On Monday, May 12th, 1834, a distraught gentleman called into London’s Lambeth Street Magistrates’ Office requesting urgent assistance. He was Mr. Gee, a solicitor visiting London from the countryside idyll of Bishop’s Stortford around forty miles away.
An incredulous Principle Officer, Mr. Miller, listened as Mr. Gee’s story unfolded, hardly able to believe the escapade that this slight, stooped figure had found himself caught up in.
Mr. Gee explained to Mr. Miller that he had recently undertaken some legal work at his practice in Bishop’s Stortford for the executors of the will of a certain Mr. Canning who had wished £2000 to be invested in a local property deal in the Bishop’s Stortford area. He had already invested £1200 in one property and was still holding onto the balance of £800 waiting for a suitable deal.
He then received a letter from someone calling themselves Mr. Heath, requesting a meeting with him in London to discuss the purchase of a property in that same area and would like Mr. Gee to represent him. Mr Gee, happy to take on a new client, replied saying he would be prepared to come up to London to meet the gentleman at the coffee room in the Bull Inn, Aldgate on May 12th at 10am.
When Mr. Gee arrived, he was approached by a young man who handed him a note which read as follows:
Mr. Gee agreed to go with the young man and climbed into the waiting coach and was driven (rather too furiously for his liking) to number 27 York Street West, just off London’s busy Commercial Road. He was greeted by another man who said he was Mr. Heath’s brother and Mr. Heath himself was having his breakfast in the kitchen and looking forward to meeting with him to discuss his Bishop’s Stortford plans.
Mr. Gee followed the man along the narrow passageway towards the kitchen and as he got there, found himself being grabbed from behind and from the side. The man in front then assisted his accomplices who were dragging Mr. Gee into a roughly constructed wooden cage-like structure fitted with a bench upon which he was forced to sit while being chained and secured to its rigid framework. This strange wooden contraption almost filled the whole kitchen space.
It was built of stout, rough-hewed wood and around 5 feet square fitted with a water closet bench seat and was totally dark once the thick planked door was shut. A heavy metal chain was padlocked around Mr. Gee’s chest pulling him tightly to the back beam mortised into the sides.
He could barely breathe. His feet were bound with rope tied to manacle rings which were bolted to another beam which had been nailed securely to the floor. The crevices between the boards had been stuffed with muddy earth piled to the sides to deaden any cries and block out light. He could hardly move any part of his body.
The startling, immediate fact that Mr Gee noted was that Mr. Heath was completely blind.
Once secured and his protests silenced, one of his abductors introduced himself as Mrs. Canning’s brother, and he was determined to get just desserts for this poor widow woman ousted from her husband’s will.
He came straight to the point, and claimed they were all being honorable in assisting his sister to her rightful inheritance because the late Mr. Canning had made sure these recent transactions of property and money did not go to her and they should have done by rights. He wanted a cheque for £800 without delay and for Mr. Gee to arrange the signing over of the deeds to the Bishop’s Stortford property investment. He would remain their prisoner until this was accomplished.
Mr. Gee said he could not engage in such an illegal act and under duress – he was merely representing the wishes of Mr. Canning’s main executor, Mr. Bell of Newport in Essex who held the property deeds and Gibsons Bank in Saffron Walden, who held the balance of the money left by Mr. Canning.
Mr. Heath and his companions made it clear they would not release him until he carried out their wishes, leaving Mr. Gee to this painful contemplation in the dark, dank, smelly trap they had chained him into. Charles Gee was sure they would stop at nothing, possibly killing him, if he did not agree.
When they returned and they made their demands once more – he agreed to their request. They supplied pen and ink and he wrote out the cheque to be drawn on Gibsons Bank for £800 and instructions to Mr. Bell to hand over the property deeds to Mr. Heath. They then left him alone once more, no doubt setting off to finish their audacious plan with their extorted documents.
After three hours, Mr. Gee was getting desperate, wondering if he was to be left to starve to death. He called and shouted but to no avail. With a last exertion, he managed to push his way downwards from the chest chain, just enough to untie the heavy cords holding his feet to the manacle rings. He slid right out from the chest restraint and was able to push open the roof of his cell. He ran out of the kitchen back door, clambered over a number of garden walls before finding himself back on the main thoroughfare and able to seek legal assistance at the Magistrates’ Office.
Mr. Miller was astounded by this tale and immediately dispatched the police to the address in York Street West, who discovered the wooden cell just as described, but the house was empty. Neighbours did tell the investigating officers about seeing two men searching the back garden as if looking for someone and that the house had only just been rented by a blind man and they thought it strange hearing all the banging as well as seeing mounds of earth being taken into the back kitchen from the garden. The police also discovered on the table by the grotesque wooden den that had imprisoned Mr. Gee, a hand-crafted cotton bag stuffed with thick wadding with strings to tie over someone’s head and mouth and looping around under the chin. Clearly more had been planned to ensure Mr. Gee’s silence.
Detectives decided to visit Mrs. Canning’s house – number four, Providence Row, Oldford, East London, hoping to find out more information about Mr. Gee’s kidnapping. Meanwhile Mr. Gee had dispatched messengers to Mr. Bell and to Gibsons bank to alert them to the felonious plans of his kidnappers and not to act on any of his instructions written under duress.
