For more than half a century I have taken a great interest in those who,
of malice aforethought, and after considerable pains, succeed in taking
the lives of others. I remember as if it were to-day the excitement that
arose when William Palmer was charged with the murder of John Parsons
Cook. For fifty years a vivid impression of all the events and episodes
connected with the remarkable trial of that remarkable man has remained
with me. I was then a boy of eleven, but Palmer was well known to the
boys of Rugeley, and to myself amongst them. Palmer attended church on
Sundays, when racing engagements allowed, and sat in his family pew,
fairly close to the schoolboys, of whom I happened to be one. He was
most particular about behaviour in church–not only his own, but that of
the schoolboys also. Even now I can see him coming into church with some
member of his family, with firm walk and clanging heel. I can remember
how he stood up to pray into his top-hat a lengthened prayer on entering
his pew. I remember, too, that his clothing was always black, and that
a crape mourning band was always in evidence on his hat, for funerals
were numerous in the Palmer family. But we lads thought nothing of the
funerals; but we knew that Palmer’s eye was upon us, if we did not
behave discreetly in church; we knew he had more than once pulled the
ears of boys that misbehaved. We knew, too, that Palmer’s mother had an
easily accessible garden, in which were plenty of juicy apples and
toothsome cherries.

Apart from his staid and correct manner at church, Palmer was a bluff,
hearty fellow, well known and well liked in our little town, where he
frequently doctored the poor for nothing; and it was always understood
that Palmer’s brother George, a solicitor, was also equally ready to
give his services free of charge to the poor. It was only natural, then,
that the Palmers were liked in our town–for it was a very small town.
Grave faces, I remember, had been plentiful in Rugeley for some weeks
and things had been going on that we boys did not understand. We knew
the names of Palmer’s horses, and felt any amount of interest in
Blinkbonny and Goldfinder; but we did not understand the gloom that had
settled on the town, for older people spoke with bated breath, and when
boys drew near the conversation ceased or the lads were driven away. We
knew the name of Palmer was whispered continuously. What did it all
mean? At length mystery, reticence, and whispered suspicions were
useless. Palmer had been arrested for the murder of John Parsons Cook,
whose body lay in our churchyard, and whose funeral we had witnessed.
Now the excitement began. Rugeley became almost the hub of the universe.
Strange people arrived from everywhere, and the quiet town became a

I remember with what awe we gazed at Cook’s grave after the body had
been exhumed and returned to its resting-place. We knew that some part
of the body had been taken away and sent to London for great men to
examine. We boys even discussed the ultimate destination of the parts
taken away, and wondered if they would ever get back to poor Cook. How
well I remember the exciting events of that long and dramatic trial in
London! Rugeley people were poor in those days, and newspapers were
dear, so we borrowed where we could, and lent to others when we
possessed. I read aloud the records of that trial to all sorts of poor
people, so I have cause to remember it. I prosecuted Palmer, and I
defended him; I was witness, and I was judge; I claimed a triumphant
acquittal, and I demanded his condemnation; I cross-examined the great
analyst, and even at that age began to learn something of the nature and
effects of strychnine. I thrilled with it all, but I believed Palmer to
be innocent, and in a measure I was proud of a townsman who could stand
up bravely against all the big men in London and show no fear. Oh, but
he was a brave man! He must be innocent! And when the trial was all
over, and Palmer was brought to Stafford to pay the penalty of his
crime, do I not remember how all the world rushed to Stafford to see him
hanged? Ay, I remember how people tramped all day through Rugeley to
Stafford, and how they stood all through the night in Stafford streets
waiting, waiting for eight o’clock the next morning. Yes, I remember it
all; and I remember, too, that the cherries in a certain garden
nevermore had any attractions! But I remember, too, that Palmer died
game, showing no fear, betraying no anxiety, with a good appetite to the
last and a firm step to the scaffold.

Surely Palmer was innocent, and was supported by the knowledge of his
innocence. Murderers had fearsome consciences; they were haunted by a
sense of their guilt, and by the eyes or the spirits of their victims.

So I felt and so I reasoned about murderers when I was a boy. I have
since those days had many opportunities of correcting my judgment, and
now I no longer believe that a bold, cool, collected behaviour, together
with the possession of a good appetite, is synonymous with innocence.
For I have seen enough to justify me in saying that a calm and brave
bearing is more likely to be indicative of guilt than of innocence. But
the public and certain portions of the press still translate callous
behaviour into a proof of innocence, and sometimes convert prisoners
into heroes.

No greater mistake could be made, for a prisoner’s behaviour has nothing
do with to his guilt or innocence. On the whole, fear or distress are
far more likely to indicate innocence than they are to denote guilt.
This I believe to hold good of all prisoners, not only of those charged
with the capital offence. I have failed to observe in prisoners who
were undoubtedly guilty the furtive look that is supposed to be peculiar
to guilt. I have watched closely and have spoken confidentially to many
hundreds, but their eyes met mine as naturally as those of a child. I
have been compelled to the conclusion that not only is a bold bearing
consistent with the deepest guilt, but also that a natural bearing and a
childlike trustfulness are by no means to be taken as signs of
innocence. Of the behaviour of innocent people when charged with crime,
fortunately, we do not get many opportunities of observation; still, I
have seen some, and can bear testimony that they were a great deal more
confused, excited, and unreliable than prisoners who were undeniably
guilty. Such prisoners often contradict themselves, and sometimes depart
from the truth when attempting to defend themselves. It is palpable to
everyone that they feel their position, and fear the consequences. I
have seen such astounding coolness and presence of mind, coupled with
apparent candour and sincerity, among guilty prisoners that when I know
of a prisoner exhibiting these qualities I almost instinctively suspect
him. An innocent man, in his anxiety, may prevaricate through fear and
confusion; but the veritably guilty man is careful in these matters,
though he may be sometimes a little too clever.

