A Case of Mistaken Identity

This is a century old case of mistaken identity which led to changes to the British legal system and demonstrates just how unreliable witness descriptions can be.

Surveys show that jurors rely heavily on eyewitness testimony when they weigh up the evidence to decide whether a suspect is guilty or innocent. But scientific research tells us that the human memory is flawed. People tend to believe that our memories work like a video recorder and play scenes back to us in exactly the way they happened, but memories are reconstructed rather than replayed – and often, they’re rebuilt incorrectly. Elizabeth F. Loftus, psychologist at the University of California, says that recalling something is like slotting jigsaw puzzle pieces together.

There are a number of factors which make it more likely that someone will make a false identification, such as extreme stress from witnessing a crime, the use of a disguise by the criminal, not being given enough time to look at a line-up or suspect photos, and a perpetrator who lacks any distinctive characteristics.

In the late 1800s, Norwegian chemist Adolf Beck found out about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony the hard way. He had come to England 30 years before and had a job as a shipping clerk.  He had no criminal record and lived a quiet, uneventful life, so he was appalled when a woman stormed towards him outside his home on December 16th, 1895, her face twisted with anger. The conversation went something like this:

‘Sir, I know you!’

‘What do you want from me?’

‘You, sir, are a thief!’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about madam!’

By now, Beck had crossed the street to get away from her, but the furious woman pursued him.

‘You know very well sir, and I shall follow you wherever you go!’

She continued to go after him until they saw a policeman and both approached him at the same time, one vociferously complaining that she had caught a villainous thief, the other protesting that he knew nothing about the scurrilous accusations.

At Rochester Row police station, the woman claimed that three weeks before, Beck had stopped her in the street and the following discussion had taken place:

‘Good afternoon madam, are you by any chance Lady Everton?’

‘Why, no, whatever made you think such a thing?’

‘Oh, I am sorry madam. It’s just that your beauty and bearing suggested to me that you must have an aristocratic background. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Lord Willoughby. I do hope I have not caused offence.’

“Ooh, not at all.”

‘Forgive me for being so bold, but I’m in search of a housekeeper. I live in St Johns Wood. Are you interested in the position?’

‘Well what a stroke of luck! I’m looking for a new situation and I would suit you very well sir, I’m sure.’

‘Splendid! Shall I come to see you at your home tomorrow for afternoon tea? Then we can discuss it further.’

The woman had given her address to the man calling himself Willoughby and he had joined her for tea as promised. Things must have gone well, because by the end of the visit he had invited her to visit the French Riviera with him and gave her a cheque for £40 to buy some new clothes for the trip. He then offered to buy her some jewellery.

‘Would you mind lending me your ring and your watch, madam, so I can match the sizes? I’ll buy you some delightful pieces for our trip to France.’

‘Ooh la la! Certainly, sir.’

Evidently the allure of expensive clothes and jewellery outweighed any common sense in the woman’s mind about trusting someone she had only just met and handing over her valuables, even if he did claim to be Lord Willoughby.

Unsurprisingly, the man absconded with the jewellery and the £40 cheque bounced.

The policeman listened with concern as the woman told her tale.

“What do you have to say about that then?” he asked Adolf Beck.

Beck strenuously denied ever having seen the woman before. He was genuinely astonished and had no idea what was going on.

The policeman thought the details of this crime sounded familiar to one reported by a Miss Daisy Grant a few months earlier. He consulted his file and found that her description also matched Beck. Grant was brought to the station and picked Beck out from a line-up of seven men, and he was charged and remanded in custody on suspicion of both crimes. When an article about the case appeared in the newspaper, a whole procession of women arrived at the police station, explaining that they too had fallen victim to the same scam. The stories of woe and lost trinkets poured in, and 12 women from around London stated adamantly that Adolf Beck was the flimflam man who had tricked them.

The problem with line-ups in those days, was that police simply stepped out into the street and picked the first people they could find, without bothering to ensure that they looked like the suspect in custody. This meant that in one of the line-ups, all the men were younger than Beck and only one had a moustache like his, so he very obviously stood out. One woman even identified him from a parade of 14 men. What was glossed over at the time, was that another 12 women had said Beck was NOT the man who defrauded them, but regrettably this vital information was hidden until it was too late.

Other police officers remembered a similar case from 20 years before and decided to blame those hustles on Beck too. It was the same MO. A conman would target a woman with high aspirations and a low income, pretending to mistake her for an aristocrat to flatter her, before telling the luckless lady that he was a Lord himself. He would then call on her at home the next day if she seemed receptive, sometimes on the pretence of considering employing her as his housekeeper. It was implied that the role would include being his mistress, although this was not said explicitly.

The huckster would then tell the woman she needed new clothes and recommended some high-end shops, furnishing her with a sizeable cheque which would turn out to be useless. Lord Willoughby would then never be seen again. The man who committed these crimes two decades before in 1877 was called John Smith, and he had served four years in prison for it. He’d clearly started up his ruse again, but police assumed Adolf Beck was John Smith using a different name. Some of the women had samples of the conman’s handwriting and a so-called expert witness testified that it was Beck’s writing which he had tried to disguise.

In February, Beck was committed for trial on 10 counts of ‘obtaining by false pretences’, and theft. Beck had been in Peru in 1877 and couldn’t possibly have committed the earlier set of crimes, but the trial was a grotesque miscarriage of justice from start to finish, and he was never given the opportunity to put this evidence forward and could not afford to bring any witnesses over from South America to prove it anyway. The judge ruled that no discussion of the 1877 crimes was allowed, arguing that they had nothing to do with the current charges; an odd decision, when the first wave of crimes were what had prompted police to assume Beck was John Smith to begin with.

