Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Book review: Charlie Peace: Murder, Mayhem and the Master of Disguise

614-5PESbKL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_“A devil once lived in God’s own county,” states the blurb to this new book on the Victorian burglar and murderer Charlie Peace, and this sets up the style of the book well. First-time author Ben W Johnson proudly proclaims his journalistic credentials on the book’s cover, . has a journalistic background which does, perhaps, help explain the style in which he writes.

So what could be a grim, bleak tale of life in 19th century Sheffield becomes, in Johnson’s writing, a romanticised story of a boy who saw his father injured in the course of work and who was also injured young, ending his legitimate career hopes. A tale of a physically and morally repugnant man, who treated his wife appallingly badly, and had little thought as to other people’s feelings, becomes, in this account, almost heroic in places.

Although the author has clearly spent time on his research, the book is occasionally problematic in terms of facts; for example, Johnson states unequivocally that Peace married his wife, Hannah (on page 30, he says that Charlie and Hannah married ‘in a small ceremony in nearby Rotherham’, and on page 137 he notes that she was a woman who ‘took her wedding vows seriously’), but he then refers to her, later in the book, as his ‘common-law wife’ (p.114) – which would mean they were not married.

He frequently refers to Peace’s ‘athleticism’ – despite the fact that Peace was lame and had a pronounced limp. He states that Beverley was a ‘town in North Yorkshire’ (p.85) – it is, and was at the time of the events described in the book, in the East Riding. Peace’s stepson, Willie, is given two different surnames (Willie Ward on p.120 – Ward being briefly one of Pearce’s pseudonyms, but there is no sign that anyone else adopted that name –  and Willie Haines in the illustrations insert) during the course of the book.

More problematically, Johnson also ascribes feelings to Peace and the members of his family, where I am not certain he can possibly know what they were – it is not clear whether he has got them from historical sources or has simply put his modern day sensibilities onto these very different Victorian figures.

So on p.19, we are told that Peace’s parents ‘glowed with pride’ when he played an instrument, and on p.21 that he had visits in hospital from ‘his loving family’ and that he ‘thanked his lucky stars each day’ that he had not had a leg amputated (although on the same page, and the following, we are also told that he had a ‘sense of hopelessness’ about his predicament). His wife is his ‘soulmate and lover’ (p.30); his mother is said to have been ‘alarmed’ by the changes she saw in her son (p.22).  If these feelings are based on archival sources, I would have liked to have been told that, as it instead gives the impression that Johnson has got confused as to whether he is writing a history book or a work of historical fiction.

It’s certainly a great story – Peace moved around the country evading police for quite a while; he may (or may not) have had an affair that led to him becoming what we would call today an obsessive stalker, and murdering his (possible) lover’s husband. He also had the ability to dislocate his jaw at will, changing his appearance, and could feign being different characters through his use of dress and walnut oil.

But he was also, clearly, an unattractive, repugnant character, and the sympathy of readers may well be with the women he came into contact with, as well as the unfortunate lover’s husband and also a Manchester constable who ended up dead at Peace’s hand. He was not the romanticised American-style gangster that Johnson appears to want him to be (the description of a Manchester pub as being ‘more akin to a rowdy Wild West saloon’ on p.55 is one suggestion of this); he was a petty criminal from Sheffield whose committed murders appear to have been more the result of fluke than of plan.

Perhaps the hyperbole and odd similes and metaphors that Johnson clearly loves contribute to this strange attempt to make Peace more of a man than he was. One victim is described as dropping to the ground and lying ‘as still as a carved statue’ while Charlie ‘scampered into the night like a wily urban fox’ (p.72); at another point, Charlie disappears into the darkness ‘like an unwelcome gust of icy wind’ (p.83). Johnson refers to the ‘first green shoots of criminality rising to the surface’ in the young Peace (p.24); elsewhere we are told that ‘the talons of crime had buried themselves too deep into the flesh of this wretched villain’. (p.30). I ended up getting distracted looking for the next example of this unnecessarily flowery language, which is not what a reader wants to do, or should do!

