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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Criminals - Quite literally

By C. A. Asbrey There are many literary characters who were inspired by real life characters and events. So many, in fact, that I have had to restrict the topic to historical figures to pare the list down.
One of the most famous has to be Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Here Hercule Poirot investigates the killing of the hated Samuel Ratchett, and I won't spoil the ending for those of you, if there's anyone at all, who haven't read it. The key to the mystery is based on the infamous case of the kidnapping of the Lindburg Baby, and the sheer quantity of people damaged by the fallout of the crime. 

Whilst I'm sure you've heard of that one, I aim to provide you with a few more which are less well-known. Lizzie Borden, and the killings in Fall River, have inspired many works of fiction. The Murderer's Maid, by Erika Mailman, features a woman in modern times who uncovers a connection to the famous murder which places her in terrible danger, and is one of the more original takes on the crimes. However, beyond the more modern books, there are some interesting crimes and criminals hidden in many of the books we now consider to be classics.
Charles Dickens work is rich in characters drawn from real-life. One of the most infamous was Fagin. Researchers have found remarkable parallels between Fagin and a man called Issac 'Ikey' Soloman'. He was born around 1878 in Houndsditch, London, and followed his father into a life of crime. And he was very good at it. He was only in his early twenties when he ran his own jewelry shop near Petticoat lane. Considering it was a front for receiving and dealing in stolen goods, he had an advantage on the honest businessmen around him. 

 He was only 21 when he was arrested with an accomplice, Joel Joseph, for stealing a wallet near the houses of Parliament. His Joseph tried to hide the evidence, and it must have been rich pickings as he was found to have £37 stuffed in his shirt. That's the equivalent of £3,169.39 today ($4,396.87). He was sentenced to be transported to Tasmania, but for some unknown reason (and I would not dismiss bribery) he was held on a prison ship in British waters. These were known as hulks, and were reputedly hellish places, but Soloman managed to make his way back to shore and was back in London by 1818. There is no recorded explanation for his release, or for the sentence of transportation not being carried out in full. 

In 1827 he was caught with six watches, 17 shawls, 3½ yards of woolen cloth and 12 pieces of valentia (an expensive faux leather) in his possession. This time he was sentenced to incarceration in Newgate Prison, where his ability to evade justice came to the fore once again. After the trial he was taken to a prison wagon to take him to jail, but unbeknownst to the authorities it was driven by his father-in-law. The carriage took a detour to Petticoat Lane, where the guards were overpowered and Solomon released. They tried to pursue him, but he disappeared through the network of alleys and back courts which made up the poor slums of London.

He left the country, knowing he would soon be captured if he stayed. He sailed for Denmark, and from there, on to New York. But the authorities weren't finished. They arrested his wife, Anne, and she was found guilting of possessing stolen goods. Sentenced to transportation to Tasmania, Solomon's children voluntarily agreed to accompany their mother. And when Soloman found out, he travelled there too, but under the false identity of  'Slowman'. 

The fake identity was useless though, especially in the face of the number of criminal associates who had already been transported there. And they weren't the only people who recognised him. The lieutenant-Governor, Sir George Arthur, did too. There was a complication though. Soloman hadn't committed any crime on Australian soil. Sir George had to send to London for an arrest warrant, but by the time it arrived, habeus corpus combined with poor wording on the warrant to invalidate it.           
A frustrated Lieutenant-Governor had Solomon arrested and sent back to London, despite the fact that Solomon had paid £1,000 bond to get his wife released and had opened a tobacconist shop. In 1830 Solomon stood trial in the Old Bailey, and due to his exploits it was widely covered by the press at the time. He was found guilty of two of the three charges against him, and sentenced to transportation. In 1831 he arrived back in Tasmania.

After only four years in jail he was released on the basis that he lived at least 20 miles away. It was an effort to get people to clear and tame the land for the British Empire n the cheap, but it split up the Solomon family once more. The marriage failed and Ann even spent time in prison after a violent altercation between the pair. After that he lost touch with his children.

Solomon was pardoned in 1840, and a certificate of freedom in 1844, but died in 1850

The Artful Dodger may be based on a child who escaped the poor house named Robert Blincoe, or be an amalgam of characters. There are, however, other theories. Dickens often gave his famous readings in the City of Liverpool. In fact, a Christmas Carol had its world premier in Liverpool and when he did so, he often did the 19th century version of a ridealong with the city police. Liverpool was so full of Irish immigrants it was called the unofficial capital of Ireland, and they were like poor folks all over the world; crushed into slums, in appalling conditions, living a life of grinding hardship.

