A Book Of Remarkable Criminals - Henry Irving - ebook

A well-researched book detailing the life and crimes of criminals who were all, in a way, small criminals, but each remarkable in his or her own way.They were not all remarkable as criminals, but their life stories are remarkable, and some of them really were remarkable in the manner they turned to crime.The book is well-written and easy to read. The stories are fascinating. These are stories of criminals who lived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and their stories are a must-read.

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Henry Irving


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The Life of Charles Peace

The Career of Robert Butler

M. Derues

Dr. Castaing

Professor Webster

The Mysterious Mr. Holmes

The Widow Gras

Vitalis and Marie Boyer

The Fenayrou Case

Eyraud and Bompard



“THE SILENT WORKINGS, AND STILL more the explosions, of human passion which bring to light the darker elements of man’s nature present to the philosophical observer considerations of intrinsic interest; while to the jurist, the study of human nature and human character with its infinite varieties, especially as affecting the connection between motive and action, between irregular desire or evil disposition and crime itself, is equally indispensable and difficult."—Wills on Circumstantial Evidence.

I REMEMBER my father telling me that sitting up late one night talking with Tennyson, the latter remarked that he had not kept such late hours since a recent visit of Jowett. On that occasion the poet and the philosopher had talked together well into the small hours of the morning. My father asked Tennyson what was the subject of conversation that had so engrossed them. “Murders,” replied Tennyson. It would have been interesting to have heard Tennyson and Jowett discussing such a theme. The fact is a tribute to the interest that crime has for many men of intellect and imagination. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? Rob history and fiction of crime, how tame and colourless would be the residue! We who are living and enduring in the presence of one of the greatest crimes on record, must realise that trying as this period of the world’s history is to those who are passing through it, in the hands of some great historian it may make very good reading for posterity. Perhaps we may find some little consolation in this fact, like the unhappy victims of famous freebooters such as Jack Sheppard or Charley Peace.

But do not let us flatter ourselves. Do not let us, in all the pomp and circumstance of stately history, blind ourselves to the fact that the crimes of Frederick, or Napoleon, or their successors, are in essence no different from those of Sheppard or Peace. We must not imagine that the bad man who happens to offend against those particular laws which constitute the criminal code belongs to a peculiar or atavistic type, that he is a man set apart from the rest of his fellow-men by mental or physical peculiarities. That comforting theory of the Lombroso school has been exploded, and the ordinary inmates of our prisons shown to be only in a very slight degree below the average in mental and physical fitness of the normal man, a difference easily explained by the environment and conditions in which the ordinary criminal is bred.

A certain English judge, asked as to the general characteristics of the prisoners tried before him, said: “They are just like other people; in fact, I often think that, but for different opportunities and other accidents, the prisoner and I might very well be in one another’s places.” “Greed, love of pleasure,” writes a French judge, “lust, idleness, anger, hatred, revenge, these are the chief causes of crime. These passions and desires are shared by rich and poor alike, by the educated and uneducated. They are inherent in human nature; the germ is in every man.”

Convicts represent those wrong-doers who have taken to a particular form of wrong-doing punishable by law. Of the larger army of bad men they represent a minority, who have been found out in a peculiarly unsatisfactory kind of misconduct. There are many men, some lying, unscrupulous, dishonest, others cruel, selfish, vicious, who go through life without ever doing anything that brings them within the scope of the criminal code, for whose offences the laws of society provide no punishment. And so it is with some of those heroes of history who have been made the theme of fine writing by gifted historians.

Mr. Basil Thomson, the present head of the Criminal Investigation Department, has said recently that a great deal of crime is due to a spirit of “perverse adventure” on the part of the criminal. The same might be said with equal justice of the exploits of Alexander the Great and half the monarchs and conquerors of the world, whom we are taught in our childhood’s days to look up to as shining examples of all that a great man should be. Because crimes are played on a great stage instead of a small, that is no reason why our moral judgment should be suspended or silenced. Class Machiavelli and Frederick the Great as a couple of rascals fit to rank with Jonathan Wild, and we are getting nearer a perception of what constitutes the real criminal. “If,” said Frederick the Great to his minister, Radziwill, “there is anything to be gained by it, we will be honest; if deception is necessary, let us be cheats.” These are the very sentiments of Jonathan Wild.

Crime, broadly speaking, is the attempt by fraud or violence to possess oneself of something belonging to another, and as such the cases of it in history are as clear as those dealt with in criminal courts. Germany to-day has been guilty of a perverse and criminal adventure, the outcome of that false morality applied to historical transactions, of which Carlyle’s life of Frederick is a monumental example. In that book we have a man whose instincts in more ways than one were those of a criminal, held up for our admiration, in the same way that the same writer fell into dithyrambic praise over a villain called Francia, a former President of Paraguay. A most interesting work might be written on the great criminals of history, and might do something towards restoring that balance of moral judgment in historical transactions, for the perversion of which we are suffering to-day.

