Julian Burnside

On 16 December 1895, Adolf Beck was standing outside 135 Victoria Street, London when Ottilie Meissonier approached him. She accused him of having tricked her into parting with two watches and a ring.

Beck made a dash for it, and Madame Meissonier gave chase. He ran to a policeman, and denounced Meissonier as a prostitute who had accosted him. She, in her turn, accused him of having swindled her three weeks earlier.

They went to the police station. To Beck’s horror, the police believed Meissonier’s story, and disbelieved his. He had never seen her before that day.

Soon afterwards, several other women came forward who identified Beck as being the person who, during the previous six months, had swindled each of them out of small articles of jewellery.

Each woman told the same story. A man had approached her, mistakenly recognising her as “Lady Everton”. He then apologised for his mistake, introduced himself as Lord Wilton de Willoughby, and struck up a conversation. With a combination of blandishment and rodomontade, he would persuade the lady to part with some jewellery in exchange for a worthless cheque drawn on a non-existent branch of a London bank. He claimed to be an English nobleman, with a substantial estate in St John’s Wood. He told each that he wished her to live with him, and offered to provide her with jewellery and a wardrobe. To that end, he would borrow a number of articles of jewellery and clothing, to match the sizes. He promised to have these returned by a one-armed commissionaire later in the day. He then disappeared. The pattern in each case was unvaried, and most of the women who came forward were confident that Beck was the person who had defrauded her in the way described.

He was charged with 10 misdemeanour offences, and 4 felony offences. The felony offences depended on Beck having been convicted of similar offences in 1877. At the committal hearing in late 1895, police constable Elliss Spurrell gave evidence 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.” (emphasis added)

This was profoundly significant for two reasons: the offences for which John Smith had been convicted in 1877 were identical in every detail with the offences alleged against Beck; and the 4 felony charges could not succeed unless Beck had previously been convicted.

Beck was sent for trial. Horace Avory (later Mr Justice Avory) appeared for the Crown, with Guy Stephenson. Charles Gill appeared with Percival Clarke for Adolf Beck. The trial took place before the Common Serjeant, Sir Forrest Fulton, and a jury.

The defence, led by Charles Gill, was simple: mistaken identity. The defence evidence had two components: first, the fact that the person known as John Smith had been convicted of identical offences in identical circumstances in 1877. Second, that between 1875 and 1882 Adolf Beck had lived permanently in Peru. Those circumstances would wholly refute the proposition that John Smith and Adolf Beck were one and the same, as Elliss Spurrell had sworn at the committal.

Unfortunately for Beck, the Crown vigorously resisted every attempt to call evidence about the 1877 convictions.

First, they did not call Elliss Spurrell. Horace Avory later explained the reason for this: he could proceed with the misdemeanour charges, which did not require proof of conviction for the 1877 offences, or with the felony charges which did. He chose not to proceed with the felony charges, so proof that Beck had been convicted of the 1877 offences ceased to be necessary. That decision was made despite the fact that the prosecution was based wholly on the unstated premise that Adolf Beck and John Smith were the same person. The Common Serjeant refused to admit any evidence about the 1877 convictions.

Second, Avory objected to cross-examination which would have shown that the cheques and letters allegedly written by Beck had been written by Smith. He led evidence from a handwriting expert, Mr T.H. Gurrin. Gurrin had examined samples of handwriting from three sources: that in the exhibits in the Smith prosecution of 1877; the cheques and letters allegedly written by Beck in 1895; and true samples of Beck’s handwriting. His evidence was that the 1895 documents were in the disguised hand of Beck. Avory led this evidence, but he successfully objected to cross-examination to the effect that the letters were certainly written by the same hand as had written the 1877 exhibits. Gurrin had given evidence to that effect at the committal.

Beck was convicted, and sentenced to seven years in prison. His prison number was DW 523. Under the system which then operated in English prisons, the D represented a conviction in 1877, and W represented a conviction in 1896. John Smith’s prison number had been D 523.

Beck’s solicitor ten times petitioned for a review of the conviction. On the second occasion (in 1898), he had the advantage of knowing that Smith (D 523) was Jewish and had been circumcised, whereas Beck (DW 523) was uncircumcised. The authorities wrote to Sir Forrest Fulton with this new evidence. Fulton wrote a minute dated 13 May 1898 in which he acknowledged that Smith and Beck could clearly not be the same person, but he added that he regarded the South American alibi “with great suspicion”. This Delphic observation apparently lulled the authorities into thinking the convictions were still justified. However, Fulton’s comment was quite irrelevant: whether Beck was in South America or Southampton in 1877, he was not the person who had committed the 1877 offences.

Apart from making an alteration to Beck’s prison number, the Home Office took no steps in response to this petition, or any of the others on Beck’s behalf.

Whilst Beck was in prison, a journalist with the Daily Mail, G.R. Sims, began agitating for a review of the case. He was disturbed by the fact that the prosecution case clearly proceeded from the assumption that Smith and Beck were the same person, yet Spurrell had not been called at the trial. If Spurrell’s positive identification could have been refuted, then the defence of mistaken identity was almost certain to succeed. It would have demonstrated the existence of a person with an identical method of operating who looked enough like Beck to mislead Spurrell.

Sims agitated vigorously in the press. Slowly, public opinion swung to the view that Beck had been wrongly convicted.

On 15 April 1904, whilst agitation for a public inquiry was at its height, Beck was again arrested and charged with identical offences. He was tried by Grantham J on 27 July, and was convicted. However, the judge had doubts about the case and did not pass sentence. Less than a fortnight later, John Smith, alias William Thomas alias William Wyatt was arrested. Beck was pardoned on 27 July 1904, in respect of the 1895 offences and the 1904 offences. John Smith pleaded guilty to those offences on 15 September 1904.

Eventually a Committee of Inquiry was established, chaired by Henn-Collins MR. It heard evidence from the prosecutor Horace Avory, and from Sir Forrest Fulton. It concluded that, in its opinion:

“… there is no shadow of foundation for any of the charges made against Mr Beck or any reason for supposing that he had any connection whatever with them.”

The reason for this finding was that the committee was completely satisfied that Adolf Beck was not John Smith. It also found that the prosecuting authorities had known that fact for at least the last five years of Beck’s prison term. The Committee was trenchant in its criticism of Sir Forrest Fulton, and expressed the view that his minute of 13 May 1898 to the Home Office was “… hardly one which a trained lawyer could have written …”.

Adolf Beck was an ordinary person, chronically short of money, and perennially involved in hopeful, but unsuccessful, business ventures. He was no great ornament to the society in which he lived, but no disfigurement either. The English legal system failed him utterly. Despite a dedicated solicitor and a skilled and determined counsel, Beck suffered from the miserable misfortune to look very like Smith/ Thomas/Wyatt. That misfortune was compounded by the ineptitude of the Common Serjeant and the indifference of the Home Office. His case illustrates the danger of prosecuting authorities forming a fixed view of a person’s guilt based on a compelling assumption, and failing to notice the significance of the assumption being disproved.

Beck died, a broken man, in 1909. He had been convicted on two separate occasions for crimes he did not commit, and spent years in gaol for those crimes. One direct result of the Beck trials and the subsequent inquiry was the establishment, in 1907, of the English Court of Criminal Appeal. History does not record whether Beck derived any comfort from that advance.

Julian Burnside