THE bombshell which Lord Exenham threw into the realms of criminal investigation will hardly be forgotten by this present generation.
It is no secret that the spring of 1914 brought a crisis in police affairs all over the world. From Yarra-Yarra to Aberdeen, from Scotland Yard to Hong Kong, police chiefs sat back and gasped, seeing the end of the most elaborate and perhaps the safest system that had ever been devised by the ingenuity of honest men for the detection of the professional criminal. For days the cables were hot with messages, and Scotland Yard, which had the matter in hand, was simply overwhelmed by the extra and unexpected work which Lord Exenham's amazing discovery necessarily involved.
MacDermot of the Central Office, New York, Pflanzer of Chicago, Maurice de Fauberg of the Sūreté were amongst those who sent special commissions to inquire into, and report upon, a happening which was very rightly regarded as revolutionising the whole system of criminal detection.
The circumstances are as follows, and they are recorded with scrupulous accuracy and impartiality in the Government report (No. 794 [Secret and Confidential] Dactylographic Committee Report), from whence the writer, who has been privileged to read the 480 pages of that report, has taken the material for this account.
On the 7th January, 1914, the Halifax premises of the British Weavers' Bank were entered by an expert bunch of 'bank-smashers', presumably an American gang which was known at the time and particulars of which had been sent forward from New York by Captain MacDermot of that city.
The burglary had been effected on the Thursday night, when it was known that large sums of money had been accumulated at the bank for the purpose of honouring the wage cheques which would be presented on the Friday morning by the various large employers of labour who used this branch.
The sum in question, some £60,000, had been brought from Leeds with an armed escort and had been safely deposited in the strong-room of the bank. As was usual on these occasions a night watchman was on duty. It was part of that duty to communicate by telephone every half-hour with the local police station.
On the night in question the calls came through regularly, and were recorded by the station sergeant. The watchman, a man named Timmers, had a very bad cold and his voice was husky, and this probably was one of the reasons contributing to the success of the burglars' coup.
At any rate the message 'All's well' reached the police station at regular intervals throughout the night until 4.30.
At 4.35, not having been signalled, the station sergeant called up the bank and received no reply. He waited a little while and again rang through, but without any greater success. Whereupon, he dispatched a sergeant and a constable to the bank, in accordance with the instructions on which this system of vigilance was conducted.
There was nothing to excite the suspicion of the patrol beyond the fact that when they knocked at the side door of the bank premises, which were in a narrow court, they received no reply.
It had been raining in the night and the constable who patrolled this beat said he himself had been several times into the court to take shelter from the exceptionally heavy downpour and that he had not noticed anything unusual. Repeated knocking having failed to elicit any answer, the manager of the bank was communicated with and drove down in his car, arriving at about 5.15.
He opened the door with his keys and the sergeant and the constable, who by this time had been joined by the inspector on duty, passed into the premises. There was no sign of disorder. A glimmering gas light still burnt and the party descended to the vaults. It was here that the worst anticipations were realised. The night watchman was discovered scientifically bound and gagged. Over his head had been drawn a canvas money bag, such as was employed by the bank for the storage of copper coinage. The door of the strong room was found open and the boxes containing the gold were missing.
The watchman was released and placed under observation, and the Halifax police immediately wired to Scotland Yard for assistance, Superintendent Branbury, of the Criminal Investigation department, arriving by the afternoon train.
The thieves had evidently effected their entrance into the premises by skeleton keys and the lock of the strong room door had been blown out by nitroglycerine. The information that the night porter could supply was not very helpful. He had been down into the vaults to make an inspection, and on returning was walking across the floor of the 'shop' when he was struck down from behind, the thieves apparently having been in the business premises of the bank for some time. He recovered consciousness to hear a hoarse voice at the telephone giving the 'All's well'. Beyond that he knew nothing.
There was only one clue discoverable in the vault, but that was an important one.
In this room was a weighing machine, and one member of the gang had with singular carelessness grasped the bright steel balance and left a perfect impression of a thumb. It was Superintendent Branbury who made this discovery, and he was destined to make another.
