The Thief

John Lee’s criminal career began in April 1883 when he was employed as a servant for the Hon Colonel Edward Brownlow in Torquay.  Lee had obviously seen Colonel Brownlow’s French Butler, Michel Kisler on several occasions cleaning the expensive silver in the house.  While the Colonel was on holiday, in 1883 Lee stole several of these items which he tried to sell to a Pawnbroker and Jeweller in Devonport, Plymouth.  But suspicions were raised and eventually John Lee was arrested in Plymouth, charged and found guilty of theft. In Victorian times, for a servant to steal from his master was regarded as extremely serious. This was no minor case of theft – the value of the goods was well in excess of £20, which, in those days was a lot of money.

theft lee

Image: John Lee – Servant. At the time of his first crime in 1883 about 18 months before he brutally killed Emma Keyse – the woman who encouraged and helped him back to the straight and narrow. So what went so tragically wrong?

Even in these early days of Lee’s adult life you can get a real feeling of John Lee’s deceptive mind – he told the shopkeeper in Plymouth he was working for Michel Kisler at an address in Union Street in Torquay (which was a lie). Michel Kisler was actually the Butler of Colonel Brownlow of course. Lee’s room in the house where he was employed was locked where various items stolen from his employer were found.  He told Kisler he was going to see his sick father – in fact he was in Devonport in Plymouth trying to sell the Colonel’s silver. For this offence he admitted his guilt, saying to the police officer “it is no good to deny it I took the candlesticks and snuffers on Saturday morning and the tray on Monday morning I don’t know what could have made me do it”.

Exeter Flying Post - Wednesday 11 July 1883Here is a transcript from the paperwork and statements relating to this case.  Sadly, the condition of the copies are not good, so the transcription has been extremely difficult in parts, which is reflected in the final product here for which I apologise.

The examination of Michel Kisler of Ridge Hill in the parish of Tormoham, Butler.  Mark Emdon of 48 Fore Street, Devonport, Pawnbroker and Jeweller and John Slee of Tormoham aforesaid police constable in the said County of Devon — here unto annexed taken on oath this 10th day of may in the year of our Lord 1883 at Torquay in the County of Devon aforesaid, before the undersigned, here of her Majesty’s justices of the peace for Merced County, in the presence and hearing of John Lee who is charged to this day before me for that he said John Lee on about the 28th day of April 1883 and the parish of Tormoham in the said County of Devon. then being a servant to the Hon Colonel Edward Brownlow of Ridge Hill in Tormoham aforesaid feloniously did steal take and carry away property (?) A pair of silver candlesticks, too large silver plated candlesticks, silver snuffers and tray and other articles of the value of £20 Police belonging to the said Hon Colonel Edward Brownlow.

His deponent Michel Kisler on his oath saith as follows:

Courtroom Torquay

Wednesday

9th May 1883

John Lee

In custody

Larceny as a servant

Michel Kisler

I am Butler to the Hon Col Brownlow at Ridge Hill, Torquay.  Defendant was foot man there.  On the 25th of April last my clean the plate which is kept in a little room by the pantry. there are two boxes of plate and these bosses that he blocked and also the door of the room.  Among the articles I cleaned the pair of small silver candlesticks and the two large candlesticks produced which I poured in the larger of the two boxes, the snuffer and trade produced by also cleaned and poured in the small box.  Was cleaning the plate I had reason to go to the front door.  Defendants assisted me and cleaning and when I went to the door I left him in the room with the plate that cannot say whether he was there when I returned in about four of five minutes.  After locking up the plate boxes had put the Keyse on the shelf wear glasses kept and the key of this place I found in my pocket after locking the door.  On Tuesday the first of may PC Slee came to me and from what transpired I examined the plate boxes and found missing a pair of small silver candlesticks, too large silver plate candlesticks, smugglers and tray already produced.  On Saturday 28 of April defence and went away returning sometime in the evening perhaps nine o’clock.  He said he had been away as his father was not well.  Defendant remained at home on Sunday but on Monday the 30th of April about 9.00am I found him absent from the house have not seen him since till noon.  On Wednesday 2nd May in company with PC Slee, I went to defendant’s bedroom finding the door locked I am locked it with a key which I obtained (?).  PC Slee searched this room and found to Keyse, nutcrackers, paper knife, small drinking cup and plaster case has now produced with a (?) To the paper knife and nutcrackers I know that these belong to my master, one of the Keyse produced by PC Slee will unlock the door to the room where the plate is kept.

Examined by Mr Creed

This key does not belong to the house.  There was only the key to the plate room door, not two. Defendant had been in my masters service about six months and master has been from home about three months.  All the plate was kept under lock.