In the meantime we must be content to study in the microcosm of ordinary crime those instincts, selfish, greedy, brutal which, exploited often by bad men in the so-called cause of nations, have wrought such havoc to the happiness of mankind. It is not too much to say that in every man there dwell the seeds of crime; whether they grow or are stifled in their growth by the good that is in us is a chance mysteriously determined. As children of nature we must not be surprised if our instincts are not all that they should be. “In sober truth,” writes John Stuart Mill, “nearly all the things for which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another are nature’s everyday performances,” and in another passage: “The course of natural phenomena being replete with everything which when committed by human beings is most worthy of abhorrence, anyone who endeavoured in his actions to imitate the natural course of things would be universally seen and acknowledged to be the wickedest of men.”

Here is explanation enough for the presence of evil in our natures, that instinct to destroy which finds comparatively harmless expression in certain forms of taking life, which is at its worst when we fall to taking each other’s. It is to check an inconvenient form of the expression of this instinct that we punish murderers with death. We must carry the definition of murder a step farther before we can count on peace or happiness in this world. We must concentrate all our strength on fighting criminal nature, both in ourselves and in the world around us. With the destructive forces of nature we are waging a perpetual struggle for our very existence. Why dissipate our strength by fighting among ourselves? By enlarging our conception of crime we move towards that end. What is anti-social, whether it be written in the pages of the historian or those of the Newgate Calendar, must in the future be regarded with equal abhorrence and subjected to equally sure punishment. Every professor of history should now and then climb down from the giddy heights of Thucydides and Gibbon and restore his moral balance by comparing the acts of some of his puppets with those of their less fortunate brethren who have dangled at the end of a rope. If this war is to mean anything to posterity, the crime against humanity must be judged in the future by the same rigid standard as the crime against the person.

The individual criminals whose careers are given in this book have been chosen from among their fellows for their pre-eminence in character or achievement. Some of the cases, such as Butler, Castaing and Holmes, are new to most English readers.

Charles Peace is the outstanding popular figure in nineteenth-century crime. He is the type of the professional criminal who makes crime a business and sets about it methodically and persistently to the end. Here is a man, possessing many of those qualities which go to make the successful man of action in all walks of life, driven by circumstances to squander them on a criminal career. Yet it is a curious circumstance that this determined and ruthless burglar should have suffered for what would be classed in France as a “crime passionel.” There is more than a possibility that a French jury would have?? ing circumstances in the murder of Dyson.?? Peace is only another instance of the wrecking a man’s career by his passion for a ???? bert Butler we have the criminal by conviction, a conviction which finds the ground ready prepared for its growth in the natural laziness and idleness of the man’s disposition. The desire to acquire things by a short cut, without taking the trouble to work for them honestly, is perhaps the most fruitful of all sources of crime. Butler, a bit of a pedant, is pleased to justify his conduct by reason and philosophy—he finds in the acts of unscrupulous monarchs an analogy to his own attitude towards life. What is good enough for Caesar Borgia is good enough for Robert Butler. Like Borgia he comes to grief; criminals succeed and criminals fail. In the case of historical criminals their crimes are open; we can estimate the successes and failures. With ordinary criminals, we know only those who fail. The successful, the real geniuses in crime, those whose guilt remains undiscovered, are for the most part unknown to us. Occasionally in society a man or woman is pointed out as having once murdered somebody or other, and at times, no doubt, with truth. But the matter can only be referred to clandestinely; they are gazed at with awe or curiosity, mute witnesses to their own achievement. Some years ago James Payn, the novelist, hazarded the reckoning that one person in every five hundred was an undiscovered murderer. This gives us all a hope, almost a certainty, that we may reckon one such person at least among our acquaintances.(1)


(1) The author was one of three men discussing this subject in a London club. They were able to name six persons of their various acquaintance who were, or had been, suspected of being successful murderers.


Derues is remarkable for the extent of his social ambition, the daring and impudent character of his attempts to gratify it, the skill, the consummate hypocrisy with which he played on the credulity of honest folk, and his flagrant employment of that weapon known and recognised to-day in the most exalted spheres by the expressive name of “bluff.” He is remarkable, too, for his mirth and high spirits, his genial buffoonery; the merry murderer is a rare bird.

