Chapter 17

Toplis now became the property of Fleet Street. The News of the World and the People ran features. Although ignorant of the real Toplis story, they gave extensive coverage to that part of his background of which they were aware. But even their stories paled beside the inventiveness of a ‘special investigator’ for the World’s Pictorial News, a Hulton paper of the day.

Toplis had been an anarchist, the ring-leader of a Free Love Club in the East End of London. The paper knew of six girls he had seduced, ‘some from the higher middle classes and some who were lowly born’. Gallantly, the World’s Pictorial News withheld their names. But alongside their other main feature, ‘My Life as Vampire Queen’ by Theda Bara, they regaled ‘their readers with the full story of ‘the daring adventures of Percy Toplis with a beautiful young motorist’. In the one article it skilfully enshrined every iniquity known to 1920s journalism.

How Toplis Eloped with Pretty Motorist

The daring adventures of Percy Toplis with a beautiful young motorist, whom he persuaded to elope with him – an exploit which had a dramatic ending – is here described by a World’s Pictorial News special investigator. It is one of the outstanding incidents in his amazing career.

Fake Telegram That Nearly Ended His Career

Among the women who fell victim to the fascination of Toplis was a young, beautiful, and well-to-do lady. She met the arch-deceiver quite accidentally, and was at once impressed by his manner and the plausible story he told with a ready tongue and unblushing assurance.

The woman’s motor car broke down on the outskirts of Putney Common. She knew little about the mechanism of the car and was almost in despair when a stranger who was passing jumped off his bicycle and proffered his help. He was successful, and the grateful woman asked the man for his name.

He was ready enough with a reply.

‘I am a Captain in the army,’ he said, ‘and at home on leave. My name is Williams. I am not at present in uniform as I have special permission to wear civilian attire. It is much more convenient and prevents one being pestered by having to return salutes. That is one of the nuisances of being an officer, don’t you know?’

‘Thankful for the help she had received, and pleased by the man’s apparent modesty, Miss H- invited the bogus captain to call on her -an invitation that was immediately accepted.

Miss H- lived in a large house in the near vicinity, and there the adventurer made his way on the following day. He had effected some changes in his appearance, however. He was now in the uniform of a captain, and wore across his left breast the ribbons of decorations he had never won. He effected a detached and inconsequential air, spoke with a Varsity draw!’, and still more deeply impressed his hostess.

Had she but known, the very bicycle from which he descended to render first aid to Miss H-‘s motor car was stolen. It was traced afterwards to a second-hand dealer who gave a description of the man from whom he had bought it.

He was Toplis.

The tales Miss H-‘s guest told of his prowess on the field were such as would have put the Baron Munchausen – the world’s champion liar – to the blush. Yet he was clever enough to appear to make light of his achievements.

‘It was nothing – only duty, you know,’ he would say with a wave of his arm.

He spoke of his wealthy friends, and told an extraordinary story of his relations with his ‘people’.

‘My father was a soldier – an officer, killed in a little skirmish on the frontier,’ he would say. ‘Received a posthumous Victoria Cross. Sad for the dear old mater and for my sister, who married quite beneath the family traditions – business man with money, don’t you know?’

Miss H- introduced her hero to a great many of her friends. She was proud of him, and, indeed, as they walked along Bond Street people would turn round to look at them. Miss H- declared that the notice they attracted became positively embarrassing.

I daresay that you will already have gathered that Toplis – like all criminals of his type – was extremely vain. It was one of his ambitions to ‘cut a dash’ and to appear as a ‘squire of dames’. He never tired of boasting of his power over women. He professed to hold them in contempt, while all the time he was doing everything in his power to fascinate them, and to bring about their ruin.

At one time, indeed, he was a prominent member of a secret and infamous organization, which met in the East End of London, and which called itself a club. The declared objects of the group were to destroy the very foundations of ordered life and government, and to set loose the wildest and most violent of human passions.

One of the avowed objects of this gang of miscreants was the destruction of the marriage laws. They openly avowed the Profession of Free Love. They even set about the degradation of women and initiated unspeakable orgies, at most of which Toplis was present, and was one of the leading spirits.

The club, happily, did not have a long existence. It was discovered by a lynx-eyed detective, who was trying to find the whereabouts of a missing girl. She was actually traced to a house which was used by this vicious brotherhood. The girl was over the age which entitles her to the protection of the law, and – evidently under the influence of Toplis and his friends – she refused to forsake the evil course on which she had entered. But the police officer saw to it that the scandalous combination of rascals was broken up for ever.

