The Mistaken Mr. Beck

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Adolf Beck

Unused postcards can be fascinating. This one, published by Raphael Tuck & Sons features the image and facsimile signature of Adolf Beck – a person that few people knew or ever heard his name. Since I am one who had not heard of Adolf Beck, my curiosity was provoked by the person who wrote the following on the reverse of the card:

Court of Criminal Appeal was created in 1907 as wrongly convicted of fraud / theft by inaccurate eyewitness identification.
Brought to trial at Old Bailey 3/3/1896.
5/3/1896 found guilty and sentenced to 7 years at Portland Convict Prison.
Pardoned in 1904 but died a broken man in 1909.

This was enough to encourage an investigation, but not a “blow by blow” report on the troubles of Mr. Beck, but a summary using an article from The Referee from July 31, 1904.

By Mr. F. J. SIMS (of the Treasury).

“In 1895 Mr. Adolf Beck was arrested by the Metropolitan Police on the complaint of a woman who said he had robbed her. He was remanded, and identified by nine other women, who made similar accusations against him. He was put on trial to defend himself on ten charges.

“After a four-day trial he was convicted at the Old Bailey in February 1896 and sentenced to a seven-year penal servitude.

“During the present year Beck was again arrested, this time in Tottenham Court Road, on the complaint of a woman named Scott. Four other women identified him as a man who had defrauded them.

“While Beck was awaiting sentence William Thomas was arrested on the present charges, and Detective-inspector Kane investigated the matter.

“The result of those investigations was to establish beyond all reasonable doubt that the convictions of Beck in 1895 and 1904 were erroneous convictions.

Beck had, in fact, been mistakenly identified by fifteen women. There was considerable resemblance between the two men. Their handwriting was curiously alike, and they had both stayed at the same hotels. On the real facts of the case being ascertained Beck was released from prison on his own recognizance.

“Immediately afterward Mr. Adolf Beck received his Majesty’s Free Pardon.”

It would appear that Adolf Beck’s identity was confused with a fraudster and past prisoner who was known by the name of John Smith and who presented himself to young women as Lord Willoughby. Beck was believed to be John Smith and when initially sentenced to prison he was given the previous prison number of Smith (D523) to which was added the letter ‘W’ to denote that he was a repeat convict.

In 1898 the Home Office reviewed Beck’s file and noted that the records of John Smith advised that he was of Jewish extraction and circumcised, which Beck was not. This discovery did not cause the 1895 judgement to be overturned, although the letter ‘W’ was removed, and Beck remained in prison.

The 1901 census records Adolf Beck, aged 57, single, and born in Norway as being a convict in Portland Convict Establishment.

John Smith was an alias used by William Thomas, and ‘William Thomas turned out to be as much an alias as ‘John Smith’ had been, and he had two other aliases as well, ‘William Wyatt’ and ‘William Weiss.’

His true identity was Wilhelm Meyer, born in Vienna and 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, even setting up practice as a physician in Adelaide 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 pleaded guilty to those offences and was jailed for 5 years.


What happened to Adolf Beck?

Adolf Beck was given a free pardon by the King on July 29, 1904, and in compensation for his false imprisonment was awarded £2,000, later raised to £5,000 due to public clamor. Those who were responsible were the subject of public indignation.

There are several newspaper reports on the death of Adolf Beck who died in hospital of bronchitis on December 7, 1909. There was a report in the Evening News (London) concerning his funeral on December 13, 1909.


The funeral of the late Mr. Adolf Beck took place quietly at Highgate Cemetery to-day.

“So far as the public was concerned the event passed practically unnoticed. Fewer than a dozen people, for the most part visitors to the cemetery, followed the mourners to the graveside.

“The mourners included Mr. George B. Sims, who so ably championed Mr. Beck’s cause, the Norwegian Consul and the secretary of the Consulate, and a few friends of the dead man.

Among the latter were the steward of Dryden Chambers, where Mr. Beck lived, and a young girl who waited on him, the only woman present.”

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Very interesting story. How cruel in this misidentification of an innocent man. What can we learn from this? Thank for the thought provoking history most of us would never have known about.

It makes me wonder how many of those 15 women were influenced by Adolf Beck’s photograph being included as “one of the usual suspects” after being misidentified by the first woman.

Wilhelm Meyer’s life could be made into an interesting movie even without bringing in the fact he got away with crimes for which Adolf Beck was convicted.

Great investigation, very rare subject.

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