So19 talks with ANGELA BUCKLEY

Truth is stranger than fiction, the old adage goes. British author and historian Angela Buckley’s biography of Victorian detective Jerome Caminada, The Real Sherlock Holmes, is one of those real-life stories that help prove the aptness of the saying. Celebrated as “Manchester’s Sherlock Holmes,” Caminada like his fictional counterpart was a master of disguises, a sifter of the meaning of small details, a pioneer in the nascent art of deduction, and a man with an astonishing memory for criminals and crime. Born into an Irish-Italian family beset by tragedy, Caminada might have been considered successful merely to survive. Instead, he triumphed, moving from his first police job—as a 24-year-old copper walking a Manchester beat—to a career as a detective of national renown and unparalleled effectiveness. Buckley captures his exploits with accuracy and vigor, but she also does more. The Real Sherlock Holmes (Pen and Sword, 2014) is also a moving portrayal of a city beset by unimaginable hardship and a compelling journey through the colorful landscape of Victorian crime. Originally a specialist in modern languages, Buckley is a noted expert in family history and genealogy, a contributor to and guest blogger at publications including the Sunday Express and the Strand Magazine, and an author who writes regularly about the history of Manchester, where she was born. The author’s blog illuminates fascinating aspects of 19th century crime and criminology; you can also find out more about her life and work on her website, Facebook Page, and Twitter feed. It’s our pleasure to speak to Angela Buckley about Manchester, murder, and a man of distinction. —SF

So19: Let’s start in Manchester, the city of Jerome Caminada’s life and work. You note that in the 1840s, the decade of his birth, “Manchester was one of the poorest and most dangerous places in Britain.” By way of background, especially for our American readers, could you talk a bit about why poverty, social conditions and crime were so especially intractable there?

AB: Before the Industrial Revolution, Manchester was a medium-sized market town. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, trade and manufacturing had increased so much that it was changed beyond all expectation. Thousands of workers, from within the UK and from overseas, poured into Manchester to work in the many factories and mills. The city’s population trebled in the early decades of the century, reaching 242,000 in 1841. Accommodation for the never-ending flood of migrants was a problem and they were forced to live in rows of cramped tenement houses at the center of the city. There was little ventilation between the properties, no running water or other facilities, and the streets were filthy. In one street there were 340 inhabitants to one outside privy.  

Even though the living conditions were dreadful, rents were so high that many individuals were forced to turn to crime to “supplement” their income. Mostly it was petty theft of food and clothing, but there were also swindlers, forgers, illegal beer-sellers and prostitutes. Many people lived hand-to-mouth and crime was an integral part of their daily struggle for survival.

So19: Caminada’s youth was filled with tragedy, but Caminada was able not just to survive but also to prosper. What qualities do you think helped him rise above so much early pain? How do you think his early experiences helped shape or influence his police work?

AB: Jerome Caminada was fortunate to survive childhood. The infant mortality rate was very high and, as a young adult, his first job in an ironworks, as a brass fitter, would have been backbreaking labour in almost unbearable conditions. His decision to join the police force provided welcome relief from such toil. On a more personal level, Caminada had a deep religious faith; he was a Roman Catholic and attended church regularly throughout his life. His vocation to improve his city and the lives of others stems from his sense of devotion.

As a police officer, Caminada was never judgmental and he always tried to understand the reasons why individuals were tempted to break the law. As a child, he had experienced the most desperate poverty and, although he later became wealthy, the memories of his early hardship never left him—he often raised funds for victims of crime and for the rehabilitation of offenders. He was known to be a fair man, with a genuine compassion for others, which he retained throughout his long career.

So19: Am I correct in recalling from your pages that when Caminada began walking a beat in the late 1860s, the Manchester police had been operating as a unified, citywide force for less than thirty years?

AB: That’s right. The Manchester City police force was established in 1842, a decade after the Metropolitan police in London. Before that, parishes and boroughs were responsible for their own policing, which was inconsistent and ineffective. Caminada joined the force at a fascinating period in its history, with the gradual formalization of policing practices, communication and forensic techniques. During his thirty-year career he would have seen, and contributed to, unprecedented developments, which led to a better-organized police force, a higher conviction rate and a significant reduction in crime.

So19: I was fascinated by the staggering range of swindles and scams being perpetrated on the city’s citizens, and also often amused by the quirky names for crimes and criminals. Did Caminada’s own book explain all of the arcane criminal terminology, or did you research it using other sources as well?

AB: Caminada records the names and activities of the local criminals in his memoirs, and he explains some of the scams. But I had to research the subject further to enable me to understand the environment well enough to paint a good picture for readers. There are many detailed and evocative accounts in the contemporary press—journalists often reported firsthand from the dens of thieves and ne’er-do-wells. There are also accounts written by social commentators, such as Friedrich Engels, who spent time exploring the Manchester about the same time as Caminada’s birth.