The psychology of prisoners has, then, for years been a favourite study
with me, and a very interesting study I have found it. In my endeavours
to discover the state of mind that existed and caused certain prisoners
to commit serious crimes, I have sometimes discovered, almost hidden in
the dark recesses of the mind, some little shadow of some small thing
that to me seemed quite absurd, but which to the prisoner loomed so
large, so real, and so important, that he regarded it as a sufficient
justification for his deed. To myself the crime and the something in the
prisoner’s mind appeared to have no possible connection, yet
unmistakably, if the prisoners were to be believed, they were cause and
effect. Now, from this kind of mania–for such it undoubtedly is–small
and ridiculous as it seems–and I have met it too often not to be
certain as to its existence–a double question is presented: What is the
cause of that little something in the prisoner’s mind? and why has it
caused the prisoner to commit a certain action? I have never been able
to get any light upon these questions, but have had to content myself
with the knowledge that the mental equipment of that class of criminals
is altogether different to that of ordinary individuals. I am not here
speaking of a defined mania that dominates the life, stirs the passions,
and leads directly to the perpetration of a crime–cause and effect in
such a case are obvious, though, of course, the cause of the cause is
still obscure–but I am speaking of silly little somethings that float
about in certain minds, that refuse to be ejected, that entail much
misery and suffering, and finally crime. Possibly this state of mind may
be the outcome of indigestion, even as an extra severe sentence upon a
prisoner may be the outcome of indigestion in a judge: for it is quite
possible to suppose a case in which judge and prisoner suffered from a
like cause; but the one has committed a crime because of it, and the
other inflicts unmerited punishment because of it. Two things are very
clear to me: first, that our judges and magistrates ought to be in the
very best of health when performing their duties; secondly, that
pathological causes enter very largely into the perpetration of crime.
Ill-health may make a judge irritable and severe, and so distort his
judgment, and excuses are made for him; for it is whispered he is a
martyr to gout, indigestion, or some equally trying malady. If so, he
certainly ought not to be a judge, for health and temper are absolutely
necessary for one who has to administer justice and act as the arbiter
of other people’s fate. But this excuse is not made for prisoners. Yet
in hundreds of cases it might honestly be made; for while they may not
have been influenced by gout or indigestion, they have been influenced
by pathological causes, and the two things are equal.

I am persuaded, after many years’ close observation and many years’
friendship with criminals, that disease, mental or physical, is a
tremendous factor in the causation of crime. The “criminal class” is
often spoken of, and it might be supposed that there is a distinct class
of people to whom the appellation applies. My experience teaches me that
there is no “criminal class,” but there are plenty of criminals. The low
forehead and the square jaw, the scowling eye and the stubbly beard, do
not denote criminality; the receding forehead, the weak eye, and the
almost absence of chin, do not indicate criminal instincts. Nothing of
the sort. All these things are consistent with decent living, a fair
amount of intelligence, and some moral purpose. On the other hand, a
well-built body, a well-shaped head, a handsome face, a clean skin, and
a bright eye are consistent with the basest criminality. Some of the
worst criminals I have met–real and dangerous criminals–were handsome
as Apollo. But there does exist a class–and, unfortunately, a very
large class–who have very limited intelligence, who appear to be
retrogressing physically, mentally, and morally, of whom a large
proportion commit various kinds of offences–not from criminal
instincts, but from stunted or undeveloped intelligence and lack of
reasoning power.

But I am digressing, for it is not my purpose in this chapter to speak
of criminals in general, but rather of those whom I have personally met
charged with murder, and who were convicted, some paying the full
penalty. These I want to consider more fully. From this list I must
eliminate man-slayers who had killed in the heat of passion or in a
drunken quarrel, for they were not murderers at heart. Their mental
condition was understandable, and their bearing while undergoing trial
is beside the question. Neither do I wish to include married or single
women who had killed their offspring at childbirth or soon after, for
they are outside my consideration. But I want to speak plainly about
those who had committed prearranged murders, and carried them out with
considerable skill.

In refreshing my memory about these, I find that they held several
characteristics in common:

1. Not one of them exhibited any sense of shame, no matter how
disgraceful the attendant circumstances.

2. Not one of them exhibited any nervousness or fear of the

3. Those who admitted their guilt justified their actions, and appeared
to believe that they had done the right thing.

4. Those who denied their guilt, denied it with cool and positive
assurance, and denied it to the last with almost contempt, as if the
charge was more an insult than anything serious.

5. None of them betrayed the slightest sorrow.

6. Every one of them appeared of sound mind so far as reasoning powers
were concerned, for they were quite lucid, and remarkably quick to see a
point in their favour.

7. None of them were fully able to realize the position in which they
stood, as ordinary people must have realized it.

Of course, everyone will admit that the man or woman who can plan and
carry out a murder, whether that murder is likely to be detected or not,
is not, and cannot be, a normal person; but what we require to know is
where they depart from the normal, and how and why they depart from the

I would like to say that the particulars just given are the results not
only of my observation of prisoners when in the dock, but also of many
personal and private conversations with them. In a word, I do not
consider that any of these prisoners were thoroughly sane. It may be
said–it is often said–that in human nature “we find what we look
for,” and there is truth in the saying; but when trying to understand
these people, I had not the slightest idea of what I was seeking. I knew
there must be some cause that led to the crime, something out of the
ordinary in their minds, but what it was and how to find it was more
than I could tell. So I have watched, have talked and listened. For
these prisoners were always ready to talk: there was no secrecy with
them, excepting with regard to the crime; otherwise they were talkative
enough. It takes some time and patience to discover whether or not in
people there is a suspicion of brain trouble. They appear so natural
that several lengthened conversations may be required before anything at
all is revealed. I trust that it will not be thought that I am betraying
confidences that poor wretches have given to me, for no prisoner, guilty
or innocent, ever confided in me without such confidences being
considered sacred; but as their cases are not of recent date, no harm
can be done, and possibly good may ensue, if I give some particulars
that I gained regarding their mental peculiarities. Being anxious to
ascertain how far my experience was confirmed by the experience of
others, quite recently I put a question to the chaplain of one of our
largest prisons, and whose experience was much greater than my own in
this particular direction. I asked him whether he had ever known anyone
who was about to suffer the death penalty for a premeditated and
cleverly contrived murder exhibit any sense of remorse, sorrow, or fear.
His answer was exactly what I expected–“that he had performed his last
sad offices for a considerable number of such prisoners, and that he
had discovered neither fear nor remorse in any of them; with one
exception, they all denied their guilt.” I want it to be perfectly clear
that I am speaking now about murderers who committed premeditated crimes
that had been cleverly carried out, impromptu murders not being

