Charles Peace: King of the Cat Burglars
A Life of Crime
At the age of 13, Charlie Peace was sent to work in the steel mills of Sheffield, England. His short tenure in the mills was one the few honest jobs he ever held. The youngest in a family of four, Charles grew up in modest, yet comfortable, surroundings. His father, John, began life as a collier, but after a mining accident cost him a leg he embarked on a somewhat successful career as a wild animal tamer with a renowned English circus. As his family grew, John Peace left that unusual profession and began a career in the far less dangerous trade of shoemaking. John Peace imparted his love of animals and entertaining to his youngest child, and Charles made use of both skills later in life. There is little in his childhood that would lead one to believe this young boy would grow up to earn a place as a central waxwork exhibit in Mme. Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors in London. "Charles Peace, after the habit of his kind, was born of scrupulously honest parents," Whibley wrote.
Before heading to the mills, Charles had been educated in at least two schools, but he apparently found studying little to his liking.
"He soon made himself remarkable, not as a scholar, but for his singular aptitude in a variety of other employments such as making paper models, taming cats, constructing a peep-show, and throwing up a heavy ball of shot which he would catch in a leather socket fixed on to his forehead," wrote H.B. Irving in his thoroughly entertaining work, A Book of Remarkable Criminals. It was as a youngster that Charles also demonstrated his skill as a musician.
"He taught himself to play tunes on a violin with one string, and at entertainments which he attended was described as 'the modern Paganini,'" Irving wrote. "In later life when he had attained to wealth and prosperity the violin and the harmonium were a constant source of solace during long winter evenings in Greenwich and Peckham."
But wealth and prosperity were still some time off in the future when as a young teen Charlie Peace was seriously injured in a steel mill accident. While tending a machine one day, a white-hot steel rod was thrust clear through his leg, resulting in a year-long stay in a hospital and a permanent limp. The infirmity proved enough to dissuade Peace from an honest career in the mills, but never impeded his ability as a cat burglar. It was also around this time that his father died, leaving Charlie at the mercy of the pitiless Industrial Age English society.
"His career of crime started the day he left hospital on crutches, branded as incurable and thrown onto a labor market that had no room for cripples," wrote Angus Hall.
From his mid-teens until his first arrest as a thief at age 19, Charlie lived a double life entertainer by day and burglar by night. Despite his injury, he was known as an acrobat (a skill which served more use in his nocturnal ventures than in daylight), could recite the soliloquies of Shakespeare, and played his single-stringed fiddle in fairs and pubs around Sheffield.
"But playing a one-stringed violin at fairs and public-houses could not be more than a relaxation to a man of Peace's active temper, who had once tasted what many of those who have practised it, describe as the fascination of that particular form of nocturnal adventure known by the unsympathetic name of burglary," Irving wrote of Charlie's double life.