Beck was found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude. To add insult to injury, the judge harshly told the innocent man standing in the dock that his crimes were base, wicked, and heartless. Beck continued to deny the charge over the following years which he spent miserably breaking stones and working in the prison’s tailor’s shop. He’d been given John Smith’s old prison number and as far as the legal system was concerned, he was John Smith, and one of the basest, most despicable confidence tricksters ever to walk the streets of London.

In those days, there was no court of appeal in the UK and the only option was to petition the Home Office. Beck made 15 heartfelt pleas, all summarily rejected, perhaps to protect the reputation of the obstinate, misguided judge. It should have been apparent that there was something wrong. When John Smith had been arrested for the 1877 crimes, he had never protested his innocence. In contrast, Beck steadfastly maintained that he had never seen any of the women in his life, yet police and prosecutors still insisted he was the same man.

After two years in jail, the governor reviewed John Smith’s old prison file and noticed that his religion was listed as Jewish. He decided to have Beck examined and found he was not circumcised, so he could not have been John Smith. But even faced with this evidence, the judge stubbornly refused to reopen the case and although he grudgingly agreed Beck could be given a new prison number, he still believed he was guilty of the recent wave of extortions.

By 1901, Beck was a free man after serving five years in jail for crimes he did not commit. By now he was 60 years old. He tracked down some of the women who had accused him and tried to make his peace with the situation by asking them why they had done it. Some of them recognised him and others didn’t, apparently with no memory of his face at all – yet they’d been so sure of it just a few years earlier.  He settled back into his life, scarred by his unjust internment but grateful for his liberation.

But the nightmare wasn’t over. Three years later on April 15th 1904 Adolf Beck saw three people standing on the corner near his house. A woman approached him and said:

“I know you! You took a sovereign from me, you knave!”

Beck must have felt the terror rising up inside him when he heard these ominous words. Was this torment really happening all over again? It was.

“Who sent you? The police? Why are you doing this to me?”

“You stole my money!”

“If you have a heart, you know you’re lying. You know perfectly well I never stole anything from you!”

The police were called and the whole fiasco looked set to repeat itself. The stories came tumbling out. It was the same again, Lord Willoughby, jewellery thefts and fake cheques. Back at the Old Bailey on trial, Beck probably thought he was trapped in some kind of nightmare. Nowadays, we might call it Kafkaesque, reminiscent of the dystopian book The Trial where the protagonist, known only as K, is incessantly pursued and persecuted for no apparent reason.

Once again, the jury found Adolf Beck guilty, based purely on the women’s identifications. At 63, he faced another few years behind bars, but thankfully it was a different judge presiding, who had the sense to postpone the sentence and address his niggling doubts. Beck was held in prison while a further investigation was carried out and his solicitor negotiated with the judge.

Luck was finally on his side. Just a few days later, while Beck was still in custody, a smartly dressed man with a grey moustache tried his old tricks and hoodwinked someone else. The woman he targeted had second thoughts after he left her home, pockets heavy with the weight of her borrowed watch and rings. She asked her landlord to follow the man, and he was caught red handed having the jewellery valued before trying to obtain money for it at the pawnbrokers. He was promptly arrested and proved to be the real, original John Smith. He pleaded guilty and the case against Beck fell apart, as it should have done many years before. The handwriting expert checked Smith’s writing and realised it was a match with the letters from earlier crimes, and sheepishly recanted his statement against Beck.

The case was rightly considered a huge scandal and an embarrassment to the legal system and Beck was freed from his second incarceration on 19th July and officially pardoned. He was awarded £5,000 compensation, equivalent to about £300,000 today, partly thanks to pressure from the newspapers who fought his corner. A court of inquiry was set up which began to uncover the systematic injustice of Beck’s case. No evidence had been found in his home and he had not been given the chance to present any evidence that he was out of the country during the 1877 crimes. The whole case had hung on eyewitness testimonies alone.

The Court of Criminal Appeal was established by the Criminal Appeal Act of 1907, thanks to Beck’s ordeal and that of George Edalji, a British solicitor who was also the victim of a miscarriage of justice and served three years’ hard labour after being convicted of horse mutilation in 1903. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the Sherlock Holmes stories, played a prominent role in campaigning for his release, and it was eventually recognised that an appeal system was necessary to protect citizens from an imperfect justice system.

Adolph Beck’s case is still referred to today in legal textbooks and is a perfect example of how eyewitness descriptions cannot be trusted. That’s not to say they can’t be helpful, but verdicts should never be based on witness testimonies alone. The jurors probably wondered how so many people could be wrong, when they all seemed so certain. But they were. If the prosecution had also presented the dozen other women with better memories who said Beck wasn’t the man who defrauded them, perhaps the jurors would have arrived at a different verdict and Beck would not have been victim to a disgraceful travesty.

Sadly, Beck died just five years after his exoneration in December 1909 at the age of 68, from pleurisy and bronchitis. Whether his time in prison and his traumatic ordeal hastened his demise, we will never know.



  • Futility Closet Podcast, Episode 165: A Case of Mistaken Identity



  • The Evening Times, December 24, 1909



  • The Sun, May 31, 1914, “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a detective in real life”