I now propose to give a sufficient number of examples to prove my point.
In a poor street within two hundred yards of my own door I had
frequently seen a beautiful boy of about four years old. His appearance,
his clothing, his cleanliness, and even his speech, told unmistakably
that he was not belonging to the poor. I knew the old people that he
lived with, and felt quite sure that it was not owing to their exertions
that he was so beautifully dressed and kept so spotlessly clean, for
they were old, feeble, and very poor. But the old people had a daughter
living with them, and it was the daughter who had charge of the child,
for the little fellow was a “nurse-child.” Good payment must have been
given for the care of the child, for it was the only source of income
for the household. The foster-mother was devoted to the boy, and he
reflected every credit upon her love and care. Many times when I have
met them I have spoken a cheery word to the little fellow, never
dreaming of the coming tragedy, or that I should meet his real mother
and discuss his death with her. The dead body of a boy between four and
five years of age had been discovered in the women’s lavatory of a North
London railway-station. Without doubt the child had been ruthlessly
murdered. His head had been smashed; his face was crushed beyond
recognition. A calcined brick lay close by the body, and had evidently
been used for perpetrating the deed. No other trace of the murder was
forthcoming, and the body was taken to the nearest mortuary. Meanwhile
the foster-mother and her aged parents were mourning the loss of the
bonny boy, for the boy’s mother had taken him from them that he might
begin his education in a boarding-school for young children at Brighton.
They had learned to love the child, and now he was gone. The old people
missed him sadly, and the nurse-mother wept for him. The house seemed so
dull without him. The murder occurred on a Saturday. On one of the early
days of the ensuing week a neighbour chanced to tell the nurse-mother
that she had read in a Sunday paper about the discovery of a child’s
mangled body at a North London railway-station, and also that the body
remained unidentified at the mortuary. Although the nurse had not the
slightest suspicion–for on the Saturday morning she had accompanied the
boy and his mother to London Bridge, where tickets had been taken for
Brighton, and the nurse had seen them safely on the correct platform and
the train waiting–yet the loss of her nurse-child had so affected her
that she wept as her neighbour told her of the newspaper account, and
they went together to the mortuary, which was some miles away, to see
the “other little dear.” It was some years before the nurse recovered
from the shock she sustained on her visit to the mortuary, for the
mangled and disfigured body was that of her late charge–her “dear
Manfred.” I question whether even now she has recovered, for several
times I know that she has been ill, and sometimes when I have been sent
for, she seemed likely to lose her reason, the one and only thing that
occupied her mind being the tragic discovery of her dear boy’s maimed
body. But the child’s mother undoubtedly went to Brighton on that
particular Saturday afternoon. She intended to go to Brighton, not for
the purpose of placing her child in a school, but for another purpose by
no means so praiseworthy, yet for a purpose that was esteemed by her a
sufficient justification for the murder of the child. She had lured a
young man into a promise to spend the week-end with her at Brighton, and
some reason had to be found and given for her visit. Placing the child
in a suitable school seemed a sufficient reason, so the nurse was
instructed to get the boy’s clothing ready and accompany her to London
Bridge. This was accordingly done, and the nurse returned home, fully
believing that the boy and his mother were on the way to Brighton. But
the mother did not go to Brighton by that train. She allowed it to go
without her, and when the nurse was safely away she left the platform,
saying that she had missed it, but would return and go by a later train.
She then took a bus for Broad Street Station, there taking a return
ticket for Dalston, where she alighted. The lavatory in question was on
the platform, consequently she did not pass the ticket-barrier. After
accomplishing her object with the brick I have referred to, and which
she had carried in her reticule all day for the purpose–for she had
taken it from the garden of the house where she lived–she returned to
Broad Street, giving her correct ticket up, and then on to London Bridge
and Brighton early enough to meet the young man, who was about half her
own age, and who spent the week-end with her.

I have given briefly the particulars of this gruesome affair because
they lead up to the mental conditions of the murderess. It will be
noticed that the murder was skilfully contrived beforehand; that the
object to be gained was indulgence with a young man but little more than
half her age; that within a few hours of killing her own boy she
smilingly met the young man as if nothing had happened. All these things
are extraordinary, but when to these some particulars regarding the
murderess are added, the character of the whole affair becomes more
extraordinary still. She was a governess, clever and exceedingly well
educated, with scientific accomplishments. She was about thirty-six
years of age, by no means soft or voluptuous in appearance, but with a
hard, strong cast of face. She was doing well in a pecuniary sense, and
her friends were also in good circumstances.

In considering the case, the first thing that strikes me is that when a
woman of her character, standing and appearance gives birth to an
illegitimate child, at an age when girlhood has long passed, there is an
absolute departure from the normal, there is something wrong. I need not
give any details of her trial, only to say the facts I have given were
fully proved, and to add that she was found guilty, sentenced, and

It is of her bearing and demeanour that I wish to speak. Of course, she
protested her innocence; any other person might be guilty, but it was
absurd to hint that she was guilty. Yet she betrayed no indignation. To
her it was Euclid over again, with _quod erat faciendum_, as the result
of the problem. She was cool, alert, and fearless; she showed no
emotion, no anxiety, no feeling. The killing of a sheep could not have
been a matter of less importance to her than was the murder of her own
child. Such was her demeanour at the inquest and at the police-court
proceedings, and this attitude she maintained to the end.

In her private conversation with me she was clear, animated, and
apparently calm and frank. I never saw the least symptoms of
nervousness, and her eyes met mine as naturally and unconcernedly as if
the charge she had to meet had not the remotest connection with herself.
Her last words to me were: “When I am discharged, I shall invite myself
to tea with Mrs. Holmes and yourself, for I am supported by the thought
that you firmly believe in my innocence.” I had never told her this, for
I had not discussed her guilt or innocence. She had talked to me, and I
had listened, putting a question occasionally to her. I could believe no
other than that she was verily guilty, but I did not tell her so–I had
no right to tell her so–but I listened and waited for an admission that
would throw some little light upon the state of her mind, and give me a
faint idea of the cause that led her to plan and execute the terrible
deed. This she did, and I am persuaded that she took away the boy to
furnish her with some excuse for spending the week-end at Brighton. I
leave it to others to decide upon her sanity, though personally I am
charitable enough to think she was insane. It is certain that she was
animated with fierce passion; it is also certain that in other respects
she was cold as an iceberg. For the death of her beautiful boy, whether
she was guilty or innocent of it, never troubled her for a moment. Does
a lust for blood accompany an excess of the other passion in a woman of
her temperament and characteristics? This I do not know, but I have no
doubt that wiser people do know. At any rate, with hands that had
cruelly battered the life out of her own child, and while the blood of
that child was still hot upon them, she welcomed her male friend. I
profess that I find some comfort in the belief that she was insane. Had
her insanity been just a little more obvious, she might have escaped the
death penalty and ended her days in a criminal lunatic asylum.

