In a dramatic new development in the ‘Great Detective Case’, on Saturday 8th September 1877, Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke, 59, was arrested by his friend and colleague, Superintendent ‘Dolly’ Williamson, and brought into the dock at Bow Street Police Court. The small dock already contained three of Clarke’s Scotland Yard colleagues, Chief Inspectors Nathaniel Druscovich and William Palmer, and Inspector John Meiklejohn, as well as a solicitor, Edward Froggatt. All of these men had been arrested on 12th July 1877 and charged with “conspiracy to defeat the ends of justice”. The Bow Street magistrate’s hearing of the case, that had been held throughout July-September, was still unfinished, but had been the newspaper sensation of the summer .
The background to the case had started in September 1876 when a Scotland Yard investigation was undertaken into a complex betting fraud based in London that had targeted plausible members of the public in parts of France and had successfully and fraudulently relieved at least one lady, the Comtesse de Goncourt, of £10,000 (worth approximately £400,000 today). The investigation into the case had been led by Chief Inspector Druscovich, and progress had been slow; so slow in fact that the Comtesse de Goncourt’s London solicitor had recruited private investigators to assist in tracking down the fraudsters. Of course at this time in history, the police had few forensic tools at their disposal and fingerprinting technology of any kind was not to become available for many years yet. Thus, criminals were often able to successfully hide behind various aliases, and the fraudsters involved were highly adept at that art. Eventually, with the help of Dutch Police, three suspects were arrested in Rotterdam in December 1876 and extradited to the UK, and a fourth was arrested just before New Year in London. They were eventually tried at the Old Bailey in April 1877, found guilty and sentenced to long terms of penal servitude.
However, during the police investigations, Superintendent Williamson and officials in the Treasury Solicitor’s office obtained information that at least two Scotland Yard detectives, Chief Inspector Palmer and Inspector Meiklejohn, had assisted the fraudsters to delay their capture, and in Meiklejohn’s case at least, had taken money from them. The two leading fraudsters Harry Benson and William Kurr, once convicted, also decided to ‘sing’ in an attempt to lessen their gaol sentences. Their information had led to the July arrests of Palmer, and Meiklejohn, as well as Druscovich and Froggatt.
During the Bow Street hearings against the four men in August, Benson and Kurr were brought into the court to give their evidence, clad in their prison uniforms, and revealing their shaven prison haircuts. During their evidence, both Kurr and Benson claimed that Chief Inspector Clarke was in their pay in addition to those detectives already in custody. Whether there was any truth in their accusations or not, when mud is thrown, invariably some of it sticks, and Clarke was also arrested despite some Home Office concerns that the uncorroborated evidence of two convicted villains would destroy the career of such a long-serving and trusted senior detective.
All the accused men found themselves facing a trial at the Old Bailey, which started in October and concluded on 20 November 1877. In my biography of Chief Inspector George Clarke, “The Chieftain“, you can find more details about this highly significant and sensational case, which was the first major Metropolitan Police corruption trial. Chapter 7 provides details of the outcome of the trial, and its impact on the London Metropolitan Police Detective Department (including the subsequent creation of CID – the Criminal Investigation Department).