DOWN EAST - CHAPTER XI
Two kinds of burglars-—Argument against the abolition of capital punishment—Occasional burglars—A remarkable specimen—The professional burglar—The Cornhill burglary—Thomas Caseley—Great booty— Beautiful instruments —Arrests—Conversation on the way to the station—Female prisoners acquitted—Sentence—Action against the safe-makers— Evidence of Caseley—Which is the easiest safe—” Lawful” and “unlawful” tools—The Alderman, the citizen, and the citizen’s friend—How the signals were given—Receivers—My suspicions aroused—The effect—Capital verses in Punch.
THERE are two kinds of burglars—those who dabble in the crime, breaking into houses when their funds are low; and those who make it the serious business of their lives.
When for the first time the professional burglar is “unfortunate “—that is, arrested, tried, and found guilty—he is sentenced to imprisonment, while his subsequent convictions result in terms of penal servitude, which, from being of short duration, increase by progressive stages until they cover a period of many years. This he discounts, but as a rule he will not risk the gallows, and here, I think, is to be found one of the strongest arguments against the abolition of capital punishment. A great many burglars carry firearms, but they rarely use them. Is it not reasonable to suppose that, if the scaffold no longer stared them in the face, they would unhesitatingly use their weapons to avert capture?
Burglars of the occasional kind are usually tramps or town loafers, and for implements they are rarely provided with anything beyond an old knife, a bent chisel, and a box of lucifer matches, appliances which, though insignificant compared with a professional equipment, are remarkably effective in adroit hands. A favourite enterprise of these men is to break into a [-94-] country chapel, with a view to annexing the contents of the collecting boxes, and, possibly, the Communion plate. They are very prone to explore outhouses, in search of workmen’s tools, and other buildings not used as dwellings.
I once had to deal with a case in which a rather rematkab1e specimen of this class was concerned. The man in question had during a long series of years been guilty of a number of petty larcenies, and one day, growing more venturesome, broke into a dwelling-house in a somewhat secluded district on the borders of Edgware. The garden at the back of the house was skirted by a country lane, and as a constable was passing along it at about half-past three one spring morning he observed a light flitting about in the basement. His suspicions being aroused, he sought out his sergeant, who was on fixed point hard by, and informed him of what he had seen. The two then made a careful inspection of the house from the lane at the back.
Feeling sure that something was wrong, the sergeant, leaving the constable in the lane, hurried round to the front of the premises. On inspecting the front door and finding that the bolts had been forced, he turned the handle and entered.
Proceeding down the passage he went into the kitchen, where a singular sight met his view. The fire was alight, and a frying-pan stood on the hob. On the table were the relics of a fried rasher of ham, and other evidences of a meal, including half a bottle of sherry. Lying about the floor were several bundles of goods ready for immediate removal. The air was still heavy with the aroma of the fried ham.
No one being visible, the sergeant proceeded to search the apartment, and it was not long before, on opening a tall cupboard, he discovered a middle-aged man about six feet in height. Stepping forth, the culprit cheerfully remarked:
“I say, guv’nor, if you’d been ten minutes sooner you’d have spoilt my breakfast. There’s a drop of sherry left, and you’d better help yourself before we start.”
While the officer was describing in the box what had taken place, the prisoner in the dock kept up one continuous roar of laughter.
The professional burglar is a very different sort of person. He is generally a married men, or, at any rate, has a female companion. A woman is very useful in keeping watch, in helping to dispose of the stolen property, and in many other [-95-] ways. A wife can assist in burglaries with tolerable impunity, for, in the event of being arrested, she has only to urge coercion and produce her marriage certificate to ensure an acquittal.
In April, 1865, I was engaged as counsel in a rather remarkable case, which was known as the Cornhill burglary. There were several persons charged—a man named Brewerton and his wife, a man named Caseley and his wife, and three others.