But I do not think the question of her sanity was ever raised. He would
have been a bold man that raised it, in the face of her accomplishments
and self-control. Some day we shall, perhaps, apply different methods to
test sanity than those now employed, and we shall look for other
symptoms in diagnosis than those we look for now. The most dangerous
madness is not that which is patent to everybody–the wild or vacant
eyes, the inconsequent or violent speech, the manifest delusions, and
the inability to conduct one’s own affairs. These are simple enough; but
the possessors of these characteristics are often harmless to the
community. But when the madness is half madness, and is covered with a
show of reason, it is then that danger is to be feared.

In the case I am now about to give insanity was just a little more
apparent, though I do not think it was more real. But its manifestation
was of sufficient magnitude to prevent capital punishment.

A young woman whose character was beyond reproach, and whose ability and
business aptitude gave the greatest pleasure to her employer and his
wife, was engaged as the manageress of a department in a drapery and
millinery shop in North London. She had been in the situation for some
months, and perfect confidence existed between the different parties.
One hot Sunday afternoon she suddenly awoke from an afternoon nap with
the conviction that she had been criminally assaulted by her employer.
The fact that she was in her own room with the door fastened did not
weigh with her at all. She declared that her employer was the guilty
person. The fact that he and his wife spent the afternoon out of doors
was nothing to her. Possessed with this extraordinary idea, she left
London at once for a town on the South Coast, where her brother lived.
Her brother appears to have accepted her statement without question or
demur, and to him the delusion became as real as to his sister. He armed
her with an exquisitely made and very formidable dagger, and provided
himself with an equally dangerous pistol and cartridges. Thus armed,
they came to London–he to take vengeance upon the man who had
dishonoured his sister, she to point out the man, and to be ready with
the dagger if the pistol failed to take effect. The brother did not
fail, for he shot the man dead. Now that vengeance was satisfied, the
couple were again harmless, for neither brother nor sister attempted to
do any more injury. They were arrested, and gave up their arms willingly
enough. They declared that they had done the deed, and that they
intended to kill the man; that they procured the weapons and came to
London for the express purpose. They claimed to be perfectly justified
in their joint action. This attitude they maintained before the court,
for when asked if they wished to put any questions to the witnesses, “Oh
no!” was the reply. “Of what use would they be? We did it; we are glad
that we did it. The consequences do not matter.” There was quite a
little dispute between the sister and brother. He declared that as he
killed the man he alone was entitled to the glory and the punishment;
but the sister declared that it was done at her request, and also that
she was prepared to kill if her brother had failed. Both were found
guilty, and both were committed to a criminal lunatic asylum. Yet they
had every appearance of being thoroughly sane; their manner, their
speech, their reasoning powers, and everything appertaining to them,
savoured of clear reason, their delusion alone excepted. If that
delusion had not been so manifest, undoubtedly they would have been
hanged. There seems to me to be no point from which a line can be drawn
to divide insanity from sanity. At present we have but clumsy,
uncertain, and very speculative methods of deciding upon a prisoner’s
sanity–methods that must often result in the punishment, if not the
death, of the prisoners who suffer from some kind of mental disease. I
am inclined to believe that the more all traces of madness are hidden by
clever murderers, the stronger is the probability of that madness
existing, for the very essence of cunning is employed in hiding it. They
will cheerfully contemplate the executioner’s rope rather than be
considered mad. The brother and sister to whom I have referred would
have cheerfully accepted the death penalty in preference to committal to
a lunatic asylum. In one of my conversations with the brother, I
suddenly asked him: “Have any of your relations been detained in lunatic
asylums?” He was quite ready for me, and he replied: “I am as sane as
you are; and if you are ever placed in a similar situation to mine, I
hope you will prove as sane as I have.”

The more I think over the two cases–one woman found sane and hanged,
the other declared insane and sent to a lunatic asylum–the more I am
convinced that equal justice has not been done. Probably the madness in
both women proceeded from the same cause, and it is clear that neither
of them had the slightest compunction about shedding blood.

I will deal briefly with my next case, and of a truth there is not much
to be said. He was a clerk about twenty-six years of age. He had married
a decent young woman, for whom he had made no provision other than a
loaded pistol. He had no home and no money, excepting a few pounds that
he had embezzled, and with this he had paid the marriage expenses. With
his last few shillings he hired a cab; drove, accompanied by his wife,
from place to place, in pretence of finding a home for her; and,
finally, while still in the cab, he did the deed for which he had
prepared–he shot her. He made no attempt to escape; he offered no
reason for his deed; he was quite satisfied with his action; and when
before the court he was absolutely unconcerned. I had several
conversations with him, and as he had publicly owned to the deed, there
was no harm in my assumption of his guilt. I said to him: “Tell me why
you did this cruel deed?” He said: “I don’t consider it a cruel deed.
What else could I do? You would have done the same.” Argument, of
course, was out of the question, but I did venture to express the hope
that I might not have done what he had done, when he again replied: “You
think so now; but if you had to do it, you would do it!” And this frame
of mind he maintained to the end–for he was hanged.

