RogerBW's Blog

Unsolved London Murders, The 1920s and 1930s, Jonathan Oates 05 October 2016

2009 non-fiction. Oates recounts the twenty cases in London during these two decades which were treated as murder, but never solved.

That introduces a very strong selection bias, since the Metropolitan Police of the era got convictions in about 95% of murder investigations (the safety of those convictions by modern standards would be another matter). There were probably also quite a few incidents of dead bodies found in dodgy areas and never formally investigated, being regarded as the result of criminals preying on each other and thus saving everyone else the trouble of dealing with them. (Whether any enterprising criminal chose to dump his respectable victim in such a place, we shall never know.)

But within the selected cases, certain themes recur. There are two basic classes: those with obvious suspects, and those with none. The death of Kusel Behr, an egg merchant of Lithuanian origins, is clearly in the former class, and is the closest these cases come to the classical murder mystery: he died after taking strychnine in his tea, and the only people who could have put it there were Behr himself, his wife, and the parlourmaid. In spite of that apparent simplicity, though, there was no further evidence, and no formal accusation was ever made.

The no-obvious-suspects cases are typified by Edward Austin Creed, a shopkeeper found on his premises killed by a blunt instrument, with money missing. There's no reason to posit any explanation more complex than a robbery with violence, but without advanced forensics and a general list of people with their identifying characteristics there was no way of tracking down the perpetrators.

What almost all these cases brought on that mystery stories rarely do is false confessions, not just from those who fabulated in order to get attention, but from people who wanted to get others into trouble: abandoned girlfriends, former criminal partners, even unpaid landladies. It's not surprising that the police became reluctant to take such accusations seriously unless they were backed up by some sort of corroborative detail.

On the other hand, having a sliding scale of penalties clearly had its effect. A number of suspects produced as alibi a confession to a lesser crime, as for example:

One Edward Hooper, a Scot and an army deserter, had a track record of breaking into houses for shelter. However, it could be shown that he had an alibi for the time of the assault on Priddle. He was illegally entering St Luke's Vicarage in Hammersmith.

I've never been much of a true-crime fan; it feels like intruding into private grief. Oates has clearly found a profitable niche in summarising police reports and other contemporary material, with a bibliography full of titles like Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Lewisham & Deptford, Foul Deeds in Richmond and Kingston, Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths Around Uxbridge… well, you get the idea. Still, he does quote his sources.

The individual accounts are pretty haphazard, reading like the sort of draft one saw in the days before the word processor: subjects are arbitrarily arranged, I suspect based largely on which source document they were found in, and the narrative leaps from one to another. While there are some useful period photographs, there are far more modern ones, which is hardly helpful in giving an impression of what an area might have been like when the events occurred.

I read this as research for a new role-playing campaign, and it did its job: there's good material here on police procedure and the tracks their investigations tended to run in, as well as the sort of people who became victims of unsolved crime – and other details, like where the grotty neighbourhoods were in this era. I'd really like more of this and less of the specific cases, but the book was still a good starting point.

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  1. Posted by Chris at 10:57am on 05 October 2016

    "(Whether any enterprising criminal chose to dump his respectable victim in such a place, we shall never know.)"

    I would have thought that in the majority of cases in which the victim was respectable, he or she will have been reported to the police as missing, so if a corpse which answered that description turned up within a reasonable time and distance, they'd probably think it might be him or her and check. Getting someone dead from one place to another unnoticed would be difficult before motor-cars were easily available to the poor criminal, and luring a live victim to Limehouse (said at a venture) from Regent's Park risked his telling other people where he would be going that evening.

    (During the 30s my father, between the ages of ten and eighteen, was allowed to roam London as he pleased, travelling for instance from Dulwich to Camden on his own and on foot or if he could afford it catching a bus. It seems to have been regarded as a much safer place anywhere but the docks, at least by my carefree grandparents. Perhaps it was safe for the respectable, so long as they stayed out of slums.)

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:51am on 05 October 2016

    Fair point. The contemporary examples of descriptions that Oates gives are from witnesses describing a person they'd seen in passing, not from policemen examining a body at length, so I don't know how accurate or recognisable the latter might have been.

    (One should remember a certain story by Sayers, I think.)

    It might also depend at what level things were dealt with: if a beat bobby in Limehouse came across someone in workmen's clothes smelling of booze, head bashed in and left in an alley with nothing in his pockets, would it necessarily get far enough up the chain of command to someone who was reading descriptions of missing persons from the other side of London? I'm sure that in theory that sort of thing was meant to happen, but in practice I just don't have the primary sources.

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