The Great Train Robbery PART FOUR : THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY : May, 1855 Chapter 46-47

Chapter 46 A Brief History of the Inquiry

Predictably, the initial reaction of Huddleston & Bradford was sheer disbelief that anything was amiss. The French cable had been composed in English and read: GOLD MISSED NOW WHERE IS, and was signed VERNIER, OSTEND.

Confronted by this ambiguous message, Mr. Huddleston announced that there had been, no doubt, some silly delay with the French customs authorities and he predicted the whole business would be unraveled before teatime. Mr. Bradford, who had never the slightest attempt to conceal his intense and lifelong loathing for all things French, assumed that the filthy Frogs had misplaced the bullion, and were now trying to fix the blame for their own stupidity on the English. Mr. Henry Fowler, who had accompanied the gold shipment to Folkestone and seen it safely onto the Channel steamer, observed that the signature "Vernier" was an unfamiliar name, and speculated that the cable might be some sort of practical joke. This was, after all, a time of increasingly strained relations between the English and their French allies.

Cables requesting--- and later demanding--- clarification flashed back and forth across the Channel. By noon, it appeared that the steamship crossing from Dover to Ostend had been sunk, and the bullion lost in the mishap. However, by early afternoon it was clear the steamer had had an uneventful passage, but almost everything else was vastly more confused.

Cables were now being fired off to all conceivable parties by the Paris bank, the French railway, the English steamship line, the British railway, and the British bank, in dizzying profusion. As the day wore on, the tone of the messages became more acrimonious and their content more ludicrous. The whole thing reached a sort of pinnacle when the manager of the South Eastern Railway in Folkestone telegraphed the manager of the Britannic Steam Packet Company, also in Folkestone: QUI EST M. VERNIER. To this, the steamship manager shot back YOUR SCURRILOUS ALLEGATIONS SHALL NOT GO UNCHALLENGED.

By teatime in London, the desks of the chief officers of Huddleston & Bradford were heaped with telegrams and cables, and office boys were being dispatched to gentlemen's homes to inform wives that their husbands would not be home for dinner, owing to urgent matters of business. The earlier atmosphere of unruffled calm and disdain for French inefficiency was now fading, replaced by a growing suspicion that something might actually have happened to the gold. And it was increasingly clear that the French were as worried as the English--- M. Bonnard himself had taken the afternoon train to the coast, to investigate the situation in Ostend at first hand. M. Bonnard was a notorious recluse, and his decision to travel was viewed as a most significant event.

By seven o'clock in London, when most of the bank's derks went home for the day, the mood of the officers was openly pessimistic. Mr. Huddleston was snappish; Mr. Bradford had the smell of gin on his breath; Mr. Fowler was pale as a ghost; and Mr. Trent's hands trembled. There was a brief moment of elation around 7:30 pm., when the customs papers from Ostend, signed by the French the previous day, arrived at the bank. They indicated that at 5 pm. on May 22nd the designated representative of Bonnard et Fils, one Raymond Vernier, had signed for nineteen sealed strongboxes from Huddlestdn & Bradford containing, according to the declaration, twelve thousand pounds sterling in bullion.

"Here is their bloody death warrant," Mr. Huddleston said, waving the paper in the air, "and if there's been any irregularity, it is wholly upon French heads." But this was an exaggeration of the legal situation, and he himself knew it.

Soon after, Mr. Huddleston received a long cable from Ostend:





Mr. Huddleston's first reaction to the cable was reported to be "a heated and forceful expletive, provoked by the stresses of the moment and the lateness of the hour." He is also said to have commented extensively on the French nation, the French culture, and the personal and hygienic habits of the French populace. Mr. Bradford, even more vociferous, expressed his belief in the unnatural French fondness for intimacy with barnyard creatures. Mr. Fowler was obviously intoxicated and Mr. Trent was suffering pains in the chest.

It was nearly ten o'clock at night when the bankers were finally calm enough for Mr. Huddleston to say to Mr. Bradford: "I shall notify the Minister. You notify Scotland Yard."

