Friday, August 12, 2016
Scotland Yard Stories by Sir Robert Anderson 1920
Scotland Yard Stories by Sir Robert Anderson 1920
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When I took charge of the Criminal Investigation Department I was no novice in matters relating to criminals and crime. In addition to experience gained at the Bar and on the Prison Commission, secret-service work had kept me in close touch with "Scotland Yard" for twenty years, and during all that time I had the confidence, not only of the chiefs, but of the principal officers of the detective force. I thus entered on my duties with very exceptional advantages.
I was not a little surprised, therefore, to find occasion to suspect that one of my principal subordinates was trying to impose on me as though I were an ignoramus. For when any important crime of a certain kind occurred, and I set myself to investigate it à la Sherlock Holmes, he used to listen to me in the way that so many people listen to sermons in church; and when I was done he would stolidly announce that the crime was the work of A, B, C, or D, naming some of his stock heroes. Though a keen and shrewd police officer, the man was unimaginative, and I thus accounted for the fact that his list was always brief, and that the same names came up repeatedly. It was "Old Carr," or "Wirth," or "Sausage," or "Shrimps," or "Quiet Joe," or "Red Bob," etc., etc., one name or another being put forward according to the kind of crime I was investigating.
It was easy to test my prosaic subordinate's statements by methods with which I was familiar in secret-service work; and I soon found that he was generally right. Great crimes are the work of great criminals, and great criminals are very few. And by "great crimes" I mean, not crimes that loom large in the public view because of their moral heinousness, but crimes that are the work of skilled and resourceful criminals. The problem in such cases is not to find the offender in a population of many millions, but to pick him out from among a few definitely known "specialists" in the particular sort of crime under investigation.
A volume might be filled with cases to illustrate my meaning; but a very few must here suffice. It fell upon a day, for example, that a "ladder larceny" was committed at a country house in Cheshire. It was the usual story. While the family were at dinner, the house was entered by means of a ladder placed against a bedroom window, all outer doors and ground-floor windows having been fastened from outside by screws or wire or rope; and wires were stretched across the lawn to baffle pursuit in case the thieves were discovered. The next day the Chief Constable of the county called on me; for, as he said, such a crime was beyond the capacity of provincial practitioners, and he expected us to find the delinquents among our pets at Scotland Yard. He gave me a vague description of two strangers who had been seen near the house the day before, and in return I gave him three photographs. Two of these were promptly identified as the men who had come under observation. Arrest and conviction followed, and the criminals received "a punishment suited to their sin." One of them was "Quiet Joe"; the other, his special "pal."
Their sentences expired about the time of my retirement from office, and thus my official acquaintance with them came to an end. But in the newspaper reports of a similar case the year after I left office, I recognized my old friends. Rascals of this type are worth watching, and the police had noticed that they were meeting at the Lambeth Free Library, where their special study was provincial directories and books of reference. They were tracked to a bookshop where they bought a map of Bristol, and to other shops where they procured the plant for a "ladder larceny." They then booked for Bristol and there took observations of the suburban house they had fixed upon. At this stage the local detectives, to whom of course the metropolitan officers were bound to give the case, declared themselves and seized the criminals; and the case was disposed of by a nine months' sentence on a minor issue.
Most people can be wise after the event, but even that sort of belated wisdom seems lacking to the legislature and the law. If on the occasion of their previous conviction, these men had been asked what they would do on the termination of their sentence, they would have answered, "Why, go back to business, of course; what else?" And at Bristol they would have replied with equal frankness. On that occasion they openly expressed their gratification that the officers did not wait to "catch them fair on the job, as another long stretch would about finish them"—a playful allusion to the fact that, as they were both in their seventh decade, another penal servitude sentence would have seen the end of them; whereas their return to the practice of their calling was only deferred for a few months. Meanwhile they would live without expense, and a paternal government would take care that the money found in their pockets on their arrest would be restored to them on their release, to enable them to buy more jimmies and wire and screws, so that no time would be lost in getting to work. Such is our "punishment-of-crime" system!
"Quiet Joe" made a good income by the practice of his profession; but he was a thriftless fellow who spent his earnings freely, and never paid income tax. "Old Carr" was of a different type. The man never did an honest day's work in his life. He was a thief, a financier and trainer of thieves, and a notorious receiver of stolen property. But though his wealth was ill-gotten, he knew how to hoard it. Upon his last conviction I was appointed statutory "administrator" of his estate. I soon discovered that he owned a good deal of valuable house property. But this I declined to deal with, and took charge only of his portable securities for money. The value of this part of his estate may be estimated by the fact that on his discharge he brought an action against me for mal-administration of it, claiming £5000 damages, and submitting detailed accounts in support of his claim. Mr. Augustine Birrell was my leading counsel in the suit; and I may add that though the old rascal carried his case to the Court of Appeal he did not get his £5000.
