There are moments in historical research when you discover something that distracts you from your core purpose and sends you in a different direction. One of the most famous examples of this (in academic history terms anyway) was Vic Gatrell’s Hanging Tree which examines in detail the history of public execution in England in the period 1770 to 1868. Gatrell wasn’t intending on writing a history of hanging, instead he made ‘a chance discovery’ whilst ‘working on something quite different’.
This led him to start browsing through a set of judges’ reports in the National Archives at Kew and he came across the story of the rape of Elizabeth Cureton and the petitions for mercy made on behalf of the man found guilty of assaulting her. The Hanging Tree is one of the seminal works in the history of crime and the idea that it was the product of a momentary desire to of break the ‘tedium’ of archival research (something I’m sure very many historians can empathise with) is enlightening.
I am (slowly) finishing a book on eighteenth-century homicides. It is a project which started life about 9 or 10 years ago when I began researching a murder in Northamptonshire. It had odd elements to it, but mostly it was interesting because it seemed to offer an opportunity to explore the system by which convicted criminals might avoid the death penalty, even for a crime as heinous as murder. Working with my PhD supervisor, a very eminent historian of crime, we published an article on the case in a historical journal. I then went on and started work on other articles and books.
There was something about that case that always niggled with me and made me want to see if other examples could be found where convicted murderers had tried to avoid the noose in the 1700s. Cutting a long story short I found four cases (including the Northamptonshire one) that seemed worth exploring. One involved two brothers murdering a watchman, the next concerned the public stoning to death of an informer in Spitalfields, and the last was a prostitute who was accused of killing a minor celebrity musician. I pitched the project to a publisher and they were kind enough to give me a contract.
In the meantime one of my former undergraduates approached me and told me he had ‘solved’ the Ripper murders. He believed he had uncovered the identity of the Whitechapel murderer of 1888 and had linked him to a second series of contemporary murders. I was skeptical, but intrigued. Over the course of the next few years I worked with Andy on this project alongside my other one until, in the summer of last year, we had the bulk of a manuscript to pitch to publishers. It wasn’t easy to sell because the market for Ripper books is pretty well saturated, but in the end we found a home for it with Amberley. A note here: if you are an author who wants to get something published, keep trying – if it’s good enough someone will take a chance on it, eventually.
While all this was going on I decided to start this blog. Daily writings on the police courts of the Victorian metropolis, a way of keeping me focused on writing and research every day. It was also born of my desire to return to a study of the magistracy, the subject of my original PhD research back in the early 2000s. My intention (after the homicide and Ripper books) was and is to write academic and more popular histories of the magistracy in England.
So, where is this rambling blog going right now? Well, this morning I’ve found a report of a 24-year-old man named Frederick Cheekly who was set in the dock at Southwark Police court in late April 1884 charged with stealing a watch. Cheekly lived at 113 the Borough in south London with his common-law partner Maud Norton. She was older, 29 years of age, and appeared in the dock with him as an accessory to the theft. A second charge was preferred against the pair, also for stealing, and this time a third person – Minnie Lewis – was also charged. The solicitor for the Treasury brought the charges and the trio were committed for trial.
What happened to them after that is unclear but I doubt it would necessarily have resulted in convictions. I suspect the house in Borough was a brothel and the two women acted as prostitutes and/or madams. The men robbed were risking their property simply by entering a house of ill repute and I doubt the Surrey jurors would have had much sympathy for them.
But what struck me was a comment made by the Police News’ reporter who stated that Checkley was ‘said to be a companion of the Finchley-wood murderer’. Given that I grew up in Finchley and I hadn’t heard of this case I thought I’d do some quick digging this morning. I soon found a report form March 1882 which describes the discovery a the body ‘of a young man’ in woods near Finchley. A little bit more research established that these were Coppetts Wood, near Colney Hatch. At first the police thought they’d found the body a dead gispy since the woods were a popular transit point for travelling people. But the hair on the corpse was fair, not dark like most gipsies. The papers now speculated that the victim might have been part of a criminal gang operating in the area, committing burglaries and street robberies.
Suffice to say, for now at least, that I think I have worked out what happened and how this case unfolds but it is going to take me some time to unpack it all. So, if you would like to know what happens in the Finchley Wood murder mystery stayed ‘tuned’ for further articles over the week as I get to the bottom of who was left buried in Coppetts Wood and who put him there.
In between, that is, finishing off the book I’m supposed to be writing!
[The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, April 26, 1884; Daily News , Tuesday, March 7, 1882]