Trial of the Detectives and Harry Benson and William Kurr

The “Trial of the Detectives” was a notorious police corruption scandal that involved officers at Scotland Yard in 1877. The criminals who bribed certain Scotland Yard officers were two swindlers, Harry Benson and William Kurr. In the end, both Benson and Kurr became notorious enough that their wax figures ended up in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors.

The fraudster and trickster Benson had a lifelong history of criminal activity. He had been arrested several times and was imprisoned in 1872 for forgery. During his incarceration, he tried to commit suicide by setting fire to his clothes but instead ended up lame and could barely walk when he was released from prison.

Trial of the detectives - Harry Benson

Harry Benson. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Why he turned to a life of crime seemed a mystery. He appeared to have everything going for him and could have easily avoided a life of perpetual wrongdoing:

“[A] well educated an accomplished man, of engaging manners, who had lived in luxury, keeping carriages, entertaining company, lecturing, and editing magazines before his apprehension, and on his release he had means enough to have lived on comfortably, for he was well connected, but to ‘act on the square’ was, with Harry Benson, an impossibility.”[1]

Having served his time for forgery, Benson was liberated in 1876. He then went to live in the Isle of Wright, where he made the acquaintance of two brothers. One of whom was William Kurr. He had been successful in various scams and as Benson was not about to suddenly “go straight” he was intrigued by Kurr’s success and nefarious ways.

Kurr had all the qualities that made him a good con man. He had great insight into people, a certain geniality about him, and a great knowledge of turf matters. So, when Kurr mentioned establishing a scam related to turf affairs, Benson was all ears. In addition, Benson found that Kurr had the inside track with a Scotland Yard detective named Sergeant John Meiklejohn:

“A friendship sprang up between the two men that became mutually profitable for in little more than a year Kurr had paid the detective £300 for value received. The value was information about complaints that had come to Scotland Yard about betting swindles and the issue of the warrants.”[2]

Trial of the detectives - William Kurr

William Kurr. Author’s collection.

Kurr’s and Benson’s ingenious scheme of turf fraud involved establishing a newspaper called Le Sport. It was printed weekly and circulated in France. Readers of the paper found recommendations to seek out a betting man known as Mr. Montgomery because he was described as having “infallible sagacity.” He was also cited as someone who was certain to win on the horses and could therefore help bettors “realise large fortunes.” There was just one problem, Montgomery was so well known for winning in England he could not get good odds. Thus, he wanted to meet people in France who could place his bets under their name and increased his odds when he won.

The scheme was to have interested parties receive a check from Montgomery drawn on the imaginary “Bank of London.” Victims would deposit that check and send legitimate checks from their banks to the bookmaker making sure to place their bet on the horse that Montgomery recommended. Of course, that horse would invariably win and so a day or two later the bookmaker would send another imaginary check back to the victim’s representing their supposed “winnings.” When they went to the cash the check, they would then realize they had been duped.

Among Kurr and Benson’s victims was the Countess de Goncourt. Apparently, once the Frenchwoman realized how easy it would be to make money, she added £10,000 of her own funds to send to the bookmaker to bet on the horse Montgomery endorsed. When Benson and Kurr saw what she had done, they immediately snapped to attention and attempted to defraud her of more money. They sent a note to her that stated:

“[B]y the English law, unless [you] forwarded £30,000 to back up the first investment, the £10,000 … already deposited [will] … be forfeited.”[3]

To avoid losing her £10,000 she consulted Mr. Abrahams, her solicitor. She asked him to help her raise the funds she needed. He of course realized it was turf scam and went to Scotland Yard for help. Unbeknownst to Scotland Yard authorities Meiklejohn, who was now an Inspector, and some other detectives were on the payroll of Kurr and Williams. Therefore the same day that Meiklejohn learned about the investigation into Kurr and Benson Meiklejohn then notified them. He told them that warrants had been issued for them and when officers went to arrest them, the two swindlers had already disappeared.

It got worse. Thereafter it proved extremely difficult to arrest Benson and Kurr. They always seemed to be one step ahead of the law. Moreover, papers continually reported about how the swindlers always seemed to know what law enforcement was doing and how easily they were able to avoid capture.

Despite help from Meiklejohn and other Scotland Yard detectives, Kurr and Benson were eventually apprehended. Kurr was arrested in Islington and Benson was caught in Rotterdam. They were sent to trial and both were found guilty with Benson sentenced to fifteen years and Kurr to ten years penal servitude. However, during their trial, information came to light about Meiklejohn and his illegal relationship with them.

A new investigation was then conducted into Meiklejohn. Scotland Yard soon learned that he and other officers within the department were corrupt, taking bribes, and aiding criminals. That then resulted in various arrests that included Meilkejohn, a solicitor named Edward Froggat, and three other Scotland Yard officers, Nathaniel Druscovich, William Palmer, and George Clarke, who was second-in-command of the Detective Department.

