By David Amoruso for Gangsters Inc.
Never before did gory violence look so stylish and classy. Television series Peaky Blinders raised the bar with its depiction of a 1920s Birmingham street gang. Its characters and plot are steeped in realism and history, but what was real and what is fiction? Did Tommy Shelby really exist? What about Alfie Solomon or Darby Sabini? Gangsters Inc. did some digging and found the answers.
Let’s start off with the gang itself: The Peaky, fucking, Blinders. Did such a group really dominate the streets of Birmingham during the years following the First World War? Well, the answer is complicated.
From Slogging gangs to Peaky Blinders
The Peaky Blinders originated decades earlier, around 1890. It was a name given to gangs of youths that terrorized the poorer streets and neighborhoods in Birmingham. These gangs actually had existed since the late 1860s and were then called Slogging Gangs.
Whatever name they were given, both groups consisted of various, loosely affiliated bands of young boys and men with a taste for violence. They viciously attacked innocent passersby and members of law enforcement by throwing rocks at them or beating them with whatever they could get their hands on.
Many of these guys had legitimate jobs, but had no clue what to do with themselves when their shift ended. After police cracked down on street gambling, all they had was getting drunk at the pubs. The booze and boredom led to a serious uptick in violence and crime – mostly pickpockets, theft, and robbery.
The name Peaky Blinders
Rather than being a tightly organized group, the Peaky Blinders were men with a similar tendency to get into trouble. If one was to attack a police officer or steal some fruit, one was called a Peaky Blinder. It was a generic term used by both the public and authorities to put a label on this type of criminal, historian Carl Chinn writes in his book Peaky Blinders: The Real Story – The True Story of Birmingham’s Most Notorious Gangs.
The Peaky Blinders name was derived from the way they dressed. They wore a cap and pulled it down over one eye. In the BBC series viewers are treated to a surprise hidden inside the Peaky Blinders’ caps: a razor blade stitched into the peaks of their caps.
According to the street legend, certain media reports from decades after the gang’s demise, and the 2013 television series, this is how the group got its name: by slashing their opponents with these razors and effectively blinding them as their blood rushes into their eyes.
Entertaining as it may be, the reality was far less surprising. In his book about the Peaky Blinders, Chinn details how police reports at the time failed to mention any use of this hidden weapon. Knives? Yes. Bayonets? Yes. Bricks? Yes. Buckle belts? Yes. Razors sewn inside a cap? No.
Still, it looks very slick on television.
So, what were the real Peaky Blinders like? The Shelby family, Alfie Solomon, and the Italian Mafia operating in Britain’s underworld in those days.
Let’s start with the people that are the stars of the series: The Shelby family. It turns out they did not exist. Well, not under that name. The Shelbys are – partly - based on the Sheldons, a large family of mum and dad and nine children – John, Samuel, Thomas, Mary, Joseph, Lizzie, Anna, Edith, and Arthur. Some familiar names for viewers of Peaky Blinders.
But only three of these sons - John, Samuel, and Joseph - would turn to a life of crime.
The eldest son
The eldest of the Sheldon offspring, John Sheldon, made a career as a petty thief. Not exactly the way it is portrayed in the series, but a living nonetheless. Not to mention that in terms of violence, John lived up to what is shown on screen.
In November of 1895, 29-year-old Sheldon and a friend attacked a man on the street. “I have been looking for you!” Sheldon shouted. He then hit the man with a blow to the head. As the victim tried to put up a fight, Sheldon’s partner-in-crime hit him with a buckled belt as the victim’s daughter looked on in horror and disgust.
When she tried to intervene, Sheldon’s buddy pulled her to the ground by her hair and Sheldon kicked her in her until she was badly bruised. Quite the gentlemen.
His younger brother Samuel (right) was up to the same vicious antics. As a 17-year-old in 1886 he threw bricks at innocent passersby and policemen alike. He was sent to prison for a few months and once out committed several more attacks on cops.
“It is apparent from the record of his crimes that he was a slogger and it is highly likely that he became an early peaky blinder given that he always wore their headgear of a billycock and that he was a violent man who hated the police,” author Carl Chinn writes in Peaky Blinders: The Real Story.
Samuel went on to hang around at Birmingham’s racecourse and roamed the country as a pickpocket. He was violent and always looking for an angle to take someone’s valuables. He was convicted of theft and robbing stores.
When not involved in crime, he could be found being a nuisance on the streets, drunk and loud. He was in and out of prison for various petty offences. His body was covered in scars as a result of the many fights he was in.
The third son
Joseph Sheldon followed his older brothers into the underworld. Starting out with the typical petty crimes, he eventually racked up some serious prison time after he committed some break-ins and was convicted of using counterfeit money.
As the eldest son it was natural that John took a leading role in the brothers’ criminal activities. He operated at the racecourse in Birmingham where he called himself a commission agent. In reality, he was out thieving and gambling – and even gambling was done to scam other gamblers.
Still, his main activity was drinking and fighting.
After getting drunk and being an annoying prick on a boxing night in 1906, John Sheldon was issued a summons by a cop. Sheldon then pulled a revolver on the constable and pulled the trigger. Click. No bullet. Another click. No bullet. The constable was able to overpower Sheldon and brought him into the police station. When he checked the gun he found the next chamber did contain a bullet.
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In court, Sheldon explained he had been drunk and thought the revolver was empty. He also claimed he handed the weapon over to the cop. Witnesses backed up his story and the case was dismissed.
Not exactly the kind of creative plot twist we expect from Peaky Blinders, but it will have to do. The result remains the same both on and off screen: the villain avoids prison and returns to the streets.
