From Jack the Ripper to long-forgotten cases, a true crime for ever day of the year
May 19, 1536: Anne Boleyn, charged with high treason, is beheaded at the Tower of London
August 31, 1888: Mary Ann Nichols, the first victim of Jack the Ripper, is found murdered in Buck’s Row
December 18, 1914: George Joseph Smith murders his wife in a Blackpool boarding house bath, sparking the police investigation that finally ended his killing spree
August 13, 1964: Peter Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans go to the gallows, the last two men to be executed in the UK
This volume contains 365 amazing and incredible true crimes from British history. With infamous names—Crippen, Seddon, Haigh, Ellis—alongside lesser-known examples from the British pantheon of crime, it will fascinate and unnerve readers everywhere.
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About the Author
Peter Stubley is a crime journalist and the founder of the London murder map (www.murdermap.co.uk), which aims to catalog every Victorian murder in London.
Read an Excerpt
Calendar of Crime
365 True Cases From British History
By Peter Stubley
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Peter Stubley
All rights reserved.
On the evening of 1 January 1845, the electric telegraph operator at Paddington railway station received this message:
A MURDER HAS GUST BEEN COMMITTED
AT SALT HILL AND THE SUSPECTED
MURDERER WAS SEEN TO TAKE A
FIRST CLASS TICKET TO LONDON BY THE
TRAIN WHICH LEFT SLOUGH AT 7.42 PM
HE IS IN THE GARB OF A KWAKER
WITH A GREAT COAT ON WHICH REACHES
NEARLY DOWN TO HIS FEET HE IS
IN THE LAST COMPARTMENT OF
THE SECOND CLASS COMPARTMENT
The operator, not realising that 'Kwaker' referred to Quaker (the system did not use J, Q or Z), asked for the communication to be repeated before passing it to police. By the time the train arrived at 8.20 p.m., a police officer was waiting to identify and follow the suspect. John Tawell, 60, was arrested and charged with the murder of his second wife Sarah Hart by poisoning her glass of stout with Scheele's Prussic Acid, a treatment for varicose veins which contained hydrogen cyanide. Tawell claimed his wife had inadvertently killed herself by eating too many apple pips but was convicted and sentenced to death. He became known as 'The Man Hanged by the Electric Telegraph'.
The MP and baronet Sir John Hotham was beheaded on this day in 1645 after making the mistake of defying both the king and Parliament during the English Civil War. He was first declared a traitor after barring Charles I from entering Hull to make use of its stockpile of weapons in April 1642, forcing the king to move to Nottingham. Hotham then seems to have had a disastrous change of heart as the Royalists initially got the better of the early exchanges with the Parliamentarian forces. Together with his eldest son – Captain John Hotham the younger, who served under Thomas Fairfax – he began secret negotiations to hand over the Hull stronghold to the Royalists. The deception was discovered and Parliament ordered the arrest of both Hothams in June 1643. Sir John attempted to escape but was arrested in Beverley in Yorkshire and taken to London for court martial. Both Sir John and his son (who blamed his father for the betrayal) were convicted of treason and executed on successive days at Tower Hill. According to one account, Sir John's 'unwillingness to die appeared by his many delays and no doubt but that he had thoughts of pardon till the last'.
The 'Siege of Sidney Street' in the East End of London in 1911 pitted two Latvian anarchists against 200 police officers, a company of Scots Guards and Home Secretary Winston Churchill. The Latvians were believed to be responsible for the murder of three policemen in Houndsditch two weeks earlier on 16 December and detectives had received a tip-off that the gang was hiding out at No. 100 Sidney Street. At 2 a.m., the building was surrounded by armed officers. For the next six hours gunfire echoed around the street until the hideout mysteriously caught fire. Churchill, who was famously photographed peering around a corner at the battle, ordered the firefighters not to intervene and, when the blaze died down, two bodies were recovered. Neither of them was the legendary 'Peter the Painter', the supposed leader of the gang. Nobody knows his true identity – or if he even existed at all. As for Churchill, the future war leader was widely mocked in Parliament for risking his life and taking control of the operation. He would later admit in his diaries that curiosity got the better of him: 'I should have done better to have remained quietly in my office.'
