Distraction theft is still one of the commonest forms committed by pickpockets in London. There are frequent warnings on the underground of ‘thieves operating’ and crowded areas like Oxford Street, Camden Town and Covent Garden are happy hunting grounds for ‘dippers’. If someone stops and asks you the time, says they know you from somewhere, or points out that you’ve dropped something – maybe even just brushes against you in the street and apologies – check your pockets!
Edward Walpole was pretty clued up and had his wits about him as he strolled along Shaftesbury Avenue one morning in July 1894. The concert agent lived in Pimlico and was presumably in the West End for work. He knew the area, was no stranger and certainly no wide-eyed tourist.
Two men approached him and one of them started to talk to him. ‘We’ve met before’, he said, ‘in Chicago, at the exhibition’. Walpole had never seen the pair before in his life, and had never been to the USA. He was suspicious, and uncomfortable as one of the men had got very close to him.
He looked down and saw that the chain of his watch was hanging loose from his waistcoat pocket and the watch itself was in the other man’s hand. As soon as they realized they’d been rumbled the other man told his companion to give Walpole his watch back and began to move away.
Edward seized the thief and the two of them struggled, falling to the pavement in the process. The fracas alerted a policeman and having ascertained that a theft had been attempted he arrested the stranger. The man gave his name as Henry Saunders but he was also known to the police as Henry Reginald Mason. He was charged before Mr Hannay at Marlborough Street Police court and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment.
The Chicago Exhibition that the men mentioned was the World Fair (or the ‘World’s Columbian Exposition’) that took place in 1893 and drew people from all over the globe to Illinois. Many locals profited from this influx of business but one man allegedly, exploited the event for a much darker purpose. Dr Henry Howard Holmes (or HH as he is almost always referred to) had built a hotel to accommodate gests for the fair but rumours soon circulated that several individuals, mostly women, had disappeared whilst staying there (although he never traded as a hotelier).
Holmes (right) was a serial fraudster, coming money out of businesses and making false insurance claims and eventually when the going got too hot he quit Chicago. He was tracked down to the east coast where it was suspected he’d killed his business partner Benjamin Pitezel for the insurance money. Meanwhile agents operating on behalf of companies Holmes had defrauded searched the hotel in Chicago. The property was very odd, with secret passageways, trap doors and windowless rooms.
Holmes was convicted of the murder of Pitezel and admitted killing many more (some of which were false claims, as the people concerned were still alive!). The hotel (dubbed ‘the castle by locals) was searched more thoroughly and human remains were found there. HH Holmes was executed in 1896 and remains a mysterious figure and possibly America’s first serial killer. Indeed, some people have suggested that he might have come to London to commit the Whitechapel murders, but having studied that case I think it unlikely. In fact if you want to know who I believe was ‘Jack the Ripper’ you might find my latest book interesting. Holmes, however, will form a small part of my next one.
[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 21, 1894]