Professor Webster belongs to that order of criminal of which Eugene Aram and the Rev. John Selby Watson are our English examples, men of culture and studious habits who suddenly burst on the astonished gaze of their fellowmen as murderers. The exact process of mind by which these hitherto harmless citizens are converted into assassins is to a great extent hidden from us.

Perhaps Webster’s case is the clearest of the three. Here we have a selfish, self-indulgent and spendthrift gentleman who has landed himself in serious financial embarrassment, seeking by murder to escape from an importunate and relentless creditor. He has not, apparently, the moral courage to face the consequences of his own weakness. He forgets the happiness of his home, the love of those dear to him, in the desire to free himself from a disgrace insignificent{sic} in comparison with that entailed by committing the highest of all crimes. One would wish to believe that Webster’s deed was unpremeditated, the result of a sudden gust of passion caused by his victim’s acrimonious pursuit of his debtor. But there are circumstances in the case which tell powerfully against such a view. The character of the murderer seems curiously contradictory; both cunning and simplicity mark his proceedings; he makes a determined attempt to escape from the horrors of his situation and shows at the same time a curious insensibility to its real gravity. Webster was a man of refined tastes and seemingly gentle character, loved by those near to him, well liked by his friends.

The mystery that surrounds the real character of Eugene Aram is greater, and we possess little or no means of solving it. From what motive this silent, arrogant man, despising his ineffectual wife, this reserved and moody scholar stooped to fraud and murder the facts of the case help us little to determine. Was it the hope of leaving the narrow surroundings of Knaresborough, his tiresome belongings, his own poor way of life, and seeking a wider field for the exercise of those gifts of scholarship which he undoubtedly possessed that drove him to commit fraud in company with Clark and Houseman, and then, with the help of the latter, murder the unsuspecting Clark? The fact of his humble origin makes his association with so low a ruffian as Houseman the less remarkable. Vanity in all probability played a considerable part in Aram’s disposition. He would seem to have thought himself a superior person, above the laws that bind ordinary men. He showed at the end no consciousness of his guilt. Being something of a philosopher, he had no doubt constructed for himself a philosophy of life which served to justify his own actions. He was a deist, believing in “one almighty Being the God of Nature,” to whom he recommended himself at the last in the event of his “having done amiss.” He emphasised the fact that his life had been unpolluted and his morals irreproachable. But his views as to the murder of Clark he left unexpressed. He suggested as justification of it that Clark had carried on an intrigue with his neglected wife, but he never urged this circumstance in his defence, and beyond his own statement there is no evidence of such a connection.

The Revd. John Selby Watson, headmaster of the Stockwell Grammar School, at the age of sixty-five killed his wife in his library one Sunday afternoon. Things had been going badly with the unfortunate man. After more than twenty-five years’ service as headmaster of the school at a meagre salary of L400 a year, he was about to be dismissed; the number of scholars had been declining steadily and a change in the headmastership thought necessary; there was no suggestion of his receiving any kind of pension. The future for a man of his years was dark enough. The author of several learned books, painstaking, scholarly, dull, he could hope to make but little money from literary work. Under a cold, reserved and silent exterior, Selby Watson concealed a violence of temper which he sought diligently to repress. His wife’s temper was none of the best. Worried, depressed, hopeless of his future, he in all probability killed his wife in a sudden access of rage, provoked by some taunt or reproach on her part, and then, instead of calling in a policeman and telling him what he had done, made clumsy and ineffectual efforts to conceal his crime. Medical opinion was divided as to his mental condition. Those doctors called for the prosecution could find no trace of insanity about him, those called for the defence said that he was suffering from melancholia. The unhappy man would appear hardly to have realised the gravity of his situation. To a friend who visited him in prison he said: “Here’s a man who can write Latin, which the Bishop of Winchester would commend, shut up in a place like this.” Coming from a man who had spent all his life buried in books and knowing little of the world the remark is not so greatly to be wondered at. Profound scholars are apt to be impatient of mundane things. Professor Webster showed a similar want of appreciation of the circumstances of a person charged with wilful murder. Selby Watson was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The sentence was afterwards commuted to one of penal servitude for life, the Home Secretary of the day showing by his decision that, though not satisfied of the prisoner’s insanity, he recognised certain extenuating circumstances in his guilt.(2)


(2) Selby Watson was tried at the Central Criminal Court January, 1872.


In Castaing much ingenuity is shown in the conception of the crime, but the man is weak and timid; he is not the stuff of which the great criminal is made; Holmes is cast in the true mould of the instinctive murderer. Castaing is a man of sensibility, capable of domestic affection; Holmes completely insensible to all feelings of humanity. Taking life is a mere incident in the accomplishment of his schemes; men, women and children are sacrificed with equal mercilessness to the necessary end. A consummate liar and hypocrite, he has that strange power of fascination over others, women in particular, which is often independent altogether of moral or even physical attractiveness. We are accustomed to look for a certain vastness, grandeur of scale in the achievements of America. A study of American crime will show that it does not disappoint us in this expectation. The extent and audacity of the crimes of Holmes are proof of it.

