The history and remarkable successes of this bold forger render his name well worthy a place in our list of criminals.
It appears that he was most respectably connected, and that he had the advantage of a good education and much general acquaintance with the world. He served his apprenticeship with Messrs. Cowley and Sancton, in Cateaton-street, and he remained in the employment of those gentlemen until about six or seven years before his execution, when he went into business jointly with a Mr. Henry, under the firm of Henry and Peele, in Mark-lane. He soon availed himself of the opportunities which his new condition presented to him, and began to send forgeries round the country. He succeeded to an amazing extent; but his father, whose fortune had been some time sinking under the extravagance of this profligate, ascertained the extent of the plunder, paid all the bills, and in the hope that his son was still corrigible, sent him to America and the West Indies, and supplied him with the means of obtaining a comfortable livelihood. From the inquiries which were made before his apprehension, it was ascertained, beyond all doubt, that for two years he had subsisted in a most dashing and extravagant style by forgeries alone; he fancied detection was impossible, and he used to say, with a laugh, to a prostitute who was the companion of his pleasures, that there was not a county in England in which he had not "left his mark." He had assumed the name of George Watson, and travelled sometimes in a handsome stanhope, and at other times in an elegant double-bodied phaeton, accompanied by a female whom he had picked up at Portsmouth, and used to call Mrs. Watson, and to whom he had at first represented himself as a man possessed of immense wealth in America and the West Indies. He ingeniously drew and circulated as foreign, bills, most of which he forged, and dated them as either from the East India Islands, or some part of the United States of America; so that he not only evaded the stamp-duties, but totally destroyed one clue to a discovery which might have taken place, had he been obliged to purchase stamps at each place where he found it convenient or necessary to raise money.
It may appear singular how Peele could so long and so successfully, under any circumstances, have proceeded in this course without impediment; but the surprise will abate when it is mentioned that he always had hundreds of blank bills about him, and that he very seldom issued any for a large amount; so that the sufferers preferred the course of leaving him to take his "dangerous chance," to the expensive and unprofitable labour of bringing him to justice. When, at length, at the instance of the committee of bankers associated for mutual protection against forgery, the police followed him through England, they found that in almost every place of any consequence at which they inquired about him, he had "left his mark" upon the bankers or the innkeepers, or both.
The circumstances which led to the prosecution which succeeded against him are remarkable.-- In the latter end of May 1825, Peele visited Tunbridge Wells, and presenting himself at the banking-house of Messrs. Beeching and Son, he said he had taken a house at the Wells for five months, and wished to know whether they had any objection to open an account for him during that period. They consented, and he presented two bills of exchange for 30l. and 35l. purporting to be accepted by Coutts and Co. in London. The bills were immediately discounted by Messrs. Beeching, through their clerk, and Peele endorsed the name "George Watson" upon them, and received the amount in cash. As a further inducement to Messrs. Beeching and Son to open an account with him, and to give colour to his practices, he gave to them a deposit-note of the Carlisle bank in his favour for 275l. 11s. 6d., which he wished them to present to that bank through Masterman and Co., who were their London agents as well as the agents of the Carlisle bank. The deposit-note was accordingly sent down to Messrs. Connell and Co, at Carlisle; but they in due course apprised Messrs. Masterman that it had been obtained from them for a bill of exchange, for which Peele had got besides a considerable sum of money, but which, on its maturity, was discovered to be a forgery.