Basically, Johnson has a good story here, but needs to reign in his tendency to over-egg his language in order to tell it effectively. There’s nothing wrong with paring back, rather than adding to, the words. He also needs to decide whether he wants to write a factual history of crime, or whether his enthusiasm is really for historical fiction. Trying to combine two different genres, as he appears to do here, can occasionally jar, as can the propensity to ascribe modern emotions about the family to 19th century characters who may have lived differently, or had different motivations, to those he, in the 21st century, assumes. However, it is still a readable romp through Charlie Peace’s life.

Charlie Peace: Murder, Mayhem and the Master of Disguise by Ben W. Johnson (Pen &Sword, 2016) is available now from Pen & Sword, Amazon and other retailers.

Book Review: Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel


Mary Ann Cotton, suspected serial killer

Mary Ann Cotton has gone into the history books as ‘Britain’s first serial killer’ – something reiterated by a line on this new book‘s front cover. However, as the author, Martin Connolly, sets out to explore, there is doubt as to how many murders she committed – and the author in fact is not sure that she committed any, which makes the unequivocal cover a bit of an odd decision.

The first part of this book, looking at Mary Ann Cotton’s life prior to her trial in 1873, is a bit confusing. Connolly, who lives in the area Cotton was from, assumes that the reader has a knowledge of her life and crimes and therefore fails to explain events properly from the beginning, so the feeling is that the reader is being thrown into situations they are assumed to already know about.

There is also a bit of a confusing chronology and use of sources, and I had to refer back a few times to work out what was happening, and who was who.  In this sense, and in the way the author is confused as to how to refer to poor relief (and his argument that Mary Ann couldn’t have been a prostitute because she had always earned a living – despite prostitution being, by its nature, paid work in itself), the book could have done with more stringent editing by Pen & Sword.

However, once Connolly starts to explore the trial itself, the book becomes far more satisfactory. He relates the trial using archival sources and statements, and so here, we read a straightforward account of what people said, and the suspicions of the neighbourhood relating to Mary Ann. The fundamental unfairness of a trial in which the defendant had little defence or ability to understand what was going on and how to respond to it is made clear, and Connolly explores how such a trial, if held today, would be unlikely to result in a guilty verdict.

12947This is not to say that 40-year-old Mary Ann was innocent; although Connolly makes a good argument as to doubts in her case, my feeling remains that she was guilty of multiple murders. However, the key issue is the lack of defence, and the relegation of Mary Ann almost to a bit-player in her town trial, and this the author explores well.

I also liked the fact that Connolly had researched what had happened to others involved in Mary Ann’s life and trial, particularly her surviving children, which gave a sense of closure to the book, and the inclusion of Mary Ann’s prison letters, in her own spelling and language, which gave a real impression of the woman and how she communicated.

So for an interesting account of how the legal system operated in late 19th century England, and how it was stacked against poorer defendants, Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel is recommended.

Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel, by Martin Connolly, is published by Pen & Sword books, and can be bought here.

Female felons and controlling the community

Yarn spinning: an example of a spinning wheel from Hereford.

Yarn spinning: an example of a spinning wheel from Hereford.

As one of my particular interests is gender and crime, looking at how women have been represented in the criminal justice system both as victims and perpetrators of crime, as well as being vital witnesses in many case, I like to seek out other research in this area.

So with this in mind, and following on the footsteps of Findmypast’s recent blog post on finding 18th and 19th century ‘Wayward Women’, it’s good to see the British Library publish a post this week on Female Felons in the 18th Century. This post focuses on the women who can be found in the Calendars of Prisoners, and the cases the blog post cites include women accused of false reeling, being bastard-bearers, and of being idle and disorderly.

These offences were common ones for women in the late 18th century. Spinning was a job that women could do from home, whilst looking after their children – and in many cases, children could also help with the job.

However, some women took short-cuts, claiming to have spun a certain amount but actually doing less and taking extra yarn to others to be sold on. Yarn was supposed to comprise a certain number of threads; women convicted of false reeling had spun fewer threads onto a standard reel. For a fuller account of how yarn spinners were regulated in law, John Styles‘ paper ‘Spinners and the Law: Regulating Yarn Standards in the Worsted Industries, 1550-1800’ (Textile History, 44(2), 145-170 (2013) is highly recommended, and can be downloaded here.

