Though Arthur Machen thought little of his journalistic career, it allows the enthusiast to explore his views on subjects that seldom occur in his fiction. As a reporter, he explored many such topics as labor disputes, foreign wars and, for our current interest, true crime. While his fiction often covers the dangers to individuals by supernatural, or at the least, forces of ambiguous origin, the element of violent human agency takes a lesser role. It is safe to say that Machen cared little for the traditional narratives of crime and detective fiction so admirably pioneered by fellow countrymen Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In the category of nonfiction, one finds in Machen’s bibliography one noteworthy example of the true crime genre. In 1925, he published a book-length study on the saga of Elizabeth Canning, a young woman who disappeared and reappeared under strange circumstances in 1753. This treatise, The Canning Wonder, is rarely read today, even by most Machen admirers, and the common complaint by the few that do crack its pages focus on the slight material being spread too thinly. While the criticism is not undeserved, and this book certainly holds a minor position in the Machen cannon, it is worth the read. Machen treats his subject as a true mystery, one that is unsolvable, and does so with charm and delicate skepticism.
“That Is the Man” is a further, but certainly forgotten, addition to this obscure corner of Machen’s oeuvre. Yet in this instance, rather than simply following the events of a crime story, Machen chooses to boldly question a central method of investigation: the testimony of eyewitnesses, a spectre which continues to haunt modern policing. Interestingly, this article appears in the midst of that awful Crippen affair while it continued to captivate the British public.
That Is The Man:
Scotland Yard’s New Note of Identification
Evening News (July 16, 1910)
Distinctly new ground has been broken by the Scotland Yard authorities in their treatment of the Holloway murder mystery.1
For the first time in the history of criminal investigation in England a precise and studied description of the persons wanted has been made public; and it is interesting to note the minute touches – reminding one of the portraits drawn by Balzac – by which the officials of our detective police endeavour to set before the public not only the outward and superficial appearance, but something of the psychology of Hawley Harvey Crippen and Ethel Clara Le Neve. Thus the “rather slovenly appearance,” the “very plausible and quiet-spoken,” “shows his teeth much when talking,’ are all indications of a minute observation of the man as he lives.
And then in the description of Clara Le Neve we are given such points as “quiet, subdued manner,” “looks intently when in conversation,” “walks slowly,” “reticent.”
These police descriptions are more than descriptions; they are careful studies, or, as has been said, Balzacian portraits; and the general adoption of such a method would go a long way to obviate the risks of the ordinary haphazard methods of identification, the dangers of which are dealt with in the following article.2
About a week ago there was a queer case reported in the papers.
Condensed, it amounted to this. A boy, whom we will call A, charged a highly respectable and respected citizen named (we will say) B with having swindled him out of his gunmetal watch, valued at five-and-six, by means subtle craft. A recognized B later, gave B in charge, swore, with obvious honesty and conviction, that B was the thief.
But supposing that it had been an affair, not of a watch, but of a murder; supposing that a second positive and honest boy had come forward with his identification; suppose that, for one reason or another, no alibi were producible. It strikes me that matters would begin to look rather uncomfortable for B.
One must not forget that in real life the innocent Lesurques, was guillotined for robbing that famous Lyons Mail – he was identified as the criminal, I presume by several witnesses.3 And how many people swore to the identity of the unfortunate Beck?4 And Roger Tichborne’s own mother “recognised” the claimant as her long lost son.5
I remember an amusing experience of a similar kind of which I have personal knowledge.
A friend of mine came to see me at the London theatre.6 He noticed one of the company, a man utterly unknown to him, directing suspicious and unfriendly glances in his direction; he could not make it out. Afterwards the suspicious actor came up to me and said:
“I suppose you know Bilk’s character?”
“Who is Bilks?”
“That fellow who was with you tonight, of course.”
“Nonsense; that’s an old friend of mine; his name is Brown.”
“Brown! That’s another of his hanky-panky tricks. He was in the company for a year; swindled all the landladies on tour; and stole Smith’s gold watch. I should known him anywhere.”
And I am sure that he would have taken a solemn oath that Bilks had been before his eyes that very evening. But he would have sworn falsely.
Then, I have been twice hailed in the street by total strangers as “Van Tooter.” I explained to each that I was not Van Tooter, and each said “Sorry, my mistake!” But I don’t think that either believed for a moment in my disavowal. I only hope that Van Tooter will keep straight, or I shall probably find myself in a nasty mess one of these fine days.
Now, it seems to me that all these instances, both public and personal, show that evidence, by identification is extremely dubious evidence. The Tooter people, from the mode of their address, clearly knew their man quite well – and yet they mistook for this familiar friend a total stranger. The actor who was so sure that my Brown was his Bilks day after day, week after week, month after month, in make-up and out of it; and it may be noted that the players who are accustomed to recognise familiar features through the veils of strange disguises are usually gifted with good memories for facial characters.