An engine-man on the night shift of the Halifax Milling Company had been taken ill and had been sent home by his foreman. He was still wearing the canvas-soled shoes which it was his habit to wear in the engine-room and these, in his pain, he had forgotten to change. This probably accounts for the fact that he was not heard or challenged by the robbers.
He was passing the bank on the opposite side of the road (the hour being 2.45 a.m.) when he saw three people emerge from the court and one of them, he said, was a woman.
Soon after they came into the street a big closed motor-car ran up silently and the three people returned to the court. He had a good view of only one of the men, whom he described as tall, with a 'wasp waist'. He was evidently wearing a long overcoat tightly buttoned to his figure. In the few seconds which elapsed before the arrival of the motor-car he heard the girl say, 'I am sick of it, sick of it,' and the 'wasp-waisted' man raised his hand with an extravagant gesture of menace and spoke in a high shrill voice. He did not notice or hear anything more and forgot the incident until the news of the robbery reminded him.
The motor-car was also reported as having been seen by two constables, but neither of them had taken its number.
Branbury acted quickly. The three men, the woman, and the motor-car identified the gang. It was the same confederation about whom he had been warned by the New York police and he had had at least one of them under observation.
On the following morning he journeyed to Liverpool and, accompanied by an inspector of the local police force, he went to the Callipers Hotel in Union Square. It was one of those small clean hotels, eminently sedate and respectable, with a reputation amongst commercial travellers for civility and good food, and the arrival of the police created something like a sensation.
'Yes,' said the landlord, 'there is a lady staying here, a Mrs Golding.'
'That is the lady I want. Was she here on Thursday night?' he asked.
The landlord thought for a moment.
'I was in Manchester on Thursday night,' he said, 'but I will find out.'
His inquiries were not satisfactory. Nobody had noticed whether Mrs Golding was in or out over-night. She was certainly in the hotel on Friday, for she had slept very late.
The landlord led the way to a private sitting-room and Branbury entered unannounced.
The girl was sitting by the fire and rose to meet him. She was pretty, with a mop of golden hair and big, wistful eyes that met the detective's squarely.
'I am Superintendent Branbury, of the Criminal Investigation Department,' said Branbury, 'and I must ask you to accompany me to the police station.'
Her lids dropped and a faint smile played upon her face.
'Why, I think you have made a mistake, Mr Branbury,' she said. 'Why should I go with you to the police station?'
She was in no wise confused or agitated by a request which would have startled most people.
'I want to question you as to what you were doing on Thursday night,' said the superintendent calmly, 'and I shall also want your finger-prints.'
'Oh,' she smiled again, 'the Halifax robbery!'
'You know about that, do you?' said the detective sharply.
'Why, of course,' she drawled, 'everybody who reads the papers knows about that, Mr Branbury. If you will wait a moment I will put on my hat.'
She made a move to the other room, but Branbury followed on her heels.
'Surely you can trust me?' she asked in well-simulated surprise.
'Your name,' he said, 'is Mabel Blixon, or Jones, or Gatterley, and you are known in the United States as "California May". You are a member of a gang of bank-smashers and you have been convicted on two charges, including the shooting of a detective, for which, by a technical flaw in the evidence, you escaped punishment, and I may be excused, therefore, the indelicacy of following you to your room.'
'You have more reason to apologise for your prolixity,' she said with calm insolence.
She was searched at the police station without any discovery being made and submitted without resistance to her finger-prints being taken. From the moment Branbury compared the photograph of the impression he had taken from the scale with that of the girl's thumb-print, he was perfectly sure of his ground.
'That will do,' he said. 'I shall charge you with being concerned with three other persons in breaking and entering the premises of the British Weavers Bank at 943, High Street, Halifax.'
'Thank you very much,' she said politely.
'You have still a chance, my friend,' said the detective. He spoke from the open door of the cell into which the girl had strolled.
'Of course I have,' she said; 'by telling you my companions in crime and where the gold is hidden. Unfortunately, I am not concerned in the robbery, and though I admit that I am the lady whose history you sketched so fully, I am living a perfectly honest life and have not been concerned in any robbery in England.'
And this is the view she maintained.
She came before the stipendiary magistrate and was remanded.
