Their names can chill the blood of true-crime aficionados: Peter Sutcliffe, aka The Yorkshire Ripper; child-torturer Ian Brady; cannibal Dennis Nilsen; serial killer Beverley Allitt. Some are tinged in glamour: beautiful nightclub hostess Ruth Ellis, hanged for a crime of passion. While others hold a bizarre fascination, like bare-knuckle boxer Michael Gordon Peterson. Called “the most violent prisoner in Britain” he changed his name to Charles Bronson in honor of the Death Wish star. Only to change it yet again to Charles Salvador, in honor of his favorite artist, Dali. By any name, the “one-man riot” was a prison superstar.
Britain’s Most Notorious Prisoners tells the stories of these lives and many more inside the Big House where prison culture breeds a strange, unreal community. It’s also where the system learns to cope with those who refuse to live by the law of the land: killers and rapists, spies, gangster, hit-men, political prisoners, and serial offenders—as well as some who were egregiously wronged. From headline-makers to long-forgotten villains, these stories make for a thrilling and harrowing look at life, death, and survival behind bars.
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Inside Oblivion: Then and Now
The people figuring prominently in these chapters provide a miscellany of the criminals in the average prison population anywhere at any given time. That is, some are hardened villains and some are unfortunates who made the wrong decision at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Prison kills time so that it stays dead, and after the first shock it's all about survival. That sounds simpler than it really is. In fact, that survival depends on the ability to project, to perform, to have 'front'.
A man who had done almost twenty years inside told me that there were three versions of him, each one being a variety of himself. There is the man who walks out and becomes the survivor on the wings; there is the other one who is the person his family wants to see and hear when there is a visit or a phone call, and the third one is the man alone, in the cell, with just his thoughts and his own company. One man may hate the self he is alone with: everything he does inside is to escape that self; but another may genuinely want to use the time inside to find out the real self that has been hiding behind fists, hatred, drugs or drink.
What about the place itself? If we think of a Victorian local jail, then the place is a fortress: a huge central tower and radiating wings from the centre, all plain for supervision. Then there are four levels and the nets between to save the lives of the would-be suicides or the potential victims. These make the huge expanse of the prison wing look like a sprawling web, with metal walk-ways. In fact, everything is metal: the floors, cell doors, railings, bars: hard, dull and relentless metal, as if the place is some kind of factory. In a way it is. The Victorians came to believe that reformation and change, the crushing of the villain inside, began with silence and contemplation, followed by work and prayer. Renewal would lead to redemption in the right circumstances. The basis of that thinking was change, transmutation. Naively, they believed in rehabilitation as the end of a process. Today, change is rare and many prisoners want to stay behind bars: it is their chosen place of life, as they cannot cope anywhere else. Three square meals a day, literacy classes, television and evening recreation are on offer. There is no possibility of a stroll round to the local boozer, but at least no bills drop through the letter box.
That scenario may be right for the everyday criminals, but the gallery of villains or victims in the following pages are mostly (with the exception of Wilde, Ellis and de Valera) characters with psychopathic tendencies or seriously dangerous elements in their lifestyle. To be fair, some of the notorious prisoners here have reformed, so the theme is not that of the average 'thrill kill' true crime book. On the contrary, these profiles are about offences and personalities across a wide spectrum. For instance, Noel Razor Smith, writer and prisoner, has openly said that he wants his books to provide beneficial influences on other people who may follow his trajectory into crime.
This point introduces the idea of prison as a strangely quasi-religious place for some of its denizens. I have known several people who, in their time out within the walls of our penal colonies, have 'found religion' and not simply because talking with the chaplain means free tea and biscuits (though such motives are not unknown). There is, oddly, a monkish aspect to life in the pad and on the wing. After all, most versions of sensuality and instant gratification of the senses tend to be on hold when inside, and many of the profiles here involve prisoners who have had to take a cocktail of drugs, for the better working of the prison daily regime and the peace and order of all concerned.
