Benjamin Thomas Oswell

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Deputy Chief Constable Benjamin Thomas Oswell

Used by the Casebook Wiki with the kind permission of John Oswell. The following is an article from the Staffordshire Chronicle circa 1892 published as a tribute to the career of Deputy Chief Constable Benjamin Thomas Oswell upon his retirement. The article contains detail of the arrest of Ostrog/Orloff and his delivery back south for his robberies at Eton and Windsor

A Desperate Criminal. Was he Jack the Ripper?

One day in eighteen hundred and seventy-three: just before leaving Burton-on-Trent, Superintendent Oswell came across perhaps the most notable criminal with whom he was concerned in the course of his most memorable career.

To begin at the beginning, there appeared in the royal borough of Windsor in that year a personage of high distinction, a foreign gentleman of the name of Orloff, a count of Poland, and kin to the royal house of that unfortunate country. The count became quite a figure in local society of the most gilt-edged character. He chummed with several of the masters of Eton college: who were overwhelmed by his air of distinction, his learning, his scientific knowledge, and his high descent, while he became an honoured guest at the officers' mess of the life guards garrisoning the castle. It was all by accident that the Prince of Wales himself did not turn up one evening to meet the distinguished visitor.

By a strange coincidence it happened just about this time that a number of valuable articles went missing from the mess-room, and the life guard officers, in the innocence of their hearts, applied to the local police for assistance. The police in a casual way inquired about the descendant of the Polish kings. The hotel he occupied was of a retiring character, where the foreign philosopher could meditate in peace, apart from the giddy throng of fashion. Moreover, he was not over-burdened with luggage. Casually, the landlord mentioned to his guest the visit of the police. Next morning the guest had vanished, leaving, in discharge of his bill, a portmanteau containing a useful assortment of brick ends and wastes paper. Curiously, indeed, some articles belonging to the landlord had also disappeared. The police inquired further; the Eton masters began to look about them. One had missed a valuable piece of plate, another a pet knick- knick. Everyone had lost something - and all had lost the count. Some of the things were found pledged in London but while the police were searching there, a gentleman of irreproachable demeanour and with a foreign accent took lodgings at Datchet only a few miles from Windsor. The gentleman possessed scientific acquirements of no mean order, which it was his fortune to place one day at the service of an elderly maiden lady of botanical tastes whom he chanced to meet escorting a younger beauty for a walk. The maiden lady was charmed by the irreproachable politeness and the evident good-breeding of the foreign gentleman, who worked the oracle so well that he would have been married within a week if the curious history from Windsor had not got into the papers. The foreign gentleman suddenly retired from the scene without leaving his address with his prospective bride, who, one may hope, soon got over the loss. When these facts came to light, the search for the Polish gentleman of high degree was taken up in London with renewed determination. The Metropolitan Police thought they had a clue, and, in pursuance thereof, they visited the house of a certain doctor who was believed to be a friend of a convict whom the police had identified in their own minds with the Count. The convict had just served his third term of penal servitude, and the attention of the police had been called to the fact that he had neglected to report himself in accordance with the terms of his ticket of leave. It was abundantly clear that within six weeks of the time Count Orloff" had been hob-nobbing with the swelldom of Windsor, he had been occupying a humble position in Chatham convict prison. Just for formality's sake, the landlord of the Windsor hostelry went with the officer who visited the doctor in question, and almost the first thing they saw in the hall, in his umbrella stand and on his pegs, were some of the missing articles belonging to the landlord. The doctor came to his visitors, who inquired for their friend. The gentleman was not down yet; he should be called. Five minutes passed - then ten. The visitors were anxious to go; the doctor was fetched again. Oh the gentleman upstairs? Yes, he had gone out, but he would be back soon. This very blandly from the master of the house. The police were in agonies of rage; while they had been watching the front door, that none should escape therefrom, their man had climbed on to the roof, made his way into the next house, and escaped from that front door, effectually preventing a servant girl, who met him on the stairs, from raising an alarm, by presenting a revolver at her. Twice did something like this happen, for when, never slackening the pursuit, the detectives ran him to earth again, the ex-convict aristocrat pointed two revolvers at the astonished officers, passed through them. And again escaped.

