This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library Image from the history picture library

Subject: ‘Famous crimes’

All of these articles and images are available for licensing: click on an image to see further details and licensing options; contact us about licensing textual content.

Lincoln’s assassin may have escaped the Yankee soldier’s bullet

Posted in America, Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about Abraham Lincoln first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln,  picture, image, illustration
The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

The crackling upsurge of flame as the back of the tobacco shed was set on fire, the sharp crack of the rifle shot, the piercing cry of the man as he was hit, had taken, in all, no more than 15 seconds.

The secret service men stood gazing down at their victim as he lay sprawled and dying on the mud floor. The face was greying, already gaunt with pain, and the onlookers could not be absolutely sure that this was John Wilkes Booth, the most hated man in America.

Paradoxically, Booth, a member of a renowned acting family, was also the most lauded and admired.

It could hardly have been otherwise in a country just emerged from a terrible civil war that had scarred with hate the hearts of the losers, the Confederates of the American South.

From their point of view, it was justice, not murder, when Booth crept into President Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, on 14th April, 1865, and shot him in the back of the head.

Abraham Lincoln was the President who had just harried the South to defeat, and many southerners silently echoed Booth’s theatrical cry of “Sic semper tyrannis!” “Thus all tyrants! The South is avenged!” as he leapt from the box on to the stage, brandishing a huge knife.

The gesture was spoiled, though. Booth caught his foot in the flags draping the President’s box and fell, breaking a bone in his left leg. Somehow, in all the screaming and confusion that followed the killing, he managed to scramble through the stage door and out into the street, where his horse was waiting.

Booth made his way in the only logical direction, towards the South.

On April 22nd, eight days after killing Lincoln, he crossed the Potomac River into Virginia. Virginia had been one of the most prominent of the eleven states comprising the former “Confederacy” of the South, and it was here that Booth met three Confederate soldiers who agreed to help him.

They hid him in a tobacco shed on a lonely farm near the town of Bowling Green. However, it seems that Booth got no further. Trapped inside the shed by his pursuers on April 26th he was shot in the head and died three hours later.

That, at least, is what most people believed until 1910, when a writer called F. L. Bates suggested that a certain David George, who killed himself in Oklahoma in 1902, was in reality Lincoln’s murderer.

Read the rest of this article »

Some Americans welcomed the assassination of Huey Long

Posted in America, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about Huey Long first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 595 published on 9 June 1973.

The calm of the corridors in Louisiana’s State Capitol at Baton Rouge was shattered when the assassin’s shot rang out. It took Senator Huey Long two days to die from his wounds, but his assailant perished at once. The Senator’s bodyguard saw to that, pumping 57 bullets into him.

So perished a man who has been described as a monster, a hero, a villain, a fascist, a communist, a democrat, a dictator and a saviour of his people. How could one man attract such different opinions, and where does the truth about him lie? Americans have been arguing about his scandalous, yet in some ways glorious, career ever since he died in September, 1935, just when it looked as if he might become President of the United States!

To his friends – who included most of the poor people of Louisiana – hillbillies, cotton pickers, swamp dwellers and the rest – he was the man who built a network of roads with no toll gates, who built bridges and hospitals, who issued free textbooks to children of all races. He was a man who stood up to the big bosses of the oil companies, the powerful and rich old families of New Orleans and the cotton plantations, who had governed the state like something out of the Middle Ages, and he had beaten them.

They all knew how he had left school early and become a salesman, then passed his law exams in a single year, broken into politics, and become first Governor of Louisiana, then a Senator up in Washington, the capital, telling folks there how to run things. And didn’t he invent an idea called “Share Our Wealth,” which was aimed at stopping the rich getting richer and at making them put back some money into the pockets of plain “folks”? They called him the Kingfish after a favourite cartoon character of the day and they loved him. He was one of them.

True, they heard that he lined his own pockets in the process, but wasn’t that what others had done before?

