Charles Peace: King of the Cat Burglars
Learning the Trade
His first collar in 1851 earned him a brief 30-day sentence because it was a first offense and Peace was able to procure a fine character reference from his former employer. But his fortunes would soon turn. Over his lifetime, Charlie Peace would spend more than 15 years behind bars. Each time he was returned to the street, it appeared that he had spent his time in prison "wisely," meticulously reviewing his mistakes and devising means to avoid capture the next time.
A second arrest in 1854 was brought about because Charlie poorly chose a fence to whom he sold his booty and resulted in a four-year prison term for Peace and a 6-month jail sentence for his sister, Mary Ann Neil, who had received some of the stolen goods. That term taught Charlie to use only the most accomplished and closed-mouth fences.
Released in 1858, Peace resumed his career as a portico thief in Manchester, working in tandem with another burglar.
"On coming out of prison, Peace resumed his fiddling, but it was now no more than a musical accompaniment to burglary," Irving wrote. "This had become the serious business of Peace's life, to be pursued, should necessity arise, even to the peril of men's lives."
After a particularly large haul, the men stored their booty in a copse of trees, where unbeknownst to them, it was discovered by the local constables. The police set up surveillance and arrested Peace and his accomplice as they arrived to recover their ill-gotten gains. It was during this arrest that Peace first demonstrated his willingness to kill in order to escape.
He carried a revolver with him at all times, and when approached by a constable armed only with a wooden truncheon, Peace drew his weapon and tried to warn off the officer. Another constable, however, managed to overpower the burglar and he was taken into custody before any harm could be done.
This time, Peace unsuccessfully enlisted the help of his mother to try to win an acquittal at his trial at the Manchester Assizes.
"For this crime Peace was sentenced to six years' penal servitude, in spite of a loyal act of perjury on the part of his aged mother, who came all the way from Sheffield to swear that he had been with her there on the night of the crime," Irving said.
Again Charlie learned from this conviction, and never again would he work in concert with another thief. From this point on, Peace would prowl the parlors of England's elite alone. "He had at last discovered that a burglary demands as diligent a forethought as a campaign," Whibley wrote. "He had learnt that no great work is achieved by a multitude of minds."
Released in 1864, Peace had a successful two-year run as a burglar, but was caught en flagrante after foolishly breaking into a home while, in his words, "fuddled with whisky." The lesson that temperance was the best policy was driven home to Charles Peace by an 8-year prison term handed down in December 1866.