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HOME > Short Stories > Known to the Police > CHAPTER II SOME BURGLARS I HAVE MET
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The common London burglar is by no means a formidable fellow. Speaking generally, there is nothing of Bill Sikes about him, for he has not much stature, strength, courage, or brains. Most of those that I have met have been poor specimens of manhood, ready alike to surrender to a self-possessed woman or to a young policeman. Idle, worthless fellows, who, having no regular work to do, and being quite indifferent as to what happens to them, often attempt burglary, but of the crudest description.

These young fellows evince no skill, exhibit little daring, and when caught show about as much pluck as a guinea-pig. For them one may feel contempt, but contempt must be tempered by pity. Circumstances have been against them. Underfed and undersized, of little intelligence, with no moral consciousness, they are a by-product of our civilization, a direct product of our slum-life. If caught young and given some years' manual training and technical education, together with manly recreation and some share in competitive games, many of them would go straight[Pg 34] on their release, provided a reasonable start in life were given them.

Idle liberty is dangerous to young men who have no desire for wrong-doing, but who at the same time have little aspiration for right-doing. Our prisons are crowded with them, and a series of short imprisonments only serves to harden them, until they become confirmed but clumsy criminals. But real burglars are men of different stamp, and, if I may be pardoned, men of better metal, for at any rate they possess nerve, brain, and grit. They may be divided into two classes: first, the men who are at war with society, who live by plunder, and who mean to live by plunder, who often show marvellous skill, energy, presence of mind, and pluck; secondly, men who, having once engaged in burglary, find it so thrilling that no other pleasure, passion, or sport has to them one tithe of the joy and glamour that a midnight raid presents. Let me give you one example of the former.

A well-dressed gentleman—frock-coat, silk hat, gold-rimmed eyeglasses, etc.—took a house in a swell neighbourhood at £120 a year rental. His references were to all appearances undeniable; his manner, speech, and bearing were beyond reproach; so he obtained a lease of the premises, and entered into possession. His next step was to call on the local superintendent of the police and give him his address, asking also that the police might keep a watchful eye upon the house till he took up his residence in it. He was, he said, a practical consulting and analytical chemist; he was fitting up an expensive laboratory on the[Pg 35] premises, and a good many things of value to him would be sent to the house. He himself would be there during the day, but he would be grateful if the police would, when on their beat at night, sometimes see that all was right. The police were charmed with him. He was a small man, about 5 feet 4 inches in height. The same night a mean-looking little man was converted at an open-air meeting of the Salvation Army. He wished for lodgings for a time, that he might be shielded from temptation, for which he was prepared to pay. So he went to lodge with the officer in command, and donned a red guernsey. He was employed on night-work, he told his landlady, but sometimes he had to go away for a day or two. His friends were well pleased with him; his conversion seemed genuine, and he gave but little trouble. Meanwhile, at the large house close by consignments of goods were, constantly arriving, and sometimes the frock-coated gentleman showed himself to the police. For many weeks this went on, till one day the convert was missing from his lodging. He did not return the next day, nor the day after that. They were anxious about him; they were poor, too, and he owed money. But they could get no tidings of him. Thinking something might have happened to him by way of accident, they went to the police-station to inquire. A keen detective heard their inquiry, and kept his own counsel; but next morning he went to the remand prison, and sure enough he found the missing man there among the prisoners. He had been arrested for "failing to report." He was on "ticket-of-leave," and had to report[Pg 36] himself once a month to the police. Either his religious emotion or the interest of his night employment had caused him to neglect this trivial matter.

About this time the consulting and analytical chemist disappeared, and no more consignments of goods for the laboratory arrived. The little convert was once more remanded, for the magistrate and the police wanted to know what he had been doing. The police, too, had been keeping an eye on the big house; they thought, too, that something had happened to the chemist, so they forced the door and entered. It was verily a robbers' cave they found. No trace of scientific implements, except burglars' tools, no trace of chemicals or laboratory; but they found the proceeds of many clever burglaries that had been committed in various parts of London. The chemist and the convert were one; their identity was established. When I spoke to him in the cells, he called himself an "ass" for failing to report himself to the police. "If it had not been for that, I should have been all right," he said.

In a previous book I have given at some length my experiences of a burglar who is a living example of the second class; but I have something to add to the story, for since "Pictures and Problems" was issued his fifth term of penal servitude terminated, and the man came back to me.

