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Charles Joseph Peace (14 May 1832 – 25 February 1879) was a notorious English burglar and murderer from Sheffield, whose somewhat remarkable life later spawned dozens of romanticised novels and films. Peace is mentioned by name in the Sherlock Holmes short story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client and in Mark Twain's Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven.
Charles Frederick Peace's father, John Peace, began work as a collier at Burton upon Trent. After 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 at Rotherham, he married the daughter of a surgeon in the Navy. On the death of a favourite son to whom he had imparted his skills in taming wild beasts, Peace gave up lion-taming and settled in Sheffield as a shoemaker. On 14 May 1832, his wife gave birth there to a son, Charles, the youngest of a family of four. The family lived at 59 Ingram Road, in the Norfolk Park area of the city. (Ingram Road did not exist until somewhere between 1892-1903; there were very few houses on it even by 1903)
Charles Peace met with an accident in 1846 at a rolling mill, in which he was employed. A piece of red hot steel entered his leg just below the knee. The resulting wound kept him hospitalised for eighteen months in Sheffield Infirmary and permanently crippled him. About this time his father died.
Peace's earliest criminal exploit is said to have been the stealing of an old gentleman's gold watch; thereafter he soon took up burglary. On 26 October 1851, the house of a lady in Sheffield was broken into; some of the stolen property was found in the possession of Peace, and he was arrested. Owing to a character reference from his former employer, his sentence was a lenient month's imprisonment. After his release he seems to have devoted himself for a time to music. He taught himself to play tunes on a violin with one string, and at entertainments which he attended was described as "the modern Paganini."
In 1854 the houses of a number of well-to-do residents in and about Sheffield were burgled. Peace was arrested, and with him a girl with whom he was keeping company, and his sister, Mary Ann Neil. On 20 October 1854, Peace was sentenced at Doncaster Sessions to four years' penal servitude, and the ladies who had been found in possession of the stolen property to six months apiece. Mrs. Neil died shortly afterwards.
On his release in 1858, Peace resumed violin playing. In 1859 he married a widow named Hannah Ward.
His violin playing was subsidiary to burglary - his main occupation. His criminal activities extended to Manchester, where he broke into a house on the night of 11 August 1859, carrying off substantial booty. This was found the following day concealed in a hole in a field. The police left it undisturbed and awaited the return of the robber; when Peace and another man arrived to reclaim it, Peace was arrested, though not before nearly killing the officer who was trying to arrest him. He was sentenced to six years' penal servitude.
He was released from prison again in 1864, and returned to Sheffield. Unsuccessful there, he went back to Manchester. In 1866 he was caught in the act of burglary at a house in Lower Broughton. He admitted that, at the time, he was befuddled with whisky; otherwise it is mooted that his capture would have been potentially more difficult and dangerous. He was given a sentence of eight years' penal servitude at Manchester Assizes on 3 December 1866. While serving this sentence he emulated Jack Sheppard in an attempt to escape from Wakefield prison. Entrusted with repair work, he smuggled a small ladder into his cell. With the help of a saw made of tin, he cut a hole through the ceiling of the cell, and was about to get out onto the roof when a warder came in. Peace knocked him down, ran along the wall of the prison, fell off on the inside owing to the looseness of the bricks, slipped into the governor's house where he changed his clothes, and there, for an hour and a half, waited for an opportunity to escape. He was recaptured in the governor's bedroom. He was imprisoned at Millbank, Chatham and Gibraltar before his final release in 1872. At Chatham he is said to have taken part in a mutiny and, as a consequence, been flogged.
On his release from prison, Peace rejoined his family in Sheffield. During the next two or three years he appears to have made a living by picture framing, a trade in which he was very proficient. In Sheffield his children attended Sunday School. Though he never went to church himself, he was an avowed believer in both God and the Devil. As he stated however, that he feared neither, it did not restrain him from crime.
Towards the end of 1873 or the beginning of 1874, after a period working in America, he returned to England with his wife, and found employment on the North Eastern Railway. However his position was terminated abruptly owing to Peace failing to attend a station to which he had been sent on duty.
In 1875 Peace moved from Sheffield itself to the suburb of Darnall. There he made the acquaintance of a Mr Dyson, a civil engineer. Peace had got to know the Dysons, first as a tradesman, then as a friend. He later asserted that he and Mrs Dyson became lovers. A few days before his execution, Peace claimed that she had been his mistress, but she strenuously denied this. She called him a demon, "beyond the power of even a Shakespeare to paint", who persecuted her with his attentions, and, when he found them rejected, devoted all his malignant energies to making the lives of her husband and herself unbearable. According to Peace's story he was a slighted lover who had been treated by Mrs Dyson with contumely and ingratitude. Sometime about the end of June 1876, Dyson threw a card into the garden of Peace's house, on which was written: "Charles Peace is requested not to interfere with my family." On 1 July Peace met Dyson in the street, and tried to trip him up. The same night he approached Mrs Dyson, who was talking with some friends, and threatened to blow out her brains and those of her husband. As a consequence of these incidents Dyson took out a summons against Peace.
