The Watch Thief – Chapter 20

Raymond Street Jail, April 1st, 1915
It was a Saturday evening, three days before his thirty-seventh birthday and if he was honest, the jail was not like a hotel. A bed should not go wall to wall. A desk was smaller without a bookcase. Why did a door need a lock when a door was already a lock in and of itself? Down the hall hacking coughs spread viral ills among the draught. Bernard talked in his sleep in the next cell. Warden Hayes rarely visited Trebitsch these days and his friends among the guards were assigned other wings. The Feds were taking no chances. Rowntree had once noted how easily he seemed to make friends.
Trebitsch wondered if perhaps Officer Keating was stepping past Haskins cell on North 3. There was no sound in the South wing. Keating, and Danbeck, had become his new officer chums in the month since his recapture. They thrilled to his tales of interpreting German cables, he even gave the officers lessons in decoding. Perhaps they might have discussed it over supper in the basement, though probably not this night. Keating and Danbeck had introduced Trebitsch to Hastings, one of New York’s Five Points Gang. If Torrino, Capone, Siegel or Boss Kelly could get Trebitsch out of prison, a second escape, the Germans would much easier take him into their confidence.
Officer Danbeck was as gullible as Keating. By now, he would have taken the hand-drawn map of the wings, the Keeper’s room, the basement and Warden’s office. Working with Kelly was a regrettable necessity, Trebitsch said. In return the two brave officers would be rewarded by their government. They’d be promoted to civil service posts in sunny Mexico. Or they might be sent on a nationwide lecture tour. Those were good enough reasons for Danbeck to take his note outside the gates and find Kelly’s gang.
Lights out was at seven and it was nearing ten. Kelly’s gang were given a script for the gates to be opened and told to bring ropes, chains and gags. The gagging was best done in  Warden Hayes room. The keeper would call the guards up from the basement and they’d disappear behind Hayes’ timber door. The grill door kerranged open, a metallic shunting like reality torn. Trebitsch quietly slipped on his boots to a fumbled ring of keys. Most guards were randomly posted around the prison, free for Kelly to pick off. The movement in South Tier had taken longer than expected. Trebitsch tightened as the bars to his cell were unlocked. He didn’t recognise the man, the electric torch shining in his eyes. Trebitsch followed as he was told to do. They went together to the iron stairs and down, across to the entrance hall and into Hayes’ office.  His guide opened the door to a group of heavily armed men.
Fifty year old DCI Alfred Ward knew Richard Muir’s form well. When he’d brought in Seddon, the flypaper murderer, before the courts it was Muir prosecuting. Officer and prosecutor had worked together on taking down the men behind the Great Pearl Heist and now Ward had returned from Brooklyn to Liverpool with Trebitsch Lincoln in tow. They sat before Bow Street Magistrates Court and Muir was pleased to hear him.
“The rogue jailer had been intercepted before he even left the prison,” said Ward. “I am told Mr. Lincoln expected the Kelly gang waiting and found instead a group of heavily armed federal agents.”
“Your honour, these are fertile grounds for keeping him,” said Muir.
Light laughter burst across the court, cut short by objections from the defendant’s bench. The chief magistrate, John Dickinson, eyed Trebitsch.
“Mr. Lincoln, you cannot object on every occassion,” he said.
Trebitsch flew up, raised his hand to the court and his eyes sparkled as he chittered. “As you know the court has denied me legal aid your honour. I am forced to represent myself and so I am dependent on Detective Ward in procuring my required witnesses.”
“Which witnesses?” asked the magistrate.
“Your honour, since the Admiralty instigated the case against me I have attempted to subpoena Admiralty witnesses. Winston Churchill has written to say he knew nothing for or against me. Unlikely! Yet neither Captain Hall nor his aide have been made to appear. Hayward, the M.P. who first sent me to Sir Henry Dalziel, is conveniently leaving England today with his regiment. Both Dalziel and Captain Kenny have also declined to respond. Frankly, Detective Ward’s credibility as my representative is dubious.”
Dickinson sighed. “Detective Ward, you have informed the witnesses on the defendant’s list?”
