Criminal Historian

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Category: book review

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

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.

Book review: The Murder of the Century

51AXXHMDNsL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_It always concerns me a little bit when I see a title that looks intriguing, but then the author’s previous works – listed at the start of the book – suggest a lack of knowledge of the specific subject of the book. Paul Collins has previously written works on subjects as diverse as Shakespeare and autism, so I was a bit concerned that this book, The Murder of the Century, which recounts a notorious American murder case from the 1890s, and uses it to explore the newspaper wars of the era, would display a lack of expertise about the subject, or a somewhat flighty attitude towards it.

My fears were groundless, though, as Collins here proves a great storyteller and to have a good grasp of the history of which he writes. He is able to bring to life the existences of the working class in New York’s poorer areas, from the children whose main entertainment is in fishing objects out of the river from the pier side overlooking Brooklyn, to the women eking out a living in slum neighbourhoods through a variety of occupations – including the carrying out of illegal backstreet abortions.

The Murder of the Century starts with the discovery of a torso, found by the aforementioned boys of the East 11th Street area. Another parcel is later found elsewhere, containing another part of the same body. Whose body is it, and who was responsible for killing the man who this body once was?

But the book is about far more than this. It tells the story of the tensions between members of New York’s immigrant community, and centres on German-born Augusta Nack, claiming to be a licensed midwife when New York had no such things. Although depicted by the press as a passionate, rather ‘unwomanly’ creature, who turns her lodgers into her lovers, she is also an unhappily married individual and worthy of sympathy after the deaths of all her children.

A satirical depiction of the media war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst

A satirical depiction of the media war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst

An investigation into her and two of her lovers creates a picture of immigrant life in New York, and also shows how she became the means by which the New York newspapers and their proprietors – particularly Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst – competed and pushed for supremacy, at no matter what the personal cost to others.

The characters here are well drawn, from Augusta to William F Howe, the showy defence lawyer at the subsequent murder trial. The story is also meticulously researched, and it shows. If you want a good example of how to write a real life, 19th century murder history that draws you in and keeps you reading, this is well worth a try.

 

Top Five: Historical Crime Books

I’ve been an avid reader most of my life, but have often shunned novels set in the past. My antenna is tuned in for anachronisms or generalisations, for a poor understanding of period or simply for an unbelievable story.

However, over the years, there have been a few books that have had me unable to turn the pages quickly enough. They have been quite different both in the periods they cover and how they approach history – some cover events which happened only a few years before the books were written; others fictionalise events or characters far more than others.

Historical crime fiction is currently undergoing something of a renaissance with three of my chosen books here being recent examples of the genre. I’m really pleased, in particular, to see the 18th and early 19th centuries being the focus of some great research and writing – I’ve always sung the praises of the 18th century, despite one publisher once telling me that “the 18th century doesn’t sell” and “it’s not sexy”. I’d beg to differ.

But anyway – here’s my list.

512qXgnErSL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

(Penguin, 2000)

It might be a bit of a cheat, as it was written less than a decade after the events it depicts – but it’s too good not to include it here. This book has had, and continues to have, much controversy over how fictionalised the iconic American writer made this tale, which details the horrific murders of the Clutter family in their Kansas home in 1959. Certainly, Capote writes a blend of fact and fiction, but in doing so, creates an incredibly powerful narrative both about murder and the motives of those who commit it. He shows the mundanity and hopelessness of the lives of the two men who carried out the offences – the bleakness of their lives set against the optimism of teenager Nancy Clutter, one of the victims.

 

 

libraLibra by Don DeLillo

(Penguin, 2011)

Those who follow me on Twitter will probably know what a *huge* fan of this contemporary American author I am. DeLillo is particularly interested in the media, and shares some similarities with the likes of Thomas Pynchon, but this is probably one of his most accessible books. It recreates the story of Lee Harvey Oswald – the assassin (lone or otherwise!) of JFK in 1963 – from his own perspective, creating a form of language that makes Oswald a real, if complex, character in a novelisation of his life. Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale is another good ‘faction’ book of the same iconic American historical event.

