What Was Crime-Fighting Actually Like in Sherlock Holmes-Era London?

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May 4 2012 11:32 AM

Ruffians, Pickpockets, and Jewel Fences

What was crime-fighting actually like in Sherlock Holmes-era London?

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Thompson was left badly shaken. "When he came to himself again," Divall writes, "he told those around him that he was sure he would never die a natural death." Thompson was correct: He was later fatally stabbed in the line of duty.

Even without the Ripper, Whitechapel's legendary reputation for crime was richly deserved. Chief Inspector Divall recalls characters like Peggy Donovan, an improbable ruffian who robbed the unsuspecting by unscrewing his wooden leg and using it to club his victims over the head. Other criminals had a lighter touch: One gang, called the Stickers, was known for filching coins from bar tills by using walking sticks covered with adhesive.

The police themselves, on occasion, could display an equal finesse. While the penchant for disguise in detective fiction like Arthur Conan Doyle’s is invariably debunked—"Now this is all fudge" scoffed Detective Inspector Andrew Lansdowne in A Life's Reminiscences of Scotland Yard (1890)—he does admit that to pose as likely buyers of pornography, the police donned ... clerical garb. "It was scarcely a credit to the cloth that a clergyman's attire was considered the best disguise," he writes, "but it was."

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For many years, Scotland Yard's tools remained about as crude as Peggy Donovan's wooden leg. When the first Sherlock Holmes story ran in 1887, fingerprinting at the Yard was still over a decade away. And while recounting a horrific 1901 triple-murder in a Camberwell grocery, the memoir Savage of Scotland Yard (1934)—penned by one Superintendent Percy Savage—offers this offhanded revelation: "In those days no police station in London was on the public telephone, and communication between one station and another was by means of old-fashioned needle instrument, which was not abolished until some years later ... The police had no motor-cars then ... [Officers], no matter how urgent their business, had either to walk or ride in horse-drawn buses or tramcars."

For these men, policing often meant witness testimony, working with the visible evidence left at the crime scene, and intuiting the involvement of such notorious local characters as Half-Pay Nancy, Tommy Demise, and "Mog the Man"—the last, naturally, being a woman who fought stripped to the waist and who bore "over 50 convictions for assault and drunkenness."

In short, police had many of the same tools as Sherlock Holmes, if not his brilliance. This state of affairs hints at one reason why Doyle's stories still fascinate us. They conjure up a London when one can imagine an amateur detective armed only with a keen mind and a magnifying glass solving the crime. By the 1930s, detection was truly a team effort, increasingly backed by careful recordkeeping and laboratory work—and now, the old Yarders complained, it was crime itself that seemed to have become the pursuit of amateurs.

"My experience convinces me that the criminals of 20 and 30 years ago were cleverer, more daring and more enterprising than the criminals of to-day," Superintendent Savage mused in his retirement. He believed that no technology had changed crime more than the arrival of the automobile: "The introduction of the motor-car has made life easy and less risky for criminals ... mobility makes the chance of capture much less than it used to be."

As for our notorious jewel crook Kemmy Grizzard, though, the Yard eventually got their man: They nabbed Kemmy in 1913 with the "Mayer Necklace," a string of pearls then valued by Lloyds at £150,000. Not even the thickest pea-soup, it seems, could hide a crime like that.

Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.

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