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Macnaghten's Reminiscences - Second Installment

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Macnaghten's Reminiscences - Second Installment

Post by Karen on Mon 14 Feb 2011 - 22:39



The Adolph Beck Case

Never was there a more ill-starred individual than Adolph Beck, and his case was, indeed, a "tragedy of errors"! It was bad enough to undergo seven years' penal servitude for a crime of which he was absolutely innocent. It was far worse to be apprehended a second time, and again to stand in the dock at the Old Bailey, to again hear a verdict of "Guilty" returned, and to realise the awful fact that he would again be sent back, for a longer term, to a convict prison from the horrors of which he had only been released some two years, and the memories of which must have been to him as an awful nightmare. No wonder that his wild cries of agony so impressed the learned judge that he put him back for sentence to the next Sessions.
During that interval of three weeks an incident occurred as sensational as anything ever before known in the history of crime. It was God's own mercy (and nothing else) which, at this time, delivered the man Smith, alias Thomas, into the hands of the police.
I knew Beck only after his troubles were at an end and he had been discharged from Bow-street. Notwithstanding his awful experiences, he always struck me as being a light-hearted lover of pleasure, and, mercifully for him, I do not think that the horrors of his wrongful imprisonment had weighed on him quite as heavily as they would have on most other men. He had the mercurial disposition of many of our Continental friends.
When we met for the last time, one Sunday evening in Hyde Park, he bent over my hand and called me his "preserver"! I would have given a good deal (and so would many others) to have "preserved" him from his first sentence; but luck was dead against him at the time of his arrest and subsequent trial.
And yet, as the most able Commission, appointed later on to inquire into the whole matter, reported, "the action of police throughout was dictated by nothing but a sense of duty, and was perfectly correct." It is, indeed, most satisfactory, after a lapse of so many years, to lay to one's soul the flattering unction that no member of Metropolitan Police was in any way to blame for the deplorable miscarriage of justice which took place.

The First Arrest.

The facts of the case were rather complicated, but they cannot fail to be of interest even after so many years. To begin at the beginning, we have to travel back to 1877. In that year a man, calling himself John Smith, was convicted at the Old Bailey for frauds on women, whereby he had obtained from them articles of jewellery or money. He was sentenced to five years' penal servitude. The Criminal Investigation Department was not formed till the following year, and no police papers in this case were available for reference. Also the police officers who had had Smith in custody had all retired or been pensioned long before 1895 when the unfortunate Beck first appeared upon the scene.
Very early in that year police began to receive complaints from women that they had been defrauded by a man who gave himself out to be Lord Willoughby de Winton, and who professed to be attracted by their looks, and was desirous of engaging them as his "housekeeper" at his place in St. John's Wood. He would then, on some pretext, borrow money or some article of jewellery, with which he decamped.
The usual haunts frequented by such swindlers were visited by officers, but nothing in the shape of an arrest was made until December, 1895, when one of the women defrauded met Mr. Beck in Victoria-street and gave him into custody of a uniformed constable on duty for having stolen some property from her lodgings a few weeks before. Mr. Beck was taken to the police station and charged. He was subsequently put up with twelve or fourteen other persons and unhesitatingly identified by (I think) fifteen out of seventeen of those who had been defrauded and had been called in to see him. One woman, I remember, stoutly maintained that a mistake was being made, and that the man in custody was not the thief, at any rate, in her case. I will refer again to this witness later on.
Beck was tried at the Old Bailey in the spring of 1896, and sentenced to seven years' penal servitude, from which he was released on licence about the end of 1901. But the doomed victim was not to enjoy a long immunity from bondage. Early in 1904 women complained at Scotland Yard that they had been defrauded after the fashion employed by the criminal of 1895.

The Second Blunder.

