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Investigating 19th century crime

Detective reports from Angela Buckley, Victorian Super-Sleuth…

Celebrating with the Queen of Crime


Last Friday, it was Agatha Christie’s birthday and naturally I celebrated the birth of one of my favourite crime writers at her home. (In fact, I was on my way to the Police History Society annual conference, which was nearby). Greenway, near Torquay, is a beautiful house set in a stunning landscape and it’s easy to see why Agatha loved it so much.



Agatha Christie, née Miller, was born in Torquay on 15 September 1890 and spent her childhood in the family home of Ashfield. During one of her visits home in 1938, with her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, she bought Greenway as a holiday home for their family. The house was the perfect retreat from her busy life as a world-renowned crime writer, and she even wrote two books there: Dead Man’s Folly and Five Little Pigs. The house now belongs to the National Trust and it remains much the same as it was when the Mallowans were there.



The rooms are cosy and comfortably furnished, almost as if the inhabitants had just popped out for a while. There are stacks of books, including an extensive collection of Christie’s own novels – her paperbacks are still on show in the circular bookcase that her daughter had specially made to display them. There are two desks in the house, one in the winter dining room and another in the fax room (although Agatha wrote mainly in her bedroom), and it’s easy to imagine her there, pen in hand, thinking of ingenious methods of killing people.



The house retains much of her personality, with many quirky objects, such as a skull-shaped porcelain jar (above), her collection of homeopathic medicine bottles (they looked like poison bottles to me), and a ceramic lobster dish, representing her favourite food. Agatha celebrated many of her birthdays in the dining room at Greenway, which is a particularly airy and pleasant room.



The gardens of the estate are stunning, and there are many intriguing pathways through the ferns, and stone archways to tempt you into the dense foliage. Whilst wandering around, I came across the pet cemetery, where her dogs are commemorated with small headstones near a delightful fountain. My favourite place was the boathouse, used as the setting for the murder of Girl Guide Marlene Tucker, in Dead Man’s Folly.



Greenway is an enchanting and inspiring place and I would highly recommend a visit, but do take care as just beneath its serene surface lurks murder most foul….




For information about Greenway, click here




Capturing the Image of a Killer




In the recently-released film, The Limehouse Golem, one of the flashback scenes depicts a murder victim with her eyes removed (nice, I know). This rather gruesome crime is linked to the Victorian fascination with ‘optography’ – the imprinting of the final image seen before death on a person’s retina. If the individual had been murdered, then photographing their eyes might capture the image of their killer.

Optography first appeared in the 17th century. A Jesuit monk was dissecting a frog and claimed that he could see a faint image on the frog’s retina. In the 19th century, after the invention of photography, the practice of photographing murder victims’ eyes began to develop, with one of the earliest attempts taking place in Berlin in 1877. A year later, Wilhelm Friedrich Kühne, professor of physiology at Heidelberg University, invented a process by which such an image could be preserved. Professor Kühne used a rabbit to demonstrate this, asserting that the retina functioned like a photographic plate. He took an ‘optogram’ of the dead rabbit’s eyes and reproduced a shadowy image (pictured below), which looked like the bars of a window (or of the rabbit’s cage perhaps?).



Kühne’s first experiment on a human subject took place in 1880. After Erhard Gustav Reif was executed by guillotine for killing his sons by drowning, his eyes were removed immediately and analysed by the professor. This time, the images were very unclear and when a drawing was published, some speculated that the shape represented the guillotine’s blade, as the last thing seen by the condemned man. However, this is unlikely, as he was blindfolded. Despite the rather tenuous nature of this practice, it was informally adopted by detectives in Britain, and sometimes used in crime investigation.