Peace left Darnall for Hull, where he opened an eating-shop, managed by his wife. From Hull he went to Manchester on business, there he committed his first murder. Entering the grounds of a gentleman's home at West Point, Whalley Range, about midnight on 1 August, he was seen by two policemen, one a County Constabulary local beat officer, the other a Whalley Range private policeman. One of them, Lancashire PC Nicholas Cock, intercepted him as he was trying to escape. Peace took out his revolver and warned Cock to stand back. The policeman came on. Peace fired, but deliberately wide of him. Cock drew his truncheon, and Peace, determined not to be caught, fired again, this time seriously wounding Cock. (The policeman died of his wound on 2 August.) The unlit, rural nature of the area considerably aided his escape.
Two brothers, John and William Habron, living near the scene of the murder, were arrested and charged with the killing of Constable Cock. PC Cock was buried at St Clement's Church, Chorlton, and a fine memorial was afterwards erected there, but it has since been removed to the Lancashire Constabulary Headquarters at Hutton near Preston (a plain inscribed stone records the position of the grave and the churchyard is now disused).
To get away from Peace the Dysons left Darnall. They took a house at Banner Cross, another suburb of Sheffield, and on October 29 moved into their new home. One of the first people Mrs Dyson saw on arriving at Banner Cross was Peace. "You see", he said, "I am here to annoy you, and I'll annoy you wherever you go." Later, Peace and a friend passed Mr. Dyson in the street. Peace took out his revolver. "If he offers to come near me", said he, "I will make him stand back." For the moment Peace was interested more immediately in the fate of John and William Habron, who were about to stand trial for the murder of Constable Cock at Whalley Range. The trial commenced at the Manchester Assizes before Mr. Justice Lindley on Monday, 27 November. John Habron was acquitted. The judge was clearly not impressed by the strength of the case for the prosecution. In spite, however, of the summing-up the jury convicted William Habron, but recommended him to mercy. The judge without comment sentenced him to death. Two days before the day of execution Habron was granted a respite, and later his sentence commuted to one of penal servitude for life.
Peace was present in court during the two days of the trial. No sooner had he heard the innocent man condemned to death than he left Manchester for Sheffield. The afternoon of the next day Peace spent in a public-house at Ecclesall, entertaining the customers by playing tunes on a poker suspended from a piece of strong string, from which he made music by beating it with a short stick.
A little after eight o'clock Peace was watching the Dysons' house from a passage-way that led up to the backs of the houses on the terrace. He saw Mrs. Dyson come out of the back door, and go to an outhouse some few yards distant. He waited. As soon as she opened the door to come out, Mrs. Dyson found herself confronted by Peace, holding his revolver in his hand. "Speak", he said, "or I'll fire." Mrs. Dyson in terror went back. In the meantime Dyson, hearing the disturbance, came quickly into the yard. Peace made for the passage. Dyson followed him. Peace fired once, the shot striking the lintel of the passage doorway. Dyson undaunted, still pursued. Then Peace, according to his custom, fired a second time, and Dyson fell, shot through the temple. Mrs. Dyson, who had come into the yard again on hearing the first shot, rushed to her husband's side, calling out: "Murder! You villain! You have shot my husband." Two hours later Dyson was dead.
After firing the second shot Peace had hurried down the passage into the roadway. He hesitated a moment, until the cries of Mrs. Dyson warned him of his danger. He crossed the road, climbed a wall, and made his way back to Sheffield. He then walked to Attercliffe Railway Station, and took a ticket for Beverley, but got out of the train at Normanton and went on to York. He spent the remainder of the night in the station yard. He took the first train in the morning for Beverley, and from there travelled via Cottingham to Hull. He went straight to the eating-house kept by his wife, and demanded some dinner. Two detectives arrived and asked his wife if a man called Charles Peace was lodging with her. Mrs Peace said that she had not seen him for two months. The detectives proposed to search the house. Some customers in the shop told them to go round to the side door. This gave Peace time to slip up to a back room, get out onto an adjoining roof, and hide behind a chimney stack, where he remained until the detectives had finished an exhaustive search. Once again during the day Peace had to repeat this experience. For some three weeks, however, he contrived to remain in Hull. He shaved the grey beard he was wearing at the time of Dyson's murder, dyed his hair, put on a pair of spectacles, and for the first time made use of his singular power of contorting his features in such a way as to change altogether the character of his face.
