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


CHAPTER XIV

C.I.D. officers at Channel Ports - The theft of the Gainsborough picture - The Channel gang of thieves, and their fate - Home Office schemes on behalf of such criminals, thwarted by the " humanitarians " - Criminals and how to protect ourselves against them - A Ross-shire story - Various hints - The dropped trinket fraud - The painted bird fraud - Photograph enlargements - Cheap jewellery - A Father Healy story - The " O.U. Duck" brooch.

WHEN I say that the head of the Criminal Investigation Department is never off duty, I do not mean, of course, that he is tied to his office-room. A "nervous breakdown," involving complete cessation from work, would not be as common as it is if people were more discreet and intelligent about themselves. As already hinted, I was in danger of such a collapse when I went to Scotland Yard, and for some years I had to be careful. " I sleeps well and I eats well," said the tramp, " but when anybody torks about work I gets all of a tremble. And yet work will not really hurt any one who can eat and sleep. But a bout of insomnia, even for a single night, was always a danger-signal with me, and I eased off next day. In such circumstances, if I could arrange to leave town for a day, a trip across the Channel proved an unfailing remedy. I thus secured some hours of uninterrupted work in the train journeys, and some hours of play between times, and on the following day I was fit for double duty.

My Channel trips, moreover, had a business side to them. During the dynamite campaign Scotland Yard officers were stationed at various home and foreign ports ; and at certain places, as, for instance, at Dover and Calais, and Folkestone and Boulogne, their presence had proved of such value to the public that it was decided to continue their services. A criminal named Powell (he was Raymond's accomplice in the theft of Mr. Agnew's Gainsborough picture) was one of a gang that for years had lived in luxury on the contents of purses and pocket-books stolen on the Channel boats. It needs no great powers of imagination to realise what it means for a paterfamilias to land in France with his party minus their railway tickets and the money for their sojourn in Switzerland or on the Riviera. And M. Favre, who, while Stationmaster at Calais, was the friend of every British traveller, told me that sometimes there were half a dozen cases of this kind in a single day, whereas after the C.I.D. officer was stationed at the port there were not half a dozen cases in the year. This was an inestimable boon to the public, and yet it was only by constant watchfulness and some diplomacy that I was able to ensure the continuance of the arrangement ; for any lapse on the part of the officers, or the least friction with the local police, would have made it impossible. Hence the importance of paying surprise visits to the ports.

I have mentioned Powell, the professional thief, and the sequel of his story is worth telling. The raids of his gang upon the purses and pocketbooks on the Channel boats were worth hundreds of pounds a year to them. But they had another " lay " that brought them in thousands at times. Valuable securities of a bulky nature, passing from London to Paris, are entrusted to the railway companies ; and the boats have a treasure-chest in which such parcels are deposited when crossing the Channel. So perfect is the organisation of professional thieving, that these men were able to obtain particulars of consignments of this kind, and to procure keys for the treasure-chests. They were able thus to substitute dummy parcels for the originals, and to get away with their booty before their crime was discovered. I got word one day that the gang meant to get hold of a parcel of bonds which a well-known Insurance Company was sending to Paris on a certain night. By inquiry in the City I ascertained that the Company named was in fact sending the securities, as reported to me. Accordingly I despatched officers to Dover and Calais to deal with the case ; and the men were seized on landing at Calais. But the bonds were still safe in the treasure-chest.

The French Police were amazed to find three well-dressed " gentlemen," with gold watches and alberts, brought in as if they were pickpockets. And they were horrified when my officers seized one of the "gentlemen" by the throat and forced open his jaws, to secure a bit of paper they had seen him putting into his mouth. It was a railway cloak-room ticket for a portmanteau, which was found to contain some 2,000 worth of coupons stolen by the gang on a former occasion. There was also found upon him a key of the treasure-chest of the boat which ought to have crossed that night, and a wax impression of the corresponding key for the boat which actually made the trip. Captain Morgan, R.N., who was then Marine Superintendent at Dover, had a theory that the older boats were the best for bad weather ; and thus it came about that on the night in question the regular boat had not made the crossing ; and so the thieves were thwarted, as was also Scotland Yard.