Now it was on a Saturday in October, eighteen hundred and seventy-three, that a very nice-mannered gentleman with "furrin style about him, came into the Fox and Goose public-house, at Burton, and took a bedroom. He was a Swede, it seemed, and had come to see the British breweries, after doing which he proposed to return to his native land. The Swedish gentleman took his room at the Fox and Goose for two nights, and on the Saturday, going in and out among the people, his appearance and gentlemanly demeanor excited some little curiosity among the customers. It was on the Sunday that a local tradesman picked up a London paper and read an account of all the marvelous things that had happened at Windsor, at Datchet, and to the police in London. There was a description of the fellow in it. Curious! How like the Swedish gentleman at the Fox and Goose! The landlady saw the paper too. The description was life-like. He must be the man. Would someone tell the police? No, no one would meddle in such delicate matters. Eventually the landlady herself had to send the message. The news was interesting to Superintendent Oswell, who had just seen a similar description of the same man in the police gazette." the fellow would be a great catch - if it were he. If? He would come and see. This was on the Sunday morning, and superintendent Oswell, modestly attired in plain Clothes, walked down to the Fox and Goose. The foreign Gentleman, however, had not yet put in an appearance. Dinner was to be ready at half-past twelve. The hour arrived, also the dinner, but not the man. No, he would not come down until the house was closed. The superintendent waited, and when the gentleman from Sweden, who was so much interested in breweries, at last put in an appearance in the little parlour, he found a friend of the family sitting there, reading a newspaper. The gentleman apologised for the intrusion. Compliments passed between the polite Swede and the good-humoured, chatty Englishman. Monsieur the Englishman knew so much of the world. The conversation was soon animated. A little market of anecdote and reminiscence was transacted. But the gentleman eating his dinner on the far side of the table didn't smile. That was a nuisance, because he certainly answered the description of the ingenious gentleman in Windsor and London, save only for a cut on the left cheek, near the eye, which the Police Gazette particularised. Conversation went on till somehow a joke was introduced from the native quarter of the room. In a moment it was capped with another. A smile spread from the Swede's eyes to his lips, and the creasing skin around the eyelids revealed the scar of an old deep gash on the right side. The task of identification was complete. The Gazette had made a trifling error, which had luckily done no harm. The English police officer's heart beat high; but his outward demeanor revealed nothing of what was passing in his mind: for he had to do with a criminal whose desperation had become almost proverbial. The conversation proceeded gently as between philosophers and men of the world; the dinner underwent the pleasing process of assimilation. Presently the Englishman rose. With his daily paper in his hand and, standing beside his half-hour acquaintance pointed, half jokingly, to the curious history it contained. In an instant the demeanor of the foreigner was changed. "What do you mean by insulting me?" I won't look at it, I won't read it. I am not to be insulted, you insolent Englishman. the Englishman smiled gently. "perhaps you will read this, then?" this was the Police Gazette. "No, Ii will not - who are you? ."I am a police officer - ah, would you"? The delicate hand of the foreign ticket-of-leave man was stealing softly, softly down, to the side pocket where reposed a deadly little revolver ready for emergencies like this, but the policeman's keen eyes had caught the stealthy movement, and, in an instant, a body blow "in the wind," as the fancy" call it, had effectually disabled his adversary. Now to get him to the station. He would go to get his boots - he wouldn't. He wasn't going to walk to the police station; a gentleman to walk with a policeman - never. He would perish first. Besides, why go to the station at all? If he went he had proof enough of his innocence to ruin the policeman for life. But he was not vengeful by any means. He would have pity on the youth of the officer: where zeal had so far outrun his discretion, and would let bygones be bygones if he were released. The if was no good. The officer didn't want any pity; he wanted his prisoner to get into the cab outside the door: but this the prisoner was by no means inclined to do, and it took the superintendent and the two or three men he had put to watch the house: to force the prisoner in. By the time Burton Police Office was reached, the Swedish gentleman had regained his native politeness. He could not think of leaving the cab first. His young friend the officer: must precede him, nor indeed was it until superintendent Oswell had indicated very plainly his disinclination either to lose his prisoner through the other door of the cab, or to be shot in the back, that he consented to alight between two officers of the law. Even as he did so, he made one desperate attempt to escape. Giving a mighty leap into the air, which tore his arms free on either side