A week later, on the evidence, flimsy as it was, which Branbury had collected, she was committed to take her trial at York Assizes. Branbury came back to London and interviewed the Assistant Commissioner.
'The evidence is slight,' said that individual, shaking his head, 'and I do not know that there has ever been a case where a prisoner has been convicted on finger-print evidence alone. Even in the case of the Deptford murderers there was corroborative evidence of the men having been recognised near the scene of the crime, half an hour after it had occurred.' 'Finger-print evidence is sufficient,' said Branbury; 'there is no doubt about the matter.'
'The engine-man, does he recognise her?'
Branbury shook his head.
'He failed entirely to identify the lady. I shall have to make the case as strong as possible, and I propose with your permission, sir, to call the greatest authority in London on Dactylography.'
The Commissioner raised his eyebrows.
'It is curious you should say that. I suppose you are referring to Lord Exenham?'
'Yes, sir,' nodded the detective; 'but why is that curious?'
The Commissioner pulled open a drawer and took out a letter.
'I had this from Lord Exenham this morning,' he said.
He passed the letter across to the detective, who read:
I am rather attracted by the Halifax Bank robbery and the interesting criminal who is charged. I hope you will give me an opportunity of making some head measurements.
Yours sincerely, EXENHAM
'I will go down and see him,' said Branbury. 'I do not think there is any chance of our lady escaping if we put Exenham in the box.'
'He will hate going into the box,' said the Commissioner, shaking his head, 'but you can try him.'
Lord Exenham, who had many claims to fame, had inherited his father's passion for data, which he had applied very largely to the study of Criminology. He had been chairman of four Commissions dealing with criminals, and had been one of the strongest supporters of the movement to introduce the finger-print system to Scotland Yard. He himself had collected, it is said, some eighty thousand impressions, and after the death of his only son and the marriage of his daughter he had practically converted Exenham Towers into a great anthropological museum.
'I have had a telegram from the Commissioner,' he said as he ushered the detective into his library, 'and I am very glad to see you, superintendent. I hope you will stay over-night.'
'I am afraid I've got to get back, sir,' said the officer.
'I am interested in this case,' Lord Exenham went on; 'but then, as you know, I am interested in all varieties of crimes and criminals.'
He looked at his big library table littered with paper and smiled.
'I am just finishing the third volume of my work on Criminal Anthropology,' he said, 'and this case rather fits an illustration of mine. Now will you please tell me the whole story?'
Briefly the detective related the story of the crime.
'It is extraordinary that the woman, who is quite young, should be so callous. I should not think she is more than twenty-six,' he said.
'I saw her photograph in the illustrated papers,' said Lord Exenham; 'in fact, it was that photograph which aroused my interest in the case. The "wasp-waisted" man—you have not found him?'
'No, my lord,' said the other; 'we have searched everywhere and the woman will tell us nothing.'
'It is very curious, very curious,' said Lord Exenham, drumming his fingers on the table. 'I suppose that girl was a nice girl once—well educated, you say? The employment of the word "proximity" rather suggests as much, though of course quite common people get hold of a long word which they work to death.'
'She was probably a criminal from her childhood. These people start very young,' said Branbury.
'I should not imagine so,' said the scientist quietly. 'I think you are underrating the demoralising power of our sex, Mr Branbury. If you investigate this matter to its beginnings, you will find that a man has had a very extraordinary influence upon this unfortunate woman. You will note from the evidence of your engineer that she protested that she was tired of the business, and you will probably find that behind all the calmness and cynicism, which is a mark of the habitual criminal, especially the woman criminal, there is a big aching heart, my friend. I am talking like a sentimentalist,' he laughed. 'Now let us get down to very unsentimental facts. Have you any data, any measurements, to give me?'
'I have brought her finger-prints and it is upon that subject that I want to see you. I shall ask you to be so kind as to go into the box as a witness for the prosecution.'
'To testify on the question of finger-prints?' he asked.
'Yes, my lord.'
'I do not like the publicity,' said Lord Exenham; 'but still if it is a public duty I will most certainly go into the box. Let me see the finger-prints.'
The detective took from his pocket a flat case which he opened, and took out first an enlarged photograph of the impression found on the scale and then an enlargement of the thumb-print which he had taken from the girl. The scientist compared them in silence, then he looked up with a frown.