After spending a little time watching Mrs. Canning’s house rather than calling straight away, the police saw a man matching Mr. Heath’s description emerging from the house being led by a little girl. They arrested him, the young girl turned out to be Mrs. Canning’s daughter. Heath admitted that he was holding Mr. Gee prisoner and was astounded that Gee had escaped and alerted the police. He was more puzzled about how Gee had managed to free himself than his own predicament at being arrested and taken before the magistrates’ bench. Once more he explained he was being honorable and retrieving money and property that was rightfully Mrs. Canning’s. He also explained that she had no idea he was going to do this and the police decided not to arrest Mrs. Canning but to ensure she was called before the Bench for questioning.
It was only when the police arrested Mr. Heath, they learned his real name was John Edwards aged 34 (also known as Thomas Edwards) and he was a musician. He revealed that his companions in this plot were Peter Lecassar a carpenter who had been hired to build the kitchen prison and his wife Mary Lecassar, who was, in fact Edwards’s sister (she had made the special hood) and Jeremiah Weedon, a smithy, who made the chains and manacle rings.
When the prisoners appeared before the Bench for questioning, one of the magistrates, The Rev. D. Mathias rector of the Parish of Whitechapel remembered Edwards in a very significant way. He had officiated at his wedding in April but then he was using the name of Heath.
Edwards was unwilling to discuss this but fully accepting of the fact he was the man who had orchestrated the whole Mr. Gee kidnap plan and employed Lecassar and Weedon to assist him and they had no part in this plot of extortion from Mr. Gee. He emphasized again, that Mrs. Canning was totally unaware of what he was doing on her behalf.
He explained that he had met Mrs. Canning around two years ago when he tuned her piano and he now lodged with her four days every week to assist her finances seeing as her late husband had left her and their three children with little money. She desperately needed the £800 and the property from his estate, and so he acted out of kindness for her predicament.
The next day, the Bench sat once more to question the prisoners and also to hear from Mr. Gee and Mrs. Canning. Firstly the three men were formally identified by Mr. Gee as those who had forcible imprisoned him – this was not denied by any of them. When Mrs. Canning entered the room, the Rev. D. Mathias now had his suspicions confirmed. This was the woman calling herself Maria West who had married Edwards alias Heath and he had conducted that very ceremony last April 27th.
Mrs. Canning was shaking and tearful and very nervous but consistently denied any real knowledge of Edwards, and declared she was certainly not married to him. She denied ever using the name Maria West and being involved in a marriage under a false name. As this line of questioning persisted, she fainted and was taken outside to recover.
Edwards smirked and said he had never seen this lady in the whole course of his life – which the Bench had to accept as a legal fact given that he was blind. Edwards did appear enjoy this moment of macabre humour.
It was then revealed by the executors of Mr. Canning’s estate, that Canning’s will demanded his wife forfeited all her rights to his property and any money as soon as she ceased to remain a widow and married. Edwards who had married Mrs. Canning under false names was incensed that she had been disinherited when someone had given the game away to the executors. He felt, as her husband, he had a right to take back what should have been hers. Mrs. Canning never admitted to being his wife and was acquitted with a warning about her lies and misplaced behaviour. The authorities were satisfied that she had no motives or intent to collaborate with the others and, to some extent, she was indeed the victim of Edwards’s plan to steal her money.
The charge was clearly that of intention to steal by demanding money with menaces and so the prisoners, except for Mrs. Lecassar, who seemed to have had no active role, were committed to Newgate prison to await trial. It wasn’t long before this story was a media sensation as the three prisoners were put on trial at the Old Bailey on July 7th.
Suffice it to say, the trial was packed with queues around the block but there was a real legal twist waiting to happen.
The first count of the indictment was that on May 12th, they had all, “..feloniously demanded from William Gee a certain security of £1,200 and interest due thereon.” The second count saw the prisoners charged with “feloniously demanding certain other sureties in the sum of £800 with purposes to steal.”
All three pleaded “Not Guilty” and to cut a long story (or rather long trial) short, they were all found not guilty and ordered to be acquitted by Mr. Justice Patterson, the presiding Judge.
This trial had become one of legal argument and was won by the defence who claimed you cannot rob or steal deeds to a property when they were physically not on Mr. Gees’s person as he sat confined in that make-shift kitchen gaol, so you cannot steal what is not there and nor did he have £800 about his person at that precise moment for them to steal. Even the note paper he used to write out the cheque and the deed transfer did not belong to Mr. Gee, so they were not stolen as he did not own them in the first place.
This cannot be the ending or the law really is an ass.
It was the turn of the Middlesex Sessions to put them on trial – together with Mrs. Canning – on Friday August 1st. This was for demanding from Mr. Gee with threats and menaces – assaulting and imprisoning him. This trial lasted until 10pm at night and had become quite a theatre with spectators coming and going.
Mrs. Canning was acquitted – there was clearly no evidence to link her to Edwards’s plan to kidnap and threaten Mr. Gee. She was admonished by the judge and sent packing under a cloud of shameful behaviour.
Edwards, however, was found guilty of assault and conspiracy and sentenced to two years in Newgate Prison. Weedon also, but given twelve months in the House of Correction alongside Lecasser who was given six months.
As for Mr. Gee, he returned back to Bishop’s Stortford to his wife, four daughters and one son – a respectable fourth generation of solicitors – with a tale he never ceased telling to those who cared to listen. He built himself a mansion he named Elmhurst in nearby, exclusive Windhill and gave up any London travel for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, Edwards had settled into his new accommodation:
NEWGATE PRISON (drawn in 1833) John Edwards alias Mr. Heath was sentenced to two years imprisonment here on August 1st 1834.
As for Mrs. Canning, aged only 30 years, and already having lost two husbands – albeit the last one was not a legal one (nor did he remain in her affections), she slipped quietly away to bring up her three children as a widow and was not heard of again.