While Sherlock Holmes honed his forensic skills in Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, real Victorian detectives scoured dark alleys, beer houses, and even doctors’ offices to solve crimes. How did real investigators compare with the world’s most famous fictional sleuth?
Angela Buckley, author of The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada (Barnsley, England: Pen and Sword, 2014), joins us to pull back the curtains on the life of a real Victorian detective. Between 1870 and 1900, Jerome Caminada broke new ground as an investigator to become one of Manchester’s most legendary policemen. Angela also blogs about historical true crime on her website, Victorian Supersleuth.
Why the title, Angela? Was there any connection between Caminada, a Victorian detective, and the fictional Sherlock Holmes?
Angela Buckley: When I began researching the work of Jerome Caminada I soon realised that there were some startling similarities between his work as a detective and the cases of the great Sherlock Holmes. In fact, after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began publishing his stories, Detective Caminada soon became known as ‘Manchester’s Sherlock Holmes’ as contemporary newspaper readers made a connection, so it seemed an appropriate title for the book.
Did Arthur Conan Doyle base Holmes on a real Victorian detective?
It’s well known that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his legendary character primarily on his mentor, Sir Joseph Bell. However, as an avid reader of the contemporary press, in which the cases of real-life detectives were regularly reported, Sir Arthur would have been aware of the more prominent figures, like Jerome Caminada.
How did the Victorian detective differ from the fictional Holmes?
Real Victorian detectives, like Jerome Caminada, investigated a much wider range of crimes and criminals than Sherlock Holmes, although their work was often less glamorous. Detective Caminada’s knowledge of his city would have been far more extensive, and he would have relied more heavily on his contacts on both side of the law. However, Caminada did use many similar strategies to Holmes, including disguise, deduction and keen observation.
Your book is also a portrait of Victorian Manchester. Could tell us what the back alleys and dark streets were like?
In the 19th century, Manchester had some of the worst slums in the country. At the heart of the city was a labyrinth of dark alleys and closed courts, with cramped back-to-back terrace houses with no sanitation or ventilation. A no-go area for respectable people; the rookeries had gin shops, illegal beer houses and brothels, and they housed thieves, con artists and many other shady characters.
What kind of cases did Caminada work on?
Detective Caminada worked on all manner of cases, including pickpockets, charlatans, political agitators and even murderers. A man with a strong social conscience, he exposed many scams that exploited ordinary people, such as the quack doctors who sold fake potions to individuals worried about their health.
How did he display his investigatory genius?
Like Sherlock Holmes, Detective Caminada had excellent powers of deduction, which he displayed most effectively in his signature case, the Manchester Cab Mystery. When a businessman was found dead in a cab, Caminada deduced that his death was linked to illegal prize-fighting in the city and it took him just three weeks to bring the perpetrator to justice.
Terrorism and gang warfare are nothing new. Caminada had to deal with them also. What they were like in Caminada’s time?
Detective Caminada dealt with many organised attacks. He worked undercover for the British government tracking Fenian suspects, during the dynamite campaign of the 1880s, when Irish nationalists targeted public buildings throughout the UK. In Manchester, he tackled gangs of vicious street fighters, known as ‘scuttlers’, who terrorised the streets with violent turf wars. He also faced groups of anarchists, who led protests during periods of unrest.
You mention Caminada acting as a prosecutor and conducting cross examinations. Was it usual for a Victorian detective to assume functions of prosecutor?
The British criminal justice system evolved considerably during the 19th century and in the earlier decades, it was usual for the victim of a crime to act as prosecutor, as few had access to a lawyer, except in capital offences. Later, the state conducted all prosecutions. In the latter half of the century, police courts took more responsibility for trying minor cases and police officers were engaged in the process. When a magistrate decided not to pursue a case, an officer like Caminada could take it further as a private individual, which he did on occasion.
So who was the better detective, Jerome Caminada or Sherlock Holmes?
