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Charles Peace: Victorian Criminal

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Belying his name, Charles Peace was a violent man who has been described as a “Jekyll and Hyde of crime.” One side of his character was a well-dressed family man who played the violin. The dark side was a burglar who didn’t hesitate to kill to make good his escape.

Charles Peace in his late 20s.

Charles Peace in his late 20s.

Peace’s Early Life

Charles Peace was born in Sheffield in 1832 and his early life did not go well. His father had a strange combination of occupations being first a circus lion tamer and, later, a shoemaker.

By the time he was 14, Charles was working in one of Sheffield’s steel mills, but he suffered a serious accident that crippled him for the rest of his life.

After a long period of convalescence from the injury to his leg, Peace seems to have decided on a life of crime.

Charles Peace the Burglar

His first known burglary was at the home of a wealthy lady in Sheffield. Although Peace is said to have been quick witted he wasn’t smart enough to rapidly sell what he had stolen. Police caught him in possession of some of the lady’s property. He got a very light sentence of only one month.

He appears to have behaved himself for a while before returning to burglarizing the homes of wealthy Sheffield residents. Now, the sentence was four years, but it served as no deterrent.

He expanded his field of operations. In August 1859, he scored a big haul of loot in Manchester, which he buried nearby. Police found his plunder and waited for him to return to collect it. Smart-as-a-whip Peace turned up with an accomplice and was nabbed. However, he shot and killed a young police constable in the process, although his partner-in-crime, William Habron, was charged and convicted of the murder. This time, Peace drew a six-year sentence.

After his release from prison in 1866, he stayed out of trouble for two years, which is another way of spelling “he wasn’t caught.” But again, the familiar pattern emerged and now it was eight years in prison.

An Affair of the Heart

After his latest spell as a guest of Her Majesty, Peace seems to have made an attempt to earn an honest living, although a half-hearted one at best.

He became acquainted with a civil engineer named Arthur Dyson and developed an obsession to become more than an acquaintance of Dyson’s wife Katherine. She is said to have called Peace a demon and to have described him as “beyond the power of even a Shakespeare to paint.”

Juan Ignacio Blanco (Murderpedia) writes that, with his advances rejected, Peace “devoted all his malignant energies to making the lives of her husband and herself unbearable.”

Arthur Dyson told Peace to stop bothering his family and took out an injunction to ban him from his property. But, as we’ve seen, Charles Peace didn’t care much for rules and the law and one evening appeared in the garden of the Dyson’s house.

Katherine Dyson emerged from an outhouse and she testified that Peace threatened her with a revolver and shouted “Speak or I’ll fire.” Mrs. Dyson ran back into the outhouse and her husband came out to confront the intruder. Peace took off, chased by Arthur Dyson. Peace turned and fired twice, one bullet hitting Dyson in the temple, killing him.

Charles Peace on the Run

The murderer made good his escape and headed to Hull where his wife lived. He used his considerable skill at disguises and remained out of the clutches of the law despite a reward of £100 being offered (about £11,600 today).

The story of the villain on the run was a sensation. He was, of course, spotted at numerous widely separated place at the same time, but police started to look inept in their failure to track him down.

For a couple of months he travelled all over southern and central England by train until he settled for a while in Nottingham in the embrace of a Mrs. Susan Thompson.

He had a few narrow escapes, but his trusty revolver proved up to the task of deterring pursuers. Eventually, he settled on the anonymity of London in the company of Mrs. Thompson. In the capital he set himself up as a dealer in musical instruments, but his real occupation was burglary.

His businesses flourished and he was able to buy two adjoining houses in Greenwich; one for himself and Thompson, and one for Mrs. Peace and son Willie. Cozy.

Residents of south London were soon alarmed at the number of burglaries taking place. Then, in the middle of the night of October 10, 1878, a patrolling policeman saw a light suddenly appear in a house in Blackheath. Another officer rang the front doorbell while Constable Robinson secured the rear of the house. Peace came bolting out of the dining-room window. He shouted at Robinson “Keep back, or by God I’ll shoot you!”

The policeman was made of stern stuff and with bullets flying past his head he grappled Peace to the ground and held on although sustaining a bullet through his arm.

Charles Peace was placed in custody, although the authorities did not know yet who they had caught. The police soon realized they had a man on their hands who was wanted in Sheffield for the murder of Arthur Dyson.

The Trial of Charles Peace

The business of the Blackheath burglary and shooting of a policeman was quickly dealt with and Peace got a life sentence, although he did not have to serve that for very long. As he was taken north by train to face the murder charge he tried to escape by jumping out of a window, only to suffer multiple cuts and bruises.

On February 4, 1879, Peace went on trial, an event that was received with great excitement by the newspapers and the public who bought them. Mrs. Dyson proved to be a rather shaky witness, unable to totally dispel suspicions that she and Peace had been lovers. No matter, there was enough other evidence to convict Peace, which the jury did after just ten minutes of deliberation. Sentence of death was automatic.

As he awaited his execution, Peace confessed to the murder of the police constable for which William Habron had been given a life sentence. The wrongfully convicted man was released from prison after 20 years and given a full pardon.

On the morning of February 25, just 21 days after his trial, Charles Peace was hanged in Armley Gaol. He was 47.

Charles Peace is depicted at Madam Tussaud’s, London, with his executioner, William Marwood.

Charles Peace is depicted at Madam Tussaud’s, London, with his executioner, William Marwood.

Bonus Factoids

  • In accounts of Charles Peace’s life he is often referred to as a “cat burglar.” The Word Reference Forum tells us that a “Burglar is a thief who breaks into a place. A cat burglar climbs like a cat into buildings for that purpose.”
  • Soon after his execution, Charles Peace began to achieve legendary status in the popular press and in the graphic novel genre.

Sources

  • “Charles Frederick Peace.” Juan Ignacio Blanco, Murderpedia, undated.
  • “The Infamous Charlie Peace (1832 - 1879).” Historybytheyard.co.uk, undated.
  • “Charles Peace.” Kiveton Park and Wales History Society, undated.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 24, 2020:

Rupert, the story interested. Thanks for sharing.

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