1953: Emil August Fieldorf, Polish anti-Communist 1853: János Libényi, who stabbed an emperor and built a church

1879: Charles Peace, Victorian cat burglar

February 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1879 was hanged one of the most colorful — and, subsequently, romanticized — career criminals of 19th century England, for the murder of a onetime friend whose wife he had endeavored to seduce.

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.

So declaims H.B. Irving’s rollickingly readable sketch of Victorian England’s most notorious pre-Ripper outlaw.

Peace was a knave all his 47 years, and lost the best part of two decades to various stints in prison. It is chiefly for his last few years — not surprising, perhaps, in a habitue of these annals of execution — that he so colorfully endows his spot in the firmament of criminal history.

A copious string of home burglaries, audacious in both their nature and extent, disturbed South London in 1877-78, arousing the fear of the communities. Police suspected an entire gang must be at work. Irving, once again:

Perhaps [Peace] 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 effect the capture of the mysterious criminal.

Upon capture the master criminal revealed himself a gnarled character at once grandfatherly and fey — “a half-caste about sixty years of age, of repellent aspect,” the police described their catch. As the onion layers fell away, this strange creature of such otherworldly capacity for theft also revealed himself the vanished fugitive of a two-year-old murder — a personal affair (of much less brilliance than his burglary) whose particulars are thoroughly handled by Irving.

Although Peace was known by both name and distinctive appearance for that crime, he had coolly disregarded the price on his head and concealed himself in the infallible cloak of bourgeois respectability. “A period of true splendour,” Charles Whibley called it in his A Book of Scoundrels:

Like Fielding, like Cervantes, like Sterne, Peace reserved his veritable masterpiece for the certainty of middle-life. His last two years were nothing less than a march of triumph. If you remember his constant danger, you will realise the grandeur of the scheme. From the moment that Peace left Bannercross with Dyson’s blood upon his hands, he was a hunted man. His capture was worth five hundred pounds; his features were familiar to a hundred hungry detectives. Had he been less than a man of genius, he might have taken an unavailing refuge in flight or concealment. But, content with no safety unattended by affluence, he devised a surer plan: he became a householder. Now, a semi-detached villa is an impregnable stronghold. Respectability oozes from the dusky mortar of its bricks, and escapes in clouds of smoke from its soot-grimed chimneys. No policeman ever detects a desperate ruffian in a demure black-coated gentleman who day after day turns an iron gate upon its rusty hinge. And thus, wrapt in a cloak of suburban piety, Peace waged a pitiless and effective war upon his neighbours.

Whibley lovingly chronicles Peace’s superb technique and stupendous windfall. The thief’s overt career was in dealing musical instruments — skillful handling of the fiddle was a lifelong avocation; the simpatico that established with Sherlock Holmes earned the tribute, “My old friend Charlie Peace was a violin virtuoso” from Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective in “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” — and he was obliged to justify wealth so disproportionate to his station with an allusion to marrying into money.

Nothing like a Holmesian surmise from such retrospectively suggestive clues found him out; the police chanced to nab him on the job and commenced the familiar tedium of turning former friends against him (enlivened by Peace’s attempt to escape by hurling himself from a train). The supposed heiress who had lived with Peace as his supposed wife readily cooperated in his doom, for which services she applied on the day after his sentence for the £100 reward. Contemporaries caught up in the allure of the wondrous criminal branded her “traitress Sue”.

Charley did not so ill-use his confederates; he was obstinate in his refusal to yield up the name of his fence, and remained affectionate after his treacherous lover to the very end. Indeed, Whibley notes, in his departing reconciliation with an injurious world, Peace “surrendered himself to those exercises of piety from which he had never wavered”

The foolish have denounced him for a hypocrite, not knowing that the artist may have a life apart from his art, and that to Peace religion was an essential pursuit. So he died, having released from an unjust sentence the poor wretch who at Whalley Range had suffered for his crime,* and offering up a consolatory prayer for all mankind. In truth, there was no enemy for whom he did not intercede. He prayed for his gaolers, for his executioner, for the Ordinary, for his wife, for Mrs. Thompson, his drunken doxy, and he went to his death with the sure step of one who, having done his duty, is reconciled with the world. The mob testified its affectionate admiration by dubbing him ‘Charley,’ and remembered with effusion his last grim pleasantry. ‘What is the scaffold?’ he asked with sublime earnestness. And the answer came quick and sanctimonious: ‘A short cut to Heaven!’

The incidence of Peace-related “penny dreafuls” — sensationalized popular publications — testify to the public imagination captured by this day’s victim. The wonderful site Yesterday’s Papers has posted a variety of fascinating Victorian Peace accounts (some reportedly by way of like-minded fellow-travelers). Executed Today is pleased to reprint several images here with permission.