Events of subsequent days followed a certain predictable pattern. The English suspected the French; the French suspected the English; everyone suspected the English railway officials, who in turn suspected the English steamship officials, who in turn suspected the French customs officials.

British police officers in France, and French police officers in England, rubbed shoulders with private detectives hired by the banks, the railroads, and the shipping line. Everyone offered some sort of reward for information leading to the arrest of the villains, and informants on both sides of the Channel quickly responded with a dazzling profusion of tips and rumors.

Theories about the lost gold shipment ran the gamut from the most mundane--- a couple of French or English hooligans stumbling upon a fortuitous opportunity--- to the most grandiose--- an elaborate plot by the highest officials of French or English government, engaged in a Machiavellian scheme intended simultaneously to line their own pockets and to sour relations with their military allies. Lord Cardigan himself, the great war hero, expressed the opinion that "it must surely be a clever combination of avarice and statecraft."

Nevertheless, the most widespread belief, on both sides of the Channel, was that it was some kind of inside job. For one thing, that was how most crimes were carried out. And, particularly in this case, the complexity and neatness of the theft surely pointed to inside information and cooperation. Thus every individual who had the slightest relationship to the Crimean gold shipment came under scrutiny, and was interrogated by the authorities. The zeal of the police to gather information led to some unlikely circumstances: the ten-year-old grandson of the Folkestone harbormaster was tailed by a plainclothesman for several days--- for reasons that no one could quite recall later on. Such incidents only increased the general confusion, and the process of interrogation dragged on for months, with each new clue and possibility receiving the full attention of an eager and fascinated press.

No significant progress was made until June 17th, nearly a month after the robbery. Then, at the insistence of the French authorities, the safes in Ostend; aboard the English steamship, and on the South Eastern Railway were all returned to their respective manufacturers in Paris, Hamburg, and London for dismantling and examination of the lock mechanisms. The Chubb safes were discovered to contain telltale scratches inside the locks, as well as traces of metal filings, grease, and wax. The other safes showed no signs of tampering.

This discovery focused new attention on the luggage-van guard Burgess, who had been previously questioned and released. On June 19th, Scotland Yard announced a warrant for his arrest, but the same day the man, his wife, and his two children vanished without a trace. In subsequent weeks of searching, Burgess was not found.

It was then recalled that the South Eastern Railway had suffered another robbery from its luggage van, only a week prior to the bullion theft. The clear implication of generally lax management by railway authorities fed the growing public suspicion that the robbery must have occurred on the London-Folkestone train. And when the South Eastern Railway's hired detectives came forth with evidence that the robbery had been carried out by French villains--- an allegation quickly shown to be groundless--- the public suspicion hardened into certainty, and the press began to refer to The Great Train Robbery.

All during July and August, 1855, The Great Train Robbery remained a sensational topic in print and conversation. Although no one could figure out quite how it had been done, its evident complexity and audacity soon led to the unquestioned belief that it must have been carried out by Englishmen. The previously suspect French were now deemed too limited and timid even to conceive such a dashing endeavor, to say nothing of bringing it off.

When, in late August, the police in New York City announced they had captured the robbers, and that they were Americans, the English press reacted with frankly scornful disbelief. And, indeed, some weeks later it was learned that the New York police were in error, and that their robbers had never set foot on English soil, but were, in the words of one correspondent, "of that erratic turn of mind, wherein a man will seize upon a publicized event, even if it be notorious, to gain the attention of the wider public, and this to satisfy his demented craving for a moment in the limelight."

The English newspapers printed every shred of rumor, hearsay, and speculation about the robbery; other stories were slanted to consider the robbery. Thus when Victoria made a visit to Paris in August, the press wondered in what way the robbery would affect her reception in that city. (It apparently made no difference at all.)

But the plain fact was that throughout the summer months no single new development occurred, and inevitably interest began to wane. People's imaginations had been captured for four months. During that time, they had progressed from hostility toward the French, who had obviously stolen the gold in some sleazy, underhanded fashion, to suspicion of the English leaders of finance and industry, who were at best guilty of gross incompetence and at worst culpable of the crime itself, and eventually to a sort of admiration for the resourcefulness and daring of the English rogues who had plotted and carried out the escapade--- however it was actually done.