During the period that elapsed between Beck's conviction in 1896 and the end of 1903 no complaints of similar frauds had been brought under the notice of police. The description of the fresh swindler, as given by the defrauded women, tallied with that of Beck. This being so, opportunity was given that the first woman who had complained should see Beck. She was posted in a street down which he daily passed, and ten minutes later, as he came along, she identified him and gave him into custody.
The same dreadful drama was then acted over again. While at the police station (and prior to his appearance in court) Beck was placed among some fifteen men who were as nearly of the same age, build, and appearance as it was possible to obtain, and was, without any hesitation, identified by the four other women who had made complaints in the matter. He was, in due course, committed to take his trial at the Central Criminal Court, appeared at the Old Bailey, and was again found "Guilty." As has already been stated, the judge postponed sentence till the next sessions, and most fortunate it was that he did so.
During the time that Beck had been in custody for these last (alleged) offences no similar complaints had been made to the police. But a week or so after the judge had postponed sentence a man calling himself William Thomas was given into custody for an offence similar to that for which Beck had been tried. This William Thomas had been arrested while attempting to pawn some rings obtained a few minutes before from two professional ladies who had also received from Thomas a letter of assignation. This document was obtained and found to be in the same handwriting that had figured in the charges made against Beck in 1896.

Pardon for Innocent Man.

No question could arise in this case as to Thomas's identity, seeing that he had been caught in the act of attempting to dispose of the property within half an hour of having obtained it. Indeed, if I remember rightly, he was never lost sight of from the moment he left the women's house until he was given into custody at the pawnbroker's shop where he attempted to pledge the rings. Thomas was duly brought up at the police-court, and then the same four women who had already sworn that Beck was the man who robbed them now asserted their conviction that they had been in error in so saying, and were now satisfied that Thomas was the real delinquent. This man was also identified by an old landlord as the convicted John Smith of 1877, and was eventually sentenced to three years' penal servitude. Beck was at once released, and a sum of 5,000 pounds paid over to him as compensation, and he received "free pardons" for offences which he had never committed!
An intelligent police officer will learn in every case something new, and the object-lesson in this lamentable business was unquestionably the extreme unreliability of personal identification. All these women witnesses honestly believed that they had picked out the right man. And yet, as a matter of fact, Beck and Thomas were not a bit alike. They were about the same height, and had about the same amount of grey hair on their heads, and they both struck me as having rather a peculiar droop in the eyelids. But Beck gave one the impression of being a much younger man, and he was altogether slighter in build.
One of the best witnesses that we had in the concluding trial was the lady who, as I before mentioned, was the only one who asserted in 1896 that a mistake had been made, and the wrong man arrested. She rendered great assistance, and I was duly grateful to her. I felt that she, of all the actresses in the drama, could settle the question at once, so I went down to see her myself on the Sunday afternoon following Thomas's arrest.
I flung down a sheaf of photographs in front of her and she at once picked up one of Thomas and said, "That's the scoundrel who robbed me nine years ago, and don't you forget it, Mr. Policeman!" After the ice was thus broken we got on capitally together, and I persuaded her to come up to Bow-street the next day and give evidence, although she was in wretched health at the time.

The Neil Cream Murders.

Motiveless murders are, from a detective's point of view, of very exceptional interest, and the two most remarkable of these, within the last generation, were unquestionably those known as "the Lambeth poisoning case," in 1892, for which the notorious Neil Cream suffered the extreme penalty of the law, and the Camden Town murder, in 1907, for which no one was ever made amenable.
The mysteries of the Lambeth poisoning case required a deal of unravelling. The officer who conducted the inquiries was one of the very best that we ever had at the Yard. The facts of the case were put together some years ago by my old friend Mr. George R. Sims in his succinct and picturesque style, and I feel I cannot do better than reproduce his story almost verbatim. This I do with his kind permission: -

