Tag Archives: London crime

The Finger of Blame

On the night of 26th June 1902 petty thief Harry Jackson broke into a billiard room situated where King’s College Hospital now stands on Denmark Hill and pocketed some balls. He left behind a grimy thumb print on the newly-painted windowsill and in so doing British legal history was made.

The billiards room’s parlour maid pointed out Jackson’s print to Detective Sergeant Collins, who duly photographed it.

[A] few months later Jackson was caught lurking on the roof of another billiard room at a Brixton pub carrying with him a bag of tools.

In court DS Collins argued that the print found at Denmark Hill matched one taken from Jackson after his arrest. The accused, who clearly had a thing about billiard balls, simply said in his defence “I know nothing”.

The jury thought Jackson did know something, he got 7 years and British criminal history was made. The first person convicted using fingerprints as evidence.

In the past the police had used the Bertillion method of distinguishing crooks, by measurements of the body: size of head; ears; arms; fingers; and feet. When Scottish missionary doctor Henry Faulds approached Scotland Yard in 1880 with the idea of using fingerprints as evidence he was dismissed as a crank.

Others agreed, after Harry Jackson’s conviction ‘A Disgusted Magistrate’ wrote a letter to The Times:

Scotland Yard, once known as the world’s finest police organisation, will be the laughing stock of Europe it if insists on trying to trace criminals by odd ridges on their skins.

Assistant Commissioner Edward Henry of the CID at Scotland Yard didn’t agree with Disgusted of the Bench. The previous year he had set up the Fingerprint Branch after reading of successful convictions for murder in Argentina and India based on fingerprint evidence.

But it would be another 3 years before fingerprints were used as evidence in a British court. This time for a far more serious offence than the hapless serial billiard ball thief.

In Deptford at 7 o’clock in the morning of 27th March 1905 Thomas Farrow was yet to open the paint shop that he managed when he heard a knock and opened the door. Entering the shop his assailants were not interested in purchasing 5 litres of brilliant white, but demanded the week’s takings due to be collected later that day.

Thomas died at the scene after receiving at least six blows to the head from a crow bar, his wife, found still in her bed, was to die 4 days later from similar injuries received.

A pair of milkmen described seeing 2 men coming out of the paint shop, but were unable to subsequently identify them. Another witness had seen two men running down the High Street and recognised one as Alfred Stratton.

The crime had left police with a dilemma, no sign of forced entry, no murder weapon and no reliable eye witnesses, with only Alfred’s girlfriend’s statement that he had returned home with money and smelling of paraffin.

The only conclusive evidence was a left thumbprint left in sweat on the cash box which matched Alfred Stratton. He was arrested and put on trial with his brother at the Old Bailey, although the case was weak and circumstantial.

Not only were the Stratton Brothers in the dock also on trial was the science of fingerprinting.

Giving evidence, Detective Inspector Charles Collins (note the promotion) told the jury:

At Scotland Yard we have now between 80,000 and 90,000 sets of finger prints, which means between 800,000 and 900,000 impressions of digits. In my experience I have never found any two such impressions to correspond . . . I found that Alfred’s right thumb corresponded with the mark on the cash box and I prepared for the purpose of comparison an enlargement of the mark upon the cash box, and one practically on the same scale of the right thumb of Alfred . . . I have indicated by red lines and figures eleven characteristics in which those two prints agree . . . I did not find any characteristic which is visible in the print on the cash box which does not agree.

It took the jury 2 hours to find the brothers guilty of murder and on 23rd May 1905 they were hanged.

Meanwhile Harry Jackson was still detained at His Majesty’s pleasure dreaming of the day when he could resume stealing billiard balls again.

If you want a more detailed (and grizzly) account of the Stratton Brothers crime it can be found at MurderMap.

Exploding the legend

Ask most children in England what happens on the 5th November and they would tell you that it is Guy Fawkes night. It is a night we commemorate when in 1605 some Catholics in England expecting the new Stuart King – James to be more tolerant of them had decided to kill him. Their hopes were dashed when he had proved to be the opposite and had ordered all Catholic priests to leave England.

[T]his so angered some Catholics that they decided to remove James and put his daughter Elizabeth on the throne ensuring that she was a Catholic.

This led to a plot to assassinate the king of England, but as we shall see it would devastate a sizeable area of Westminster and also kill everyone sitting in the Houses of Parliament at the same time as the James opened Parliament on 5th November, 1605.

Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators had rented out a house next to the Houses of Parliament and managed to get 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar under the House of Lords.

For an unexplained reason it was decided this year to search the cellars prior to the opening of Parliament and Guy Fawkes was caught red handed.