 

 

UnknownThe Silversmith’s Wife by Sophia Tobin

(Simon & Schuster, 2014)

This is just a beautiful book. It features as it’s main character a woman – yay! – and is a gently unfolding, yet gripping, murder mystery and love story in one. Set in 18th century London, it opens with the murder of the eponymous silversmith, but it is fundamentally about his wife – her reaction to his death and how she lives in its aftermath. It is full of factual detail that is never overpowering (I dislike books that shove their research and their historical accuracy in your face – “Look at me! Look how clever I am!” – as much as I hate inaccuracies. Yes, I’m difficult to please). The story here is what takes precedence over the period; it’s simply a good story that happens to be set in the past.

 

 

51poQlQzpXL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

(Hodder, 2014)

I am so jealous of Hodgson for this book. The precursor of her latest book, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, it is a meticulously researched book set largely in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison – where Thomas Hawkins is sent. A murder occurs, and Hawkins has to work out what has happened. As I say, the research is so detailed here, and it really brings 18th century London, and life in the debtors’ prisons, to life. It makes you feel both grim and dirty, angry and disbelieving, when you read of the way the impoverished were treated in the past, and the inherent inequality in how different debtors were treated even when they were all being kept in one place.

 

51bT9yipSwL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The Detective and the Devil by Lloyd Shepherd

(Simon & Schuster, 2016)

Lloyd has been quietly developing a new genre, with his historical crime books that blend fact and fiction, natural and supernatural. This is the latest instalment, the third since The English Monster, which I really enjoyed until near the end, when the reveal about the murderer made me raise an eyebrow, I’m afraid. But I enjoyed this latest instalment right to the finish. Lloyd uses real people and events from the past 500 years, but particularly the early 19th century. His hero is Charles Horton, from the Thames Marine Police; his elderly boss is the equally real magistrate John Harriott, and even Charles Lamb makes an appearance.  Lloyd is equally at home with depicting the grimness of Georgian Wapping as he is with depicting the island of St Helena; and his main female character is a spirited woman who strives to shake off the limitations society has placed on her gender.

 

 

 

 

Book review: Van Diemen’s Women

TasmaniablogIn the March issue of Your Family History magazine, which is out now, I wrote a brief review of Joan Kavanagh and Dianne Snowden’s book Van Diemen’s Women: A History of Transportation to Tasmania (The History Press, 2015). I didn’t have the space to write as fully as I’d have liked, so am taking the opportunity to write a slightly longer review here…

This is not a comprehensive history of transportation, but, as the title and subtitle suggest, a selective – and compassionate – history. Although Catherine Fleming wrote about the transportation of Kildare women to Van Diemen’s Land back in 2012, this book looks at a wider geographical area, looking at both urban and rural women in Ireland in the 19th century, what they were convicted of, and what happened to them.

The book is full of interesting case studies, and is amply illustrated. Its focus on the Irish women who found themselves transported to Tasmania, sometimes with their children, or giving birth en route, is fascinating, and thought provoking.

The period the authors cover, of course, means that the Ireland they write about was, under the Act of Union, a part of the United Kingdom When many histories of crime in the United Kingdom actually mean predominantly English, this Irish angle helps us to reconsider who was subject to transportation and why. It is not designed for those with a good knowledge of criminal history – it has a glossary, for starters, that includes terms such as ‘Assizes’, ‘hard labour’ and ‘House of Correction’ – all basic terms in the history of crime and punishment – but for the general reader. Likewise, its focus on a ‘compassionate’ retelling of history (as acknowledged in former Irish president Mary McAleese’s foreword) is problematic – is it the historian’s job to offer a ‘compassionate’ rather than an objective portrayal of events?

In addition, the description of one woman’s trial for infanticide describes the offence as ‘an extremely serious crime’ – well, obviously, you can’t get much more serious than murder. It’s the kind of explanation that feels unnecessary to readers who should be assumed to have some kind of common sense. However, the authors then appear to view potato theft during the Irish potato famine as a trivial offence. This is despite the theft of any items worth over 12d being a capital offence, and the fact that if there was a potato shortage, an individual stealing these items would be treated very seriously, and a sentence might also be served that would act as a deterrent to others seeking to copy.

Perhaps the problem there lies in the attempt to create a compassionate history that sees the female offender as both perpetrator and victim. Emphasis is put on women being desperate and stealing to feed their families, rather than on the impact of such thefts on the rest of the local community, and on law and order. This isn’t to say that the women focused on do not deserve any sympathy, but that their experiences were individual, and complex.