Thomas Caseley (with whom I propose principally to deal) was described as twenty-three years of age, and his wife as twenty-six. The former defended himself~ and I appeared for the latter. Caseley was known to be one of the most expert burglars in the metropolis, and he had already undergone one sentence of penal servitude, which proves that he must have entered upon a criminal career at an early age. He had two nicknames, one being “Counsellor Kelly,” and the other “Tom the Madman.”
The establishment broken into was that of Mr. Walker, a large jeweller’s on Cornhill.
It appeared that on Saturday, the fourth of February, the assistant, after placing the whole of the stock in one of Milner’s iron safes, left the premises at half-past seven in the evening. As usual, the gas was left burning in the shop, which was open to inspection by the police and other passers-by through apertures in the shutters. The safe was so placed as to be distinctly seen by any one looking through these apertures, and by an ingenious arrangement of mirrors a person standing in any part of the shop would also be visible from the outside.
When the assistant returned to the premises on Monday morning at half-past eight o’clock, he found that the shop had been entered through a hole in the floor, and that the safe had been opened and ransacked. It appeared that the thieves had forced an entry into the rooms of Mr. Mitchell, a tailor, in the lower part of the building, and had cut their way through the ceiling. The value of Mr. Walker’s stock was about six thousand pounds, and nearly the whole of it had been stolen. The booty included four hundred and sixty-five watches and one hundred and sixty gold chains. It was manifest that some considerable time had been occupied in the operations of the culprits. In all probability they had remained on the premises during Saturday night and the [-96-] greater part of Sunday. The safe had been forced very cleverly, there being no external marks of violence upon it. During the trial the police declared that the tools used must have been “beautiful instruments.”
The assistant lost no time in communicating with the police, and Inspector Potter, of the S Division, Inspector Brennan, Thomas Foulger, and Sergeant Moss, of the City Police, who were among the cleverest officers in the London force, were told off to investigate the matter. It appeared that, very soon after the burglary, Caseley opened a meat-pie shop at 142, Whitechapel Road, and there, on Friday, the twenty-fourth of February, Potter, Moss, and Brennan arrested the Brewertons and some of the other culprits. On the premises were discovered several articles of jewellery that were stolen from Mr Walker’s shop, together with one hundred pounds in cash, and two receipts for money recently lodged at the London and Westminster Bank, one being for a sum of two hundred and fifty pounds and the other for a sum of one hundred and fifty pounds. The officers next proceeded to the Caseleys’ private dwelling, i~, Ely Terrace, Bow Road. One of them knocked at the door, whereupon Mrs. Caseley put her head out of a window and said:
“Who are you?”
“We are police officers,” was the reply.
They waited for a minute or two, but as the door was not opened they forced the lock, entered, and rushed upstairs. The two Caseleys were at once taken into custody, after which the house was searched, with the result that the officers discovered a box containing a number of Mr. Walker’s watches and chains, gold coin to the amount of one hundred and ninety-six pounds, and a fifty-pound note. The proceeds of other burglaries were also found, together with a life preserver, which had been placed in the bed under the pillow, a collection of skeleton keys, several screwdrivers, a revolver, and some caps and bullets.
On the way to the station a conversation took place between Potter and the male prisoner. Caseley was reported to have said:
“What robberies are you going to buff me for? I can prove where I was at the time of Johnson’s robbery and the Strand robbery. I was doing time. But I am right for Walker’s.”
“Who are the others?” asked Potter.
The prisoner gave two names, adding:
[-97-] “If you will allow me to give evidence I will tell you all about it.”
The officer replied:
“I can make no promises. That will be a matter for after consideration;” and there the conversalion ended.
At the close of the case for the prosecution I urged that there was no evidence against my clients, Mrs. Caseley and Mrs. Brewerton, they being married women and having acted tinder the control of their husbands; and upon my producing their marriage certificates, the Court held that I was right, and directed a verdict of acquittal to be returned as against them.
Thomas Caseley, in the course of a long address, which was not devoid of ability, stated that since he last came out of prison he had be en getting an honest living, and that he had been in no way connected with the burglaries for which he was being prosecuted. He criticised the evidence in detail, and explained that the expression he made use of when arrested was not “I am right for Walker’s job,” but “My God! what will you say next? What next are you going to buff me for?”