of him, he clapped his hands to the weapon in his pocket - and was knocked flat, before he could use it, with a mighty blow from a heavy cell key which the Superintendent had in readiness for just such an event. Then the demon in the man came out. He fought, he struggled; he bit the police as they carried him into the office; he made a rush for the cutlasses which hung upon the walls he raged and tore so that it took several men to hold him, and then some of them were injured. He was put into a cell with an Irishman who had kicked his wife to death's door, and the unfortunate Celt was rapidly reduced to a state of abject terror by the very demeanour of this wild beast of a foreigner, who went flashing and raging around the narrow cell. So terrible a prisoner it has fallen to few men to deal with; probably most members of the force would prefer to be denied that chance. Next day the Swedish brewer, or polish count, was conveyed to Slough by his captor, but of his own will he declined to move an inch towards his destination. He had to be dragged from the cell to the cab from the cab to the railway carriage; from the carriage to the waiting-room. Two Jewish gentlemen traveled in the same coach. The prisoner, speaking in French, appealed to them to rescue him. He probably expected that his undesirable companion in uniform was unacquainted with that useful tongue, and perhaps the Jews were equally surprised when the officer, addressing them in English, pulled out a revolver and said, "This man tried to shoot me with this yesterday. If you lift a finger to help him I'll shoot you. the Jewish gentlemen were humble and apologetic, and no rescue was attempted. At Moor Street PoliceStation, Birmingham, the prisoner was shown his own portrait, taken on his release from gaol he declined to acknowledge it, and he declined to move still. His dogged resistance continued till he got to Slough, but, when met by the Slough police, he dropped his head. When the superintendent from Staffordshire warned the authorities at Windsor of the bargain they had got, they were inclined to be sceptical. They smiled in a superior way and talked of country ignorance, and of their own up-to date acquaintance with the wiles of the metropolitan criminal. That night Count Orloff tried to drown himself in a bucket of water, and was barely prevented from doing so, fighting a constable and superintendent in charge of the office with great determination. Eventually he came before the magistrates, and the sight of Count Orloff in the dock was one which brought crowds to the courthouse, the Eton boys themselves taking French leave from school in order to climb to the window sills outside, and see the show. Superintendent Oswell was the hero of the hour, and was right royally treated by all and sundry in the royal town who had suffered from the cunning of his prisoner. As for the Count he went for trial, but not without making one desperate bid for liberty. Locked in his cell one day, he called upon the solitary officer in charge for a bucket of water. The unsuspecting bobby who must have been an apprentice at the trade, unlocked the door, to be half blinded with the pail, which was instantly jammed in his face. A terrible struggle ensued, and the prisoner, who was sentenced to ten years penal servitude at the forthcoming Aylesbury quarter sessions, must be admitted to have got plenty of fun for his money. The history of this celebrated criminal is one of the most romantic stories which have ever found their way into print. It is true enough that he was a Pole. After being educated at home, he received a training as a surgeon at the great Russian College of Kherson on the Black Sea. He joined the Russian navy in due course, but deserted, and is next heard of at Heidelberg: whence: having killed his adversary in a duel, he fled to England. At Bedford, in eighteen hundred and fifty- two, he was sent to jail for fraud, and from that time almost up to the present he has been one of the best known criminals in England. His medical skill always stood him in good stead. In the convict prisons he found favour with the surgeons, whom he was always able to help; and when he came out of gaol he rendered assistance to a certain class of practitioners who laboured among the lowest classes of the east end slums. Since suffering for the Windsor frauds he has undergone another term of imprisonment, in the course of which it was found necessary to remove him to a convict lunatic asylum. The very week of his discharge the "Jack the Ripper murders commenced in Whitechapel, among the very class of women whom the gentlemanly scion of Polish Kings had been wont to assist with his surgical art, and he, for his part, has never been heard of since in the annals of crime. The coincidence is peculiar. It is difficult to forget that foul and loathsome series of crimes was distinguished by the deftness, the care, the scientific neatness with which they were accomplished, and that a maniac surgeon has always been the theory of those who best know the case. Probably the awful mystery will never be cleared up, but who can wonder if Colonel Oswell, and the Metropolitan Police as well feel that perhaps in their queer prisoner of eighteen hundred and seventy-three, the clue, should he still exist, might be found! [1]


  1. Staffordshire Chronicle circa 1892