. Brion, having got all he wanted, left the prison, assuring the Governor that Peace’s repentance was “all bunkum,” and advising, with commendable anxiety for the public good, that the warders in the condemned cell should be doubled.
Peace had one act of atonement to discharge more urgent than displaying Christian forbearance towards ignoble associates. That was the righting of William Habron, who was now serving the third year of his life sentence for the murder of Constable Cock at Whalley Range. Peace sent for the Governor of the jail a few days before his execution and obtained from him the materials necessary for drawing up a plan. Peace was quite an adept at making plans; he had already made an excellent one of the scene of Dyson’s murder. He now drew a plan of the place where Cock had been shot, gave a detailed account of how he came by his death, and made a full confession of his own guilt.
In the confession he described how, some days before the burglary, he had, according to his custom, “spotted” the house at Whalley Range. In order to do this he always dressed himself respectably, because he had found that the police never suspected anyone who wore good clothes. On the night of the crime he passed two policemen on the road to the house. He had gone into the grounds and was about to begin operations when he heard a rustle behind him and saw a policeman, whom he recognised as one of those he had met in the road, enter the garden. With his well-known agility Peace climbed on to the wall, and dropped on to the other side, only to find himself almost in the arms of the second policeman. Peace warned the officer to stand back and fired his revolver
wide of him. But, as Peace said, “these Manchester policemen are a very obstinate lot.” The constable took out his truncheon. Peace fired again and killed him.
Soon after the murderer saw in the newspapers that two men had been arrested for the crime. “This greatly interested me,” said Peace. “I always had a liking to be present at trials, as the public no doubt know by this time.” So he went to Manchester Assizes and saw William Habron sentenced to death. “People will say,” he said, “that I was a hardened wretch for allowing an innocent man to suffer for the crime of which I was guilty but what man would have given himself up under such circumstances, knowing as I did that I should certainly be hanged?” Peace’s view of the question was a purely practical one: “Now that I am going to forfeit my own life and feel that I have nothing to gain by further secrecy, I think it is right in the sight of God and man to clear this innocent young man.” It would have been more right in the sight of God and man to have done it before, but then Peace admitted that during all his career he had allowed neither God nor man to influence his actions.
How many men in the situation of Peace at the time, with the certainty of death before him if he confessed, would have sacrificed themselves to save an innocent man? Cold-blooded heroism of this kind is rare in the annals of crime. Nor did Peace claim to have anything of the hero about him.
“Lion-hearted I’ve lived, And when my time comes Lion-hearted I’ll die.”
Though fond of repeating this piece of doggerel, Peace would have been the last man to have attributed to himself all those qualities associated symbolically with the lion.
A few days before his execution Peace was visited in his prison by Mr. Littlewood, the Vicar of Darnall. Mr. Littlewood had known Peace a few years before, when he had been chaplain at Wakefield Prison. “Well, my old friend Peace,” he said as he entered the cell, “how are you to-day?” “`I am very poorly, sir,” replied the convict, “but I am exceedingly pleased to see you.” Mr. Littlewood assured Peace that there was at any rate one person in the world who had deep sympathy with him, and that was himself. Peace burst into tears. He expressed a wish to unburden himself to the vicar, but before doing so, asked for his assurance that he believed in the truth and sincerity of what he was about to say to him. He said that he preferred to be hanged to lingering out his life in penal servitude, that he was grieved and repentant for his past life. “If I could undo, or make amends for anything I have done, I would suffer my body as I now stand to be cut in pieces inch by inch. I feel, sir, that I am too bad to live or die, and having this feeling I cannot think that either you or anyone else would believe me, and that is the reason why I ask you so much to try to be assured that you do not
think I am telling lies. I call my God to witness that all I am saying and wish to say shall be the truth–the whole truth– nothing but the truth.” Mr. Littlewood said that, after carefully watching Peace and having regard to his experience of some of the most hardened of criminals during his service in Wakefield Prison, he felt convinced that Peace was in earnest and as sincere as any man could be; he spoke rationally, coherently, and without excitement.