Caseley called witnesses, amongst whom was his father, to prove an alibi, but this part of the case entirely collapsed, and in the end all the male prisoners were found guilty. Brewerton and Caseley were each sentenced to fourteen years’ penal servitude.
In consequence of the revelations at this trial, Mr. Walker brought an action against Messrs. Milner to recover the value of the stolen property, on the ground that the safe had been guaranteed to resist the violence of burglars. This action was tried before the Lord Chief Justice and a special jury at the Guildhall, and attracted a great deal of public attention. Caseley himself was called as a witness, and his evidence was very interesting and amusing. He was brought up in custody, and wore the convict garb. In describing how the burglary was committed, he said:
“I went to Cornhill on Saturday the fourth of February. There were four others besides myself. Two of them and myself went into the house. We went into Number 68, at the corner of the archway of Sun Court. It was exactly ten minutes to six in the evening. We went to the floor over Sir Charles Crossley’s. We sat down there until twenty minutes to eight, when we received a signal that Mr. Walker’s shopman had gone [-98-] by the ‘bus. Sir Charles Crossley’s is the floor over Mr. Walker’s shop. We opened Sir Charles Crossley’s safe, and did nothing else for some hours.
“As far as I can remember,” proceeded the witness, putting his hand to his forehead, “we did nothing more till twenty minutes to twelve on Saturday night, when we got into the tailor’s, where we stayed the whole of Sunday morning. We then cut a hole in the ceiling and let ourselves into Mr. Walker’s shop. This was exactly eight minutes to three on Sunday afternoon; we saw the time by a clock in the shop on the left-hand side of the safe. We cut our way through the ceiling, then through the floor, and then through the oil-cloth that covered the floor. One of the two men came in along with me. We took some tools in with us — crowbars, and sundries. We had to go back again, because we got the signal that the policeman was coming round; but very soon we got the signal ‘All right’ and returned. We then tested the safe to see whether we could open it, despite the disadvantages we were labouring under.”
“Now tell me,” said the Lord -Chief Justice, evidently much interested, “how did you test it?”
“Why, you see,” replied the witness, with the patronising air of one who enlightens ignorance, “we did it by striking in a small wedge between the jamb and the door, to see if it were capable of bearing the amount of pressure we were about to put upon it.”
“Yes, and what was the result of the test?” enquired his lordship.
“It held the wedge,” smilingly replied the witness. “The wedge bit, as we say, and so we knew the safe would give. We were agreeably surprised. The police constantly disturbed us. That, constable did his duty. He came round every nine minutes, and when he came, of course, we lost our purchase on the safe. Every time the policeman came round we descended into the tailor’s. After the first small wedge was put in I put a small bar in also, to feel the amount of resistance. It relieved the wedge, and we found the door giving. I turned round to my comrade and said: ‘See here. It’s all right. It will do.’ ‘Then I put in a larger bar and prised open the door.”
Asked how long he was occupied, from first to last, in opening the door, Caseley replied:
“Well, we went in at five minutes to three, and the whole property was cleared out of the safe, and we were in Sir Charles [-99-] Crossley’s washing ourselves at a quarter to four. Of course there are three minutes to be deducted out of that in every nine, as it took one minute to get from the safe to the tailor’s, one minute to get back to the safe, and one minute to replace the tools. I carried the tools in my breast. We only used two bars; the others were not required. We did not expect to find a Milner’s safe; we thought it would be one of the easier ones. You see, my lord,” addressing the judge, “T——’s safes are easier than Milner’s, and G—-—’s are easier than T—s.’. At twenty minutes to five we were three miles away.”
The cross-examination of the witness gave rise to a great deal of laughter. Asked how many safes he had opened, he replied:
“Three of Mr. Milner’s. We purchased two to experiment on. They were single door Milners. One resisted for hours before it gave way, and then we had to use an unlawful bar to it.”
“An unlawful bar !“ interposed the Lord Chief Justice; “what may that be?”
