The crimes that were committed
In Victorian Britain urban crime became something a new phenomenon. Petty crimes such as thefts of clothing, food and animals had always been a social problem but became more concentrated in the new urban developments. As the gulf between the new urban rich; the prosperous merchants and industrialists and the growing numbers of poor, became more pronounced property crime increased.
House burglaries became more common as did robberies, killings and thefts from individuals.
Beggars, prostitutes and petty criminals were becoming more of a problem and were generally classified as Rogues and Vagabonds which made them liable to arrest for loitering with intent.
Political crimes, terrorism and industrial unrest in relation to pay and working conditions caused the government of the day to respond, by strengthening police forces in the UK. An attempted assassination of Queen Victoria in 1842 led to the creation of the first Detective Branch in London in the same year. In 1888 a series of gruesome murders took place in London when five prostitutes were killed and their bodies mutilated. These so called ‘Whitechapel Murders’ were attributed to the infamous character that was to be known as ‘Jack the Ripper’
In the same year a murder of similar brutality took place in Bradford when a 7 years old boy; John Gill, was viciously murdered in Manningham and his dismembered body found in an alley way. This ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ attack came 150 years before the next ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, Peter Sutcliffe was to strike in the same area.
The hangmen that executed the murderers
During the 19th century convicted prisoners could face the gallows for a variety of offences. The office of public executioner was a much sought after position that gave the holder celebrity status. Three of the most famous of those that held office during the Victorian period were :
- William Calcraft, 1829-1874 ;
- William Marwood 1872 – 1883 and
- James Berry 1884 – 1891
others were to follow until capital punishment was abolished in 1965.
One of the most interesting of these executioners was James William Berry b. Prior to his appointment as public executioner he had served for 8 years as a police constable in the Bradford police. He successfully applied for the position in the face of 1500 other applications. During his period as hangman he executed 131 men and women. His more famous failed execution was the failure to execute John ‘Babbicombe’ Lee (Read: The Man they couldn’t hang.) After three attempts and failures John Lee’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
James Berry became a Bradford celebrity subsequently owning several houses in the district and becoming a local publican. His dismissal from the post caused him to suffer from severe depression and suicidal thoughts. He ultimately changed his life after an encounter with Smith Wigglesworth a Bradford preacher and faith healer. (Read: The Hangman and the Preacher)
There are several references to James Berry in the local history books written about Berry’s relationship with mysterious events and sinister characters in Bradford.
The phantom that returns to City Hall and the cells
There is little doubt that there are some strange ‘goings on’ in Bradford City Hall and the police cells. Unless police officers and security guards are cracking up under the stress of increased work-loads then certain events they have witnessed defy rational explanation and can only be described as either hauntings or poltergeist activities.
The main suspect is an ‘entity’ who has become known as ‘Chains Charlie’ who wanders the corridors, cell areas and council chambers where ‘he’ makes a nuisance of himself in the ladies toilets of all places.
The officers describe objects appearing and disappearing, cold spots and other strange events normally associated with poltergeist activity.
In 2016 the CCTV cameras detected a shower of orbs suddenly appearing followed by the appearance of a phantom figure.
These reports were investigated by Mr Les Vasey, Deputy Director of the Bradford Police Museum and a member of the Society for Psychical Research. What he found was quite startling; and considering that the main witnesses were serving police officers seem difficult to explain.
He has published his findings in ‘Chains Charlie; The Ghost of City Hall.’
This book will feature at the Bradford Literary Festival in May.
The man who escaped the Bradford Police Cells
Harry Houdini was born Eric Weisz on the 24th March, 1874, in Budapest Hungary. He moved to the United States where he became an illusionist and stunt artist.
One of Houdini’s more famous performances was repeatedly escaping from police handcuffs, chains and jails. Part of his pre-stage performance was to challenge police chiefs to lock him up in a secure cell from which he would subsequently escape.
After establishing his act in America, he toured Europe, where he continued to develop his act by escaping from a variety of constraints including straitjackets, coffins, and submerged in a sack whilst chained up.
In 1909 he came to Bradford and challenged the Chief Constable to detain him in a secure cell in City Hall. Before being placed in the cell he was stripped and handcuffed. Some short time later he was found outside the rear of City Hall surrendering to the police.
The cell still exists and is said to be haunted. Houdini was interested in the idea of séances and communication with the dead. He left his wife a unique code so that she could verify if anyone claimed to have received any messages from him after his death.
Houdini died on the 31st October, 1926. No messages were received until a spiritual medium, Arthur Ford, of the First Spiritualist Church claimed that on February 8th, 1929 claimed he had received such a subsequently verified by Houdini’s widow.