In celebration of his survival, James ordered that the people of England should have a great bonfire on the night on 5th November. This fire was traditionally topped off with an effigy of the Pope rather than Guy Fawkes. His place at the top of the fire came in later as did fireworks. The East Sussex county town of Lewes still has the pope alongside Guy Fawkes when it comes to the effigies being burned.

Many conspiracy theories surround the 5th November plot but the use of gunpowder is an intriguing one.

The government had a monopoly on gunpowder in this country and it was stored in places like the Tower of London. How did the conspirators get hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder without drawing attention to themselves?

How was the gunpowder moved across London from the Tower of London to Westminster (at least two miles distant) without anyone seeing it? The River Thames would not have been used as it could have lead to the gunpowder becoming damp and useless. Thirty six barrels would have been a sizeable quantity, estimated to be 2,500 kilograms, being moved without causing suspicion.

Experts from the Centre for Explosion Studies, at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth have estimated the Westminster Abbey would have been destroyed and the blast zone would have stretched as far as modern day Downing Street.

They found that within a radius of about 40 metres, everything would have been razed to the ground. Within 110 metres, buildings would have been at least partially destroyed. And some windows would have been blown out even as far as 900 metres away.

In the 2005 ITV programme The Gunpowder Plot: Exploding The Legend, a full-size replica of the House of Lords was built and destroyed with barrels of gunpowder. The experiment demonstrated that the explosion, if the gunpowder was in good order – and there is no reason to believe otherwise as Guy Fawkes was an explosives expert – would have killed all those in the building. The power of the explosion in the experiment was such that the 7-foot deep concrete walls (replicating how archives suggest the walls of the old House of Lords were constructed) were reduced to rubble. Measuring devices placed in the chamber to calculate the force of the blast were themselves destroyed by the explosion; the skull of the dummy representing King James, which had been placed on a throne inside the chamber surrounded by courtiers, peers and bishops, was found a considerable distance from the site. According to the findings of the programme, no one within 330 feet of the blast could have survived. The explosion would have been seen from miles away, and heard from further away still. Even if only half of the gunpowder had gone off, everyone in the House of Lords and its environs would have been killed instantly.

The programme also disproved claims that some deterioration in the quality of the gunpowder would have prevented the explosion. A portion of deliberately deteriorated gunpowder, of such low quality as to make it unusable in firearms, when placed in a heap and ignited, still managed to create a large explosion. The impact of even deteriorated gunpowder would have been magnified by its containment in wooden barrels, compensating for the quality of the contents. The compression would have created a cannon effect, with the powder first blowing up from the top of the barrel before, a millisecond later, blowing out. Calculations showed that Fawkes, who was skilled in the use of gunpowder, had deployed double the amount needed.

As a curious footnote, some of the gunpowder guarded by Fawkes may have survived until recently. In March 2002 workers cataloguing archives of diarist John Evelyn at the British Library found a box containing a number of gunpowder samples, including a compressed bar with a note in Evelyn’s handwriting stating that it had belonged to Guy Fawkes. A further note, written in the 19th century, confirmed this provenance, but in 1952 the document acquired a new comment: “but there was none left”.

A close shave

Sweeny Todd

For many years I’ve thought of Sweeny Todd as an urban myth, alongside Robin Hood and King Arthur, but a book by the late Peter Haining Sweeny Todd: The Real Story of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has gone some way to dispel that belief, although it must be said that many academics dispute his findings. He asserts that the 25th January 2012 marks the 210th anniversary of Todd’s hanging for crimes which if true would make him Britain’s most prolific serial killer.

His abused early life would match the profile for the makings of a psychopath. Todd was born on 26th October 1756 in Brick Lane to a mother who for a living wound silk in Spitalfields and a drunken father employed as a silk weaver and who would regularly beat his son and wife. Spoilt by the mother who as he later related “would make quite a pet of me”, kissing him and calling him a pretty boy. As he grew up hating his life at home Todd would visit the nearby Tower of London where instruments of torture were displayed to discourage miscreants.

[I]n the harsh winter of 1768 both his parents seem to have succumbed to gin, the cold or both and disappeared from the records and from Todd’s life.

Two years later at the age of 14 Todd entered Newgate Prison for an unrecorded crime and was to spend five years within its walls working with a man called Plummer the prison’s barber. As his assistant Todd would soap the condemned men’s chins for shaving before they walked to the gallows. A tough life in Newgate for on one occasion he was left for dead after a beating for pilfering from a murderer.

On his release in 1775 semi-literate Todd had acquired new skills which he intended to put to good use. He set himself up as a street corner barber and within five years had opened a barbers shop near Hyde Park corner.

