Gaslight Villainy, my second book, was published in December 2012.
As with A Mix of Murders, Gaslight Villainy is a compendium of true murder-cases, the difference being that this book concerns cases from the Victorian era, in contrast with the twentieth-century focus of A Mix of Murders.
The following synopsis was written by the book's copy-editor, Richard Vaughan.
Hot on the heels of A Mix of Murders, Gaslight Villainy is Grahame Farrell's second volume of gripping true-murder cases. But where A Mix of Murders covers the Twentieth Century, Gaslight Villainy treats the reader, in exquisite detail, to a selection of fourteen crimes committed during the Victorian period. Founded, as with A Mix of Murders, on meticulous research, Farrell presents these cases with an equally clear, readable and articulate style that demonstrates the author's fine command of his subject.
In one case, Gaslight Villainy educates us in the techniques of execution, and the methods of specific executioners – not, it is clear, an always-professional process performed by ever-adept professionals. In another tale, Farrell shows that lingering abhorrence towards dissection of human cadavers held great sway over resolution of the crimes of the time, and yet shows still how a jury used other lines of reason to find the perpetrator in question guilty.
In Voyage of Death, as with the other cases, the reader enjoys excellent characterisation: shipboard existence and the very feel of the vessel itself come to life vividly, thus forming a backdrop to a most intriguing case. Most murders occur on dry land, over which perpetrators may flee a great distance following the ungodly deed, but murder at sea changes this parameter, and the concomitant effects thus frame the chronology presented in Voyage of Death tightly, where one pressing-question is ever to the fore: who exactly was the guilty party?
Farrell characterises the times superbly in this book, painting a detailed picture of a culture that relished public executions, where the remoteness of rural murders – counter-intuitively – did not lend a greater chance of escape from the law, and where good-old-fashioned policing was the public's strongest weapon in the face of malice aforethought.
As with A Mix of Murders, the intelligent analyses in Gaslight Villainy give more than enough to satisfy the reader, but the rich context this book gives to its narratives make it a must-have for true-crime aficionados. If you like your true crime served up with style, clarity and a sense of the times, you owe it to yourself to buy this book post haste.
The move from the relatively liberal sexual attitudes of the Regency period to Victorian prudishness was in many respects a surface transformation only. It had a certain legal enforcement, but was more frequently sanctioned by overwhelming social disapprobation against anyone who went in defiance of the code. Of course, many people did defy it, including the two main characters of our first case.
The transgressors represented all classes of society, and all Victorian parish registers (which recorded births, marriages and deaths) included the term ‘bastard’ against the name of many a new-born child (in an early and justifiable example of political correctness, it began to be replaced by ‘illegitimate’ in about the 1860’s). It is hardly surprising, in such a male-oriented society, that one of the most common manifestations of illicit sex was the surreptitious encounter between upper- or middle-class male and servant girl.
The girl’s consent or otherwise was seldom taken into account (witness the unwelcome predations of the anonymous ‘Walter’, author of the Victorian sex-odyssey ‘My Secret Life’), and many girls submitted only reluctantly, knowing that refusal to co-operate might prejudice their chances of keeping their job. Such liaisons were, nonetheless, probably the least-frowned-upon of Victorian sexual indiscretions, and in the country houses of the ruling classes, the teenage sons of the family were often actually encouraged to try their luck with the prettier servants.
To thirty-three-year-old James Delarue and his younger friend Thomas Henry Hocker, all females were fair game, but their conquests were in practice restricted to a blend of domestic servants and abysmally-paid female casual workers balancing on the edge of prostitution. Delarue, a somewhat overweight music teacher, and the much slimmer Hocker, a teacher of English and occasional violin tutor, both had enough of the manners of ‘young gentlemen’ to impress girls from a lower social class, and their reward for providing this rudimentary social cachet was a fairly regular supply of bed-partners.
The members of this steadily-growing harem were, however, not all pushovers. Casual sex, had they wanted that and nothing more, could be had just as easily from men of their own class, of course; in contrast to Hocker and Delarue themselves, what many of the girls in their circle hoped for ultimately was commitment. Sometimes, therefore, a ruse or two was required to coax a girl into the bedroom, and, since all’s fair in lust and war, the rules of engagement devised by the two brothers-in-arms did not preclude the inevitable false promises of marriage, the insincere blandishments, the occasional bit of emotional blackmail, and the offering of trinkets as an unspoken bribe.
