Charles Peace - an infamous Victorian criminal


One the most infamous Victorian criminals was Charles Peace who was hanged at Armley prison, Leeds by William Marwood on Monday the 25th of February 1879, "For that I done but never intended" as Peace put it.  Here is drawing of him.

Peace was a violent career criminal who was born in Sheffield in May 1832. His first recorded conviction was for house burglary in 1851, for which he served a month in prison. His next conviction for the same offence came in October 1854, when he was sentenced to four year’s penal servitude at Doncaster Sessions. This was followed by a six year sentence in 1859 and an eight year sentence in 1866. He tried to escape during this but was recaptured and was to spend the next six years in various prisons up to 1872.  On his release he returned to Sheffield. In 1875, Peace moved out of Sheffield into the suburb of Darnall where he met a Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Dyson. Peace was a womaniser and began having an affair with Mrs. Dyson, or at least so he claimed and she denied. She had certainly gone out with him to music halls and pubs but it seems that she had rejected his sexual advances and this was something he was not happy about. Peace threatened to kill Mr. Dyson and he, in turn, took out an injunction against Peace in the hope of him leaving the couple alone. Peace did for a time, moving to Hull and opening a café. His burglaries continued and one night he went to Manchester, armed as usual with his revolver. Peace was spotted by two policemen in the grounds of a house at Whalley Range, around midnight on the 1st of August 1876. Constable Cock tried to arrest him but Peace took out the revolver and told Cock to stand back, firing a warning shot at the officer. Cock took out his truncheon and advanced towards Peace, who fired a second time, killing him. Peace was able to escape and get back to Hull. Two local villains, brothers John and William Habron, were arrested for the crime. Habron was convicted and sentenced to death but fortunately reprieved to life in prison.

Peace's second murder was to be that of Arthur Dyson on the 29th of November 1876, whose wife he still desired. He went to the Dyson's home at Bannercross and during an argument shot Mr. Dyson through the head, killing him instantly. Once again, he was able to escape back to Hull. He evaded the police but they were on the hunt for him as Mrs. Dyson had been able to identify him as her husband's killer. A reward was offered for his capture and he was now the nation's most wanted man moving constantly from one town to another, eventually ending up in London. He was to continue to evade capture for over two years. Peace had always had a love of music and musical instruments and set up as a dealer in them, partially as a front to his usual business of house burglary. He sometimes carried his burglary tools in a violin case when he went out on a job. He was able to live in some style from the proceeds of these activities, with a "Mrs. Thompson" as his mistress. This married lady's real name was Susan Bailey and she was eventually the one who betrayed him. His career as a burglar in London lasted from the beginning of the year 1877 until the 10th of October 1878, when he was finally caught red handed by three policeman in Blackheath trying to rob a house. Peace fired several shots at one officer before he was overpowered. When he was questioned he gave his name as John Ward. Susan Thompson was also arrested for trying to sell stolen property and identified Ward as Peace for whom there was a reward out, which she hoped to obtain. An officer was sent down from Yorkshire and was able to positively identify Peace in Newgate prison. Peace stood trial at the Old Bailey in November 1878 on the charges of burglary and attempted murder and was sentenced to life in prison. However, he had now to answer to the charge of the murder of Mr. Dyson and so was moved by train to Sheffield, to be charged with the murder of Arthur Dyson on the 18th of January 1879. During the journey north, he attempted to escape by throwing himself out of the train but was quickly recaptured. His trial before Mr. Justice Lopes at Leeds began on the 4th of February 1879. Mrs. Dyson was to be the principal witness for the Crown and described the murder of her husband to the court. Forensic evidence was able to show that the bullet which killed Mr. Dyson was fired from the revolver recovered from Peace when he was arrested in London. Late in the afternoon the jury retired and took just 10 minutes to convict Peace.
The Times newspaper reported that since Franz Muller murdered Mr. Briggs on the North London Railway and the poisonings by William Palmer, no criminal case had created such excitement in the public mind as that of Charles Peace.

Peace was visited in the condemned cell by the vicar of Darnall, the Rev. J. H. Littlewood to whom he made an oral confession to the murder of PC Cock. As a result William Habron was given a pardon and £800 compensation. Peace’s hanging was scheduled for 8 a.m. on Tuesday the 25th of February 1879 and was attended by four newspaper reporters. A four foot deep pit had been excavated beneath the scaffold, set up in one of the prison’s yard, some 80 yds. away from the condemned cell.  Peace was pinioned and escorted by two warders from the pinioning room to the gallows.  The procession was led by the governor, Mr. Keene and the Under Sheriff, Mr. Gray, followed by the chaplain, the Rev. Mr. Cookson, and then Peace and the warders with Marwood walking behind them and several pairs of warders behind him.  Once they reached the gallows Peace ascended the flight of steps onto the platform unaided, where Marwood pinioned his legs and placed the noose around his neck.  As Marwood attempted to place the white hood over Peace's head, he asked for a glass of water (which was refused) and spoke to the journalists, which he was allowed to do before Marwood pulled the lever. His last words were reported to be "My last thoughts are for children and their mother, a wonderful woman, they mustn't worry about me I know where I am going. I am going to Heaven."  Marwood gave Peace a drop of about nine feet and death was reported to have been “virtually instantaneous”, according to Mr. Price, the gaol surgeon.  The black flag was run up to show the small crowd outside the prison that the execution had taken place.  Peace’s body was left to hang for one hour before being taken down and prepared for the inquest which took place at 11 a.m.  After the formal verdict had been delivered, it was buried within the precincts of the prison.

A large tableau of Peace and Marwood soon appeared in Madame Tussauds waxworks, depicting the execution scene (pictured here).  Mrs. Dyson emigrated to Cleveland Ohio, in the USA at the conclusion of the case.

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