Being accused of being ‘lewd’ by having illegitimate children was a form of social control aimed at the mothers, not the fathers, of children. Although theoretically any woman who had given birth to an illegitimate child could face a charge of lewdness, in practice, it tended to be particular women who were deemed to be troublesome, or who had had more than one illegitimate child, who were targeted.

'Une Savoyarde' by Noël Hallé

‘Une Savoyarde’ by Noël Hallé

Women who had several children were perceived to be ignoring the social and moral conventions of society, and therefore had to be ‘punished’ for their repeated transgressions. This appears to be the case with the woman noted in the British Library‘s post; Mary Parker served a year in prison in Wakefield in 1778 after being found to have had three ‘bastard’ children.

And idle and disorderly? This was a term that could be applied to an increasing number of actions under the vagrancy legislation of the 18th and early 19th centuries. It could apply to those begging, or singing for money; but also for a wide range of other occupations or types of behaviour, and was an opportunity to ‘remove’ poorer members of society from the community in which they had been living, thus obviating the need of that particular parish to give them poor relief by shipping them off to their ‘home’ parish. To hear a podcast on ‘Loose, idle and disorderly: Vagrant removal in late eighteenth-century Middlesex’ by Tim Hitchcock, Adam Crymble and Louise Falcini, see the Institute of Historical Research website here.

Again a form of social control, the cases and offences detailed in the British Library’s blog post show how English society was preoccupied with both restricted the ways in which women could make a bit of money, and the way they tried to live their lives.


Joking is a hanging offence

It’s nice when two of my research interests – theatre and crime* – come together, so it tickled me to find the following short article in an Australian newspaper from 1907. Although our ancestors’ jokes can sometimes appear a bit opaque – or simply unfunny – to us, with the passing of time, this one is still clear.


David Garrick - what a wag

David Garrick – what a wag

Once, when David Garrick was passing Tyburn, he saw a crowd assembled to witness the execution of a criminal.


“Who is he?” asked the actor of a friend who was with him.


“I believe his name is Vowel,” was the reply.


“Ah,” said Garrick, “I wonder which of the vowels he is, for there are seven! At all events, it is certain that it is neither U or I.”

And that is your crime-related humour for the week. 🙂


*My next book, which fuses these two interests, will be published by Pen & Sword in 2017.  

Unfit for Judges: a Victorian tale

Another early C19th magistrate - Bedfordshire's Samuel Whitbread (Wellcome Library, London. Used under Creative Commons licence).

Another early C19th magistrate – Bedfordshire’s Samuel Whitbread
(Wellcome Library, London. Used under Creative Commons licence).

In 1847, each day’s sitting of the Gloucester Assizes had to start later than normal, at 9.30am at the earliest. This was despite there being lots of business that the magistrates were keen to get done as quickly as possible. What was the reason for the late start?

Justice Maule, one of the said magistrates, had simply decided that he had to commute from Cheltenham each morning, unlike others who lodged locally in Gloucester.

He had chosen to lodge at a nice, comfortable Cheltenham inn rather than face the judges’ lodgings, which he described as:

“the unventilated, undrained, fetid dog-hole”

He argued that people of “robust health” might be able to stay in such places without risking their lives, but he was not prepared to do so.

In all fairness to the justice of the peace, the judges’ lodgings in Gloucester were somewhat infamous, and the magistrates had been complaining about their state for several years. However, as the local press acerbically noted, their complaints did not mean they were prepared to do anything about the lodgings themselves; they were happy to voice their dislike, but not to make “any exertion to remove or abate the nuisance”.

It was easier, it seems, to simply stay elsewhere, and make everyone turn up to the Assizes later in the day.


Sticking it to the sheep

Waifish_boyWe still refer today, in our industrial present, to goading people – metaphorically prodding them just to annoy them, or to make them do something. Yet the phrase ‘to goad’ comes from a far more rural implement – the goad, a stick that was either shaped to form a point at one end, or fitted with a sharp spike to its top.

The goad was used for driving cattle – usually oxen during ploughing, but also for other animals being driven to market. In 1816, Sir Walter Scott noted that countrymen were ‘armed with scythes…hay-forks…goads’ and it was clearly still a fundamental part of the rural worker’s armoury in the first half of the 19th century.