Twice had I given him a good start in life, for he was both clever and industrious, and in many respects honest. I do not think he would have cheated anyone, and I know that he would have scorned to pick anyone's pocket. I had[Pg 37] twice previously set him up in his business—bookbinding. Twice had he appeared to be on the way to thorough reformation of character and good social standing; but twice, when things were prospering with him, and when he had acquired plenty of good clothing, etc., and had saved at least £10, had he lapsed into burglary, with the inevitable result—he was caught. Well under fifty years of age, yet his accumulated sentences amounted to nearly forty years; but it must be borne in mind that one-fourth of the time he had been on "ticket-of-leave," for he behaved well in prison, and obtained every possible mark for good conduct, etc. I had not expected to see any more of him, for I knew that he had heart trouble, and, moreover, had been ill in prison. The officials had, however, taken good care of him, and during the months previous to his discharge he had been an occupant of the prison hospital. He appeared to be in fair health. The hair on his head had been allowed to grow; he had been decently shaved. His clothing, however, betrayed him, for there was no mistaking it.

He had earned £6 in prison, which sum had been placed with the Church Army for his benefit. Neither the Church Army nor the Salvation Army could find or give him any employment, and the £6 was soon spent. I saw much of him, and watched him closely, for he interested me. When he was quite penniless and apparently hopeless, I obtained work for him with a local tradesman, for which he was to receive £1 weekly, but was required to do a certain amount of work every day; for I was anxious for him to have regular[Pg 38] work, and to be able to earn sufficient for his need, but no more. I also agreed to find or procure sufficient work to keep him going. This arrangement seemed likely to prosper, and I felt some hope. There was no sign of repentance to be observed in him, neither was he in the least ashamed of his past; indeed, he seemed to think, like a good many other ex-convicts, that it was the duty of the community to help him and compensate him for the years he had spent in prison. I soon had cause for suspicion, but kept silent, till one day I saw him with something that he could not possibly have purchased. I told him that I should warn the police. He did not deny the impeachment, but he wanted to argue the matter, and seemed to believe that in some way or other his conduct was justifiable.

Within a fortnight from the time of this conversation he was again in the hands of the police, who charged him with attempted burglary, and once more he went back to penal servitude. He has not written to me; I hope he will not write. I confess myself hopeless with such men. The chances of their reformation are almost nil, and I for one welcome heartily and unreservedly the proposals of the present Home Secretary, and sincerely hope that those proposals will soon become part and parcel of our penal administration. No Prisoners' Aid Society can help such men, and those of us who are behind the scenes know perfectly that no Prisoners' Aid Society tries to help them. They naturally prefer more plastic material to work upon.

The strangest part of this matter is the [Pg 39]undoubted fact that these men have within them a great deal that is good, for sometimes I have known them to be stirred by pity and animated by love; but it requires someone in much worse plight than they themselves are to evoke that pity and kindle that love.

The following story, true in all particulars, will be of interest:

In one of our large prisons I saw an old man acting as "orderly" in the prison hospital. He was leaning over the bed of a young man who was dying of consumption. He was pointed out to me as an "old lag"—that is, an ex-convict. He was a habitual criminal, a sin-seared, oft-convicted, hardened old man, of whom and for whom there was no hope; a danger to the community and a pest to society, well known to prison officials. His last offence being of a technical character, he was sent to prison for a short term only. What could the Governor do with him? Solitude and severity had proved ineffectual for his reformation; deadening and soul-destroying monotony had failed to soften him; the good advice of various chaplains had fallen like seed in a stony place. He seemed impervious to feeling, not susceptible to kindness—a hopeless, dead-alive man.

An inspiration came to the Governor. He made the "old lag" into a nurse, and sent him into the hospital. Muttering and cursing, he went among the sick and the weak. He was brought face to face with suffering and death. Prison does not secure immunity from the fell scourge consumption, and the old man's days had to be spent among some upon whom the scourge had fixed its[Pg 40] relentless grip. Sometimes death makes a long tarrying, and the wheels of consumption's death-car are long delayed.

Suffering, waiting, hoping for the end, lay a young man who was alone in the world. Too ill and too near death, he could not be discharged from prison; he had no friends into whose care he could be committed; so he must suffer, wait and hope for the end. And the old convict had to nurse him. Soon strange sensations began to thrill the old man, for pity took possession of him. By-and-by the old man's heart became tender again, and the foundations of the frozen deep were broken up; the "old lag" had learned to love! He had found someone in worse plight than himself, someone who needed his care, and someone whom he could care for. As the weary days passed, and the days lengthened into weeks, and the weeks into weary months, the affection between the two men grew in intensity, till the fear of separation filled their minds—a separation not caused by death.

Would the old man's sentence expire before the young man died?