Peace was determined to test the extent of the reverend gentleman’s faith in his asseverations. “Now, sir,” he said, “I understand that you still have the impression that I stole the clock from your day-schools.” Mr. Littlewood admitted that such was his impression. “I thought so,” replied Peace, “and this has caused me much grief and pain, for I can assure you I have so much respect for you personally that I would rather have given you a clock and much more besides than have taken it. At the time your clock was stolen I had reason for suspecting that it was taken by some colliers whom I knew.” There was a pause. Mr. Littlewood thought that Peace was going to give him the name of the colliers. But that was not Peace’s way. He said sharply: “Do you now believe that I have spoken the truth in denying that I took your clock, and will you leave me to-day fully believing that I am innocent of doing that?” Mr. Littlewood looked at him closely and appeared to be deliberating on his reply. Peace watched him intently. At last Mr. Littlewood said, “Peace, I am convinced that you did not take the clock. I cannot believe that you dare deny it now in your position, if you really did.” Once more Peace burst into tears, and was unable for some time to speak.
Having recovered his self-possession, Peace turned to the serious business of confession. He dealt first with the murder of Dyson.
He maintained that his relations with Mrs. Dyson had been of an intimate character. He wanted to see her on the night of the crime in order to get her to induce her husband to withdraw the warrant which he had procured against him; he was tired, he said, of being hunted about from place to place. He intercepted Mrs. Dyson as she crossed the yard. Instead of listening to him quietly Mrs. Dyson became violent and threatening in her language. Peace took out his revolver, and, holding it close to her head, warned her that he was not to be trifled with. She refused to be warned. Dyson, hearing the loud voices, came out of his house. Peace tried to get away down the passage into Banner Cross Road, but Dyson followed and caught hold of him. In the struggle Peace fired one barrel of his revolver wide. Dyson seized the hand in which Peace was holding the weapon. “Then I knew,” said Peace, “I had not a moment to spare. I made a desperate effort, wrenched the arm from him and fired again. All that was in my head at the time was to get away. I never did intend, either there or anywhere else, to take a man’s life; but I was determined that I should not be caught at that time, as the result, knowing what I had done before, would have been worse even than had I stayed under the warrant.” If he had intended to murder Dyson, Peace pointed out that he would have set about it in quite a different and more secret way; it was as unintentional a thing as ever was done; Mrs. Dyson had
committed the grossest perjury in saying that no struggle had taken place between her husband and himself.
Katherine Dyson
Katherine Dyson
It is to be remembered that Peace and Mrs. Dyson were the sole witnesses of what took place that night between the two men. In point of credibility there may be little to choose between them, but Peace can claim for his account that it was the statement of a dying, and, to all appearances, sincerely repentant sinner.
Peace then repeated to Mr. Littlewood his confession of the killing of Constable Cock, and his desire that Habron should be set free.[11] As to this part of his career Peace indulged in some general reflections. “My great mistake, sir,” he said, “and I can see it now as my end approaches, has been this–in all my career I have used ball cartridge. I can see now that in using ball cartridge I did wrong I ought to have used blank cartridge; then I would not have taken life.” Peace said that he hoped he would meet his death like a hero. “I do not say this in any kind of bravado. I do not mean such a hero as some persons will understand when they read this. I mean such a hero as my God might wish me to be. I am deeply grieved for all I have done, and would atone for it to the utmost of my power.” To Mr. Littlewood the moment seemed convenient to suggest that as a practical means of atonement Peace should reveal to him the names of the persons with whom he had disposed of the greater part of his stolen property. But in spite of much attempted persuasion by the reverend gentleman Peace explained that he was a man and meant to be a man to the end.
[11] William Habron was subsequently given a free pardon and L800 by way of compensation.