The hue and cry after him was unremitting. There was a price of £100 on his head, and the following description of him was circulated by the police:
This description was altered later and Peace's age given as forty-six. As a matter of fact he was only forty-four at this time, but he looked very much older. Peace had lost one of his fingers. He said that it had been shot off by a man with whom he had quarrelled, but it was believed to be more likely that he had himself shot it off accidentally in handling one of his revolvers. It was to conceal this obvious means of identification that Peace made himself the false arm which he was in the habit of wearing. This was of gutta percha, with a hole down the middle of it into which he passed his arm; at the end was a steel plate to which was fixed a hook; by means of this hook Peace could wield a fork and do other dexterous feats.
During the closing days of the year 1876 and the beginning of 1877, Peace was perpetually on the move. He left Hull for Doncaster, and from there travelled to London. On arriving at King's Cross he took the underground railway to Paddington, and from there a train to Bristol. At the beginning of January he left Bristol for Bath, and from Bath, in the company of a sergeant of police, travelled by way of Didcot to Oxford. From Oxford he went to Birmingham, where he stayed four or five days, then a week in Derby, and on 9 January he arrived in Nottingham.
Here Peace found a convenient lodging at the house of one Mrs. Adamson, a lady who received stolen goods. It was at her house that Peace met the woman who was to become his mistress and subsequently betray his identity to the police. Her maiden name was Susan Gray. With characteristic insistence Peace declared his passion by threatening to shoot her if she did not become his.
In June 1877 Peace was nearly detected in stealing some blankets, but by flourishing his revolver he contrived to get away, and, soon after, returned for a season to Hull. Here Mrs. Thompson (Susan Gray) and he lodged at the house of a sergeant of police. Peace had some narrow escapes, but with the help of his revolver, and on one occasion the pusillanimity of a policeman, he succeeded in getting away in safety. The bills offering a reward for his capture were still to be seen in the shop windows of Hull, so after a brief but brilliant adventure Peace and Mrs. Thompson returned to Nottingham.
Here, as the result of further successful exploits, Peace found a reward of £50 offered for his capture. On one occasion the detectives came into the room where Peace and his mistress were in bed. After politely expressing his surprise at seeing "Mrs. Bailey" in such a situation, one of the officers asked Peace his name. He gave it as John Ward, and described himself as a hawker of spectacles. He refused to get up and dress in the presence of the detectives who were obliging enough to go downstairs and wait his convenience. Peace seized the opportunity to slip out of the house and get away to another part of the town. From there he sent a note to Mrs. Thompson insisting on her joining him. He soon after left Nottingham, paid another brief visit to Hull, but finding that his wife's shop was still frequented by the police, whom he designated freely as "a lot of fools", determined to quit the North for good and begin life afresh in the ampler and safer field of London.
Peace's career in London lasted only two years, but they were very active ones. From 25 Stangate Street, Lambeth, the dealer in musical instruments, as Peace now described himself, went out every night to burgle houses in Camberwell and other parts of South London. In the beginning there were few musical instruments in Stangate Street to justify his reputed business, but "Mr Thompson", as he now called himself, explained that he was not wholly dependent on his business, as Mrs Thompson "had money." Peace moved from Lambeth to Crane Court, Greenwich, and before long took a couple of adjoining houses in Billingsgate Street in the same district. These he furnished in style. In one he lived with Mrs Thompson, while Mrs Peace and her son, Willie, were persuaded to leave Hull and come to London to dwell in the other.
Greenwich was not to the taste of Mrs. Thompson. To gratify her wish, Peace, some time in May 1877, moved the whole party to 5 East Terrace, Evelina Road, Peckham. This house was an ordinary suburban villa, with basement, ground floor, and one above; there were steps up to the front door, and a bow window to the front sitting-room. A garden at the back of the house ran down to the Chatham and Dover railway line. Everything confirmed "Mr Thompson"'s description of himself as a gentleman of independent means with a taste for scientific inventions. In association with a man named Brion, Peace did, as a fact, patent an invention for raising sunken vessels, and it is said that in pursuing their project, the two men had obtained an interview with Samuel Plimsoll at the House of Commons.