I do not say that he ought not to have been hanged, for it is difficult
to point out in what other way he could have been dealt with; but so
long as insanity is considered a sufficient reason for preventing the
death penalty, I do say that every possible means should be taken to
test a prisoner’s sanity before a final decision is arrived at; and,
further, that the appearance of positive sanity is under such
circumstances an indication of insanity. Every criminal, in addition to
murderers, ought to be subjected to a careful and prolonged scrutiny
and mental examination by experts. The cost would not be great, and I am
fully sure the results would compensate if the expense was great.
Prisons ought to become psychological observatories, and be made to
furnish us with a vast amount of useful information. There are so many
things we ought to know, and might know if we would only take pains to
know. It might be that the information obtained would make us sad and
excite our fear; it might be that our pity would be deeply stirred, and
that we should have a whole army of human beings upon our hands, for
whom we might feel hopeless and helpless. But we have these even now,
and for them imprisonment or hanging is a ready and simple plan that
suffices us! But ought they to suffice in these enlightened days? I
think not. At any rate, we ought to gather knowledge. With knowledge
will come power, and with power better methods of dealing with erring or
afflicted humanity. For the days will surely come when the hangman’s
rope will be seldom in requisition; when all the unhealthy and
demoralizing publicity attaching to a murder trial will be a thing of
the past; when criminals will not be made into public heroes, because of
the speculative and perhaps equal chances of life or death; when morbid
and widespread sentiment will not be created by public appeals to the
Home Secretary; and, perhaps best of all, when diseased minds will be no
longer influenced by the unhealthy publicity of the details pertaining
to a death sentence to commit the other crimes for which no motives have
been apparent.

Since writing the above chapter, the following appeared in the daily
papers of August 5, 1908:

“Thomas Siddle, a bricklayer, was yesterday executed at Hull for
the murder of his wife in June last. The crime was a particularly
callous one. Siddle was to have gone to prison for not paying his
wife’s maintenance under a separation order. On the day, however,
he visited her, and after some conversation savagely attacked her
with a razor. _Before his execution_ the prisoner _ate a hearty
breakfast, and smiled at the warders as he walked firmly to the

And now, so far as this book is concerned, I have done with prisoners
and criminals, so I turn right gladly to the other side of my life. For
my life is dual, one half being given to sinners and the other to
saints. I have spoken freely about the difficulties of prisoners and
with prisoners; let me now tell of the struggles, difficulties, and
virtues of the industrious poor. I will draw a veil over the ignorance,
the drunkenness, the wastefulness, and the cupidity of the very poor.
Other people may find these matters congenial, and may dilate upon them,
but such a task is not for me. I know these things exist–I do not
wonder at their existence–but other things exist also–things that warm
my heart and stir my blood–and of them I want to tell. And I have some
right to speak, for I know the very poor as few can know them. From
personal touch and friendly communion my experience has been acquired,
and I am proud to think that at least twelve hundred of London’s poorest
but most industrious women look upon me as their friend and adviser.

When I gave up police-court work, I thought to devote the remainder of
my days absolutely to the London home-workers; but Providence willed it
otherwise, so only one-half of a very busy life is at their service. Of
what that half reveals I cannot be silent, though I would that some far
abler pen than mine would essay the task of describing the difficulties
and perils that environ the lives of the industrious poor. I want and
mean to be a faithful witness, so I will tell of nothing that I have not
seen, I will describe no person that does not exist, and no narrative
shall sully my pages that is not true in fact and detail. Imagination is
of no service to me. I am as zealous for mere facts as was Mr. Gradgrind
himself, and my facts shall be real, self-sufficing facts, out-vying
imagination, and conveying their own lesson. If I carry my readers with
me, we shall go into strange places and see strange sights and hear
piteous stories; but I shall ask my readers to be heedless of all that
is unpleasant, not to be alarmed at forbidding neighbourhoods or
disgusted with frowzy women, but to contemplate with me the difficulties
and the virtues of the industrious poor, and then, if they will, to
worship with me at the shrine of poor humanity.

Quite recently I was invited to take sixty of my poor industrious women
to spend a day at Sevenoaks. Among the party was a widow aged sixty and
her daughter of thirty-five. They were makers of women’s costumes, and
had worked till half-past four that very morning in order to have the
day’s outing. I had known them for years, and many times had I been in
their poor home watching them as, side by side, they sat at their
machines. Happy were they in recent years when their united earnings
amounted to twenty-one shillings for a week’s work of eighty hours.
“Tell me,” I said to the widow, “how long have you lived in your present
house?” “Forty years,” said the widow. “Emmy was born in it, and my
husband was buried from it. I have been reckoning up, and find that I
have paid more than twelve hundred pounds in rent, besides the rates.”
“Impossible,” I said, “out of your earnings!” She said: “We let off part
of the house, and that pays the rates and a little over, but we always
have to find ten shillings a week for rent.” Ten shillings out of
twenty-one shillings, when twenty-one was forthcoming, which was by no
means the case every week. “We cannot do with less than three rooms–one
to work in, one to sleep in, and the little kitchen. I cannot get
anything cheaper in the neighbourhood.”

Here we come at once upon one of the greatest difficulties of the
industrious poor. If they wish to live in any way decently, one-half
their earnings disappears in rent.

“We have nowhere to go.” The difficulties the poor have in finding
suitable–or, indeed, any–rooms that may serve as a shelter for
themselves and their children, and be dignified by the name of “home,”
are almost past belief. All sorts of subterfuges are resorted to, and it
is no uncommon thing for a woman, when applying for one or more rooms,
to state the number of her children to be less than half what it is in
reality. Sometimes, it must be confessed, the people who obtain rooms
by such means are not desirable tenants; but it is also true that even
decent people have to resort to some kind of deception if they are to
find shelter at all.

Day after day in London police-courts the difficulty is made manifest.
Houses altogether unfit for human habitation have to be closed by order
of the authorities; but, wretched and insanitary as those dwellings are,
dangerous to the health and well-being of the community as they may be,
they are full to overflowing of poor humanity seeking some cover. But
they must “clear out.” Their landlords say so, the sanitary authorities
say so, and the magistrate confirms the landlord and the sanitary
authorities. The one cry, the one plea of all the poor who are to be
ejected is: “Where are we to go? We can’t get another place.” The kindly
magistrate generally allows a few weeks’ grace, and tells them to do
their best meanwhile to procure other rooms. For some this is a
possibility, but for others the period of grace will pass, and on an
appointed day an officer of the court will be in Paradise Row or Angel
Court, as the case may be, to see that the tenants are ejected without
undue violence, and that their miserable belongings are deposited safely
in the street.

On dark November days, with the rain coming steadily down, I have
frequently seen the débris of such homes, the children keeping watch,
and shivering as they watched. I have spoken to the children, asked them
about their mother, and their reply has been: “Mother has gone with the
baby to look for another place.”