Earlier in their interview Peace had expressed to Mr. Littlewood a hope that after his execution his name would never be mentioned again, but before they parted he asked Mr. Littlewood, as a favour, to preach a sermon on him after his death to the good people of Darnall. He wished his career held up to them as a beacon, in order that all who saw might avoid his example, and so his death be of some service to society.
Before Mr. Littlewood left, Peace asked him to hear him pray. Having requested the warders to kneel down, Peace began a prayer that lasted twenty minutes. He prayed for himself, his family, his victims, Mr. Littlewood, society generally, and all classes of the community. Mr. Littlewood described the prayer as earnest, fervent and fluent. At the end Peace asked Mr. Littlewood if he ought to see Mrs. Dyson and beg her forgiveness for having killed her husband. Mr. Littlewood, believing erroneously that Mrs. Dyson had already left the country, told Peace that he should direct all his attention to asking forgiveness of his Maker. At the close of their interview Peace was lifted into bed and, turning his face to the wall, wept.
Charles Peace's violin
Charles Peace’s violin
Tuesday, February 25, was the day fixed for the, execution of Peace. As the time drew near, the convict’s confidence in ultimate salvation increased. A Dr. Potter of Sheffield had declared in a sermon that “all hope of Peace’s salvation was gone for ever.” Peace replied curtly, “Well, Dr. Potter may think so, but I don’t.” Though his health had improved, Peace was still very feeble in body. But his soul was hopeful and undismayed. On the Saturday before his death his brother and sister-in-law, a nephew and niece visited him for the last time. He spoke with some emotion of his approaching end. He said he should die about eight o’clock, and that at four o’clock an inquest would be held on his body; he would then be thrown into his grave without service or sermon of any kind. He asked his relatives to plant a flower on a certain grave in a cemetery in Sheffield on the day of his execution. He was very weak, he said, but hoped he should have strength enough to walk to the scaffold. He sent messages to friends and warnings to avoid gambling and drinking. He begged his brother to change his manner of life and “become religious.” His good counsel was not apparently very well received. Peace’s visitors took a depressing view of their relative’s condition. They found him “a poor, wretched, haggard man,” and, meeting Mrs. Thompson who was waiting outside the gaol for news of “dear Jack,” wondered how she could have taken up with such a man.
When, the day before his execution, Peace was visited for the last time by his wife, his stepson, his daughter, Mrs. Bolsover, and her husband, he was in much better spirits. He asked his visitors to restrain themselves from displays of emotion, as he felt very happy and did not wish to be disturbed. He advised them to sell or exhibit for money certain works of art of his own devising. Among them was a design in paper for a monument to be placed over his grave. The design is elaborate but well and ingeniously executed; in the opinion of Frith, the painter, it showed “the true feeling of an artist.” It is somewhat in the style of the Albert Memorial, and figures of angels are prominent in the scheme. The whole conception is typical of the artist’s sanguine and confident assurance of his ultimate destiny. A model boat and a fiddle made out of a hollow bamboo cane he wished also to be made the means of raising money. He was describing with some detail the ceremony of his approaching death and burial when he was interrupted by a sound of hammering. Peace listened for a moment and then said, “That’s a noise that would make some men fall on the floor. They are working at my own scaffold.” A warder said that he was mistaken. “No, I am not,” answered Peace, “I have not worked so long with wood without knowing the sound of deals; and they don’t have deals inside a prison for anything else than scaffolds.”
But the noise, he said, did not disturb him in the least, as he was quite prepared to meet his fate. He would like to have seen his grave and coffin; he knew that his body would be treated with scant ceremony after his death. But what of that? By that time his soul would be in Heaven. He was pleased that one sinner who had seen him on his way from Pentonville to Sheffield, had written to tell him that the sight of the convict had brought home to him the sins of his own past life, and by this means he had found salvation.