To find a counterpart in imaginative literature to the complete criminal of the Holmes type we must turn to the pages of Shakespeare. In the number of his victims, the cruelty and insensibility with which he attains his ends, his unblushing hypocrisy, the fascination he can exercise at will over others, the Richard III. of Shakespeare shows how clearly the poet understood the instinctive criminal of real life. The Richard of history was no doubt less instinctively and deliberately an assassin than the Richard of Shakespeare. In the former we can trace the gradual temptation to crime to which circumstances provoke him. The murder of the Princes, if, as one writer contends, it was not the work of Henry VII.—in which case that monarch deserves to be hailed as one of the most consummate criminals that ever breathed and the worthy father of a criminal son—was no doubt forced to a certain extent on Richard by the exigencies of his situation, one of those crimes to which bad men are driven in order to secure the fruits of other crimes. But the Richard of Shakespeare is no child of circumstance. He espouses deliberately a career of crime, as deliberately as Peace or Holmes or Butler; he sets out “determined to prove a villain,” to be “subtle, false and treacherous,” to employ to gain his ends “stern murder in the dir’st degree.” The character is sometimes criticised as being overdrawn and unreal. It may not be true to the Richard of history, but it is very true to crime, and to the historical criminal of the Borgian or Prussian type, in which fraud and violence are made part of a deliberate system of so-called statecraft.

Shakespeare got nearer to what we may term the domestic as opposed to the political criminal when he created Iago. In their envy and dislike of their fellowmen, their contempt for humanity in general, their callousness to the ordinary sympathies of human nature, Robert Butler, Lacenaire, Ruloff are witnesses to the poet’s fidelity to criminal character in his drawing of the Ancient. But there is a weakness in the character of Iago regarded as a purely instinctive and malignant criminal; indeed it is a weakness in the consistency of the play. On two occasions Iago states explicitly that Othello is more than suspected of having committed adultery with his wife, Emilia, and that therefore he has a strong and justifiable motive for being revenged on the Moor. The thought of it he describes as “gnawing his inwards.” Emilia’s conversation with Desdemona in the last act lends some colour to the correctness of Iago’s belief. If this belief be well-founded it must greatly modify his character as a purely wanton and mischievous criminal, a supreme villain, and lower correspondingly the character of Othello as an honourable and high-minded man. If it be a morbid suspicion, having no ground in fact, a mental obsession, then Iago becomes abnormal and consequently more or less irresponsible. But this suggestion of Emilia’s faithlessness made in the early part of the play is never followed up by the dramatist, and the spectator is left in complete uncertainty as to whether there be any truth or not in Iago’s suspicion. If Othello has played his Ancient false, that is an extenuating circumstance in the otherwise extraordinary guilt of Iago, and would no doubt be accorded to him as such, were he on trial before a French jury.

The most successful, and therefore perhaps the greatest, criminal in Shakespeare is King Claudius of Denmark. His murder of his brother by pouring a deadly poison into his ear while sleeping, is so skilfully perpetrated as to leave no suspicion of foul play. But for a supernatural intervention, a contingency against which no murderer could be expected to have provided, the crime of Claudius would never have been discovered. Smiling, jovial, genial as M. Derues or Dr. Palmer, King Claudius might have gone down to his grave in peace as the bluff hearty man of action, while his introspective nephew would in all probability have ended his days in the cloister, regarded with amiable contempt by his bustling fellowmen. How Claudius got over the great difficulty of all poisoners, that of procuring the necessary poison without detection, we are not told; by what means he distilled the “juice of cursed hebenon”; how the strange appearance of the late King’s body, which “an instant tetter” had barked about with “vile and loathsome crust,” was explained to the multitude we are left to imagine. There is no real evidence to show that Queen Gertrude was her lover’s accomplice in her husband’s murder. If that had been so, she would no doubt have been of considerable assistance to Claudius in the preparation of the crime. But in the absence of more definite proof we must assume Claudius’ murder of his brother to have been a solitary achievement, skilfully carried out by one whose genial good-fellowship and convivial habits gave the lie to any suggestion of criminality. Whatever may have been his inward feelings of remorse or self-reproach, Claudius masked them successfully from the eyes of all. Hamlet’s instinctive dislike of his uncle was not shared by the members of the Danish court. The “witchcraft of his wit,” his “traitorous gifts,” were powerful aids to Claudius, not only in the seduction of his sister-in-law, but the perpetration of secret murder.