When the story broke it was huge. It became an even bigger news than what had happened with Kurr and Benson. It also became known in the press as the “Trial of the Detectives” or the “Turf Fraud Scandal.” The American Law Review of 1878 reported on it stating:

“[T]he British public were soon made aware of the singularly disagreeable circumstance, that all was not as it should be in Scotland Yard, – that the force of skilled detectives, to which even the government was known occasionally to resort in matters of grave importance, which existed as the possible protector of every capitalist and merchant in the realm, contained an unknown number of members in league with some of the most daring and successful depredators, who for a long time past had made booty of the property of honest men. Few discoveries could have been more odious.”[4]  

No one wanted to believe detectives at Scotland Yard could be working with criminals. If it was true and Scotland Yard detectives were found guilty many feared it would permanently shake the people’s confidence in an organization that was supposed to help administer justice and maintain the well-being of British society. Still prosecutors were on track to do just that and they would prove successful in their quest partly because they were assisted by the convicted swindlers Kurr and Benson:

“Not the least interesting participants in the drama were the previously convicted conspirators, who now came forward, under guard, in their prison raiment, to bear ignoble witness against their quondam comrades in guilt, and to narrate minutely the whole story of their crime. Without their assistance, it would have been utterly impossible to make good the charges against the officers; with their assistance, this became a comparatively simple task, provided only that the jury could be persuaded to believe the tale of such felon witnesses, who evidently had a strong motive … the hope of clemency.”[5]

All five men – Meiklejohn, Druscovich, Palmer, Clarke, and Froggat – were charged with having unlawfully conspired with Kurr, Benson, and others. It was claimed they had tried to obstruct, defeat, and pervert the due course of public justice. The trial of the detectives was held at the Old Bailey and began on Thursday 25 October 1877. It would last 19 days, ending on Monday, 19 November 1877.

All those involved in the “Trial of the Detectives.” Author’s collection.

During the trial Kurr testified that Meiklejohn had been assisting him in his criminal activities since 1873. He stated that when he and Benson joined forces, they realized they needed greater backing from other high ranking detectives to avoid detection. Therefore, to succeed in their schemes they began to test the integrity of Meiklejohn’s fellow Scotland Yard officers and some of them proved corruptible.

Stories about Scotland Yard detectives being corrupt quickly captured headlines and the trial of the detectives became the sensation of the year. Readers could not get enough, and newspapers were willing to provide every salacious detail. The tales fascinated the British public, and they were constantly predicting what they thought might be the outcome for the individuals involved. Moreover, the courtroom was packed with spectators every day until on the last day of trial newspapers reported that the courtroom was “thronged.” The Daily Telegraph reporter then made special note of the final hours of the trial against the Scotland Yard detectives:

“The summing-up was anything but interesting even to the judicial mind. The evidence was wearisome from repetition, and the judge’s system necessitated constant allusion to the same circumstances. However, there were the prisoners exposed to the public gaze, and subjected to determined scrutiny. Whenever Druscovich stood up, whenever Froggatt sat down, whenever Clarke leaned upon his elbow, whenever Meiklejohn scrunched up a pen in his strong fingers, whenever a note was passed down from the dock to the barristers or solicitors, each one of these facts was duly recorded and whispered about by the unprofessional spectators in court. But as the lengthy list of witnesses was wearily exhausted, on one face only was seen a sign of expectancy or a ray of hope, and that was the face of Inspector Clarke. Anxiety seemed to fade from him as the end drew near. Meiklejohn never stood for a second. His features never relaxed their gloom. Druscovich and Froggatt were nervously anxious and apprehensively fidgety, were often whispering and constantly writing during the early morning hours. But Clarke’s face was comparatively cheerful and illumined with hope. … [W]ithout much solemnity, and with scarcely any deviation from an even and unruffled course, the jury retired to consider their verdict at twenty-five minutes past three.”[6]

Their deliberation was short. They returned precisely at seventeen minutes past four. Meiklejohn, Froggat, Palmer, and Drusocvich were found guilty. Judge Baron Sir Charles Pollock sentenced each to two years hard labor, despite the jury having strongly recommended that Palmer and Drusocvich receive mercy because of their long police service. As to Clarke, even though the jury found him “not guilty,” the scandal ended his career in law enforcement.

The trial of the detectives also had stunning implications for Scotland Yard. It challenged the Superintendent’s ability to supervise his subordinates. It also showed that even the most respected authorities could behave with criminal intent and that better checks needed to be in place to prevent the behavior that had happened with Meiklejohn, Palmer, and Drusocvich. Thus, the trial of the detectives ultimately resulted in the Detective Branch of Scotland Yard being reorganized into the Criminal Investigation Department.

References:

  • [1] Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday, “Harry Benson, Prince of Swindlers,” December 14, 1889, p. 2.
  • [2] Blyth News, “Tales From the Old Bailey,” November 30, 1897, p. 4.
  • [3] Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday, p. 394.
  • [4] American Law Review, 12 vols. (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1878), p. 444.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 445.
  • [6] West Somerset Free Press, “The Trial of the Detective,” November 24, 1877, p. 7.

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