Chapter 01 The Provocation
Forty minutes out of London, passing through the rolling green fields and cherry orchards of Kent, the morning train of the South Eastern Railway attained its maximum speed of fifty-four miles an hour. Riding the bright blue-painted engine, the driver in his red uniform could be seen standing upright in the open air, unshielded by any cab or windscreen, while at his feet the engineer crouched, shoveling coal into the glowing furnaces of the engine. Behind the chugging engine and tender were three yellow first-class coaches, followed by seven green second-class carriages; and at the very end, a gray, windowless luggage van.
As the train clattered down the track on its way to the coast, the sliding door of the luggage van opened suddenly, revealing a desperate struggle inside. The contest was most unevenly matched: a slender youth in tattered clothing, striking out against a burly, blue-uniformed railway guard. Although weaker, the youth made a good showing, landing one or two telling blows against his hulking opponent. Indeed, it was only by accident that the guard, having been knocked to his knees, should spring forward in such a way that the youth was caught unprepared and flung clear of the train through the open door, so that he landed tumbling and bouncing like a rag doll upon the ground.
The guard, gasping for breath, looked back at the fast-receding figure of the fallen youth. Then he closed the sliding door. The train sped on, its whistle shrieking. Soon it was gone round a gentle curve, and all that remained was the faint sound of the chugging engine, and the lingering drifting gray smoke that slowly settled over the tracks and the body of the motionless youth.
After a minute or two, the youth stirred. In great pain, he raised himself up on one elbow, and seemed about to rise to his feet. But his efforts were to no avail; he instantly collapsed back to the ground, gave a final convulsive shudder, and lay wholly still.
Half an hour later, an elegant black brougham coach with rich crimson wheels came down the dirt road that ran parallel to the railway tracks. The coach came to a hill, and the driver drew up his horse. A most singular gentleman emerged, fashionably dressed in a dark green velvet frock coat and high beaver hat. The gentleman climbed the hill, pressed binoculars to his eyes, and swept the length of the tracks. Immediately he fixed on the body of the prostrate youth. But the gentleman made no attempt to approach him, or to aid him in any way. On the contrary, he remained standing on the hill until he was certain the lad was dead. Only then did he turn aside, climb into his waiting coach, and drive back in the direction he had come, northward toward London.
Chapter 02 The Putter-Up
This singular gentleman was Edward Pierce, and for a man destined to become so notorious that Queen Victoria herself expressed a desire to meet him--- or, barring that, to attend his hanging--- he remains an oddly mysterious figure. In appearance, Pierce was a tall, handsome man in his early thirties who wore a full red beard in the fashion that had recently become popular, particularly among government employees. In his speech, manner, and dress he seemed to be a gentleman, and well-to-do; he was apparently very charming, and possessed of "a captivating address." He himself claimed to be an orphan of Midlands gentry, to have attended Winchester and then Cambridge. He was a familiar figure in many London social circles and counted among his acquaintances Ministers, Members of Parliament, foreign ambassadors, bankers, and others of substantial standing. Although a bachelor, he maintained a house at No. 12 Harrow Road, in a fashionable part of London. But he spent much of the year traveling, and was said to have visited not only the Continent but New York as well.
Contemporary observers clearly believed his aristocratic origins; journalistic accounts often referred to Pierce as a "rogue," using the term in the sense of a male animal gone bad. The very idea of a highborn gentleman adopting a life of crime was so startling and titillating that nobody really wanted to disprove it.
Yet there is no firm evidence that Pierce came from the upper classes; indeed, almost nothing of his background prior to 1850 is known with any certainty. Modern readers, accustomed to the concept of "positive identification" as an ordinary fact of life, may be puzzled by the ambiguities of Pierce's past. But in an era when birth certificates were an innovation, photography a nascent art, and fingerprinting wholly unknown, it was difficult to identify any man with certainty, and Pierce took special care to be elusive. Even his name is doubtful: during the trial, various witnesses claimed to have known him as John Simms, or Andrew Miller, or Robert Jeffers.
The source of his obviously ample income. was equally disputed. Some said he was a silent partner with Jukes in the highly successful firm that manufactured croquet equipment. Croquet--- pronounced "croaky"--- was the overnight rage among athletically inclined young ladies, and it was perfectly reasonable that a sharp young businessman, investing a modest inheritance in such an enterprise, should come off very well.
Others said that Pierce owned several publican houses, and a smallish fleet of cabs, headed by 'a particularly sinister-appearing cabby, named Barlow, with a white scar across his forehead. This was more likely true, for the ownership of pubs and cabs was an occupation where underworld connections were useful.
Of course, it is not impossible that Pierce was a wellborn man with a background of aristocratic education. One must remember that Winchester and Cambridge were in those days more often characterized by lewd and drunken behavior than serious and sober scholarship. The most profound scientific mind of the Victorian era, Charles Darwin, devoted most of his youth to gambling and horses; and the majority of wellborn young men were more interested in acquiring "a university bearing" than a university degree.
It is also true that the Victorian underworld supported many educated figures down on their luck. They were usually screevers, or writers of false letters of recommendation, or they were counterfeiters, "doing a bit of soft." Sometimes they became magsmen, or con artists. But in general these educated men were petty criminals of a pathetic sort, more deserving of public pity than condemnation.
Edward Pierce, on the other hand, was positively exuberant in his approach to crime. Whatever his soues of income, whatever the truth of his background, one thing is certain: he was a master cracksman, or burglar, who over the years had accumulated sufficient capital to finance large-scale criminal operations, thus becoming what was called "a patter-up." And toward the middle of 1854, he was already well into an elaborate plan to pull the greatest theft of his career, The Great Train Robbery.
