Whenever I’ve been deciding on a category for my murder mysteries I’ve opted for “cosy”, largely on the grounds that there is very little in the way of blood and gore on their pages because I’m just far too squeamish for that sort of thing, and because the main interest for me is always in devising a mystery and then working through its solution rather than dwelling on the more sordid details of the case.
But, in truth, there is nothing at all remotely “cosy” about any murder: they are all brutal in both concept and execution, and this was brought home to me again yesterday when I visited the “Crime Museum Uncovered” exhibition at the Museum of London.
The Crime Museum itself actually belongs to the Metropolitan Police and contains a vast array of weapons and equipment which were used in some of the most notorious London crimes (not all of them murders) in the past hundred and fifty years or so. The museum’s primary function was, and presumably still is, to give trainee police officers an insight into the minds of London’s criminals, and the exhibition at the Museum of London is the first time that these objects have been on show to the public at large.
So I threaded my way through countless guns and knives, most of which featured in cases I’ve read about and all of the latter mercifully cleansed of the blood that presumably once covered them, and then I came to the stockings – ordinary black knitted stockings used as a mask, as in the picture.
As it happened, this mask was used in a murder I read about very recently, and the case was also of particular note as it was virtually the first in this country to be resolved with the aid of finger print technology. The mask, cut out of a stocking, was used as a disguise by one of the Stratton brothers when they murdered Thomas and Ann Farrow at their shop on Deptford High Street in 1905.
The Stratton brothers, Alfred and Albert, were convicted of murder and executed at Wandsworth Prison in 1905 – which brings me on to the most chilling aspect of the exhibition, at least to my mind.
Set in a glass case with a background of fuzzy black and white sketches is a series of ropes. Each rope has a label stating when it was used and who the victim was. Then, a little further on, there is a trunk containing the tools of the hangman’s trade, and this was sent from prison to prison as required. There are also detailed instructions involving sandbags and trap doors so that the executioners of yesteryear were left in no doubt as to how they should carry out their trade and avoid the terrible mess of either failure or only partial success.
Going back to the Stratton brothers, however, at least by 1905 hangings had ceased to be a public entertainment and were carried out behind closed doors where attendance was by invitation only.