Adolf Beck case
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The Adolf Beck case was a notorious incidence of wrongful conviction by mistaken identity, brought about by unreliable methods of identification, erroneous (though probably sincere) eyewitness testimony, and a rush to convict the accused. As one of the most famous causes célèbres of its time, the case led to the creation of the English Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907.
Adolf (or Adolph) Beck was born in Norway in 1841, and educated as a chemist. However, he went to sea soon afterwards and moved to England in 1865, working as a clerk to a shipping broker. In 1868, he moved to South America, where he made a living for a while as a public singer, then became a shipbroker and also engaged in buying and selling houses. He soon amassed a considerable amount of savings, at one time earning £8,000 as commission for a sale of a Spanish concession in the Galapagos Islands, finally returning to England in 1885, where he engaged in various financial schemes.
He invested part of his savings in a copper mine in Norway. Unfortunately the mine did not turn a profit, despite his efforts to make it, pouring in more and more money until he had to put the mine to sale; however, there were no takers and he was reduced to near-poverty. Beck was in debt to his hotel in Covent Garden, had borrowed money from his secretary, and was chronically short of money. In spite of his ingratiating nature, his moneymaking schemes had left acrimony and unhappy creditors.
On 16 December 1895, Beck was stepping out the door of 135 (or 139, according to at least one account) Victoria Street, when a woman blocked his way. She accused him of having tricked her out of two watches and several rings. Beck brushed her aside and crossed the road. When the woman followed, he complained to a policeman that he was being followed by a prostitute who had accosted him. The woman strongly demanded his arrest, accusing him of having swindled her three weeks earlier.
The policeman took them both to the nearest police station, where the woman identified herself as Ottilie Meissonier, unmarried, and a language teacher. According to Meissonier, she had been walking down Victoria Street toward a flower show when Beck allegedly approached her, tipping his hat and asking if she was Lady Everton. She replied in the negative, but she was impressed by his gentlemanly manner and they struck up a conversation. He introduced himself as "Lord Willoughby" and advised her that the flower show was not worth visiting. He said that he knew horticulture because he had extensive enough gardens on his Lincolnshire estate to require that he employ six gardeners. Meissonier mentioned that she grew chrysanthemums, whereupon he asked whether he might see them and she invited him to tea the following day.
Before the afternoon was over, he had invited her to go to the French Riviera on his yacht. However, he insisted upon providing her with an elegant wardrobe for the voyage, and Meissonier agreed. He wrote out a list for her and made out a cheque for £40 to cover her purchases. Then he examined her wristwatch and rings, and asked her to let him have them so he could match their sizes and replace them with more valuable pieces.
After he left she discovered that a second watch was missing. Suspicious, she hurried to the bank to cash the cheque, only to find that it was worthless. She had been swindled, and she swore that it was Adolf Beck who had done it. He was promptly arrested.
The inspector who was assigned to the case learned that in the past two years twenty-two women had been defrauded by a gray-haired man who called himself "Lord Wilton de Willoughby" and used basically the same modus operandi as Beck's accuser had described. These women were asked to view a lineup that included Beck, along with ten or fifteen men who had been selected randomly from the street. Because he was the only one with gray hair and moustache, he was quickly identified by the women as the man who had taken their clothes and jewellery.
Despite Beck's claims of innocence, he was charged with ten misdemeanours and four felonies. The felony charges were based on presumed prior convictions in 1877, when a man named John Smith had been sentenced to five years for swindling unattached women by using the name Lord Willoughby, writing worthless cheques, and taking their jewelry. He had disappeared after his release and it was assumed that Beck and Smith were one and the same. Descriptions of John Smith from prison files were never compared with the current appearance of Adolph Beck. At Beck's committal hearing in late 1895, one of the policemen who had arrested Smith eighteen years before was called to testify. PC Elliss Spurrell gave his account as follows:
- "In 1877 I was in the Metropolitan Police Reserve. On May 7, 1877 I was present at the Central Criminal Court where the prisoner in the name of John Smith was convicted of feloniously stealing ear-rings and a ring and eleven shillings of Louisa Leonard and was sentenced to five years' penal servitude. I produce the certificate of that conviction. The prisoner is the man.