He answered yes, he had, and Dickinson cast aside Trebitsch’s objection.
Richard Muir was permitted to bring in his next witnesss. Trebitsch gazed out of his gold rimmed specs and his bald head grew sweaty as Rowntree took the stand. Muir allowed him to open up on their history and how letters addressed to him where stolen from the National Liberal Club.
  “The letters in evidence were not authored by my hand. I would say they are how Mr. Lincoln obtained money from Mr. Goldstein. Through false pretences.”
 “Thank you, Sir,” said Muir.
“The defence has questions,” said Trebitsch.
Dickinson permitted him to proceed. He got to his feet, looked around at the journalists, then eyed Rowntree.
“Didn’t you find it strange that the Admiralty, whose function one connects solely with the Navy, should all of a sudden reveal themselves as a branch office of the Public Prosecutor?” he asked.
Rowntree was caught off guard. “I don’t know the arrangements of justice in this country…”  “You didn’t question Admiral Hall’s interest in this?” Trebitsch asked.
Again, Rowntree looked out in confusion, first to Lincoln, then to Judge Dickinson.
“No,” he said. “I had been assured the Admiralty had good reason to doubt Mr. Lincoln’s loyalty to the Crown.”
“In other words, this forgery was a subterfuge of the Admiralty’s to try me for something else in the public interest?”
“It is quite clear,” said Trebitsch, “I have been brought back to England under false pretenses – to be tried for one crime in order to be punished for another.”
“I said they doubted your loyalty to the British Crown, and therefore that it was advisable to take these proceedings in order that you might be punished, and if that punishment involved imprisonment, that you would not be a danger to the British nation.”
Trebitsch seemed to be gathering these words inwards, using them to strengthen his bones. When Rowntree was done, he grinned ear to ear. Slowly, he announced. “Thank God that you have said that!”
Rowntree didn’t seem to understand and became worried. “I had been told by the Admiralty that my former employee had been trying to blackmail officials into paying him a great sum of money for information he had purpotedly obtained in Holland.”
“Oh? I thought I was being tried for forgery? Is this punishment for a political crime? Mr. Rowntree, why do you think the Admiralty did not use their evidence against me to initiate action before I fled to America at the end of January 1915?”
The judge bang-banged his gavel, and the words were out of Rowntree’s mouth. He was only repeating what the Admiralty had told him.   “They feared you were a danger to the British nation.”
“It’s a lie!”
“The account of your conduct in Holland had seemed so suspicious that I had not even asked the Admiralty for proof of their assertions, and no evidence had been offered.”
“Because they had none!” said Trebitsch. Then he reduced his voice to a whisper. “Mr. Rowntree, they have duped you!”
He had no questions after that. Muir called his next witness, “Alfred Douglas Farmer,” profession, “publisher,” his relationship to the defendant, “former company director for the Galician and Roumanian oil operations.”
“Mr. Farmer, were there fraudulent activities associated with Mr. Lincoln’s conduct in these businesses?”
Farmer was an old stout Scotsman, yet there was a frailty about his speech. “The receiver’s report listed the main problems. The books were not balanced; contracts were not in place.”
“And Ladenburg’s, the investors? There were anomalies even after the receivership?”
“Equipment went missing from the Galician sites, equipment then belonging to Ladenburg’s. Only a few key people had access. Nothing was proven though and I could not make accusations.”
The remarks were not relevant to the charges before them and were crossed off. Muir let it go easy, his hands already among his papers and he pulled out a slip which he showed to Farmer.  “This is a bill of exchange for £200, dated 30 October, 1914. It looks like your signature, but it isn’t. Could you tell the court what you told Scotland Yard?”
“This promissory note is a forgery, which was presented by Trebitsch Lincoln to illegally acquire finances from Mr. Samuel Finklestone.”
“I’m sorry,” said Judge Dickinson, “I thought Mr. Rowntree said it was a Mr. Goldstein was the victim of the forgery?”
“That is so, your honour. Mr. Farmer, here, is the victim of a second forgery, identical in the manner of which it was perpetrated on Rowntree and Goldstein.”