The man lived in crime and by crime; and old though he was (he was born in 1828), and "rolling in wealth," he at once "resumed the practice of his profession." He was arrested abroad this year during a trip taken to dispose of some stolen notes, the proceeds of a Liverpool crime, and his evil life came to an end in a foreign prison.
When I refused to deal with Carr's house property I allowed him to nominate a friend to take charge of it, and he nominated a brother professional, a man of the same kidney as himself, known in police circles as "Sausage." A couple of years later, however, I learned from the tenants that the agent had disappeared, and that their cheques for rent had been returned to them. I knew what that meant, and at once instituted inquiries to find the man, first in the metropolis and then throughout the provinces; but my inquiries were fruitless. I learned, however, that, when last at Scotland Yard, the man had said with emphasis that "he would never again do anything at home." This was in answer to a warning and an appeal; a warning that he would get no mercy if again brought to justice, and an appeal to change his ways, as he had made his pile and could afford to live in luxurious idleness. With this clue to guide me, I soon learned that the man's insatiable zest for crime had led him to cross the Channel in hope of finding a safer sphere of work, and that he was serving a sentence in a French prison.
No words, surely, can be needed to point the moral of cases such as these. The criminals who keep society in a state of siege are as strong as they are clever. If the risk of a few years' penal servitude on conviction gave place to the certainty of final loss of liberty, these professionals would put up with the tedium of an honest life. Lombroso theories have no application to such men. Benson, of the famous "Benson and Kerr frauds," was the son of an English clergyman. He was a man of real ability, of rare charms of manner and address, and an accomplished linguist. Upon the occasion of one of Madame Patti's visits to America he ingratiated himself with the customs officers at New York, and thus got on board the liner before the arrival of the "Reception Committee." He was of course a stranger to the great singer, but she was naturally charmed by his appearance and bearing, and the perfection of his Italian, and she had no reason to doubt that he had been commissioned for the part he played so acceptably. And when the Reception Committee arrived they assumed that he was a friend of Madame Patti's. Upon his arm it was, therefore, that she leaned when disembarking. All this was done with a view to carry out a huge fraud, the detection of which eventually brought him to ruin. The man was capable of filling any position; but the life of adventure and ease which a criminal career provided had a fascination for him.
Facts like these failed to convince Dr. Max Nordau when he called upon me years ago. At his last visit I put his "type" theory to a test. I had two photographs so covered that nothing showed but the face, and telling him that the one was an eminent public man and the other a notorious criminal, I challenged him to say which was the "type." He shirked my challenge. For as a matter of fact the criminal's face looked more benevolent than the other, and it was certainly as "strong." The one was Raymond alias Wirth—the most eminent of the criminal fraternity of my time—and the other was Archbishop Temple. Need I add that my story is intended to discredit—not His Grace of Canterbury, but—the Lombroso "type" theory.
Raymond, like Benson, had a respectable parentage. In early manhood he was sentenced to a long term of imprisonment for a big crime committed in New York. But he escaped and came to England. His schemes were Napoleonic. His most famous coup was a great diamond robbery. His cupidity was excited by the accounts of the Kimberley mines. He sailed for South Africa, visited the mines, accompanied a convoy of diamonds to the coast, and investigated the whole problem on the spot. Dick Turpin would have recruited a body of bushrangers and seized one of the convoys. But the methods of the sportsmanlike criminal of our day are very different. The arrival of the diamonds at the coast was timed to catch the mail steamer for England; and if a convoy were accidentally delayed en route, the treasure had to lie in the post office till the next mail left. Raymond's plan of campaign was soon settled. He was a man who could make his way in any company, and he had no difficulty in obtaining wax impressions of the postmaster's keys. The postmaster, indeed, was one of a group of admiring friends whom he entertained at dinner the evening before he sailed for England.
Some months later he returned to South Africa under a clever disguise and an assumed name, and made his way up country to a place at which the diamond convoys had to cross a river ferry on their way to the coast. Unshipping the chain of the ferry, he let the boat drift down stream, and the next convoy missed the mail steamer. £90,000 worth of diamonds had to be deposited in the strong room of the post office; and those diamonds ultimately reached England in Raymond's possession. He afterward boasted that he sold them to their lawful owners in Hatton Garden.
If I had ever possessed £90,000 worth of anything, the government would have had to find someone else to look after Fenians and burglars. But Raymond loved his work for its own sake; and though he lived in luxury and style, he kept to it to the last, organizing and financing many an important crime.
