Think you’ve got what it takes to be a lady detective? Send 10s 6s now!

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John George Binet had set up the grand sounding ‘National Detective Agency’ (perhaps modeled on America’s infamous Pinketon’s) which was, in effect, himself and one or two other persons acting as private investigators. In the early 1890s they investigated a range of private matters including unpaid bills, unfaithful spouses, and missing persons. In short the usual fare of the private ‘dick’.

On the 8 July 1893 Binet found himself on the wrong side of the Bow Street dock however, accused of obtaining money by false pretences. The accusation was that he had placed adverts in the papers calling for more men and women to join his agency as detectives. If you were interested all you had to do was send a postal order for 10s 6d (about £45 today) and he promised to send a certificate by return (showing you were now attached to the NDA) and then details of cases you could investigate. In effect he was franchising private detection across the country.

Binet was quite successful in this enterprise as several people sent him money and waited for the work to roll in. Sadly, very few, if any of them, got any more than a certificate, and some didn’t even get that. The supposed fraud made the pages of Tit Bits and the Truth, two of the better selling periodicals of the day and hopefully some people were deterred from parting with their cash so easily.

In the end enough people complained and the police investigated, hence Binet’s appearance at London’s senior police magistrate court. He didn’t speak himself, leaving his defense to his lawyer, a Mr Cranshaw. The legal man told the magistrate (Mr Vaughan) that he intended to bring several witnesses that would speak to his client’s reliability as a detective and to his good character. Mr Vaughan listened to them, and heard Cranshaw’s attempt to argue that the case did not constitute one of ‘false pretences’ and then fully committed Binet to take his trial at the Central Criminal Court later that month.

On the 24 July John George Binet was tried at Old Bailey and found guilty. The court heard from a number of witnesses on both sides but mostly the defense was that Binet was good at being a private detective and that his clients were happy with the work they had commissioned. That Binet and his star employee – Mrs J Gray, ‘the celebrated lady detective’ – were competent investigators was somewhat beside the point. The court heard that they were also in debt and behind with their rent. Perhaps that pushed Binet to try and raise some quick money by the means of his postal fraud scheme.

It didn’t wash with the jury or the judge, who sent him to prison for a year with hard labour. Binet had tried or evade the law once he knew that summonses had been issued to bring him in. He was arrested on the platform of Victoria railway station where he was attempting to catch a train out of the capital disguised as a sea captain. Mrs Gray and another of Binet’s team of detectives, ‘Chief Inspector’ Godfrey (formally of the Jersey Militia) were more successful in escaping justice having vanished before the police could catch up with them.

I am now intrigued to find out if ‘Mrs Gray’ is one of my distant relations…

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 9, 1893]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

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