Here was an object-lesson in the crime problem. These men, as I have said, held 2,000 worth of the securities stolen in their last haul, and we found as much more in their lodgings. To men of their class such a heap of money was wealth. They could have lived upon it in luxury for many a year. If, therefore, they crossed the Channel on a stormy night, to raid the treasure-chest of the steamer, it was not because of the pressure of want, but because they were professional thieves and outlaws. Did we not believe in a future life, we should urge that such men should be shot at sight, like wild beasts, or strung up to the nearest lamp-posts. And yet it was in the interests of criminals of this type that those troublesome cranks, the humanitarians, wrecked Mr. Herbert Gladstone's Prevention of Crimes Bill, under which they might have been kept in custody until they could give proof of real repentance and reform.

The three men were committed to prison in Boulogne. Yet we had not the needed evidence to sustain a demand for their extradition, and the French Police could make no charge against them. By utilising the influence of the railway companies, however, and appealing to head quarters in Paris, we succeeded in having them kept under lock and key for several months. The result was that divine justice prevailed where the human had failed. In Boulogne jail they were completely buried, and their friends here gave them up. Powell had left a blank cheque with his "wife," to be used in case a mishap befell him ; and the woman cleared out his bank balance and went off with another man. Soon afterwards he died of want in the streets of Southampton. Another of the gang - " Shrimps" was his nom de guerre - was betrayed in the same way by his " wife " ; and I heard that, his pockets weighted with stones, he had taken a last sea-trip, and had thrown himself overboard in mid channel. What became of " Red Bob," the other member of the gang, I do not know. But unless he too has gone the way of all flesh, we may be sure that he is still "following his profession." For these professional criminals never change. During their spells of liberty they live in comfort, under the protection of the laws they systematically violate ; and if and when they are convicted of crime, they receive a sentence of a few years' duration, and are then let loose again upon society. How long will the public tolerate this scandalous and stupid system ?

If these men are the victims of neglect or harsh treatment in childhood-and this may possibly be true of some of them-it is no reason why they should be allowed to prey upon the community, to corrupt others by their evil example, and to breed children after their kind. It is all the more reason why they should be saved from themselves by being relegated to a "preventive detention," in which they might be taught to live a useful life, with hope not only of happiness in the next world, but also of restoration to liberty in this world, if and when they give proof of genuine repentance and reform.

Under such a system " Shrimps " and poor old Powell, who was not a bad fellow in his way, might to-day be living not unhappy lives in an asylum-prison, and there learning to hope for heaven hereafter. And this was the aim and purpose of the Prevention of Crimes Bill of 1908, which the pestilent influence of the humanitarians changed into a measure to make the way of transgressors easier than ever. Upon their heads, be it if criminals of the Powell type remain a curse to society, and pass to their eternal doom without the opportunity for repentance, which an intelligent philanthropy would have secured to them.

I have no intention of discussing the graver side of the crime problem in these pages ; but there are certain aspects of it which are of great practical interest to the general public. Why do we need to live behind bolts and bars, as if we were in an enemy's country ? First, there is the element of professional crime, to which I have already referred, and of which I have written much elsewhere. We have in our midst a number-and a very limited number-of men who, as Sir Alfred Wills has aptly said, follow crime as the business of their lives." We also have to deal with a much larger class of offenders, who vary the monotony of an ostensibly honest life by deliberately giving rein to their criminal propensities whenever a fitting opportunity offers. Then again, the vast and steadily increasing army of needy people includes a minority who are ready to replenish their purses or their larders by dishonest means. And lastly, we must take account of the chance crimes of people of weak moral fibre, who are carried away by sudden temptation. It concerns us all therefore to consider how we can protect ourselves against the dangers to which the presence of these actual or possible law-breakers exposes us.

I must begin by propounding the seemingly heartless thesis that people who suffer from crimes against property are very generally the victims of their own folly or greed. Of course there are exceptions. The statement does not usually apply to the work of men who are in the front rank as criminals ; but fortunately front-rank men are as rare in this as in other professions. My friend, the late Major Arthur Griffiths, used to tell how, when he was in charge of one of our convict-prisons, he mislaid the key of the office safe one day, when the visiting director was hourly expected ; so he told the Chief Warder to get one of the convicts to open it. But in that great prison only one man could be found who was competent to undertake the job, and he had been trained in the factory of one of our well-known manufacturers of safes. Of course a couple of navvies with pickaxes could break up any safe that ever was made ; but if criminals went to work in that way they would arouse the whole neighbourhood. A good safe provides full security against ordinary thieves. If, therefore, a lady keeps 1,000 worth of jewels in a trinket box on the dressing-table, or in her wardrobe, is it cynical to say that she has herself to blame if she loses them ? To spend J io on a safe is not a very heavy insurance to pay in such a case.