'It is very extraordinary,' he said.
'Aren't they identical?' asked the detective quickly.
'Absolutely; there is no question about it,' said Lord Exenham; 'they are certainly identical, and yet—it is very extraordinary.'
He looked up at the detective again.
'I have a very excellent memory for thumb-prints; in fact, my mind is a big index of all the salient features of every thumb I have taken.'
He rose and went to one end of the room, unlocked a safe and extracted a book, which he opened on the table. Branbury, looking over his shoulder, saw that it was a sort of autograph album which was filled with finger-prints and beneath each finger-print was a name.
Lord Exenham turned the pages slowly and at last he stopped.
'Here we are,' he said. He picked up a magnifying glass and inspected one of the impressions, then he looked at the photograph and the enlargement of the girl's thumb-mark.
'This is amazing! Look for yourself, superintendent.'
The superintendent took the glass, looked and gasped—for the thumb- print in the book was identical with the thumb-prints of the criminal!
The same 'accidentals', the same 'whorl', the 'hooks' and 'deltas', even the clear heart-shaped core of the thumb-print was identical. He looked at the name beneath. It was 'Henry'.
'Who is this?' he asked.
'My son,' replied Lord Exenham simply, 'who has been dead these last six years and is buried in the parish church of this village.'
There was a deep silence.
'But, but,' stammered the detective, 'it is impossible. You know, my lord, it is impossible! There cannot be two thumb-prints alike. It would upset the whole system of criminal detection. If there is one weak link in the chain the whole process of identification by finger-prints goes by the board. Why, sir, it is your life's work—'
Lord Exenham was staring down at the print with pursed lips.
'Yes,' he said slowly, 'my life's work, but there it is.'
'Of course, it will be impossible to secure a conviction if this is made known?'
'It must be made known,' said his lordship quietly. 'I hardly know what to think or what to say. There is no doubt about that print,' he said, shaking his head. 'I know something of dactylography and I will swear that those three are identical.' Branbury shook his head helplessly.
'The whole system is based upon the belief that no two finger-prints can be exactly alike—this revolutionises the police systems of the world!' he said, almost in tones of awe as one who is confronted by a cataclysm.
He walked down to the station, declining the offer of Lord Exenham's motor-car, a bewildered and baffled man. He wanted to be alone to think it out, and he also desired to make a call at the parish church. Fortunately he found the church open and the sexton engaged in sweeping the floors.
'Oh, yes, sir, Mr Henry's buried here,' said the old man, and led him to a corner of the churchyard where a plain cross marked the resting-place of 'The Honourable Henry Curtice Exenham, only son of the Right Honourable the Lord Exenham, of this parish.'
'I knew him well, Mr Henry,' said the old man, 'a nice lad, but consumptive.'
Finding the detective interested, he took him to his cottage and showed him a portrait of the young man, a refined face bearing unmistakable evidence of the disease which had ended his young life.
Branbury returned to London and placed all the facts in front of his chief. Before he had left Lord Exenham had promised to forward the negative of the thumb-print, and until this arrived and was enlarged nothing could be done.
The negative reached Scotland Yard by special messenger on the following afternoon, and the three enlargements were viewed that night not only by the Commissioners, but by Dr Melsbury, Professor Caxton, Sir Jeremiah Findin (the Home Office Advisory Solicitor), and every expert on dactylography who could be reached at short notice.
'It didn't need enlarging,' said Sir Jeremiah, 'it is exactly the same print—what do you say, Caxton?'
'The impossible has happened,' he said; 'I think in fairness to our colleagues abroad we should notify all the police headquarters of this catastrophe—for catastrophe it is.'
Melsbury, stout and short of breath, was measuring the lineations with a tiny instrument and now sat up with a groan of despair.
'Bang goes the classifications of twenty years,' he wheezed. 'Think of the thousands of offices, and then imagine the millions of records that are so much wastepaper; it is hardly credible. Was his lordship upset, Branbury?'
'Yes—dazed would describe his condition.'
The Assistant-Commissioner was writing.
