The Game’s Afoot!

The Game’s Afoot!

It’s three years since the publication of my biography of Detective Jerome Caminada, The Real Sherlock Holmes, and it has been an incredibly exciting adventure. When the book was published, it sparked a debate over whether this real-life Victorian detective could have been inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. The question as to whether Caminada was the ‘real’ Sherlock Holmes was discussed in our national press, as well as in Italy, Canada, the US and Australia. Although there is no proof that he used Jerome Caminada’s adventures as a basis for his writing (well, I haven’t found any yet!), there are a number of striking similarities between the two detectives.     Like his fictional counterpart, Detective Caminada was a master of disguise and an expert in deduction. He had an exceptional memory and keen powers of observation. He also had an encyclopaedic knowledge of criminals and their methods, such as in the Manchester Cab Mystery, when he solved this puzzling crime by linking the presence of chloral hydrate in the victim’s stomach to illegal prizefighting. Caminada had his own network of informants, whom he used to meet at the back of his local church. Like Sherlock, he wandered around the streets of his city at night, and travelled around by day in a hansom cab. When Conan Doyle’s first story appeared in 1887, Detective Caminada was at the very top of his game and a household name – he was known locally as ‘Manchester’s Sherlock Holmes’.     Sharing stories from Detective Caminada’s fascinating casebook, has been a huge pleasure. I’ve been lucky enough to give talks at festivals,...
Murderous March

Murderous March

I was preparing a talk on Murder at Reading Gaol recently, when I realised that all the heinous events I was researching had a link with March. Not only were there trials and executions, but also some of the worst murders in the town’s history took place during this inauspicious month. Prior to 1971 in England and Wales, the most serious crimes were tried in the assize courts. Assizes were held twice a year, usually in Lent and Winter. Therefore, many trials took place in March, and as there was never much time between the serving of the death sentence and its execution, they too were in the same month. In Reading, 15 out of the 29 hangings between 1800 and 1913 were carried out in March.     The first public execution at the ‘new’ prison in Reading, which opened in 1844, was that of Thomas Jennings, on 22 March 1845. Earlier in the month, the 37-year-old farm labourer from Thatcham had been convicted of poisoning his young son with arsenic. Eleazar, aged 3, had died on Christmas Day of stomach pains and an exhumation of his body, following the sudden death of his younger brother in January, had confirmed the authorities’ suspicions. A year later, on 20 March, William Spicer was ‘launched into eternity’ by executioner William Calcraft, after having been found guilty of murdering his wife. Elizabeth Spicer, 60, had been found slumped in the cellar of the couple’s home. Her husband had alleged that she had fallen, but an analysis of the blood spatter pattern, had led to his conviction. The next execution at Reading Prison,...

Interview with Linda Stratmann

I am a huge fan of both the fiction and non-fiction of crime author Linda Stratmann, and so I was delighted to have an opportunity to find out more about her work, and especially her latest book, A True and Faithful Brother, which is out now:     Like you, your fictional detective Frances Doughty has a background in pharmacy. What did you enjoy about that profession, and how have you used your experience in your writing? I enjoyed learning about medicines, and in those days we made a lot of them ourselves in the dispensary. In my training as a chemists dispenser, I learned to hand roll pills and mix ointments and powders— it was great experience which helped me understand what a late Victorian pharmacy was like. When I wrote the first book it seems quite natural to place Frances in that environment.   Your first books were non-fiction, with a particular focus on true crime. What prompted you to embark on writing fiction? I belong to a local writers’ group, where most members write fiction, and that encouraged me to try it. Also I wanted to write the kind of historical fiction I wanted to read. I still don’t know if I have succeeded!   I love Frances Doughty, and I’m currently reading through her crime cases. Is Frances based on a real person, and what inspired you to create her, as the protagonist for your crime fiction series? She is not based on anyone in particular, although my husband says she is like me in a lot of ways (only much younger and taller!)   The Frances...
Confession of a Killer

Confession of a Killer

In February 1879, convicted murderer Charlie Peace faced the death sentence for killing his former lover’s husband. Whilst he was waiting for his execution on 25 February, he made an astonishing revelation and committed to a crime for which someone else had already been convicted. In a written statement, followed by an interview with a priest, Peace confessed how he had shot Constable Nicholas Cock in Manchester during a burglary, on 1 August 1876. An expert in housebreaking, he had gone to the city to ‘work’ some houses in the leafy suburb of Old Trafford. He was walking down Upper Chorlton Road towards Seymour Grove and as he turned the corner, he saw two police officers talking to two civilians, at the junction of three main roads. Peace crossed the road and entered the grounds of a house. One of the police officers followed him and stood on the steps of the house with his bulls eye lantern switched on. Peace fled and as he jumped over the wall, he saw the other police officer coming towards him. Fearing capture, he fired one chamber of his revolver ‘to frighten him’.     Despite the danger, PC Nicholas Cock continued to rush at Peace, so he discharged another chamber: ‘My blood was up, being nettled that I had been disturbed, so I said to him; “You stand back, or I’ll shoot you.”’ The bullet struck the officer in the chest. As he was shot, Cock ‘threw up his walking stick saying “Ah! You bugger”’, and fell to the ground. Peace fled the scene by scaling a wall at the back...
The Scandalous Love Life of Sophie Dawes

The Scandalous Love Life of Sophie Dawes

I love a good smuggling story and I’ve been exploring the Isle of Wight in search of secrets from its shady past. When I visited the village of St Helens for the first time, I had no idea that one of its past inhabitants was a courtesan, self-styled aristocrat, and maybe even a cold-blooded murderer. Looking out onto the green at the centre of the village, a few doors along from The Vine Inn, there is a small wisteria-covered cottage with a blue plaque. This is the humble birthplace of Sophie Dawes, a smuggler’s daughter who became Madame de Feuchères and frequented the court of French king, Louis XVIII. Her astonishing history is a real-life rags-to-riches story, with a rather sinister twist at the end.     Sophie was born at Freefolk Cottage, in St Helens, around 1792. She was one of the ten children of Richard ‘Dickie’ Dawes, a fisherman and renowned smuggler. When her father died, Sophie aged 11, was forced to enter Newport Workhouse with her mother and surviving siblings. It was there that she learned to read and write, as well as basic domestic skills, which would change her life forever.     After about two years in the workhouse, Sophie left and travelled first to Portsmouth, where she worked as a chambermaid, and then to London. A few years later, she was working in a brothel at Piccadilly, where she met the exiled Duke of Bourbon, who had escaped to London in the aftermath the French Revolution. Allegedly winning the attentions of young Sophie in a game of cards, when the 54-year-old duke returned...