Michel Kisler

Court Room Torquay, Sworn Before Me

10th May 1883


9th May 1883

Mark Emdon

I am a Pawnbroker and Jewller and 48 fore street Devonport.  On Saturday 28 April about how passed to the afternoon there was arranged at my side door.  I answered and saw the defendant inquired he is (?).  He said he was (?) Did to me to see a pair of silver candlesticks.  Being surprised I asked him inside.  He then produced the small pair of candlesticks in this court.  Upon my asking him if there was anything else he took the snuffers produced from his pocket.  I then asked if he had betrayed belonging to the snuffers and he replied “no I have forgotten that I will bring it when I come down next time”.  Defendant had a paper parcel in his hand and I asked him what it contained.  He said to candlesticks.  He opened the parcel and upon showing them to me I remarked that they will old ones and said where are the others.  He answered “though I will bring them down on Monday with a tray”.  I told him I was away the silver and I went inside and looked out for a constable.  Not seen one I returned to the defendant and weighed the silver.  They told him I would give him three pounds for the silver which he agreed to accept.  I also told him I had no money but that I would give him a cheque.  I should say that defendant had told me he had come from Mr Kisler of union Street Torquay who was the owner of the property.  I gave defendant a post date cheque for three pounds payable to “Mr Lee” for “Mr Kisler” of order which cheque I crossed.  I agreed to give him thirty shillings for the candlesticks (as large ones) is when he brought the fellow ones to match.  Defendants then left immediately followed into the corner and saw him standing outside an outfitting establishment.  I looked about for a police constable do not seeing one I went to the police station.  On my returning home I learned the defendant had been at my house again.  On the following Monday and about 11 AM defendant came again to me and in my shop talk out of the trade produced from inside his coat.  I asked him for the other candlesticks and he said he couldn’t bring them.  He also said that I had improperly dated the cheque.  I asked him if he had the cheque, he said yes, I said give it to me and I will make that all right directly.  I took the cheque and went inside with the intention of getting a policeman.  And neighbour however fetched 1 and then told defendant that he must give a better account of the articles as I had communicated with Torquay and there was no such person has Mr Kisler there.  I also taught in you would have to account to the officer.  The constable being an hand defendant was taken away by him to the police station.  The property produced would cost at least £20.

Mark Emdon

Court Room Torquay, Sworn Before Me 10th May 1883

cheque

Above: The £3 cheque for silver payable to John Lee for Mr. Kisler from Mark Emdon, the dubious Devonport Pawnbroker and Jeweller.

9th May 1883

John Slee

slee

I am a police constable at Torquay.  In consequence of information from the Devonport police I went on Tuesday May 1st to Col Brownlow’s, Ridge Hill, Torquay and saw their the witness Kisler who made an examination of two chests of plate.  On Wednesday 2nd May I went against the house and Kisler and I proceeded to the defendants bedroom the door of which was locked.  The key having been produced the door was unblocked and in a pair of trousers in this room I found two keys which I produce.  I also found in a drawer and paper life, nutcrackers, small drinking cap and several other articles likewise produced.  Afterwards I saw the witness Kisler and lock the plate room door with one of the keys so found by me, the large one.  Yesterday may the 8th I went to Devonport where I saw prisoner in custody.  I charged him with stealing the articles mentioned and he replied “it is no good to deny it I took the candlesticks and snuffers on Saturday morning and the tray on Monday morning I don’t know what could have made me do it”.  Brought into Torquay the same day in the afternoon

John Slee

10th May 1883

Both plate boxes were locked when Kisler went to them to examine the contents, in fact I saw him, Kisler unlocked them. John Slee

Court Room Torquay, Sworn Before Me

10th May 1883


10th May 1883

Michel Kisler,

If anyone took anything from the two boxes the person must have 1st and locked and then locked in a game as when I examined these they were both locked on both occasions when prison are went away he did not ask my permission.

Examined.: I don’t recollect defendant was before absenting himself from the house without leave.

Recalled.: My key other plate room door will not unlock any other room in the house.  When cleaning the plate it was my practice to leave the key in the door until I finished with this exception the key would always be in my possession.

Michel Kisler

Court Room Torquay, Sworn Before Me

10th May 1883

In the County of Devon.

John Lee stands before the undersigned, one of her Majesty’s Justices of the peace for the county of Devon, this 10th day of may in the year of our Lord 1883 for that he said John Lee on about the 28th day of April 1883 at the parish of Tormoham in the said county, there being a servant to the Hon Colonel Edward Brownlow of Ridge Hill in Tormoham did felonously did steal take and carry away surgeon property (?) A pair of silver candlesticks, too large silver plated candlesticks, silver snuffers and fray and other articles of the value of £20 at the least belonging to the Hon Colonel Edward Brownlow his master (??) Of the value of such case indeed provided (?).  And has said charge having been read to the said John E. and the witnesses for the prosecution, Michel Kisler, Mark Emdon and John Slee– being severely examined in his presence, the said John Lee is now addressed by me as follows: “having heard the evidence the wish to say anything in answer to the charge?  You are not obliged to say anything unless you desire to do so; but whatever you say will be taken down in writing, and may be given evidence against you upon your trial.  And you are clearly to understand that you have nothing to hope from any promise of favour, nothing to fear from any threat, which may be holding out to you to induce you to make any admission or confession of your guilt, but whatever you shall now say begin in evidence against you upon your trial, notwithstanding such promise or threat:”

whereupon the said John Lee saith as follows

– no Sir –

Taken before me at Torquay the day and year first mentioned.

Jurors result 1883;

The jurors for our Lady Queen upon their posts present that John Lee on May 28th day of April in the year of our Lord 1883 was sentenced to 1 Edward Brownlow and that whilst he was such servant as aforesaid one pair of silver candlesticks, to silver plate candlesticks, one pair of silver snuffers, one silver snuffers tray, one paper life and one pair of nutcrackers of the goods and chattels of the said Edward Brownlow is said Master feloniously its steel and carry away against the (?) Of the (?) In such cases made and provided hand against the peace of our Lady Queen her crowd and dignity

Second count and the juror’s aforesaid upon their post aforesaid do for the present that the said John Lee on the day and in the year aforesaid the said goods and chattels before then feloniously did receive and have the first said John Lee the same goods and chattels as aforesaid then the well knowing the same to have been feloniously stolen taken and carried away against the form of the statute in such cases may then provided and against the peace of our Lady the Queen Her Crown and dignity.

Pleads guilty, six calendar months hard labour.

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette - Friday 11 May 1883
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Friday 11 May 1883