On the night of 11th April, 1892, or, rather, in the early hours of 12th April, a constable whose beat lay through Stamford-street, Blackfriars, saw a man being let out of one of the houses by a young woman.
It was then about two in the morning.
There was a street lamp opposite the door, and in the light of this the constable had a good view of the man's side face.
The man appeared to be about forty; he had a heavy moustache, he had on a dark overcoat and a high silk hat, and he wore glasses.
The man walked away from the house, and turned to the right, in the direction of Lambeth Palace-road.
Three-quarters of an hour later this constable was again in Stamford-street.
Standing at the door of the house which he had seen the man with the glasses leave was a four-wheeled cab. A woman, evidently in great pain, was being carried to the cab by a policeman.
The constable went into the house, and in a bedroom found another young woman lying face downwards, screaming and writhing in terrible agony. He carried her to the cab, and the two constables drove with the sufferers to St. Thomas's Hospital.
In the cab one of the girls, Alice Marsh, died. Emma Shrivell, the other girl, was able to speak. In answer to the questioning of the constables, she said that a gentleman had been to the house, and had had supper with them. He had sent the servant out for some bottled beer and some tinned salmon. Afterwards he had given each of them three "long pills," which they had taken.
The constable who had been in Stamford-street when this visitor left asked, "Was that the man with the glasses that I saw you let out at two o'clock?" The reply was "Yes."
Shrivell lingered in terrible suffering for six hours after her arrival at the hospital.

Detectives on the Trail.

The first idea, when the girls were brought in, and Shrivell spoke of the tinned salmon she had eaten, was that they were cases of ptomaine poisoning. But it was speedily ascertained that both deaths had been caused by the administration of strychnine.
At this time all that the police had to go upon was that the man who had given the girls the "long pills" was known to them as "Fred," that he said he was a doctor, and that he had a heavy moustache and wore glasses.
From that moment the task of the detectives was to find out if a man answering this description was known to any other woman in the neighbourhood, some of whom might be able to supply fuller particulars concerning him. Inquiries in this direction were at once made, but at first without success.
But the constable who had seen "Fred" leave Stamford-street, and had been instructed to keep a close look out for him, had met a man very like him. It was not considered expedient to arrest this man merely because he looked like the one who had come out of the house, but observation was kept upon him.
A difficulty had, however, arisen. A man living in the house in which the two girls had lodged had seen the visitor "Fred," who came to supper and had had bottled beer and tinned salmon sent for.
This man was placed in a position where he could see the suspect pass by. The suspect was known as Dr. Neil, and had lived in rooms in Lambeth Palace-road.
The man looked at Neil and shook his head. "That's not the fellow," he said. "I'm certain it isn't."
But in the meantime a number of young women had been quietly warned to be careful of a man wearing glasses, who might offer them what were called "long pills," but which were really capsules. They were on no account to swallow the things, but were to keep in touch with the man and communicate with the police.

Who Killed Tilly Clover?

Among the girls asked if she had ever seen a man named "Fred," who wore glasses, had a heavy moustache, and called himself a doctor, there was one who instantly exclaimed, "Yes, I have." She had seen a man like that with a girl named Matilda Clover, who died in October, 1891, of delirium tremens. "But I always believed," said the young woman, "that Tilly Clover was poisoned." The girl then told the detective how one evening she had seen this man go into a house in Lambeth-road with Clover, and the next day she heard that Clover was dead.
That was the first time that Matilda Clover had ever been spoken of by anyone in connection with a suggestion of poisoning.
But there was an astounding document pigeon-holed at Scotland-yard, but not in the Criminal Investigation Department. On Nov. 30, 1891, Dr. Broadbent, the eminent physician, forwarded to the authorities a letter which he had received, charging him with having administered poison to a girl named Matilda Clover. The writer of the letter demanded 3,000 pounds to hush the matter up.
Now, Matilda Clover, according to the certificate of a doctor who had been personally attending her, died of "delirium tremens and syncope." There had been no inquest, and she had been buried by the parish.
On searching at Somerset House the police found the death certificate, and singularly enough the certificate immediately preceding it in the book was that of another girl who was afterwards discovered to have been poisoned by "the man with the glasses" - a girl named Donworth.
Now for the first time there was in the possession of the police the fact that a man named "Fred," who wore glasses, had visited Matilda Clover on the night of her death, and also the fact that a few hours later a doctor was hurriedly sent for to attend her "in a fit." Just as a tragedy had followed the visit of the man with the glasses in the case of Marsh and Shrivell, so had a tragedy followed his visit to Matilda Clover.
The doctor had given a certificate of death from "alcoholism." But there was someone who, although there had been no inquest and no publicity, knew shortly after Matilda Clover's death from "alcoholism" that she had been poisoned by strychnine. That someone had sent a blackmailing letter to Dr. Broadbent.
An order for the exhumation of the body of Matilda Clover was at once issued. Fourteen coffins had to be taken out of the ground above her. Although so many months had elapsed the action of the strychnine had preserved the organs of the body perfectly, and the experts had no difficulty in finding strychnine.
In the meantime inquiries at the house in which Clover had died elicited the fact that the man with the glasses had offered the girl supper in her own apartment, and had sent the servant out for "two bottles of beer and a tin of salmon."