English history might have been very different if King Charles I had not attempted to arrest five MPs for treason on this day in 1642. Seeking to impose his royal authority, Charles marched into the House of Commons with armed soldiers only to find that the troublesome 'Five Members' – John Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles, Arthur Haselrig and William Strode – had already left. Taking the Speaker's chair, Charles told the remaining MPs: 'So long as those persons that I have accused are here, I cannot expect that this House will be in the right way I do heartily wish it.' When he asked Speaker William Lenthall if he knew where the five men were, the Speaker (on bended knee) defiantly replied: 'I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me.' After a long silence, the king replied: 'Well, since I see all my birds are flown I do expect from you that you will send them unto me as soon as they return hither.' Six days later, Charles fled from London for his own safety and began to prepare for the outbreak of the Civil War.
Ten-year-old Mona Tinsley left school in Newark in Nottinghamshire at 4 p.m. on 5 January 1937. She never arrived home. By 9 p.m., a full police search was underway. There were several sightings: a schoolboy saw Mona with a man at the bus station, a bus driver reported that a man and a girl travelled on the 4.45 p.m. to Retford, and at Retford there was a sighting of a young girl in the back garden of the home of Frederick Nodder. Another witness had seen Nodder – a former lodger with the Tinsley family – waiting outside the school in Newark. At Nodder's house, police found drawings and writing by Mona. But there was no sign of the girl. With no body to prove murder, Nodder was charged with abduction and jailed for seven years at Warwick Assizes. The judge told him: 'it may be that time will reveal the dreadful secret which you carry in your breast.' Five months later, a family rowing in the River Idle discovered Mona's body floating in the water. Nodder, who claimed he had put Mona on a bus to Sheffield, was convicted of murder at Nottingham Assizes. He was hanged on 30 December 1937.
Evelyn Foster was dying. As she lay in bed, her body so badly burnt it was obvious she had only hours to live, she told her story: on the evening of 6 January 1931, she was driving a Hudson Super Six taxi back to her father's garage in Otterburn, Northumberland, when she was flagged down by a smart man in a bowler hat. She agreed to take him to Ponteland, but he took over the wheel, knocked her unconscious and indecently assaulted her. Then he set the car on fire. She managed to clamber away from the vehicle and was found a short while later by a passing bus driver. Evelyn died the following morning, aged 27. Nobody was ever charged and the police seem to have dismissed her version of events. At the inquest, the jury were provided with two alternative theories: either Evelyn was murdered by this mysterious stranger, or she accidentally set herself on fire as well as the car, perhaps in order to claim on the insurance. Although a post-mortem found no evidence of an assault, the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder. So who was the 'dandy in the bowler hat'?
The 'Christmas Cutpurse', John Selman, was hanged on 7 January 1612 after he was caught stealing a purse in the presence of King James I. It was a daring, but foolish attempt: Selman, disguised in a handsome black velvet cloak, sneaked into the King's Chapel in Whitehall as a crowd of nobles watched the monarch take Communion on Christmas Day. But the promise of rich pickings soon evaporated after he was caught red-handed with a bag of shillings lifted from a lord's servant. Selman confessed and agreed to give evidence against other thieves in return for a Christian burial. In his dying speech from the gallows at Charing Cross, he declared:
I have deserved death long before this time, and deservedly now I suffer death. The offense I die for, was high presumption, a fact done even in the Kings Majesty's presence, even in the Church of God, in the time of divine Service, and the celebration of the Sacred Communion, for which if forgiveness may descend from God's tribunal Throne, with penitence of heart I desire it.
Such was Selman's fame that Ben Jonson quickly wrote the 'Christmas Cutpurse' into his masque Love Restored.