Heaven help that mother in her forlorn hope and desperate search! I can
imagine her clutching the babe tightly to her, holding in her closed
hand the shilling that is to act as a deposit for binding a tenancy, her
last rent-book in her bosom to show her _bona fides_, going from street
to street, from house to house, climbing staircase after staircase,
exploring and appealing time after time. She will stoutly declare that
she has but two children, when she has six; she will declare that her
husband is a good, sober man, and in regular work, neither of which will
be true. Ultimately, she will promise to pay an impossible rent, and
tremulously hand over the shilling to bind the contract; then she will
return to the “things,” and tell the children of their new home. This is
no imaginary picture. It is so very true, so very common, that it does
not strike our imagination. The cry of the very poor is ever sounding in
our ears: “We have nowhere to live! We don’t know where to go!”

This fear of being homeless, of not being allowed to live in such
wretched places as they now inhabit, haunts the very poor through life,
and pursues them to the grave. And this worry, anxiety, and trouble
falls upon the woman, adding untold suffering to her onerous life; for
it is the woman that has to meet the rent-collector, whose visits come
round all too quickly; she has to mollify him when a few shillings
remain unpaid. The wife has to procure other rooms when her husband has
fallen out of work, and she receives the inevitable notice to quit when
there appears to be a possibility of the family becoming still more
numerous. If sickness, contagious or otherwise, comes upon any of the
children, and the shadow of death enters the home, upon the wife comes
the heart-breaking task of seeking a new home and conveying her children
and “things” to another place. This is no light task. The expense is a
consideration, and the old home, bad as it was, had become in many ways
dear to her. What more pitiful sight can be imagined than the removal?
No pantechnicon is required–a hired barrow is sufficient; and when
night has well advanced the goods are conveyed in semi-darkness from the
old home to the new.

Think for a moment what a life she lives, to what shifts she is reduced,
what privations she endures! Is it any wonder that the children born of
her have poor bodies and strange minds?

“The children born of thee are fire and sword,
Red ruin, and the breaking up of laws,”

Tennyson makes King Arthur to say. In many respects these words are true
of poor mothers in London. The houses in which they live, the conditions
under which they exist, the ceaseless worries and nameless fears they
endure, make it absolutely certain that many of the children born will
be strange creatures.

And right up to the verge of eternity the fear of being homeless haunts
the poor. Let one instance suffice. I was visiting a young married woman
whose husband had been sent to prison for some months. She lived in one
room, for which she paid, or should have paid, four shillings and
sixpence weekly. The street was a very poor street, and the house a very
small house. It stood, without any forecourt, close up to the street
pavement. While I was speaking to the young woman a message came that
the landlady, who lived downstairs, wanted to speak to me; so down the
narrow stairs I went. There being only one room below, I rapped at the
door, and a very queer voice told me to “Come in.” I went in, and found
a very small room, occupied chiefly by a bed, a small table, and several
broken chairs. On the bed lay an old woman. Her face was puckered with
age, her forehead was deeply furrowed, her eyes were dim, and the hands
lying on the quilt were more like claws than human hands. As I stood
over her, she looked up and said: “Are you Mr. Holmes? I want my rent.”
Her voice was so strange and thin that I had some difficulty in
understanding her, but I found that the tenant upstairs owed her five
weeks’ rent, and that, now her husband was in prison, the poor old woman
was afraid of losing it. As the matter seemed to trouble her greatly, I
told her that I would pay the arrears of her rent. “But I want it now,”
she went on. “The collector is coming to-morrow, and I shall be put
out–I shall be put out.” I stroked her thin hair, and told her that I
would call early the next morning and give her the money. But the poor
woman looked worried and doubtful. I called early the next morning, and
found the old woman expecting me. “Have you brought my rent?” were the
first words I heard on entering the room. I took up one of her thin
hands and opened it, and put a sovereign in it. “That is a sovereign,” I
said. She held it up, and tried to look at it; but she was not
satisfied, for she said to her daughter, who was standing by: “Jane, is
this a sovereign?” When Jane assured her that it was, the old hand
closed convulsively upon it. “Hold out your other hand,” I said. She
held it open, and I counted five shillings into it. Then that hand
closed, and the old head lay a bit closer to the pillow, and an
expression of restful satisfaction passed over her withered face. A week
later I called at the same house, but the old woman was not there,
neither had she been “put out.” She had paid the rent-collector when he
called, and her rent-book was duly signed; but the Great Collector had
not forgotten her, for He also had called and given her a receipt in
full. Her worries were ended.

If we would but think–think of the effect that such anxieties must have
upon the present and future generations–I believe that we should
realize that first and foremost of all questions affecting the health
and happiness of the nation stands the one great question of “housing
the very poor”; for the chivalry of our men, the womanliness of our
women, the sweetness of our daughters, and the brave hearts of our lads
depend upon it.

But if the fear of being “put out” has its terrors, none the less has
the continuous occupation of one room its attendant evils. It is so easy
for humanity to get used to wretched homes and vile environments, so
easy to get accustomed to dirt, thick air, and insanitary conditions,
that one does not wonder that poor people who have lived for years under
such conditions prefer those conditions to any other. And this holds
true even with those who have known the bracing effect of cold water on
their bodies, and have felt the breath of God in their lungs. The return
path to dirt is always alluring to the human body. Time and again I have
gone into places where I hardly dared to breathe, and in which I could
only with the greatest difficulty stay for a few minutes; and when I
have sometimes ventured to open a window a look of astonishment crossed
the faces of those I had called on, for even the thick atmosphere had
become natural.

And other results follow–mental as well as physical. To become, through
bad but frightfully dear housing, gradually used to dirt and bad air,
till these are looked upon as natural, carries along with it, as part
and parcel of itself, another deadening influence. Filth raises no
feeling of disgust; high rents produce no sense of injustice, no
feelings of resentment: for the poor become absolutely passive. Yes, and
passive in more ways than one; for they, without question or demur,
accept any payment that may be given them for such services as they can
render. Inevitably, they become the prey of the sweater, and work for
endless hours at three halfpence per hour; and if the payment for the
work they do should, without their permission, be reduced, it only means
that a couple of hours more must be added to the long day already

It is this passivity of the poor that appals me. Their negative virtues
astonish me, for I find in them no bitterness, no sense of wrong, no
idea of rebellion, no burning resentment–not even the feeling that
something is wrong, though they know not what. Their only ambition is
to live their little lives in their very little homes; to be ready
weekly with their four shillings for their wretched room in a wretched
house; to have plenty of poorly-paid work, though they sit up all night
to do it; and to sit in poverty and hunger when sufficient work is not
to hand, to suffer silently, to bear with passive heroism, and to die
unburied by the parish.

