5 crimes that changed law enforcement in Britain
The case of William Harrison 1660
On Thursday 16th August 1660 William Harrison, an elderly gentleman, disappeared without trace from the prosperous market town of Chipping Campden. All that remained were his slashed hat and bloodied neckbands lying in the highway.
His servant and two accomplices were later hanged for the murder.
A year after the executions, locals were shocked when none other than William Harrison arrived home and informed the authorities that he had been abducted and later sold as a slave. Somehow he managed to escape and concealed himself on board a barque sailing for Dover.
Harrison’s account of his terrible ordeal and following this terrible miscarriage of justice courts in Britain would follow a principle of ‘no body, no charge of murder.’ This principle was maintained well into the 20th century.
However, in the 1940s John George Haigh, commonly refered to as the ‘Acid Bath Murderer’, killed at least six people and dissolved their bodies in acid.
Although the bodies of his victims had been dissolved, advances in forensic science made it possible to convict Haigh.
The case of Harry Jackson 1902
The case of Harry Jackson is renowned as being the first criminal trial in the United Kingdom in which an individual’s was convicted squarely on fingerprint evidence.
On 27th June 1902, a number of billiard balls was stolen from a house in Denmark Hill, South London during a burglary. During the investigation of the scene, a police officer discovered fingerprints on a recently-painted windowsill. With suspicions that the burglar had entered the premises through this window, the Fingerprint Branch of Scotland Yard was contacted.
They found and photographed a number of fingerprints, including a clear left thumbprint. After sifting through the fingerprints of known criminals a similar print was found. The fingerprint belonged to 41-year-old Harry Jackson.
Jackson was an habitual thief and had been suspected of committing several burglaries in south London.
At the trial and after much deliberation the prosecution managed to successfully convince the jury of the reliability of fingerprint evidence. A difficult task, as the entire case rested on the reliability of one print which many questioned.
In September 1902, Harry Jackson was found guilty and sentenced in the Central Criminal Court to seven years imprisonment.
The case of George Smith 1897
The first person to be arrested and charged for driving under the influence of alcohol was George Smith, a London cabdriver.
This article from the Morning Post reported that at about 00:45 on Friday 10 September 1897, Smith’s vehicle ‘swerved from one side of the road to the other, and ran across the footway into 165 New Bond Street’.
George Smith admitted that he’d had ‘two or three glasses of beer’ and apologised, stating that ‘it is the first time I have been charged with being drunk in charge of a cab’. In fact, it was the first time anyone had been charged with the offence.
Smith was fined 20 shillings and told ‘you motor-car drivers ought to be very careful, for if anything happens to you – well, the police have a very happy knack of stopping a runaway horse, but to stop a motor is a very different thing.’
The British Newspaper Archive
The case of Thomas Duffy
On 30 June 1937, the capital’s new emergency telephone line was unveiled. A notice in the Evening News advised the public how to use it.
“Only dial 999… if the matter is urgent; if, for instance, the man in the flat next to yours is murdering his wife or you have seen a heavily masked cat burglar peering round the stack pipe of the local bank building.
“If the matter is less urgent, if you have merely lost little Towser or a lorry has come to rest in your front garden, just call up the local police.”
A week later, on 7 July 1937, the press reported the first arrest after a 999 call.
Early on the morning of 7 July 1937, John Stanley Beard of Hampstead in north London was awoken by a noise outside his bedroom window. Looking outside he thought he spotted the intruder. His wife quickly rang 999 describing the intruder who the police identified as Thomas Duffy who was soon arrested nearby.
The case of Sydney Malkin
Sydney Malkin was a 47-year-old chef who had a penchant for women’s underwear. In 1956, he broke into the Hastings flat of one Mrs Edith Bowles and stole items of underwear and a silk slip. Mrs Bowles, whose flat was on an upper level, had left her underwear out to dry with the windows open. Mrs Bowles reported the crime to a local police officer, PC Ernest Parker. Parker examined the point of entry and was astonished to discover a number of bare footprints – one on top of the television, one on a loudspeaker and finally one on the floor.
The unusual modus operandi – stealing women’s underwear from high-rise flats – matched the profile of Sydney Malkin. He was arrested and comparisons were examined between the footprints left at the crime scene and impressions taken of Malkin’s feet – they were identical. Fingerprint expert Detective Superintendent Holten from Scotland Yard presented his findings to the magistrates at Hastings. Malkin was convicted – the first case of its kind in England – and bound over to keep the peace for three years.
Gary Powell is the author of Convicted: Landmark Cases in British Criminal History (Amberley Books, January 2018)