The last man to be hanged for blasphemy in Britain was a young Scottish student who ridiculed the Bible as a fable and claimed Jesus was nothing more than a third-rate magician. The year was 1697, and the state was determined to make an example out of Thomas Aikenhead, the 20-year-old son of a chirurgeon from Edinburgh. According to the indictment, Aikenhead not only dismissed Christ's miracles as pranks, but also described his disciples as 'blockish fisher fellows whom he knew had strong imaginations'. Further claims included his rejection of the Holy Trinity, his preference for the prophet Mohammed over Jesus and his confident belief that Christianity would be eradicated by the beginning of the nineteenth century. In a plea for mercy written before his trial, Aikenhead insisted that he was a Christian who believed in both the Old and New Testament and was only repeating 'the sentiments and opinions of some atheisticall writers whose names I can particularly condescend upon'. He was convicted of the charge on the evidence of five fellow students and on 8 January 1697 he was hanged on a gibbet on the road between Edinburgh and Leith. The blasphemy law was finally abolished in 2008.
Although his hands were warm with blood,
He down to supper sat,
And passed the time in merry mood,
With drink and songs and chat.
This, according to a local ballad, was how John Thurtell celebrated disposing of his victim William Weare on 24 October 1823. Thurtell, a mayor's son, former Royal Marine and boxer, decided to do away with Weare, a solicitor, to avoid paying a gambling debt of £300. He invited Weare to a weekend of games and alcohol with his friends at a cottage in Radlett, Hertfordshire. Shortly before reaching their destination in a horse-drawn carriage, Thurtell shot Weare in the face with a pistol. When this failed to extinguish his life, Thurtell slashed his throat with a knife and battered his brains out with the gun. After hiding the corpse in a pond, Thurtell enjoyed a supper of pork chops and a drunken singalong. But the crime was soon discovered and both Thurtell and his friend Joseph Hunt were convicted of murder. Thurtell was hanged on 9 January 1824, aged 29, but Hunt was spared the death sentence and transported to Australia.
The notorious eighteenth-century pickpocket Mary Young was such a talented thief that she was nicknamed Diving Jenny (or Jenny Diver, also a character in The Beggar's Opera). Her nimble fingers first demonstrated their worth at the age of 10, when she was taught needlework by her foster mother in Ireland. At 15 she decided to head for London, where, having failed to earn a living from sewing, she fell in with a gang of thieves and learnt the tricks of the trade. One of her favourite escapades involved disguising herself as a pregnant lady and fainting in the middle of the crowds at St James's Park in London, allowing her accomplices to lift as many valuables as possible from the distracted spectators. Jenny was convicted twice under different names and transported to the American colonies, only to return to London. Her luck ran out on 10 January 1741, when one of her victims managed to grab hold of her hand in mid-pick and refused to let go even after being punched in the face. This time the court was aware of her previous offences and sentenced her to death. Jenny was hanged at Tyburn on 18 March.
On 11 January 1920, Hannah Calladine and her two children left the market town of Glossop, never to be seen alive again. Their mysterious disappearance was only solved three years later, when a 4-year-old boy living in the same neighbourhood also went missing. This time a huge search was mounted by the police and local volunteers. One of the willing hands, 62-year-old farm labourer Albert Burrows, the bigamous husband of Mrs Calladine, told officers he took young Tommy Wood for a walk through the fields; while he was trying to catch a rabbit, the boy ran off. Suspicious of his account, detectives kept him under watch. When Tommy's body was found at the bottom of a disused mineshaft, Burrows attempted to flee across the moors, followed by an angry mob of spectators. He was found hiding under a holly bush and driven away, past hordes of baying locals, to the police station. Two months later, while Burrows was awaiting trial for murder, the mineshaft was drained of water to reveal the bodies of Mrs Calladine, her 15-month-old son and her 4-year-old daughter. Burrows was hanged in Nottingham on 8 August 1923.
The original Great Train Robbery took place in 1855 on the South Eastern Railway between London and Folkestone. It was only when the cargo reached its destination in Paris that it was discovered 200lb of gold (then worth £12,000) had been removed from the bullion safe in the guard's van and replaced with lead weights. Although railway staff were suspected, the case remained unsolved until the following year when one of the thieves, Edward Agar (who had since been sentenced to penal transportation for life for forging a cheque for £700), decided to tell police the full story. With the help of three railway employees – former ticket printer William Pierce, office clerk William Tester and guard James Burgess – he created replica keys to the bullion safe, tested them, and performed several dry runs before choosing a target. After successfully removing the gold before the train reached Folkestone, Agar melted it down and sold some of it to pay off his conspirators. On 12 January 1857, after a trial at the Old Bailey, Burgess and Tester were sentenced to transportation for fourteen years and Pierce was imprisoned for two years.