Mysterious Blackmailer.

But the blackmailing letter to Dr. Broadbent, in which knowledge of the poisoning of Matilda Clover was shown, had still to be traced to the suspected "Dr. Neil."
This man, who said that he was a traveller for an American drug store, was now - it was another extraordinary feature of an extraordinary case - found to be on intimate terms with an ex-detective, to whom he had made some remarkable statements. He had accused a young medical student, who had been his fellow-lodger in Lambeth Palace-road, of having poisoned Clover, Marsh, Shrivell, and a girl named Loo Harvey.
The ex-detective, who had made Neil's acquaintance quite accidentally, was naturally astonished at such statements. He made a note of them, and duly communicated with the authorities.
But there was, so far, no proof that Neil was himself the poisoner. His statement was that he had "discovered" the guilt of his fellow-lodger. The man who lodged in the same house as Marsh and Shrivell had declared, it must be remembered, that Neil was not her visitor on the fatal night.
It was at this time, in piecing the facts together, that the police referred to certain blackmailing letters which had been sent to the head of the firm of W.H. Smith and Son. A girl named Ellen Donworth had been found on the night of Oct. 13, 1891, dying in terrible agony in the Waterloo-road. The inquest showed she had swallowed a large dose of strychnine. The writer of the letter to Mr. Smith signed himself "Bayne," and demanded a huge sum of money to be silent, as he knew that Mr. Smith had poisoned Ellen Donworth.
The coroner who investigated the cases of Shrivell and Marsh had also received an extraordinary letter offering information as to the "poisoner."
Several letters of this kind were now in the hands of the police, but they were not all in the same handwriting.


The Arrest of Neil Cream.

A detective of the Criminal Investigation Department now succeeded in becoming friendly with Neil. As a matter of fact, Neil had actually gone to him to complain that he was being followed. The detective at once offered to find out if this was the case, and became his constant visitor, and by a clever ruse obtained from Neil at his lodgings a specimen of his handwriting. He also discovered that the handwriting of the young lady to whom Neil was engaged was the same as that of the letters sent to the coroner. The paper which Neil used in his lodgings was found by his friend the detective to be of American manufacture. The watermark upon it was "Fairford Superfine."
Knowing that, after the death of Clover, a blackmailing letter had been sent to Dr. Broadbent, it was suggested by one of the chief officers in charge of the case that probably the father of the young medical student accused by Neil in conversation with his friend the ex-detective had received a similar communication with regard to Marsh and Shrivell.
The father of the young man was a doctor at Barnstaple. On being visited he said that he had received a letter charging his son with poisoning certain women, and demanding money for silence; but, looking upon it as the work of some medical student who had a grudge against his son, he had not taken any action upon it.
He produced the letter. It was signed "W.H. Murray." The paper bore the American watermark of "Fairford Superfine." Between the murders of Clover and Donworth and the murders of Marsh and Shrivell it was known that Neil had visited America.
The case for the police was now complete, and Thomas Neil Cream, known as Dr. Neil, was arrested.
On being searched there was found to be in one of his pockets a memorandum of the dates of the deaths of all the women, with their initials against the date.
One of the most important witnesses against the accused man was a girl named Loo Harvey, to whom, on the Embankment, he had given one of the capsules urging her to take it, as it would at once cure her of pains from which she was suffering.
The girl pretended to take the capsule, and the poisoner left her, telling her that she would soon feel the benefit of what he had given her.
One of the dramatic moments at the police-court proceedings was when Loo Harvey, whom Neil believed to be dead, stepped forward and identified him as "Fred," who had tried to make her swallow one of his "long pills."
On Oct. 20, 1892, the anniversary of the death of his unhappy victim Matilda Clover, Thomas Neil Cream was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey. In consequence of certain affidavits put forward by him after his sentence, a respite of seven days was granted, but on Nov. 15 he was duly executed within the walls of Newgate.