There was also a tendency on the part of both men, when dating, to go under an assumed name – a nom de guerre, if you’ll forgive the laboured metaphor – as an exit strategy in the event of, say, an angry parent, or worse, an unwanted pregnancy. Young Hocker’s aliases have been forgotten, but it is known that Delarue often used the pseudonym ‘Cooper’, and not just to potential and actual lovers but also, curiously, and significantly, to Thomas Hocker’s family.
The two friends saw each other sometimes twice a day on four days out of seven, and although girls were far and away the main topic of conversation, it is clear from the large amount of time they spent together that a genuine affection, based on far more than this one shared interest, existed between them. They came from similar stations in life, and had similar educational attainments. Both their fathers were skilled craftsmen – Delarue’s as an upholsterer and Hocker’s as a maker of lady’s shoes at 17 Charles Street, between Regents Park and Primrose Hill in London.
Hocker senior (also named Thomas) was actually fairly badly off, and lived with his wife in rented accommodation so cramped that there was no room in their home for their two unmarried sons, 22-year-old Thomas (whom we now know) and James, the younger by two years. The two brothers therefore lived in a shared bedroom at 11 Victoria Terrace, Portland Town, close to their parents’ home; the rent for Victoria Terrace was paid, at great personal sacrifice, by the father, since, of his two sons, only James Hocker had a regular job.
As for James Delarue, he lived in comfortable lodgings at 55 Whittlebury Street, close to Euston Square. He too had a younger brother, Daniel by name.
The seedy underbelly of Victorian prudishness and moral rectitude took several forms. Prostitution was one of them, the sexual exploitation of children another; a third was pornography, a phenomenon which made its first appearance at the end of the eighteenth century, but which grew substantially in the Victorian era, much of it being surprisingly explicit and imaginative. Delarue and Hocker were avid collectors, Hocker’s collection of smutty prints and books running into the hundreds.
Set against this catalogue of similarities between the two young men, was one significant difference: James Delarue had prospered in his tutoring career – only modestly, perhaps, but sufficiently to enable him to live in spacious accommodation and to venture out with money in his pocket when entertaining young females. He could afford occasionally to replenish his wardrobe – for instance, with new waistcoats (items to which both he and Hocker, as a pair of young dandies, were extremely partial).
Hocker, on the other hand, was up against it financially. He too had at one time made a tolerable living, as a teacher at the Christ Church District School in St. Marylebone. That post had come to an end, however, and Thomas was now earning his living as a freelance tutor. Unlike his friend, however, he was not finding much work, nor did he make anything more than a token effort to find any; he was, in fact, not doing very much of anything except to chase girls, and consequently he was completely without an income. He lived on handouts from his father, a decent but unassertive man whose financial support for his son was continued despite his having been physically attacked by Thomas junior several times during the latter’s ongoing period of self-inflicted poverty.
All of which left, of course, one consolation for young Hocker in his otherwise aimless life: the regular addition of new notches on his bedpost, which, bearing in mind his almost permanent lack of funds, was no mean achievement. For this active sex life he could thank his good looks, his dandyish bearing, his educated conversation, and his plausible manner. He certainly had no reason to be envious of James Delarue in this respect; the large gap in their incomes, however, was a different matter…
The year was 1845, and the irreversible destruction wrought by speculative builders on the countryside surrounding the City of London was only just beginning. It was a process made possible by the introduction of cheap public transport in the form of the railways; but in 1845, railways were still relatively new, and very little encroachment had as yet taken place. As a result, Delarue and Hocker, those two very urban men-about-London, actually lived within walking distance of unspoilt countryside. Hampstead, a short enough walk from the homes of both, bordered Belsize Park, at the time a country estate whose high boundary walls were skirted by fields, farms and woods. There were no other houses within half a mile of Belsize House.
At about 7 o’clock on the evening of Friday, February 22nd, 1845, this now-lost tract of countryside, less than a mile from Regents Park, suddenly had its rural tranquillity shattered by piercing screams of ‘Murder!’
A local baker, Edward Hilton, was doing the rounds of his customers when he heard the cries for help. Ensconced in his cart outside a house in Haverstock Terrace, his first conclusion was that they were the cries of a woman; he also judged them as being about half a mile away. They continued for three or four minutes while Mr. Hilton turned his cart around and drove with urgent speed towards Hampstead Road where, seeing a policeman, he related what he had heard, then drove on.