 “Well, I see. Thank Goodness you’ve kept note, Mr. Muir.”
Muir looked down to his ‘playing cards’, facts of the case written in different coloured pencil. Farmer had initiated proceedings through Scotland Yard shortly after the fraud. Muir entered the note into evidence from the Yard. Then Trebitsch got up to speak.
“I think the piece of paper has no value, but you, Mr. Farmer, you have got your way. Tell me, the Admiralty took an interest in your grievance, did they not?”
“Admiral Hall called to see me,” he said.  “Did he mention that he suspected me of treason?”  “I was not told about it at that time,” said Farmer.
“No further questions,” said Trebitsch.
 John Goldstein traded as J. Granger out of 11 Duke Street, Picadilly London. He was thin, with a good head of hair: shrewd and formal, but the proceedings were making him nervous. He was suffering from the high pollen count and reached for his handkerchief regularly
“I was on the board of Galician Amalgamated Oil from May 1911,” he told the court. “I furnished Mr. Lincoln with loans of £100 to £600 during his oil enterprises. Sometimes it was weekly. The loans were almost never repaid.”
“Would you sum up, Mr. Goldstein, the details surrounding the final loan of £900?”
“I provided it on agreement a suitable guarantor could be found. I received a letter I understood to be signed by Mr. Rowntree. Of course, there was no guarantor.”
“The initial loan was due to be paid back on 30 November, 1914,” Muir said.
“Yes. Trebitsch then asked for an extension and wrote another letter posing as Rowntree and offering to extend the guarantee.”
When Muir was done, Trebitsch said, “I would like to cross-examine the money-lender, Mr. Goldstein.”
He put down the thick bundle of papers in front of him. He stood, twirled on his heel and looked up and down the row of reporters. He’d dazzled them earlier, spinning his trilby. Now he spread out his arms and shook his hands at his side. He regarded Goldstein as if a low perched hawk to nesting chick.
“Mr. Goldstein, Chief Basil Thomson came to take your statement on this. Did he have anyone else with him at the time?”
“Admiral Hall also paid a visit,” he said.
“What do you suppose his interest in all this is?”
“I was told by Captain Hall that this case was one of flagrant forgery and that it would be simpler to imprison you for it,” he said.
“Simpler, than what?” he demanded.
“Simpler, I took it, than having you charged with treason or espionage. They thought you were a dangerous character.”
“Where you offered payment by the Admiralty for testifying against me?”
“I was not,” said Goldstein.
               *              *             *
The next to give testimony was Samuel Finkelstone, a banker of Jermyn Street.
“I loaned Trebitsch £100 in Spring 1914. It was due in October when he arrived with a promise note signed by Alfred Farmer. He presented me with Mr. Farmer’s letter and I gave him a further £150.”
“Mr. Farmer reported the fraud. May I ask why you did not?” asked Muir.
“Sir. I was unaware. The total amount was due to be repaid January 30th.”
“Thank you for your candour, Mr. Finklestone. I’ll not take up any more of your time.”
Trebitsch let out a long sigh and got to his feet. “The defence has no questions for Mr. Finklestone. I am in no physical condition to go on with this. I’ve had no meat to eat since yesterday…”
“Well, there’s no reason to cross-examine Mr. Finklestone at this time,” puffed Judge Dickinson.
 “I prefer that, because I’m absolutely starving. I don’t know whether it’s intentional to reduce my physical condition that I can hardly stand up for myself, but it’s hardly fair to do it. To return to the matter of the Admiralty bringing this trial, I defy the British Government and I dare them to proceed with this trial – even though I may be guilty of forgery – after the ruling of the United States Court, and I have no doubt about it that the Secretary of State in Washington will demand my immediate release because the American courts have been willfully and deliberately deceived and lied to and imposed upon.”
“The court is merely trying to determine whether there was a case against you, and not who initiated it!” said Dickinson.
