Superintendent James Bent, of the Lancashire Constabulary, was a suspicious man. His favourite adage was, ‘Always believe everybody guilty until you prove them innocent’, which he put to good use throughout his long police career, especially when hunting cold-blooded killers.
James Bent was born in Eccles, Salford in 1828. His father was a night watchman. At the tender age of seven, young James started work in a silk mill, where he was regularly beaten with a leather strap by his supervisor. On 7 November 1848, just before his twenty-first birthday, he joined the Lancashire Constabulary. Constable Bent was 5 feet 8 inches tall, with a fair complexion, grey eyes and sandy hair. He remained in the police force for over fifty years, rising through the ranks to superintendent. A married man with four children, he was transferred several times before being stationed at Old Trafford police station (close to my childhood home), from where he commanded the Manchester Division.
Superintendent Bent tackled many different types of crime, including theft, burglary, illegal gaming, assault and murder. On one occasion, he investigated a case of attempted murder by a hawker who tried to poison his wife, an inmate of Prestwich Lunatic Asylum. Whilst on a visit to the asylum, the itinerant salesman gave his wife some Eccles cakes, in which he had concealed a dozen pins twisted into the shape of fish hooks – fortunately she wasn’t seriously injured. Superintendent Bent had the cakes analysed and found that they also contained antimony, a lead-based poison. (He later handed out the pins as souvenirs to local crime enthusiasts.)
Shortly afterwards, Superintendent Bent investigated another puzzling murder and, in a desperate attempt to identify the killer, employed a highly controversial method. Maid Sarah Roberts, aged 19, was killed in her employer’s house by an unknown assailant. The police struggled to find the perpetrator and Superintendent Bent resorted to having the victim’s eyes photographed, in case the attacker’s face had been 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 Superintendent Bent’s efforts, ‘there was nothing visible which would furnish the slightest evidence as to the features of the murderer’ (Manchester Courier). Sarah Jane’s killer was never caught.
In 1891, Superintendent Bent published his memoirs, in which he recounted his investigation of the murder of PC Cock in 1876. He described how he built his case against the Habron brothers based on footprint evidence, percussion caps found at their lodgings, and witnesses who had seen the brothers threatening PC Cock. His suspicions led to the conviction of William Habron, aged 18. However, three years later, an astonishing confession by a notorious Victorian cat burglar, the case was overturned and Constable Cock’s real killer was finally revealed.
James Bent was still in active service when he died in 1901. Over a century later, he is best remembered for his charitable works, including the soup kitchen that he set up at Old Trafford police station to feed thousands of starving children.