But the best safe ever made will not give security if common care be lacking. I could tell of a certain lady who profited by a police warning, and used to boast of her Chubb. But one evening she left her keys lying on the table, and when she returned her safe was empty ! Is there ever a jewel larceny perpetrated during a railway journey that is not due to carelessness of this kind? And women seem to be sillier even than men. Certain it is that they delight in flaunting their silliness.

A cynic whom I could name raises the question whether the sort of women who wear French heels have immortal souls. And he explains the hideous monstrosities of the illustrated advertisements of milliners and corset-makers by the theory that the trade is run by Jews, whose law forbids their making the likeness of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath ! But if men be less silly, they have less excuse for their silliness. For example, a man who passes through a crowd with a gold watch-chain exposed has himself to blame if he loses both chain and watch. I have seen more pick-pockets than most people ; but I state a plain fact when I say that I never saw one except in custody. Yes, once I did. On the night of Queen Victoria's Jubilee I paraded the streets wearing a gorgeous chain that I had bought for sixpence in Fleet Street-there was a door-key at the pocket end of it-and twice that night a thief had a try for it.

A cynical classification of the population of the country as knaves or fools, sharps or flats, might seem smart and clever, but it would be quite unintelligent and false. For the Britisher is a peace-loving biped, and honest withal ; and if we eliminate the element of the alien leaven in our midst, the volume of crime is marvellously small. Indeed, the twin curses of drink and gambling account for the great majority of the offences recorded in the criminal statistics.

During one of my first visits to a friend's summer residence in Ross-shire, I was startled one day at the luncheon-table by the exclamation, " Oh, there's the thief! " and I saw a fellow who might aptly be described as a human " lurcher," shuffling along the avenue which ran between the house and the sea-shore. My curiosity was excited by hearing a thief thus designated by the definite article, and my inquiries elicited that he was the only dishonest person in the district, and that, but for him, locks and bolts might be ignored. In the course of a country walk the next day I was asked to speak to the policeman, whose office, I was told, would be a sinecure but for the presence of the thief.

Here is one phase of the crime problem in miniature. I have already spoken of the expert professional criminals whose exploits tax the resources of a highly trained Police. They are few in number and well known to the Police. Indeed, there would be no difficulty in including their names in the Trades Section of the " Post Office London Directory " ; and if common sense and genuine philanthropy were allowed a hearing, a few years would suffice to suppress the whole fraternity.

Happily, however, humble folk like myself and the great majority of my readers have but little to fear from these high-class professionals. They go for higher game ; they play for higher stakes. But we have in our midst a number of people of criminal propensities and weak moral fibre, who will prey upon us if we give them a chance. Not a few of them are objects of pity, but our punishment-of-crime system is blindly pitiless. To revert to my Ross-shire story, one might suppose that a sane community would pension the policeman and relegate the thief to a detention in which he might lead a useful life. But, to quote an aphorism that now ranks as classical, the law is an ass and an idiot. Here is a case in the morning paper which lies before me as I write, of a criminal aged eighty-one who has spent more than half his life in jail, and who is once again sentenced at the Sessions. And his cheery words on leaving the dock make it plain that notwithstanding his fourscore years he contemplates returning again to his normal course of life. The man has the credit of being a good workman when he does work and if as soon as he gave proof that he either could not, or would not, keep his hands from picking and stealing, he had been deprived of the liberty he always abuses, he might have lived a useful and not unhappy life in a humanely administered asylum prison. Such a discipline, moreover, might in time have so reformed the criminal as to make his discharge a benefit instead of being a curse to the community.

My purpose here, however, is not to expose and denounce the mingled stupidity and barbarity of our methods of dealing with law-breakers, but to indicate how we can best protect ourselves against their depredations. And here, I repeat, we usually need but common care. A sensible man will button up his coat in a crowd as automatically as he will open his umbrella in a shower. And a lady who can't " button up " will avoid a crowd if she is wearing trinkets that can be ,,sneaked." And if people must needs carry money, a very simple precaution will afford immunity. Cut bank-notes in two, and carry the several halves in separate receptacles, and the sneak thief will be thwarted. And then as regards our houses. A high-class burglar can crack any crib in spite of locks and bolts ; but high-class burglars are few, and ordinary precautions will give security against ordinary operators. But it is useless to lock the front door if the back door be left on the latch, or to bar all the windows except one.