Read the rest of this article »

George Edalji was wrongfully convicted of butchering a pony

Posted in Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Law on Monday, 17 March 2014

This edited article about miscarriages of justice first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 592 published on 19 May 1973.

Edalji case, picture, image, illustration
George Edalji was accused of killing animals despite a heavy police presence in the area

The family began to dread the sight of the postman. They had thought that the days of the cruel, unsigned poison-pen letters were over, but now the nightmare had begun all over again.

It had not been easy for the Reverend Edalji to settle down with his wife, daughter and son in the Staffordshire village of Great Wyrley, for he was an Indian in an area where hardly anyone had ever seen one. He had come to the village after marrying a local clergyman’s daughter.

At first, despite the villagers’ suspicion of him, there had been no actual trouble. But in 1888 the letters began to arrive. These original ones were not too alarming, and a servant later confessed to having written them. It was the ones that started arriving in 1892 that were so horrible.

The Edaljis were not the only people in the village to get them, but theirs were the worst. It was obvious that a local man was writing them and that he particularly hated their son, George, now a law student. The writer kept threatening him with death.

To make matters worse, junk was left in the Edalji’s garden, false advertisements were put in the paper about the family and then one morning they found the key of Walsall Grammar School on their doorstep!

The police had failed to track down the culprit, but their Chief Constable, the Hon. George Anson, was in no doubt. Anson wrote to George’s father and told him the letter-writer was his son.

He had no proof, and it was ludicrous to suppose that George would have threatened himself or risked his longed-for career by writing them, but that did not stop Anson making his accusations.

But Anson could not charge George and in 1895 the letters stopped. There was a lull of eight years until in February, 1903, a series of deadly night attacks on sheep, cattle and horses began and continued for 11 months, despite a growing number of police guards in the area. The letters began again too, some signed by “greatorex,” a local boy who could not have written them, as he was away at the time. The letters went to the Edaljis, other villagers and the police, and in them George was named as the leader of a gang of cattle killers, and the writer implied that he too, was in the gang and willing to inform. George was still living at home, but was now a respected and well liked Birmingham solicitor.

In August 1903, in the middle of the animal killing period, he was arrested and sentenced to prison for seven years for killing a pony several hundred yards from his house. Police “proof” included boots covered with black mud although the earth near the dead pony was reddish, and horsehairs on one of his jackets which they had flung into a sack with part of a horse’s hide in it!

Read the rest of this article »

Richard III was a victim of the Tudor propaganda machine

Posted in Famous battles, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Shakespeare on Monday, 17 March 2014

This edited article about King Richard III first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 592 published on 19 May 1973.

Richard III,  picture, image, illustration
Richard III put up an heroic fight at Bosworth Field by James E McConnell

The image of Richard III as a monstrous hunchback slaughtering his way to the throne has persisted in the popular mind for almost five centuries. History, it seems, has rarely produced a villain so thoroughly evil or so totally detestable.

This pejorative picture is renewed every time an actor takes the stage to play the part of Richard in Shakespeare’s powerful drama of his life and death. In “Richard III,” the king is shown as a murderer, usurper and schemer, utterly lacking in feeling or morals, who ends, deservedly, the victim of fear-ridden dreams, remorse and violent death.

Shakespeare’s play was produced in 1593 – 108 years after Richard was killed at the battle of Bosworth, the closing conflict of the Wars of the Roses, and the victorious Henry Tudor became King Henry VII.

Shakespeare wrote it for an audience which appreciated the stability strong Tudor rule had brought to England, and which was used to the idea that Henry had been England’s saviour, banishing the dread of civil war and curbing the power of the nobles whose ambitions had fostered it.

The play was very popular, not least because this audience saw in it what it wanted and expected.

However, it was also seeing one of the most diligent pieces of character assassination history has ever known.

The battle of Bosworth saw the end of Richard III in more ways than one, for its sequel was the murder of his reputation.

