Ben Johnson is a contributing editor of the historic crime magazine Casebook: Classic Crime, and has written extensively for the Whitechapel Journal, and US publication Crime Magazine. In this guest blog he discusses his debut novel about Charlie Peace, who was featured in Issue 3 of Dawn of the Unread. Ben is from Sheffield and is keen to explore the local history of his home town in much the same way that we have tried to do with Nottingham.
Every day I walk the same city streets as Charlie Peace, although, contrary to popular belief beyond the north/south divide, Sheffield does now have tarmac, one-way systems, and a noticeable lack of horse manure underfoot. Simply speaking, he is something of a cult figure in my hometown, but his story has never enjoyed the same amount of literary exploration as many of his Victorian counterparts.
My interest in “our Charlie” began during a strange evening at the Sheffield Police and Fire museum, where I found myself reporting on a ghost hunting event which was taking place on that particular evening. Sitting in a subterranean cell, and watching in bemused indifference as my temporary ghost hunting colleagues waved electro magnets around and tried to speak to the undead, my eyes focussed in the dark on a poster which bore the gnarled face of a man who was, and is, very much dead.
This, I soon found out, was the very cell in which Charlie Peace was held, bandaged and bloodied, after his attempt to escape from a moving train. He lay here covered with a pile of rugs, feigning severe illness and swearing like only a concussed Yorkshireman can. He would be removed from this cell many times in the next few days, on every occasion to answer for his crimes in an especially cordoned-off area of Sheffield town hall.
Those who know me are only too aware that when a subject grabs my attention, I will read voraciously on the subject for a short time, until I completely forget why I was even interested in it in the first place. However, this was not to be the case on this occasion; I was hooked by the story of this elusive, murderous cat burglar, and only when the final words of my book had been typed (some five years later), did I allow myself to let Mr Peace to slip back into the dark recesses of my crowded and disorganised mind.
We are very lucky in this country to have access to local study libraries, and this is where my research began, spending hours and hours trawling through the well preserved pages of the local newspapers, which had been lovingly copied to microfiche by a number of dutiful employees over the generations; and of course, there were countless hours spent searching the internet; the lazy man’s library.
Many people have asked what drew me to this particular story. The answer is a short one; it simply has everything one would require from a historic crime caper. Peace was a fascinating person, from his childhood spent under the patriarchal guidance of a one-legged former lion tamer, all the way through to his last moments spent in the company of the man who perfected the quick and effective long-drop method of execution.
Every twist and turn of Peace’s life brings with it a notable event. The murder of PC Nicholas Cock in Lancashire, for which Peace would never be tried in court; the murder of his love-rival Arthur Dyson, which began the cross country escape for which he was awarded the title of Britain’s most wanted man; and his hasty escape from Nottingham, disappearing into the slums of the Marshes with his mistress, “the Nottingham Nightingale” in tow.
But, my favourite part of the Charlie Peace story has to be his genius in the art of disguise. From fashioning a hooked stump to cover his own mangled hand, to his unique talent of altering his appearance organically at the drop of a hat (by dislocating his jaw and letting the blood rush to his face), Peace was genuinely a criminal mastermind; a phrase which is bandied around far too often, and rarely seems to be deserved by the villain in question.
Yet, like so many criminals with a natural aptitude for escape, Peace eventually began to rely on luck rather than judgement; an error which would ultimately cost him his life. Although, one would be hard-pressed to argue that he did not deserve the sentence handed down to him by Mr Justice Lopes, the man tasked with the necessary job of sending Peace to the gallows of Armley Gaol. Peace, the cat burglar, was something of a folk hero, but Peace, the killer, was too wicked for even his own townsfolk to forgive.
For a short time after his death, Peace was a regular character on the pages of the Penny Dreadfuls, the lurid crime comics which were so feverishly devoured by the Victorian public, yet, unlike many other historical criminals, his star would eventually fall, and his name would largely be forgotten outside the circles of the most avid crime aficionados. This being the case, and despite his many acts of depravity and evil, the task of resurrecting the remarkable tale of Charlie Peace was one which was a joy from start to finish.
My biography of this twisted genius, Charlie Peace; Murder, Mayhem, and the Master of Disguise, was released by Pen and Sword books in August 2016, and is widely available to buy on the digital shelves of the internet, and the physical shelves of the few bookshops which still remain on our High Streets.
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.
- Ben Johnson Charlie Peace: Murder, Mayhem and the Master of Disguise, Pen and Sword Books. 2016
- Ben Johnson’s website (benwjohnson.org) Ben’s Twitter:@benw_johnson
- Michael Eaton & Eddie Campbell. Charlie Peace: Inside the Mind of a Master Criminal. Issue 3 Dawn of the Unread
- Casebook Classic Crime website (casebookclassiccrime.wordpress.com)
- Sheffield’s Notorious Criminal (sheffieldtelegraph.co.uk)