The strange case of Adolf Beck

He walked out of his tiny flat - and straight into legal history. For almost a decade, the once dapper Mr Beck would be ensnared in the most sensational case of mistaken identity that Britain had ever seen. On the centenary of its dramatic conclusion, Brian Cathcart reveals why you can't always trust your own eyes

Even before the events that earned him his place in legal history, Adolf Beck was a stranger to luck. His life's savings, once substantial, were invested in a mine that he could neither sell nor turn to profit and so, for 10 years, he struggled to maintain a gentlemanly façade in London while having no income to speak of.

Even before the events that earned him his place in legal history, Adolf Beck was a stranger to luck. His life's savings, once substantial, were invested in a mine that he could neither sell nor turn to profit and so, for 10 years, he struggled to maintain a gentlemanly façade in London while having no income to speak of.

Beck borrowed and scrounged, concocted pathetic financial schemes, lived cheaply and wore his clothes till the thread was bare. That this Norwegian seaman-turned-businessman was able to get by at all shows that he had the gift of winning people's confidence. Nothing, however, worked out for him and he left a trail of bad debts and bad feelings.

In late 1895, at the age of 54, he was renting a small flat on Victoria Street, close to Victoria station. He liked to keep up appearances, so when he ventured out he cut a dapper figure, with monocle, top hat, cane and waxed moustache.

On 16 December, a little after 4.30pm, he was standing at the street door of the building where he lived when a woman named Ottilie Meissonier walked up and looked him full in the face. He had time to smile - as Meissonier put it later, "very sweetly" - before she spoke the four words that doomed him.

"Sir," she said, "I know you."

There is no doubt about her good faith. She genuinely believed that she recognised Beck, that he was the man who, three-weeks earlier, had struck up a conversation with her on this same street, that he had then spent an hour in her company in her home, and that, by a cruel trick, he had relieved her of property worth £30.

She was wrong. Yet, from the moment those four words were uttered, Beck was like a man tumbling down a long, dark tunnel, with no control over his fate and no means of summoning help. For the next nine years almost everything that could go wrong for him did go wrong, and every official mistake that could be made was made. So far as Beck was concerned, Justice was not only blind, but deaf and mute as well.

It was not until the summer of 1904 - 100 years ago - that this miscarriage of justice was recognised, that the 15 convictions which had piled up against Beck were quashed and that he was paid the then large sum of £5,000 in compensation for the ruin of his later years.

So remarkable was his case, and so enduring are its lessons, that, to this day, it figures prominently in legal textbooks, is drummed into every generation of British law students and is frequently cited in criminal trials. Lawyers know it as the case that shows we cannot trust the evidence of our own eyes.

Looking back from a distance of a century, there is a terrifying character to the events of Beck's life as they unfolded after Meissonier's challenge on Victoria Street.

His first reaction was confusion - he thought she was looking for a dentist who worked in the building - and then, when she started to call him a thief, he panicked. He ran across the street, weaving between carriages and carts, and she followed him, shouting. They saw a policeman and both ran towards him, Beck getting there first and complaining of her in strong language, only to have her denounce him in turn.

Both were taken to Rochester Row police station and there it was Meissonier's accusation that was taken seriously. Her description of the crime of which she had been victim, matched, in almost every detail, another swindle reported to police a few months earlier by one Daisy Grant, and the description of the con man given then was a reasonable fit for Beck.

Daisy Grant was swiftly summoned, as was Meissonier's servant, who had also seen the con man. Beck was placed in an identification parade with seven men brought in off the street and both women picked him out without hesitation. "He is the man," said Grant.

He was charged and remanded in custody, protesting that it was a dreadful mistake. The story of the Victoria Street swindler appeared in the newspapers and, to general surprise, a procession of women presented themselves to the police, declaring that they were the victims of identical frauds. Did they recognise Beck?

Kate Brakefield, who said she had been cheated and robbed the previous June, picked him out of a line-up of eight: "I am satisfied he is the same man," she said. Minnie Lewis, robbed in April, identified Beck from a crowd of 14: "I have not a shadow of a doubt he is the man," she later testified. Juliette Kluth, robbed in March, was confronted with no fewer than 18 men: "Among them I recognised the prisoner at once," she would say.

The list went on. Marion Taylor was "quite sure" that Beck was the con man. Fanny Nutt declared: "I should know him in a thousand." Evelyn Emily Miller "identified him at once without difficulty". Alice Sinclair "picked out the prisoner from about a dozen men". Ethel Annie Townsend, after just a moment's hesitation, said: "He is the same man."

In February, Beck was committed for trial on 10 counts of obtaining by false pretences and theft. No fewer than 12 victims and other witnesses identified him, most of them with absolute certainty.

By now Beck had the services of a solicitor, but the outlook was bleak. He could produce no decent alibi for any of the crimes, and worse, the prosecution had an expert witness ready to testify that the con man's handwriting - examples of which had been kept by the victims - was a disguised version of Beck's own script.

