Charles Peace: King of the Cat Burglars
A Wish Unfulfilled
Shortly before he was hanged for murder, Charles Peace expressed remorse for having lived a life of crime and told his parish minister that he hoped after death humanity would forget his name. While nearly everyone who knew him during his last weeks agrees that his repentance for his crimes was sincere, his humility in the face of his demise is certainly uncharacteristic. He may have simply been trying to appear humble and contrite before an old friend. In any event, heartfelt or not, Charlie's wish did not come true.
It is a testament to his notoriety and skill as a criminal that Charles Peace would be immortalized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and included as one of the few real criminals to ever attract the attention of the world's greatest consulting detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. In the short story The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, Holmes is discussing how the most brilliant criminals often have talents outside their chosen fields: "A complex mind," said Holmes. "All great criminals have that. My old friend Charlie Peace was a violin virtuoso."
Peace was indeed skilled with musical instruments, particularly violins and other strings, although it was his ability as a cat burglar that gained him wealth and fame in late 19th century England. As adept as he was with music, Peace was equally accomplished as a cat burglar, or "portico thief" as they were known in Victorian England. During his lifetime, few people knew his face, but many all over England knew his name and his deeds. Charles Peace epitomized the master criminal, and like the foppish highwaymen of earlier times, helped cast crime in a romantic light that obfuscated its true nature. His bold offenses and almost supernatural ability to escape from the clutches of the law embarrassed Scotland Yard and entertained the public. When he was finally caught, his bizarre life story captivated readers and spawned stage plays, novels and stories of England's master thief.
Charles Peace was hanged in 1879 for the murder of a rival in a love triangle, and if that had been his sole violent crime, it could be discounted as a lapse in judgment caused by infatuation. Sadly, that is not the case.
Even as a murderer and burglar, Peace has his admirers: "Not only had he reduced house-breaking to a science, but, being ostensibly nothing better than a picture-frame maker, he had invented an incomparable set of tools wherewith to enter and evade his neighbour's house," wrote historian Charles Whibley in his work, A Book of Scoundrels. "He lived the king of housebreakers, and he died a warning to all evildoers, with a prayer of intercession trembling upon his lips. At a single stride he surpassed his predecessors; nor has the greatest of his imitators been worthy to hand on the candle which he left at the gallows."
The Earl of Birkenhead, one-time solicitor general of Britain, wrote a brief biography of Peace, describing the man as an "arch-criminal" and ascribing to him "a curious mixture of sordid villainy and artistic tastes." Perhaps the best burglar the world has ever known, in the end not even Charles Peace could outrun the intrepid and relentless police-constables of Scotland Yard.