Such is the life of many London home-workers, of whom some are my
personal friends. But what becomes of this life? The death of
aspiration. A machine-like perseverance and endurance is gradually
developed; but the hope of better things dies: hope cannot exist where
oxygen is absent. Then comes the desire to be let alone, and alone to

I have met women who had become so used to the terrible conditions under
which they lived that no amount of persuasion could induce them to move
out of those conditions. Again I draw upon my experience.

One cold day in February a young married man was charged with stealing a
piece of pork. I had some conversation with him, and he told me that he
was out of work, that his wife and children were starving, and that his
widowed mother, who lived in the same house, was in much the same
condition. He gave me their address–a poor street in Haggerston–so I
visited the family. It was a terrible street even for Haggerston, but it
was crowded with humanity. I found the house, and went up the rotten
staircase to the first-floor back. There I found the prisoner’s wife,
sitting at a machine making babies’ boots. In the room was an old
broken perambulator, in which were two children, one asleep and the
other with that everlasting deceit, a “baby’s comforter,” in its mouth.
As the child fed on the thick air it looked at me with wondering eyes,
and the mother kept on working. Presently she stopped and answered my
questions. Yes, it was true her husband was out of work. He was good to
her, and a sober, industrious man. They paid three and sixpence weekly
for their room, when they could. Would I excuse her? She must get on
with her work; she wanted to take it in. I excused her, and, leaving her
a few shillings, went in search of the older woman.

I found her in another small room; but, small as the room was, there
were two beds in it, which were covered with match-boxes. A small table
and two old chairs completed the furniture. She was seated making
match-boxes as I entered, and I saw her hands moving with that
dreadfully automatic movement that has so often made me shudder.

She looked up at me, but on she went. I spoke to her of her son, told
her my business, and ultimately sat down and watched her. Poor old
woman! She was fifty-six, she told me. She might have been any age over
seventy. She was a widow. She had lived in that room thirteen years,
having come to it soon after her husband’s death. Whilst I was speaking
to her she got up from her boxes, took a small saucepan off the
miserable fire, and out of it took some boiled rice, put it in an old
saucer, sat down, and ate it. It was her dinner.

Afterwards she put the remaining rice in a saucer, covered it with
another, and placed it in front of the fire. I soon saw why. A lanky boy
of nearly fourteen came in from school, and she pointed to the saucer.
He took it, and swallowed the rice, and looked at me. I looked at the
boy, and read the history of his life in his face and body. He had been
born in that room; that was his bed in the corner covered with
match-boxes. The old woman was his mother. Three and sixpence every week
had she paid for that room. Nearly three days of the week she had worked
for interminable hours to earn the money that paid for the shelter for
herself and the boy.

I will not describe the boy. Was he a boy at all? All his life he had
lived, moved, and had his being in that room; had fed as I saw him feed,
and had breathed the air I was breathing.

He went back to school, and I talked to his mother. She owed no rent;
she had received no parish help. She never went to church or chapel. She
wanted nothing from anybody. That little room had become her world, and
her only recreation was taking her boxes to the factory. Grimy and
yellow were the old hands that kept on with the boxes. I offered her a
holiday and rest. There was the rent to be paid. I would pay the rent.
She had no clothes suitable. Mrs. Holmes would send her the clothes.
There was the boy to be seen to. I would arrange for him. No; she would
not go. Her last word was that she did not wish or care to leave her
home. Neither did she. And though years have passed since my first
visit to that one-roomed house, out of it the old woman has not passed,
excepting on her usual errand. And fresh air, clean sheets, and
relaxation meant nothing to her.

I sat in the dark, damp kitchen of a house in one of the narrow streets
of Hoxton. Over my head some very poor clothing was hanging to dry. It
was winter-time, and the gloom outside only added to the gloom within,
and through a small window the horrors of a London back-yard were
suggested rather than revealed.

As I sat watching the widow at her work, and wondered much at the
mechanical accuracy of her movements, I felt something touch my leg,
and, looking down, found a silent child, about three years of age, on
the floor at my feet. I had been in the room some few minutes, and had
not previously seen or heard the child, it was so horribly quiet. I
picked it up, and placed it on my knee, but it was passive and open-eyed
as a big doll. The child had been born in that kitchen on a little
substitute for a bed that half-filled the room. Its father was dead, and
the widowed mother got a “living” for herself and her children by
attaching bits of string to luggage labels, for which interesting work
she got fourpence per thousand. In her spare time she took in washing,
and the clothes over my head belonged to neighbours.

Fifteen years she had lived in that house. It was her first home after
marriage. Till his death, which occurred three years before, her husband
had been tenant of the whole house, but always “let off” the upper part,
which consisted of two rooms, it being a two-storied house.

He died of consumption in the other room on the ground-floor, which
abutted the street pavement. Her child was born in the kitchen as her
husband lay dying a few feet away in the front-room. So that wretched
house was dear to her, for love, death, and life had been among its
visitants, and it became to her a sacred and a solemn place. She became
tenant of the house, and continued to let off the two upper rooms; and
with her children round her she continued her life in the lower rooms.
The rent was 13s. weekly. She received 7s. 6d. weekly for the two upper
rooms, leaving 5s. 6d. weekly to be the burden and anxiety of her life;
so she tied knots and took in washing. The very sight of the knot-tying
soon tired me, and the dark, damp atmosphere soon satisfied me. As I
rose to leave, the widow invited me to “look at her boy in the other
room.” We went into the room in front. It was now quite dark, and the
only light in the room came through the window from a street-lamp. The
widow spoke to someone, but no answer came. I struck a wax match and
held it aloft. A glance was enough. I asked the widow to get a lamp, and
one of those cheap, dangerous abominations provided for the poor was
brought to me.