At the time of his final capture Peace was engaged on other inventions, among them a smoke helmet for firemen, an improved brush for washing railway carriages, and a form of hydraulic tank. He attended Sunday evening services at the parish church, and it must have been a matter of anxious concern to "Mr Thompson" that during his stay in Peckham the vicarage was broken into by a burglar and an unsuccessful attempt made to steal the communion plate which was kept there. Night after night, he went out to burgle. If the job was a distant one, he would take his pony and trap. Besides the pony and trap, Peace would take with him on these expeditions a violin case containing his tools; at other times they would be stuffed into purpose-made trouser pockets. These tools included a skeleton key, two pick-locks, a centre-bit, gimlet, gouge, chisel, vice jemmy and knife; a portable ladder, a revolver and life preserver completed his equipment.
Peace's activities extended as far as Southampton, Portsmouth and Southsea; but mostly worked in Blackheath, Streatham, Denmark Hill, and other suburbs of South London. His career as a burglar in London lasted from the beginning of the year 1877 until October 1878. On one occasion a detective who had known Peace in Yorkshire met him in Farringdon Road, and pursued him up the steps of Holborn Viaduct, but just as the officer, at the top of the steps, reached out and was on the point of grabbing his man, Peace slipped through his fingers and disappeared. During the last three months of Peace's career, Blackheath was agog at the number of successful burglaries committed in the very midst of its peaceful residents.
About 2 am on 10 October 1878, a Constable Robinson saw a light appear suddenly in a window at the back of a house in St John's Park, Blackheath, south-east London, the residence of a Mr. Burness. Another officer went to the front of the house and rang the bell, a third waited in the road outside, while Robinson stayed in the garden at the back. No sooner had the bell rung than Robinson saw a man come from the dining-room window which opened onto the garden, and make quickly down the path. Robinson followed him. The man turned; "Keep back!" he said, "or by God I'll shoot you!". Robinson came on. The man fired three shots from a revolver, all of which passed close to the officer's head. Robinson made another rush for him, the man fired another shot. It missed its mark. The constable closed with his would-be assassin, and struck him in the face. "I'll settle you this time", cried the man, and fired a fifth shot, which went through Robinson's arm just above the elbow. In spite of his wound, the officer held his prisoner, succeeded in flinging him to the ground, and catching hold of the revolver that hung round the burglar's wrist, hit him on the head with it. The other two constables came to the help of their colleague, and Peace was caught.
When next morning Peace appeared before the magistrate at Greenwich Police Court he was not described by name—he had refused to give any—but as "a half-caste about sixty years of age, of repellent aspect". He was remanded for a week. The first clue to the identity of their prisoner was afforded by a letter which Peace, unable apparently to endure the loneliness and suspense of prison any longer, wrote to his co-inventor Mr. Brion. It is dated 2 November, and is signed "John Ward." Peace was disturbed at the absence of all news from his family. Immediately after his arrest, the home in Peckham had been broken up. Mrs. Thompson and Mrs. Peace, taking with them some large boxes, had gone first to the house of a sister of Mrs. Thompson's in Nottingham, and a day or two later Mrs. Peace had left Nottingham for Sheffield. There she went to a house in Hazel Road, occupied by her son-in-law Bolsover, a working collier.
The honour and profit of putting the police on the right scent were claimed by Mrs. Thompson. To her Peace had contrived to get a letter conveyed about the same time that he wrote to Mr. Brion. It is addressed to his "dearly beloved wife." But Peace was leaning on a broken reed. Loyalty does not appear to have been Susan Thompson's strong point. Since, after Peace's arrest, she had been in possession of a certain amount of stolen property, it was easier no doubt to persuade her to be frank.
On 5 February 1879, the day after Peace had been sentenced to death for the murder of Dyson, Mrs. Thompson appealed to the Treasury for the reward of £100 offered for Peace's conviction. She based her application on information which she said she had supplied to the police officers in charge of the case on 5 November in the previous year, the very day on which Peace had first written to her from Newgate Gaol.
The police scotched the idea that any revelation of hers had assisted them to identify "John Ward" with Charles Peace. They said that it was information given to them in Peckham, no doubt by Mr. Brion, who, on learning the deplorable character of his coadjutor, had placed himself unreservedly in their hands, which first set them on the track. From Peckham they went to Nottingham, where they no doubt came across Sue Thompson, and thence to Sheffield, where on 6 November they visited the house in Hazel Road, occupied by Mrs. Peace and her daughter, Mrs. Bolsover. There they found two of the boxes which Mrs. Peace had brought with her from Peckham. Besides stolen property, these boxes contained evidence of the identity of Ward with Peace. A constable who had known Peace well in Sheffield was sent to Newgate, and taken into the yard where the prisoners awaiting trial were exercising. As they passed round, the constable pointed to the fifth man: "That's Peace", he said, "I'd know him anywhere." The man left the ranks and, coming up to the constable, asked earnestly, "What do you want me for?" but the Governor ordered him to go on with his walk.