However, this book is a welcome addition to works both on gender and crime, and on the history of transportation and the experience of being transported. The focus both on female convicts and on the Irish experience is needed and useful, and the authors’ involvement in, and commitment to, the subject is commendable. For the general reader wanting to know more about the experience of Irish women sent to Tasmania in Victorian times, it is recommended.

 

Book review: The Thieves of Threadneedle Street

9780752493404_5A tale of audacity and chutzpah, this book, by Nicholas Booth, details the lives and escapades of two American brothers, George and Austin Bidwell, and their ‘colleagues’ as they attempt to defraud the Bank of England.

The Thieves of Threadneedle Street is reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde in its breathless chases – criminals outmanoeuvring the cops and their victims across vast expanses of rural and urban America, and then via the Atlantic to London.

This breathlessness is the book’s main problem. Sometimes, it moves so quickly across countries and time – backwards and forwards across Victorian society – that it can be hard to keep up. The division of chapters into short sections by way of date, place and time would work well as a device, but it is used too frequently.

Likewise, although only a minor stylistic point, the use of flowery fonts and dotted lines to denote changes in time or place are actually distracting – a stylistic annoyance. Too many fonts are used, in short – one for chapter headings, one for section headings, one more for the main text – and they don’t really complement each other.

Austin Bidwell, from 'The Great Bank of England Frauds' by Edgar Wallace

Austin Bidwell, from ‘The Great Bank of England Frauds’ by Edgar Wallace

But more importantly, and on a more positive note, this is a fascinating story and the author has attempted to move it beyond the standard narrative by means of this to-ing and fro-ing, which should be commended. The central setting is the trial of the Bidwells in 1873, where their multiple aliases and prior offences were detailed; from this setting, the exploration of their past is undertaken both by prosecutors and by the author.

The Bidwells are notoriously hard to pin down, due to their habit of each taking credit for successful crimes, their various names, and the tendency of the Victorian press to be a bit slapdash with the facts. Booth fully recognises and acknowledges these problems, and the fact that he is able to create such a full account of them is an achievement in itself.

Despite the slightly hectic feel of the narrative, this is still a compelling narrative that says almost as much about the Victorian press, law and detective work as it does about the criminal themselves.

The Thieves of Threadneedle Street, by Nicholas Booth, is published by The History Press.

 

 

 

London Lives: Talking about poverty and crime in the capital

UnknownI’ve had the pleasure of reviewing Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker’s new book, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (CUP, 2015) – and interviewing Tim about it – for the November issue of Your Family Tree. I can highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of crime or the history of London.

Here are the authors themselves talking about the publication, from outside the London Metropolitan Archives (thanks to @ourcriminalpast for the hat-tip!):

 

The November issue of Your Family Tree will be out at the end of October.

Book review: The Crime Museum Uncovered

9781781300411First things first – this is a beautifully designed book. It’s a good slab of a coffee-table book for its £12.99, and is visually striking. That’s not just the front cover, but throughout – the page design is lovely, the choice of black/white/orange works extremely well, and I’d be proud to have written a book that is presented so well by the publisher.

It’s also a bit of a page turner. There’s not that much text on each page – the focus is on the images throughout, which are artefacts and documents taken from the exhibition, and that is absolutely the right approach. Yet it is still difficult to put down. Because there is only a relatively short amount of text per story or theme, the temptation is to ‘just’ read another page or story before you finish.

There is a mix of cases presented here – both famous crimes (or infamous), and those that were once famous but are now rather forgotten about, or those that were always seen as less newsworthy than others, because of their mundanity or commonality. Therefore, there’s something for everyone (as long as you have an interest in crime in the first place, that is).

Those are the good points – and they far outweigh the bad. There are a few typos, which is a shame (for example, one of the murderers mentioned in the book has his name spelled two different ways); an index would have been useful to look up individuals or particular case.

The timeline that the exhibition itself uses would have been good to have more clearly in the book. Although there is a fairly short one that whizzes through the key developments, I would have liked a more comprehensive, slightly more detailed timeline, using a larger font and clearer design for dates. There is always an emphasis here on the criminals and their victims, but I am curious about the detectives themselves, some of whose names are listed, but whose work and lives are ignored or glossed over.

