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...

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,...

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...

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...

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.     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...