Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles Peace: King of the Cat Burglars

Unmasking Charlie Peace

While in custody, Peace, knowing that to give his rightful name meant surrendering his life, refused to give his name and lied about his age. "Little did the police as they searched their battered and moaning prisoner realise the importance of their capture," Irving recounts.  "When next morning Peace appeared before the magistrate at Greenwich Police Court he was not described by name...but as a half-caste about sixty years of age, of repellant aspect."

Newgate Jail
Newgate Jail

Over the next several weeks, an unusual line-up occurred outside Charlie's cell in Newgate Jail, where he was being held pending an arraignment. The Metropolitan Police summoned officers from across southern England and dutifully, they filed past the cell holding the anonymous prisoner, in hopes that someone would recognize his face. Indignantly, the little man spoke back to each of his examiners, denying that he had ever been incarcerated. Of course, such a charade could not last, and finally, it was Charlie's desire to know the fate of his family that gave authorities their first clue to his identity.

  Using the alias, "John Ward," Charlie Peace sought word about his household by sending a letter to Mr. Brion, with whom he shared his boat-raising patent. Although Brion knew no one named Ward, he was curious about why he would receive such a letter from a Newgate prisoner and hence visited the jail. He was shocked to find his colleague Mr. Thompson behind bars.

Almost immediately after Charlie's arrest in October 1878, his household dispersed for parts unknown, taking with them as much swag as they could carry. No one, not Peace's wife, Hannah, or his mistress, Sue, came looking for him, for they well knew that if Charlie failed to come home after a night of burglary, he was either in jail or dead.

After Brion's visit, police were one step closer to finding out the true identity of their prisoner, but it wasn't until the unusual story of Ward/Thompson made the London papers that the final piece of the puzzle was fitted. It was as John Ward that Peace was arraigned on charges of attempted murder and burglary and remanded for trial at the Old Bailey. While the authorities suspected that there was more to his story, they had no idea that Charles Peace, the murderer of Banner Cross, a felon whose description had been plastered on wanted posters from Yorkshire to Lands End, was in their grasp.

The Old Bailey
The Old Bailey

As he prepared for his trial, he sent a letter to Sue Thompson asking for her assistance in procuring witnesses who could vouch for his good character and his status as a gentleman. The police, following the trail laid down by their prisoner, assumed that finding Mrs. Thompson would lead them to the rest of the burglary gang. In sending the letter, Peace allowed the constables to find Sue Thompson in possession of a significant amount of stolen property and all but sealed his doom.

"Peace was leaning on a broken reed," Irving recounts. "Loyalty does not appear to have been Susan Thompson's strong point.  In her own words she 'was not of the sentimental sort.'"

Knowing there was a significant reward for the capture of Charles Peace, the Banner Cross murderer, "the traitoress Sue" revealed his true identity.

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