It was as John Ward, alias Charles Peace, that Peace, on 19 November 1878, was put on his trial for burglary and the attempted murder of Police Constable Robinson, at the Old Bailey before Mr. Justice Hawkins. His age was given in the calendar as sixty, though Peace was actually forty-six. The evidence against the prisoner was clear enough.
Peace's assumption of pitiable senility, sustained throughout the trial, though it imposed on Sir Henry Hawkins, failed to melt his heart. He told Peace that he did not believe his statement that he had fired the pistol merely to frighten the constable; had not Robinson guarded his head with his arm he would have been wounded fatally, and Peace condemned to death. Notwithstanding his age, Mr. Justice Hawkins felt it his duty to sentence him to penal servitude for life.
With as little delay as possible he was called on to answer to the murder of Arthur Dyson. The widow of the murdered man had been found in America, whither she had returned after her husband's death. On 17 January 1879, Peace was taken from Pentonville prison, where he was serving his sentence, and conveyed by an early morning train to Sheffield. There at the Town Hall he appeared before the stipendiary magistrate, and was charged with the murder of Arthur Dyson. Mrs. Dyson's cross-examination was adjourned to the next hearing, and Peace was taken back to London. On the 22nd, the day of the second hearing in Sheffield, an enormous crowd had assembled outside the Town Hall. The stipendiary came into the court about a quarter past ten and stated that Peace had attempted to escape that morning on the journey from London to Sheffield, and that in consequence of his injuries the case would be adjourned for eight days.
Peace had left King's Cross by the 5.15 train that morning, due to arrive at Sheffield at 8.45. He kept making excuses for leaving the carriage whenever the train stopped. To obviate this nuisance the two warders, in whose charge he was, had provided themselves with little bags which Peace could use when he wished and then throw out of the window. Just after the train passed Worksop, Peace asked for one of the bags. When the window was lowered to allow the bag to be thrown away, Peace with lightning agility took a flying leap through it. One of the warders caught him by the left foot. Peace, hanging from the carriage, grasped the footboard with his hands and kept kicking the warder as hard as he could with his right foot. The other warder, unable to get to the window to help his colleague, was making vain efforts to stop the train by pulling the communication cord. For two miles the train ran on, Peace struggling desperately to escape. At last he succeeded in kicking off his left shoe, and dropped onto the line. The train ran on another mile until, with the assistance of some gentlemen in other carriages, the warders were able to get it pulled up. They immediately hurried back along the line, and there, near a place called Kiveton Park, they found their prisoner lying in the footway, apparently unconscious and bleeding from a severe wound in the scalp. A slow train from Sheffield stopped to pick up the injured man. As he was lifted into the guard's van, he asked them to cover him up as he was cold.
On arriving at Sheffield, Peace was taken to the Police Station and there made as comfortable as possible in one of the cells. Even then he had energy enough to be troublesome over taking the brandy ordered for him by the surgeon, until one of the officers told "Charley" they would have none of his hanky-panky, and he had got to take it. "All right", said Peace, "give me a minute."
The doctor pronounced him fit to appear for his second examination before the magistrate on January 30. To avoid excitement, both on the part of the prisoner and the public, the court sat in one of the corridors of the Town Hall. The scene is described as dismal, dark and cheerless. The proceedings took place by candlelight, and Peace, who was seated in an armchair, complained frequently of the cold. At other times he moaned and groaned and protested against the injustice with which he was being treated. But the absence of any audience rather dashed the effect of his laments.
The most interesting part of the proceedings was the cross-examination of Mrs. Dyson by Mr. William Clegg (a former international football player with Sheffield Wednesday and England), the prisoner's solicitor.
Its purpose was to show that Mrs. Dyson had been on more intimate terms with Peace than she was ready to admit, and that Dyson had been shot by Peace in the course of a struggle, in which the former had been the aggressor.
In the first part of his task Mr. Clegg met with some success. Mrs. Dyson, whose memory was certainly eccentric—she could not, she said, remember the year in which she had been married—was obliged to admit that she had been in the habit of going to Peace's house, that she had been alone with him to public-houses and places of entertainment, and that she and Peace had been photographed together during the summer fair at Sheffield. She could not "to her knowledge" recollect having told the landlord of a public-house to charge her drink to Peace.
