Volume 21 - Spring 2006


Leicester Tragedy - a 19th Century Tale

by W. Turner Berry

Mr. Joe Paas, manufacturer of brass ornaments for printers, and bookbinders' finishing tools, arrived at Leicester on a bright spring day just one hundred years ago - to be precise, on May 29th , 1832. His old-established business at 44, High Holborn, kept him in London most of the year, but occasionally he made long 'commercial tours' round the country, visiting printers, bookbinders and stationers in most of the larger towns with the object of soliciting orders and collecting accounts due to him. He had been away from London for some months and had crossed from Dublin two days before, journeying from Liverpool to Leicester by the Red Rover Coach. That night Mr. Pass slept at the 'Stag and Pheasant' and in the morning, after having breakfasted, and complained to the chambermaid that his bed was too small and he had slept badly, he set out to visit his customers in the town. Amongst others he called on a Mr. James Cook, a bookbinder, whose shop was situated behind the 'Flying Horse' Inn, down a narrow yard leading from Wellington Street. James Cook had ordered a considerable amount of new tools some time before, and Mr. Paas called upon him with the object of collecting a previous account before giving instructions to his London manager to supply the recent order.

Mr. Paas was admitted to the little workshop and received part of the money due to him. The remainder Cook promised to pay later in the day and asked Mr. Paas to call back again in the evening, which he agreed to do. After having visited several other people in the town, including a Mr. Tibbutt in whose company he remained until 6 p.m., he set out to revisit Cook and was never seen again.

A short time before midnight on Thursday, the 31st May, an unusual glare of light was seen through the windows of the little shop that was occupied by Cook during the day. A crowd soon collected and watched the glare for a time. Then, fearful that the workshop, which was packed in among other old buildings and sheds, should be on fire, they forced open the door and the boldest entered. The stench of burning which met them was almost overpowering, but they soon discovered that the flames were confined to a wide, open fireplace upon which, supported by iron bars, was a huge mass of something sending forth volumes of smoke, most of which was unable to find its way up the chimney.

In a few minutes they had beaten out the fire and discovered that the charred mass was a huge piece of flesh - horseflesh, so they imagined. Some of the neighbours, who had run to Cook's house when the glare was first seen, soon returned with the bookbinder. He arrived in a very agitated condition - which was perhaps natural under such circumstances - and explained that he had purchased some stale meat for his dog that day, but finding that it was too rank for the animal to eat he had decided to burn it, not knowing what else to do with it. Before leaving that night he had made up a very big fire in the hope that it would be consumed by the morning, but he assured his neighbours that he had no idea that the fire would burn so vigorously and cause such consternation.

This explanation seemed to satisfy most of his listeners, who departed to their beds. A few of them, however, hesitated to accept Cook's story. They wondered why he - a poor craftsman -should waste so much fuel on a piece of bad meat when he might easily have thrown it on one of the many rubbish dumps between his shop and his home. After a long argument the Town Constable was fetched. He seemed satisfied with Cook's story and hesitated as to the propriety of taking him into custody, and when Cook's father arrived, and agreed that he would be responsible for his son's appearance later in the morning, the constable locked up the shop and allowed them to go.

On the Friday morning Cook failed to make his appearance, and it was soon discovered that he had left his home some hours before. The matter being reported to the Town Clerk, Mr. Macaulay, a surgeon, was sent with the constable to Cook's shop and in a very few moments he was convinced that the remains of the charred flesh were part of a human body. A search in the ashes revealed parts of a man's clothing. A pencil case and snuff box bearing the initials of Mr. Paas were found in the shop, and halfway up the chimney was discovered another part of that unfortunate gentleman's body, which appeared to have been cut and sawn asunder.

A description of Cook was immediately sent post haste to surrounding towns, and a special watch was kept at Liverpool, as he had been heard to say on the previous day that he intended to sail for America before very long.

The inquest revealed that as early as one o'clock in the morning of Thursday Cook had been seen in his shop, and that he had assigned as a motive for his unusual industry that he was desirous of finishing a special order. Later in the morning he was seen on his knees washing the floor. The lad who worked with him and who was 'on liking as an apprentice' explained that he had been given an unexpected holiday after Mr. Paas's first visit on the Wednesday, and complained also that his wages were not paid regularly. Another witness gave evidence that he had watched Cook playing skittles in an adjoining public house at a late hour on Thursday. Between his turns with the bowls he had been seen to cast enquiring glances in the direction of his shop window, as though expecting a visitor. When he paid his reckoning he had displayed a considerable quantity of gold in a green silk purse.

From the appearance of the scorched and mutilated remains it seemed that, after dispatching his victim from behind with an iron press found showing traces of the crime - the murderer had divided the body into parts, but finding that it would not burn readily had made up a huge fire with reckless determination to effect his purpose even though the premises might be destroyed in the attempt.

There was little chance for such a clumsy murderer to escape. Every coach or vehicle arriving at the surrounding towns was searched, and messengers were set to watch the seaports, with instructions to watch all outward bound vessels.

He did, however, succeed in evading the law for nearly a month, but was eventually taken, on board a packet bound for America. They brought him back in irons to Leicester by the same Red Rover coach in which his victim had travelled. At his trial Cook put forward the evidence that Paas had demanded the money due to him; after a heated argument there had been a scuffle during which Paas had tripped and struck his head. Later, however he confessed that he had carefully planned the whole affair, and that at an appropriate moment he had struck his unfortunate victim with the press pin and then beaten in his head with the hammer.

Reprinted from: The 'Printing Review' Spring, 1932.


Skin Deep - Volume 21 - Spring 2006

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