Would the young man die before the old man's time was up? Who would be nurse for the young man when the old man was gone? Alas! the convict's time was up first, and the day came when the prison-gates were opened and he must go free, when he must say farewell to his friend. The day came, but the old man refused to leave, and he implored the Governor to let him stay "and see the last of him." Surely it was a beautiful exhibition of the power of love. The old man[Pg 41] had passed through love to light, and the dear old sinner was ready to sacrifice himself for the benefit of the dying lad. But it was not to be. Prison rules and prison discipline could not be relaxed, and the old convict must needs go. There was no place for him in the prison, so with sad heart he bade his friend farewell and departed. But three days later he was back in the same prison, and once more he was "orderly" in the hospital.

On leaving prison the convict said to the Governor: "You won't let me stop, but you will soon have me back again, and you won't be able to refuse me admission."

In prison he had earned a few shillings, so into the nearest public-house he went, got drunk, came out and "went for" the first policeman, who naturally took him into custody. When before the magistrate he asked for three months, but the magistrate thought that one month met the justice of the case. So back he went to prison, where the Governor promptly gave him his "old job."

When I saw the old man, his month was running out.

I have since learnt that when he was again discharged, he said to his friend, "Cheer up! I shall soon be back." But the dying youth lingers on, and waits for him in vain.

Eagerly he scans every fresh comer, but no glint of recognition lights up his poor face. The officials, too, scan every list that comes with a fresh consignment of prisoners, but the "old lag's" name has not appeared. Neither do the police know anything of him. What has happened to the old convict? Perhaps, after all, his time was[Pg 42] up first. Maybe he waits in the spirit-world for the coming of his friend. Maybe the young man will plead for the old convict, and say: "Lord, I was sick and in prison, and he came unto me." And the Lord will answer and say: "Inasmuch as ye did it unto him, ye did it unto Me."

The police effect many smart and plucky captures. Sometimes they are aided by a stupid oversight on the part of the criminal, but quite as often by some extraordinary piece of luck. Let me give an instance of the latter.

A six-foot fellow from the country joined the London police-force. He also, as soon as possible, joined himself in matrimony to a servant-girl living in London. Her health proved to be very bad, but this did not prevent her having children quickly, and so it came about that, before he had been in the police-force many years he was in debt and difficulties. Four young children and a wife constantly ill do not help to make a policeman's life a happy one. His friends made a collection for him on the quiet, but it had little beneficial effect. The children became ill, the wife became worse, the debts heavier, and exposure threatened. It was winter-time. He left his ailing wife and crying children to go on night-duty, wishing he was dead and out of it all. As he went quietly to his beat, his step became slower and slower, until it stopped altogether, and he found himself standing with his back to the wall thinking of suicide.

Some months afterwards he gave me this account of what happened.

"Mr. Holmes, pluck and courage had nothing[Pg 43] to do with it, for I had just made up my mind to make a hole in the water, when I happened to look at the window of a jeweller's shop, in which a light was burning.

"I saw somebody move in the shop, so I took out my truncheon and went softly into the shop door. I had an idea it was unfastened, so I stood still for a minute or two, hardly breathing, and then I rushed at the door, and sure enough it opened, and in I went.

"The three fellows were just packing up the jewellery. One of them came for me with a pistol, but before he could get it to fire I caught him on the head with my truncheon, and down he went. Another made for the door, but he had to pass me, and I laid him out. The third came at me with a big jemmy, and we had a fight, but I was too big and quick for him. I almost broke his arm. So I took the lot; but I should not have cared if they had killed me. I was just in a mad fury, and it was nothing but a piece of luck."

Yes, it was a bit of luck. A large sum of money was collected for him by the public. His praises were duly sung in the Press, his debts were paid, and his wife sent for a time to a convalescent home. He might have made headway in the Force, but he was no scholar. I went sometimes to give him lessons in arithmetic, spelling, etc., but it was of no use. He wanted to catch more thieves, and sometimes made the terrible mistake of arresting an innocent person. The last time I saw him he told me that his wife was no better, but that she had had another child.

Not long ago a singular mistake occurred in[Pg 44] North London. Burglars had infested a respectable road for some time. An attempt to enter had evidently been made at one house without success, for they had left jemmy-marks upon the door, but did not enter. The police resolved to watch this house from the outside. The owner and his stalwart son resolved to watch inside, but neither communicated with the other. At midnight two men were seen by the police to enter the garden and go to the front door, so the constables softly followed and listened at the door, which was closed. Evidently there was someone inside, so they cautiously opened the door, when suddenly they were set on by two men armed with heavy hammers. A severe blow fell on the shoulder of one of the officers, who responded with a crack on the head with a truncheon, and the man inside fell on the floor. Poor fellow, he was the owner! The son also got injured, and when the police were about to handcuff him, the affair was explained. Meanwhile the thieves went higher up the road, made a real attempt, and were caught. But the owner of the house lay ill for some days, suffering from concussion of the brain, while the officer was incapacitated from duty for some weeks.

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