22 APRIL 1882, Page 10


WE trust the swindlers now under examination in Man- chester and Birmingham are not "constant readers " of the Spectator. It looks as if they were. Certainly, they have taken

considerable pains to verify a pet theory of ours. We have repeatedly described, once with much detail, a secret weak- ness, which we believe to be excessively common, indeed all but universal among English families of the poorer middle- class,—the belief that " if right were done," and " everybody bad his own," they would be entitled to "property," which may be much or little, according to the temperament of the speakers. Sometimes the estate of a far-away ancestor has been sold "when it could not be sold," or an unpaid debt has been accu- mulating with interest, or a will has been suppressed, or a mar- riage has been invented, or there is a dormant claim against the Crown, or a relative, " ever so rich, my dear, and very friendly'to me," has mysteriously disappeared; but "the family" has always some hidden "claim " to a fund which, if it could only be realised, would raise everybody within a certain circle of kinsmen to comparative affluence. Most strangers, if by any chance sud- denly admitted to confidences of this kind, set down their inter- locutors either as fools or as romancers, intent by a kind of gossipy lying on raising their own importance, but the strangers are usually in error. The belief in the immense majority of cases is perfectly genuine, and affects the believer's actions quite as much as any of our readers' convictions as to their own inner capacities or good qualities affect theirs. The trustfulness is so genuine, that evid- ence is wasted on it; and old country lawyers will tell you that you cannot, if you are a man hoping for practice, do a more impru- dent thing than to treat it as the offspring either of vanity or of mere illusion. The would-be suitor is not in the least dis- abused, and, together with all his intimates, sets the cautious adviser down as either wanting in sharpness, or as in some unknown way acting in the interest of his enemies. The only course is to admit that there " might be something in it," but that the immediate expenses of the suit, or search, or claim would be very onerous indeed, "more than I should like to estimate offhand ;" whereupon the claimant—who all this while is an acute, and probably rather mean man—retires, comforted, but alarmed, to wait till circumstances are more favourable, or he has some spare money to waste. We ourselves believe this delusion to be nearly universal, and at all events, it is general enough to have maintained two or three American lawyers of a low type—these men trade on the incurable American idea of indestructible entail still existing in England, an idea perpetually refortified by the snits for peerages—to have supported that very curious person, Joseph Adye, who was not, we imagine, a mere rogue, and to secure incomes of some kind to the two or three persons who devote themselves, honestly or otherwise, to searching out the claims of " next-of-kin."

