Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles Peace: King of the Cat Burglars

In the Dock

First, there was the matter of the attempted murder of Police Constable Robinson to deal with. It was a fairly straight forward affair and the jury quickly returned a guilty verdict. Mr. Justice Hawkins sat in judgment over Charlie, and after the verdict, asked him if he had anything to say before sentence was passed.

"He made a long and miserable plea for mercy 'in a whining tone, with tears in his eyes, and almost grovelling to the floor," Birkenhead's account of his trial reads.

"Oh my lord, I know I am bad and base to the uttermost, but I know at the same time they have painted my case blacker than it really is," Peace pleaded. "My lord, have mercy upon me, I pray and beseech you."

Charles Peace in the dock
Charles Peace in the dock

Perhaps as Mr. Ward or Mr. Thompson, the plea might have worked, but as Charles Peace, Justice Hawkins would have none of it and sentenced him to penal servitude at hard labor in Pentonville Prison for life. Of course, this was simply a formality, for as soon as the court was adjourned, Peace was placed in irons to be taken back to Yorkshire to stand trial for the murder of Arthur Dyson.

In January 1879, during his preliminary examination prior to his trial for Dyson's murder, Charlie nearly slipped away from his keepers while he was being transported to Sheffield from prison. During the train trip, Peace became a nuisance to his guards by demanding to be taken to the lavatory over and over. As this meant chaining and unchaining their prisoner repeatedly, the guards instead provided him with a bucket and told him to dump the contents out the train window. Instead, after opening the window, for the last time Peace used his acrobatic skills and threw himself head-first through the window of the speeding train. One of the guards managed to grab him by the heel, but Peace wrenched himself free and fell to the tracks below. Unfortunately for him, he misjudged the speed of the train and knocked himself unconscious, and so was quickly recovered.

The examination, with the widow Dyson from America as the chief witness she was the only eyewitness to the murder against him, continued as Peace recovered from his wounds in the prison hospital. Sufficient grounds found to hold Charlie for Dyson's murder, his trial was set to begin the next month.

Charlie's murder trial lasted a little over a day and was almost as open-and-shut as his previous trip to the dock. His defense counsel had acted admirably in laying a strong foundation that there was a deeper relationship between Peace and Mrs. Dyson than the widow would admit. He managed to introduce a packet of letters purportedly sent by Mrs. Dyson to Charlie, which bear this out: "You can give me something as a keepsake if you like," read one. "But I don't like to be covetous, and to take them from your wife and daughter. Love to all!" Others certainly hinted at shenanigans occurring behind Arthur's back: "Will see you as soon as I possibly can.  I think it would be easier after you move; he won't watch so." and "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."

Mrs. Dyson remained steadfast in her denial of authorship, claiming "she never did write." She also stuck to her story that Arthur had never touched Charlie in their struggle, which could have mitigated the crime somewhat and possibly saved him from the gallows.

In the end, the efforts of his solicitor, Frank Lockwood,  and Charlie's own pleas of "I am not fit to die" were not enough and the jury convicted him of murder. He was sentenced to hang.

Regardless of any prior relationship the two had ever had, it was clear that in the end, Mrs. Dyson hated Charles Peace with every fiber of her being.

"My opinion is," she told the London papers before she boarded a ship and headed back to her home in Cleveland, Ohio, "that Peace is a perfect demonnot a man.  The place to which the wicked go is not bad enough for him.  I think its occupants, bad as they might be, are too good to be where he is.  No matter where he goes, I am satisfied that there will be hell.  Not even a Shakespeare could adequately paint such a man as he has been.  My lifelong regret will be that I ever knew him."

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