The prison chapel is a very special place and always has been. In the case of de Valera, it was the source of his means of escape. But for many today and in the past, it has been the one area in the prison in which there is a feeling that a burden is temporarily lifted. It can be a hiding place in a spiritual sense; it may also be the only place where meditation and quiet are possible. In my prison work, it was where the drama group met, or where talks could be given. But generally, it has been special in all kinds of contexts.
But there is no way that a book like this may overlook or omit the really important aspect of prison life: the loss of freedom. People have expressed to me the view that the purpose of prison is to have a dark place where we can throw a criminal and then piss on him. The do-gooders such as myself, walking around the wings recruiting people for creative writing projects or acting, we run the risk of being, through the eyes of the professionals, 'care bears'. That phrase is used today inside for 'civilians' with good intentions, plans of providing opportunities for self-development and so on.
Some of the prisoners in this book have of course flowered and impressed as creative souls, and Charles Bronson is among them, but in the end, it is hard to keep away the glamour and charisma of the real criminal, the one who has given the right expletives to the 'screws' and the establishment of law. One man, a London gang member, once said to me, 'I shouldn't be in here ... I'm in here because of their law ... my law is different, see. I don't live by their law, and never did, mate.' He was expressive and ebullient when it came to opinions on the criminal justice system, with his favourite phrase, 'Fuck the laws of England, it's made by toffs' usually on his lips. The man was beyond redemption because in his head he lived in a nation free from legal restraint. His credo was 'I could, so I did.'
The prisoners here, then, are mostly inhabitants of a prison community for the regular reasons of having done something extreme and repulsive to those who have a moral universe around them which they recognise and obey. But there are also those who are 'political' – the spies and the gun-runner and the statesman. This has always been an issue inside. Back in the 1830s, when Chartists were thrown into houses of correction up and down the land, they usually insisted that they would not do their time on the repulsive treadmill because they were 'political' prisoners, not thugs, killers or robbers. They were there because they had dared to believe in something that the current government did not want to create or encourage.
That division is hard to apply to someone such as William Joyce, of course, the man who broadcast Nazi propaganda in World War Two. Equally, the German spies who ended their lives dancing on a gallows rope were, after all, fighting for their country. With these kinds of contrasts in mind, the reader will have to make up his or her mind about the moral or philosophical dimensions on criminal biographies. Surely one of the key insights and areas of fascination about a criminal act is how it relates to a moral structure: morality and law are awkward but inseparable twins, difficult to manage and explain.
Yet, it has to be admitted that some prisoners are notorious because their transgression has been something so extreme that it is inexplicable. Evil, yes, however that word is defined and whatever it is conceived to be as part of something done by a human being. There are serial killers among the notorious, and despite all the advances in medical and psychological knowledge, there is still no consensus on what the common ground is in psychopathy in that respect. We are still left with the images in popular culture of serial killers as beasts, monsters, amoral fetishists of death. Of course, that interpretation, as a media 'spin' is easy to achieve, but something lies deeper, and it may be explained by research, as work by Blair has shown, as he attempts to find a physiological basis for psychopathy. His book, The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain, provides some kind of basis for believing that explanations may soon be established. Meanwhile, the programmes go on being made, and the headlines still appear regularly, concerning serial killers or term-of-life prisoners being subjected to attacks while in jail. The public is made to relish the latest gory image of the serial killer or child killer, seen after a vicious attack.
With all these considerations in mind, it is hoped that the reasons for my selection of notorious prisoners have been made clear. The final element of prison life which has to be made explicit is that it has stunning extremes of behaviour within the Establishment. I have known cases in which young men have managed to take their own lives using only a tap and some string; there are self-harmers behind bars who have so many wounds and cuts along all limbs that they move to the skin by the groin; there are so-called vulnerable prisoners who live in fear, like rats in the dark, and there are many, many mentally ill people in our prisons.