But all was not lost. There was one reason to hope that a jury could be convinced of Beck's innocence, and it was a curious one.

The modus operandi of the con man was distinctive and remarkably uniform, as if he always worked to a single script. First, he chose his prey from a certain class of woman: single, widowed or divorced, with some pretension to gentility but little money to support it. They called themselves actresses, music teachers and the like, but some of them topped up their income by, in the coy phrase of the time, "seeing men for money"; the rest were not far off having to do so.

In each case the con man struck up a conversation with his victim in a public place, using a line such as, "Did I not meet you at the ball last night?" He was charming, intimated that he was a wealthy aristocrat and, before long, suggested he might call at the woman's home.

Once seated upon her sofa the following afternoon, he told an alluring story. He was the Earl of Wilton (or Lord Wilton, or Lord Wilton de Willoughby) and he had a house in St John's Wood that was in urgent need of a housekeeper. This position, complete with income, horse-and-trap and the promise of foreign travel, he offered to the woman.

All parties seem to have understood that the housekeeper would also be his lordship's mistress, and to these women the offer, with the stability and comfort it implied, was very tempting.

Egging them on, Wilton declared that they would need new outfits, for which he would pay, and as their excitement grew he wrote a list of daywear, evening wear and other outfits, specifying the shops where they should be bought with the bill put on his account. By way of spending money (and, in some cases perhaps, payment for services rendered in bed), he proffered a cheque for a substantial sum - £30 or more.

Finally, he asked about jewellery. What rings, necklaces or brooches did she own? Were they of good quality? Some he admired but some he found wanting. He would buy her better rings straight away, but he needed one or two of hers for the correct size. Other jewels he took to be re-mounted more grandly, or to be copied to make a set. They would, he promised, be returned within hours, by a one-armed commissionaire from the Carlton Club (or the Grand Hotel), where he was staying.

With that he took his leave, sometimes pocketing small items as he went or cheekily borrowing the change for a cab. The cheques bounced and the jewellery, which was rarely worth very much, but sometimes included a wedding ring, vanished.

It was, as the trial judge would say, a "base and wicked crime", rendered all the more so by the vulnerability of victims who, because of their circumstances, were unlikely to involve the police. It is little wonder that the "bogus peer" got a bad press.

But several police officers had noticed, and Beck's solicitor was aware, that a series of identical crimes, matching in almost every detail, had occurred once before in London, in 1877, and that a man who gave the name of John Smith had served four years for committing them.

Were Smith and Beck the same man? One police officer who had seen both was prepared to swear they were, and yet Beck insisted that in 1877 he was not living in London at all, but in Peru - and he had witnesses to prove it.

It was, potentially, a winning point. Given the perfect symmetry between the crimes of 1877 and those of 1895, a jury would be very likely to agree that they must be the work of one man. It followed, therefore, if Beck was able to demonstrate that he could not have committed the earlier crimes, he must also be innocent of the later ones.

That was not how things went. When the trial began at the Old Bailey in March 1896 the prosecution duly paraded its witnesses, each more confident than the last that the man in the dock was the man who had cheated her. But when the defence tried to play its one and only card, it was prevented from doing so.

By coincidence the judge, Sir Forrest Fulton, had actually prosecuted Smith in 1877 as a young barrister, so he should have known some of the details, but astonishingly he now forbade all discussion of the earlier crimes.

"The question whether the prisoner was or was not the man convicted in 1877 was not admissible," the trial record states, "upon the ground that it related to another and distinct issue, and one calculated to mislead the jury." Fulton would later argue that his job was to ensure the trial examined whether the defendant committed the offences of which he was charged, and nothing else, and that in any case he believed discussion of the 1877 crimes was more likely to harm the defence than help it.

Robbed of his one and only chance to prove his innocence, Beck was convicted and sentenced to seven years' penal servitude. The judge observed: "The evidence of identity has been absolutely overwhelming."

Beck served five hard years in jail, protesting his innocence throughout and petitioning many times in the most abject terms to have his case reviewed, but always in vain. Not even the discovery of remarkable new evidence - evidence that would have been enough to turn any trial - would induce the legal authorities to budge.

The discovery was this. Two years into Beck's sentence, the governor of Portland Prison reviewed the file relating to John Smith and found that, while he was a prisoner back in 1879, Smith had asked that his religion, listed as Protestant, should be changed to Jewish. He insisted that he had always been a Jew, and he was able to show that he had been circumcised.

The governor had Beck examined and it was found that he was not circumcised. Here was conclusive proof that the man convicted of the 1877 frauds (and who, incidentally, had meekly accepted his punishment) was not the man imprisoned for the identical crimes of 1895.

Home Office officials passed this information to Sir Forrest Fulton, the trial judge, for his opinion. He refused to reopen the case and, though he offered nothing but bluster to justify it, his decision was accepted without question. No one else was told about the new evidence, not even Beck, and the prisoner was left to complete his sentence.