Murder for Murder's Sake.

Neil Cream, the wholesale poisoner of women, was a maniac of a particularly diabolical kind, the kind for whom the gallows and not the asylum is the best place. In America he committed at least three murders. For the third he was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to ten years' penal servitude, a clemency on the part of the American authorities for which at least half a dozen English women paid with their lives.
He killed for the joy of killing, and the dying agonies of the women were excitements which his demoniacal form of insanity craved for.
The gratification of a mad lust of cruelty was the one object of his murders - at least on this side of the Atlantic. He had absolutely nothing else to gain by them. The blackmailing letters that he sent to well-known people after each crime were acts of sheer insanity. In one he demanded 300,000 pounds. He was a mad monster of a peculiar type. The nearest approach we have had to him since his execution was George Chapman, who, curiously enough, also poisoned a girl named Marsh.
I have not dealt so much with the story of the numerous crimes of Neil Cream as with the manner in which they were brought home to him. The task of bringing him to justice was far more difficult than may appear at first sight. It is a fact that the advisers of the Crown, in spite of the evidence in their possession, were doubtful, almost to the last, if they would be able to obtain a verdict.
The evidence in the case of Matilda Clover was not of the strongest from the judicial point of view, and there was a doubt at one time if the evidence in the cases of Marsh and Shrivell might be held to be legally admissible. There was no absolute proof to give to a jury that Neil Cream poisoned Clover, and it was for the murder of Clover "and other persons" that Cream was tried at the Old Bailey.
He was not arrested for murder, but on a charge of endeavouring to extract money by threats from the doctor whose son he had accused of the crimes in the letter with the "Fairford Superfine" watermark on the paper.
On the night that Cream came back to Holloway, after listening to his counsel's magnificent speech for his defence, he was so elated that he sang and danced in his cell, and on more than one occasion, so confident was he that the case against him would break down that he threatened the governor of the gaol with terrible pains and penalties for daring to compel him to appear at the Old Bailey in the clothes in which he had been arrested.

Why Cream Wrote the Letters.

It has been widely published that on the scaffold Neil Cream exclaimed, "I am Jack the ----" just as the bolt was drawn. Apart from the fact that no man in the last stage of furious madness, as the perpetrator of the Stamford-street horror must have been, could have lived to embark on a totally different series of atrocities, there is a perfect alibi.
During the whole period covered by the Ripper's crimes Neil Cream was in prison on the other side of the Atlantic.
He arrived in London after his release on Oct. 1, 1891, and he murdered his first victim, Ellen Donworth, on the 13th of the same month.
But for the fact that the student of criminal history is constantly faced with the stupidity of the criminal, there would be nothing more remarkable in this case than the fatuity of the man who, having murdered solely for his personal gratifications, and taken every precaution, as he thought, to avoid discovery, immediately wrote blackmailing letters in which he showed guilty knowledge of secret murder.
After the case was over Mr. Justice Hawkins complimented the police on the patience, tact, and ability they had shown in unravelling the mystery of the Lambeth poisonings. The running to earth of Neil Cream was a piece of detective work of which Scotland Yard had every reason to be proud.

I have very little to add to the above, in which, so far as my memory goes, all the facts given are absolutely accurate. At the conclusion of the case Mr. Justice Hawkins, as he was in those days, came to see me at the Yard, and we discussed the reasons to account for Neil Cream having written these rubbishy and compromising letters. The learned judge had no particular views on the matter, so I gave him mine, with which he was good enough to agree generally.
I always held that Neil Cream, who was a hopelessly depraved individual, and, inter alia, a "morphia fiend," had frightful fits of depression after his gratification of mad lust for cruelty, and that, as a kind of salve to his conscience, he then sat down and wrote to someone, detailing the facts that a murder had been committed, and laying the guilt at that someone's door. He always wrote to persons whose names, at the particular time, were prominently before the public. For instance, when he wrote to Dr. Broadbent, that eminent physician was attending a case of typhoid fever at Marlborough House, and his name was written large on the bulletins issued several times a day. When he wrote to the late Right Honourable W.H. Smith that gentleman was on his deathbed. In effect, Neil Cream felt he must impart his guilty secrets to somebody.