Violence surrounded him, his shop was within walking distance of the gibbet at Tyburn which was to be the principal place of execution in London for the next three years until Tyburn’s gallows were decommissioned in 1783 when Newgate was used as London’s principal place of execution as Todd would later discover. He hated his parents and abused his wife he had in short all the makings of a modern-day serial killer.

In December 1784 an annual news chronicle reported a story: “A young gentleman, by chance coming into the barber’s shop to be shaved and dressed, and being in liquor, mentioned having seen a fine girl in Hamilton Street, from whom he had had certain favours the night before. The barber, concluding this to be his wife, and in the height of his frenzy, cut the young gentleman’s throat from ear to ear and absconded.” Todd would recount later after his arrest “My first ‘un was a young gent at Hyde Park Corner. Slit him from ear to ear, I did.”

He next appeared at 186 Fleet Street (now home to the Dundee Courier) in a dilapidated shop adjacent to St. Dunstan’s Church, just yards from Bell Yard, the two locations were connected by a series of tunnels beneath the church. Paying £125 for the lease he set himself up as a barber surgeon, with a red and white striped pole representing the bandages and blood of his profession, and above the shop a yellow painted sign reading “Sweeny Todd, Barber”. In the windows were jars displaying rotten teeth showcasing his prowess at extraction.

London’s first newspaper the Daily Courant then located in Crane Court just a few yards up Fleet Street from Todd’s barber shop reported the murder on 14th April 1785 of a young gentleman who had been seen in conversation with a man dressed as a barber stating “The two men came to an argument, and of a sudden the barber took from his clothing a razor and slit the throat of the young man, thereafter disappearing and was seen no more.”

Four other murders near his shop have been attributed to Todd, an apprentice who was carrying money for his master, a pawnbroker, a share dealer and a petty crook. Not wishing to be caught in the street committing his foul deeds he had now devised a way of dispatching his victims within the confines of his shop. Probably inspired by a waxworks exhibition in Fleet Street which featured revolving machinery which made the waxworks kick out to frighten visitors, his chair was positioned either side of a moveable square of floorboards. The only evidence of its use is of victim Thomas Shadwell, a watchman at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, in the form of an incomplete document written by the victim’s son.

He now needed a means of disposing of his victims and a young widow called Mrs Lovett who had a penchant for strong, violent men and owned baker’s shop nearby fitted the bill. As with serial killers he repeated his method; after murdering he would take clothing and valuables and then would strip the body and carry the body parts in a box through the tunnels beneath St. Dunstan’s Church where Mrs Lovett would use the remains as filling for her meat pies.

In a city, which by the standards of today we would find nauseating, the stench of rotting bodies in the area prompted the Daily Courant to report: “The dreadful charnel house sort of smell would make itself most painfully and disagreeably apparent.”

Enter Richard Blunt of the newly formed Bow Street Runners being suspicious of Todd told his men to watch the shop and on several occasions he visited the barber’s himself and was shaved, but always had a companion.

It was when they entered the tunnels they found the evidence they needed of his crimes. His Blunt’s party entered a disused family vault to find the recent remains of human bodies and following a trail of footprints found themselves at the back of Lovett’s underground cookhouse. Later returning to Todd’s barber shop when he was out evidence of found including the valuables stolen from his victims before being turned into pies.

Lovett killed herself with poison before coming to trial, but in the Christmas of 1801 London witnessed “one of the trials of the age”. Todd was charged at the Old Bailey with a single murder that of Francis Thornhill, who had on his person before disappearing a string of pearls worth £16,000 intended for a young woman in London. He entered Todd’s shop to be shaved never to be seen again, Todd later pawned them for £1,000.

The Attorney General told the court that clothing from 160 people had been found in the shop, and a leg bone found in the church vaults belong to Thornhill. A surgeon, Sylvester Steers, who had treated Thornhill for a leg fracture, recognised the bone as his patient’s.

The jury took just 5 minutes to reach their guilty verdict. Sweeny Todd was not hanged at Tyburn but was taken from his cell in Newgate on the morning of 25th January 1802 and hanged in front of a crowd of thousands. He was 46 years old. After hanging for an hour his body was carried to the Royal College of Surgeons and ironically was butchered for the benefit of medical science.

The case of Britain’s most prolific killer inspired The Strong of Pearls, a serial published in a weekly magazine in 1846, it was dramatised by George Dibdin Pitt in 1842, in what is regarded as the first true life drama, and it has been the basis for numerous books, plays and films, and inspired Stephen Sondheim for write a musical. The term Sweeny has in turn become cockney rhyming slang for the Metropolitan police’s Flying Squad which then became a long running television drama The Sweeny 1975-82.

If today you wish for a close shave here are Esquire’s top London barbers.

