Home » Jack in the box – the infamous James Grey

Jack in the box – the infamous James Grey

Of all the crafty prisoners to pass through Spike Island, there were none craftier than Manchester’s James Grey. His clever crime went unnoticed for years and he lived a fine life between Ireland and England – but he would be undone one day by his own charity.

Born in 1828 in Manchester, Grey claimed he was a Dragoon, a member of the mounted cavalry, before taking a position in an insurance office in his early twenties. The office closed due to a lack of business and Grey witnessed a scramble by his frustrated colleagues for anything of value. He decided he would take part and filled with valuables a box so large, he had to use a cart to get it home, but it was scant compensation for the unemployed Grey.

James was keen for life to deliver on its promise and provide a fitting situation for a wife he adored. Sitting at home penniless and bored, James wondered how he could kick start his success. Staring at his box of pilfered office valuables, which contained little of real value, he daydreamed of it being filled with items of real worth. As he pondered, an idea came to James Grey, one that involved the stolen box. Fanciful and impractical as his idea was, he did not let its unorthodox and risky nature deter him. James Grey got to work.

He began to alter his trunk-sized box and convert it into a convincing-looking luggage box, the type commonly used to transport goods across the country. After painstaking effort, it looked identical to the luggage loaded into the compartments of trains criss-crossing the countryside. Such steamer trunks were also seen on the great liners that plied the world’s oceans. But James had not conceived his box to transport valuables or personal goods, for he had none. Nor was he seeking great rail or ocean journeys. Instead, he had crafted his secret trunk so that he could climb inside and get close to other people’s belongings.

James had rigged his box with a clever mix of springs and hinges, which allowed it to be opened from the inside. It had an internal space he could climb inside and hide, safely concealed for a journey. To even an interested viewer, the box was designed to look completely normal, like any other piece of luggage. Inside, it was a Pandora’s box he could open and exit when it suited him best.

He worked on the design day and night until it was perfected, concealing his work from his wife for fear of awkward questions. He placed ‘This way up’ signs to avoid becoming trapped inside. He also recruited an accomplice happy to take a cut of any booty from his daring plan for posting him on his way. With all arrangements made, he made his first trip.

James told his wife of a new work venture involving travel and time away. He kissed her goodbye and left with his luggage trunk, heading in the direction of the train station. Had his wife tried to lift his sizable trunk, she would have found it surprisingly lightweight. James did not go directly to the station, instead meeting his accomplice at a nearby location. At a prearranged place he climbed inside his trunk, as his friend attached the relevant destination information.

His accomplice took the luggage to the station, checked in his weighty trunk and checked himself in for a trip across the Irish Sea. This started with a train journey to Liverpool. James Grey’s accomplice watched with a sly eye as the trunk was loaded into the train’s luggage compartment, relieved to see the doors locked with no suspicion.

On arrival the luggage was moved into a holding location to await the arrival of the ship. James Grey sprang into action. He worked the internal mechanism to trip the lock, relieved to hear it click and open. He emerged silently from his hiding place, grateful to stretch a sore body before creeping around in socks to minimise noise. When satisfied he was alone and no one was close by, he began inspecting the train’s post and carriage. Taking what he deemed most valuable, he returned to his hidden location with no one any the wiser.

The next day when the boat arrived, he was moved again into the ship’s hold and on to Ireland. The journey afforded him another opportunity to inspect the fresh luggage and post from other destinations. He could take what he deemed most likely to have value and items easily pawned or sold.

On arrival in Ireland, his accomplice checked him out and took the case to a preordained location. James emerged, victorious. The spoils were shared, and James Grey could reminisce on a startling success. Buoyed and motivated, he planned his next trip on what would become a regular endeavour. He varied his postal address from Cork to Belfast and Limerick, in an effort to remain unnoticed.

He refined his unusual transport, which was unpleasant at first, adding layers of boards covered with canvas for comfort. He began to carry a bottle of spirits to help numb the pain of rough crossings, and uncouth luggage handlers. High seas or bumpy train routes were a source of frustration, but whiskey and brandy a suitable tonic.

He considered all the ways in which his lucrative enterprise might be discovered and resolved not to draw attention. He avoided being greedy and obvious. Emptying a whole carriage, or taking an item that might be immediately missed at journey’s end, would only draw attention. If he could prolong the time to the discovery of the theft, he could increase the possible places it could have been taken, so spreading suspicion.

He became adept at identifying the smallest possible packages that might contain the highest value items. In this way, he could squeeze as many valuables into his box as possible. Some journeys were disappointing, other hauls more lucrative than he could have dreamed. His patience, planning and refinement led to increasing gains.