In the same year as Professor Kühne’s experiment on the guillotined murderer, Superintendent James Bent, of the Lancashire Constabulary, attempted to identify a killer using this method. At 9 pm on 7 January 1880, news arrived at Old Trafford police station of ‘a dreadful murder’, which had taken place in Harpurhey, an industrial suburb in north-east Manchester. Superintendent Bent went straight to the house, where he found 19-year-old maid Sarah Jane Roberts lying dead in a pool of blood, with several ‘fearful’ wounds to the head. There were no signs of a struggle but her right forearm bore a mark, presumably from being raised in self-defence. The householder had been absent from the house when the crime was committed, but his bed-ridden wife had been upstairs. She had heard a knock at the door, followed soon afterwards by a terrible scream.



Originally from Oswestry, Sarah Jane Roberts had been working for the Greenwoods for about a year. There was no obvious motive for her brutal murder. Pressure mounted to find her killer and Superintendent Bent resorted to having the victim’s eyes photographed, in case the attacker’s face was imprinted on them. The day before Sarah Jane’s funeral the police lifted the coffin lid and took images of the corpse, in the hope that the figure of the murderer would appear under the examination of a powerful microscope. Despite the image being magnified to the size of half a sheet of ordinary notepaper: ‘there was nothing visible which would furnish the slightest evidence as to the features of the murderer’ (Manchester Courier, 16 January 1880). In his defence, Superintendent Bent claimed that he had only undertaken the practice ‘to satisfy those who proposed it…but it was of no avail.’ Sarah Jane’s killer was never caught.




Towards the end of the decade, another victim’s eyes were photographed in one of the most famous criminal investigations of all time. Mary Jane Kelly’s mutilated body was found in her room in Whitechapel on 9 November, 1888, making her the fifth official victim attributed to the murderer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’. In his memoirs, H Division Police Constable Walter Dew revealed that Mary Jane’s eyes had been photographed. According to him, several photographs were taken ‘with the latest type cameras…but the result was negative’. Despite the failure, he concluded:

But the very fact that this forlorn hope was tried shows that the police, in their eagerness to catch the murderer, were ready to follow any clue and to adopt any suggestion, even at the risk of being made to look absurd.

Almost a century later, in 1975, the controversial method of optography was reassessed, once again at the university of Heidelberg, and was dismissed conclusively.


Further reading:

Who Killed Constable Cock? Angela Buckley (2017)

Dead Men’s Eyes: A History of Optography, Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, Lindsay Fitzharris (2015)

I Caught Crippen, Walter Dew (1938)

Criminal Life, James Bent (1891)


Inspector Kildare and the Limehouse Golem



This weekend the eagerly-awaited Ripperesque film, The Limehouse Golem, hit the big screen. After a false start (Vue Cinemas cancelled the scheduled showing without telling anyone) I finally got to see it, and it was well worth the wait.

Based on Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd (now firmly on my TBR pile), the action opens in London, 1880, as reporter and failed playwright John Cree dies of poisoning. Reminiscent of the Florence Maybrick case (which took place 9 years later), suspicion is immediately cast on his wife, music hall star, Lizzie Cree. The day before this incident, the so-called Limehouse Golem, a brutal murderer, had claimed his latest victims, in the same location and with a similar MO as the Ratcliff Highway murders, when John Williams slaughtered linen draper Timothy Marr and his family, in 1811.



Enter Detective Inspector John Kildare, a previously overlooked police officer due to his not being ‘of the marrying kind’. Kildare (skilfully played by Bill Nighy) is instructed to investigate the latest Golem killing, despite his lack of experience, which leads him to the conclusion that he is being set up to fail. As he begins to follow the trail of the anonymous killer, he meets Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke), who is on trial for the murder of her husband.

These two plots become intrinsically linked as the late John Cree is on Kildare’s list of prime suspects (along with Karl Marx!). Kildare engages with Lizzie as he tries to unpick both cases, in the hope of unmasking the Limehouse Golem and saving Mrs. Cree from the noose. It is the unfolding relationship between the protagonists that makes this film special, as Kildare is drawn into Lizzie’s shady world of the music hall and seeks to protect her, just as the other men in her life have done.