While there, Dickens was exposed to the poverty and the criminal rookeries, which were easily on a par with the worst London had to offer. It has also been posited by a Liverpool police officer that the dodger could have been Seamus Core of County Mayo, one of the local police's regulars.

It's notable that the dodger is described like an adult, even though he was a child. He has had the child knocked out of him by life, and even when he betrays Oliver he still retains sympathetic elements. It's clear this jaded world-view was forced on the child, and is somehow not innate. Some theorise that this was Dickens trying to show how damaging bonded labour was to the poor, and that it robbed children of choice and hope. Dickens wasn't released from his own bonded labour until he was 21, and when they tried to escape from cruel masters they were exposed to criminality and predation. Dodger embodies a part of Dicken's own past, as well as people he met.   

Dickens was not the only one though. Wilkie Collins', The Law and the Lady, features  a woman who is determine to clear her husband from the 'Scotch Verdict'. You may, or may not be aware that Scotland is the only country in the world with three verdicts, as opposed to the guilty/not guilty everyone else has. Scotland also has a not-proven verdict too. 
Madeleine Smith

To explain the not-proven, it's worth stating that Scotland requires higher degrees of corroboration of evidence than many places. It must not only follow through to prove guilt, it must also have a separate line of corroboration too. An example; it doesn't matter if someone confesses. You still have to provide a full chain of evidence which shows they did it too - motive, means, opportunity, and forensics, witnesses, and everything apart from the statement. The country has fewer miscarriages of justice because of this. In criminal law, the case has to be proven beyond all reasonable doubt. In civil law you simply have to prove that someone is guilty on the balance of probability (based on how a reasonable person would think). The not-proven generally meets the civil definition of guilt, but not the criminal. The result means the person can walk away, but they are always tainted by a suspicion of guilt. 

The Law and the Lady was produced in the light of the sensational murder case of Madeleine Smith, who was a Scottish society lady accused of murdering her lover. It remains controversial even to this day, as vital evidence was not put before the jury by the order of the judge, leading to complaints that the upper classes protected one of their own. She was not vindicated though. The verdict of not-proven meant she could walk free, but was dogged with suspicion  for life.     

A probably lesser-known inspiration was that a murderess called Elizabeth Martha Brown was Thomas Hardy's inspiration for the tragic Tess of the D'Urbervilles. She was hanged on 9 August 1856, for murdering her husband with an axe during a violent altercation in which she alleged he took a whip to her. The sixteen year old Hardy was watching the public execution. 
Thomas Hardy

70 years later he wrote that he was ashamed to have been there. Brown was dressed in a black silk dress. Hardy wrote, "I saw—they had put a cloth over the face—how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary." "I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain," he wrote elsewhere, "and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back."

This list is not definitive by any means, but as I've been influenced by real crime too, I'd be interested in hearing yours.


 “She hasn’t got the combination to the safe,” said the manager. “You can scare her as much as you want. We all know you’re not gonna use that gun on us.” 

Rebecca’s breath halted as she felt a careless arm drape around her shoulder. 

 “I don’t need a gun to hurt someone. Give us the combination.” The manager remained mute and turned his face away. “Your call, sir.” 

He pulled Rebecca around to face him as she gasped in alarm. “Just remember who you’ve got to thank for this, ma’am.” He pointed over at the manager, who refused to meet her eyes. “That man right there.”

“Anything that happens to her is down to you. Not me,” said the manager. 

 Rebecca felt herself dragged from the room by one arm. She was pulled into the office next door and pushed against the wall. The man walked over and pulled down the blind before returning to her. 

Her breath came in ragged pants of fear. “Please, no. Don’t.” 

 He leaned on the wall, a hand on either side of her head, and pressed his face close. “You were gonna hold this place up. Are you some kind of idiot?” 

She blinked in confusion. “Huh?” 

The man pulled down his mask, revealing the face of the fair man who had walked into her office looking for Fernsby. “Don’t lie to me, honey. You had the same idea as we did— look at Meagher’s bank account to see where he gets his money. We’ve watched you march up and down outside this place all day, like you were on sentry duty, while you built up your courage. You even got in the way of us doin’ it. What the hell is goin’ on in your head? How dumb can a woman get?” 

