A Lesson In Mistaken Identity
One day, in 1896, a woman visited Scotland Yard to lodge a complaint. About a week before, she said, she had answered an advertisement in a newspaper for a housekeeper for an English nobleman. Within a day or two a man appeared at her house and introduced himself as Lord Willoughby de Winton. He interviewed her, described his great country estate in magnificent terms, and intimated that if the lady accepted the position offered, she might in time be elevated above the status of a mere housekeeper; and it was the moment when she was set to decieve by a mistaken identity.
His lordship must have been a man of persuasion, for before he left he suddenly discovered that he had “forgotten” to bring his wallet, and asked his new housekeeper to lend him a few pounds. The good lady, completely befuddled by her unexpected luck, impetuously handed over to him all the money she had in the house. His lordship accepted with profuse thanks, and wrote her a check to cover the amount.
What brought her to Scotland Yard was the baffling fact that when she presented the check at the bank, no one there had ever heard of Lord Willoughby de Winton. Gone was her rapturous vision of the future; gone was his lordship; and worse still, gone were her painfully earned savings. What did Scotland Yard make of it all?
A petty swindle of this caliber would probably not have disturbed Scotland Yard very much if it had stopped there. But within the next few days, sixteen other women turned up with the same story. Apparently Lord de Winton was operating in London on an extensive scale. A search was inaugurated, but no clue developed until one day a bobby in Victoria Street was attracted by a woman’s cries. “There he is,” she screamed. “That’s him—Lord Willoughby de Winton!”
The man was arrested at once and brought to Scotland Yard. There he was confronted by the seventeen women who had lodged complaints. All but one of them identified him at once, with absolute certainty. He, on the other hand, registered the utmost bewilderment. What was all this about—Lord de Winton? His name was Beck, Adolph Beck, and he had never set eyes on any of these women before in his life.
Nevertheless, on the strength of the fact that sixteen women had identified him at sight, the law took its course, and Adolph Beck was sentenced to fourteen years in prison. He served seven years, and then was released.
But that is only the first half of the story. Two years after Adolph Beck left prison, another woman visited Scotland Yard and reported herself a victim of the same sort of swindle. The technique was identical: the advertisement, the visit, the forgotten wallet, the worthless check. Scotland Yard sent out an alarm, and soon Adolph Beck was once more in the toils of the law. Once more he protested his innocence.
The prison doors were about to clang on him a second time when something happened which caused Scotland Yard to pause and consider. A dozen more women entered complaints, but these women had been swindled while Adolph Beck was behind bars being held for trial. Were there two such swindlers —or was it just possible that Beck was telling the truth, after all?
Finally one woman who was a little less susceptible to charm than the others became suspicious, followed “Lord de Winton” from her home, trailed him to a pawnshop, watched him pawn her jewels, and then notified the police. The man they caught red-handed was a habitual criminal named Thomas. He, and not Adolph Beck, was Lord Willoughby de Winton.
The signatures on the checks were compared with Thomas’ handwriting and proved him guilty beyond a doubt. The women concerned in both cases were called in, and they identified Thomas at once, just as promptly and as confidently as they had once pointed accusing fingers at Adolph Beck.
Poor Beck was finally released, and Parliament granted him five thousand pounds as consolation for his unjust imprisonment.
During his two ordeals, more than two dozen witnesses had identified Beck positively and without hesitation. Yet did he actually look like Thomas? As far as type went, he did. The two were about the same size; each had gray hair and wore a mustache. Yet when they stood side by side, it was almost impossible to see how anyone could have mistaken one for the other.
It would be ridiculous to say that the witnesses who wrongly identified Beck as Lord Willoughby de Winton must have had unusually poor memories for faces. There were too many of them to excuse on those grounds. The story clearly illustrates the fact that the average memory for faces is highly unreliable and contributes a lot towards mistaken identity issues. Ask any detective what he thinks of the general citizen’s memory. He will tell you that he would rather rely on one complete set of accurate physical measurements to identify a criminal than on the unanimous and concerted recognition given by an entire neighborhood.
You might enjoy filling out the form the New York police use in their efforts to trace a person who is missing or wanted for some offense. If you were held up in New York and told the police you could identify the robber, they would ask you to fill out this “pedigree” form. To test your own powers of observation, pretend you are trying to help the police locate some person you met very recently. It might be the telephone repairman who came in this morning, the salesman who waited on you in a department store, or the friend of your luncheon companion who stopped for a brief chat at your table. How many of the following questions could you answer?
CITY OF NEW YORK
CHECK RELEVANT MATTER
APPEARS—Slim Stout Medium Drug User Face Pockmarked
SHOULDERS—Straight Round Hunchback Stooped
Is Right or Left Handed
EYES—Blue Grey Hazel Brown Maroon Wears Glasses
Cross-eyed: Right or Left Eye
Artificial: Right or Left Eye
Blind: Right or Left Eye
HAIR—Sandy Blonde Brown Red Auburn Black Partially Grey Grey Partially Bald Bald Wig
NOSE—Small Large Pug Straight Hooked
EARS—Small Large Medium Flaring Close to Head
Cauliflower: Right or Left Both
Deaf: Right or Left Both
MUSTACHE—Color Long Short Stubby Turned-up
Ends Pointed Ends
SPEECH—Fast Talker Slow Talker Stammers Accent Kind
Soft Voice Gruff Voice Effeminate Voice
DISTINCTIVE MARKS—Note below All Scars, Tattoo Marks, Missing Teeth, Gold Teeth, Upper or Lower Jaw; If Lame, the Cause; Amputations, Bow-Legged, Knock-Kneed, Pigeon-Toed, Twitching of Features:
Now try filling out the form for:
- A friend you see constantly.
- Someone—a former classmate perhaps—whom you used to know well but have not seen in several years.
- A person in your neighborhood whom you know only slightly.
Obviously, it is highly imperative for policemen and detectives to get a thorough training in remembering faces in order to avoid mistaken identity crisis . In your own case it is probably not often a matter of life and death, but nevertheless whether or not you are able to remember someone’s appearance may be extremely important to you, if not to the public at large. That is why a mind trained to link the right names to faces will get you a good distance ahead of the next man, for the chances are that his memory for faces is no better than the average—which we have demonstrated is distressingly poor.
Since you have had your first lesson in remembering names and faces, I suggest you try the principles out tomorrow on a few people and see how much easier people are to remember than photographs.