This might seem to be a world away from early Victorian London – the sprawling urban metropolis described by the likes of Charles Dickens; a world of inequality, of paupers starving in workhouses living only streets away from businessmen and industrialists, making their money and creating a recognisably modern city.

Yet some rural traditions continued to impinge on the urban modernity. In the 1840s, there were around 4000 butchers within London, and Smithfield Market was the main place where animals were sold. Farmers sent their cattle into London to be sold on; it was noted that ‘the principal supply of live cattle for the consumption of the metropolis is from the northern counties.’

There was clearly scope for mistreatment of these animals, being brought into the city to be sold on, killed, and used for feeding the residents of the metropolis. But it was not always those responsible for the cattle who were guilty of neglecting or abusing their animals. For example, in 1841, a young boy, described as a ‘ragged-looking little urchin’, by the name of Franklin, was charged by the Animals’ Friend Society – a society established by Lewis Gompertz in 1832 – with having wilfully ill-used a sheep.

He appeared in the Marlborough Street Police Court in London, where a local constable gave evidence, stating that he had watched the boy as he followed a flock of sheep, giving himself amusement by hitting the animals over their heads with a thick stick, and occasionally poking a goad into their ribs.

Franklin was not employed to help drive the sheep; in fact, the drover kept trying to get him to go away. But Franklin simply laughed at the drover, and continued to hit the sheep until the constable grabbed him and brought him to Marlborough Street.

In court, the offending stick was produced, and it had obviously seen a considerable amount of wear. Franklin seems to have made it himself, making a hole at one end to insert a goad that would wound the sheep only to a certain depth of skin and tissue.

Before the magistrate, George Long, who was shortly to transfer to the Marylebone Police Court, Franklin insisted that he had been asked to help drive the flock by a butcher – despite the drover’s claims otherwise. Mr Long asked whether he used the goad to injure the sheep – “Oh no, I never sticks the poor sheep with the goad”, answered the boy.

A surprised Mr Long responded, “What do you have it for?” to which an unperturbed Franklin answered, “Only to stick into the bullocks.”

Franklin, the bored child who probably enjoyed answering the magistrate back as much as he enjoyed goading animals, was promptly fined five shillings “for his barbarity”.


Sources: The Morning Post, 16 March 1841, Diana Donald, ‘Picturing Animals in Britain, 1750-1850’ (Yale University Press, 2007), p.354, OED, Oxford Dictionary of National BiographyVictorian London,



Wayward women and malleable morality in Victorian Cornwall

I’ve recently been looking at the criminal activities of Cornish women in the 19th century, placing their offences within their wider economic and social context. However, here, I thought I’d focus in on one particular Cornish family, to show how their offences and lives could be different from those of local men, and how these women were able to contribute to the household economy and form a financial coping strategy in times of economic need. Their lives were governed not by conventional morality (or concepts of what defined morality) but by a practicality and by close bonds with the other women in their families.

In March 1848, two women, 34-year-old Elizabeth Worsley and 47-year-old Eliza Harvey, were convicted at the Penzance Borough Sessions of keeping a bawdy house, and sentenced to three months each in prison. This was a fairly unusual offence to be charged with, judging from surviving criminal registers for Cornwall; women were more frequently convicted of in the 1840s of larceny, including larceny as a servant, a more serious offence whereby female servants stole from their masters or mistresses. But there was also an apparent monitoring of female sexuality in the mid 19th century, with women being deemed to be ‘common prostitutes’ for walking in public at night, or for having an illegitimate child.

380px-EN_BESKYTTERINDE_AF_INDUSTRIENElizabeth Worsley, one of the women charged, lived in the Penzance area all her life. She was born there in 1814, and died in the town in 1873. In 1851, the census listed her as the head of household at a house in Camberwell Street, Penzance, working as a boot binder, along with her sister, 29-year-old Mary Worsley. Also with them were Elizabeth’s two children – Charles F Worsley, aged 11, and daughter Wilmot Ann Worsley, 3, and Mary’s son, two year old Isaac. Elizabeth was clearly listed as single; her two children were illegitimate, and took her surname. Similarly, Mary’s son was also illegitimate. Also present at their house was Elizabeth’s ‘sweetheart’ – named as such in the census – Peter Knight, a 31-year-old mariner.