The case of the murder of King Duncan of Scotland by Macbeth and his wife belongs to a different class of crime. It is a striking example of dual crime, four instances of which are given towards the end of this book. An Italian advocate, Scipio Sighele, has devoted a monograph to the subject of dual crime, in which he examines a number of cases in which two persons have jointly committed heinous crimes.(3) He finds that in couples of this kind there is usually an incubus and a succubus, the one who suggests the crime, the other on whom the suggestion works until he or she becomes the accomplice or instrument of the stronger will; “the one playing the Mephistophelian part of tempter, preaching evil, urging to crime, the other allowing himself to be overcome by his evil genius.” In some cases these two roles are clearly differentiated; it is easy, as in the case of Iago and Othello, Cassius and Brutus, to say who prompted the crime. In others the guilt seems equally divided and the original suggestion of crime to spring from a mutual tendency towards the adoption of such an expedient. In Macbeth and his wife we have a perfect instance of the latter class. No sooner have the witches prophesied that Macbeth shall be a king than the “horrid image” of the suggestion to murder Duncan presents itself to his mind, and, on returning to his wife, he answers her question as to when Duncan is to leave their house by the significant remark, “To-morrow—as he proposes.” To Lady Macbeth from the moment she has received her husband’s letter telling of the prophecy of the weird sisters, murder occurs as a means of accomplishing their prediction. In the minds of Macbeth and his wife the suggestion of murder is originally an auto-suggestion, coming to them independently of each other as soon as they learn from the witches that Macbeth is one day to be a king. To Banquo a somewhat similar intimation is given, but no foul thought of crime suggests itself for an instant to his loyal nature. What Macbeth and his wife lack at first as thorough-going murderers is that complete insensibility to taking human life that marks the really ruthless assassin. Lady Macbeth has the stronger will of the two for the commission of the deed. It is doubtful whether without her help Macbeth would ever have undertaken it. But even she, when her husband hesitates to strike, cannot bring herself to murder the aged Duncan with her own hands because of his resemblance as he sleeps to her father. It is only after a deal of boggling and at serious risk of untimely interruption that the two contrive to do the murder, and plaster with blood the “surfeited grooms.” In thus putting suspicion on the servants of Duncan the assassins cunningly avert suspicion from themselves, and Macbeth’s killing of the unfortunate men in seeming indignation at the discovery of their crime is a master-stroke of ingenuity. “Who,” he asks in a splendid burst of feigned horror, “can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, loyal and natural in a moment?” At the same time Lady Macbeth affects to swoon away in the presence of so awful a crime. For the time all suspicion of guilt, except in the mind of Banquo, is averted from the real murderers. But, like so many criminals, Macbeth finds it impossible to rest on his first success in crime. His sensibility grows dulled; he “forgets the taste of fear”; the murder of Banquo and his son is diabolically planned, and that is soon followed by the outrageous slaughter of the wife and children of Macduff. Ferri, the Italian writer on crime, describes the psychical condition favourable to the commission of murder as an absence of both moral repugnance to the crime itself and the fear of the consequences following it. In the murder of Duncan, it is the first of these two states of mind to which Macbeth and his wife have only partially attained. The moral repugnance stronger in the man has not been wholly lost by the woman. But as soon as the crime is successfully accomplished, this repugnance begins to wear off until the King and Queen are able calmly and deliberately to contemplate those further crimes necessary to their peace of mind. But now Macbeth, at first the more compunctious of the two, has become the more ruthless; the germ of crime, developed by suggestion, has spread through his whole being; he has begun to acquire that indifference to human suffering with which Richard III. and Iago were gifted from the first. In both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth the germ of crime was latent; they wanted only favourable circumstances to convert them into one of those criminal couples who are the more dangerous for the fact that the temptation to crime has come to each spontaneously and grown and been fostered by mutual understanding, an elective affinity for evil. Such couples are frequent in the history of crime. Eyraud and Bompard, Mr. and Mrs. Manning, Burke and Hare, the Peltzer brothers, Barre and Lebiez, are instances of those collaborations in crime which find their counterpart in history, literature, drama and business. Antoninus and Aurelius, Ferdinand and Isabella, the De Goncourt brothers, Besant and Rice, Gilbert and Sullivan, Swan and Edgar leap to the memory.


(3) “Le Crime a Deux,” by Scipio Sighele (translated from the Italian), Lyons, 1893.