Following Hilton’s directions, Police Constable Jeremy Baldock (commonly known as ‘Jem’) made straight for Haverstock Terrace and crossed into an adjacent field. Finding nothing suspicious, he emerged via a narrow passage onto Belsize Lane and subsequently onto Hampstead Road again. Here he encountered Sgt. Thomas Fletcher, who was patrolling the adjacent beat. Together they made for the same field, approaching it from a different direction this time.
In the far corner, just beyond a style and next to a fence enclosing the fields of Belsize Park, they found a body, not of a woman but of a rather plump and ostentatiously dressed man, his bloodstained head so severely battered that his brain protruded through the broken skull.
The officers undertook a cursory examination of the murder scene, noting a kid glove that lay a few feet from the body, and a hat (crushed by a blow) lying by the dead man’s right foot. The hard, frosty ground yielded no footprints, but inside the coat pocket of the deceased, Fletcher found a letter addressed to a Mr. Cooper and signed ‘Caroline’. The gist of this missive was that the unfortunate lady, finding herself pregnant, sought certain assurances from Mr. Cooper and requested a meeting with him at their usual spot.
Sgt. Fletcher went in search of a stretcher and some civilian assistance, his intention being to have the body carried to what the Victorians quaintly called the ‘dead house’, a building designated for the examination of a corpse by a physician – in effect, a makeshift mortuary. Constable Baldock was left with the less-enviable job of remaining alone in the wooded darkness to guard the body.
After several minutes of this macabre sentry-duty, PC Baldock suddenly found himself intrigued, in a policemanlike way, by the casual whistling emanating from the woods and which became more distinct as the whistler, still unseen, drew nearer along the path that ran through the trees.
A more nervous man than Baldock (or one who had not been alerted to the approach of a stranger by the whistled fanfare) might have been momentarily spooked by the sound of approaching footsteps.
“Hello,” called out the constable inquiringly.
“Halloo, policeman,” an unseen voice replied nonchalantly. “What have you got there?”
A fashionably dressed young man, resplendent in a smart black cloak, stepped forward from the woods and was informed that a body had been discovered.
“Hmm. It’s a nasty job, policeman” said the stranger, frowning. “My parents always told me not to go this way at night. I often do, though, but I’ve never been attacked.”
He looked at the dead man. “Are you sure he’s dead?” he asked, as he bent over the corpse to feel the pulse. He then offered the constable the use of his flask of brandy by way of insulation from the freezing night air, but which Baldock declined with the regulation ‘Thank you, not while I’m on duty, etc.’ This was immediately followed by the offer of a shilling (it was common knowledge that policemen received only a meagre salary in those days; neither had they yet been totally accepted as necessary or desirable in the eyes of the public, so the offer of a shilling, like the supercilious greeting of “Halloo, policeman”, may have had a sardonic intent); Baldock dutifully declined this second offer, but after insistent badgering from the newcomer, he finally took the coin and put in his pocket, if only to put a polite stop to the other’s increasingly irritating solicitations.
Several more minutes passed, during which the constable did his best to refrain from answering questions without giving offence, before he was reprieved by the sound of approaching footsteps and voices; Sgt. Fletcher was returning, carrying a stretcher and accompanied by a group of local men who had volunteered their help.
This band included a young man by the name of Thibblewaite, who happened to be the nephew of the landlord of a local pub, the ‘Yorkshire Grey’. Seeing PC Baldock and the man in the cloak, Thibblewaite ran ahead of the group to join the two sentinels. He looked at the body in the grass and, turning to Baldock’s companion, asked “Is he dead?”
“Oh yes, he’s quite dead,” replied the other man casually. “I felt his hand and he’s got no pulse.” He then gave each volunteer stretcher-bearer a few coins, which, notwithstanding their embarrassment, they did not refuse.
The body was placed on the stretcher and the entire troupe, corpse and all, headed for the ‘Yorkshire Grey’, one of whose outbuildings served as the local dead house. A modern detective would wince at such desecration of the murder scene by the unfettered movements of civilian volunteers and the removal of the body prior to forensic examination, but the Metropolitan Police, having been in existence for barely fifteen years, was still undergoing a sharp learning-curve. En route, the erstwhile whistler approached young Thibblewaite, who was carrying an oil lamp, and asked if he could use it to light his cigar. As the stranger held the lamp to his face to take a light, Thibblewaite got a good look at his features. Both men then left the group, but in separate directions, Thibblewaite turning off to the right and the other man heading in the direction of the ‘Swiss Cottage’ public house.