Great question – predictably I’d have to say Caminada, as he obviously solved ‘real’ cases!!
Thanks so much for joining us, Angela!
How realistic do you think Sherlock Holmes’s cases and investigative techniques were?
British judges and their love affair with judicial wigs
It ’s always been a paradox to me: Why do members of two of the most respected professions – the clergy and the judiciary – have such an absurd dress code? Even the men perform their duties wearing a floor-length dress.
I scratch my head even more over “court dress” in the United Kingdom. Judges and barristers there go beyond one step further and don wigs. These judicial wigs are not fashionable toupees to cover a bald head. A British high court judge wears a full bottomed wig that makes him or her look, if not like the comic hero Underdog, at least like a beagle.
So why do judges routinely plunk down a thousand pounds or more to buy wigs of woven horsehair just to spruce up their noggins? It’s all history and tradition, respect and recognition, dignity and decorum.
Insects infest the judicial wigs in 19th century India
It should come as no surprise, then, that the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Madras, India, insisted the justices there wear the wigs they knew back home in Great Britain. Sir Thomas Andrew Lumisden Strange (1756-1841) served as Chief Justice in Madras from 1800 to 1817 and had a bulk order of judicial wigs shipped in from England. But thanks to some six-legged critters, Strange’s judicial wig rule didn’t last very long.
On the way to India, reported the 1828 issue of The New Monthly Magazine, some of these creatures amused themselves by infesting the Chief Justice’s wig.
These cockroaches ate a large hole through the wig, so that one of Justice Strange’s ears poked out ridiculously when he put it on. While the rest of the court tried to suppress its laughter, Justice Strange readjusted his wig so his ear wouldn’t stick out. He had to pull it so far to the side that his other ear stuck out.
Sir Henry Gwillim, another justice known as an “irascible Welshman,” then donned his wig. An observer present that day in court, who recalled the court dress in Madras as “absurd” and “intolerable,” especially for the climate, noted that Sir Gwillim was the only justice who maintained composure in his horsehair crown.
Sir Benjamin Sullivan, a third justice, placed one of the judicial wigs on his head, only discover that a bunch of these creatures had staked out the real estate first.
An immense host of mosquitoes had bedded down in the labyrinths of Sullivan’s wig. They began swarming and buzzing as soon as he put it on. Justice Sullivan “snatched it off in a sudden fit of indignation, and threw it, with an oath that was somewhat extra-judicial, into the middle of the court,” the observer wrote.
Two other justices followed suit and the wigs landed on a pile in the floor. It was one of those rare instances in which hilarity – and insects – briefly ruled the courtroom. The justices roared in laughter. The observer wrote that it took quite a while for the court to regain its composure. “No attempt was made to inflict the same nuisance on the barristers,” he wrote.
The story even made international news. A German criminal justice journal reported the incident.
As far as I know, that was the end of judicial wigs in India.
Would it be too much to hope that the rest of the world’s bewigged judiciary follow suit? But you will excuse me until next week, while I take the time to remove some of these from my bonnet.
Do you think British judges and barristers should wear judiciary wigs? Are the outdated? Or a worthy tradition? And do they make sense in a tropical climate?
Literature on point:
“Society in India, No. II,” New Monthly Magazine, Part 1. 327-340 (1828) [quotes]
“Die richterlichen Perücken,” Annalen der deutschen und ausländischen Criminal-Rechtspflege 159-160 (1828)
Not long after Jack the Ripper terrorized Whitechapel, another serial murderer stalked Ohio. The press dubbed this new killer “Jack the Strangler.”
When a University of Dayton criminal justice instructor discovered his great-aunt was one of the strangler’s victims, his curiosity drove him to the archives. Blowing the dust off old newspaper reports revealed a few surprises. Not only did this case receive international media attention, his family also became intricately involved in the investigation because his great-grandmother found a clue in her daughter’s coffin.