The Sheldons go to war
Whether in nature or on the streets, there needs to be a top dog. In Birmingham, John Sheldon clashed with another gang boss named Billy Beach. What exactly started their feud is unknown. Some say a gambling debt. Whatever the reason, things got heated and very bloody.
Beach recounted how he and Sheldon had fought in 1908 to settle the dispute. He had come out on top that time, he said.
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Not everyone agreed. Beach was shot in the neck later. He refused to say who shot him, but did say he had already given that person a good beating and was happy to take the law into his own hands.
Before he could do so, Sheldon arrived at Beach’s home with a posse of tough men armed with guns. Shots were fired. One hit Beach behind the ear, while another bullet pierced through the window and grazed the head of Beach’s 10-year-old daughter.
Against all odds, Beach took on the gang by himself. Known as a fighter, he went at Sheldon and his armed crew. Asked later if it was a free fight, Beach replied: “If you call ten to one a free fight.”
Sheldon was arrested and sentenced to 12 months in prison for this violent and dishonorable ambush.
Despite all participants being in and out of prison, their war continued. Beach was allegedly stabbed by Joseph Sheldon in one attack, while he received a fractured skull in another attack by John and Joseph Sheldon. With those brothers locked up, Beach went on to fight with Samuel Sheldon, who got out in 1912, and two other gang members.
Beach eventually moved to Canada, but his lieutenants continued his war with the Sheldon gang. This resulted in the shooting of Samuel Sheldon in October of 1912. He survived, but his assailants were sent to prison and the bloody tit-for-tat war slowly came to an end.
Beach wasn’t finished yet with war, though. He fought in World War I, joining the 13th Battalion of the Royal Highlanders of Canada.
A dying flame
The Sheldon brothers eventually left the gang life. They continued hustling but wars and a fight for underworld supremacy were behind them. A far cry from what we saw in Peaky Blinders. In real life there were no mansions or elaborate criminal plots. Just simple crimes with money being blown on beer. Still, there was enough good ol’ violence. Just like we see on the telly.
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Gang boss Billy Kimber with his Birmingham Boys eventually came to dominate the city’s underworld. Without a Sheldon or Shelby in sight. But what about some of the other beloved and hated characters in Peaky Blinders? What about Alfie Solomons or Darby Sabini and his Italians?
Alfie Solomons is quite a character. Played by Tom Hardy, he moves slow and quiet, but he exudes a menacing aura. He is capable of unimaginable violence at the drop of a dime. Or whenever he feels the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. It’s hard to get a handle on Alfie Solomons.
The real Alfie Solomons (right) went by almost the same name; his was spelled “Solomon” without the “s” at the end. Where Tom Hardy’s version is a Hasidic jew, a staunch adherer to the orthodox beliefs. The real Alfie was a secular jew. However, he, too, knew how to use violence to achieve his aims.
Born in 1892, he volunteered and joined the Royal Field Artillery during the First World War. He served 3 years in France and was awarded the 1914/15 Star, the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal.
During his time in the army, Solomon was an avid gambler and frequently got in trouble for his passion. Once he left, he became a bookmaker. He found out his new occupation could be just as hazardous as his previous job.
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In 1921, he was asked by a member of the Birmingham Boys to accept a bet on a horse. Solomon refused, knowing the rival gangster had no intention of paying if he lost. After the race, the gangster came back and asked for his winnings, claiming Solomon had accepted his bet. Solomon denied and stood firm though and things quickly turned violent.
Solomon was hit and stomped on, losing several teeth in the process. His face a bloody mess, he walked out and decided he needed powerful allies. One of the first men he went to was Edward Emanuel, a Jewish crime boss operating illegal gambling dens in London’s East End. He commanded a crew of tough jews, but they still needed more muscle if they were to take on Kimber and his gang.
So the two men went to Darby Sabini, an Italian Mafia boss, who operated from London’s Clerkenwell neighborhood. Portrayed in Peaky Blinders by actor Noah Taylor (left), Sabini did in fact exist. Though he was perhaps not as short-tempered as he is shown to be in the series.
Sabini and his gang were close to Billy Kimber and his Birmingham Boys, but when money enters the picture such relationships tend to crack under pressure. The same happened to Sabini and Kimber as they fought for control over gambling at the racecourses.
They fought violent battles – usually with bare fists and knives or clubs, but also with revolvers. Kimber, Solomon and Sabini all experienced some scary moments as they were surrounded by a mob of angry rivals, or each other, but each time they managed to escape unharmed.
Sabini and his allies eventually won the war, but with the spotlight now squarely on him, Sabini had trouble running his illicit business. Police and rivals breathed heavily down his neck. As the Second World War came around, he ceded power to other organizations and drifted away in obscurity.
He died in 1950 at his home.
The time Alfie Solomon stabbed a man in the head
Tom Hardy’s Alfie Solomons is a man capable of vicious violence. The real life Solomon had his own gory situations. In 1924 he and Emanuel were playing cards in Sabini’s Eden Club when Emanuel got into a heated argument with former boxer Barney Blitz.
Having used up all his words, Blitz punched Emanuel unconscious.
A shocked Solomon immediately grabbed a knife and plunged it into Blitz’ head, killing him. He was sentenced to three years in prison for his violent action.
Once released he went back to the gang life and got into some more trouble with rival gangsters. Nothing too serious, just some more scars and scratches as he survived another day. He passed away in 1947. His ally Emmanuel died in 1943.
Fiction is stranger than truth
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, but when push comes to shove our imagination runs circles around the truth. Peaky Blinders is a wonderful series with colorful characters and intricate plot twists. Though it is loosely based on facts, it is primarily a fictional account. But what an account it is!
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