On the bed lay a strange-looking boy of nine, twisted and deformed in
body, wizened in features, suffering writ all over him, yet
apathetically and unconcernedly waiting for the end. With the lamp in my
hand, I bent over him and spoke kindly to him. He looked at me, then
turned away from me; he would not speak to me. Poor little fellow! He
had suffered so long and so much that he expected nothing else. He knew
that he was dying. What did it matter? The mothers in London streets are
not squeamish, and their young children are very soon made acquainted
with the mysteries of life and death.

“He has been in two hospitals, and I have fetched him home to die,” said
the widow to me. “How long has he lain like this?” I asked. “Three
months.” “Who sleeps in that bed with him?” “I do, and the little boy
you saw in the kitchen.” “Who sleeps in the kitchen?” “Only George: he
is fourteen.”

On inquiry, I was told that the dying boy had always been weak and
ailing, and also that, when five years of age, he had been knocked down
in the street by a cyclist, and that he had been crippled and twisted
ever since.

Nearly five years of suffering, and now he had “come home to die.” Poor
little fellow! What a life for him! What a death for him! Born in a dark
kitchen while his father lay dying; four years of joyless poverty in a
London street; five years of suffering, in and out of hospitals; and now
“home to die.” And he knew it, and waited for the end with contemptuous
indifference. But he had not much longer to wait, for in three weeks’
time the blessed end came.

But the widow still takes in washing, damp clothes still hang in her
dark kitchen, and by the faint light of her evil-smelling lamp she
continues to “tie her knots”; and the silent child is now acquiring some
power of expression in the gutter.

Slum property sometimes gets into queer hands. Sometimes it is almost
impossible to find the real owners, and the fixing of responsibility
becomes a great difficulty.


An old woman, dressed in greasy black silk, with a bonnet of ancient
date, often appeared in one of our courts for process against some of
her many tenants. Her hair, plastered with grease, hung round her head
in long ringlets; her face never showed any signs of having been washed;
a long black veil hung from her old bonnet, and black cotton gloves
covered her hands. She was the widow of a well-to-do jeweller, and owned
some rows of cottage property in one of our poorest neighbourhoods.
After her husband’s death, she decided to live in one of her cottages
and collect her own rents. She brought with her much jewellery, etc.,
that had not been sold, and there in the slums, with her wealth around
her, and all alone, lived the quaint old creature. Week by week she
appeared at the court for “orders” against tenants who had not paid
their rent. Though seventy-three, she would have no agent; she could
manage her own business. Suddenly she appeared as an applicant for
advice. She had married: her husband was a carpenter, aged twenty-one.
They had been married but a few days, and her husband refused to go to
work–so she told the magistrate. “Well, you know, madam, that you have
plenty for both,” said the magistrate. “That’s what he says, but I tell
him that I did not marry him that I might keep him.” She got neither
help nor comfort from the magistrate, so she tottered out of the court,
grumbling as she went. In a few days she appeared again. “My husband has
stolen some of my jewellery.” Again she got no comfort. Still again she
complained. “My husband has been collecting my rents.” “Send a notice to
your tenants warning them not to pay your husband.” She did so; the
husband did the same, warning the tenants not to pay his wife. This
suited the tenants admirably: they paid neither. Never were such times
till the old woman applied for ejectment orders wholesale. While these
things were going on the youthful husband wasted her substance in
riotous living, and showed a decided preference for younger women. This
aroused the old woman’s jealousy; she couldn’t put up with it. Packing
her jewels and valuables in a portmanteau, she left her house. When her
husband returned at night the wife of his bosom was gone; neither did
she return. He was disconsolate, and sought her sorrowing. Some miles
away she had a poor widowed sister, and there the old woman found

But there paralysis seized her, and a doctor had to be called in. He
acted in the double capacity of doctor and lawyer, for he drew up a
will, put a pen into her hands, and guided her gently while she signed
it. “All her worldly goods were left to her sister.” Ultimately the
husband found out where she was located, and frequently called at the
house, but the door was barred against him. It was winter-time, and the
snow lay on the ground. At midnight a cab drew softly up to the house
where the old woman lay. Suddenly there was a loud knock at the door,
and the sister came down to answer. Thoughtlessly she opened the door,
when she was seized by two men, who locked her in the front parlour
while they ran upstairs, rolled the old woman in warm blankets, carried
her to the cab, and away they went. A nice room and another doctor were
awaiting her. Another will was drawn up, which the old woman signed.
“All her worldly goods were left to her dear husband.” Next morning the
sister applied for a summons against the young husband, but the
magistrate decided that the man had a right to run away with his own
wife. All might have gone merrily for the husband, but the old lady
died. The sister went to the police, who arrested him for causing his
wife’s death. For many days the case was before the court, half a dozen
doctors on each side expressing very decided opinions. Ultimately he was
committed for trial. Doctors and counsel galore were concerned, but the
jury acquitted him at last. And then came another trial. Counsel and
doctors were again concerned. Which will was to stand? I don’t know how
they settled it, but one thing I am sure about–when the doctors and
lawyers had got their share, and the counsel had had a good picking,
there was not much left for the loving husband and the dear sister.

Since writing the above, the following paragraphs have appeared in the
daily press:


“‘My wife is lying dead in the house, and the landlord threatens to
eject me at twelve o’clock if I am not out. What can I do?’ Thus asked a
respectable-looking working man of Mr. d’Eyncourt at Clerkenwell
Police-Court. ‘Has he given you notice?’ ‘Yes; but how can I go just
now? The funeral is to-morrow, and I have offered to go on Wednesday,
but he says he will put me in the street to-day.’ ‘Well, he’s legally
entitled to do so, I am afraid. I can do nothing.’ ‘I thought that
perhaps you might ask him to let me stay for a day or two.’ ‘No, that is
a matter for you. I cannot interfere,’ the magistrate observed in


“Mr. H. Sherwin White requested Mr. Marsham at Bow Street Police-Court
to appoint someone under the Lands Clauses Consolidation Act to
determine the value of the forecourts of five houses in Coldharbour
Lane, Brixton, which had been required for tramway purposes. He added
that the owner of the houses could not be found. Mr. Marsham appointed
Mr. A. L. Guy to be valuer.”