Finally, on one journey, James Grey hit the jackpot. He managed to steal solid silver plate valued at over £2,000, worth closer to £200,000 in today’s money. James was going up in the world, his venture becoming so successful he could afford a fine house in one of Manchester’s better districts. Here he doted on his beloved wife and held generous dinner parties for friends. He now had the money to keep lodgings in Ireland, so when he arrived with a haul, he could safely inspect the items.

His house grew grander and life more refined, but James did not forget the hard times that led to his endeavour. He was generous with his new-found income, even taking in unfortunates off the streets to rest from the elements. It was not to last for the crafty criminal, however, and in the end, it was his generosity that betrayed him.

While staying at his Irish lodgings, Grey had offered accommodation to a young man who had been kicked out of home by his father. One quiet afternoon reading the newspaper, suddenly Grey’s lodger dropped the newspaper he was reading and exited abruptly, mumbling something about needing to be somewhere. Suspicious, James went to review the paper. Seeing nothing of note at first, he then came across an article offering a reward for the return of rare and valuable shawls, items that had recently been stolen. Artist representations of the shawls adorned the page.

James Grey looked up and was horrified to see those very same shawls draped all over his living room. Having pilfered them from a train carriage, he had admired their quality. Rather than sell them immediately, he had spread them across his furniture while awaiting a sales opportunity. They hung guiltily off couches and armchairs, betraying his work. James was rumbled by his charity and an appreciation of the finer things in life.

He ran after his lodger but could not find him, praying he was simply shocked and had run off to avoid involvement. He was barely back home when the police came charging in. They immediately spotted the shawls which prompted a wider search of the property. James sat sweating, hearing the rumblings of the search knowing what was to come. Any minute they would chance upon his luggage trunk, closed for the moment in its upstairs location and hiding its interior mechanisms.

The police found his box and summoned him. They asked him to open it, suspecting it was used to store stolen items. James tried to distract them, desperately trying to turn their attention to something else, but it was no use. Spotting his deception and now convinced of the presence of more stolen goods, the police began to break into the box. As they did, springs and levers went flying in all directions. When they had popped the lid they stared in disbelief at Grey’s contraption. It took some working out to reveal the motive for such a device, but soon it was evident. The mystery of the train thefts was solved.

James Grey was sentenced to four years in prison and was recorded in Mountjoy Prison in 1856, his crime noted as felony, 100 shawls. He was transferred to Richmond Prison in May 1856, now with convictions for ‘Felony parcel fine pieces silk and plated steak dish’ among the offences suggesting James was subsequently pinned for further thefts following his discovery.

Before long James Grey set off by train once again, but this time he travelled in a very different box. The cell bars that stifled the view from the window of his penal transport became a familiar sight, and he arrived on Spike Island to serve the majority of his sentence.

On Spike Island he met Reverend Charles Gibson who relayed his story. Gibson described Grey as a ‘well looking man, with an eye as bright as a precious stone, but with a concentrated cunning as never I saw equalled. He was a good prisoner, and very kind to his fellow prisoners. He seldom got into trouble, once for constructing a little mill which was turned by a mouse. I thought it a pity to punish him for such a true and natural development of his own peculiar genius, but the rules must be obeyed. His genius was turned to account in binding our prison books which he did well and cheerfully.’

Grey seemed to cope well with his prison time but missed his wife terribly. From the stories of Grey relayed by Gibson, the reader could infer James Grey was a romantic with notions of grandeur. His crimes could be considered crimes of passion, commenced in the hope of providing his wife with a better life.

While on Spike Island, James asked the Reverend Gibson to assist him in obtaining a miniature of his wife, which was done via a fellow prison chaplain. Gibson said Grey was never without the talisman, and he gave Gibson his likeness in return. When asked by Gibson what he would do on his release, James replied, ‘Well sir, I think of going to America, to look for my wife.’

This suggests a sorry end to the tale, with Grey’s wife either leaving him over his unnecessary attempts to enrich her or emigrating to improve her lot. Gibson feared that the clearly talented mind of James Grey would not be able to resist turning toward such lucrative endeavour again when released: “‘I hope you never think of returning to your old trade, Jack.” “No, sir, with the help of God, I never will.’”

Jack in the box presented Gibson with a poem he had written about himself, the last lines of which are as follows, a fitting end to the tale of Spike Island’s craftiest criminal:

And now he’s in prison, and brought to his reason,

And kept under five or six locks.

The labour of Spike, which no one can like, Which will make him repent of his box.

From the book – Spike Island – the rebels, residents and crafty criminals of Ireland’s historic island, by John Crotty


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