Chapter 03 The Screwsman
Robert Agar--- a known screwsman, or specialist in keys and safe-breaking--- testified in court that when he met Edward Pierce in late May, 1854, he had not seen him for two years previously. Agar was twenty-six years old, and in fair health except for a bad cough, the legacy of his years as a child working for a match manufacturer on Wharf Road, Bethnal Green. The premises of the firm were poorly ventilated, and the white vapor of phosphorous filled the air at all times. Phosphorous was known to be poisonous, but there were plenty of people eager to work at any job, even one that might cause a person's lungs to decay, or his jaw to rot off--- sometimes in a matter of months.
Agar was a matchstick dipper. He had nimble fingers, and he eventually took up his trade as screwsman, where he was immediately successful. He worked as a screwsman for six years and was never apprehended.
Agar had never had any direct dealings with Pierce in the past, but he knew of him as a master cracksman who worked other towns, thus accounting for his long absences from London. Agar had also heard that Pierce had the money to put up a lay from time to time.
Agar testified that their first meeting occurred at the Bull and Bear publican house, on Hounslow Road. Located at the periphery of the notorious criminal slum of Seven Dials, this well-known flash house was, in the words of one observer, "a gathering place for all manner of females dressed to represent ladies, as well as members of the criminal class; who could be seen at every turning."
Given the infamous nature of the place, it was almost certain that a plainclothes constable from the Metropolitan Police was lurking somewhere on the premises. But the Bull and Bear was frequented by gentlemen of quality with a taste for low life, and the conversation of two fashionably dressed young bloods lounging at the bar while they surveyed the women in the room attracted no particular attention.
The meeting was unplanned, Agar said, but he was not surprised when Pierce arrived. Agar had heard some talk about Pierce lately, and it sounded as though hg might be putting up. Agar recalled that the conversation began without greetings or preliminaries.
Agar said, "I heard that Spring Heel Jack's left Westminster."
"I heard that," Pierce agreed, rapping with his silverheaded cane to draw the attention of the barman. Pierce ordered two glasses of the best whiskey, which Agar took as proof that this was to be a business discussion.
"I heard," Agar said, "that Jack was going on a south swing to dip the holiday crowd." In those days, London pickpockets left in late spring, traveling north or south to other cities. A pickpocket's stock in trade was anonymity, and one could not dip a particular locale for long without being spotted by the crusher on the beat.
"I didn't hear his plans," Pierce said.
"I also heard," Agar continued, "that he took the train."
"He might have done."
"I heard," Agar said, his eyes on Pierces face, "that on this train he was doing some crow's peeping for a particular gent who is putting up."
"He might have done," Pierce said again.
"I also heard," Agar said with a sudden grin, "that you are putting up."
"I may," Pierce said. He sipped his whiskey, and stared at the glass. "It used to be better here," he said reflectively. "Neddy must be watering his stock. What have you heard I am putting up for?"
"A robbery," Agar said. "For a ream flash pull, if truth be told."
"If truth be told," Pierce repeated. He seemed to find the phrase amusing. He turned away from the bar and looked at the women in the room. Several returned his glances warmly. "Everybody hears the pull bigger than life," he said finally.
"Aye, that's so," Agar admitted, and sighed. (In his testimony, Agar was very clear about the histrionics involved. "Now I goes and gives a big sigh, you see; like to say my patience is wearing thin, because he's a cautious one, Pierce is, but I want to get down to it, so I gives a big sigh.")
There was a brief silence. Finally Agar said, "It's two years gone since I saw you. Been busy?"
"Traveling," Pierce said.
Pierce shrugged. He looked at the glass of whiskey in Agar's hands, and the half-finished glass of gin and water Agar had been drinking before Pierce arrived. "How's the touch?"
"Ever so nice," Agar said. To demonstrate, he held out his hands, palms flat, fingers wide: there was no tremor.
"I may have one or two little things," Pierce said.
"Spring Heel Jack held his cards close," Agar said. "I know that for a ream fact. He was all swelled mighty and important, but he kept it to his chest."
"Jack's put in lavender," Pierce said curtly.
This was, as Agar later explained it, an ambiguous phrase. It might mean that Spring Heel Jack had gone into hiding; more often it meant that he was dead; it depended. Agar didn't inquire further. "These one or two little things, could they be crib jobs?"
"Dicey, are they?"
"Very dicey," Pierce said.
"Inside or outside?"
"I don't know. You may need a canary or two when the time comes. And you will want a tight lip. If the first lay goes right enough, there will be more."
Agar downed the rest of his whiskey, and waited. Pierce ordered him another.
"Is it keys, then?" Agar asked.
"Wax, or straightaway haul?"
"On the fly, or is there time?"
"On the fly."
"Right, then," Agar said. "I'm your man. I can do a wax on the fly faster than you can light your cigar."
"I know that," Pierce said, striking a match on the counter top and holding it to the tip of his cigar. Agar gave a slight shudder; he did not himself smoke--- indeed, smoking had just recently returned to fashion after eighty years--- and every time he smelled the phosphorous and sulfur of a match, it gave Agar a twinge, from his days in the match factory.
He watched Pierce puff on the cigar until it caught. "What's the lay to be, then?"
Pierce looked at him coldly. "You'll know when the time comes."
"You're a tight one."
"That," Pierce said, "is why I have never been in," meaning that he had no prison record. At the trial, other witnesses disputed this claim, saying that Pierce had served three and a half years in Manchester for cracking, under the name of Arthur Wills.
Agar said that Pierce gave him a final word of caution about keeping silent, and then moved away from the bar, crossing the smoky, noisy Bull and Bear to bend briefly and whisper into a pretty woman's ear. The woman laughed; Agar turned away, and recalls nothing further from the evening.