Chapter XVIII. – Mistaken Identity, pp.75-79.

[Book of Blunders Contents]

IN the year 1864, I had to do, indirectly, with a curious case of mistaken identity. A Scotch arm bailiff had been robbed of £60 in London by some scoundrel with whom he had been drinking in the Balmoral Arms and the Prince of Orange Tavern. The bailiff gave information of the robbery; and some days after, being in Parliament Street with a police officer, he suddenly pointed to a person on the opposite side of the street, and said, 

   “That’s the man who robbed me.” 

The constable told him to go over and make sure. The bailiff went over, and again declared, on returning, that that was the man. The constable thereupon crossed the street, apprehended him, and took him to the House of Detention. The landlord of the Balmoral Arms was called and immediately picked out the accused, from amongst nine other prisoners, as the man whom he had seen entering his tavern with the bailiff. The accused was then placed with four other prisoners, and the potman of the Prince of Orange was brought in and asked if he saw amongst them the man whom he had served with liquor at the time of the robbery. The potman at once pointed to the accused. Was he sure that was the man? Yes; he was sure that was the man. 

And yet, when the accused was brought before the Westminster Police Court, a few days after, it was proved beyond all dispute that he was not, and could not possibly be, the man. It turned out that he was a Mr Gale, a civil engineer, who at the time of the robbery was attending a professional meeting in another part of London. And yet the bailiff persisted in declaring before the court that Mr Gale was the man who had robbed him of his £60. 

This was a very serious state of things. Just conceive what Mr Gale’s position would have been, supposing (as might readily have been the case) that he had been in humble circumstances and in need of money, that he had been in the part of London where the robbery was committed, and that there had been nobody to depone as to what he had been about at the4 time. How, in such a case, could the solemn and, no doubt, thoroughly conscientious declaration of three different witnesses that he was the man who had committed the robbery – how could this have been gainsaid in order to rescue him from disgrace and punishment for a crime of which he was entirely innocent? When Mall, the barber’s apprentice, was tried at the Old Bailey for robbing Mr Ryan, of Portland Street, all the witnesses swore solemnly that he was the man; and he would inevitably have been found guilty, had it not been proved that, at the very time when Mr Ryan had been robbed, poor Mall was standing at the same Old Bailey bar, charged with another robbery, swore against him just as positively, but of which he was equally innocent. The poor apprentice had the misfortune to be almost the facsimile of some notorious thief. There is a point in connection with these cases of mistaken identity worth looking at. Mr Gale’s counsel, in the first case referred to, said that 

   “the charge against his client was one of those cases which elucidated the terrible mistakes which are made by persons relying on the evidence of their own senses.” 

But the mistake which these persons made was not made by relying on the evidence of their own senses. The mistake they committed lay in declaring that the man before them was the same man whom they had seen with the bailiff, and this was a point to which their senses did not testify. Suppose you see a little ragged boy, with red hair and a pug nose, slip his hand into a gentleman’s pocket and pull out a purse. Next day you are called to the Police Court, where there is a boy who has been charged with the theft. You are asked to say if this is the boy you saw pick the gentleman’s pocket the day before. You look at him. Your senses testify that this is a little boy, as the other was; a ragged boy, as the other was; that he has red hair and a pug nose, as the other had; and so on, in various other particulars; and, as you think it extremely unlikely that two boys should so exactly resemble one another, you conclude that this is the same boy that you saw the day before. But this last is not the testimony of your senses; it is an exercise of your judgment. It is not a fact; it is an argument based on the assumption that there cannot be two boys in the place so exactly alike. But suppose there are two such boys, just as, in the case of Mr Gale, or of Mall the barber’s apprentice, there were two such men; and suppose it turns out that you have mistaken one of these boys for the other, then you would do wrong to blame your senses. It is not your senses that are at fault; it is your logic. Your senses testified to nothing but similarity between the two, and they were right; your reasoning faculty inferred the identity of the two, and there lay the mistake. The distinction is important, and, if properly attended to, would prevent a good deal of confusion in legal investigations, as well as in other departments of human inquiry. Any one who sets himself to consider, for even a few minutes, what vital and stupendous consequences in law, in science, and in the evidence of Christianity itself, are involved in the reliability of the senses, will see the danger as well as the injustice of bringing discredit upon them by confounding their testimony with mere inference, and charging them with deceptions of which they are quite as guiltless as Mr Gale was of the robbery of the Scotch bailiff. 

Another curious case occurred some years since in New York, where a Mr Joseph Parker was tried for bigamy, because, being taken for another honest man of the name of Hoag, he was supposed to be the husband both of Hoag’s wife and his own. He was solemnly sworn to as Mrs Hoag’s husband, and yet he was proved to have married another woman – namely, his own wife. Poor Parker’s resemblance to Hoag was not confined to any mere general likeness. Hoag had a scar on his forehead – so had Parker. Hoag spoke with a lisp – so did Parker. Hoag had a peculiar mark upon his neck – so had Parker. And had it not been that Parker was fortunately free from a scar which Hoag had upon his foot, he would have been convicted of a crime which neither he nor any other person had committed. It was no doubt this possibility of mistaking one person for another that was in Samuel Johnson’s mind when he declared that it was safer to shoot a robber than swear to him afterwards. 


he said, 

   “when you shoot the villain, there’s no mistake about him.” 

It sounds a little harsh; but no doubt he thought it better to make sure of the right man being shot for his crime, than run the risk of a wrong man being hanged for it. 

Happily, however, a wise and merciful Providence has impressed so distinct a character upon each person that, amidst the millions and millions of human beings around us, the mistake of one person for another is very rare. If it were otherwise – if instead of tending to differ, people tended to exact similarity, so that almost any one might be taken or might pass himself off for any other – what confusion and chaos would ensue!

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