Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles Peace: King of the Cat Burglars

One Last Surprise

Katherine Dyson was wrong in calling Charles Peace a "perfect demon" for such a devil would not have been able to make the amends that Peace managed in his final weeks.

"It may be said at once that nothing could have been more deeply religious, more sincerely repentant, more Christian to all appearances than Peace's conduct and demeanour in the last weeks of his life," Irving wrote. "He threw himself into the work of atonement with the same uncompromising zeal and energy that he had displayed as a burglar."

Visitor after visitor met with him and recounted that his regret for his past misdeeds was genuine. In that era, such contrition was not liable to win a condemned man a reprieve, so we can only assume that his atonement was made out of true concern for his immortal soul.

Before his execution, Peace gave authorities one last surprise, confessing in great detail to the murder of one of the first constables of the new Metropolitan Police ever to die in the line of duty.

The murder of 20-year-old rookie Constable Nicholas Cock occurred in Sheffield in July 1875, at the height of Peace's stalking of Katherine Dyson. Cock and his partner, P.C. Beanland, had been on patrol when they saw a man lurking around the bushes near a darkened house. When Beanland called out to the man, he fled over a garden wall and nearly into the arms of P.C. Cock. The intruder pulled out a pistol and warned Cock to stay back, but like P.C. Robinson would do three years later, Cock approached the man, who fired over his head. Undeterred, Cock continued after his man — Peace's confession includes the observation that "Manchester policemen are an obstinate lot" and the gunman fired into his chest. As the patrolman lay on the ground dying, the murderer made his escape.

Unfortunately for them, a trio of Irish brothers had recently been cited by Constable Cock for drunken behavior and one of them had threatened revenge. Despite the weakness of the case against him, 18-year-old William Habron went on trial for the policeman's murder, was convicted and sentenced to death. Shortly before his execution date, the home secretary commuted the sentence to life.

In the audience for the trial (he had always enjoyed watching legal proceedings) was Charles Peace — the man who really killed Constable Nicholas Cock.

"People will say that I was a hardened wretch for allowing an innocent man to suffer for the crime of which I was guilty but what man would have given himself up under such circumstances knowing as I did that I should certainly be hanged?" Peace confessed.  "Now that I am going to forfeit my own life and feel that I have nothing to gain by further secrecy, I think it is right in the sight of God and man to clear this innocent young man."

In the end, he managed to convince the British government of Habron's innocence and the young man was released with an £800 payment.

Charles Peace at the gallows
Charles Peace at the gallows

On February 25, 1879, the records indicate it was a bitterly cold day, Charles Peace went to the gallows, convinced that he had been forgiven for his sins. He died never knowing that three weeks before, Sue Thompson had applied for the £100 reward offered for his capture. In his last meeting with his wife, Hannah, he gave her a funeral card that read: "In Memory of Charles Peace Who was executed in Armley Prison Tuesday February 25th, 1879 Aged 47 For that I don but never Intended."

Although he died on the scaffold for killing a man, and had confessed shortly before to another unpunished murder, Charles Peace was well-regarded even by those who sought to capture him. Said one Scotland Yard detective in a newspaper article about the execution of the greatest portico thief the world has ever known: "If you want my true opinion of him, he was a burglar to the backbone but not a murderer at heart. He deserved the fate that came to him as little as any who in modern times have met with a like one."