In the cases of Eyraud and Bompard, both man and woman are idle, vicious criminals by instinct. They come together, lead an abandoned life, sinking lower and lower in moral degradation. In the hour of need, crime presents itself as a simple expedient for which neither of them has any natural aversion. The repugnance to evil, if they ever felt it, has long since disappeared from their natures. The man is serious, the woman frivolous, but the criminal tendency in both cases is the same; each performs his or her part in the crime with characteristic aptitude. Mrs. Manning was a creature of much firmer character than her husband, a woman of strong passions, a redoubtable murderess. Without her dominating force Manning might never have committed murder. But he was a criminal before the crime, more than suspected as a railway official of complicity in a considerable train robbery; in his case the suggestion of murder involved only the taking of a step farther in a criminal career. Manning suffered from nerves almost as badly as Macbeth; after the deed he sought to drown the prickings of terror and remorse by heavy drinking Mrs. Manning was never troubled with any feelings of this kind; after the murder of O’Connor the gratification of her sexual passion seemed uppermost in her mind; and she met the consequences of her crime fearlessly. Burke and Hare were a couple of ruffians, tempted by what must have seemed almost fabulous wealth to men of their wretched poverty to commit a series of cruel murders. Hare, with his queer, Mephistophelian countenance, was the wickeder of the two. Burke became haunted as time went on and flew to drink to banish horror, but Hare would seem to have been free from such “compunctious visitings of Nature.” He kept his head and turned King’s evidence.

In the case of the Peltzer brothers we have a man who is of good social position, falling desperately in love with the wife of a successful barrister. The wife, though unhappy in her domestic life, refuses to become her lover’s mistress; marriage is the only way to secure her. So Armand Peltzer plots to murder the husband. For this purpose he calls in the help of a brother, a ne’er-do-well, who has left his native country under a cloud. He sends for this dubious person to Europe, and there between them they plan the murder of the inconvenient husband. Though the idea of the crime comes from the one brother, the other receives the idea without repugnance and enters wholeheartedly into the commission of the murder. The ascendency of the one is evident, but he knows his man, is sure that he will have no difficulty in securing the other’s co-operation in his felonious purpose. Armand Peltzer should have lived in the Italy of the Renaissance.

The crime was cunningly devised, and methodically and successfully accomplished. Only an over-anxiety to secure the fruits of it led to its detection. Barre and Lebiez are a perfect criminal couple, both young men of good education, trained to better things, but the one idle, greedy and vicious, the other cynical, indifferent, inclined at best to a lazy sentimentalism. Barre is a needy stockbroker at the end of his tether, desperate to find an expedient for raising the wind, Lebiez a medical student who writes morbid verses to a skull and lectures on Darwinism. To Barre belongs the original suggestion to murder an old woman who sells milk and is reputed to have savings. But his friend and former schoolfellow, Lebiez, accepts the suggestion placidly, and reconciles himself to the murder of an unnecessary old woman by the same argument as that used by Raskolnikoff in “Crime and Punishment” to justify the killing of his victim.

In all the cases here quoted the couples are essentially criminal couples. From whichever of the two comes the first suggestion of crime, it falls on soil already prepared to receive it; the response to the suggestion is immediate. In degree of guilt there is little or nothing to choose between them. But the more interesting instances of dual crime are those in which one innocent hitherto of crime, to whom it is morally repugnant, is persuaded by another to the commission of a criminal act, as Cassius persuades Brutus; Iago, Othello. Cassius is a criminal by instinct. Placed in a social position which removes him from the temptation to ordinary crime, circumstances combine in his case to bring out the criminal tendency and give it free play in the projected murder of Caesar. Sour, envious, unscrupulous, the suggestion to kill Caesar under the guise of the public weal is in reality a gratification to Cassius of his own ignoble instincts, and the deliberate unscrupulousness with which he seeks to corrupt the honourable metal, seduce the noble mind of his friend, is typical of the man’s innate dishonesty. Cassius belongs to that particular type of the envious nature which Shakespeare is fond of exemplifying with more or less degree of villainy in such characters as Iago, Edmund, and Don John, of which Robert Butler, whose career is given in this book, is a living instance. Cassius on public grounds tempts Brutus to crime as subtly as on private grounds Iago tempts Othello, and with something of the same malicious satisfaction; the soliloquy of Cassius at the end of the second scene of the first act is that of a bad man and a false friend. Indeed, the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius after the murder of Caesar loses much of its sincerity and pathos unless we can forget for the moment the real character of Cassius. But the interest in the cases of Cassius and Brutus, Iago and Othello, lies not so much in the nature of the prompter of the crime. The instances in which an honest, honourable man is by force of another’s suggestion converted into a criminal are psychologically remarkable. It is to be expected that we should look in the annals of real crime for confirmation of the truth to life of stories such as these, told in fiction or drama.