The Camden Town Mystery.

The Camden Town murder was a desperately sordid affair, but one of most engrossing interest to a police-officer. Sir Herbert Tree avers that, at this time, I wrote him, apologising for not having answered a note of his, or something of the sort, and, in palliating my remissness, declared that I had, "for the last three weeks, been steeped to the lips in Dimmock's blood."
In September, 1907, Phillis, or Emily, Dimmock had lodgings in a small street in Camden Town. One day, about the middle of the month, she was devoting the afternoon to domestic washing. According to the landlady's account she was very much en deshabille, as fitted the occasion, and it was particularly remarked that she had some Hinde's patent curlers in her hair. In the evening, about 8:30, she slipped on an old ulster, and, signifying her landlady that she was going out to keep an appointment, left the house. Her return was unnoticed.
About three o'clock in the afternoon of the next day her landlady tried the door of her room, and, finding it locked, became anxious and called in the police. The door was broken open, and Phillis Dimmock was found lying on her bed with her throat cut from ear to ear. The Hinde's curlers were still in her hair, and there were no signs apparent that she had dressed "to go out," as was her custom, in the usual way.
On getting down to the scene of the tragedy the local inspector of the detective staff met me with the remark, "This is no ordinary case of murder, sir," and, after a very cursory examination, I was entirely in accord with his opinion, in that the crime was one of sexual mania, and not perpetrated for robbery or revenge. The murderer had probably stripped before he cut the woman's throat, so that it was not to be expected that we should - if an arrest were made - find any traces of blood on his clothes. He had then washed his hands and dried them on an old skirt of his victim's, which was thrown over a chair near the washstand. Near the window, the blind of which had been slightly drawn aside as if to let in the early morning light, was an album containing old picture cards.

"Rising Sun" Postcard.

There was nothing else of particular interest found in the room at the first search, save and except some charred pieces of a letter which had been thrown into the grate. The decipherable words on these fragments seemed to point to some kind of assignation, and to request a meeting at the "bar" of some public-house in (something) "Town" on a "Wednesday," and on the reverse side the words "excuse" and "good" (bye) were to be seen. But the most remarkable thing about these burnt bits of letter was the character of the handwriting on them. This was unusually good and almost classical, the "e's" being fashioned like Greek epsilons. Now whether or no these pieces of semi-burnt paper were to have any real bearing on the case remained to be proved, but it was obviously essential that we should endeavour to discover the writer.
No further clue was forthcoming for a fortnight, but at the end of that time, as one of the officers was again going through every article of furniture in the room, a postcard slipped out of an old newspaper which had been folded up at the bottom of a drawer. It was addressed to Mrs. Shaw (a name sometimes assumed, I think, by Dimmock), and ran as follows: -

"Phillis darling,
If it pleases you meet me at 8:15 at the [here came a humorous drawing of a rising sun].

Yours to a cinder, Alice."

This became known as the "rising sun postcard," and experts proved that the writing on it was identical with that on the charred fragments.
The very unusual course was then taken of giving photographs of this postcard to Press agencies for reproduction in the newspapers. The desired effect was soon obtained, and the handwriting was identified as being that of a young artist on glass. This man was arrested, and it was proved that he had been with the murdered woman on the evening in question up to about ten o'clock. He was duly committed to the Central Criminal Court, and, after a trial which lasted six days, a verdict of "Not guilty" was returned.

(Next week Sir Melville Macnaghten deals with the Muswell Hill murder and with the success of the finger-print system in the tracing of criminals.)

Source: Lloyd's Weekly News, December 13, 1914, Page 5

Karen Trenouth
Author of: "Epiphany of the Whitechapel Murders"
Author of: "Jack the Ripper: The Satanic Team"

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