Authors: Bruce Alexander
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Traditional British
LAST NIGHT, just past the hour of twelve, loud cries and screams issued from the shop and residence of Ezekiel Crabb, bookseller and publisher in Grub Street. A group of bold fellows assembled without and, led by a constable on his rounds from Bow Street, sought entrance to the establishment.
Forcing the door, they found nothing amiss in the bookshop in front, nor the print shop in the rear, until one with a lantern put it to the floor and noted footprints thick with blood upon the floor. He called out his grisly discovery and, following the tracks back, led them upstairs to the living quarters of the Crabb family. And then what a gruesome sight was there to behold!
Ezekiel Crabb, proprietor, and his good wife were found in their beds: chopped to pieces. Blood was splashed about their bedroom most carelessly. The sheets and blankets of their bed, from which they had no opportunity to rise, were soaked in red. Mr. Crabb’s arm was separated from his body. Mrs. Crabb’s head was cleaved in two.
A visit to the room in which their two sons had slept revealed an even more dreadful carnage. The older of the two, James by name according to one who knew him, had leapt and run from his bed, and thus was punished for his efforts to save himself with repeated blows from the murder weapon. He was found in one corner of the room, his head separated from his trunk as by an executioner’s axe, his forearm similarly hacked away, and his body near split at the middle. His brother, unknown by name, died peaceably in his sleep from a single blow to the head, which left him unrecognizably wounded.
Members of the party speculated as to who might have done such horrible deeds. One who had lately returned from the North American colonies declared such slaughter could only have been accomplished by a pack of red Indians.
But hark! There were sounds from above—footfalls, creaking boards, and a long, low moan delivered in a most blood-chilling tone. Was there a survivor, or was the murderer yet about? Knowing not which was so, the band of vigilants marched slowly, though steadfastly, up the stairs to the garret room in which the apprentices made their quarters. What new horrors would they find?
The two lads, known familiarly in Grub Street as printers’ devils, were indeed dead in their beds from blows to their chests and heads. But also there, lurking over them, the murder axe in hand, stood the true devil who had fiendishly dispatched the boys and the four members of the Crabb family below.
He threatened the investigators with his weapon and noised at them fearsomely in a strange tongue that none understood. Seeing that to attempt reason with one in such a state would be quite impossible, the constable, Cowley by name, stepped forward and threatened him with his pistol. Although urged by the others to shoot him where he stood, Cowley repeated his demand that he lay down his axe. At last some understanding dawned in the murderer’s eyes. He dropped his weapon, and the avenging crowd surged upon him, subduing him most mercilessly, abusing him about the head until he was quite insensate.
At last they heeded Cowley’s command that they desist, and the constable bore the prisoner to the Bow Street Court, where he is now in custody. He has been identified as John Clayton, a mad poet from Somersetshire. For some days past, he has been resident in the Crabb establishment, where he plotted the murders. Thus did he repay his host’s hospitality.
In my research of materials pertinent to the murders in Grub Street, which was indeed one of Sir John Fielding’s most infamous inquiries, I came upon the preceding document which I had kept near thirty years as a reminder of just how this grisly matter began.
Though but a broadsheet written and printed in haste the day following for quick sale throughout London, it gives a fair and accurate account of how the great crime was apprehended by those who were first upon the premises.
The writer, whom I later had opportunity to meet, was not one of those present, yet he talked at some length with three of them, including young Constable Cowley, who was somewhat in disgrace at the time. The information thus garnered, though colored and flavored to the taste of buyers in the street, was quite useful to the inquiry of Sir John Fielding, magistrate of Bow Street Court. He did, nevertheless, take it ill that such information was made public so soon after the event.
Yet none of this was known to me when first I became acquainted with the Grub Street matter. I was deep in a sleep which I had believed would be my last in the household of Sir John Fielding, when I was roused from it, shaken near awake by his housekeeper, Mrs. Gredge.
“Jeremy,” said she to me, “you must rise and dress yourself quick, for Sir John wishes you to accompany him on a journey of great urgency.”
“Oh, I will.” said I, quite groggy with sleep, “indeed I will.”
“I’ll have none of that,” said she. “I must see you out of your bed and into your clothes ere I leave. Boys of your age give promises in sleep they never mean to keep.” She held the candle quite near my face and let its light torture my eyes open. “Awake, now!” she commanded, “and out of bed!”
“But I am not dressed,” I objected modestly.
“Indeed you are not, and I mean to see you change that.”
And so, having no other choice in the matter, I threw back the blankets, and did as I was bade. In truth, I wore my second-best shirt against the night chill, and so was not near as naked as I pretended to be. Mrs. Gredge threw to me my stockings and breeches, and I struggled into them, though still near half asleep. Holding her candle high, she pointed out my coat, hung on the back of my attic room’s single chair, and my shoes tucked beneath. Silent and sullen, I pulled them on and stood ready at last.
She nodded, satisfied. “Come along so,” said she, “and don’t forget your hat.”
