Doubles In Crime

by Arthur Machen


There are cases, in life and at law, which must ever remain mysteries. We may be assured, as reasonable beings, that the verdict was truly given, that the truth of the matter was reached, and yet at the unreasonable back of our heads there will be that little jot of hesitation, that unjustifiable “and yet,” which refuses to be quashed or put out of court.

There is such a case as this in Montagu Williams's wonderful volume of reminiscences. The affair happened somewhere in the mid-'eighties, and in its day was known as “The Brighton Bigamy.” One Miss Emma Dash met a gentleman on the Parade at Brighton, shortly before Eastertide. He introduced himself. He said he had met Miss Dash at a dance in London, and he was allowed to join the young lady, who was promenading with her mother. Captain McDonald—that was the name he gave—told the story of his heart. He was a sea captain, and four years before he had been engaged to a lady, who, her mother said, was over young to marry yet. So the Captain waited; but when he returned from his last voyage he found his sweetheart married to another. And he drew a moral: if he ever did get married, he avowed, he would take his wife aboard with him. Captain McDonald, it appeared, was every inch a sailor. One might almost venture to call him a Jack Tar. There were no cautious delays, no slow deliberations for him. He was full of the rush, the fine impulsiveness of the deep blue mariner—of fiction. That very afternoon, on permission given, he called on the young lady and her mother, and drove Miss Dash to Lewes. They dined at the White Hart and drove back to Brighton. At the station, the Captain took train to London, promising to send a wire to Miss Dash. The wire was duly received; it requested Miss Dash to meet the 12.34 train, and, if possible, secure the man who had driven them to Lewes. The two met, drove to Worthing, dined there, and returned to Brighton. The Captain saw Miss Dash home, and asked the mother for the daughter's hand. Mrs. Dash said that really they had known him for a very short time; still, she gave her consent. Captain McDonald thereupon said that he would get the licence directly. In the course of conversation he happened to mention the name of his ship: it was the Kaikoura. Next day came the Captain with the licence, and the two went to a clergyman. The Captain, evidently unprejudiced by any ecclesiastical bias, said he would like to be married on Good Friday. But the clergyman declined, and it was arranged that the wedding should take place the day after, Easter Eve. They were duly married at St. James's Church, among those present being Mrs. Dash, a Miss Lewis, and a Mr. May. After the breakfast Captain and Mrs. McDonald went away to Chichester. They came back to Brighton on Easter Monday, and the Captain departed, to go to his ship, as he said, there to make arrangements for the due reception and entertainment of his bride. But he never came back.

Some months afterwards, a Mr. Osborne, who had been one of the wedding guests, was at a garden-party at Fulham, given by the Butchers' Company. There he saw a gentleman dressed as a Highlander, and he thought he recognised him as that missing Highlander, Captain McDonald. Osborne thereupon tapped his man on the shoulder, and accused him of being Miss Dash's recreant husband. The Highlander denied it, and said his name was Malcolm. He was detained, and poor Miss Dash—or Mrs. Captain McDonald—was brought up from Brighton, and promptly identified the man as her husband. Mr. Malcolm denied everything. He said he had never been to Brighton in his life, and that he was married to another lady. When it came to the trial, the bride, the priest, and all the wedding guests swore without hesitation that Malcolm and McDonald were the same. On the other hand, Montagu Williams, defending, called, as he says, a host of witnesses who swore, also without hesitation, that the prisoner was in London on the days when, according to the prosecution, he was courting Miss Dash and getting married at Brighton. Mr. Malcolm, who was a meat-salesman at Newgate Market, received a most excellent character; he was, they said, the strictest of teetotallers. And Mr. Williams, his counsel, was able to produce a better piece of evidence even than this. He called the manageress of the hotel at Brighton where Captain McDonald told Miss Dash that he was staying, just before the wedding. The manageress swore that on the night before Good Friday a Captain McDonald was undoubtedly staying at her hotel, and also that the prisoner was, most certainly, not the Captain McDonald whom she had entertained. But then, again, all the wedding guest witnesses recognised on Malcolm's face a scar which, they said, they had seen on the face of McDonald. The signature on the marriage register was produced, and the master-butcher, Malcolm's employer, admitted, against his will, that, in his opinion, the name McDonald was in the handwriting of his man, Malcolm. And then, a very odd circumstance: McDonald had told Miss Dash that his ship was called the Kaikoura. And this was the name of a ship which had brought over a consignment of meat from Australia to Malcolm's master—a short while before McDonald went courting at Brighton.

The general defence was that Malcolm must have a double, a man exactly like him, who could honestly be mistaken for him. And this strange thing happened, in fact, which happened in fancy in the “Tale of Two Cities.”

“While I was addressing the jury,” says Montagu Williams, “and dwelling upon the probability that there were two men concerned who closely resembled one another, an individual, either by accident or design, wandered into the Court and took up his place underneath the dock, when it was immediately perceived that he bore a striking resemblance to the prisoner. It was, of course, not for one moment suggested that he was the mysterious bridegroom.”

The jury disagreed. The case was tried again in the following sessions, but by that time Montagu Williams was too ill to undertake the defence. “O Jaggerth, Jaggerth, Jaggerth! all otherth ith Cag-Maggerth, give me Jaggerth.” Malcolm was defended by another counsel, found guilty, and sentenced to five years' penal servitude. And, apparently, the verdict was a just one, since Montagu Williams adds: “It subsequently transpired that Miss Dash was not the only woman with whom he had committed bigamy.”

And yet, what about that “host of witnesses” (say half a dozen) who swore that Malcolm was in London, not at Brighton, on the critical dates? Professional perjurers, hired on the Jagger's system? Possibly. And the hotel manageress, with her evidence as to a Captain McDonald, who was not the prisoner, Malcolm, staying at her hotel? Here it would be interesting to consult the full report of the case. In the summary before me, it does not appear whether the manageress were asked if this guest of hers were like the prisoner, though she was sure he was, in fact, not the prisoner. There, evidently, is the real point. McDonald is not a very rare name. It might easily happen that a veritable McDonald and a man who had falsely taken the name might be in Brighton at the same time.