The contrast between the historical Richard and the heinous villain of Tudor propaganda appears most forcefully in the work of John Rous, a priest who was working on a history of the Earls of Warwick in the closing years of the Wars of the Roses.

In its first version, this history, known today as the Rows Roll, described Richard in particularly effusive terms. Rous wrote of him as “A mighty prince and especially good lord . . . in his realm commendably punishing offenders of the laws . . . . . . by the which discreet guiding he got great thanks and love of all his subjects.”

This was not mere sycophancy. Ample confirmation of Rous’s sentiments exists in several independent sources, and the picture that emerges from them shows that Richard enjoyed much popularity and respect as a fair administrator and a dispenser of justice in whom his subjects could, and did, place great faith.

Read the rest of this article »

The dangerous days of Britain’s long-distance mail coaches

Posted in Communications, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Transport, Travel on Sunday, 16 March 2014

This edited article about Britain’s postal service first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 591 published on 12 May 1973.

The Birmingham Flyer,  picture, image, illustration
The Birmingham Flyer by Derek Eyles

The Royal Palace of Sheen, in Surrey, was unnaturally quiet. Instead of the usual gaiety and music, the bustling of servants and the gossip of courtiers, there were only silent groups of grave-faced men and women. They were waiting for the end of an age, for their Queen, Elizabeth I, was dying. Soon after midnight on 24th March, 1603, their long vigil ended.

Within half-an-hour a rider cantered out of the courtyard, at the start of a long journey to Edinburgh where King James would learn of the throne which awaited him. The messenger, Sir Robert Carey, galloped on through the day, changing horses every 20 miles or so. The roads were atrocious and he passed many a coach, floundering up to the axles in mud. But the Tudor postal system, with its regular stages and efficient organisation was designed to help a single rider and he eventually completed the 400 mile journey in under three days.

Not everyone, however, heard the news with such speed. There were parts of Devon and Cornwall where the people were still unaware of the change of monarch six months later! It was at times like these that people realised how much still needed to be done before the Postal Service could really be said to cover the country and it took another 250 years to achieve this.

The idea of a regular series of messengers was nothing new, for both the Persian and the Roman Empires relied on state couriers to deliver despatches over the thousands of miles of territory they controlled. Houses were built at regular stages, or posts, along all the main roads and these provided protection, fresh horses, and reserve messengers so that the service could be as speedy as possible. The Greek historian, Herodotus was a great admirer of these despatch riders and he wrote:

‘Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.’

A good system of posts, it was realised was an aid to power and so it was the King who usually kept tight control over the system.

Read the rest of this article »

George Archer-Shee and the case of the stolen postal order

Posted in Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Law on Friday, 14 March 2014

This edited article about George Archer-Shee first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 589 published on 28 April 1973.

Sir E H Carson,  picture, image, illustration
The Right Honourable Sir E H Carson, the brilliant defence barrister for George Archer-Shee

For three gruelling hours, Sir Edward Carson, the most famous and feared barrister in Britain, grilled the 13-year-old boy, while the youngster’s father and brother sat watching and listening intently. At the end of the ordeal Carson announced himself completely satisfied. George Archer-Shee was innocent.

And what was the crime that the boy had been “convicted” of without any sort of trial and then dismissed in disgrace from the Royal Naval College at Osborne? He had allegedly stolen a postal order worth five shillings, taken it to the local post office and forged the signature of its rightful owner. The vindication of this obscure young naval cadet was to be one of Carson’s greatest triumphs, and the case he was most pleased to have won.

George had been in his third term at Osborne, the college set in the grounds of Queen Victoria’s old home near Cowes in the Isle of Wight. It was a temporary home for cadets while the famous Naval College at Dartmouth was being built.

