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The Lighter Side of My Official Life
by Sir Robert Anderson, 1910.
Full text below.


CHAPTER X

Major Henri Le Caron's life-story - Sir C. Russell's denunciation and Sir H. James's defence of him - A tribute to his high character and his services to the State - Incidents illustrating his work.

THOUGH no one could imagine that Scotland Yard would prove a haven of rest, I did expect to enter on my new duties without disturbance from extraneous causes. But the very month of my appointment the Parnell Special Commission began its sittings, and I was soon dragged into fame over the affaire Le Caron.

Irish " Nationalists " would like to erect a statue to any one who displays quixotic zeal for " the cause " ; but an- Englishman who gives proof of quixotic love for his country they regard with hatred and contempt. They may yet erect a statue in Dublin to Patrick Ford, the dynamiter, while their aim is to brand Henri Le Caron's name with infamy. I cannot prevent their honouring Ford, but I would appeal to Irish generosity to do justice to Le Caron. Though I had corresponded with the man for twenty years, and he always came to see me when he crossed the Atlantic to visit his people in Colchester, I never really knew him until after his appearance as a witness at the Special Commission. Soon afterwards he contracted a delicacy which ultimately developed into a fatal illness ; and this led him to settle in London. During his last years I thus came to know him ; and the more I saw of him, and the better I knew him, the higher was the estimate I formed of his character. And I frankly own that till then I never unreservedly accepted his own estimate of his work as being entirely disinterested and patriotic.

He was the son of a Mr. Beach, a worthy and respected citizen of Colchester. A thirst for adventure led him to leave home again and again in early life ; and while still' a boy he found himself in Paris without either friends or money, or knowledge of the language. But having been a choir-boy in the parish church at home, he attended the English Church in the Rue d'Aguesseau ; and his singing secured for him the friendship of a member of the congregation, and led to his obtaining a comfortable berth in the French capital. The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 aroused once more his love of adventure ; and crossing the Atlantic he enlisted in the Northern Army. In due course he obtained a commission, and during his service he struck up a friendship with John O'Neill, who afterwards became head of the American Fenians.

Le Caron joined the Fenian conspiracy with the quixotic purpose of thus doing a service to his native country; and in letters to his father he reported all Fenian doings and projects. These letters were shown to Mr. Rebow, M. P. for Colchester, and by him their contents were passed on to the Home Office, no pecuniary reward being either paid or solicited. But after the Clerkenwell explosion Mr. Rebow urged that Le Caron should be put in direct communication with some representative of Government, and I was asked to deal with him. Thus commenced a correspondence which lasted until he decided to give evidence for the Times newspaper, twenty years afterwards.

Morley's " Life of Gladstone " avers that " for more than twenty years he was in the pay of Scotland Yard." I have described the Irish section of that work as an " Historical Romance," and the above statement is a fair specimen of the errors that abound in it. " Scotland Yard " was not aware of the man's existence until he appeared as a witness at the Parnell Commission.

At the Special Commission Sir Charles Russell denounced him as a common informer. "His life," he declared, "was a living lie. He wormed himself into the confidence of men presumably honest, however mistaken in their views, only to make money and betray them." This and much more in the same vein drew from Sir Henry James a severe rebuke. " The words of my learned friend," he said, " do not represent the views of a high-minded English gentleman." And he met the attack upon the witness, first by taunting the Parnellite members with taking both the Fenian oath and their oath of allegiance to their Sovereign, and then by describing the aims and methods of the Fenians. The taunt was neither generous nor just. It applied with full force to some of the M.P.s; but they were a small minority. The fact, however, that a few of their colleagues did take both the Fenian oath and the oath of allegiance ought to modify their denunciation of Le Caron.

And his taking the Fenian oath is the one act in Le Caron's service which I regret. To appreciate his work aright some knowledge is needed of the character and aims of the Fenianism of early days. The movement was designed to make Ireland an independent nation, with a republican form of Government, And the American branch of the brotherhood, which was neither oath-bound nor even secret, was organised solely to supply men, arms, and money for the struggle in Ireland. And with some exceptions the leaders on both sides were men of probity and honour. James Stephens was a conceited and unscrupulous impostor, and O'Donovan Rossa was a thoroughly bad man. But the other leaders who were brought to trial at the Special Commission of 1865 were men of whom no Irishman need be ashamed ; and the same was true of John O'Mahony, the founder of the American Fenian Brotherhood. John O'Neill's project of raiding Canada was a departure from the original scheme, and a revolt against O'Mahony's leadership. And it was to thwart that scheme that Le Caron joined the brotherhood "as a military spy in the service of his country."

