1879: Charles Peace, Victorian cat burglar

26 comments 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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