On October 7th, 1908, Cadet Terence Back received a five shilling postal order which that afternoon was stolen from his locker while he was out running. He reported the theft to the chief petty officer, who had given two cadets permission to go to the local Post Office that afternoon. One was George, who slept in the next bed to Back, the other was a boy called Arbuthnot. According to the Postmistress, Miss Tucker, Arbuthnot bought a postal order, then later, another cadet came in cashing a five shilling one, signing it Terence Back. And the same cadet asked for a postal order for fifteen and six.

George agreed about this last one, for he wanted it to send off to London for a model train. At an identity parade the Postmistress failed to pick out George or Arbuthnot; then George was made to write Back’s signature down. He had seen it often enough and did so.

The signature and the postal order then went to a so-called handwriting expert who – amazingly to those who have studied them – was able to state categorically that they were written by the same person.

So it was that Mr Archer-Shee, a distinguished banker, received ten days later a curt note from the Admiralty asking him to remove his son from Osborne. Though he believed in his son, he had to obey.

Read the rest of this article »

Martin Luther King died for a dream of freedom and equality

Posted in America, Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 12 March 2014

This edited article about Martin Luther King  first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 587 published on 14 April 1973.

Martin Luther King, picture, image, illustration

Martin Luther King

They bombed his house, they beat up his followers, they beat him up. Once they nearly stabbed him to death. Finally, they shot him in a hotel in the centre of Memphis, Tennessee. Doctor Martin Luther King, the most respected and loved figure in the movement for, civil rights for Blacks had paid the penalty of his success and his greatness.

“They” were the enemies of his race, who resented efforts by Blacks and Whites alike to improve the lot of the African American. A sniper killed him on April 4, 1968, almost five years after another sniper had killed President John F. Kennedy, and not long before the President’s brother, Robert Kennedy, was also murdered. No great nation has ever suffered three such devastating blows at the hands of assassins in such a very short time.

Martin Luther King, 39 when he died, had summed up his mission in front of the Abraham Lincoln Monument in Washington one day in 1963 before 200,000 Blacks and Whites, just a century after Lincoln had freed the slaves in the middle of the Civil War. In his noble voice with its Southern lilt King said: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. . . ‘ I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. . . . We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” His dream may still come true.

Many of the men who signed the original Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776 with its words, “all men are created equal,” had slaves of their own, so that clearly some were more equal than others! Today, almost 200 years after that Declaration, and despite official Government policy, and laws to help Blacks in the North and South, they have a long way to go before they can feel themselves the equal of Whites, whatever the laws say in their favour.

King was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, his father being a Baptist preacher. Times were grim for Blacks in the South, though at least Southerners were honest in their determination to keep “uppity” Blacks down. The North boasted about its better race relations, but, in fact, had little to boast about either.

Read the rest of this article »

The Castle of La Mota could not hold ruthless Cesare Borgia

Posted in Castles, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Religion, War on Tuesday, 4 March 2014

This edited article about the Borgias first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 577 published on 3 February 1973.

Cesare Borgia in battle,  picture, image, illustration
Cesare went to war again, this time fighting for the King of Navarre by Angus McBride

The heavily armed Spanish soldiers rode close beside their richly dressed prisoner and his few servants, but there was scarcely need for so strong a guard. The prisoner lolled on his horse, still weak from his recent illness. He was barely able to grasp the saddle, and one of his servants had to hold the reins of his horse. Certainly, he had not the strength to give spur to his horse and make a last desparate bid for escape.

The party journeyed across the barren, windswept plain towards the walled city of Medina del Campo. But, instead of entering the city gates, they turned off and climbed the steep rocky slope that led up to the high outer walls of the Castle of La Mota. The password was given and the drawbridge lowered. The party clattered across it, past the guard house and into the inner courtyard. The prisoner and his servants were bundled from their horses and across to the great door. They were pushed inside and the door was slammed shut.

The infamous Cesare Borgia was a prisoner of the Castle of La Mota, a place whose great tower and high walls prevented all hope of escape.