At the ‘Yorkshire Grey’, the body was examined by Hampstead surgeon Mr. Richard Rogers Perry, who ascertained that the dead man had been felled by a blow high on the back of the skull, then battered about the head whilst on the ground. A four-inch wound to the scalp was the direct cause of death. No such wound could have been self-inflicted; this was murder beyond a doubt.
The body remained unidentified throughout the whole of the following day, Saturday, but at 8 o’clock on the Sunday morning Daniel Delarue, acting on rumours circulating among various of his friends, arrived at the ‘Yorkshire Grey’ to identify the body as that of his brother James.
Word reached the police that three dodgy-looking characters had been seen in the vicinity on the night in question. They had accosted two separate individuals (one of whom had been on horseback) and had, with menaces, offered them some useless item or other for sale, but with no success. No physical retribution had been taken by the three in response to being rebuffed, but the gang remained the prime suspects for several days.
There was also the mysterious Caroline to be investigated. She was clearly a spurned lover, and pregnant with it. Had she, in desperation and anger, killed James Delarue when he refused to marry her? The police could find no trace of her.
Several weeks passed with no further leads; but while the police searched for phantom muggers and the elusive Caroline, a Mr. William Watson was beginning to harbour grave suspicions about an acquaintance of his by the name of Thomas H. Hocker.
The first note of unease was sounded when Watson, who was landlord to Hocker’s parents, called at their flat for a neighbourly visit. The Hocker family, including the sons, had been having domestic quarrels lately, occasioned in large part by Mr. Hocker’s money worries. Sympathetic towards the Hockers, Mr. Watson was therefore delighted to see the family-members enjoying each other’s company for once. Over a glass of rum, he happened to mention the recent unsolved murder in Hampstead, going into rather grisly detail about the shattered state of the victim’s skull. Thomas junior’s reaction was anything but the typical one of sympathy for the victim, or even morbid curiosity; instead, he quickly tried to change the subject:
“Don’t talk about that; let’s talk about something else.”
To emphasise the point, he immediately broke into a song while Mr. Watson, ruminating on the young man’s odd reaction to the mention of the murder, quietly sipped his glass of rum.
Having thanked the family and congratulated them on the restoration of domestic peace, Mr. Watson was preparing to take his leave when the younger Thomas, for no apparent reason, insisted on showing him his shirt wristband, which was torn and bloody.
“You’ve met with some rough usage,” commented Watson for want of anything better to say, and Thomas’s father worriedly agreed. Putting on a roguish smile, young Hocker put their minds at rest by declaring that he had, as he put it, been “romping with a girl.”
At that point, the younger brother, James, came in, and his first words were “Dear me, there’s talk all over the place about a gentleman being murdered, and a love-letter found in his pocket.” No one said anything in reply, and shortly afterwards Mr. Watson bade the family farewell and left.
Once alone, he thought the matter over. His suspicions, initially seeded by Thomas Hocker junior’s dismissive over-reaction to reference to the murder, had, while Watson was still at the Hocker residence, been fed and watered by the normally-impecunious Hocker senior proudly producing a sovereign from his pocket. The money had been given to him by the younger Thomas as part-repayment of a loan. But Thomas junior, as Mr. Watson knew, did not as a rule have two brass farthings to rub together. How, wondered the landlord, did the young man suddenly come to have money to spare?
Later that weekend he called at his local pub, the ‘Prince of Wales’, where he voiced his suspicions to the landlord, Mr. Battersby who, in turn, passed this gossip on to another acquaintance, Sgt. Scotney of the Metropolitan Police.
William Watson now decided to do a little investigating of his own. This entailed a visit to another pub in order to read the newspaper accounts of the murder. A description of the dead man, and his identification as James Delarue, convinced Mr. Watson that his suspicions were well-founded: the name ‘Delarue’ would, of course, have meant nothing to Thomas Hocker’s parents and brother, since they knew him as ‘Cooper’; Mr. Watson, on the other hand, was fully aware that Thomas Hocker had a close friend called Delarue, and indeed he had met the young gentleman twice through Hocker. He decided it was time to go to the police.
No sooner had he put down his newspaper than the landlord, who knew him, spotted him and called him over to tell him that the aforementioned Sgt. Scotney of Hammersmith police station was at that moment sitting in the ‘Prince of Wales’ hoping to speak to him. Watson left for that pub straight away.