The Limehouse Golem has all the ingredients of a Victorian melodrama: gruesome murders, bawdy music hall songs, cross-dressing, opium dens and brothels, all washed down with large quantities of gin. It is a gripping film, which interweaves Kildare’s investigation with Lizzie’s back story, underpinned by thought-provoking observations on gender. For the true crime lover, it is peppered with references to real-life historical crimes, from the Ratcliff Highway murders, 70 years earlier, to the terror of Jack the Ripper, which would be unleashed on the streets of London almost a decade later. The use of flashbacks showing the killings perpetrated by the Limehouse Golem reveal how events can be viewed from different perspectives, reminding us that things are not always what they seem, and a completely unexpected twist throws all preconceived ideas into the air.


© A Buckley


I really enjoyed this film and I was particularly excited to see that the final scenes were shot in the courtyard of Manchester town hall. Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite:




Capturing the French Ripper


Whilst languishing on the beach of a Greek Island this summer, I read the gruesome yet fascinating history of Joseph Vacher, the French Ripper (as you do on holiday!):

On the night of 18 June 1897, 13-year-old shepherd Pierre Laurent was returning home to his village near Lyon from the local fruit market, when he was murdered and sexually assaulted. His mutilated body was discovered by local residents the following day. This sickening case was investigated by local law enforcer Émile Fourquet who was about to uncover the heinous crimes of one of the most notorious serial killers in history, known as ‘L’Éventreur’, the French Ripper.

Fourquet was an investigating magistrate, working in the market town of Belley, near Aix-les-Bains in the foothills of the Alps. When he read about the murder of the shepherd boy in the local press, it reminded him of the similar killing of Victor Portalier, aged 16, two years earlier in Bénonces, some 30 km away – the case had been closed unsolved. Fourquet immediately sent for the file and soon discovered some striking similarities: both shepherd boys had been stalked by their assailant, who might have been a vagabond. They were both killed by a deep cut to the throat and their bodies were defiled after death. He also found a letter from another magistrate suggesting a connection between the Portalier case and that of the murder of 17-year-old woodcutter’s daughter Augustine Mortureux, also in 1895. Despite the similarities, it was not thought that all these crimes could have been committed by a single hand. However, in Fourquet’s mind a pattern began to form. After receiving the details of seven cases, he began his meticulous research that would prove the links. The newspapers started referring to the potential murderer as the ‘new’ Jack the Ripper.


Émile Fourquet (1862-1936)


In the 19th century, the French police was famous for its paperwork, which far surpassed their counterparts in other countries, including Great Britain. Former criminal Eugène Vidocq, began collecting data when he established the first police detective department, the Brigade de la Sûreté, in Paris in 1812. In the 1880s, Alphonse Bertillon developed his own method of measuring suspects. Using his anthropomorphic technique, known as ‘bertillonage’, of taking multiple bodily measurements, he recorded all the details on cards, eventually amassing vital information on tens of thousands of individuals.



By 1897, record keeping was well established and Émile Fourquet used this practice in his investigation into the shepherd boy killings. After reading through the dossiers, he created two charts, one for the method of the crimes, and the second to compile the characteristics of the, as yet, unknown killer. The pattern of crimes pointed to a single methodology, leading Fourquet to the conclusion that one man had committed all murders. On 10 July 1897, Fourquet sent an arresting warrant to all 250 investigating magistrates throughout France, which included a description of the wanted man. After receiving many more files, he re-investigated some of the earlier crimes, by interviewing witnesses and even interrogating suspects. However, less than a month later, a man arrested for public indecency fell right into his trap.

On 4 August, Marie-Eugénie Héraud was out in the woods collecting pinecones for fuel with her children, when she was viciously attacked by a man. Her assailant was overpowered by her husband and some neighbours, who imprisoned him in a stable. Joseph Vacher was tried and sentenced to three months for ‘outrage to public decency’ and when the magistrate remembered Fourquet’s warrant, he contacted him with a description of the prisoner, who was transferred to Belley.