A friend of mine who has a large medical practice in one of the London suburbs told me once of an extraordinary patient of his. The man was a Dives and lived sumptuously, but he was extremely hypochondriacal. Every now and then an urgent summons would bring the doctor to the house, to find the patient in bed, though with nothing whatever the matter with him. But the man always insisted on having a prescription, which was promptly sent to the chemist. My friend's last summons had been exceptionally urgent; and on his entering the room with unusual abruptness, the man sprang up in bed and covered him with a revolver! I might have relieved his curiosity by explaining that this eccentric patient was a prince among criminals. Raymond knew that his movements were matter of interest to the police; and if he had reason to fear that he had been seen in dangerous company, he bolted home and "shammed sick." And the doctor's evidence, confirmed by the chemist's books, would prove that he was ill in bed till after the hour at which the police supposed they had seen him miles away.
Raymond it was who stole the famous Gainsborough picture for which Mr. Agnew had recently paid the record price of £10,000. I may here say that the owner acted very well in this matter. Though the picture was offered him more than once on tempting terms he refused to treat for it, save with the sanction of the police. And it was not until I intimated to him that he might deal with the thieves that he took steps for its recovery.
The story of another crime will explain my action in this case. The Channel gang of thieves mentioned on a previous page sometimes went for larger game than purses and pocket-books. They occasionally robbed the treasure chest of the mail steamer when a parcel of valuable securities was passing from London to Paris. Tidings reached me that they were planning a coup of this kind upon a certain night, and I ascertained by inquiry that a city insurance company meant to send a large consignment of bonds to Paris on the night in question. How the thieves got the information is a mystery; their organization must have been admirable. But Scotland Yard was a match for them. I sent officers to Dover and Calais to deal with the case, and the men were arrested on landing at Calais. But they were taken empty-handed. A capricious order of the railway company's marine superintendent at Dover had changed the steamer that night an hour before the time of sailing; and while upon the thieves was found a key for the treasure chest of the advertised boat, they had none for the boat in which they had actually crossed. But, mirabile dictu, during the passage they had managed to get a wax impression of it! We also got hold of a cloak-room ticket for a portmanteau which was found to contain some £2000 worth of coupons stolen by the gang on a former trip. The men included in the "bag" were "Shrimps," "Red Bob," and an old sinner named Powell. But the criminal law is skilfully framed in the interest of criminals, and it was impossible to make a case against them. I succeeded, however, by dint of urgent appeals to the French authorities, in having them kept in gaol for three months.
And now for the point of my story. Powell had left a blank cheque with his "wife," to be used in case he came to grief; and on his return to England he found she had been false to him. She had drawn out all his money, and gone off with another man; and the poor old rascal died of want in the streets of Southampton. He it was who was Raymond's accomplice in stealing Mr. Agnew's picture, and with his death all hope of a prosecution came to an end.
If my purpose here were to amuse, I might fill many a page with narratives of this kind. But my object is to expose the error and folly of our present system of dealing with crime. When a criminal court claims to anticipate the judgment of the Great Assize in the case of a hooligan convicted of some vulgar act of violence, the silliness and profanity of the claim may pass unnoticed. But when the "punishment-of-crime" system is applied to criminals of the type here described, the imbecility of it must be apparent to all. With such men crime is "the business of their lives." They delight in it. Their zest for it never flags, even in old age. What leads men like Raymond or Carr to risk a sentence of penal servitude is not a sense of want—that is a forgotten memory. Nor is it even a craving for filthy lucre. The controlling impulse is a love of sport, for every great criminal is a thorough sportsman. And in the case of a man who is free from the weakness of having a conscience, it is not easy to estimate the fascination of a life of crime. Fancy the long-sustained excitement of planning and executing crimes like Raymond's. In comparison with such sport, hunting wild game is work for savages; salmon-fishing and grouse-shooting, for lunatics and idiots!
The theft of the Gold Cup at Ascot illustrates what I am saying here. The thieves arrived in motor cars; they were, we are told, "of gentlemanly appearance, and immaculately dressed," and they paid their way into the grand stand. The list of criminals of that type is a short one; and no one need suppose that such men would risk penal servitude for the paltry sum the cup would fetch. A crime involving far less risk would bring them ten times as much booty. For no winner of the cup ever derived more pleasure from the possession of it than the thieves must have experienced as they drove to London with the treasure under the seat of their motor car. For it was not the lust of filthy lucre, but the love of sport that incited them to the venture. There are hundreds of our undergraduates who would eagerly emulate the feat, were they not deterred by its dangers. And a rule of three sum may explain my proposal to put an end to such crimes. Let the consequences to the professional criminal be made equal to what imprisonment would mean to a "Varsity" man, and the thing is done.