He was released in 1901, by which time he was 60 years old, and he returned to his old haunts and life in central London. But his ordeal was not over.

Three years later, on 23 March 1904, a woman named Pauline Scott presented herself at Scotland Yard and complained that a man calling himself Lord Willoughby, who introduced himself to her in Oxford Street and subsequently called at her home, had cheated her of a ring, a watch and a sovereign.

A detective recognised the story and connected it to Beck. In due course, Scott was confronted with Beck in the street and she declared: "You are the man who took my jewellery and my sovereign." As before, Beck's protests were utterly useless and he was taken into custody; as before, publicity soon brought other women to police stations reporting similar frauds, and as before, they picked Beck out of identification parades without hesitation.

In June, by now a miserable and bitter man, Beck was tried at the Old Bailey for defrauding Pauline Scott, Rose Reece, Caroline Singer and Grace Campbell, all in circumstances closely resembling the crimes of 1895 and 1877.

His defence was even limper and more hamstrung than at the first trial, relying on some untidy alibis and, incredibly, neglecting entirely the issue of the 1877 frauds (remember, the evidence about Smith's circumcision remained a secret, locked away at the Home Office).

The high point of the trial was Beck's desperate appeal. "Before God, my maker," he told the jury, "I am absolutely innocent of every charge brought against me. I have not spoken to or seen any of these women before they were set against me by the detectives."

Once again, however, the identifications of eyewitnesses and victims were enough, almost on their own, to condemn him. Found guilty on all counts, at the age of 63 this pathetic figure faced a further four or five years in prison.

At this moment, mercifully, his luck finally changed, and the missing party in the story at last made his appearance.

Around noon on 7 July 1904, precisely 10 days after Beck's second conviction and while he was safely locked in a cell at Brixton Prison, a familiar sequence of events played itself out on the other side of London. A well-dressed if elderly gent called on the sisters Violet and Beulah Turner at their home near Russell Square and, though they had no prior acquaintance with him, by dint of grand talk and promises he induced them to part with two rings and a half-crown.

On this occasion, however, the trick did not quite work. The victims had second thoughts and quickly got their landlord to follow the man, who went first to a jeweller's to have the rings valued (they were worth 13 shillings) and then to a pawnbroker's. There, a policeman was fetched and the man was arrested.

Within days, the whole Beck affair unravelled. The arrested man was proved to be the John Smith of 1877 (his real name is still not known for certain but may have been Frederick Meyer). The handwriting expert retracted his claim that the incriminating documents were written by Beck. Other women came forward to accuse "Smith" of cheating them, and he confessed to several frauds. At this point, too, the circumcision evidence found its way out of the Home Office files and into the public domain.

With the press in uproar that such a mistake could occur, Beck was freed on 19 July and, eight days later, pardoned for both the 1895 and the 1904 offences. A suggestion that he be awarded £2,000 was howled down by the newspapers and the sum was increased to £5,000.

The question remained: how could the justice system fail so badly? Under public pressure the government agreed to an inquiry by the Master of the Rolls, Sir Richard Henn Collins, and two other senior judges. Though an ill-tempered affair, it seems to have put its finger on what went wrong.

Sir Forrest Fulton's ruling in 1896 that Beck's defence could not even mention the 1877 frauds was condemned as mistaken in law and disastrous in its consequences. The Home Office was lambasted for failing to act properly on the circumcision evidence, which on its own should have ended Beck's ordeal in 1898.

Shocking as they are, however, neither of these terrible errors is the cause of the case's long-lasting notoriety and importance. What makes it relevant in trials today, and the reason why it is still called in aid by defence barristers, is that it offers the most vivid proof of the unreliability of eyewitness identifications.

At least 16 people swore under oath in court that Beck was the fraudster, almost all of them having first picked him out of parades. They did so independently, and in most cases on the basis of having spent at least an hour in his company.

So feeble was the other evidence against Beck that there is no doubt it was these multiple identifications which convinced both juries of his guilt. Common sense dictated that so many witnesses simply could not be wrong. As it often is, though, common sense was bunk and they were wrong.

Nor was this a case of identical men living in the same city at the same time, for though the two were of similar age and height, Beck was very far from being Smith's double. In fact the photographs suggest that besides some superficial similarities common to many men at the time, they did not really look that alike at all.

Ever since 1904, judges and juries have been told that, compelling as they may appear, eyewitness identifications alone must never make a conviction - the evidence of our own eyes, in other words, is not to be trusted. And yet it is not a lesson fully learned, for as we know, despite the extraordinary example of the Norwegian businessman whose later years were wrecked for no good cause, mistakes can still be made.

Brian Cathcart is the author of books on the Stephen Lawrence and Jill Dando murders. His latest book, 'The Fly in the Cathedral: How a Small Team of Cambridge Scientists Won the Race to Split the Atom', is published by Viking, priced £14.99

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