I presume that in the judgment of a doctrinaire republican the Fenianism of the sixties would be deemed a legitimate political agitation. But when the blunders and frauds of dishonest and incompetent men brought discredit on the movement, and proved its projects to be impracticable, men of the type of Patrick Ford of the Irish World newspaper came to the front, and American Fenianism became a secret society for the promotion of fiendish crime. The change reached a crisis in 1875 when Ford established the " skirmishing fund," of which more anon. The Fenian raid on Canada, which was turned into a fiasco by Le Caron's services, occurred in 1870. During the intervening years, though he was not " in the pay of the British Government," his correspondence with me never flagged, and his letters contained much valuable information by which our Government profited. But when the change above indicated occurred in American Fenianism he responded to the appeal I made to him to help us in this new danger. And I maintain emphatically that all he did was on the lines of ordinary Police duty in dealing with criminals and crime-a fact which was not ignored in Sir Henry James's defence of him.

The wife of an acquaintance of mine, a well-known man whose death occurred a few months ago, was roused one night by a noise downstairs. On entering the dining-room she was confronted by a burglar who at once struck her a violent blow. Instead of screaming for assistance she began to appeal to him on the plane of benevolence and Christian duty. The man put down the booty he had collected ; but he declared that he must have money ; Where would he find money ? She told him she had only 65 in the house, and this she gave him and let him go. Not many months elapsed before that money was returned to her by post. I do not envy those who would sneer at this simple narrative of facts. And sure I am that no one will suffer by acting, in his private capacity, on these transcendental principles. But if it be a question of our duty, we must remember that in this matter duty is limited to speaking the truth to our neighbour; and a burglar is not our neighbour. He is an outlaw ; and instead of telling him where to find our money, we hand him over to the constable on the beat. And the duty of the constable is not to play the philanthropist, but to bring the criminal to justice.

The better sort of Police official finds pleasure in befriending men who have been thus brought to justice, and helping them upon their way ; for some of them are worthy of help. But the assassins and dynamiters whose plots were exposed by Le Caron were justly described by Sir Henry James as "enemies of the "human race, the lowest and most degraded of beings, unfit to be regarded as belonging to the human community." Are such men, he indignantly demanded, to be regarded as "presumably honest ? " He justly claimed that Le Caron and his work should be viewed in the light in which detective police work is regarded. Not only so, but, as he went on to say, " the community praise the exertions of a man who apprehends the criminal after the crime has been committed. But here you have a man who, running risks such as probably no one ever ran before, set himself to defeat crime before it was carried out, and thus to save the lives of those who had no other protection." In this sense, and in this sense alone, it was that Le Caron betrayed the Fenians ; for in not a single instance was a criminal charge ever brought against any one upon his testimony, either in this country or in America.

But, we are told, he betrayed them for the sake of gain. This is a base slander. As a matter of fact the man was singularly indifferent to money. Though his letters to me never ceased, and the information they brought was always useful, there were several years during which no money grant whatever was made to him. The only really important payment he ever received was his reward for thwarting the 1870 Fenian raid on Canada ; and when I wrote to apprise him of the grant, he replied that his wife begged I would keep the money for him, and dole it out to him as and when he wanted it. And as a matter of fact I kept back half the amount in this way, At every Fenian convention that he attended as a delegate, he was entitled to receive his expenses from the organisation-and the Fenians never studied economy in their claims upon the war chest-but he would not touch Fenian money.

His professional income as a medical practitioner enabled him to maintain this independent position. And this it was that gave him such influence with the Fenians, and enabled him to be so useful as an informant. It emboldened him, for instance, to send me the secret documents issued by the organisation. For as " Senior Guardian of a Camp," or, in other words, chief officer of a Fenian Lodge, he received a copy of every document of the kind. But though our Consuls in New York and Chicago, &c., had agents holding office in the brotherhood, no one of them ever dared to part with such documents. For he was liable at any time to be called upon to produce them, and his failure to do so would have cost him his life. And considering the number of years that Le Caron thus put his life in my hands, it is a marvel that he escaped. I need not say that I used the utmost care, and always returned his papers promptly ; but even the most careful among us may be caught napping at times. And the risk of a slip was increased by the fact that our correspondence was carried on through his wife on that side, and a lady relative of mine on this ; for his name and mine were too well known to make direct communication safe.

These precautions, I may say, were not of his devising, for he was as indifferent to danger as to money. And as for the money, when I first met him in 1869, and arranged details for our correspondence, it was I, not he, who raised the question of remuneration. His role, as he said from the first, was that of " a military spy in the service of his country." Till then he had corresponded on Fenian matters with no one but his own father, and he emphatically refused to deal with "a Government office." But I gave him the promise, which I always faithfully kept, that his letters to me would be treated precisely as his letters to his father had been treated ; that I would regard them as private, while communicating to Government the information they contained.

