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A Book of Remarkable Criminals
By H. B. Irving
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2016 H. B. Irving
All rights reserved.
The Life of Charles Peace
"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."
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.
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.
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 bulldog 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.
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.
Excerpted from A Book of Remarkable Criminals by H. B. Irving. Copyright © 2016 H. B. Irving. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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