Down the stairs then, feeling my way in the dark, for she flew before me, taking with her the scant light offered by the candle she carried. Yet once in the kitchen, I found light aplenty, as if it be lit for early evening, and there, deep in talk, were Sir John Fielding and his chief constable, Benjamin Bailey, captain of the Bow Street Runners. They took no notice of me, so urgently did they discuss. Sir John was poised in such a way as to observe my coming, yet in his blindness he saw me not.
I took a place nearby and waited quietly. Of a sudden, I was full awake. My resentment toward Mrs. Gredge for the rude awakening she had given me was vanished, now replaced by a sense of anticipation and curiosity as to the matter at hand. If leave Sir John’s household I must for a life in the printing trade, I had rather it be at such a time of excitement as this might prove to be.
I considered the remarkable events that had brought me to this place. I had come to London near two months past, lately orphaned in the most lamentable circumstances by my father’s death in the pillory. I had fled that foul village which had treated my father, a printer, so ill, and arrived in the great city with only a few shillings between me and destitution. On my first day there I had been gulled by an independent thief-taker, who dragged me before the nearest magistrate and falsely accused me of theft. How fortunate for me that the magistrate who heard the matter was Sir John Fielding! Though blind, he had seen through the lying deception and taken me as a ward of the court. Ere he found me a place as a printer’s apprentice, however, which was his intent, he had been engaged in an inquiry into the death of Lord Goodhope, in which I proved of small assistance. I had hoped my help in that matter might sway him to keep me on in some capacity, yet it seemed this was not to be. He, brought low by the death of his wife after a lingering illness, could find no permanent place for me in his household. With the help of Dr. Samuel Johnson, he had placed me in the printer’s trade.
Yet now, as I waited, I sensed something of great moment in the air. Though I might not see this inquiry through to its end, I should at least be present at its beginning. Remembering that evening, but a short time past, when we first visited the residence of Lord Goodhope and the mystery of his death began to unfold, I took heart that this night might also be one such. Little did I know the shocking revelation and attendant horror that awaited me.
And so, at a respectful distance, I made to eavesdrop a bit, catching words, names, and phrases from the conversation that continued between Sir John and Mr. Bailey. I distinctly heard the name John Clayton passed from Mr. Bailey, followed a sentence or two later by “under lock and key.”
Sir John took that in, nodded, and said, “I shall talk to him, certainly.”
Mr. Bailey laughed loudly and declared, “You’ll not get much out of that one!”
“That’s as may be, but I must try. But be on your way, Mr. Bailey. So much has so far been done wrong, you must do what you can to put it aright.”
“As you say, Sir John.”
“Who is on duty downstairs?”
“Good. Off you go then.”
And with a touch of his hand to his tricorn, Mr. Bailey disappeared through the open door and thundered down the stairs.
“Mrs. Gredge,” Sir John called out, “did you wake Jeremy?”
She was no longer present, gone back to bed perhaps.
“I am here, Sir John,” said I. “Ah, I had no idea. Dressed, are you? Ready to go?”
“I am, Yes.”
“Then we must first make a visit to the strong room to talk to one in a most unfortunate state and then be off to visit the place ol his arrest.”
All that sounded quite reasonable, as stated, yet what a world of pain it hid. He must have wished not to frighten me.
“Shall I put out the candles, sir?”
“Yes,” said he, “do that, but leave the longest burning for our return.”
I did so, and together we descended the stairs — I preceding him, and he with his hand on my shoulder. Thus came we to the ground floor, where only a few steps away lay the strong room. There Mr. Baker stood, staring with great fascination at its contents. From the angle of our approach it was at first impossible to glimpse inside, yet even then, knowing nothing of the prisoner and the cause of his imprisonment, I was quite curious, knowing not what to expect.
I confess that when I laid eyes upon the man who would come to be known to us all as John Clayton, I was somewhat disappointed. Because of the lateness of the hour, Sir John’s solemn demeanor, and Mr. Baker’s keen interest, I had expected to discover a more impressive figure behind the bars. What I found, rather, was a large man dressed in a nightshirt, looking more forlorn than any I had ever before seen. He sat on a stool, his knees wide apart and his hands clasped so tight between them that they seemed together to make a single fist. His eyes were quite impossible to read, for they were shut tight. There seemed to be nothing remarkable about him at all, except the sense of desperation that his posture conveyed, and the fact that he was dressed for bed. But then I noticed that the hem of his nightshirt had been splashed with blood.
I looked to Sir John, wondering if I should tell him of that detail. Such, he had ever said, were often of the utmost importance. Yet he was off to one side now, listening close as Mr. Baker whispered in his ear.
Whatever was said, it was not much, for Sir John turned from him with a quick nod and called out to the prisoner: “You in there, identify yourself. What is your name?”
The only answer he got was a great, sad moan.
“Are you John Clayton? Is that who you are?”
At that, he who had been addressed shook his head vigorously and spoke for the first time and in a deep, heavy growl. “I am Petrus,” said he. And as he did so, he seemed to take heart, opening his eyes and regarding his questioner for the first time, rising from the stool whereon he had sat, striding with apparent confidence to the bars that separated them.