A great deal of Mrs. Dyson's cross-examination turned on a bundle of letters that had been found near the scene of Dyson's murder on the morning following the crime. These letters consisted for the most part of notes, written in pencil on scraps of paper, purporting to have been sent from Mrs. Dyson to Peace. In many of them she asks for money to get drink, others refer to opportunities for their meetings in the absence of Dyson; there are kind messages to members of Peace's family, his wife and daughter, and urgent directions to Peace to hold his tongue and not give ground for suspicion as to their relations. This bundle of letters contained also the card which Dyson had thrown into Peace's garden requesting him not to interfere with his family. According to the theory of the defence, these letters had been written by Mrs. Dyson to Peace, and went to prove the intimacy of their relations. At the inquest after her husband's murder, Mrs. Dyson had been questioned by the coroner about these letters. She denied that she had ever written to Peace; in fact, she said, she "never did write." It was stated that Dyson himself had seen the letters, and declared them to be forgeries written by Peace or members of his family for the purpose of annoyance. Nevertheless, before the Sheffield magistrate Mr. Clegg thought it his duty to cross-examine Mrs. Dyson closely as to their authorship. He asked her to write out a passage from one of them: "You can give me something as a keepsake if you like, but I don't like to be covetous, and to take them from your wife and daughter. Love to all!" Mrs. Dyson refused to admit any likeness between what she had written and the handwriting of the letter in question. Another passage ran: "Will see you as soon as I possibly can. I think it would be easier after you move; he won't watch so. The r—g fits the little finger. Many thanks and love to—Jennie (Peace's daughter Jane). I will tell you what I thought of when I see you about arranging matters. Excuse this scribbling." In answer to Mr. Clegg, Mrs. Dyson admitted that Peace had given her a ring, which she had worn for a short time on her little finger.
Another letter ran: "If you have a note for me, send now whilst he is out; but you must not venture, for he is watching, and you cannot be too careful. Hope your foot is better. I went to Sheffield yesterday, but I could not see you anywhere. Were you out? Love to Jane." Mrs. Dyson denied that she had known of an accident which Peace had had to his foot at this time. In spite of the ruling of the magistrate that Mr. Clegg had put forward quite enough, if true, to damage Mrs. Dyson's credibility, he continued to press her as to her authorship of these notes and letters, but Mrs. Dyson was firm in her repudiation of them. She was equally firm in denying that anything in the nature of a struggle had taken place between Peace and her husband previous to his murder.
At the conclusion of Mrs. Dyson's evidence the prisoner was committed to take his trial at the Leeds Assizes, which commenced the week following. Peace, who had groaned and moaned and constantly interrupted the proceedings, protested his innocence, and complained that his witnesses had not been called. The apprehension with which this daring malefactor was regarded by the authorities is shown by this clandestine hearing of his case in a cold corridor of the Town Hall, and the rapidity with which his trial followed on his committal. There is an appearance almost of precipitation in the haste with which Peace was bustled to his doom. After his committal he was taken to Wakefield Prison, and a few days later to Armley Gaol (later HMP Leeds), there to await his trial.
This began on 4 February, and lasted one day. Mr. Justice Lopes, who had tried vainly to persuade the Manchester Grand Jury to throw out the bill in the case of the brothers Habron, was the presiding judge. Mr. Campbell Foster, Q.C., led for the prosecution. Peace was defended by Frank Lockwood, later Solicitor-General.
In addressing the jury, both Mr. Campbell Foster and Mr. Lockwood took occasion to protest against the recklessness with which the press of the day, both high and low, had circulated stories and rumours about the interesting convict. As early as November in 1878 one leading London daily newspaper had said that "it was now established beyond doubt that the burglar captured by Police Constable Robinson was one and the same as the Banner Cross murderer." Since then, as the public excitement grew and the facts of Peace's extraordinary career came to light, the press had responded loyally to the demands of the greedy lovers of sensation, and piled fiction on fact with generous profusion. "Never", said Mr. Lockwood, "in the whole course of his experience—and he defied any of his learned friends to quote an experience—had there been such an attempt made on the part of those who should be most careful of all others to preserve the liberties of their fellowmen and to preserve the dignity of the tribunals of justice to determine the guilt of a man." Peace exclaimed "Hear, hear!" as Mr. Lockwood went on to say that "for the sake of snatching paltry pence from the public, these persons had wickedly sought to prejudice the prisoner's life." Allowing for Mr. Lockwood's zeal as an advocate, there can be no question that, had Peace chosen or been in a position to take proceedings, more than one newspaper had at this time laid itself open to prosecution for contempt of court. The Times was not far wrong in saying that, since Muller murdered Mr. Briggs on the North London Railway and the poisonings of William Palmer, no criminal case had created such excitement as that of Charles Peace. The fact that property seemed to be no more sacred to him than life aggravated in a singular degree the resentment of commercial people.