On two occasions I asked him to relieve me of this promise. The first was when Colonel Brackenbury became Assistant Under-Secretary for Police and Crime in Ireland. And when his successor went to Dublin Castle I wrote again to Le Caron that if he would yield the point he would be certain of liberal remuneration - remuneration on a far higher scale than he had ever received in the past. But this letter brought me such a petulantly indignant reply that I never raised the question again.

My first Fenian informant was shot like a dog on returning to New York. In communicating the man's information to Lord Mayo, then Chief Secretary, I gave him the poor fellow's name, and some particulars respecting him, and these he passed on to the Lord-Lieutenant as they sat together one evening over the dinner-table at the Vice-regal Lodge. A servant happened to be behind the screen which covered the service door of the dining-room, and he overheard the conversation, and repeated it in the servants' hall. This I learned from the detective Superintendent of Police at Dublin Castle ; and in telling me the facts he added the warning-being himself an old hand at that sort of work-never to trust any one with the name of an informant. I profited by his advice, and from that day no informant of mine was ever betrayed. I suppose there are people upon whom the responsibility would weigh lightly of having a man's life in their hands. But I am "not made that way." This it was, quite as much as my sense of the thankless character of the work-of which I have lately had such signal Proof--that made me try again and again to escape from Secret Service duties.

In his Twenty-five Years in the Secret Service, Le Caron mentions two incidents which illustrate the risks he ran in his work. Of the one I will say nothing here : it was a dastardly business. But the other has an amusing side to it. When in the spring of 1870 John O'Neill, the President of the American Fenian organisation, was preparing for his raid on Canada, I felt that it was essential to put Le Caron in communication with some representative of the Dominion Government, and Judge M'Micken undertook this delicate part. He was the only person on that side of the Atlantic who knew of Le Caron's work for me. This is chapter one of my story. Chapter two is that when Sir William Harcourt took up Secret Service work, he asked Sir John Rose, who was then about to cross the Atlantic, to make inquiries with a view to strengthening our anti-Fenian organisation ; and on his return to London, Sir William summoned me to 7, Grafton Street to meet him. Sir John Rose told us that Judge M'Micken had named Major Le Caron to him as a man who, if we could enlist his services, would be a most valuable ally to Government.

But of course the Judge did not disclose the fact that he had given help of the kind in the past. Sir John Rose went on to say that his inquiries in New York fully bore out M'Micken's estimate of the man. Then Sir William Harcourt turned to me and asked me if I knew him. I replied that I knew him well, and I gave them many facts respecting him. The next question was whether the man would assist our Government ; and my answer to that was that a proposal to such a man to give information to the Police or a Government office would be regarded as an insult. The right course, I said, would be to refer the matter to judge M'Micken. Here is the account of the result, which Le Caron gives in his book : " So strong was the pressure put upon the judge that he travelled specially to Chicago to see me on the point. However " (he adds) " I would have none of it." If Le Caron had yielded to the overtures then made to him he might have named his own terms.

One more incident, selected to illustrate the need for unceasing care lest in using information one should betray the informant. On leaving the House of Commons on the night of the 23rd of May, 1881, Le Caron drove to my house, and reported to me in full detail his historic interview with Parnell. And in doing so he cynically remarked, " Now, if you want to get rid of me, here is your chance ! " meaning that to repeat his story would get him a bullet on his return to New York. What was I to do ? For to suppress information of such importance was out of the question. I escaped by keeping back my report till I received a letter from him after he reached home ; and then I gave the whole story as ' received from an American informant."

During the four-and-thirty years of my official life I came to entertain a sincere regard for not a few of the Police officers who assisted me in my campaigns against criminals, but none of them did I esteem more highly than Le Caron. And it is with them that I have always classed him, and not with secret agents and informants. No bad man could win, as he won, the unbounded respect of wife and children. To his good qualities, moreover, were added many characteristics which made him attractive and popular. And to his personal charm he added sterling integrity. He was one of the most truthfully accurate men I have ever known. Even men holding high office may indulge in " terminological inexactitudes," and very few people are capable of repeating accurately a conversation of yesterday ; but I never detected Le Caron in a serious inaccuracy. Nor had I ever to complain of either concealment or exaggeration in his communications to me. So much for Henri Le Caron. Though he deserves well of his country, he will never get a statue. But if he is to be pilloried I will take my place by his side.