* After he was condemned to die, Peace confessed to having also shot a constable in order to evade capture some years earlier. He had actually attended the trial where an innocent man, one John Habron, was sentenced to death for that crime. Habron, luckily, had been reprieved two days before his own hanging; on the strength of Peace’s confession, he was exonerated and released.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Common Criminals,England,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Infamous,Murder,Popular Culture

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25 thoughts on “1879: Charles Peace, Victorian cat burglar”

  1. Stacey Peace says:

    My husband is Charlie peace’s g g g nephew, we did the family tree which confirmed this

    1. Sharon says:

      My great grand mother was born in 1869 and was called Mary Ellen Peace, her grandfather was born in 1817 and was called Thomas Peace. A few years ago my uncle told me there was a family connection. I am currently trying to trace my family tree but I am struggling at the moment.

  2. c watts says:

    the man dyson who charlie peace shot and killed did not have any children he didnt have grandchildren. so no he is not any ones grandfather or great grandfather

  3. EmmittBrown says:

    His of being forgotten remains vein as the Goon Show cites his his in the final punchline of the episode “Lurgii strikes Britain”.

  4. Paul Drawdy says:

    I’m always amazed at the monicker “Great Cat Burglar” of someone who has been arrested for the crime more than twice. As a former Law Enforcement Official its easy to read between the lines of romantic writers. Do you look at the son of the constable killed or the person who’s fortune is stolen and say, you have been visited by greatness? Only if you are not the victim, but a reader in a soft chair or a simpleton with the mind of an adolescent. If this lackey would have been hanged early on, there would have been more genealogical lines instead of two periods.

  5. Jack Ware says:

    One of the greatest burglars to ever live, he was the first to use railroad tracks as a means to travel to and from his scores. An incredible climber and very agile, he deserves much more respect from those who disdain him. Those of us that have followed his path in crime, marvel at his abilities and respect his accomplishments.

  6. Bon Slott says:

    Peace was an ugly little man without any redeeming features…he was a thief, murderer and a stalker (she was never his mistress). Like all Victorian criminals he led an interesting life and was often romanticised into some kind of Robin Hood, but in truth he made people’s lives a misery, particularly Mr & Mrs Dyson.

  7. Mike Dyson says:

    Hi,
    I am a Sheffield Dyson trying to establish my tree.
    I wonder if those with Dyson connections would be able to give me their tree details.( All Dysons tend to stem from a common ancestor)

    Coincidently I have just established that no one has been able to locate Arthurs grave which is documented to be in Ecclesall church yard. Though commemorated on the family grave at Tinsley.

    1. Paula says:

      Arthur Dyson is one of my ancestors. The Dyson families lived in Darnell throughout the 1800’s & 1900’s. I think it’s his great nephew that is buried in tinsley graveyard with his wife. Charlie peace wasn’t a romantic cat burglar as stated in so many articles but a thief and murderer

  8. Katie Griffin says:

    Only found out today from my stepdad, that Charlie Peace shot my ancester Arthur Dyson on my step dads side. Always good to have your skeletons in the open instead of rattling in the cupboard.

    1. c watts says:

      mr dyson did not have children i dont know if he had a brother or cuz’s name dyson so mr dyason and his wife was a childless couple

  9. jeanbarnett(needyson) says:

    I was always told that Arthur Dyson who Peace shot was my g grandad my dads name was also Arthur Dyson

  10. Nichola says:

    Charley peace was my g g g grandad. Been reading about him, wot a character.

    1. c watts says:

      hi nicola it was not mentiond that charlie peace had any children or grandchildren ect where did you get that he was a distance great grandfather of yours from

      1. Linda Hollindale says:

        Charles Peace had at least one son called Willie and could have had a daughter or at least a step daughter.

        1. Sharo.n says:

          In 1859 Charles married a widower Hannah Ward. Who had a son. Together they had a daughter called Jane

  11. Christine Armstrong says:

    Charley Peace was one of my ancestors- what a shock! That side of the family was ‘Holier than Thou’ No wonder they never spole about where thay came from.

    1. Theresa peace kraetschman says:

      I am also a descendant of charly peace. My mother told me about him even though he was related to my father, Thomas peace. I do not know the relation though and there is no one alive that I can ask.

  12. William J E Bcon says:

    I have lived all my life with the tale of my greate Grand Farther a London Cab owner driver, was murderd by three men wearing womens dress who asked him to drive them to Hamstead.
    He was found dieing in a ditch on the heath ,the next morning.
    His wife ,my Great Grand Mother held me in her arms befor she died aged 101, I was born 1936

  13. William Bacon says:

    I Believe this man murdered my Great Grand father

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