The Crime Readers' Association

Angela Buckley – Skeletons in the Closet

27th May 2015

Inspiration for writing about crime takes many forms and, for me, it was my own family history that first drew me into the nineteenth century underworld. All families have skeletons in their genealogical closets and finding a criminal ancestor can add colour and drama to a family tree. As family history research has gained in popularity as a hobby, it has led to many published accounts of true crime, as well as detective fiction.

Not many families harbour serial killers in their past but many, like mine, have an abundance of petty criminals. In the nineteenth century, my family were ordinary working people: agricultural labourers, miners and railway workers. They were generally poor and existed on the breadline, with some experiencing frequent spells in the workhouse. My first ever published piece – a letter to a magazine – was about my visit to a paupers’ graveyard, where three generations of my family were buried. My ancestors were so desperate that many of them turned to crime: theft, poaching and trespass, with occasional drunken and disorderly behaviour. By the mid-1800s my rural family were struggling so much in the changing agricultural landscape that they were forced to migrate to the town. A century later, I was born in Manchester and it was when I was researching my roots in my home city that I uncovered some more serious crimes and, to my surprise, ended up writing my first book about a law-enforcer.

My ancestors migrated to Manchester to work in factories and textiles mills. Some had re-located from Wiltshire and Hertfordshire, and one branch had even travelled from Italy. My 2x great-grandparents, Michele and Maria Coppola left the sunny fields of the Comino Valley for the grey, damp streets of Ancoats, in the centre of Manchester. Whilst I was studying their lively expatriate community, I came across a local celebrity, Detective Inspector Jerome Caminada, also of Italian heritage. I followed him into the dark streets of the Victorian underworld and soon encountered nefarious criminals of all kinds – violent thieves, clever con artists and nimble pickpockets. I learned about forgery, street fighting and sophisticated scams. My research reached full circle when I traced my 3x great-grandfather who kept a ‘house of infamous notoriety’ in the rookeries at the heart of the city. In a startling coincidence his house of ill repute was on the beat of young PC Caminada.

Family history research also played a valuable role in the reconstruction of Detective Caminada’s background, for writing his biography. Although he published his memoirs, they were work histories with little reference to his family, so I was able to use family history data, such as vital records – birth, marriage and death certificates – and censuses, to find out about his personal life. The truth was harsh: Jerome Caminada had grown up in one of the city’s most disreputable districts amid grinding poverty. As a child, he had experienced the loss of his father and four of his siblings due to illnesses that would cast a shadow over his own children. Despite his precarious childhood, he overcame the odds and joined the Manchester City police force, at the age of 23.

Detective Caminada rose through the ranks to the position of superintendent. A master of disguise and an expert in deduction, he solved the Manchester Cab Mystery in record time, and faced his arch-enemy, a ruthless thief, in a deadly confrontation. He tackled charlatans, burglars, Fenian suspects, child murderers and even infiltrated a cross dressing ball. At the end of his dazzling career, he was celebrated as one of the city’s finest ever detectives and a real-life Sherlock Holmes.

If you are a fan of true crime, then there is no place better to look for nefarious acts and scandalous secrets than your own family. There are many resources available online, and in archives and libraries, for you to conduct your own investigations. Newspaper archives can provide graphic details of misdemeanours. Other resources, such as trial records, prison registers and transportation lists all help to piece together the life of a law-breaking ancestor. There may be skeletons lurking in your family closet, just waiting to be discovered, and you might even stumble across a real-life murderer…



Angela Buckley writes about Victorian crime and her work has featured in a wide range of publications, including All About History magazine, the Sunday Express and Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine. She is a regular guest blogger. Her first book, The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada (Pen & Sword Books) was inspired by her home city of Manchester and its colourful past. She has shared stories from Detective Caminada’s casebook in national magazines and newspapers, at literary festivals and on radio and television. A passionate family historian, Angela is chair of the Society of Genealogists.


Angela’s blog, Victorian Supersleuth, at is dedicated to her investigations into 19th century crime.






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