The time had come to say good-bye for the last time. Peace asked his weeping relatives whether they had anything more that they wished to ask him. Mrs. Peace reminded him that he had promised to pray with them at the last. Peace, ever ready, knelt with them and prayed for half an hour. He then shook hands with them, prayed for and blessed each one singly, and himself gave way to tears as they left his presence. To his wife as she departed Peace gave a funeral card of his own designing. It ran:
In Memory of Charles Peace Who was executed in Armley Prison Tuesday February 25th, 1879 Aged 47
For that I don but never Intended.
The same day there arrived in the prison one who in his own trade had something of the personality and assurance of the culprit he was to execute. William Marwood–unlike his celebrated victim, he has his place in the Dictionary of National Biography–is perhaps the most remarkable of these persons who have held at different times the office of public executioner. As the inventor of the “long drop,” he has done a lasting service to humanity by enabling the death-sentence passed by the judge to be carried out with the minimum of possible suffering. Marwood took a lofty view of the office he held, and refused his assent to the somewhat hypocritical loathing, with which those who sanction and profit by his exertions are pleased to regard this servant of the law. “I am doing God’s work,” said Marwood, “according to the divine command and the law of the British Crown. I do it simply as a matter of duty and as a Christian. I sleep as soundly as a child and am never disturbed by phantoms. Where there is guilt there is bad sleeping, but I am conscious that I try to live a blameless life. Detesting idleness, I pass my vacant time in business (he was a shoemaker at Horncastle, in Lincolnshire) and work in my shoeshop near the church day after day until such time as I am required elsewhere. It would have been better for those I executed if they had preferred industry to idleness.”
Marwood had not the almost patriarchal air of benevolent respectability which his predecessor Calcraft had acquired during a short experience as a family butler; but as an executioner that kindly old gentleman had been a sad bungler in his time compared with the scientific and expeditious Marwood. The Horncastle shoemaker was saving, businesslike, pious and thoughtful. Like Peace, he had interests outside his ordinary profession. He had at one time propounded a scheme for the abolition of the National Debt, a man clearly determined to benefit his fellowmen in some way or other. A predilection for gin would seem to have been his only concession to the ordinary weakness of humanity. And now he had arrived in Armley Jail to exercise his happy dispatch on the greatest of the many criminals who passed through his hands, one who, in his own words, “met death with greater firmness” than any man on whom he had officiated during seven years of Crown employment.
The day of February the 25th broke bitterly cold. Like Charles I. before him, Peace feared lest the extreme cold should make him appear to tremble on the scaffold. He had slept calmly till six o’clock in the morning. A great part of the two hours before the coming of the hangman Peace spent in letter-writing. He wrote two letters to his wife, in one of which he copied out some verses he had written in Woking Prison on the death of their little boy John. In the second he expressed his satisfaction that he was to die now and not linger twenty years in prison. To his daughter, step-son and son-in-law he wrote letters of fervent, religious exhortation and sent them tracts and pictures which he had secured from well-intentioned persons anxious about his salvation. To an old friend, George Goodlad, a pianist, who had apparently lived up to his name, he wrote: “You chose an honest industrious way through life, but I chose the one of dishonesty, villainy and sin”; let his fate, he said, be a warning.
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Peace ate a hearty breakfast and awaited the coming of the executioner with calm. He had been troubled with an inconvenient cough the night before. “I wonder,” he said to one of his warders, “if Marwood could cure this cough of mine.” He had got an idea into his head that Marwood would “punish” him when he came to deal with him on the scaffold, and asked to see the hangman a few minutes before the appointed hour. “I hope you will not punish me. I hope you will do your work quickly,” he said to Marwood. “You shall not suffer pain from my hand,” replied that worthy. “God bless you,” exclaimed Peace, “I hope to meet you all in heaven. I am thankful to say my sins are all forgiven.” And so these two pious men–on the morning of an execution Marwood always knelt down and asked God’s blessing on the work he had to do–shook hands together and set about their business. Firmly and fearlessly Peace submitted himself to the necessary preparations. For one moment he faltered as the gallows came in sight, but recovered himself quickly.