In 1861, Elizabeth was still working as a shoe or boot binder, but was now living at 31 Adelaide Street. Now aged 41, she was listed in the census as unmarried, but she was also stated to be the mother of Charles, a 21-year-old cordwainer, Amelia, 15, a servant, and Wilmot Ann, 12, a scholar. Two of Elizabeth’s other sisters were now living with her – a married sister, 42-year-old Ann Rowe, and a younger, single sister – Wilmot Worsley, after whom her niece was named. This younger sister also had an illegitimate child with her – Isaac Crow Worsley, aged 12. Neither sister had a job, and so Elizabeth and her two older children were responsible for maintaining this extended family.

Elizabeth – still single – and her son, Charles, were in 1871 living with her ‘daughter in law’ Amelia, 24 (presumably the same Amelia who was stated to be Elizabeth’s daughter ten years earlier; see note at end). Also living with them was Elizabeth’s nephew Isaac, by now a 22 year old labourer. Charles had followed his mother’s occupation, and was now a shoemaker.

So we have here a woman who never married, but who had and raised children on her own, maintaining an extended family through her work. She may well have supplemented her boot-binding income with sex work, as the bawdy house conviction suggests; was the ‘sweetheart’ named in the earliest census one of her clients? But she lived in close confines with this extended family, and it seems unlikely that if she had sex for money she did so on a formal basis, from her own home. It seems more likely that when times were hard, she may have tried to get money where she could, on a more ad hoc, disorganised basis, until things got better.

Christian_Krogh-Albertine_i_politilægens_venteværelseWhat does seem apparent is that this was a matriarchal set-up, where marriage was neither sought nor thought about. Elizabeth’s own illegitimate daughter Wilmot Ann, born in 1849, followed her mother’s example. She died in 1928 in Penzance, still unmarried, but this does not mean she did not have relationships. In 1881, she was the head of household in a house in Friggens Court, off Market Street, working as a seamstress. She was working to support not only herself, but her 10-year-old illegitimate son, Charles. Charles was actually her second illegitimate child; the first, Mary, baptised in 1868, seems to have died young.

Wilmot only had one recorded appearance before the magistrates – in August 1881, she appeared at the Penzance Petty Sessions, charged with disobeying a school attendance order – she had not been making Charles go to school. She was fined 2s 6d for the offence. At the same time, two of her relatives similarly appeared; William Worsley for not ensuring that his children regularly attended St Paul’s School, and was fined the same as Wilmot. Then Amelia Worsley was summoned for not sending her daughter to school, but she claimed her child was ill, and produced a doctor’s certificate (The Cornishman, 11 August 1881).

It was noted that she did not send her children to school regularly – and in fact, four months earlier, Amelia Worsley had been before the magistrates for the same reason, both her son and daughter having failed to attend school. In that case, Amelia had argued that her son ‘had been frightened by a dog’ and her daughter was ill; but she was censured for not having got a medical certificate to that effect (The Cornishman, 17 February 1881). In this case, too, the children appear to have been Amelia’s illegitimate son and daughter.

This was the same situation ten years later; Wilmot was now working as a charwoman, living in a different, but still poor part of the town, her income now supplemented by Charles’s work as a driver. Wilmot then moved to a two-room house at 7 Summer Court, New Street, where she remained for at least ten years. She continued to work as a char, and clearly signed her name as ‘Mrs Wilmot Worsley’, despite not marrying, and the use of ‘Mrs’ to denote a female whether married or single having become obsolete.

These children’s illegitimate status seems to have been overlooked or tolerated within their local community, and all of them were baptised within the Church of England (in Wilmot’s and Amelia’s cases, Elizabeth was recorded as her father in the records, with a Mary Worsley listed as mother). There is no record online that their baptisms had the common annotation ‘base born’ or ‘illegitimate’ next to them.

