One hundred years ago, on 10 March 1914, Manchester City lost one of its most remarkable residents. Chief Inspector Jerome Caminada was a household name, feared and despised by the criminal fraternity and widely respected, although not always liked, by the more civilised society.
With a detective career spanning over 25 years Jerome Caminada trawled the Victorian underworld in order to bring some of England’s most cutthroat criminals, successful jewel thieves, political bombers and vicious murderers to justice. He travelled across continents and counties, including Kent, and employed a variety of disguises and scenarios to capture fugitives. As a strong willed man, he also attracted controversy and author Angela Buckley has been reliving it all to write his biography, ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes’. As Angela’s my writing buddy, I’ve had the privilege of seeing this book evolve and I’ve now bribed her into the magpie’s nest with a big slice of cake in order to ask her lots of nosy questions.
Hope you like them!
Hi Angela, thanks for dropping in.
You discovered Jerome Caminada’s existence when you were tracing your own family tree, what was it that drew you to him and why did you decide to write his biography?
When my great-grandparents arrived in Manchester from Italy in the 1880s, Detective Chief Inspector Caminada was already a local celebrity, especially as his father had been Italian, so I kept coming across him in my research. It was so unusual for a child born in the slums at that time to become such an important figure that I immediately wanted to know more about him. When I read his memoirs, which he published at the end of his remarkable career, his adventures were so quirky and fascinating that I just had to write about him.
You have come to know the detective well through his memoirs but was it hard writing about a real life figure with living relatives?
Throughout the research I was very much aware of the possibility of living relatives and felt quite anxious that they would be happy with the facts that I’ve unearthed, especially some of the elements from Caminada’s childhood, which were particularly distressing. One of his main bloodlines has ended but there may still be descendants from his daughter, although I haven’t heard from any. However, the family of his great-nephew has been in touch from Zimbabwe, and I’ve been thrilled that they’ve shown so much interest in the project. I’m keeping everything crossed that they’ll be pleased with the finished story of their ancestor.
During your research you’ve spent an incredible amount of time rifling through Manchester’s archives, what was your most exciting find?
The Greater Manchester Police Museum and Archives was a treasure trove of artefacts. They have a big file on Caminada there, which has lots of newspaper clippings that aren’t available online yet. They also have memorabilia such as election posters from when Caminada joined the city council, handbills advertising demonstrations by anarchists against the detective – they even have his hand gun! My most exciting find though was the telegrams from the Home Office that were sent to Caminada while he was undercover in France investigating Fenian suspects. It’s amazing that they have survived so long.
You’ve revealed some incredible cases within your book – do you have a favourite?
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reconstructing all of Detective Caminada’s cases, but my favourite has to be the cross-dressing ball. The Chief Constable received a tip off that there was going to be a dance of ‘immoral character’ and sent Caminada to investigate. After spending some time observing from an adjoining rooftop, the detective decided that crimes were being committed and he instructed his officers to raid the building. Inside the hall were 47 men, all in fancy dress, and half of them were dressed as women. The newspaper later reported that the company was engaged in ‘grotesque dances, such as are familiar at low-class music halls.’ The most amusing part of the story was when the men were tried in court and the magistrate said that he was relieved that most of the men were from Sheffield, rather than Manchester!
Caminada’s investigations also brought him to Kent on the trail of the mysterious ‘Ashford Heiress’ – who was she and what did she do?
The ‘Ashford Heiress’ was 39-year-old, Elizabeth Margaret Burch, who had inherited a vast fortune from an elderly gentleman, whom she had helped when he fainted in St James’s Park, London, during a public event. When Elizabeth received her unexpected inheritance of £150,000, she moved to Ashford in Kent where she began to live an extravagant lifestyle of fine foods and expensive clothing. The newly made ‘Ashford Heiress’ used her new position in society to raise money for various charities and received many generous donations. However, when it became evident that her inheritance was not forthcoming, her creditors began to close in and she fled to Manchester, where Caminada was immediately suspicious of her new identity as ‘Lady Russell’. The wily detective exposed her elaborate scam and arrested her for obtaining money under false pretences.
When Sherlock Holmes first appeared in 1887, Detective Caminada was at the very height of his career and he was often compared to his fictional counterpart. He was like Holmes in many ways: he had excellent powers of deduction, used disguises and a network of informants. Many of his cases could have easily come from the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and in his signature case, the Manchester Cab Mystery, he solved a murder in record time using his expertise in chemicals, just like Sherlock Holmes. There were many similarities but the main difference between them was that Detective Caminada’s escapades are entirely authentic.
I know you’re used to working with magazine editors but this is your first commissioned book – how did the experience compare?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many excellent editors in magazines and even luckier to have an outstanding editor, Jen Newby, at Pen and Sword. I have to say that it has been an extremely positive and enjoyable experience. I loved the research and the crafting of the material into a narrative. I had constant feedback from my editor, which not only has improved the quality of the writing, but also made the process so much more manageable and less daunting.
What were the most enjoyable and most difficult parts of the writing process?
The best thing about writing a whole book is having the space to develop themes and ideas throughout the chapters, without the constraints of word count that you would have in an article. On the other hand, the challenge is to keep going and to get through the middle part of the book, when the end seems nowhere in sight. Sometimes it was a struggle to sort through all the different accounts of Caminada’s cases, which came mostly from his own memoirs and contemporary newspaper accounts, so I had to use lots of mapping and highlighting of notes to get my ideas into any sort of coherent order.
Have you any advice to offer a first time biographer?
You should read as much as you can around and about your subject, be meticulous in your research and follow every lead. But most important of all, you have to love your subject, as you’re going to spend every waking hour with them!
So, now your books hit the shops what’s next?
I’m currently working on a proposal for a second book, which would extend some of the themes introduced through Detective Caminada’s story. Nothing is definite yet, but I think I’ll be sticking with Victorian crime for some time.
Thanks so much Ange, I wish you every success with The Real Sherlock Holmes and can’t wait to see what you come up with next. (Don’t worry about the cake crumbs; I’ll save those for later!)
The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada by Angela Buckley is published by Pen and Sword Books. For more details, see her blog http://victoriansupersleuth.com and if you’d like to hear more about Detective Caminada’s adventures, Angela will be giving a talk at the Manchester Histories Festival on Sat 29 March at 3 pm in the Friends Meeting House, Mount Street, Manchester