It was wondered how the prisoner could get acquainted with the signatures and mode of business of the different parties whose names he used; but, upon inquiry, it was found that he had invariably presented himself to the notice of the bankers in the places where he negotiated the bills, by taking to them bank-notes, and getting in exchange bills on some London house; and he took care to select those bills which had many names upon them, the whole of which he would immediately copy in twenty different ways on various bills, and having done so, he would take the genuine bills, and others of his own manufacture, to the banking house, where the good bills never failed to be a passport to those which were spurious. Thus he sometimes made the genuine paper subservient to his plans of passing off counterfeit, and sometimes the latter, as in the case of the Carlisle Bank, subservient to the procuring of genuine bills, and both with uninterrupted success. In addition to the bills on Connell and Co., Peele also deposited with Messrs. Beeching two other bills,-- one for 30l., purporting to be drawn by Alexander and James Liddell, of Dundee, and accepted by Messrs. Robinson and Brown, of Glasgow; and the other for 81l. 11s. 0d. dated Antigua, 5th of February; and purporting to be drawn by Nathaniel Underwood, upon and accepted by Messrs. J. Bell and sons, of Leith, His professed object in this deposit, was merely that the bills should be in safe custody, but he contrived to get upon them an advance of 20l., for which he drew a check in his assumed name of "George Watson," and on their arriving at maturity, it was ascertained that no one of the persons mentioned in them had any existence, except in the brain of the prisoner. Having succeeded in realising so much cash, however, he thought it high time to decamp; and accompanied by his woman, he drove to London, by Maidstone and Rochester. At the former place he put up at Widdish's hotel, and succeeded in getting cash for a check for 20l., on Messrs. Beeching and Son, by whom it was afterwards paid, on the faith of the securities which had been left with them. A day or two after his departure, however, the note was returned from Carlisle, and it was discovered that the whole of the bills and securities were forgeries. Instant search was then made for Peele, but he flew from place to place. At length Mr. Gates, the solicitor to the Bankers' Committee, received intelligence that he was at Newark, in Nottinghamshire, and started from London, attended by an officer, for that place.
Adversity had already begun its work with the wretched man. A Derbyshire publican, upon whom he had passed a forged bill, spied him at his wine, and never left him till his body was under lock and key in Derby jail. Peele was committed for trial for uttering this bill, which was for 45l., and Mr. Gates went to Derby prepared to lodge detainers against him, or have him taken into custody, in the event of an acquittal there; but on his arrival at Derby, he found that it was Peele's intention to plead guilty to the charge of uttering the bill; that the prosecutor would, in all probability, be paid his debt as an inducement to join in a recommendation of the prisoner to mercy, and that Peele might escape if the remaining charges against him were permitted to sleep.
He, therefore, applied to the Lord Chief Baron, who was in commission at Derby, to have the prisoner removed to Maidstone, previously to his trial at Derby, and under the circumstances of so many charges existing in Kent, and after consultation as to the most eligible course, it was arranged that no bill should be preferred at Derby, but that upon Peele's discharge by proclamation, he should be handed over to a police officer in attendance, with a warrant from Sir Richard Birnie. This was done, and Peele was committed to Maidstone jail.
At the ensuing assizes, he was indicted for the forgeries upon Messrs. Beeching, and a verdict of Guilty having been returned, he was sentenced to death.
On the 26th of January 1827, the sentence was carried out upon the unhappy man, at Pennenden Heath, near Maidstone. Up to within a short time of his death, he is reported to have entertained sanguine hopes of his life being saved, and he exhibited the utmost cheerfulness. As the day of execution approached, however, he became sensible of his situation, and applied himself strenuously to his religious duties.
He met his fate with becoming resignation, and his body was afterwards delivered over to his friends for interment.
Amongst his letters, which were found, in the possession of the woman with whom he lived, were the following, which are curious: --
"Brighton, Friday night, eight o'clock.
"My dear Martha -- Jane is now with me, and we have just left the Chain Pier, which runs with an alarming tremor at this moment into the sea. We are going to cast an eye at Cook, in the Monster, at the Circus. This monster is not a Caliban; it is a less delicate monster; it has no genius about it. I cannot leave this 'dearest chuck,' until to-morrow, mid-day; and I trust I shall twine my arms round you before five o'clock.
"Yours ever truly,
"My dear Martha -- By the failure in Liverpool I have lost 500l. Why, let it go. Be you happy, Martha. I have been some hundreds of miles since I saw thee; but what is travelling in labour or anxiety, compared to the fear that thou shalt suffer? No, no, Martha, never suspect that I can ever forget or forsake thee. My dear, dear girl, take care of thyself. Despair not; my exactions shall have thy image to give them pleasure and success.
"Thine for ever,
It appears from his letters, that he had moved with extraordinary rapidity from place to place. A variety of blank bills of exchange, ready for use, together with some bills partly filled up, and others with endorsements, were found upon the person of the unfortunate man at the time of his apprehension.