So19: Unlike modern counterparts (at least those who work in major cities), Caminada investigated a huge range of criminals and crimes: forgery, quack medicine, fraudulent charities, gambling crimes and swindles, gang warfare, lonely-hearts and relationship frauds, problematic “beerhouses,” and of course suspicious deaths. His work investigating threats from the Fenians even involved what we would today call anti-terrorism work. Yet he seemed able to maintain a remarkably comprehensive mental picture of it all.

AB: Like many Victorian detectives, Caminada kept press cuttings and notes of his cases. By the time he came to write his memoirs, just before he retired, he would have had quite a collection. I also noticed that in some parts of his memoirs, he had copied sections directly from newspaper reports that I had also read, and that had been published some years before. He also had an exceptional memory, especially for names and faces, which he relied upon not only to solve cases but also to pen his recollections.

So19: One of the many things that makes Caminada feel Holmesian, so to speak, is the colorful nature of some of his exploits. My favorite of the stories you relate, though it’s hard to choose just one, is probably the time he had a fake piano crate constructed (with strategic eyeholes, of course) so that he could discover who was stealing sheet music from a concert venue…realized that he needed help getting out of his hiding place after everyone had left…and terrified the poor fellow who had come to turn off the gas lamps by demanding help. But there are many other dramatic moments. Crouching for surveillance in long grass or coal cellars, donning a variety of disguises (some so good they fooled his colleagues), passing himself off to quack doctors as a heart-disease sufferer: all of this does feel like the wilder moments of the Holmes Canon.

AB: I love the piano story too! Like Holmes, Caminada used unorthodox methods to capture suspects and solve crimes. On another occasion, when he was tracking Fenians, he lifted the imprint of an address in Paris from a blotting pad, which is just the kind of trick Sherlock would have used. Victorian detectives used disguise quite regularly in their work. As it was an era when your dress denoted your occupation and station in life, this was an effective method of surveillance, of which Jerome Caminada was a particularly skilled practitioner. Formal crime investigation methods weren’t established until the twentieth century, so early detectives like Caminada, to an extent, operated by trial and error. Caminada was one of the most outstanding law enforcers—he was ingenious, inventive and would go to any lengths to capture criminals.

So19: Could you talk a bit about the so-called Manchester Cab Mystery, clearly one high point of Caminada’s career? Why was the crime, and his work on it, notable?

AB: In 1889, the Victorian general public were anxious about their safety, especially following the recent murders in the East End of London attributed to Jack the Ripper. So when a respectable businessman was murdered in a cab on a night out in Manchester, there was great pressure on the police to arrest the perpetrator and ensure the citizens’ ongoing safety. The chief constable placed this puzzling mystery in the capable hands of Detective Caminada.

In the manner of Sherlock Holmes, Caminada deduced that the victim, John Fletcher, had been poisoned and he linked the drug, chloral hydrate, to illegal prizefighting. He then used his network of informants to identify and locate his prime suspect. This was one of Caminada’s most notable achievements: he proved that the victim had been murdered, found the killer and brought him to justice in the record time of just three weeks, which was fast even by Victorian standards. It became his signature case and earned him the reputation as Manchester’s Sherlock Holmes.

So19: The vision of childhood—its nature, its rights—during Caminada’s period is so different from that of today. There has really been a sea change in popular attitudes.

AB: A typical Victorian childhood ended much earlier than today. Children from lower class families would have been working at the age of eight and nine, maybe even younger, in factories and mines, or as chimney sweeps and street sellers. The Factory Act of 1833 began to impose some regulations on child labour, introducing a minimum age of nine and reducing their hours. Many children, however, continued working, especially if they were their families’ main breadwinners. In terms of crimes against children, in 1875 the age of consent was raised from 12 to 13 in the UK, and then to 16 in 1885.

As children became entitled to more hours of schooling and more regulations on child labour were introduced towards the end of the nineteenth century, they were finally able to take advantage of their childhood, which eventually led to the lifestyles that most children enjoy here today.

So19: Caminada wrote an autobiography, Twenty-Five Years of Detective Life, the two volumes of which were published around the turn of the twentieth century. How useful, and/or candid, was it? Was there anything omitted that you wish it had discussed, narrated or revealed?

AB: Jerome Caminada’s memoirs appear to be a relatively accurate account of his cases, insofar as I’ve been able to verify the facts. Apart from his unusual cases and investigative methods, he shares his opinions on many subjects close to his heart, such as penal reform and the nature of criminality, which gives a fascinating glimpse into his experience of life in nineteenth-century Manchester. However, there are significant omissions, such as an infamous cross-dressing ball, which he presumably chose not to share with his readers because of the shocking nature of the event at that time. (I would have loved to know his thoughts on it, though.) I would also have liked a much longer and more detailed account of his clandestine missions for the Home Office but, at the time of his writing, it was probably still a very sensitive and secret topic of information.

So19: Before we close, tell us what you’re working on now.

AB: I’ve now crossed over to the other side of the law and I’m working on a book about the notorious Victorian baby farmer, Amelia Dyer. She adopted babies for money, strangled them and then dumped their bodies in the Thames, very close to where I live. It’s a very dark subject but an intriguing story of murder, madness and mystery, within the context of the challenges for women and young children in Victorian England.

Deansgate, Manchester