Some man in Birmingham, not yet discovered, but possibly, on the evidence, an unscrupulous, broken lawyer, appears to have been convinced, like ourselves, of the general existence of these secret hopes, and set himself to exploiter that new mine for his own illicit advantage. His central idea was, that if he professed to recover lapsed or for- gotten property, claimants would come to him in shoals; and that he had only to admit that the claims were trustworthy, and that in the course of years of inquiry into forgotten property he had heard of them—a really delicious stroke of genius—and his clients would give him their full confidence. They would feel that he only confirmed their own, long-cherished convictions, and was merely making "eminent probabilities" a little more solid. He would then ask a moderate fee for his inquiries, and a very large one for that obviously necessary instrument, a power of attorney, and subsequently proceed according to circumstances and the credulity of the.ap- plicants. The lawyer was entirely right in his data. He setup offices in Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, and other places, and issued some advertisements, and applicants came in in shoals, each with his lengthy story, each with his fund of credulity, and each with his contribution in gold. Now that the fraud is exposed, many, perhaps most, of the victims shrink back from public ridicule, a great many of them stating their complaints in anonymous letters; but it is known that the ramifications of the fraud cover counties, that hundreds were deceived-400 in Birmingham alone—that the swindler's receipts amounted to thousands, and that 200 persons at least in Birmingham are willing to give evidence against him. They were all charged for the inquiry, for the power of attorney, and for other legal documents, especially one intended to act as convincing evidence on their own minds. This was an agreement to pay over 10 per cent. of the money recovered to the "Agent," which, of course, raised, and was in- tended to raise, the presumption that he was himself convinced of- the soundness of the claim. Otherwise, why, although he charged for the draft, should he ever have drawn up a claim upon non-existent property ? One old lady sold her furniture and her clothes to pay the expenses necessary to place her in possession of £10,000, and actually called at the Agency Office, on a fixed day, in full expectation of- receiving the money. Another—a perfectly typical case— was quite convinced that she was " entitled" to property un- known belonging to one "John Turner, transported fifty years ago." She accordingly called, and was told that the advertisers quite recollected the case, that there was money, and they could get it, and she paid her £1 2s. 6d. without a murmur. In a third case, a whole family seem to have claimed £10,000, paid for powers of attorney for all of them, and still believe not only that they are entitled to the money—that they all do—but that the advertisers told them more about their claim than they knew before,—the explanation being, we suppose, that two or three members of the family told their stories separately, and were all, except the first, astonished by the Agent's knowledge. In another case, not only did a family pay heavily to secure possession of a mine, but their landlord, upon the report of that mine, postponed his demand for rent, while the employer of a working tailor, hearing he was entitled to a great property, advanced him £100 to pursue his claim. Except in one case, the advertisers never did, or tried to do, anything for the money, though they occasionally, when a victim paid freely, produced bogus letters on the Furnieux plan, and sometimes showed a little ingenuity in inventing detailed lies. One old lady, for example, was quite certain her husband's aunt, who was landlady of the "Mother Redcap," in Camden Town, must have left her something. Certainly, she had, was the reply ; why, the Midland Railway Company gave £20,000 for part of it, and built on it the St. Pancras Railway Station. In this instance there was, apparently, some claim of which the advertisers knew, for the lady received £68 at Somer- set House; but she had borrowed and expended £200 to obtain it. The frauds were not, however, confined to old ladies, shrewd business men being also victimised; and it was one of these who blew up the Agency. He did not under- stand, he said, the constant demand for fees, and consulted an honest lawyer, who, rather irregularly, we imagine, seized the papers in the Birmingham office, and exposed the whole design. Then all the victims who were not ashamed of them- selves poured down in a body. They had entirely believed the advertisers, often in the teeth of evidence, so long as they seemed respectable ; but the moment the police were in the house, con- viction burst upon their minds. Not that they were disabused of their impression as to the justice of their claims. If they would tell the truth, they would say, with the family which claims £10,000, that they were more convinced of their own claims than ever, but they were aroused to the fact that their friendly advisers would never get the money for them, and were enraged at the pretence under which the fees had been exacted.

Itis not very difficult to account for the success of a swindle like this, though it so greatly amazes the public. No one would be surprised if a respectable, but rather ignorant, man or woman went to a lawyer to ask whether a certain claim could not be maintained, and that was what these poor people all thought they were doing. The truth of the claim, however illusory, was a fixed fact in their own minds ; and when the illu- sion was confirmed, as they thought, by legal specialists, they had no further doubt, but imagined themselves thence- forward to be transacting ordinary, though highly pro- fitable, business. Even the constant demand for fees did not alarm them. They expected lawyers to charge fees, and were quite comforted by the " documents " handed to them, and so far from being made suspicious by the demand for a per-centage, thought that it proved good - faith. It was a charge on the " no cure no pay " principle, and that, in - the eyes of all Englishmen of that class, is the only fair principle, which lawyers and doctors ought to adopt, but never will. They were not, in their own eyes, pursuing a phan- tom, but asserting rights which they had always affirmed to exist, and which it was a great solace to their minds, and a source of innocent self-glorification, to find acknowledged. Tommy Trounsem has always said that he was a remainder- man, and when a lawyer, or a man " as good as a lawyer," con-

firms his assertion, he cannot, merely on account of that con- firmation, look upon that lawyer as a rogue. The true specialty of the swindle is not the credulity of the victims, but the clever- ness of the swindler, who built a profitable fraud upon a weak- ness common only to English middle-class nature, and usually kept strictly secret. The cause of the weakness itself, as we explained before, is, no doubt, in part a reminiscence of the old laws of inheritance, which so powerfully affected the imagination of the people that the new laws do not remove the old impression ; but chiefly the depth of a sort of romance lurking in English nature, which fastens very often indeed upon the possibility of unearned wealth. The day-dreams of a considerable per-centage of Englishmen are dreams of wealth, and the imagination always seeks for such dreams some concrete basis, which is now and then success in life, very often' a discovery, and most often of all, the revival of some half-for- gotten and illusory "claim." Swindling a whole community on the strength of its day-dreams, is distinctly an advance in the art of theft.