The strongest influence, under which the naturally non-criminal person may be tempted in violation of instinct and better nature to the commission of a crime, is that of love or passion. Examples of this kind are frequent in the annals of crime. There is none more striking than that of the Widow Gras and Natalis Gaudry. Here a man, brave, honest, of hitherto irreproachable character, is tempted by a woman to commit the most cruel and infamous of crimes. At first he repels the suggestion; at last, when his senses have been excited, his passion inflamed by the cunning of the woman, as the jealous passion of Othello is played on and excited by Iago, the patriotism of Brutus artfully exploited by Cassius, he yields to the repeated solicitation and does a deed in every way repugnant to his normal character. Nothing seems so blinding in its effect on the moral sense as passion. It obscures all sense of humour, proportion, congruity; the murder of the man or woman who stands in the way of its full enjoyment becomes an act of inverted justice to the perpetrators; they reconcile themselves to it by the most perverse reasoning until they come to regard it as an act, in which they may justifiably invoke the help of God; eroticism and religion are often jumbled up together in this strange medley of conflicting emotions.

A woman, urging her lover to the murder of her husband, writes of the roses that are to deck the path of the lovers as soon as the crime is accomplished; she sends him flowers and in the same letter asks if he has got the necessary cartridges. Her husband has been ill; she hopes that it is God helping them to the desired end; she burns a candle on the altar of a saint for the success of their murderous plan.(4) A jealous husband setting out to kill his wife carries in his pockets, beside a knife and a service revolver, a rosary, a medal of the Virgin and a holy image.(5) Marie Boyer in the blindness of her passion and jealousy believes God to be helping her to get rid of her mother.


(4) Case of Garnier and the woman Aveline, 1884.

(5) Case of the Comte de Cornulier: “Un An de Justice,” Henri Varennes, 1901.


A lover persuades the wife to get rid of her husband. For a whole year he instils the poison into her soul until she can struggle no longer against the obsession; he offers to do the deed, but she writes that she would rather suffer all the risks and consequences herself. “How many times,” she writes, “have I wished to go away, leave home, but it meant leaving my children, losing them for ever.. that made my lover jealous, he believed that I could not bring myself to leave my husband. But if my husband were out of the way then I would keep my children, and my lover would see in my crime a striking proof of my devotion.” A curious farrago of slavish passion, motherly love and murder.(6)


(6) Case of Madame Weiss and the engineer Roques. If I may be permitted the reference, there is an account of this case and that of Barre and Lebiez in my book “French Criminals of the Nineteenth Century.”


There are some women such as Marie Boyer and Gabrielle Fenayrou, who may be described as passively criminal, chameleon-like, taking colour from their surroundings. By the force of a man’s influence they commit a dreadful crime, in the one instance it is matricide, in the other the murder of a former lover, but neither of the women is profoundly vicious or criminal in her instincts. In prison they become exemplary, their crime a thing of the past.

Gabrielle Fenayrou during her imprisonment, having won the confidence of the religious sisters in charge of the convicts, is appointed head of one of the workshops. Marie Boyer is so contrite, exemplary in her behaviour that she is released after fifteen years’ imprisonment. In some ways, perhaps, these malleable types of women, “soft paste” as one authority has described them, “effacees” in the words of another, are the most dangerous material of all for the commission of crime, their obedience is so complete, so cold and relentless.

There are cases into which no element of passion enters, in which one will stronger than the other can so influence, so dominate the weaker as to persuade the individual against his or her better inclination to an act of crime, just as in the relations of ordinary life we see a man or woman led and controlled for good or ill by one stronger than themselves. There is no more extraordinary instance of this than the case of Catherine Hayes, immortalised by Thackeray, which occurred as long ago as the year 1726. This singular woman by her artful insinuations, by representing her husband as an atheist and a murderer, persuaded a young man of the name of Wood, of hitherto exemplary character, to assist her in murdering him. It was unquestionably the sinister influence of Captain Cranstoun that later in the same century persuaded the respectable Miss Mary Blandy to the murder of her father. The assassin of an old woman in Paris recounts thus the arguments used by his mistress to induce him to commit the crime: “She began by telling me about the money and jewellery in the old woman’s possession which could no longer be of any use to her"—the argument of Raskolnikoff—"I resisted, but next day she began again, pointing out that one killed people in war, which was not considered a crime, and therefore one should not be afraid to kill a miserable old woman. I urged that the old woman had done us no harm, and that I did not see why one should kill her; she reproached me for my weakness and said that, had she been strong enough, she would soon have done this abominable deed herself. ‘God,’ she added, ‘will forgive us because He knows how poor we are.’” When he came to do the murder, this determined woman plied her lover with brandy and put rouge on his cheeks lest his pallor should betray him.(7)


(7) Case of Albert and the woman Lavoitte, Paris, 1877.