The first witness called by the prosecution was Mrs. Dyson. She described how on the night of 29 November 1876, she had come out of the outhouse in the yard at the back of her house, and found herself confronted by Peace holding a revolver; how he said: "Speak, or I'll fire!" and the sequence of events already related up to the moment when Dyson fell, shot in the temple.
In spite of Mr. Lockwood's questions, she maintained that, though her husband may have attempted to get hold of Peace, he did not succeed in doing so. As she was the only witness to the shooting there was no one to contradict her statement.
Mrs. Dyson admitted that in spring 1876 her husband had objected to her friendship with Peace, and that nevertheless, in the following summer, she and Peace had been photographed together at the Sheffield fair. She made a vain attempt to escape from such an admission by trying to shift the occasion of the summer fair to the previous year, 1875, but Mr. Lockwood put it to her that she had not come to Darnall, where she first met Peace, until the end of that year. Finally he drove her to say that she could not remember when she came to Darnall, whether in 1873, 1874, 1875, or 1876. She admitted that she had accepted a ring from Peace, but could not remember whether she had shown it to her husband. She had been perhaps twice with Peace to the Marquis of Waterford public-house, and once to the Star Music Hall. She could not swear one way or the other whether she had charged to Peace's account drink consumed by her at an inn in Darnall called the Half-way House. Confronted with a little girl and a man, whom Mr. Lockwood suggested she had employed to carry notes to Peace, Mrs. Dyson said that these were merely receipts for pictures which he had framed for her. On the day before her husband's murder, Mrs. Dyson was at the Stag Hotel at Sharrow with a little boy belonging to a neighbour. A man followed her in and sat beside her, and afterwards followed her out. In answer to Mr. Lockwood, Mrs. Dyson would "almost swear" the man was not Peace; he had spoken to her, but she could not remember whether she had spoken to him or not. She denied that this man had said to her that he would come and see her the next night. As the result of a parting shot Mr. Lockwood obtained from Mrs. Dyson a reluctant admission that she had been "slightly inebriated" at the Half-way House in Darnall, but had not to her knowledge" been turned out of the house on that account.
The evidence of Mrs. Dyson was followed by that of five persons who had either seen Peace in the neighbourhood of Banner Cross Terrace on the night of the murder, or heard the screams and shots that accompanied it. Another witness was a labourer named Brassington. He was a stranger to Peace, but stated that about eight o'clock on the night of the murder a man came up to him outside the Banner Cross Hotel, a few yards from Dyson's house. He was standing under a gas lamp, and it was a bright moonlit night. The man asked him if he knew of any strange people who had come to live in the neighbourhood. Brassington answered that he did not. The man then produced a bundle of letters which he asked Brassington to read. But Brassington declined, as reading was not one of his accomplishments. The man then said that "he would make it a warm 'un for those strange folks before morning—he would shoot both of them", and went off in the direction of Dyson's house. Brassington swore positively that Peace was the stranger who had accosted him that night, and Mr. Lockwood failed to shake him in his evidence.
Evidence was then given as to threats uttered by Peace against the Dysons in the July 1876, and as to his arrest at Blackheath in the October 1878. The revolver taken from Peace that night was produced, and it was shown that the rifling of the bullet extracted from Dyson's head was the same as that of the bullet fired from the revolver carried by Peace at the time of his capture.
Mr. Campbell Foster wanted to put in as evidence the card that Dyson had flung into Peace's garden at Darnall requesting him not to interfere with his family. The Judge ruled that both the card and the letters were inadmissible, as irrelevant to the issue; Mr. Lockwood had, he said, very properly cross-examined Mrs. Dyson on these letters to test her credibility, but he was bound by her answers and could not contradict her by introducing them as evidence in the case.
Mr. Lockwood in his address to the jury did his best to persuade them that the death of Dyson was the accidental result of a struggle between Peace and himself. He repudiated the suggestion of Mr. Foster that the persons he had confronted with Mrs. Dyson in the course of his cross-examination had been hired for a paltry sum to come into court and lie.
