10 Terrible Cases of Mistaken Identity

The Unfortunate Adolf Beck
Aside from being white guys with mustaches, Adolf Beck (left) and Frederick Meyer didn't actually look all that similar. Public Domain/Wikipedia

Con artists say that an ideal persona should be charming but easily forgotten. The man who traveled under the names John Smith and Lord Wilton de Willoughby in 1877 and 1896, the same man who convinced women to part with their jewelry in exchange for rubber checks, was clearly a student of that school. Unfortunately for Adolf Beck, he bore a superficial resemblance to the man in question.

By now, you see where this is going.

Tragically, the entire matter might have been cleared up had the courts simply considered certain evidence, such as the fact that Beck was in Peru during the initial crime spree, or the somewhat more delicate detail that the original criminal (whose real name was possibly Frederick Meyer) was circumcised while Beck was not (that measurement was not among the Bertillon instruments). Instead, legal miscarriages multiplied into 15 convictions and 7 years of penal servitude [sources: Cathcart, Porter, Sydney Morning Herald].

However, the British courts had not finished with Beck. Three years after his release, the 60-year-old man was convicted of more Lord Willoughby crimes and faced an additional four to five years in prison. Happily, while Beck was locked up for the second time, the original crook was caught in the act. The Crown eventually released Beck and, thanks to public outcry, awarded him a sizable £5,000 in compensation. The case has since become a mainstay of British legal lore and a demonstration of the unreliability of eyewitness identification — at least 16 people positively identified Beck [sources: Cathcart, Porter, Sydney Morning Herald].