Sgt. Scotney’s quest was for the name and address of the person (i.e. Thomas Hocker) who had been the subject of the conversation between Watson and the landlord Battersby. Armed with this information, Scotney reported to his superior, Inspector Partridge, who immediately went to interview the Hocker parents. Scotney himself, accompanied by PC Beckinson, went to 11 Victoria Terrace, the home of Thomas and James Hocker, arriving there at about 1.30 the following (Wednesday) morning. Scotney knocked on the door. It was opened by young Thomas Hocker, in his bedclothes. The sergeant informed him of his purpose and asked to see his room. Unruffled, Hocker led the way upstairs to the back room on the second floor where James lay asleep.
Thomas woke James and told him to get up. Informed of the reason for Sgt. Scotney’s visit, James responded by saying to his brother, “Tom, tell the policeman all you know about it; he can see if you’re telling a lie.”
“Yes, I can,” interjected Scotney, with studied authoritativeness.
Thomas’s response to this intimidating (but, no doubt, thoroughly groundless) warning was to walk nonchalantly to his bed and pull from under the pillow a pocket-watch.
“It’s Mr. Delarue’s,” he cheerfully told the sergeant. “He gave it to me on Friday morning [the day of the murder], at about 10 o’clock, to sell for him.”
He moved on to a drawer and took out a roll of pawnbroker’s duplicate receipts, which he said were for the watch and two other items belonging to Delarue: a gold watch-guard and seal, and a ring, both pledged at different times during the previous two months. Thomas looked the picture of innocence; James looked bemused; Sgt. Scotney informed them both that their presence would shortly be required at the station. The brothers got dressed.
Inspector Partridge arrived, and Thomas was accompanied to his parents’ home to put his boots on (enabling Insp. Partridge to make a quick search of those premises), after which the brothers were taken to Hammersmith police station to be interviewed.
Meanwhile, their bedroom was searched again, this time by Inspectors Shackell, Haynes and Grey who between them unearthed a roll of receipts and invoices in the name of ‘J. Cooper, Esq.’ as well as Thomas Hocker’s collection of pornographic books and prints (the fate of which is unknown). All these finds were of no value whatsoever to the investigation, but things moved forward for the police when, concerned that incriminating evidence might have been removed from Mr. and Mrs. Hocker’s flat in Charles Street after Insp. Partridge’s rather rudimentary initial search, Shackell, Haynes and Grey decided to go and have a closer look there.
Thomas Hocker senior was, as always, extremely co-operative; it was obvious also that he had made no attempt to remove anything from the premises which might tell against his sons. His willingness to help the police was not based on malice towards his sons – indeed, he was devastated; involvement with the police was something entirely new to him, and he simply wished to bring no further trouble on his timid and troubled head. Even a detective of the thickest skin could not fail to acknowledge the severity of the blow which fate seemed to have dealt to this inoffensive man.
The three inspectors were taken into the living room, which was occasionally used by Thomas the younger, and here they hit the jackpot. Hidden in the room were three items of clothing covered in dirt and bloodstains: a pair of trousers, a mackintosh, and a pair of men’s stockings, all three articles immediately being identified by Mr. Hocker as belonging to Thomas.
Inspector Haynes repaired to Clerkenwell Prison, where Thomas Hocker was held on remand, and took from him his coat. Its cuffs were likewise covered in blood. Haynes next went to the scene of the murder where he found a button which proved identical to one found at Thomas’s lodgings in Victoria Terrace; his jacket, bearing identical buttons, had two missing. And for good measure, a third and final search of his lodgings produced a number of gummed papers used for sealing envelopes, and known to the Victorians as wafers. They each bore the letter F; the ‘Caroline’ letter had been sealed with an identical wafer. The ink used to write the letter matched the colour of a bottle of ink found in Hocker’s room.
Having thus garnered an impressive array of circumstantial evidence, the police now addressed themselves to interviewing friends and acquaintances of Delarue and Hocker.
Susan Kitchener, the daughter of James Delarue’s landlord, told them that Delarue had left his lodgings at 6 p.m., an hour before he was murdered, telling her he would be back at about 7.30. He normally carried his watch with him, in his breast pocket; Miss Kitchener had seen Delarue sporting the watch at 2.30 on the Friday afternoon, which meant that Hocker’s claim to have received it from Delarue that morning was a lie – as was his claim to have torn his shirt wristband while “romping with a girl”.