But in the absence of fresh developments The Great Train Robbery became tedious, and eventually public opinion turned distinctly sour. Having wallowed in a delightful orgy of anti-French sentiment, having deplored and applauded the villains themselves, having relished the foibles of bankers, railwaymen, diplomats, and police, the public was now ready to see its faith restored in the basic soundness of banks, railroads, government, and police. In short, they wanted the culprits caught, and quickly.

But the culprits were not caught. Officials mentioned "possible new developments in the case" with ever less conviction. In late September there was an anonymous story to the effect that Mr. Harranby of Scotland Yard had known of the impending crime but had failed to prevent it; Mr. Harranby vigorously denied these rumors, but there were a few scattered calls for his resignation. The banking firm of Huddleston & Bradford, which had enjoyed a mild increase in business during the summer months, now experienced a mild decline. Newspapers featuring stories of the robbery sold fewer copies.

By October, 1855, The Great Train Robbery was no longer of interest to anyone in England. It had come full circle, from a topic of universal and endless fascination to a confused and embarrassing incident that nearly everyone wished very much to forget.

PART FIVE : ARREST AND TRIAL : November, 1856 - August, 1857

Chapter 47 The Bug-Hunter's Chance

November 5th, known as Powder Plot Day or Guy Fawkes Day, had been a national holiday in England since 1605. But the celebration, observed the News in 1856, "has of late years been made subservient to the cause of charity as well as mere amusement. Here is a laudable instance. On Wednesday evening a grand display of fireworks took place on the grounds of the Merchant Seamen's Orphan Asylum, Bow-road, in aid of the funds of the institution. The grounds were illuminated somewhat after the fashion adopted at Vauxhall, and a band of music was engaged. In the rear of the premises was a gibbet, to which was suspended an effigy of the Pope; and around it were several barrels of tar, which at the proper time were consumed in a most formidable blaze. The exhibition was attended by a large concourse of people, and the result promised to be of considerable benefit to the funds of the charity."

Any combination of large crowds and distracting spectacles was, of course, also of considerable benefit to pickpockets, cut-purses, and dolly-mops, and the police at the orphan asylum that night were busy indeed. In the course of the evening, no fewer than thirteen "vagrants, vagabonds and petty villains" were apprehended by officers of the Metropolitan Force, including a female who was accused of robbing an intoxicated gentleman. This arrest was made by one Constable Johnson, and the manner of it was sufficiently idiosyncratic to merit some explanation.

The major features are clear enough. Constable Johnson, a man of twenty-three, was walking the asylum grounds when, by the flaring light of the fireworks exploding overhead, he observed a female crouched over the prostrate form of a man. Fearing the gentleman might be ill, Constable Johnson went to offer help, but at his approach the girl took to her heels. Constable Johnson gave chase, apprehending the female a short distance away when she tripped on her skirts and tumbled to the ground.

Observing her at close hand to be "a female of lewd aspect and lascivious comportment," he at once surmised the true nature of her attentions to the gentleman; namely, that she was robbing him, in his intoxicated stupor, and that she was the lowest form of criminal, a "bug-hunter." Constable Johnson promptly arrested her.

The saucy minx put her hands on her hips and glared at him in open defiance. "There's not a pogue upon me," she declared, which words must surely have given Constable Johnson pause. He faced a serious dilemma.

In the Victorian view, proper male conduct demanded that all women, even women of the lowest sort, be treated with caution and consideration for the delicacy of their feminine nature. That nature, noted a contemporary paliceman's manual of conduct, "with its sacred emotional wellsprings, its ennobling maternal richness, its exquisite sensitivity and profound fragility, i.e., all those qualities which comprise the very essence of womanly character, derive from the biological or physio-logic principles which determine all the differences between the sexes of male and female. Thus it must be appreciated that the essence of womanly character resides in every member of that sex, and must be duly respected by an Officer, and this despite the appearance, in certain vulgar personages, of the absence of said womanly character."