“Your honour, context is everything here. If the jury is to be properly informed they will have read my book, entered into evidence, telling of my employ by Captain Kenny and Admiral Hall in a mission of international espionage begun ten years prior. It is true I sought a way out of this. In parliament I saw other people far less clever than myself making a lot of money and was determined to do the same. I was driven on by ambition, lured by the deceptive prizes of life. I did not expect to be betrayed by the Intelligence services.. I had no other choice. My wife and children were stranded on the continent. I had to get the money from somewhere!”
Margarethe wept from the public stands, the sound reverberating, a heavy rain on the courtroom. She was dressed in poor clothes, a too thin leftover. From across the gallery they were caught in the sorrow of her newly old skin. A number of those who realised they’d forgotten she was even there then recognised that so had her husband. He inhaled sharply and attempted to carry on.
“ now, I am now going to make sensational remarks you will hardly believe. I met Admiral Hall to discuss the rare codes I obtained for him in Holland and the plan I had devised that would sink the German fleet.”
Margarethe’s sobs died away. Trebitsch was explaining the strategy on how the fleet would be drawn out when Dickinson interjected.
 “This hearing concerns only the forgery charges and whether or not they should be pressed. Since you’ve already confessed, I am moving this matter to the central criminal court. Hopefully there, they’ll reach a speedy conclusion!”
Thomas Scrutton presided over the session at the Old Bailey. His beard, never shaved, and forward almost hunchbacked posture bore down on the assembled. It was a familiar setting for Muir, acting again as the Crown Prosecutor. In this room he had taken down Dr. Crippen, and ten years before, the Stratton Mask Murderers, incriminated by a single fingerprint. Scrutton appreciated his professionalism but did not suffer fools. When Trebitsch entered a plea of not guilty he did not win Scrutton over. As Finklestone and Farmer spoke, Trebitsch’s rage bubbled. Each time Scrutton’s gaze intimidated him into silence.
When Trebitsch did speak in his defence he referred again and again to the remand hearing. It became clear to Muir he was stalling for time. Rowntree was called to the stand. Trebitsch sat stiller than ever. Rowntree said he’d no reason to modify his original statement. Suddenly, Trebitsch twitched. He got to his feet, banked grievances pouring out of him. Was it right that without any evidence to support the allegations that he should prosecute a man who had done excellent work in confidence for many years? Scrutton said Rowntree did not need to answer that question. Neither Rowntree nor Trebitsch had anything more to say to one another.
The court learned from Goldstein that Trebitsch confessed all to him in an ill, suicidal state. Trebitsch asked Goldstein again if he was offered money by the Admiralty to bring charges. The final person to take the witness box was Trebitsch himself. He demanded appearances from Churchill, Hall, Kenny and Dalziel: witnesses to prove the origin of this case, his danger politically, and his importance to the Admiralty. Scrutton said that was irrelevant to the charges in his case.
“One would wish I’d get a fair trial. Members of the jury, Richard Muir’s evidence is inconclusive. At Bow Street I freely confessed to guilt in the vain hope of arousing the Government to the grievous injustice being done to me. Patriotism is to serve your country to the best of your ability, but the patriotism of these years, is to shield to blundering permanent officials and ministers. You must not criticize them, even if you ruin the country. You are not here as patriots but as jurors. I admit that I would have a trial such as I am having in no other country in the world! I’ve had many adventures in my short life, but none of them has ever come up to this, I can assure you! Oh – it is most, most entertaining! Imagine the picture, gentlemen of the jury! The great and mighty British lion is afraid of shaking before I.T.T. Lincoln! Believe me, gentlemen, if the Admiralty had only taken my advice, the German Navy would not only have ceased to exist long ago, but the war would have been won by England! Alas! You are all too slow in England, gentlemen, too slow in chemistry, in science, in warfare – in everything. And if you hadn’t an element of Scotch blood in your veins, Heaven only knows what would have happened to England!”
Trebitsch stepped down. Scrutton called the jury to decide on the facts of the two cases of forgery. They whispered together three minutes, and Scrutton informed the court of the guilty sentence, a sentence of three years penal servitude. Trebitsch was taken down, out and returned to the darkness of a cell.
c. Andy Luke.
The Watch Thief runs one chapter a week. You can find more here.
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