The young lady whom Hocker had alleged was his fellow-romper, a Miss Sarah Cox, indignantly denied the suggestion. He had also given a ludicrous explanation for his bloodstained attire, namely that he had gone to a local slaughterhouse and splashed animal blood on his clothes for fear of being implicated in Delarue’s murder!
A purse found at Hocker’s lodgings was identified by Daniel Delarue as belonging to his brother, and the normally penniless Hocker had been in possession of a considerable sum of money the day after the murder. He had explained this to his father by saying that he had borrowed it from a woman by the name of Edwards who lived in Soho, and it was out of this alleged loan that Thomas had given his father the sovereign that had contributed to arousing the suspicions of William Watson.
Thomas Hocker senior had doubted the truth of his son’s claim to have borrowed the money from Mrs. Edwards, and his doubts were confirmed – she informed Insp. Haynes that she had never lent Hocker any money, nor indeed been asked to do so.
Hocker was identified easily by a number of people as having been at or near the murder scene on the evening of February 22nd. Looking agitated, he had called in at the ‘Swiss Cottage’ pub, gulped down a drink and hurried out. A few minutes later, shortly before PC Baldock discovered the body, Hocker was actually seen close to the murder spot by a passer-by who only minutes earlier had heard Delarue’s cries for help.
But perhaps the most damning piece of evidence against Thomas was provided by the publican’s nephew Thibblewaite, who identified him as the man who had asked for a light from his oil-lamp. The lamp would have provided enough light for Hocker to recognise the face of his closest friend while the body was being lifted onto the stretcher. Surely he would have noticed who the dead man was (even if he had been unable to do so earlier while checking his pulse in the presence of Constable Baldock, without the aid of a lamp).
Why, wondered the police, did Hocker not identify Delarue there and then? Equally importantly, Hocker himself could, and should, have been identified by Baldock as the whistling man who appeared from out of the woods and examined the corpse in the constable’s presence. However, Baldock, probably fearing repercussions over his acceptance of Hocker’s shilling, had initially withheld this vital fact – an omission for which he was severely reprimanded during the magistrate’s hearings. Once he had come clean about his encounter with Hocker, of course, it amounted to yet further circumstantial evidence against the suspect.
As was shown by the failure to protect the murder scene, by the premature removal of the body, and by Baldock’s cover-up, these were early days for the Metropolitan Police. Notwithstanding the high regard for leading detectives such as John Haynes (who four years later would be instrumental in the arrest of the murderers Frederick and Maria Manning) and the forty-five-year-old Joseph Shackell, the Detective Branch (the forerunner of the CID) had been formed only three years previously, and police methods had until recently been very rudimentary. The inquiry work done in the Delarue murder shows, however, that the Detective Branch (usually known simply as the Detective) was beginning to get its act together – even though it needed the catalyst of Mr. William Watson’s freelance detection work. The police clearly now had more than enough evidence to bring Thomas Hocker to trial.
There was no evidence at all, however, against his brother James, who had in fact, like his father, favourably impressed the authorities with his willingness to co-operate, and he was soon released from custody. The trial of his brother, who was now assumed to have acted alone and with the motive of financial gain, began on Friday, April 11th, 1845, at the Central Criminal Court in Newgate.
Two judges, Mr. Justice Coleridge (the future Lord Chief Justice) and Mr. Justice Coleman, presided. The legendary William Bodkin (subsequently knighted) and Mr. M. M. Chambers acted for the Crown, while Messrs. Clarkson and Ballantyne were counsel for the defence.
Throughout the whole trial, Bodkin and Chambers were steadfast in their refusal to pontificate or to play on the emotions of the jury, and confined themselves to the facts. A masterly performance by Bodkin, in particular, even edged towards sympathy for the accused man. There was little that Clarkson and Ballantyne could do to refute the strong circumstantial evidence presented by the prosecution, and Hocker’s fate seemed sealed almost from the start. In fact, Clarkson and Ballantyne were given no opportunity to mount a credible strategy because Hocker, concluding, no doubt, that his skills in advocacy were superior to theirs, dismissed them early on in the trial in order to conduct his own defence, inevitably compromising his position even further. But he had an ace up his sleeve; the question was, would it work on the jury?