The belief in a biologically determined personality in both men and women was accepted to some extent by nearly everyone at all levels of Victorian society, and that belief was held in the face of all sorts of incongruities. A businessman could go off to work each day, leaving his "unreasoning" wife to run an enormous household, a businesslike task of formidable proportions; yet the husband never viewed his wife's activities in that way.

Of all the absurdities of the code, the most difficult was the predicament of the policeman. A woman's inherent fragility created obvious difficulties in the handling of female lawbreakers. Indeed, criminals took advantage of the situation, often employing a female accomplice precisely because the police were so reluctant to arrest.

Constable Johnson, confronted by this drafted minx on the night of November 5th, was fully aware of his situation. The woman claimed to have no stolen goods on her person; and if this was true, she would never be convicted, despite his testimony that he had found her bug-hunting. Without a pocket watch or some other indisputably masculine article, the girl would go free.

Nor could he search her: the very idea that he might touch the woman's body was unthinkable to him. His only recourse was to escort her to the station, where a matron would be called to perform the search. But the hour was late; the matron would have to be roused from her bed, and the station was some blocks distant. In the course of being escorted through dark streets, the little tart would have many opportunities to rid herself of incriminating evidence.

Furthermore, if Constable Johnson brought her in, called for the matron, raised all manner of fuss and stir, and then it was discovered the girl was clean, he would look a proper fool and receive a stiff rebuke. He knew this; and so did the girl standing before him in a posture of brazen defiance.

Altogether it was a situation not worth the risk or the bother, and Constable Johnson would have liked to send her off with a scolding. But Johnson had recently been advised by his superiors that his arrest record left something to be desired; he had been told to be more vigilant in his pursuit of wrongdoing. And there was the strong implication that his job hung in the balance.

So Constable Johnson, in the intermittent, sputtering glow of the bursting fireworks, decided to take the bug-hunter in for a search--- to the girl's open astonishment, and despite his own rather considerable reluctance.

Dalby, the station sergeant, was in a foul humor, for he was called upon to work on the night of the holiday, and he resented missing the festivities that he knew were taking place all around him.

He glared at Johnson and the woman at his side. The woman gave her name as Alice Nelson, and stated her age was "eighteen or thereabouts." Dalby sighed and rubbed his face sleepily as he filled in the forms. He sent Johnson off to collect the matron. He ordered the girl to sit in a corner. The station was deserted, and silent except for the distant pop and whistle of fireworks.

Dalby had a flask in his pocket, and at late hours he often took a daffy or two when there was no one about. But now this saucy little bit of no-good business was sitting there, and whatever else was the truth of her, she was keeping him from his nip; the idea irked him, and he frowned into space, feeling frustrated. Whenever he couldn't have a daffy, he wanted it especially much, or so it seemed.

After a space of time, the Judy spoke up. "If you granny I've a pink or two beneath me duds, see for yourself, and now." Her tone was lascivious; the invitation was unmistakable, and to make it clearer, she began to scratch her limbs through the skirt, in languorous fashion.

You'll be finding what you want, I reckon," she added.

Dalby sighed.

The girl continued to scratch. "I know to please you," she said, "and you may count on it, as God's me witness."

"And earn the pox for my troubles," Dalby said. "I know your sort, dearie."

"Here, now," the girl protested, in a sudden shift from invitation to outrage. "You've no call to voker such-like. There's not a touch of pox upon me; and never been."

"Aye, aye, aye," Dalby said wearily, thinking again of his flask. "There. never is, is there."

The little tart lapsed into silence. She ceased scratching herself, and soon enough sat up straight in her chair, adopting a proper manner. "Let's us strike a bargain," she said, "and I warrant it'll be one to your liking."

"Dearie, there's no bargain to be made," Dalby said, hardly paying attention. He knew this tedious routine, for he saw it played out, again and again, every night he worked at the station. Some little bit of goods would be tugged in on an officer's arm, all protests of innocence. Then she'd settle in and make an advance of favors, and if that was not taken up, she'd soon enough talk a bribe.

