Charlie Peace: His Amazing Life and Astounding Legend by Michael Eaton (Five Leaves, £14.99)
CHARLIE PEACE, born in 1832, met his end on the scaffold in 1879. The whole of his adult life had been spent either in prison or as a notorious cat burglar operating under any number of aliases.
He made good his escape on one occasion by shooting dead a policeman, for which the law framed a poor labourer, and he shot and wounded another constable when he was arrested for the last time.
He was an inveterate philanderer, who shot dead the husband of one of his lovers, about whom he had become obsessed.
Michael Eaton explores how it was possible that a murdering thug such as Peace became something of a celebrity folk hero, even before he was hanged. This extended even until 1980, when he still had his own strip in the Buster comic, which readers of a certain age may remember.
His only saving grace was that, when in the condemned cell, he did admit to the murder of the constable, thus freeing the hapless labourer whose own death sentence had been commuted to life on account of his young age. Peace’s story was originally picked up by the weekly Illustrated Police News which had gained a reputation as the “worst newspaper in England” albeit by far the best-selling in the land.
Peace managed to dominate the front page for an unprecedented eight weeks, with reporters poring over every single lurid angle they could find. Of particular interest, of course, was his love life.
This largely featured his ever loyal wife and the US widow of the man he was found guilty of shooting, not least because they were living under the same roof at the time.
The aptly named penny dreadfuls then happily elaborated on the story. Making liberal use of the imagination, they continued to profitably serve a public whose thirst for new details of Peace’s story never seemed to dim. All this was amplified by theatre productions, films, children’s comics and waxworks.
This comprehensive study explores all the avenues, mixing truth and myth to create a legend in Peace’s own lifetime and for many decades afterwards.
It’s well illustrated, reprinting many of the pictures and cartoons as they appeared at the time.
A must for anyone interested in how crime was reported and especially the style of writing employed to do so in the Victorian era.