Well, if the man who sees you every day for six months on end can blunder so absolutely, how about the average identifying witness of the law-courts? Jones and an unknown person are travelling, let us say, in a ‘bus; Robinson hops in and nods to Jones, with whom he has a slight acquaintance; and in a week or a month or in three months kisses the book and swears that the unknown person was the man in the dock!
It may be so; Robinson may be gifted with an eye that is a photographic plate and with a memory like that of a Mississippi pilot as described by Mark Twain.7
But these are highly improbable suppositions. Such photographic glances, such tenacious and infallible memories must be amongst the rarest of gifts; it can never be safe to presume their joint presence in the casual witness of a criminal trial.
I think that one reason of these facile identifications must be sought for in the practical uniformity of modern clothes.
Formerly there was a much greater degree of differentiation in dress. Leaving face and figure on one side nobody could have mistaken Dr. Johnson for Dr. Goldsmith, or have confused Mr. Garrick with either of them.8 Of course, there were fashions in the eighteenth century as there are now, but there was a much greater individuality in clothes. While the main lines of the costumes were the same in all cases, there was room for an infinite variety in detail. There were all the colours of the rainbow to choose from to begin with, you could fasten your shoes in your own way, you might wear seals or not wear seals, you might have your peculiar method with your stock. But now, if one thinks of it, the choice of colours and of collars is small, and one Londoner bears a strong if superficial resemblance to every other Londoner.
It is not only that any clerk is very like any other clerk, but that a primly turned out clerk may be very like an officer in the army, an up-to-date farmer, or a Minster of the Crown.
It is just this point (I suspect) that our positive and honest witnesses forget. They don’t really “identify” at all; it is all nonsense; and I believe that if they could be required to set down in writing an exact description of that “unknown person” in the ‘bus before being shown the prisoner in the dock, the vagueness of their recollections would appear.
Quite honestly, they have a floating impression of a bowler hat, a dark coat – black or blue serge – a moustache, and lightish trousers; they find, it is probable, something like this occupying a very unpleasant position in a court of justice, and out comes their “That is the man.”
Of course, the tricks of coincidence are infinite and inexplicable; the law may be searching for a man five feet high who stutters, is blind of one eye, and has a peculiar malformation of the right thumb – and pounce on a perfectly innocent person with all these peculiarities.
Against such a coincidence as this one cannot guard; but when the witness talks of having noticed “a slight man, in dark clothes, with a moustache,” and then goes on to “identify” the prisoner by such marks as these – well, I think, that the jury should give but little heed to his evidence.
1 The Holloway mystery refers to a case of infidelity and murder which gripped Britain at the time of this article’s writing. Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen murdered and dismembered his wife before leaving the country with his lover Ethel Clare Le Neve. Despite his planning and flight, Crippen was apprehended in the United States and extradited. The case is a fascinating example of crime and detection which remains a historical and cultural memory. While Le Neve was not convicted, later married and died in obscurity in 1967, Crippen was executed by hanging four months after the publication of this article. Machen returns to the case in a short story entitled The Islington Mystery (1927).
2 It is quite likely that an editor penned this italicized introduction for it reads as an attempt to preemptively walk back the clearly-stated skepticism of Machen’s article.
3 Joseph Lesurques was arrested, tried and and executed for his purported role in a famous robbery which took place during revolutionary France. Despite the testimony of one of the perpetrators of the crime, who claimed that Joseph merely resembled one of his fellow robbers, the court still found Lesurques guilty based on the testimony of eye-witnesses. The instance is legendary as an example of mistaken identity and as a miscarriage of justice.
4 Machen presents another famous case of mistaken identity. In 1895, Adolf Beck was arrested and convicted in London for defrauding various women of their jewelry and other possessions. Despite strong evidence to the contrary, including living in South America during the executions of some of these crimes, Beck was assumed to be a “John Smith,” a laughably ubiquitous alias, who had previously served a jail term for simlar offenses. His case became a causes célèbres. After serving most of his sentence, Beck was released and accused a second time of swindling a woman. In danger of being sentenced a second time, the real criminal, Wilhelm Meyer, who had used the Smith moniker, was finally apprehended. In the photograph to the left, we find Adolf Beck presented above and Meyer below. By mentioning this example, still fresh in the minds of his readers, Machen adds some heft to his somewhat facetious remarks of concern for being confused with an unknown “Van Tooter.”
5 For his final example, Machen refers to the Victorian saga over a claimant to the Tichbourne baronetcy. The heir, Roger, had been believed lost in a shipwreck. Years later, a Australian man presented himself as the lost man, but the court disagreed and convicted the imposter for perjury. Still it remains a controversial case, no doubt in part to Lady Tichbourne’s acceptance of the man as her son.
6 Before beginning his tenure as a journalist for the Evening News, Machen enjoyed a career on the stage. Here, he grants us a brief, but delightful anecdote from this period of his life.
7 A good memory is one of the river pilot’s vital necessities as outlined by Twain in Chapter XIII of Life on the Mississippi (1883). Obviously well versed in Twain, Machen deemed Huckleberry Finn (1876) as homeric in scope.
8 Here, Machen is referencing Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) and David Garrick (1717-1779). All three were men of letters.