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Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Old Bailey Online - the Will Forgeries

Bank of England Rotunda
It was all over the papers in 1844, and places in the public gallery at the Old Bailey must have been highly sought-after but the Will Forgeries is now largely forgotten. It's an amazing story, though, and if it were fiction you'd say it was far-fetched. You really couldn't make it up.

It concerned an organised crime ring defrauding the Bank of England of large sums of money held in dormant accounts. It started with a perfectly legal activity, that of finding the people legally entitled to the money and helping them claim it - for a fee or commission, of course. These would be the next of kin of people who had died leaving sums in the Bank, much in the way that the firms we see on TV on 'Heir Hunters' contact the heirs of people who die intestate. Sometimes there is no heir to be found, and of course the same thing happened in the 1840s.

This is where one man, Joshua Fletcher, crossed the line into illegality. If he and his agents couldn't find an heir, then it was likely that no-one else could; so if he invented an heir and forged the supporting documentary proof, he and his gang could pocket the money. It took some planning, and involved the assuming of false identities, and even disguises, but it worked very well for a time, until the Bank of England became suspicious of the higher than usual number of dormant accounts that were springing back to life.

Although many accounts were involved, the charges finally brought at the Old Bailey were the ones where they had the strongest evidence, those of John Stewart who had died intestate with no heirs and Anne Slack who was a real person (and was still alive) for whom Fletcher and his accomplices had forged a will and obtained a fictitious death certificate. The forged will is in The National Archives, which I transcribed and wrote about in a blog post there last year Fraud, forgery and identity theft in the 1840s 

The defendants were all found guilty in the Anne Slack case, and two of them in the Stewart case. This was enough for Fletcher to be sentenced to transportation for life, along with William Henry Barber, the solicitor who carried out his legal work. But that was not the end of the story. Throughout the trial, all the way to Australia and while he was in the penal colony on Norfolk Island, Barber continually protested his innocence. He had been duped by Fletcher, and while he may have been guilty of naivety, he was not part of the criminal conspiracy. With astonishing persistence and single-mindedness he was finally vindicated, gaining first a conditional and then a full pardon. He made his way back to England, was granted £5000 in compensation from the government and even got back his licence to practice law. You really couldn't make it up.

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