School for Scoundrels

Andrew Cook describes how a chance encounter with Houdini had a profound impact on the methods of Britain’s leading First World War spymaster.

On November 1st, 1903, Superintendent William Melville, head of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, mysteriously resigned with immediate effect. No reason was given publicly for his sudden departure.

The following day, The Times reported: ‘Superintendent Melville has resigned his position after thirty years service in the Metropolitan Police Force. The resignation will deprive Scotland Yard of the services of the most celebrated detective of the day’. Speculation was rife about Melville’s sudden retirement. Had he made too many anarchist enemies and decided to disappear from view, or had he accepted a lucrative position outside the Force in private practice, as his predecessor John Littlechild had done ten years before? The Daily Express even hinted that Melville had been headhunted by the Russian Secret Police, the Ochrana, to deal with the anarchist threat there.

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