These stories may be considered to be 'highlights' from the present and from recent history, presenting when assembled a kaleidoscope of notoriety, ranging from the repulsive to the strangely entertaining.CHAPTER 2
Florence Maybrick: Ready for the Noose
From her cell in Woking Invalid Convict prison, Florence Maybrick saw and carefully noted the best and the worst of the British penal system as it was at the end of the Victorian period. She had been moved there from Aylesbury prison, where she had been brought out of solitary confinement to be told that she was bound for a convict prison. In some ways that was a better place to be than a county prison, but for Florence, who had been used to a comfortable suburban middle class life in Liverpool, and before that in America, this was disgusting and degrading. As we say today, with a tinge of cruel irony, welcome to jail, Madame. But first we have to explain how she came to be behind bars in 1889.
In the nineteenth century, the ubiquity of fly-papers in the average home was something that could lead from routine habits to a suggestion of heinous foul play. They were a neat way to rid the house of insects, but when they were soaked, for arsenic to be extracted for other uses, there could be trouble. In Battlecrease House, in Aigburth, this was a factor in the puzzling and desperately sad story of Florence Maybrick. To make matters worse for her, she was married to man who enjoyed taking tiny quantities of poison, for all kinds of reasons.
When that man, James Maybrick, died, the finger of guilt pointed at his wife. The story went on to become not only a famous and controversial case, but a story that has been acquired by the vast library of Jack the Ripper theories, as James was in the habit of visiting London, and his strange personality gave rise to a certain line of enquiry about him.
The story of the Maybricks began when James was on board the liner Baltic in 1880. There he met young Florence, only eighteen at the time, and Maybrick was forty-two. Florence had been born in Mobile, Alabama; her mother aspired to wealth and status and wanted the same for her daughter. Mrs Maybrick's third husband had been a German aristocrat, and so the American lady was actually no less than the Baroness von Roques if she wanted to pull rank or put on airs. James Maybrick, along with many other men, found Florence to be very alluring. She was an attractive blonde, blue-eyed and very shapely. It must have been a stunning contrast for her when they married and moved to Liverpool, after living first in Norfolk, Virginia, for a while.
After they married in 1881, they settled at Battlecrease House in Aigburth; the place is a huge building, and Maybrick had acquired considerable wealth in the cotton business. But the change in lifestyle and cultural ambience must have been depressing for the young bride. She was a product of the American South, and of the wealthy, socialising element of that culture. Now she was in a British suburb of a fast-growing industrial city with a very sombre and grey climate. Society and social gatherings were limited for her, and her husband was often away from home.
They had children, and on the surface at least they would have appeared to be like every other middle-class couple. But the main problem lay with James. As time went on, his business floundered. Not only was he failing in commerce, but in his personality he was nurturing habits that would ruin his health. Maybrick was drawn to the questionable pleasures of taking poisons and drugs to keep an edge on life (in fact to enhance sexual potency, as arsenic was taken to do). He also lived the fairly typical double life of the Victorian married man: attentive husband at home but malcontented womaniser when he could find the time and opportunity.
Clearly, Florence would soon find the stress of this relationship, and the loneliness it imposed on her, too much to handle. The fact that Maybrick then set about saving money at home by imposing privations and discipline on the domestic routine was perhaps the last straw. She wrote to her mother (living in Paris at the time) that she was in a mood to leave the house and move elsewhere, and doubted that 'life was worth living', things were so bad. Her situation was ripe for the relief, pleasure and fulfilment that an affair would bring. She found the man in Alfred Brierley, a man in the same line of business as James.
Her mistake, as we look on her life with the knowledge of hindsight, was that she was not discrete. She and Brierley would have times together in London posing as a married couple. But her strains at the hands of Maybrick were intolerable. He had a mistress, and she equally became rash about her attempts to find pleasure outside marriage. There was an element of torment in their relationship, even to the point of Florence flirting with James's brother, Edwin. Things were moving towards some kind of crisis; they were not sleeping together, and Florence was thinking about leaving him.
At this point, enter the fly-papers. Because she was in the habit of using a mixture of arsenic and elderflower to treat boils on her face, the soaking papers were a common sight in the house. But then came James's illness. On 27 April, he was ill and he blamed this on a prescription of strychnine being wrongly calculated. This would have made sense of a man with those strange habits of pleasure. But his health began to decline more severely. Fate was stacking the odds against Florence, as the servants were noticing the soaking fly-papers and linking that to their master's decline. After all, he had cut her from his will and had been insulting and aggressive towards her on many occasions. She had cause to detest him. The illness dragged on, and a nurse was employed to be with the patient at all times.