Mr. Justice Lopes in summing up described as an "absolute surmise" the theory of the accidental discharge of the pistol. He asked the jury to take Peace's revolver in their hands and try the trigger, so as to see for themselves whether it was likely to go off accidentally or not. He pointed out that the pistol produced might not have been the pistol used at Banner Cross; at the same time the bullet fired in November 1876, bore marks such as would have been produced had it been fired from the pistol taken from Peace at Blackheath in October 1878. He said that Mr. Lockwood had been perfectly justified in his attempt to discredit the evidence of Mrs. Dyson, but the case did not rest on her evidence alone. In her evidence as to the threats uttered by Peace in July 1876, Mrs. Dyson was corroborated by three other witnesses. In the Judge's opinion it was clearly proved that no struggle or scuffle had taken place before the murder. If the defence, he concluded, rested on no solid foundation, then the jury must do their duty to the community at large and by the oath they had sworn.
It was a quarter past seven when the jury retired. Ten minutes later they returned with a verdict of guilty. Asked if he had anything to say, Peace replied faintly, "It is no use my saying anything." The Judge, declining to aggravate the prisoner's feelings by "a recapitulation of any portion of the details of what I fear, I can only call your criminal career", passed sentence of death. Peace accepted his fate with composure.
In obedience to the wishes of his family, Peace had refrained from seeing Sue Thompson. This was at some sacrifice, for he wished very much to see her and to the last, though he knew that she had betrayed him, sent her affectionate and forgiving messages. These were transmitted to Sue by Mr. Brion, a fellow-applicant with Sue to the Treasury for pecuniary recognition of his efforts in bringing about the identification of Peace, and furnishing the police with information as to the convict's disposal of his stolen property. In his zeal he had gone so far as to play the role of an accomplice of Peace, and thus had discovered a place in Petticoat Lane where the burglar got rid of some of his booty.
Peace had one further act of atonement: to show the innocence of William Habron, who was now serving the third year of his life sentence for the murder of Constable Cock at Whalley Range. Peace sent for the Governor of the gaol, and drew a plan of the place where Cock had been shot, and made a full confession of his own guilt.
Though fond of repeating this phrase, Peace would have been the last man to have attributed to himself all those qualities associated symbolically with the lion.
A few days before his execution Peace was visited in his prison by Reverend Littlewood, the vicar of Darnall. Peace pointed out that if he had intended to murder Dyson, he would have set about it in quite a different and more secret way. Peace then repeated to Littlewood his confession of the killing of Constable Cock, and his desire that Habron should be set free. William Habron was subsequently given a free pardon and £800 by way of compensation.
Tuesday, 25 February, was the day fixed for Peace's execution. On 24 February, Peace was visited for the last time by his wife, stepson, his daughter, Mrs Bolsover, and her husband. In good spirits, he asked his visitors to restrain themselves from displays of emotion, as he felt very happy and did not wish to be disturbed. He advised them to sell or exhibit for money certain works of art of his own devising. Among them was a design in paper for a monument to be placed over his grave. The design is elaborate but ingeniously drawn; in the opinion of William Powell Frith, the painter, it showed "the true feeling of an artist." It is somewhat in the style of the Albert Memorial, and figures of angels are prominent. Peace asked his weeping relatives whether they had anything more that they wished to ask him. Mrs Peace reminded him that he had promised to pray with them at the last. Peace knelt with them and prayed for half an hour. He then shook hands with them, prayed for and blessed each one singly, and himself gave way to tears as they left his presence. To his wife as she departed Peace gave a funeral card he had designed himself. It ran:
The same day William Marwood, the public executioner, and inventor of the "long drop" arrived (he was a shoemaker at Horncastle, Lincolnshire). It was a bitterly cold day on 25 February. Peace ate a hearty breakfast of bacon and awaited the coming of the executioner with calm. Apparently the quality of the bacon was less than desirable, for after the cap had been placed over his head Peace asked twice, very sharply, like a man who expected to be obeyed, for a drink of water; but his request was ignored. He died instantly and was buried in Armley Gaol.
Leonard Ravenhill in his book Why Revival Tarries recounts the last moments of Charlie Peace's life:
He was taken on the death-walk. Before him went the prison chaplain, routinely and sleepily reading some Bible verses. The criminal touched the preacher and asked what he was reading. “The Consolations of Religion,” was the reply.
Charlie Peace was shocked at the way he professionally read about hell. Could a man be so unmoved under the very shadow of the scaffold as to lead a fellow-human there and yet, dry-eyed, read of a pit that has no bottom into which this fellow must fall? Could this preacher believe the words that there is an eternal fire that never consumes its victims, and yet slide over the phrase without a tremor? Is a man human at all who can say with no tears, “You will be eternally dying and yet never know the relief that death brings”?
All this was too much for Charlie Peace. “Sir”, he addressed the preacher, “if I believed what you and the church of God say that you believe, even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it, if need be, on hands and knees and think it worth while living, just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that!”