But if you have your interest whetted in a particular case, individual, or artefact, this book will give you the information you need. The photography is very good, and so the book acts as an aide memoire after visiting the exhibition, as well as a standalone introduction to one of the most secretive museums in London’s history.

The Crime Museum Uncovered: Inside Scotland Yard’s Special Collection, by Jackie Kiely and Julia Hoffbrand, is on sale from 9 October 2015, at the price of £12.99. It is published by IB Tauris.

Book review: Print Culture, Crime and Justice in C18th London

 “I have long said, that if a paragraph in a newspaper contains a word of truth, it is sure to be accompanied with two or three blunders; yet, who will believe that papers published in the face of the whole town should be noting but magazines of lies, every one of which fifty persons could contradict and disprove? Yet so it certainly is, and future history will probably be ten times falser than all preceding.” – Horace Walpole, 1782 [1]

image1Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London (Bloomsbury, 2014) is the first book by Richard Ward, formerly a research associate on the Leicester University project Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse, and now working on the Digital Panopticon project run by the universities of Liverpool and Sheffield.

I was eager to read this book, having done some research myself into 18th century print culture; I have previously given a paper on the coverage of domestic violence cases in 18th century newspapers and periodicals, and am currently working on a paper looking at a different aspect of crime reporting.

I have long recognised the similarities between parts of 18th century news reporting and the excesses of 20th and early 21st century tabloid journalism.

Stories are stretched, exaggerated, or given undue prominence, to sneer at individuals or competitors, or to stir up public feeling.

Reading the Daily Mail and its seemingly endless stories about immigration and terrorism sometimes feels little different to reading certain stories in the 18th century press, which whipped the public up into ‘moral panics’ about the state of England and the crime rate in their local area.

Ward recognises this early on, pointing out:

“the significant impact of media in creating and shaping panics through increased reporting of crimes, exaggeration, the distortion of events to fit a particular theme, the portrayal of rumours as fact and the creation of negative and fearful stereotypes.” [2]

The main focus of Ward’s book is on the trial reports of the Old Bailey, where he is able to utilise the fantastic online resource The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

But he also looks at other forms of print culture, from books to newspapers, to analyse the links between the printed word and 18th century forms of prosecution and punishment.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Ward’s exploration of how the press covered crimes. He finds that different sections of the press responded differently, some by critiquing the criminal justice system, while others backed it.

This reflected both the timescales of newspaper production and the ways in which papers got their stories, with agents appearing to be based at particular places of justice and getting the bulk of their stories from that single location.

The book also shows that differences in patterns of reporting crime across different newspaper titles was a result of how publications chose to focus on different kinds of offences, with some papers concentrating on street and highway robberies, which were more likely to remain unsolved and thus present negative connotations of justice to the reader.

Ward offers an ‘alternative’ view on how the press covered crime compared to Esther Snell‘s previous analysis of the 18th century press, which focused on The Kentish Post. [3] He shows that although the press did publicise the failings of the judicial system, it also covered policing in a more positive manner.

He emphasises Shoemaker’s point that although the proceedings of the Old Bailey did not misreport events, by omitting details, such trial reports ‘were constructed to present a positive image of justice’. [4]

Ward concentrates on a tight period of history – the mid 18th century, a fascinating time that saw a growth in crime reporting, subsequent moral panics about crime, and the impact of the end of the War of Austrian Succession, which saw rapid demobilisation cause unemployment and an increase in crime in some areas.

By concentrating on a limited time span, he is able to study changes in reporting in depth, and offers some food for thought about the operation of the 18th century press and its effect on public perceptions of law and order.

References

1: Letter to the Rev Mr Cole (21 June 1782) in The Letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, Volume 6 (Richard Bentley, London, 1840), page 176

2: Richard M Ward, Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London (Bloomsbury, London, 2014), p.14

3: Esther Snell, “Discourses of criminality in the eighteenth-century press: the presentation of crime in the Kentish Post, 1717-1768”, Continuity & Change, 22:1 (2007), pp.13-47

4: Richard M Ward, Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London (Bloomsbury, London, 2014), p.142

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