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True Crime and Fiction: the cases behind the Dan Foster Mysteries

The Dan Foster Mysteries follow the adventures of Bow Street Runner Dan Foster from the 1790s. It’s a series that depends on a steady supply of crimes, and though I’m free to invent what I like, it’s important that those crimes are historically plausible. Many crimes no longer exist – returning from transportation, for example, or highway robbery. Where they do still exist, methods have changed: burglars don’t often have to remove shutters from windows before they can break in, and arsonists don’t rely on a tinderbox to get a fire going.

That’s why many of the cases mentioned in the Dan Foster Mysteries are based on actual investigations carried out by the Bow Street Runners. In The Chiff-Chaff Club Murders: A Dan Foster Mystery Novella  (free to newsletter subscribers; see below) I’ve used two cases. The first is based on the prosecution of thirty-eight year old Thomas Cannon and thirty-two year old James Coddington in 1808, which depended on the laws against sodomy – laws which were not amended until 1967.


Cannon and Coddington were charged with Violent Theft and Robbery after they accosted their victim, a goldsmith called Joseph Butter, in St James’s Park, London, one night. When Butter sat down on a bench, Cannon sat beside him and invited him to come home with him. Butter refused and hurried off, but Cannon followed him. He caught up with the goldsmith, told him he was the real-life Bow Street Officer, John Sayers, and threatened to arrest him for sodomy unless Butter paid him off. Butter told the court he was in such “fear and dread of being placed in the situation of a criminal of that nature” (Old Bailey Proceedings) he paid up. 

Unfortunately Cannon hadn’t done with Butter, and turned up again with Coddington, who called himself Wilkinson and claimed to be a Bow Street clerk, to demand another £10. Their third demand was for two guineas, at which point Butter went to Bow Street. Coddington and Cannon were subsequently arrested.

I changed some details for the story, including when the crimes took place, and introducing a “sting” operation to catch the criminals, but the outline is essentially the same. However, while Dan Foster is pleased with the successful outcome of his case, he sombrely realises that the two men he arrested face the death penalty. So did the real Cannon and Coddington, who were both sentenced to death. I don’t know if the sentences were carried out; death sentences were often commuted to transportation. 


The grisly fate awaiting executed criminals - dissection for medical research. Hogarth's fictional murderer Tom Nero on the table.

The second case I looked at for The Chiff-Chaff Club Murders involves the killing of a widower, George Bird, and his housekeeper, and is based on the Greenwich Murders of Saturday 7 February 1818. Bird was eighty three and lived in the High Street, Greenwich. Mary Simmons, his servant, was fifty. Their bodies were discovered when Mr Bird’s brother noticed that the house was still shut up at one o’clock on Sunday. The brother, the parish beadle and a neighbour found everything in order at the back of the house, but they could not pick the lock on the front door because the key was in it on the other side. It turned out that the front door had been closed and left on the spring.

The men broke in through a kitchen window. Here they noticed a dish of potatoes ready for cooking. In the hall they found Mary Simmons, covered in blood and dreadfully wounded, lying with her feet to the front door and her head towards the kitchen. A baluster on the stairs next to her had been broken off. Mr Bird’s body was in the parlour. Their injuries had been inflicted by a hammer, which was later recovered. Mr Bird’s pocket book lay near by, along with an overturned candle and his broken glasses. The house had been ransacked.

Twenty-five year old James Hussey, who had been in the Navy, was charged with the murders after a box belonging to him was found to contain some of Mr Bird’s belongings. His description was circulated, and he went on the run. On 1 April he was arrested by John Bolton, constable of Deddington, Oxfordshire, who took him to Bow Street. Hussey’s friend, William Hazleton, had already been arrested as an accomplice, but no evidence was found against him and he was discharged.

The details of the murders were described in horrifying detail at Hussey’s trial at the Kent Assizes on 31 July 1818, and reported at length in numerous newspapers. The Greenwich Murders had attracted so much attention that people were queuing outside the court at five am to get in. The time of the murder was fixed at between eight and nine pm, and a Mrs Hannah Cooper gave evidence that as she passed the house on Saturday evening at around eight o’clock she had seen a man at the door talking to the housekeeper. She had returned the same way at a quarter past ten, when the house had been shut up.

The court heard that Hussey had lodged in an inn opposite Mr Bird’s house from where, it was noted, he would have been able to look into Mr Bird’s house and see him in the study where he kept his money. Hussey’s box containing some of Mr Bird’s belongings, including two watches and some banknotes, as well as blood-stained clothes belonging to Hussey, had been found at the Deptford home of a Mrs Jane Goddard.  She was a relative of Hussey’s wife, and had been looking after the box for him.

Hussey claimed that he found the stolen items after seeing a man hide them in a garden in Greenwich, and though he admitted stealing them and selling or pawning various items, he denied he was guilty of the murder. He said he did not know when he found the stolen goods that they belonged to Mr Bird, but when he discovered this and realised he would be accused of the murder, he fled. He accounted for the blood on his clothes by saying some of it came from his friend Hazleton, who had cut himself, and some from a heart he and Hazleton had cooked for their supper one night. He said the money was an inheritance from his mother.

In spite of his protestations, and his detailed account of his movements on the night of the murders, the  jury took only six minutes to find him guilty. Charles Hussey was hanged on Pennington Heath, Maidstone on 3 August 1818, still protesting he was innocent of the murder. At the last minute, however, he told the attending clergyman, “Let me be considered as the only guilty person, and as alone deserving of what I am going to suffer” (Sun (London), 4 August 1818). His body was handed to surgeons in Maidstone for dissection.

Both of these cases gave me ideas and background for the fictional investigations in The Chiff-Club Murders. In the same way, I have referred to many other real-life cases in other Dan Foster Mysteries. I’ve never used any of them in their entirety (though I could easily imagine a whole novel based on the Hussey case), but they are a reminder that there are many stories to be told: of victims, criminals, detectives, witnesses, friends and family. 

The London beggar Bow Street Runner Dan Foster knew as Arsy-Versy was an impoverished, harmless old man – so why did someone murder him? And why did he send Dan an old silver medallion with the words “Chiff-Chaff Club” engraved on it the day he died?
It’s not long before Dan realises that the down-and-out may not have been all that he seemed. In his search for the truth, Dan travels to the small market town of Brewood in Staffordshire – and finds himself investigating a decades-old crime.
Ebook free to Newsletter subscribers (available in epub, mobi and pdf formats). Sign up at my website.


A transcript of the trial of Thomas Cannon and James Coddington on 30 November 1808 is available at The Proceedings of the Old Bailey On Line.

The Greenwich Murders were reported at great length in numerous newspapers; for example The Globe, 1 August 1818.


Picture Credit:- 

The dissection of the body of Tom Nero; etching by W Hogarth, 1751, the Wellcome Collection (


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