'How is this?' he asked at last, and read:
Very urgent. Lord Exenham has discovered an instance of dactylographical duplication. Two thumb-impressions, one of his dead son and one of known criminal, exactly correspond. Photographs will be sent you at earliest possible moment. Acknowledge to Scotland Yard.
'We cannot do less,' said Sir Jeremiah gloomily. 'As for California May—?'
'What do you advise?' asked the Commissioner.
'We shall offer no evidence unless we secure something outside of the finger-print.'
So it happened that, when 'Mabel Blixon' was called at the York Assizes, the Prosecutor rose and intimated that the Crown proposed to offer no evidence against her, and she was discharged with a curt nod from the judge.
In the meantime all the police world grew more and more frantic. From a dozen points of the compass officials were speeding to London. Urgent inquiries flashed from city to city—what was to be done? What steps were London, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, Melbourne taking?
On the twelfth day following the discharge and disappearance of Mabel Blixon' (for she had vanished in an inexplicable fashion) the chiefs of police of all the principal cities of the world received a cable:
DO NOT CHANGE FINGER-PRINT SYSTEM. IT IS INFALLIBLE. I HAVE AN EXPLANATION WHICH I WILL COMMUNICATE TO LONDON.
It was signed 'Exenham'.
The telegram reached Scotland Yard late in the afternoon, and Branbury left immediately for Exenham. What was the explanation? How could an explanation be possible?
To his annoyance he discovered that the train by which he travelled did not stop at Exenham Halt, and he was obliged to hire a fly at Burchester to drive back eight miles, and he did not reach the gates of the Hall until a quarter to ten that night.
Telling the driver to wait, he strode along the drive, across the park.
The house was in darkness, and when he rang the bell there was no answer. He rang again. It was too early for the household to have retired for the night, and, indeed, he remembered that Lord Exenham had confessed to being a very late worker.
Again he pressed the electric bell; then resting his hand upon the door he felt it give way.
He pushed open the door and walked in. The hall was in darkness, but he struck a match and closed the door behind him. To his surprise the lock did not catch, and he lit another match to discover the reason. The catch of the door was held back by a little lever. Perhaps, he thought, some servant had stolen forth surreptitiously and, being without a key, had chosen this simple method to secure his or her re-entrance.
He thought he heard voices and listened.
Lord Exenham's study was on the ground floor, opening from the big hall. The first and second doors to the right led, he judged, to a drawing-room, the third to the study—it was from this last chamber that the voices proceeded. He walked cautiously forward. If Lord Exenham was up and about, how dared the truant servant risk detection?
He heard the voices plainly now, Lord Exenham's calm monotone and another. The voice of the second man was shrill, angry and threatening.
'... my wife, I tell you, my wife. ... I told you what I'd do ... you tell me where ... don't move, you old dog ... put up your hands....'
Branbury waited to hear no more. In one stride he was at the door and had flung it open. As he did so, two shots, in rapid succession, stung his ear. The first came from near at hand, evidently from the man who stood with his back to the door supporting himself on the edge of the long table.
Branbury took in the scene at a glance—the swaying figure near him, the figure of Lord Exenham sprawling over the far end of the table, his pistol still poised. The detective's eyes came back to the stranger... wasp-waisted ... tall ... shrill of voice!
He remembered in a flash—then the man coughed and collapsed into Branbury's arms.
'I think he is dead,' said the even voice of Lord Exenham, and a glance at the ashen face of the stranger convinced the detective of the truth of this diagnosis.
'Lay him down and help me to the sofa—he got me, but he fired first,' said the scientist. 'I was afraid for a moment that he had only winged me, but I am happy to believe—thank you, Mr Branbury, I'm not in any great pain, which is a good sign.'
Branbury lifted the stricken man from the table and carried him to a settee in one of the window recesses. Lord Exenham's dark waistcoat was patched with blood.
'I'll get one of the servants to go for a doctor,' said Branbury.
Exenham smiled faintly.
'There are no servants,' he said. 'I packed them off to London, and no doctor could possibly reach me or, thank God, save my life. I am finished, but I have sufficient strength left to clear up a little mystery—you will find a bottle of brandy in the cupboard to the right of the fireplace.'