It may seem intolerable that in a civilised country we should need to live thus in a state of siege. But pending the introduction of more sensible and humane methods of dealing with criminals, we must reconcile ourselves to it. For while the common tramp thief is a poor creature whom careful and shrewd people may ignore, we must reckon with a small army of clever folk whose perverted mental activity is exercised at the expense of their neighbours.

And, as I have said, it is not folly only that gives them their opportunities : greed has often still more to do with it. Among the petty frauds to which this remark applies, the " dropped trinket" is a case in point. This used to be very popular. You see it lying on the pavement, but, before you can reach it, an out-at-elbows fellow picks it up and pockets it. Then he timidly pulls it out again and offers to sell it for a few shillings, for he is in dire need and wants to get food for his starving family. The thing needs to be done furtively, for "larceny by finding " is an offence known to the criminal law. But " greed of gain " prevails, and the dupe pays five shillings for a ring or bauble which the thief bought for sixpence.

The painted bird fraud, again, owes its success to the same baneful influence ; and here the same mean element comes in, for the dupe thinks he is over-reaching the poor fellow who does not know the value of a songbird. The following story was told both of Sir Henry Hawkins and of Sir James Mathew, but I cannot say whether it was true of either of them. It is worth telling all the same. Appealed to by the rascal to tell him what kind of a bird it was he had caught, the Judge replied, after taking a good look at his questioner, "Well, having regard to the old proverb about `birds of a feather,' I should say it was a jail bird ! "

There are some photographers so full of benevolence that, without fee or reward, they will make a beautiful enlargement of any photograph entrusted to them._ But the picture is such a work of art that it would savour of profanity to risk its being injured by failing to provide a good frame for it, and this will be supplied at cost price. A rascal carried on this fraud in Paris during my reign at Scotland Yard, and for aught I know he may be at it still. He was cunning enough to send the promised enlargement to a few well-known people unconditionally ; and these became decoys for others who, if they refused to forward the price demanded for the frame, failed even to secure the return of their own photograph, or to get an answer to their letters of remonstrance or appeal.

Then again we have in our midst philanthropists who are so devoured by love to their neighbours, that they will send you a beautiful watch, a perfect timekeeper, of course, as a free gift ; and the only acknowledgment they look for is that you will buy a suitable chain from them at cost price. You send the cash, and the articles you receive in exchange are such as you might buy for less money in any shop that sells flash trinkets. The watch is full of wheels, of course, and they go round with more or less regularity ; or if they stop you have the satisfaction of knowing that the hands mark the time with absolute accuracy once in every twelve hours.

A good story is told of two great Irishmen, both of whom are now gone from us, the late Archbishop Plunket and Father Healy, the well-known parish priest of Bray. Making their way together to Bray railway station one morning, the priest urged that they should hurry, but the prelate's appeal to his watch convinced him that they had ample time. They arrived to see the train for Dublin disappearing. The Archbishop's apologies were lavish. He pleaded that he had always had unbounded faith in his watch. " My dear Lord Plunket," was Father Healy's rejoinder, " faith won't do without the good works." Will people who answer these fraudulent advertisements please note.

My reference to the "dropped trinket" fraud reminds me of a personal incident that gave me much amusement at the time. One morning on my way to Scotland Yard, I picked up a brooch in Kensington Gardens. It was a prominent object as it sparkled in the sunshine in the middle of the path, and I took for granted it had, been dropped by either of the two nursemaids who were walking ahead of me. They were the only human beings in sight; for it is extraordinary how few people use these beautiful parks on a winter morning. The trinket was what is called an " O. U. duck" brooch, the vowels being intertwined in a cipher, with a little gilt duck underneath-an ornament that was at one time very popular with girls of a certain class. When I overtook the first of these nursemaids, she told me at once that she did not wear a brooch. When I came up to the other girl and asked her whether she had dropped a brooch, she answered as promptly, " I think so, sir, what kind is it?" If I had produced the brooch that girl would certainly have said it was hers. But with a stolid face, and in a leaden tone of voice I replied, O. U. duck." " O, you go along," she exclaimed with a toss of her head, as she jerked herself away. On arrival at my office I gave the brooch and the story to my Superintendent; and within twenty minutes the trinket was in the Lost Property branch, and the story was in every branch of the Commissioner's office.