Eyes forward

[D]riving a London cab gives you a panoramic view both of the road and into other drivers’ vehicles as they stop beside you and it was with that advantage a couple of years ago I noticed that some prestige cars not only had a built-in Sat-Nav but that the same screen could show a video.

I found that surprising, as my understanding of traffic law was that any monitor must not be visible to the driver; somehow the car manufacturers had managed to circumvent the regulations by ensuring that the device turned off the image when the car moved forward. So that was alright then! Watch TV while sitting at the lights, rather than watching any jaywalking pedestrians, and once your top-of-the-range limousine reaches 5mph you can concentrated on your driving.

This was followed by putting monitors on the back headrests in the manner of an aircraft, anyone who has children must have felt that that was a Godsend, who hasn’t tried to drive with the kids in the back bored and nagging? Every parent knows the stupefying effect that television has on the young – and not so young – so moving image just inches from their noses would keep them quiet all day.

But now not content with a myriad of distractions: Radio (DAB, FM, MW LW); CD players; i-pod compatible; Sat-Navs; even staring at the 2-inch screen of an i-phone, more and more I see drivers watching TV as they drive for unlike their expensive counterparts, the cars they seek to emulate, its image doesn’t turn off while the vehicle is on the move. So with one eye on the road they can watch the latest music video or shoot-em-up flick.

If a driver was foolish to talk on his mobile phone whilst driving he could expect three points on his license and a £60 fine, but I’ve yet to read of anyone prosecuted for watching the latest Lady Gaga album whilst driving through London’s congested streets.

The wider question must be is that how can anyone watch a television programme or movie with the distractions of driving? How can they watch anything in bite-sized chunks? Do they only have an the attention span of the time it takes the light to return back to green or is it that they are so addicted to the moving image it doesn’t really matter what is showing as long as something appears on that little screen.

There have been numerous studies on our television habits. In May last year the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board found that viewers were watching more television than ever before, concluding that the average number of hours each person spends in front of the television each week has risen by more than 8 per cent. to 30 hours 4 minutes. Thinkbox, the British marketing body for commercial broadcasters, defended this rise by stating that the greater choice offered by digital television, new technologies such as digital recorders, on-demand services and yes, it’s been blamed again, the recession is encouraging people to spend more time at home. The watching of television whilst driving apparently did not enter their radar.

Sidney Street Siege

One hundred years ago today an incident occurred in east London that brought to the public’s attention a man that 28 years later would lead Britain in its fight against Hitler. In the first decade of the 20th century London had become a hotbed for Latvian revolutionaries. In an uprising some five years earlier 14,000 men, women and children had been massacred in reprisal by the Russian army, when an uprising to overthrow the Tsarist regime was foiled.

[W]ith a deep distrust of their own police who had tortured their ringleaders the survivors had come to London to organise another revolution and to raise funds for their cause. Armed they had held up banks, shops and factories and two robbers had been killed the previous year in a London robbery which had left seven policemen wounded and two innocent bystanders dead.

At 10pm on 17th December 1910 a shopkeeper living above his premises in Houndsditch heard noises from downstairs, fearing a break-in at the jewellers next door he alerted a nearby policeman, who was joined by two constables, three sergeants and two plain clothed colleagues (in those days burglary was taken seriously). Knocking on the door they were let in by a man pretending not to understand, who was instructed to fetch someone who could speak English. The police did not know at the time but they had stumbled on the compatriots of last years’ bungled robbery, who were in the process of breaking through a wall trying to get to the jewellers safe.

What ensued can only be described as a massacre as the anarchists opened fire on the unarmed policemen, leaving three dead and two crippled for life.

For the local predominantly Jewish population, it was as if the terror they had fled from in Eastern Europe had emerged on the Sabbath amongst their own community. Within days two of the gang had been arrested and a third was suspected of fleeing the country.

In the early hours of 3rd January 1911 following a tip off 200 police officers surrounded a house in Sidney Street and a six hour gun battle ensued.

The Home Secretary, Winston Churchill (highlighted in the picture) arrived on the scene and characteristically he led from the front, directing the police (a style of leadership sadly lacking in today’s politicians), and when the criminals inside set fire to the house to cover their exit he refused to allow the fire brigade to extinguish the flames. Eventually two bodies were found in the ashes and one fireman died from falling debris.

The two arrested were subsequently put on trial but acquitted through lack of evidence as most of the witnesses were either dead or had fled the country.

One of the acquitted, Jacob Peters, remained in London returning to Russia in 1917 and became deputy head of the Cheka, the Soviet Secret Police. Thousands were killed on his orders and many of the executions he personally carried out gaining the nickname ‘The Executioner’.