Branbury moistened the scientist's lips with the cordial, then dashed out into the park and raced back to the place where he had left the cab.
'Go into the village and find a doctor,' he said; 'there is a doctor's house near the station. If you can find the village constable bring him here. Knock up the cottagers and tell them I want men—Lord Exenham has been shot.'
He returned to find the wounded man still smiling to himself as at a pleasant memory.
'You have had your trouble for nothing, superintendent,' he said, 'and you have probably wasted very valuable time. Listen to what I have to say.'
He motioned to the brandy, and the officer assisted him to sip a little.
Presently the elder man spoke.
'I had two children, a boy and a girl. The boy, poor Harry, was a delicate lad and, as you know, died. The girl was of a different type. Self-willed, healthy and masterful. I'm afraid I did not give her the watchful care that it was my duty to provide. She was her own mistress and until she met Eric Gatterley she had her own way. Gatterley was, I knew, a bad lot. He had forged his father's name and was turned out. Later he stole and converted deeds from his employer's safe and a prosecution was only avoided by the efforts of his family. He was plausibly good-looking and, in spite of his effeminate voice and manner, a great favourite with women.'
'You have never met Gatterley, have you?' he asked.
Branbury shook his head.
'If you will walk to the end of the table you will see him,' said Lord Exenham grimly. 'He is much less dangerous now than he ever was in his wicked life.'
He took another sip of brandy, this time without aid.
'I don't know how my girl got to know him, but the friendship was very far advanced when I discovered how matters stood and put my foot down. To my surprise she acquiesced meekly in the ban I pronounced, but I should have known that she was not to be turned from her purpose. One day she walked into this room and announced that she had married Eric. I think I must have gone mad. I ordered her and her husband from the house and refused to correspond with her. Gatterley was nonplussed. He had hoped that I would accept the fait accompli and receive him as my son-in-law. He probably expected to milk my fortune and was furious when he was undeceived. He bombarded me with letters, threatening, imploring, but generally demanding money. In the last letter I received from him he promised that I should pay dearly for my "insolence", and that since I had sent him a message that I would have nothing to do with an unconvicted thief he would make his wife worthy of a share in that title. He kept his promise.'
His voice sank and he did not speak again for a minute. Branbury knew now that the scientist's life was ebbing with every breath he drew.
Only the solemn 'tick-tick' of the clock on the mantelshelf broke the silence until Lord Exenham roused himself from his sad reverie.
'They went to America—Gatterley embezzled three thousand from his brother-in-law and had to fly. From time to time I tried to get into communication with my girl—once I succeeded in sending her a large sum of money to make her escape from the man, for I had heard through my agents that she was trying to get away. The money fell into Gatterley's hands and I heard no more until I read the account of the Halifax robbery and saw her portrait in the paper. I did not know until then that she had suffered imprisonment before or that she had earned her nick-name. I had a wild desire to save her—to fulfil that desire I determined to sacrifice everything.'
'But the finger-print?' asked Branbury eagerly.
'It was the recollection of that finger-print in a book in which I kept the impressions of a few friends and celebrities who came my way that decided me.'
He shifted himself with a little grimace of pain and smiled up at the detective.
'It was her thumb-print you saw,' he said. '"Henry" was short for "Henrietta". My poor boy was also Henry—but we called him "Snips"—you'll find his impression in the book. I determined upon the fraud—it was novel and convincing, since I, who advanced the proof, was the greatest authority on the subject of finger-prints. And it succeeded. My girl was met on leaving court by a trusted servant who knows the whole story, and she is now on her way to Australia with sufficient money to keep her in comfort.'
His voice was growing weaker; there were longer and longer pauses between his sentences, and Branbury strained his ears for the sound of the returning cab.
'Gatterley wrote threatening to expose me—the story of the similar finger-prints had reached the Press ... I invited him here ... to kill him ... fortunately ... able to destroy him ... perfectly legal....'
His voice sank to a tired murmur and he seemed to be sleeping. Then he slowly opened his eyes.
'Tell the truth about ... finger-prints ... great science ... infallible ... help my daughter ... if opportunity....'
He ceased to speak, and when a half-attired doctor came swiftly across the room ten minutes later there was no need for his services.