The Borgias were a Spanish family who had come to Rome from Valencia. Rodrigo Borgia, himself the nephew of a Pope, was appointed Pope in 1492, styling himself Alexander VI. In those days, it was not uncommon for Popes to have families, and Rodrigo was no exception. He had four children. He was a man of great ambition not only for himself but for his family as well. He wanted them to have power and estates. His eldest son, Juan, was given the Dukedom of Gandia. For his second eldest son, however, Rodrigo had other plans. He wanted him to enter the Church, and so he made him a Cardinal. This son was Cesare Borgia, a man who had little liking for the Church, but who shared his father’s greed for power. Because of this, he greatly resented the wealth and possessions that were being bestowed on other members of his family, and he was particularly jealous of his older brother, Juan.

Cesare’s brother had married into the royal house of Spain. His sister, Lucrezia, had married to become an Italian princess. And all Cesare had was the position of Cardinal. But Cesare Borgia was making his plans.

It was a Wednesday evening in June. Cesare and his brother, Juan, had attended a banquet. They left together. That was the last time Juan was seen alive. A few days later his body was taken from the river. He had been stabbed nine times. Cesare was now the eldest son. His father was forced to release him from his position as Cardinal and let him take his place in the outside world.

But Cesare Borgia still yearned for power. For a while he went to France and stayed at the court of King Louis XII. Here the King agreed to arrange a wealthy marriage for him if, in return, Cesare Borgia would help him by leading a French Army to regain the regions of Naples and Milan, which had previously belonged to France. Cesare agreed and so married Charlotte, sister of the King of Navarre.

Read the rest of this article »

The arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel

Posted in English Literature, Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Law, London, Theatre on Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Arrest of Oscar Wilde,  picture, image, illustration
The arrest of Oscar Wilde:’The pet of London society, one of our most successful playwriters and poets, arrested on a horrible charge'; from the Illustrated Police Budget, 13 April 1895

Oscar Wilde withdrew from the prosecution case regarding The Marquess of Queensberry’s alleged libel on Friday 5 April, 1895. He spent time with both the Douglas sons, Percy and Alfred, over lunch, and in the late afternoon returned to the Cadogan Hotel where ‘Bosie’, Lord Alfred, was staying. Sir John Bridge had by that time issued a warrant for his arrest at the direction of the Home Secretary, Herbert Asquith, and at precisely 6.20 pm Oscar Wilde was arrested at the hotel. It is a myth that the arrest was delayed to allow him to escape to France on the last train, since there were three others he could have taken that night. This momentous event preceeded the so-called ‘Trial of the Century’, and was immortalised in Sir John Betjeman’s poem ‘The arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’, which contains this amusing stanza reporting what the plain clothes policemen in the above picture might have said:
“Mr. Woilde, we ‘ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly
For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”

Many more pictures relating to crime and punishment in London can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

The murder of solicitor William Weare in Radlett by John Thurtell

Posted in Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Law, London on Monday, 3 March 2014

The Radlett Murder,  picture, image, illustration
John Thurtell and Joseph Hunt concealing the body in the pond

The murder of William Weare was particularly vicious and shocked the nation. John Thurtell, an amateur boxer, owed Weare £300, a huge gambling debt and one which Thurtell felt owed more to Weare’s cheating ways than to his own misfortune in Rexworthy’s billiard room in Spring Gardens, London. Whatever the truth in the case, he was unable to pay such a huge sum. After inviting the victim to one William Probert’s cottage for a weekend’s gambling sport, he shot Weare in the face, and finally cut his throat. John Thurtell and Joseph Hunt then hid the body in a pond at Elstree, and returned to the house for supper and a much-reported sing-song. In 1823 Thurtell was found guilty of the murder of solicitor William Weare in Radlett, Hertfordshire, after his accomplice, Probert, turned King’s Evidence; he was hanged on 9 January 1824. The crime is commemorated in some simple doggerel, as well as in longer popular ballads which catalogued the gruesome details and were sung in inns and taverns at the time:
They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.

Many more pictures relating to crime and punishment in London can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.