Defendants in a murder trial were not, at the time, allowed to speak in their own defence – an odd omission, to say the least, from today’s perspective, and one which remained unchanged until the passing of the Criminal Evidence Act 1898. Thomas Hocker was, however, able to take advantage of a rule that allowed a defendant to make an address to the Court with no cross-examination. His story concerning the events of the evening of Friday, 22nd February 1845 was an incredible blend of personal chivalry and a desire to protect an outraged family who had sought revenge through violence.
Having been escorted to his cell to fetch his notes, he returned to court and, like a true orator, stood waiting with his arms folded for the excitement to die down before confidently (some would say “conceitedly”) beginning his tale:
Although declaring himself innocent of the crime, Hocker stated that he actually knew the identities of the murderers. Indeed, he had, as he freely admitted, written the ‘Caroline’ letter to James Delarue, but not as a red herring to divert suspicion away from himself; his purpose had been to lure Delarue to a reckoning with those he had wronged.
Caroline, he claimed, was a close personal friend of his, and the daughter of a well-to-do family. She had, he said, found herself pregnant by Delarue who, when told of the pregnancy, had abandoned her. Aware of his friendship with Delarue, Caroline’s family had told Hocker of this shameful behaviour and had beseeched him to reason with Delarue on her behalf. His attempt to do so had met with a terse rebuff, and, horrified by his friend’s brutish attitude, Thomas was prevailed upon easily to forge the letter that would draw Delarue to the field in Haverstock Road where he would be beaten up and family honour would be satisfied. Hocker, rather than Caroline herself, was asked to write the letter because she knew nothing of the revenge-plan and must be protected from further upset.
The scheme had gone according to plan right up to the moment when James Delarue was cornered near the fence bordering Belsize Park. Then things went badly wrong; his attackers were overzealous with his punishment, and he was beaten to death. Hocker, present at the beating only in order to help restrain Delarue, ended up with a torn shirt-wristband and blood on his clothes.
Before the killers ran off, they pleaded with him to keep their identity a secret. Chivalrous Thomas Hocker, upholder of the tainted virtue of the ruined Caroline, promised without hesitation to do so, even if it meant that the blame would fall on him. Now facing a murder charge, he had to speak the truth to save his neck, but he could under no circumstances allow himself to disclose the identities of the real murderers. It was a matter of honour.
And with that, the young gentleman, with the confidence and dash that had been his hallmark throughout the trial, brought his speech to a flourishing close.
It was all complete fiction, of course, and it cut no ice with the jury, but, despite the obvious sleight to the Court’s credibility, it won for its creator a compliment from the judges in recognition of Hocker’s effective delivery (one can imagine the delight with which he received this acknowledgement of his talents). The overwhelming evidence against him only really invited one verdict – that of guilty. The jury decided – correctly, of course – that Caroline did not exist; after an absence of only ten minutes, they found Hocker guilty of murder. The squares of black silk were placed solemnly on the heads of the judges, and, after an appeal to the prisoner to make his preparations for the after-life, sentence of death was pronounced.
Public executions were intended to instil in the populace a sense of dread, an awareness of state power, and a habit of obedience to the law. They were instead the favourite Victorian spectator sport, and, until the abolition of such spectacles in 1868, people flocked to a hanging from all over London. On 28th April, 1845, a month after his trial, outside the walls of Newgate Prison and before a large and festive crowd of twelve thousand intent on enjoying a day out, Thomas Hocker, far less aloof now and with little of the roguish dandy left in him, became a statistic in the long history of capital punishment, and a brief source of revenue for the sellers of broadsheets and ballads.
He made no confession, and had in fact attempted, while incarcerated in the condemned cell of Newgate awaiting his execution, to blacken the character of James Delarue in the spurious hope of winning a reprieve. The harsh conditions of Newgate had effectively trimmed his normal swagger, and he mounted the scaffold a crushed and defeated man. Fainting, and barely aware of what was happening, he had to be revived with smelling salts, and was propped up by the assistant hangman while executioner Calcraft put the noose around his neck. The drop fell, an eerie groan rose up from the crowd, and it was all over.
While Hocker himself was obviously the chief casualty of the Old Bailey trial, there was (admittedly to a far lesser degree) a second, namely Sarah Jane Philps.