It was perhaps as well that no prosecution followed. Many names of people who had fallen victims to the intrigues of the degenerate must have been dragged into the light, and the divorce courts would have had an even larger list than ever.

T have before me as I write a report supplied by the man who was directly responsible for the raid that followed the discovery of the existence of this place of infamy.

It was the avowed intention of the desperadoes to make the world unfit to live in. Laws were to be defiled and society outraged.

Perhaps the worst feature of the whole business was the fact that women were to be decoyed away and subjected to all manner of indignities. They were to receive treatment worse than could have been conceived by even the most pessimistic of mortals. They were to be positive slaves – and worse.

Strangely enough, Toplis was then passing under his own name. He is known by that name in certain quarters of the East End to this day have broken away from the main narrative with the object of throwing the lurid light of fact upon the character and disposition of this terrible personality. Some people still regard him as a hero. He was in reality no more a hero than Charles Peace or Jackson the convict in Strangeways Jail, who murdered a warder, scaled the prison walls in broad daylight and remained at large till he was captured near the prison.

Like Toplis, this man lived by theft during the time he was at large, haunted public houses, where he treated everyone who would accept his hospitality and talked loudly about the exploits of the murderer, discussing the probability of his recapture. But I must return to the association of Toplis and Miss H-. As I have pointed out, the woman spent a good deal of time in the company of the gallant ‘Captain Williams’.

In accordance with his usual practice Toplis made love to the lady. He suggested that they should go on a motor trip to the coast, stay there over the weekend, and afterwards get married by special licence. It was all very rapid, of course, but this ‘Captain’ had plenty of excuses to make, and was secretly delighted when he discovered the impression he had ide,

‘Nothing was said concerning the arrangement to the girl’s friends. That was a stipulation the masquerading Captain made. Miss H- gave out that she was going on a visit to some acquaintances and she joined Toplis at Richmond, where he had a car he had procured by using a bogus cheque.

He also had some money he had procured in the same fashion.

First they discussed the destination to which they should drive. Toplis must certainly have been pleased when his companion suggested a spot that was quiet and secluded. The girl was happy and trustful. The Don Juan had won her regard and had probably made use of that hypnotic power of which he boasted.

One wonders what the unhappy girl would have thought had she even guessed that the man who was riding at her side on that glorious Thursday afternoon was a thorough-paced scoundrel, an ex-convict who had done two years’ hard Jabour for a savage and unspeakably wicked assault upon an inoffensive young man and who was even at that moment a deserter from the Army. No glimmer of the terrible truth passed into her mind as, radiant, beautiful, full of hope for the future, and of trust in the man by her side, she rode along the country roads.

It was at the suggestion of Toplis that the car was driven to Seaford and Toplis, posing as Captain Williams, drew up outside a hotel. He waved a hand to the chauffeur and told him to put the car up at some garage in the neighbourhood. They did not stay at the hotel. Toplis took rooms at a boarding-house. The next day he broke the news to his companion that he had dropped a wallet which contained not only his money but some cheque forms of a well-known military bank.

Toplis received what must have been to him something of a shock. Miss H- had very little money with her. The resourceful scoundrel, however, was not long before he thought he could see a way out of the dilemma. She must send a wire explaining that she needed money. ‘Don’t tell them that you are with me. They need not know that ‘til after the marriage ceremony,’ said Toplis. Toplis’s heart must have been in his mouth when the reply came. His spirits must have sunk to zero when he glanced at the contents. Instead of the well known pink slip indicating that money had been sent there was the buff of an ordinary message.

‘Read it’ said Miss H-. ‘My brother is coming here by the earliest possible train.’ I expect at that moment there was no more uncomfortable man in existence than Toplis, The last person he wished to meet was an officer and a gentleman – especially when he happened to be the brother of a woman he had deceived.

What followed indicates the absolutely guileless nature of the girl. Toplis suggested that she should remove some of her jewellery, leaving it in his care. Miss H- fell into the trap. She took off a heavy bracelet, three rings – one of which was set with a glorious diamond – and a wristlet watch. Toplis gathered all the jewellery into his pockets, gave the girl a kiss and left her. Nor did she hear of him again ‘til she saw his photograph and read of his exploits in the newspapers.

This article ended with the note ‘More revelations of Toplis’s secret life next week’. And, as a matter of fact, the week after that as well. Toplis had knocked even Theda Bara off the front Page.

The memory of Toplis held by his niece, Mrs Phyllis Kerry, who continues to live at Blackwell, is in sharp contrast to the sensational accounts of the World’s Pictorial News. She remembers him as a loving uncle who constantly bestowed generous gifts upon members of his family, especially at Christmas.