Maybrick's brother, Edwin, also came, and he took charge of things. The situation then was that Florence was estranged from her man; she was seen as potentially a deranged woman with a grudge against her husband, and there was evidence mounting against her with regard to the arsenic. Even worse, bearing in mind the morality of the time, she wrote to her lover, Brierley, trying to arrange a meeting with him before he left the country; in that letter she referred to Maybrick's condition and noted that he had no suspicion of the affair. Florence was often present at the sick man's bedside and unfortunately for her, she played a part in using the medicines, saying that James had actually asked her to give him some arsenic in powder form. Everything she seemed to do in the role of nurse or caring wife turned into facts to be used against her when Maybrick died, as he did on 11 May. She was arrested on suspicion of wilful murder, by Superintendent Bryning.
The high drama continued even to the point of her mother entering the scene, there was a confrontation, and Florence put the situation very neatly, saying to her, 'They think I poisoned Jim.' She was taken first to Lark Lane station, and then to Walton gaol.
The trial began at St George's Hall on 31 July, and Sir Charles Russell led her defence. There was great confusion in the forensic and medical evidence, even to the point of two experts disagreeing about whether or not the deceased had died from arsenical poisoning. Events went against her, and in the end it could be said that Florence was a victim of the judge. This is because there was just so much testimony about Maybrick's habits of pumping his body full of drugs and poisons that he was dicing with death, anyway, and ruining his health for many years before these suspicions were first aroused about his wife's alleged designs on him. The judge, Mr Justice Fitzjames Stephen, directed his long summing-up to the likely guilt of Florence if certain facts were ignored: that is, he reinforced the accusations of moral lapses against her, to the detriment of the actual issue of murder. He was ludicrously biased in his dramatic account of the situation of slow poison on a supposed 'loved one'. Naturally, the jury would begin to turn against Florence and forget the contradictions about the actual nature and administering of the poison. Arguably, the judge's action which had the most impact on the jury was his mention of the letter to Brierley about Maybrick being 'sick unto death' and his very evident repugnance at what he was implying she had done and written with such callousness. The jury surely must have been influenced by seeing this. There was definitely 'reasonable doubt' in the case, and a death sentence was outrageous. Yet, on 7 August, Florence Maybrick was sentenced to hang. The judge, leaving the court, was the target of general public abuse and displeasure, so wrong was his sentence perceived to be.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Britain's Most Notorious Prisoners"
Copyright © 2011 Stephen Wade.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
List of Plates,
Timeline of Prison History,
Chapter 1 Inside Oblivion: Then and Now,
Chapter 2 Florence Maybrick: Ready for the Noose,
Chapter 3 The Ballad of Oscar Wilde,
Chapter 4 Sir Roger Casement: Hanged by a Comma,
Chapter 5 Eamon de Valera: Sprung from Lincoln Prison,
Chapter 6 Her Ghost Haunts the Death Cell,
Chapter 7 Lord Haw Haw: Germany Calling,
Chapter 8 A Spy and a Rogue in the War,
Chapter 9 Mutiny in North Yorkshire,
Chapter 10 Ruth Ellis: Crime of Passion,
Chapter 11 Harry Roberts: 1966 and All That,
Chapter 12 Dennis Stafford: Escape from Dartmoor,
Chapter 13 Dennis Nilsen: Nice to be Loved,
Chapter 14 Ian Brady: Keeping Shtum,
Chapter 15 Jeremy Bamber: Endless Campaign,
Chapter 16 John Straffen: Fifty-five Years Inside,
Chapter 17 Sutcliffe: Every Day a Torment,
Chapter 18 Beverley Allitt: Bring Me The Innocents,
Chapter 19 Charles Bronson: Prison Superstar,
Chapter 20 Noel Razor Smith: Best-selling Writer,
Chapter 21 The Krays Inside,