Joseph Vacher was born in Beaufort, Isère in 1869, he was the 15th of 16 children. His twin sister had been killed in an accident when both were infants, which miraculously he had survived. Aged 15, Vacher joined a monastery but was expelled two years later after committing sexual acts on his fellow monks. He then joined the French Army and whilst stationed in Besançon he met Louise Barant and fell in love with her. When she spurned him, Vacher shot her in the mouth and then turned the gun on himself firing two bullets into his own head. Both survived as the cartridges had not been fully loaded. The bullets were never removed from Vacher’s skull.

During the next three years Vacher spent short periods in asylums and prison but most of the time he wandered around the French countryside leading the life of a vagrant. After his arrest in 1897, he confessed to 10 murders, mostly of teenage shepherds, over a 600-kilometre area. The remains of an eleventh victim were discovered while he was being interrogated.


Discovery of victim in Tamsin, 1897


Dressed in velour and wearing his trade-mark white rabbit fur hat, 29-year-old Joseph Vacher stood trial for the murder of Victor Portalier on 26 October 1898. His plea of insanity was overruled by the careful forensic examination of all the alleged cases by expert criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne. Vacher was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was executed by guillotine on 31 December and his dissected brain remains in the Faculty of Medicine in Paris to this day.


Crime scene sketch, Bénonces


In the aftermath of this sensational and historic case, Lacassagne recognised the importance of Fourquet’s painstaking research and he called on the French government to create a national database for unsolved crimes. In 1923, this extended to the police forces in 20 countries with the formation of the International Police Commission. It is now known simply as Interpol.

You can find out more about Joseph Vacher in The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr, the perfect beach read!




The ‘Real’ Inspector Reid



From the first scene of Inspector Edmund Reid poring over his files in the flickering gaslight of Leman Street police station, I’ve been hooked on Ripper Street, and I’ve avidly followed the adventures of the Whitechapel detectives through all five series. But, what was the real Inspector Reid like? And, did the character portrayed by Matthew Macfadyen resemble him?

The ‘real’ Inspector Reid was indeed Head of the CID at the Metropolitan Police’s H Division in Whitechapel during the time of the murders attributed to ‘Jack the Ripper’. The pervious year, Reid had replaced Inspector Frederick Abberline (also present in the TV series), unaware that he would be investigating the most famous crimes in history.

Edmund John James Reid was born on 21 March 1846, in Canterbury, Kent. By 1861, the family had moved to Camberwell, London. Working as a grocer’s assistant, Edmund, aged 15, was living with his father, who was a railway clerk, his mother and five sisters. He remained at home until 1868, when he married Emily Jane Wilson, also from Canterbury, and the couple moved to Southwark, where Edmund found employment in a warehouse. The Reids had two children: Elizabeth in 1872 and Harold in 1882.


A much older Edmund Reid


After several jobs, including working as a pastry cook and a steward on a Thames steamer, Edmund joined the Metropolitan Police on 4 November 1872. Aged 26, he was five feet six and a half inches tall, he had dark brown hair, grey eyes and a ‘fresh’ complexion. PC Reid was first allocated to P Division Camberwell. Within just two years, he was promoted to the Detective Department and transferred to Scotland Yard in 1878. Successful cases included the apprehension of a notorious coiner, known as One Arm Steve, and the arrest of the perpetrators of ‘The Great Silk Robbery’. In 1886, Reid, now an Inspector, joined the newly-formed J Division Bethnal Green before taking charge of H Division in Whitechapel a year later.

When Emma Elizabeth Smith died on 4 April 1888, following a brutal attack, Inspector Reid led the investigation into her death. Although she wasn’t considered formally to be the first victim of Jack the Ripper (neither was the next victim), her killing was followed by a series of gruesome  murders that would terrify the people of Whitechapel and completely baffle the police.


Martha Tabram’s mortuary photo


Four months later, on 7 August, the mutilated body of Martha Tabram was discovered in George Yard Buildings, near Whitechapel High Street. Once again Edmund Reid took charge. He began by taking statements from local residents. He also organised several identity parades, after he had learnt that Martha had been out the night before with a friend who, like her was a prostitute, and two soldiers. Mary Ann Connolly, known as ‘Pearly Poll’ identified a soldier from the Grenadiers, but he was later discharged. As the murders continued unabated, the former head of H Division, Inspector Reid worked alongside his colleagues, including his former boss Inspector Abberline, to find the killer but, as we all know, Jack the Ripper was never caught.