“A bar, my lord,” explained the witness, “that would not be used to commit a burglary. The tools we use in a burglary we call lawful tools; we call them unlawtul when they are too long or when they make a noise.”
“You used the best class of lawful tools at Cornhill, I suppose?” said the counsel.
“When you say lawful,” returned Caseley, with a slightly puzzled expression, “do you mean the word as a barrister would use it or as a burglar would use it?”
At this there was a roar of laughter, in which the Lord Chief Justice joined.
“I mean the word in your sense,” the counsel explained, when silence was restored.
“Yes,” said Caseley, “they were the best kind of tools. I carried them in a violin-case. We had a bar, my lord,” he added, again addressing the judge, “which we did not use on this occasion, and which we call the Alderman. It will open any safe, no matter how good it is.”
“Is there a Lord Mayor as well as an Alderman ?“ asked the learned counsel.
“No,” was the quiet reply; “but we have a citizen—that’s a small one; and a citizen’s friend, which is smaller still.”
Asked to explain how the signals were given, Caseley said:
“There were two men outside at opposite points, and they let us know that a policeman was coming by walking past. That [-100-] signal was given to a third man, who was seated upstairs in Sir Charles Crossley’s armchair, and he passed the word down to us by pulling a string.”
“What time,” asked the Lord Chief Justice, “would you have taken to open the safe in question if you had been quite sure of not being interrupted?”
“My lord,” answered the witness, with great solemnity, “I swear I could have opened it in a quarter of an hour with the instruments I used that night. With the Alderman I could have done it at once.”
Whether or no the jury believed the evidence of the witness I cannot say. Possibly they did not, because they returned a verdict for the defendant.
Of course burglars of the stamp of Caseley could not get on without the receivers. I doubt very much, however, whether receiving is carried on in anything like the large way it was when I was called to the Bar. The “fences,” who were principally Jews, did an enormous trade in those days; but convictions have thinned ‘their ranks, and the area of their operations has been considerably narrowed through the vigilance of the authorities. In the present day stolen articles of jewellery and watches are usually taken to pieces, the gems of the former and the works of the latter being sent to Antwerp and other places abroad, where they are furnished with new settings and cases.
There are still a few public-houses and beershops in the East End of London which are used as storing places for stolen property. In a case that came before me not very long ago at Worship Street it was alleged that a stolen watch had been sold to a barman across the counter of one of the former establishments. As the case assumed a very suspicious aspect, I gave orders for the landlord of the house to attend upon the remand, and so unsatisfactory were his replies to the questions I put to him that I sent for the police inspector of the division, and directed him to keep an eye on this establishment. This action on my part bore good fruit, for within a year the house was surrounded by a cordon of police, who on entering, arrested several well-known burglars, and discovered a great quantity of stolen property.
The landlord of the public-house was arrested, tried, and sentenced to penal servitude. He afterwards made a statement to the authorities incriminating several other men, whose conviction resulted from his evidence.
[-101-] Apropos of Caseley’s trial, my old friend Shirley Brooks wrote some capital verses in Punch. Here are some of them:
Proud policeman marches along,
Is very tall, and looks very strong,
Belted and buttoned, bludgeoned and drilled;
Set him to fight, he’ll be victor or killed.
“But, bless his eyes,” says burglarious Jim,
“What do I care for his bludgeon or him?”
* * * *
It’s Sunday morning—O jangle, bells,
Calling to church the pious swells.
The parson stands on his Humbox high,
Abusing Jim and his friend, hard by.
“Bless his eyes.” says burglarious Jim,
“What do I care for his sermon or him?”
A jolly big hole in his “shopship’s” wall,
In goes Jim with his pals and all:
Now for a wrench with the strength of four
At somebody’s patent impossible door.
‘‘Bless his eyes, ‘ says hurgiarious Jim.
“What do I care for his patent or him?”
Door or side, or something to smash,
Now for watches, and jewels, and cash;
Now for a wash and a tranquil meal.
Hark! the clink of the iron heel!
“Bless his eyes,” says burglarious Jim,
“ What care I for his boots or him?”
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