The Victorian eccentric Dr William Price was a Welsh nationalist, a Chartist, a vegetarian, an archdruid, an advocate of 'free love' and a naked rambler. Even when clothed he refused to wear socks and insisted on washing any coins that were given to him. Dr Price also pioneered cremation at a time when burial was thought to be the only proper way of dealing with a dead body. On 13 January 1884, following the tragic death of his 5-month-old son Iesu Grist (Welsh for Jesus Christ), he built a pyre near his home in Llantrisant, Glamorgan. The fire was quickly spotted by local residents and police officers had to rescue Price from an angry mob. An autopsy confirmed that the baby boy had died of natural causes but Price, then aged 83, was arrested and put on trial at Cardiff Assizes for illegally disposing of a dead body. The judge agreed with his argument that the law did not explicitly outlaw cremation and Price was released. On 14 March, Price was allowed to perform a full cremation on his son in a druidic ceremony. The first official cremation, of Jeannette Pickersgill, took place in Woking on 26 March 1885.
At the back of the Adelphi Theatre in London's West End, a plaque marks the location of a sensational murder:
HERO OF THE ADELPHI MELODRAMAS
MET HIS UNTIMELY END OUTSIDE THIS THEATRE
16 DECEMBER 1897
Terriss, an established and popular actor, had just arrived at the theatre for his performance that night when a man ran up and stabbed him twice in the back. Terriss turned to face his attacker, only to be stabbed in the chest. He bled to death within minutes. The killer, 32 -year-old Richard Prince (also known as Mad Archer), was arrested nearby and explained: 'Mr Terriss would not allow me to have any employment and I did it in revenge.' Terriss had previously helped the young actor find work but Prince was notoriously unstable and had been fired from his job at the Adelphi. He had become jealous of the older man's success, and was heard to make comments like 'fools often succeed in life where men of genius fail'. On 14 January 1898, Prince was found 'guilty of murder but insane' at the Old Bailey and remained at Broadmoor Asylum until his death thirty-nine years later.
Whiteabbey, Belfast, Northern Ireland. 1953. Iain Hay Gordon, a 21-year-old RAF clerk, was arrested and charged with the murder of 19-year-old judge's daughter Patricia Curran. He replied: 'it was not wilful murder' but was brought before a special court and remanded in custody to await trial. The case against him was based on his confession: in the early hours of 13 November 1952, he met Patricia as she walked home university and asked for a kiss. She resisted his advances and called him a beast. He lost control and stabbed her thirty-seven times. The confession resulted in a verdict of 'guilty but insane' and he spent the next seven years locked up in a psychiatric hospital. In 1993 he began a legal fight to clear his name, based on contradictory evidence, police misconduct and an unfair trial. How come there was hardly any blood at the scene despite the severity of the injuries? Why was Gordon told by police that if he didn't confess they would tell his mother about his friendship with a gay man? Why did his lawyers insist on putting forward the insanity defence? Only in 2000 would he succeed in having the conviction quashed by the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal.
On 16 January 1673, the 'German Princess' Mary Carleton (aka Henrietta Maria van Wolway) was called before a judge at the Old Bailey to explain herself. Was she the same woman who had been banished to Jamaica a few years before for stealing a silver tankard? Mary admitted that she was, and the following day was condemned to death. Her execution on 22 January brought an end to the life of a highly successful identity fraudster. For Mary Carleton was not a real German princess. She was in fact born in Canterbury, her father was a chorister rather than a lord and her first husband was a shoemaker in her home town. In 1663 she arrived in London in the guise of an orphan princess reduced to 'exposing her body to the pleasure of every bidder'. Her unfortunate tale attracted the offer of marriage from John Carleton, an 18-year-old lawyer's clerk, but she was soon exposed and prosecuted for bigamy. Incredibly, she was acquitted after the prosecution failed to locate her first husband. Carleton then perfected her ploy of seducing wealthy men and running off with their valuables while they slept – until that fateful conviction for stealing a tankard.
Excerpted from Calendar of Crime by Peter Stubley. Copyright © 2014 Peter Stubley. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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