“I think you are not,” said Sir John. “No matter who you think you are, or say you are, I believe you are John Clayton.”
“And who are you?” asked the prisoner.
“I am John Fielding, the magistrate before whom you must appear tomorrow. My advice to you, sir, is to organize yourself. Prepare to answer questions, because I have many to ask. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you.”
“Do you understand?” Sir John put the question to him with great severity. His face was but inches from the prisoner’s, separated only by the bars of the strong room. Had he sight, one would say he was staring into the man’s eyes, which were both wild and vacant and most frightening to behold.
For a space of time they stood thus. At last, with no answer forthcoming, Sir John turned in my direction. “Let us be gone, Jeremy,” said he. “I fear we’ll find no hackney carriage at such an hour. No doubt we must make our journey by shank’s mare.”
As I then started to follow him to the corridor which led to the Bow Street door, Mr. Baker pulled me aside and, with a finger to his lips commanding silence, shoved a small pistol into my coat pocket. Then, with a wink and a slap on the back, he sent me on my way.
“Coming, Sir John.”
Indeed, as he had foreseen, there was no hackney waiting at the entrance, though Mr. Bailey had promised to send one to us, should he encounter it as he went ahead. Nor did we catch a glimpse of one as we went at length through the near-deserted, though not altogether quiet, streets of the city.
The reason he wished me to accompany him was made plain quite immediate. “Lad,” said he to me, “you’ve made many a trip to Grub Street the past week or two. Can you guide me there? I know not the way.”
“I’m sure I can, sir.”
“In the dark of night?”
I looked down the street, which was dimly lighted by lamps. A wind had risen and taken with it the fog which so often, then as now, lay over London. The night was clear. “This way, Sir John,” said I, giving him but a touch on the elbow to start him in the right direction.
Thus we went: I, moving him left or right at a crossing of the streets, giving him a word of advice when the walkway dipped, or disappeared altogether; otherwise he made his way quite by himself with the aid of his stick. We moved swiftly so, though the journey was not without incident.
I recall well that as we turned one corner, we came upon a gang of men and their drabs before a low drinking and gaming place known as the Cock of the Walk. There were murmurs among them. My right hand went down into my coat pocket wherein Mr. Baker had placed the pistol. Once, in an idle moment, he had demonstrated to me how the thing worked: pull back the hammer and pull the trigger. I had not the love of firearms that he had; I was altogether uneasy with them. Yet in such a situation, it seemed right to have one such at hand. I grasped the butt of the pistol tightly. One ball would not mean much in such a crowd. Yet the threat of the pistol might well hold them all at bay. Perhaps I should pull out the pistol and show them I was armed.
While still pondering this and about to step among them, I was quite surprised to see a way open up before us. There were greetings called to Sir John by even the roughest among them. Some knew him as “the Blind Beak,” others addressed him more formally, but all seemed to know him and spoke to him with a certain respect. And so we passed through pacifically, Sir John acknowledging the greetings of those whom he recognized, giving a general hello to the rest. I walked by his side, and as I went I examined those hard faces which were turned toward him in expressions of approval, and I marveled somewhat, wondering what he had done to win it. He was not lenient, I reasoned, but he was fair. When seated upon the bench, he demanded evidence and from witnesses wanted only to know what they themselves had seen and heard and not what they had gathered secondhand. In sum, if ruffians such as these who gathered before the Cock of the Walk should come before him, they knew they had a chance to prove their innocence, or at least becloud their guilt; and this was all they hoped for. He was their man.
Moving past them, I noted that Sir John did not quicken his pace, though I myself was eager to get us away. When we were some distance away I ventured to turn back and take a look. I saw with some relief that we were not followed.
“None would dare,” said Sir John.
“Sir?” said I, suspecting for a moment he had read my thoughts.
“You lagged behind a moment. I take it that like any sensible soldier you were making sure our rear was safe from attack. I commend you for that, even though there was no need. I have my eminence to protect me — sufficient is it to guard you as well, I think. Should even that fail us, there is always the pistol in your pocket — loaned to you, I believe, by Mr. Baker, was it not?”
“Yes, sir, but …” I hesitated, a moment dumbfounded. “How did you know?”
“Oh, he has his tricks, has Mr. Baker. He seems to believe I had need of an armed guard each time I go out after dark. Not so. Nothing of the kind. Now, if I am not mistaken, he slipped you the pistol — probably a small one — as we were leaving Bow Street. Is that correct?”
“It is, yes,” said I. “But he said nothing. I said nothing.”
“Your pocket spoke. You usually carry a few coins in your pocket, probably no more than a few shillings — remind me to pay you a bit for services rendered, by the by. Occasionally the coins jingle in your pocket. Yet ever since we began on our walk they have been clanging away against a larger metal object, of steel no doubt. Knowing Mr. Baker’s worries about me and his love of firearms, I supposed that he must have presented you with a pistol. Though in general I do not disapprove of his precautions, I do question his wisdom in handing a loaded gun to a thirteen-year-old boy — that is your age, is it not, Jeremy?”