Having, like so many Victorian girls, come to London from the countryside in order to enter service, young Sarah Jane was now staying with Mrs. Edwards (she from whom Hocker falsely claimed to have borrowed money). Her evidence, while providing little help to either prosecution or defence (beyond confirming that, several hours after the murder, Hocker had a torn wristband on his shirt and was sporting an unfamiliar watch and ring that were almost certainly Delarue’s), produced instead the kind of juicy scandal so beloved of the Victorians: as one of Thomas’s many bed-partners, she had been receiving him, along with other couples, for what may safely be called orgies at the home of her employer, the wealthy baronet Sir Oswald Moseley of Portland Place (where Mrs. Edwards was employed as caretaker), on nights when the Moseley family were away. Needless to say, Miss Philps’s employment as Sir Oswald’s housemaid had been abruptly terminated the moment her misuse of his home came to light during police enquiries.
She made a pathetic and tearful figure in the witness box – not surprisingly, considering that not only was she now branded a ‘fallen woman’, but also her chances of a reference for a future job were now non-existent. The squalid lodging-houses of the mid-Nineteenth Century were full of sacked female-servants with bad reputations and nowhere to live, and many soon drifted into either prostitution or petty crime. At Hocker’s trial, most of Sarah Jane’s time in the courtroom was spent sitting weeping on Mrs. Edwards’s knee. There was never going to be any attempt to protect such a ‘lowly’ creature as her from that spectre which terrified the upper classes – the threat of an open scandal.
There was a second dose of scandal resulting from the case, but it was unsubstantiated and of doubtful provenance. This was the claim, published in the ‘Morning Chronicle’ newspaper, that James Delarue was bisexual and that he purchased sexual favours from the impecunious Hocker. The murder scene in Belsize Park was, according to the ‘Chronicle’, their habitual meeting-place for these sexual encounters. Eventually, claimed the newspaper, Delarue had decided to terminate the arrangement, whereupon Hocker, in need of the money, had gone into a frenzy and killed his friend. Whether there was any truth in the allegation can only be surmised, but even if true, it remains a fact that the murder was not a crime of passion but was motivated by Hocker’s desire to get his hands on his friend’s money, if not in exchange for sex then by means of robbery and murder.
As for Thomas H. Hocker, he had, of course, brought his downfall on himself, returning to the murder scene after the body had been discovered. Why he did such a foolhardy thing is a mystery. Either it was to reassure himself that Delarue was indeed dead, or else he was seduced by the urge – so common in murderers – to revisit the scene of his crime in order to savour his handiwork and gloat inwardly over the perplexed faces of the police. Had he identified his best friend there and then, and faked horror and distress at the murder, he might have avoided suspicion. Better still, had he quit the scene straight after the murder and not returned at all (though admittedly running the risk that Delarue might still be alive), and then turned up a few days later at the dead house to tearfully identify the body, the police’s task would have been considerably harder.
But even had he taken this more sensible course, his indiscretion with the proceeds of his crime, and his lies as to how he had suddenly acquired it, would no doubt quickly have made him a prime suspect. He was caught because he not only failed to cover his tracks, but in effect advertised himself as the likely perpetrator. He had, in fact, a criminal record for a number of minor offences, and, like so many killers before and since, had simply ‘graduated’ from petty crime to murder.
As is shown by his trial speech, all that can be said in his favour is that the acting profession lost one of its potential stars when Hocker was dispatched by Calcraft outside Newgate. While awaiting his execution-day, he came close, several times, to persuading the police to believe in his innocence, and succeeded in sending them on wild-goose chases in search of vital evidence of which, he claimed with total and convincing sincerity, to have suddenly remembered…
Charles Dickens, who was a stern opponent of public hangings, had followed the Hocker case keenly, and had attended the execution, which had merely strengthened his opposition to such spectacles; but for Hocker himself the novelist had little sympathy. He described the murder of James Delarue as “one of the most remarkable instances of murder originating in mad self-conceit.” Its leading player he described as “an insolent, flippant, dissolute youth, aping the man of intrigue and levity; over-dressed, over-confident, inordinately vain … and unhappily the son of a working shoemaker” (a fact that surely caused Hocker much resentment and which explains his contemptuous bullying of his well-meaning father).
The younger Hocker, said Dickens, was looking for a way “of making the life and adventures of Thomas Hocker remarkable”, but clearly he had little or no natural talent with which to back up his inflated self-image, resorting finally to basking in his notoriety as a murder suspect, enjoying his position as the centre of attention for as long as the trial lasted, and playing the celebrity after the trial until brutal Newgate brought him down to size and back to earth. Echoing Dickens’s view, and crystallising it, the writer Martin Fido has tersely described Thomas Hocker as “a vain and silly psychopath”, and the description seems accurate enough.
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