When it comes to Charlie Peace, it would be a grave error to count him among the friends of Sherlock Holmes. One might think so, of course, as in September of 1903, Holmes did utter the words, “A complex mind. All great criminals have that. My old friend Charlie Peace was a violin virtuoso.”
But look at a sampling of other people Sherlock Holmes called “friend.”
While Holmes didn’t utter the phrase “my friend” as much as 2008 presidential contender John McCain, he wasn’t shy about refering to someone sarcastically with that phrase. And when speaking of burglar and murderer Charlie Peace, Sherlock Holmes surely was.
In 1876, when Sherlock Holmes was a young man en route to becoming the world’s first consulting detective, Charlie Peace shot and killed a cop who interrupted Peace burglarizing a house. When another man was arrested and tried for the murder, Charlie Peace made sure he was present in court when the young man (not so far from Holmes’s own age) was sentenced to death. After watching that, he went back to stalking a woman whose family had changed cities to escape him. Peace soon killed the woman’s husband and went on the run, eventually winding up in London.
If Sherlock Holmes ever crossed paths with Charlie Peace, one would expect it to have been during Peace’s London years, 1877 and 1878. But depending upon one’s sources, Holmes was likely still in school or just getting his first flat, and Charlie Peace was not a man to be found. Living as a musical instrument dealer and calling himself “Thompson,” Peace lived with a Mrs. Thompson in one house, while keeping his real wife and son in a house next door. He also was known as an inventor, but at night was still practicing his true trade – burglary.
Chances are that Sherlock Holmes would only have gotten to encounter Charlie Peace at all by attending criminal trials when Peace was finally arrested and put on trial in November of 1878. Of course, Peace was on trial as “John Ward,” a senile man of sixty, when he was actually just a canny man of forty-six. Holmes certainly would have found the trial of interest, but was he there? No one knows.
But Charlie Peace was definitely a criminal to be studied at a time when Sherlock Holmes was a student of crime. Holmes certainly became very familiar with Peace on those terms as more was published on Peace than any other criminal in the late 1870s. One large volume, Charles Peace, or the Adventures of a Notorious Burglar, that came out in 1879, was sure to be on Holmes’s shelves.
“Mr. Mac, the most practical thing that ever you did in your life would be to shut yourself up for three months and read twelve hours a day at the annals of crime,” Holmes once said to Scotland Yard inspector MacDonald. And with that kind of intense study, you can bet that Charlie Peace wasn’t the only criminal Sherlock Holmes thought of as an “old friend.”
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