Adolph Beck case

Adolph Beck case

The Adolph 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.

Adolph Beck Background

Adolph Beck was born in Norway in 1844, went to sea at an early age, and moved to England in 1865, working on several occasions as a shipping broker. Later, he went to South America, made a good living there, then moved again to Norway. He did not return to England until 1885, where he worked as a mining engineer and had an interest in mining properties. Despite his various business ventures, Beck was in debt to his hotel, had borrowed money from his secretary, and was chronically short of money. Nevertheless, he tried to keep up appearances by dressing in a frock coat and top hat whenever he went out. Furthermore, he had been involved in some indiscretions with women.

The Arrest

On December 16, 1895, Adolph 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 Adolph 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 mustache, he was quickly identified by the women as the man who had taken their clothes and jewelry.

Despite Beck's claims of innocence, he was charged with ten misdemeanors 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.

The Trial

On March 3, 1896, Adolph Beck was brought to trial in the Old Bailey. The Crown was represented by Horace Edmund Avory, assisted by Guy Stephenson, while the defense 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 defense 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 defense, 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 stand 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 try Beck for the misdemeanor 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 March 5 1896, Adolph Beck was found guilty 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 Becks' 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 May 13 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 had police contacts, 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 behavior, but despite his efforts to prove his innocence, fate was against him.

econd Arrest and Conviction

In early 1904, a servant by the name of Paulina Scott filed a complaint that a gray-haired, distinguished looking man had accosted her on the street, paid compliments to her, and then stolen her jewelry. The inspector who took the complaint was familiar with Beck's case and assumed he must be the culprit, so he sent Paulina to the restaurant where Beck took his lunch. She did not recognize him but the inspector was undeterred by the woman's uncertainty and set a trap for him.

On April 15, 1904, as Beck left his flat, Scott ran up to him and accused him of defrauding her of her jewelry. Beck was horrified and denied the charge. Scott repeated her accusations and told him that someone was waiting to arrest him. He ran away in panic, but was caught immediately by the waiting police inspector, who arrested him at once. Beck's panicked flight reinforced the inspector's assumption regarding his guilt.

He was again put on trial on June 27 at the Old Bailey before Sir William Grantham. Five women identified him and, based on this positive identification, he was found guilty by the jury. The judge, however, seems to have had doubts about his guilt and postponed sentencing. Ten days later the case was solved once and for all.

The Truth About John Smith

On a routine visit to a local police station on August 7, an inspector from the Criminal Investigation Department was told of the arrest of a man who had swindled some rings from a pair of unemployed actresses that afternoon. The detective was familiar with the Beck case and asked for details. The details fit the usual pattern but the alleged culprit, Adolph Beck, was already in jail, awaiting sentencing.

The inspector went to the new prisoner's cell. It held a gray-haired man, about Beck's height, with certain features which made him resemble Beck. However, Beck was younger and frailer in build, and this man had a scar on the right side of his neck as Ottilie Meissoner had remembered. The prisoner had given his name as William Thomas, but the inspector, convinced that he was John Smith, informed Scotland Yard. The five women who identified Beck in his second trial were brought in to confront Thomas and they quickly identified him as the swindler. Other women were brought in as well who also admitted their error in identifying Beck. When the man who had been John Smith's landlord in 1877 identified Thomas as his former tenant, the prisoner confessed his identity.

"William Thomas" turned out to be as much an alias as "John Smith" had been, and he had another alias as well, "William Wyatt." It was learned that his real name was Wilhelm Meyer, who was born in Vienna and had graduated from the University of Vienna. He studied leprosy in the Hawaiian Islands under Father Joseph Damien. He later became surgeon to the King of Hawaii and was engaged in growing coffee, and in various other businesses in the United States, before moving to London. Apparently he fell upon hard times when he stayed there, and turned to preying on women through fraud. When Beck was sent to prison in his place, Meyer had gone back to the United States and did not come back until 1903, apparently when he thought Beck had served out his sentence, and resumed his swindling until he was finally arrested. When brought to trial on September 15, Wilhelm Meyer pled guilty to those offenses.


Adolph Beck was pardoned on July 27, 1904, and in compensation for his false imprisonment was awarded £5,000 (about £300,000 today), but those who were responsible were the subject of public indignation.

Eventually a Committee of Inquiry was established, headed by the noted jurist and Master of the Rolls Sir Richard Henn Collins. It heard evidence from all those involved in the case, including Horace Avory and Sir Forrest Fulton. In its report, it concluded that Adolph Beck should not have been convicted in the first place due to the many errors made by the prosecution in presenting its case. The Committee also condemned Justice Fulton as inept and said that he should have recused himself because of his involvement with the 1877 case, which served to prejudice the proceedings against Beck. Furthermore, it criticized the Home Office for its indifference in acting on the case despite the fact that it had known since 1898 that Beck and Smith were not the same man. Instead, it sought to preserve the credibility of the judiciary rather than admit or correct its mistakes.

The case is still cited by judges in Commonwealth countries as a glaring example of how inaccurate eyewitness identification can be, and the extreme care with which juries must regard evidence of this kind.

As a direct result of the case, important reforms resulted, including the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal. As for Adolph Beck, his exoneration brought him little consolation. He died a broken man in 1909.


* "The Strange Case of Adolph Beck" by Tim Coates (Stationery Office Books, 2001).
* "The Trial of Adolf Beck" edited by Eric R. Watson (William Hodge and company, Notable British Trials series, 1924).

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