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Pauline Scott
Colin Farrell ...
John Smith
Susie Hawthorne ...
Violet Turner
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Beulah Turner
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Adolf Beck
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12 August 1996 (UK)  »

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The Great British Mistaken Identity Case of 1904 - 06
21 December 2006 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

If one studies the history of modern criminology, the years of change that forensic science really got organized were from 1885 to 1905. Up to then it was hit an miss, with some tests for poisons (such as arsenic) and several embarrassing poisoning cases where the leading expert of the day (usually - in England - Dr. Alfred Swain Taylor, the author of several books on poisons) would show up, on cross-examination, to be rather faulty despite his knowledge. It's astounding, given his blunders in court, that his reputation was so high, and that several of the poisoners he testified against were convicted.

But in 1885 two events began in France and the United States. Here, led by the able but corrupt Chief of New York City's Detectives (Thomas Byrnes) the "Rogues Gallery" of photos of criminals was developed. At the same time, in France, Alphonse Bertillion, an anthropologist and statistician, created "Bertillionage". Bertillion discovered that if you measure certain points of the skull and body of the criminal, they were the type of points that could not be changed very easily. . So Bertillion started making card records of hundreds of prisoners, with these measurements, and they became a fairly useful (if complex) way of showing a criminal history that could not be easily disguised. Bertillion's ideas, and Byrnes', were combined. Soon polices stations around the world used the combination to prove that they could trace career criminals.

The system was eventually proved to be off in a crazy 1901 case from Leavenworth Prison, when two prisoners were found, one named Will Wright and one - oddly enough - named William Wright, who had remarkably similar measurements and appearances. It meant that the measurements (despite Bertillion's assurances) were not unique. The U.S. was very careful after that on relying totally on Bertillionage. Fortunately, a few years later another measuring device came up - but more of that later.

The case that destroyed British support for Bertillion was the 1904 Adolf Beck Case. Mr. Beck was a Norwegian . He was sometimes a sailor. In 1904, he was walking in London, when a woman grabbed hold of him and called him a thief. She held onto him, and a constable came along. The woman told the police a story about how a year earlier Beck had romanced her and got some valuable jewelry from her promising to "improve" the jewelry with the aid of a jeweler he knew. Beck insisted she was crazy, and that he never even met her before. Unfortunately, some friends of hers showed up and agreed that Beck was the crook the stole her rings. Beck was put on trial. He insisted that these people were mistaken, but every detail they presented matched him. He was found guilty and was sentenced to a couple of months in prison.

Beck got out in 1906. He still protested that the story of the women was totally wrong. One day, he was walking down the street in London again, and again a woman grabbed him, accused him of stealing her jewelry and he was arrested again. But this time there was a problem. The robbery occurred while Beck was in prison for the first crime. The police couldn't understand this, as the witnesses were all insisting (as in the first case) that Beck was the guilty criminal.

Then came the shocker that resembled the mess in the Leavenworth fiasco. One of the detectives discovered another man named William Thompson who was also arrested, about the same second time Beck was, by a group of woman for the same type of crime. Thompson (whose real name was John Smith) turned out to have remarkably similar features to Beck's (a comparison of their photos show's they were both bull necked, with heavy mustaches, and square shaped heads). Their Bertillion measurements were very similar. There was only one difference, but it was one that the women did not know of - Thompson was circumcised, and Beck was not.

The British Government did pay Beck a sum of money to make up for his false imprisonment - but Beck spent it recklessly, and died within ten years in poverty.

The case wrecked Bertillionage in Britain (and weakened it in France). Fortunately, the British were beginning to notice a new policing tool that was far more effective. Andrew Faulds had been conducting experiments with fingerprinting, and others, like Sir Francis Galton and Sir William Herschell, were also pushing it. In 1905 fingerprints were used to convict the Stratton Brothers of a burglary murder. After that it was fingerprinting that became the backbone of criminal identification around the globe (France was the last to switch over - Bertillion had to die in 1914 for the Surete to switch over). Today the criminal records include some Bertillion measurements, photos (from Byrne's "Rogue Gallery"), fingerprints, and D.N.A. (a process that is slowly becoming essential). It is harder and harder for mistakes like Beck's to occur.

One other good thing came out of this. The notoriety of Beck's constant insistence on his innocence (which was not believed) was matched by a second trial of one George Edalji, accused and convicted of maiming and blinding cattle and horses in the British midlands.* Edalji (a solicitor who was of Parsee heritage) was set up by a man who hated him as a foreigner. Edalji would have been in prison for years, but for the work of the novelist (and Sherlock Holmes creator) Arthur Conan Doyle, who reviewed the evidence and showed that Edalji was framed. The Beck and Edalji cases convinced the British public that their legal system needed a corrective in it's structure. The final result of all this was the Court of Criminal Appeals.

*The play EQUUS is based, in part, on the Edalji case's situation.


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