After the killings stopped, Inspector Reid continued working in Whitechapel until 1895, when he was moved to L Division Lambeth. He retired soon after, on 27 February 1896, after which he returned to Kent, where he worked as a private detective and a publican. His wife, Emily, died in 1900. A decade later, Edmund was living in Hampton-on-Sea with his son Harold, who was a corporal in the army. In May 1917, Reid married Lydia Hailing, but the marriage only lasted a few months as, on 5 December, Edmund died from a serious kidney condition and a brain haemorrhage. He was buried in Herne Bay Cemetery.


Reid in Hampton-on-Sea


On the surface, the real life of Inspector Reid doesn’t seem to have differed that much from the character portrayed by Matthew Macfadyen. However, there were some surprising details about his personal life which showed the detective in a very different light. Edmund Reid had many accomplishments, including acting, singing and conjuring. He was also a record-setting balloonist. Operating out of Crystal Palace, not far from his first placement at P Division, he won several medals for ascents. I would have liked to see the fictionalised Edmund Reid doing magic tricks or in a hot air balloon – there’s definitely a need for another series….





The Art of Tracing Footsteps


‘There is no branch of detective science which is so important and so much neglected as the art of tracing footsteps. Happily, I have always laid great stress upon it.’

Sherlock Holmes extolls the virtues of footprinting in his first ever case, A Study in Scarlet, and by the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective story was published in 1887, real-life detectives were already using footprint analysis in the investigation of crime.

Identification of suspects through footprints was first used in criminal investigations in the early nineteenth century. Marks made at a crime scene by footwear can link a suspect to the scene, as well as providing vital intelligence about the incident, such as the position and movement of individuals. The first detective to use footprinting was the French ex-convict and police informer, Eugène Vidocq, who established the world’s first detective department, the Brigade de la Sûreté in Paris, in 1812. Vidocq pioneered many investigative techniques, such as record-keeping and mugshots, as well as the examination of footprints. He used this technique successfully in the apprehension of a former police agent, who was implicated in the theft of a large quantity of lead from a house under construction, by matching the agent’s boots with prints in the soil at the building site. The master detective was also the first to use plaster of Paris to make casts of footprints.



Throughout the Victorian era, footprints were vital evidence in crime scene investigation, especially as shoes and boots were usually custom-made and therefore, unique. By the 1880s, the police were using plaster of Paris to preserve shoe and boot prints. Another Frenchman, physician and criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne, perfected the technique and was even able to make casts in the snow by using salt to form an icy layer around the impression.



In Britain, William Augustus Guy, professor of forensic medicine at King’s College London, published The Principles of Forensic Science in 1844. Subsequent editions contained information about footprinting. He recommended heating footprints with a hot iron and dusting them with powdered stearic acid to preserve them. Guy stressed the importance of impressions left by footwear, as the position and shape of patches or nails could yield the first link in the chain of evidence.



During his investigation into the murder of PC Nicholas Cock in 1876, in Manchester, Superintendent James Bent found ‘the most perfect footprint’ very close to where the young police officer was shot. Believing that it had been made by his prime suspect William Habron’s left boot, he compared it with the mark left in the cinders on the path. Superintendent Bent didn’t employ any of the scientific methods mentioned above, and merely made an impression with the boot next to the print, which he had covered with a cardboard box to preserve it from the rain. As the patterns of nails on William’s boot corresponded with the impression, it placed him at the scene of the crime, and Bent used this key evidence. Together with percussion caps discovered in William’s waistcoat pocket, the incriminating footprint put the 18-year-old labourer firmly in the frame for Constable Cock’s murder and was compelling enough to convince the jury of his guilt.


If you’d like to find out more about early crime investigation techniques, please join my Facebook group, The Victorian Detectives’ Club – I look forward to chatting with you there!





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