As Marwood was about to cover his face, Peace stopped him with some irritation of manner and said that he wished to speak to the gentlemen of the press who had been admitted to the ceremony. No one gainsaid him, and he thus addressed the reporters: “You gentlemen reporters, I wish you to notice the few words I am going to say. You know what my life has been. It has been base; but I wish you to notice, for the sake of others, how a man can die, as I am about to die, in fear of the Lord. Gentlemen, my heart says that I feel assured that my sins are forgiven me, that I am going to the Kingdom of Heaven, or else to the place prepared for those who rest until the great Judgment day. I do not think I have any enemies, but if there are any who would be so, I wish them well. Gentlemen,
all and all, I wish them to come to the Kingdom of Heaven when they die, as I am going to die.” He asked a blessing on the officials of the prison and, in conclusion, sent his last wishes and respects to his dear children and their mother. “I hope,” he said, “no one will disgrace them by taunting them or jeering them on my account, but to have mercy upon them. God bless you, my dear children. Good- bye, and Heaven bless you. Amen: Oh, my Lord God, have mercy upon me!”
After the cap had been placed over his head Peace asked twice very sharply, as a man who expected to be obeyed, for a drink of water. But this time his request was not compiled with. He died instantaneously and was buried in Armley Jail.
Had Peace flourished in 1914 instead of 1874, his end might have been honourable instead of dishonourable. The war of to-day has no doubt saved many a man from a criminal career by turning to worthy account qualities which, dangerous in crime, are useful in war. Absolute fearlessness, agility, resource, cunning and determination; all these are admirable qualities in the soldier; and all these Charles Peace possessed in a signal degree. But fate denied him opportunity, he became a burglar and died on the scaffold. Years of prison life failed, as they did in those days, to make any impression for good on one resolute in whatever way he chose to go. Peace was a born fighter. A detective who knew him and had on one occasion come near capturing him in London, said that he was a fair fighter, that he always gave fair warning to those on whom he fired, and that, being a dead shot, the many wide shots which he fired are to be reckoned proofs of this. Peace maintained to the last that he had never intended to kill Dyson. This statement ex-detective Parrock believed, and that the fatal shot was fired over Peace’s shoulder as he was making off. Though habitually sober, Peace was made intoxicated now and then by the drink, stood him by those whom he used to amuse with his musical tricks and antics in public- houses. At such times he would get fuddled and quarrelsome. He was in such a frame of mind on the evening of Dyson’s murder. His visit to the Vicar of Ecclesall brought him little comfort or consolation. It was in this unsatisfactory frame of mind that he went to Dyson’s house. This much the ex-detective would urge in his favour. To his neighbours he was an awe-inspiring but kind and sympathetic man. “If you want my true opinion of him,” says Detective Parrock, “he was a burglar to the backbone but not a murderer at heart. He deserved the fate that came to him as little as any who in modern times have met with a like one.” Those who are in the fighting line are always the most generous about their adversaries. Parrock as a potential target for Peace’s revolver, may have erred on the side of generosity, but there is some truth in what he says.
As Peace himself admitted, his life had been base. He was well aware that he had misused such gifts as nature had bestowed on him. One must go back to mediaeval times to find the counterpart of this daring ruffian who, believing in personal God and devil, refuses until the end to allow either to interfere with his business in life. In this respect Charles Peace reminds us irresistibly of our Angevin kings.
There is only one criminal who vies with Charley Peace in that genial popular regard which makes Charles “Charley” and John “Jack,” and that is Jack Sheppard. What Jack was to the eighteenth century, that Charley was to the nineteenth. And each one is in a sense typical of his period. Lecky has said that the eighteenth century is richer than any other in the romance of crime. I think it may fairly be said that in the nineteenth century the romance of crime ceased to be. In the eighteenth century the scenery and dresses, all the stage setting of crime make for romance; its literature is quaint and picturesque; there is something gay and debonair about the whole business.