There are occasions when those feelings of compunction which troubled Macbeth and his wife are wellnigh proof against the utmost powers of suggestion, or, as in the case of Hubert and Prince Arthur, compel the criminal to desist from his enterprise.

A man desires to get rid of his father and mother-in-law. By means of threats, reproaches and inducements he persuades another man to commit the crime. Taking a gun, the latter sets out to do the deed; but he realises the heinousness of it and turns back. “The next day,” he says, “at four o’clock in the morning I started again. I passed the village church. At the sight of the place where I had celebrated my first communion I was filled with remorse. I knelt down and prayed to God to make me good. But some unknown force urged me to the crime. I started again—ten times I turned back, but the more I hesitated the stronger was the desire to go on.” At length the faltering assassin arrived at the house, and in his painful anxiety of mind shot a servant instead of the intended victims.(8)


(8) Case of Porcher and Hardouin cited in Despine. “Psychologie Naturelle.”


In a town in Austria there dwelt a happy and contented married couple, poor and hard-working. A charming young lady, a rich relation and an orphan, comes to live with them. She brings to their modest home wealth and comfort. But as time goes on, it is likely that the young lady will fall in love and marry. What then? Her hosts will have to return to their original poverty. The idea of how to secure to himself the advantages of his young kinswoman’s fortune takes possession of the husband’s mind. He revolves all manner of means, and gradually murder presents itself as the only way. The horrid suggestion fixes itself in his mind, and at last he communicates it to his wife. At first she resists, then yields to the temptation. The plan is ingenious. The wife is to disappear to America and be given out as dead. The husband will then marry his attractive kinswoman, persuade her to make a will in his favour, poison her and, the fortune secured, rejoin his wife. As if to help this cruel plan, the young lady has developed a sentimental affection for her relative. The wife goes to America, the husband marries the young lady. He commences to poison her, but, in the presence of her youth, beauty and affection for him, relents, hesitates to commit a possibly unnecessary crime. He decides to forget and ignore utterly his wife who is waiting patiently in America. A year passes. The expectant wife gets no sign of her husband’s existence. She comes back to Europe, visits under a false name the town in which her faithless husband and his bride are living, discovers the truth and divulges the intended crime to the authorities. A sentence of penal servitude for life rewards this perfidious criminal.(9)


(9) Case of the Scheffer couple at Linz, cited by Sighele.


Derues said to a man who was looking at a picture in the Palais de Justice: “Why study copies of Nature when you can look at such a remarkable original as I?” A judge once told the present writer that he did not go often to the theatre because none of the dramas which he saw on the stage, seemed to him equal in intensity to those of real life which came before him in the course of his duties. The saying that truth is stranger than fiction applies more forcibly to crime than to anything else. But the ordinary man and woman prefer to take their crime romanticised, as it is administered to them in novel or play. The true stories told in this book represent the raw material from which works of art have been and may be yet created. The murder of Mr. Arden of Faversham inspired an Elizabethan tragedy attributed by some critics to Shakespeare. The Peltzer trial helped to inspire Paul Bourget’s remarkable novel, “Andre Cornelis.” To Italian crime we owe Shelley’s “Cenci” and Browning’s “The Ring and the Book.” Mrs. Manning was the original of the maid Hortense in “Bleak House.” Jonathan Wild, Eugene Aram, Deacon Brodie, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright have all been made the heroes of books or plays of varying merit. But it is not only in its stories that crime has served to inspire romance. In the investigation of crime, especially on the broader lines of Continental procedure, we can track to the source the springs of conduct and character, and come near to solving as far as is humanly possible the mystery of human motive. There is always and must be in every crime a terra incognita which, unless we could enter into the very soul of a man, we cannot hope to reach. Thus far may we go, no farther. It is rarely indeed that a man lays bare his whole soul, and even when he does we can never be quite sure that he is telling us all the truth, that he is not keeping back some vital secret. It is no doubt better so, and that it should be left to the writer of imagination to picture for us a man’s inmost soul. The study of crime will help him to that end. It will help us also in the ethical appreciation of good and evil in individual conduct, about which our notions have been somewhat obscured by too narrow a definition of what constitutes crime. These themes, touched on but lightly and imperfectly in these pages, are rich in human interest.

And so it is hardly a matter for surprise that the poet and the philosopher sat up late one night talking about murders.




“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.”



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 vaingloriousness 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.