“You? Here?” She couldn’t quite decide whether to stop being scared or not. 

“Yeah. Me.” He indicated with his head. “Now, Nat’s in there, and he needs the combination of the safe. It’s too new and sophisticated for him to crack the combination. You and me need to put on a bit of a show to make sure the manager gives it up.” 

“You’re not robbing the bank?” Jake huffed in irritation. “Try to keep up, Becky. I need you to scream for help so the manager gives Nat the combination to the vault. We want Meagher’s records too.” 
She shook her head. “Me? I can’t scream.” 

“What do you mean you can’t scream? All women can scream.” 

“I can’t. I’m just not made that way.”
He frowned. “Look, Becky. If you won’t scream, I’m gonna have to make you. Let’s do this the easy way, huh?” 

“Please, help! Noooo.” Jake frowned. “You call that screamin’?
That’s useless.” “I told you. I can’t.” Jake flicked up an eyebrow. “Last chance, Becky.” 


“Nope.” A gloved hand reached up to her hat as his eyes glittered with mischief. “Don’t say you weren’t warned, sweetheart.”





  1. Fantastic post -- so interesting to see classic authors' inspiration!

    It's so interesting to me that while Madeleine Smith's "Not Proven" verdict was largely tied up in perceptions of gendered behavior, the parallel character in Collins' The Law and the Lady is male, and it's his wife, the eponymous "Lady", who does all the interesting things in the book. And, of course, I'm tremendously fond of it, since the research I did for my dissertation chapter on the book led in stages to the heroine of my Courting Anna, another lady very much involved with the law!

    1. You know how much I love Collin's work, and I have to agree with you that it was gendered, but also based in class, in my opinion. Given the evidence which was excluded from the trial, it was an inevitable verdict. You'll be interested to hear that a cup seized from Smith a evidence was recently tested by the National Archive For Scotland - and tested positive for arsenic. Given that a revelation was made in the Biography of Lord Moncrieff, that a witness, who when to school with Madeleine, was paid to go away and, "say no more about it" when he said he had seen Smith with the victim in Blyth's square the night before L'Angelier died - I think she was as guilty as hell.

  2. As usual, Christine, you provide us with an interesting look into the life of crime and what inspires authors. I've been a reader all my life and got hooked on crime/detective stories with the juvenile detectives, which progressed to Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason. I sheepishly admit I haven't read the books you mentioned, although I am familiar with several through movies. I love Daphne Du Maurier and Mary Stewart's books and have read them all. A great and interesting post and I look forward to more.

    1. If my post inspires you to find pleasure in new, undiscovered reads, then my work is done. I've always loved Du Maurier and Mary Stewart too. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Absolutely compelling, Christine!
    I love Du Maurier and Mary Stewart as well.

    1. Thank you Lindsay. There were so many, it was hard to narrow it down

  4. You always offer the most interesting and unique take on history and stories. Thank you. Doris

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Doris.

  5. This article was jam-packed with interesting information, I barely know where to begin my comments. I was deeply intrigued by Charles Dickens's books as a teenager and wondered if any of his characters were based on real people...and now I know. It seems British law enforcement was determined in the extreme to convict and imprison Solomon. He was quite the escape artist. I think it ironic that they hauled him all the way back from Tasmania just to sentence him to go back to Tasmania. Say what?
    I love that Scotland has such a different way of providing a verdict. I can think of 3 cases in the US that could have used the "not-proven" verdict. You are so right when you said it would prevent the miscarriage of justice that so many have endured. We could all learn a thing or two from Scotland.
    I think many of us develop characters based on real people. When I wrote "The Violin" my character, John Douglas, was based on my father's brother whom I never met, but Pop told me all these delightful stories about his brother John. John drowned when he was only 21. So, I wrote the story about him using all the information Pop gave me and gave him a fictional life filled with everything he had missed in his real life.
    I loved your excerpt from "Innocent to the Last."
    Amazing post, Christine.

    1. Thanks so much, Sarah. There were so many examples I had to narrow it down to the ones I thought people would be interested in. Dickens really did draw such vivid characters I had to include some of his. Like you, I also take from real people as inspiration. Your uncle sounds like a wonderful man. Such a pity you never met him.

  6. Thank you for this fascinating post. I lenjoy historical fiction that includes famous real people as characters and also fiction based on real people. I think it makes the stories believable. Loved your excerpt.