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Identification Problems

Gottfried Hessel

The murder of 27-year-old Harriet Buswell (alias Clara Burton) at 12 Great Coram Street WC1 on Christmas Eve 1872 created enormous controversy.  The victim had left her lodgings at about 10pm on 24 December after borrowing a shilling (5p) from a fellow lodger, and had returned with a male guest, supposedly a German, at about midnight.   She had returned home with bags of apples, oranges and nuts as well as her guest, and was then able to pay her landlady half a sovereign (50p).   After Harriet Buswell had entertained her guest in her room that night, the man was heard to leave the house at 6.30am on Christmas morning.   At about midday, other occupants of the house, concerned about not seeing her, opened her room and found the unfortunate Harriet brutally murdered. Superintendent Thompson of E Division took charge of the investigation.

 The suspicion that the murder was a foreigner led to the Ramsgate police suspecting Carl Wohlebbe, the assistant surgeon of a German brig Wangerland, which had been in port, undergoing repairs during the Christmas period.   Inspector Harnett therefore travelled from London to Ramsgate with witnesses and an identification parade was held where witnesses picked out not Carl Wohlebbe, but the ship's chaplain Dr Gottfried Hessel.   So Dr Hessel was charged and appeared   before Bow Street magistrates court.   Superintendent Thompson proved that Hessel had been in London on the night in question, and the identification of the two witnesses at Ramsgate was sufficient for him to be remanded in custody.  

When Dr Hessel appeared at Bow Street on the following week, 29 January, two other witnesses also identified him in the dock, but others were not sure.   A housemaid from the Royal Hotel in Ramsgate testified that Dr Hessel had asked for some turpentine and a clothes brush when he had returned from London after Christmas, and there was also evidence that one of Dr Hessel's handkerchiefs had been saturated with blood.      Dr Hessel gave alibi evidence that because of illness he had never left his London hotel on the night in question, and he was supported by Carl Wohlebbe.  Despite the case being conducted by lawyers, the police had apparently not been asked to interview witnesses to investigate this alibi.   The magistrate, Mr Vaughan, discharged Dr Hessel from the court, declaring that he was being released without suspicion.   The case generated enormous publicity.   Dr Hessel was cheered by the crowds and a public subscription was raised for him by The Daily Telegraph before his departure for Brazil.

But not everybody viewed Dr Hessel as an innocent clergyman.   Shortly afterwards, a letter  was received from Germany exposing a less reputable side of his life, but as the author(s) were anonymous, and Dr Hessel had by that time been acquitted, no account could be taken of it, nor could its true significance be assessed :

Adolf Beck

The years around the turn of the twentieth century provided a more notorious case of mistaken identity than Dr Hessel.    Adolf Beck was arrested on two occasions, in 1896 and 1904, after female victims of fraud wrongly identified him in the street.   The frauds all had a distinctive method whereby a man, purporting to be a member of the aristocracy, would approach women, invite them to go sailing with him, and present them with a cheque (which bounced) for the purchase of clothes.   He, in turn, took one or more of their rings as a sample of their finger size, saying that he would go to a jeweller's to buy a better ring.  The man then disappeared, having pawned the victim's ring.

The culprit, a German named Weiss, was convicted in 1877, but Beck was picked out in the street, and at identification parades in 1896 and convicted, despite dubious evidence from a  handwriting expert.  After his release he was again picked out in the street, and convicted again of more incidents of the same method in 1904, but whilst in prison, awaiting sentence for his second wrongful conviction, the real offender played the same trick on two other women and, by good fortune, was immediately arrested.   Beck at last had a cast-iron alibi because this time he was in prison, and the identity of the other man could be established.

Beck was prosecuted because of the peculiar and consistent method of the frauds, his similarity in appearance to the real offender, the opinion of a handwriting expert named Gurrin, and a succession of female victims who identified him for two prosecutions.   The recollections of the women may have been at fault, but they were in good company.   Elliss Spurrell, the police officer who had originally arrested Weiss, alias John Smith in 1877, gave evidence at the magistrates court that Adolf Beck was the same man, and the prosecuting counsel at the Old Bailey in the 'John Smith' case was the trial judge, Sir Forrest Fulton, who dealt with Adolf Beck's first trial in 1896.   

The credit for resolving this miscarriage of justice lay firstly with the 1904 trial judge, Mr Justice Grantham, who had lingering doubts about Beck's guilt and had delayed concluding the case despite apparently strong prosecution evidence and procedures.  It was in this period of delay, before being sentenced, that the crucial arrest of the real offender took place.   Much credit is also due to Inspector John Kane for his action in making a series of formal reports to investigate William Thomas thoroughly, and to establish that he was the same man as the John Smith who had been convicted in 1877.

 Kane had been in court during Beck's 1896 trial and knew that it had been accepted on both sides that the handwriting in the 1877 and the 1896 frauds was identical.   The issue was whether the handwriting expert Gurrin was right to claim that the writing was Beck's being disguised.   Kane examined the writing of the recent prisoner William Thomas and found that it was strikingly  similar to the letters on which Beck had been convicted.   Beck was Norwegian, and claimed that the fraudster was a German.   John Kane established the real identity of the original John Smith (and hence also of the recently arrested William Thomas) as a German, or Austrian, named William Weiss.   He brought three witnesses who had identified Beck to an identification parade, and they unhesitatingly picked out Weiss as the culprit.   This proved Beck's innocence, and he was awarded 5,000 compensation for the miscarriage of justice he had suffered.

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