It was always the same.

"Set me to go," the girl said, "and you'll have a gold guinea.'

Dalby sighed, and shook his head. If this creature had a gold guinea on her, it was sure proof she'd been bug-hunting, as young Johnson claimed.

"Well, then," the girl said, "you shall have ten." Her voice now had a frightened edge.

"Ten guineas?" Dalby asked. That at least was something new; he'd never been offered ten guineas before. They must be counterfeit, he thought.

"Ten is what I promise you, right enough."

Dalby hesitated. In his own eyes he was a man of principle, and he was a seasoned officer of the law. But his weekly wage was fifteen shillings, and sometimes it came none too promptly. Ten guineas was a substantial item and no mistake. He let his mind wander, over the idea.

"Well, then," the girl said, taking his hesitation for something else, "it shall be a hundred! A hundred gold guineas!"

Dalby laughed. His mood was broken, and his daydreams abruptly ended. In her anxiety the girl was obviously weaving an ever wilder story. A hundred guineas! Absurd.

"You don't believe me?"

"Be still," he said. His thoughts returned to the flask in his pocket.

There was a short silence while the tart chewed her lip and frowned. Finally she said, "I know a thing or two."

Dalby stared at the ceiling. It was all so dreary and predictable. After the bribe failed, there came the offer of information about some crime or other. The progression was always the same. Out of boredom, as much as anything else, he said, "And what is this thing or two?"

"A ream sight of a flash pull, and no slang."

"And what may that be?"

"I know who did the train-robbery lay."

"Mother of God," Dalby said, "but you're a clever judy. Why, do you know that's the very thing we're all wanting to hear--- and hear it we have, from every blasted muck-snipe, smatter-hauler, and bug-picker who comes our way. Every blasted one knows the tale to tell. I've heard a hundred blows with these very ears you see here." He gave her a wan smile.

In fact, Dalby was feeling something like pity for the girl. She was such a down-and-out case, a bug-hunter, the lowest form of common and sleazy clime, and hardly able to formulate a reasonable bribe. In truth, Dalby seldom was offered information about the train robbery any more. That was old news, and nobody cared. There were half a dozen more recent and captivating crimes to blow.

"It's no slang cover," the girl said. "I know the screwsman did the pull, and I can put you to him swift enough."

"Aye, aye, aye," Dalby said.

"I swear," the girl protested, looking ever more desperate. "I swear."

"Who's the bloke, then?"

"I'll not say."

"Aye, but I suppose," Dalby said, "that you'll find this gent for us if only we set you free for a bit of hunting him down, isn't that right?" Dalby shook his head and looked at the girl to see her expression of astonishment. They were always astonished, these low types, to hear a crusher fill in the details of their tale. Why did they always take a man of the force for a total flat and dumb fool?

But it was Dalby who was surprised, for the girl very calmly said, "No."

"No?" Dalby said.

"No," the girl replied. "I know exact where he's to be found."

"But you must lead us to him?" Dalby said.

"No," the girl said.

"No?" Dalby hesitated. "Well, then, where's he to be found?"

"Newgate Prison," the girl said.

Several moments passed before Dalby fully appreciated her words. "Newgate Prison?" he said.

The girl nodded.

"What's his name, then?"

The girl grinned.

Soon after, Dalby called for a runner to go to the Yard and notify Mr. Harranby's office directly,

for here was a story so strange it very likely had some truth to it.

By dawn, the basic situation was clear to the authorities. The woman, Alice Nelson, was the mistress of one Robert Agar, recently arrested on a charge of forging five-pound notes. Agar had protested his innocence; he was now in Newgate Prison awaiting his trial in court.

The woman, deprived of Agar's income, had turned to various crimes to support herself, and was nabbed in the act of picking a bug. According to a later official report, she showed "a most overpowering apprehension of confinement," which probably meant she was claustrophobic. In any case, she turned nose on her lover, an o all that she knew, which was little enough--- but enough for Mr. Harranby to send for Agar.

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