Elizabeth freely declared that she was a single woman, as did Wilmot, although she used the title ‘Mrs’. Amelia, in 1901, was listed as a widow in the census, when she was working as an office caretaker and living on her own – but she was similarly listed as a widow in 1891, and in 1881, when she was working as a laundress and living with her children Mary, 10, Charles, 7 – and an 11 month old child, William. And as mentioned previously, in the 1871 census, she listed herself as ‘wife of John Worsley’, but there was no John living at the address, and no record of any Cornish marriage between a John Worsley and Amelia.*

Were the Worsleys simply one family who refused to live by the conventions of Victorian morality, or were they representative of their community? The apparent acceptance of their lifestyles in their local area, their openness in recording their status and that of their children, and the many cases involving ‘immoral’ behaviour and prostitution by women in Cornwall during the 19th century suggests that female sexual behaviour was not perceived by these women as anything to be embarrassed about – even if the authorities sporadically attempted to punish them for it.


* There is one marriage between John Worsley and, possibly, an Amelia Hardy in 1870, but this took place in Manchester, and there is no evidence that the Worsleys ever moved outside of Penzance. In addition, as Amelia is clearly Elizabeth’s daughter in the 1861 census, and has Elizabeth’s family with her in 1871, it seems unlikely that she was a daughter-in-law with the maiden name of Hardy, rather than a Worsley by birth. There is also no record of Elizabeth Worsley having a son named John (one John Worsley baptised in 1852 in Penzance was the son of Mary and John Worsley). However, a John Worsley, aged 49, did die in Penzance in 1878, so I cannot be 100% sure that Amelia wasn’t telling the truth.

An image from the Newgate Calendar

An image from the Newgate Calendar

Findmypast has today released the third phase of its crime, prisons and punishment collection, covering England and Wales between 1770 and 1935.

The collection now includes the following series from The National Archives (TNA):

  • PCOM 4: Home Office and Prison Commission Female Licences
  • HO26: Home Office – Criminal Registers for Middlesex
  • HO27: Home Office – Criminal Registers for England and Wales

More records from other TNA series (HO8, HO47, HO140, PCOM2 and PCOM3) have also been added, along with the Newgate Calendar, vols 1 and 2 – containing over 80,000 records of ‘notorious characters’ and their offences up to 1841.

Tasmania Convict Records from 1800 to 1833 can also now be searched – a collection including records from over 20 different sources, held by the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office.

This latest tranche of criminal records can be searched on Findmypast via this link.


I’ve not got much time to blog at the moment, as I get my next book ready to send to my publisher – but I found this small item in the Illustrated Police News (10 June 1899) that was rather sweet (despite the subject matter). I’m sure many of us can relate to always being seen asa child by older generations of our families, even when the police are involved…


IPN 10 June 1899

Top Five: Crime podcasts

My social media feeds are often full of requests for podcast recommendations, or friends talking about which ones they’re currently listening too. I often work whilst catching up on my favourite podcasts, so thought it was worth summarising my favourites ones. It’s a bit of a golden age for podcasts relating to crime, so there are lots to choose from; however, here are my current top five. If you would like to recommend any others, do get in touch!

1. Serial

The granddaddy of crime podcasts, the first season had a huge impact, and it was recently announced that its subject, Adnan Masud Syed, is to get a retrial after having previously been convicted of the murder of Hae Min Lee 17 years ago.




2. Untold Murder

This British podcast tells the story of the murder of Daniel Morgan nearly 30 years ago (fact: as a child, I remember watching a piece about this case on Crimewatch). It includes interviews with family members, and is a fascinating look at the influence and impact of the British press on murder cases.




3. Body on the Moor


A BBC production, this is an attempt to get closure on the identity and facts behind one man’s death on Saddleworth Moor in Lancashire. How, in this day and age, can a man die and his name die with him? Was it a crime or a suicide? The series is not ‘finished’ – updates will be provided as new material comes to light. An intelligent and well-told series.



4. Criminal

Another US series with high production values, Criminal’s social media presence and website design are almost as good as the podcast itself. Just try to ignore the adverts at the start of each episode, which can alternate between annoying and hilarious.




5. Sword and Scale

A series recounting various gory real life crime stories. Produced in Florida, its slogan is ‘A podcast about crime that proves the worst monsters are real’, and that gives you an indication of its approach!


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