Sheppard is typical of all this. There is a certain charm about the rascal; his humour is undeniable; he is a philosopher, taking all that comes with easy grace, even his betrayal by his brother and others who should have been loyal to him. Jack Sheppard has the good-humoured carelessness of that most engaging of all eighteenth century malefactors, Deacon Brodie. It is quite otherwise with Charley Peace. There is little enough gay or debonair about him. Compared with Sheppard, Peace is as drab as the surroundings of mid-Victorian crime are drab compared with the picturesqueness of eighteenth century England.
Crime in the nineteenth century becomes more scientific in its methods and in its detection also. The revolver places a more hasty, less decorous weapon than the old-fashioned pistol in the hands of the determined burglar. The literature of crime, such as it is, becomes vulgar and prosaic. Peace has no charm about him, no gaiety, but he has the virtues of his defects. He, unlike Sheppard, shuns company; he works alone, never depending on accomplices; a “tight cock,” as Sheppard would have phrased it, and not relying on a like quality of tightness in his fellows. Sheppard is a slave to his women, Edgeworth Bess and Mrs. Maggot; Mrs. Peace and Sue Thompson are the slaves of Peace. Sheppard loves to stroll openly about the London streets in his fine suit of black, his ruffled shirt and his silver- hilted sword. Peace lies concealed at Peckham beneath the homely disguise of old Mr. Thompson. Sheppard is an imp, Peace a goblin. But both have that gift of personality which, in their own peculiar line, lifts them out from the ruck, and makes them Jack and Charley to those who like to know famous people by cheery nicknames.
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And so we must accept Charles Peace as a remarkable character, whose unquestioned gifts as a man of action were squandered on a criminal career; neither better nor worse than a great number of other persons, whose good fortune it has been to develop similar qualities under happier surroundings. There are many more complete villains than the ordinary criminal, who contrive to go through life without offending against the law. Close and scientific investigation has shown that the average convicted criminal differs intellectually from the normal person only in a slightly lower level of intelligence, a condition that may
well be explained by the fact that the convicted criminal has been found out. Crime has been happily defined by a recent and most able investigator into the character of the criminal[12] as “an unusual act committed by a perfectly normal person.” At the same time, according to the same authority, there is a type of normal person who tends to be convicted of crime, and he is differentiated from his fellows by defective physique and mental capacity and an increased possession of antisocial qualities.[13]
[12] “The English Convict,” a statistical study, by Charles Goring, M.D. His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1913.
[13] Murderers–at least those executed for their crimes–have not for obvious reasons been made the subject of close scientific observation. Their mental capacity would in all probability be found to be rather higher than that of less ambitious criminals.
How does Peace answer to the definition? Though short in stature, his physical development left little to be desired: he was active, agile, and enjoyed excellent health at all times. For a man of forty-seven he had aged remarkably in appearance. That is probably to be accounted for by mental worry. With two murders on his conscience we know from Sue Thompson that all she learnt of his secrets was what escaped from him in his troubled dreams–Peace may well have shown traces of mental anxiety. But in all other respects Charles Peace would seem to have been physically fit. In intellectual capacity he was undoubtedly above the average of the ordinary criminal. The facts of his career, his natural gifts, speak for themselves. Of anti-social proclivities he no doubt possessed his share at the beginning, and these were aggravated, as in most cases they were in his day, by prison life and discipline.
Judged as scientifically as is possible where the human being is concerned, Peace stands out physically and intellectually well above the average of his class, perhaps the most naturally gifted of all those who, without advantages of rank or education, have tried their hands at crime. Ordinary crime for the most part would appear to be little better than the last resort of the intellectually defective, and a poor game at that. The only interesting criminals are those worthy of something better. Peace was one of these. If his life may be said to point a moral, it is the very simple one that crime is no career for a man of brains.
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