Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles Peace: King of the Cat Burglars

Master Criminal

Despite his childhood injury and his diminutive size (he was just 5-foot-4), Peace was remarkably fit and used his gymnast's skills in his work. Once, legend has it, he was surprised in the act of burglary by a homeowner. "He wound himself clear of the ground round the leg of a single-leg dining table, hidden from view by an overhanging table cloth," Angus Hall wrote. "The man looked around, shrugged his shoulders and went back to bed."

While serving his final term for burglary in Wakefield Prison, Peace managed to fashion a saw out of scrap tin and cut a hole in the ceiling of his cell. He was just crawling through the hole when he was spotted by a screw and the alarm went out. For an hour-and-a-half Peace managed to remain on the loose, but was finally caught in the bedroom of the warden's apartment where he had taken a bath and changed his clothes.

Another time he was found by police in bed with his mistress and when questioned, insisted that he was an eyeglass salesman. "He refused to get up and dress in the presence of the detectives who were obliging enough to go downstairs and wait his convenience," Irving reports, but Peace used the opportunity to slip through a six-inch gap in a grated window and escape. On two other occasions when constables came looking for him, he simply pulled himself up on the roof of his house and hid behind a chimney until they left.

Charles Peace
Charles Peace

On one occasion, to avoid a manhunt, Peace ducked into a boys' boarding school where he passed himself off as a wandering actor. He spent the better part of a day entertaining the schoolboys with Shakespearean soliloquies until the coast was clear.

Daring escapes were not Charlie's only skills. He was a master of disguise and was able to contort his features to such a degree that the wanted posters issued by Scotland Yard variously listed his age as anywhere from 40 to 70. "He had learned to alter his features at will, so that every identification photograph seemed to show a different man," Hall wrote. Peace also used walnut juice to darken his skin tone. Having accidentally blown off one of his fingers loading cartridges in his pistol, thereby giving police a distinguishing mark to look for, Charlie fashioned a fake arm out of plaster of Paris and replaced his "lost" hand with a hook.

Watchdogs were no match for Charles Peace, whose boyhood around wild animals had made him fearless, and in his kit of burglary tools Peace carried them in a violin case he always had drugged meat for any dogs he encountered.

Although he had a well-known love of animals, there is one verified account of Peace being attacked by a mastiff set on him by his brother-in-law, but killing the dog with his bare hands.

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