Some of the law’s oddest cases relate to mistaken identity and there is no shadow of a doubt that innocent men have been sentenced, sometimes even to death, on the misguided assertion of a witness that ‘this is definitely the one’.
Studies of the phenomenon have been made and controlled experiments have shown that the brain’s capacity to absorb, store and later retrieve an image to match to a perceived likeness is by no means infallible. Sometimes, too, the rare existence of a genuine double, the near-perfect doppelgänger, has led to unavoidable errors of identification and it is for such reasons that the police are apt to seek safety in numbers if enough witnesses can be found for a procedure that remains a controversially subjective area of the law.
All of which makes the facts surrounding a case in Milwaukee in 1855 all the more remarkable, for in this instance not one but ten thoroughly ‘reliable’ witnesses were prepared to say ‘yes’ when asked the vital question.
This curious story began on the riverbank below one of Milwaukee’s bridges on 14 April 1855, when, amid a raft of flotsam at the water’s edge, a boy spied what he first thought to be a bag or bundle of rags. Yet a closer inspection saw the boy yell and take to his heels, for inside the loosely wrapped bundle was the trunk of a human body, the head all but severed and the brains dashed out by a blow on the back of the skull. There was a great gash in the throat, the left eye protruded and both legs had been chopped off, never to be found. Importantly, though, the facial features were largely unscathed.
The Milwaukee police wasted no time in seeking identification of the body and a concentration on persons known to be missing for some time was a very sound starting point. It paid dividends, for one name bandied about was that of John Dwire, a well-known face among Milwaukee’s residents whom no one could recall having seen for some weeks.
Witnesses were brought forward and the police got the result they wanted as a mass of testimony confirmed the body to be that of John Dwire. All who spoke did so with the utmost assurance. They recognised his face, his features, the colour of his hair and his eyes. There, too, was the ‘five-pointed starry scar’ on his left cheek, the two missing front teeth, the familiar mutton-chop whiskers, the scars on the finger of the left hand and the thumb of the right. Feature after feature was identified as Dwire’s as people who had known him for years nodded sagely as they examined the gruesome remains. First his landlady, then his workmates and finally the owner of the boarding house where he habitually took his meals. Ten sound witnesses provided as positive an identification as it was possible to get.
Yet, even while the inquest before which these statements were made was proceeding, rumours began to circulate that other acquaintances of Dwire’s had come forward to say he was alive and well and living upriver, just sixteen miles away: ‘He’s been up at Kemper’s Pier for several months, since Christmas in fact,’ they said.
The police were sceptical and those who had identified Dwire knew these latest reports must be bogus. The sightings, obviously, were cases of mistaken identity. Nevertheless, the police sent a delegation to Kemper’s Pier to look for the ‘dead’ man but their journey drew a blank.
Yet back at the inquest events took a conclusive turn, for while they were on their way upriver a new witness appeared at the courthouse to weigh in with his own positive identification.
We’ve all seen those Agatha Christie stage plays where the audience gasps in the third act. Well, the ‘Case of the Unexpected Witness’ was a gasper and a half and all present were dumbfounded as the eleventh man delivered his sworn statement: ‘Lest anyone here should still think I’m dead I have come in person to assure him that I am not the corpse found in the river last Saturday morning.’
The body was never positively identified, nor was the murderer caught. And the ten most unreliable witnesses in legal history must have been sorely embarrassed as John Dwire achieved instant celebrity status as the only man ever to give evidence at his own inquest.