Brian Forschner joins us today to tell us how he discovered the case and to introduce his new book, Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders.
Discovery in the cemetery
I’m not sure what possessed me to take a lunch break that day, maybe it was having taught three intro courses to freshmen in the University of Dayton Criminal Justice Program. I decided to go across the street to the Woodland Cemetery (the Wright Brothers are buried there) and have a sandwich. Knowing I had some relatives buried there, I stopped by the office and rifled through the card catalogue. Under “Forschner” I found grandparents and great grandparents but found an outlier, a 15-year-old Mary Forschner who died on January 23, 1909. I immediately thought “There must be other Forschners in the area. I’ve never heard of her.” Within days I obtained her death certificate and, under “cause of death,” found “strangulation by the hand.” More stunningly, she was my grandfather’s sister. I saw him often when I was growing up! She was never mentioned.
Brian Forschner discovers the “Jack the Strangler” cases
I began searching newspapers around the date she died. I was astounded to find her face filling the front page of newspapers around the country. Not only that, but crime reporters were tying her death to that of several other women, which the New York Times had apparently named the “Jack the Strangler Murders.” Over a period of four years I read hundreds of newspaper articles and editorials in papers around the U.S. with references to some in Europe, searched death certificates, autopsies, and trial records where available. I read the newspapers out at least 9 months after each death to see if the murders were solved. They were all cold cases, police records long destroyed. I had to write a book on this, possibly a series of short stories since these cases had been cold for over 100 years.
Hundreds of crime reporters asking different questions from different standpoints gave me snippets of information about the girls and their cases, enabling me to piece together their personalities. I wanted to tell their stories, as telling their stories would be a way to grant them some justice and show that they were just that, young girls murdered and raped, never allowed to grow up, long forgotten, families forever shamed and socially victimized. My training had been in philosophy and logic at the undergraduate level and human behavior and psychology at the doctoral level. I had been a probation officer and operated a group of halfway houses for the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Ohio Department of Corrections, so I felt reasonably well armed to use one of the primary forensic techniques of the time, what some have referred to as “circumstantial logic.” Without eyewitnesses or confessions (forensics was in its infancy), would a reasonable person, given a preponderance of circumstantial evidence, be prepared to convict? This forensic thinking was buttressed by a perfect storm of the literature and press of the time, which painted a picture of the typical criminal, namely as a ruffian or animal, much like Poe did in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”(an orangutan did it!). This view was supported by the quintessential cold case of all time, Jack the Ripper, and, a disciple of Poe’s, Conan Doyle. Doyle showed that even an untrained individual like Sherlock Holmes could solve mysteries by using simple logic and determination. After all, solving crimes was “elementary.”
Clue in the coffin
My editor loved the Jack the Strangler stories, but I wasn’t happy. I wanted to know who did it. It wasn’t until reading about the viewing of Mary Forschner in the parlor of my great-grandmother’s home, when in anguish she was helped to the casket and bent over to kiss Mary goodbye, that it came together. Great grandma immediately was shaken from her sobbing when she noticed that something was missing, something precious! She cried out to all present. Detectives in attendance rushed to the casket. They had missed it in their investigation.
“Aha,” I thought to myself! “How could I have missed it? The other four girls were the same MO, murdered and then raped, souvenirs had been taken, the crime was brazen, in full site of potential witnesses, a crime on the anniversary date of another crime, and I could trace all but one of the girls to the same bus stop.” Yet, it would not be until I came across an article written several years later about an arrest and conviction for an unrelated offense that I found the murderer/rapist.
My verdict is for you to judge. Read Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders. Get to know these girls, their stories, and the shame and disgrace their families endured. Tell me if you agree. A critical clue is in the clasped hand on the cover of the book, Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders © 2016 by Morgan James Publishers.
You can visit Brian Forschner’s website to learn more.
Have you ever discovered old family secrets like Brian Forschner did?