- "There is no doubt whatever — I know quite well what is at stake on my answer and I say without doubt he is the man."
Beck protested and insisted that he could bring witnesses from South America to prove that he was there in 1877.
On 3 March 1896, Beck was brought to trial in the Old Bailey. The Crown was represented by Horace Edmund Avory, assisted by Guy Stephenson, while the defence was headed by an experienced barrister, Charles F. Gill, assisted by Percival Clarke. The Common Serjeant was Sir Forrest Fulton, who, as a prosecutor, had been responsible for sending John Smith to prison in 1877.
The defence's strategy was simple: mistaken identity. If they could prove that Beck was in South America at the time when John Smith was committing those crimes and went to prison for them, it would refute the assumption that Adolph Beck was John Smith, as alleged.
A handwriting expert named Thomas H. Gurrin compared the lists of clothing Smith had given his victims in 1877 to those written in 1894-1895, as well as to samples of Beck's handwriting. Gill thought that he would have his chance to prove the mistaken identity when he cross-examined Gurrin. If Gurrin testified in court, as he had said previously, that the writing of the 1877 and 1894-95 swindlers were identical, Gill could bring witnesses that would prove that Beck was in Buenos Aires in 1877. But Avory, foreseeing this tactic, asked the witness only about the later lists. Gurrin said that these had been written by Beck with a "disguised hand".
Gill thereupon asked Justice Fulton's permission to question Gurrin about the 1877 lists, but under British procedures earlier convictions of a man cannot be mentioned in court until the jury had given its verdict. Gill protested that the past was vital to his defence, in order to prove that Beck could not have been Smith, but Fulton still would not allow questions about the 1877 case.
Avory did not want to call Elliss Spurrell to the witness-box to give evidence because it would have opened discussion of the past conviction, thereby allowing Gill the opportunity to cast doubt on Beck's guilt. Without Spurrell's testimony, Avory could still prosecute Beck for the misdemeanour charges, which did not require proof of prior conviction. He chose not to proceed with the felony charges despite the fact the prosecution was based wholly on the unstated premise that Adolph Beck and John Smith were the same person.
Avory brought Beck's alleged victims into court and one after another they pointed out Beck as the swindler. There were, however, occasional moments of doubt. One mentioned that the swindler talked differently from Beck, peppering his speech with "Yankee" slang. Ottilie Meissonier remembered that the swindler had a scar on the right side of his neck, but was otherwise convinced that it was Beck. Another testified that his mustache was longer, and waxed. But these went unheeded by the jury. The jury also did not question how the original police lineup had been prejudiced against Beck.
Conviction and doubts
On 5 March 1896, Adolf Beck was found guilty of fraud and, despite maintaining his innocence throughout, was sentenced to seven years of penal servitude at Portland Convict Prison on the Isle of Portland. In prison he was given John Smith's old prison number, D 523, with the letter W added, indicating a repeat convict.
England did not yet have a court of criminal appeal, but from 1896 to 1901 Beck's solicitor presented ten petitions for re-examination of his case. His requests to see the prison's description of John Smith were repeatedly denied. However, in May 1898 a member of the Home Office looked at the Smith file and saw that Smith was Jewish and thus had been circumcised, while Beck was not. The Home Office asked Sir Forrest Fulton of his opinion of this new evidence. Fulton wrote a minute dated 13 May in which he acknowledged that Smith and Beck could not be the same person, but he added that even if Beck was not Smith, he was still the imposter of 1895, viewing the South American alibi "with great suspicion." As a result the letter W was removed from Beck's prison number, but nothing else was done regarding the case.
In the meantime, while Beck was in prison, G.R. Sims, a journalist with the Daily Mail, who knew Beck since the return of the latter to England in 1885, heard about the details of the case. He was disturbed by the fact that Beck was tried under the assumption that Beck and Smith were the same person, yet no evidence to support that assumption was allowed by Justice Fulton. He wrote about this in the Daily Mail and called for a review of the case. Slowly, public opinion was swayed to the view that Beck's conviction was unjust; one of Beck's more famous supporters was Arthur Conan Doyle. Adolph Beck himself joined the cause when he was paroled in July 1901 for good behaviour, but despite his efforts to prove his innocence, fate was against him.