On the 30th March 1855, an article appeared in the Aberdeen Free Press seeking to alert its readers to the emergence of a worrying new phenomenon: a ‘class of sturdy beggars’ who falsely assumed the appearance of disability in order to reap ‘a rather plentiful harvest’, while leading lives of idleness and dissipation.
Denounced as ‘Vagrant Imposters’, this new sub-category of itinerant beggar included such characters as David Fyfe who pretended to be a sorely wounded, shipwrecked sea-man. Fyfe reportedly ‘besmeared his arms with some unctuous matter’ before wrapping them in bandages, to better ‘excite the sympathies of the public’. In the same article, the Free Press also unmasked a vagrant by the name of David Brook who assumed the character of a deaf-mute man. He was similarly equipped with a number of props upon apprehension by the police, including a slate and pencil, with which to communicate with the public, and a stack of printed begging cards setting out his personal history and the nature of his “impairment”. The Free Press evidently took great satisfaction in reporting: ‘On being taken to the police station, however, the “dummy” immediately received speech and swore fiercely’.
The imposter David Brook appears in many more nineteenth century newspaper reports, from his brief, first mention in the Hampshire Advertiser in 1839 to a full-scale expose in The Scotsman in 1875. His face graces the pages of The Rogue’s Gallery, one of five very early police photograph albums held by the Edinburgh City Archives. As the National Records of Scotland (NRS) holds the records of his 1853 trial for assault, Brook provides a perfect opportunity to more closely examine what was popularly dubbed “The Dummy Dodge”; the unlawful adoption of all the outward characteristics and trappings of disability in order to beg, scam and steal.
During the preparations for his 1853 trial Brook declared, via the medium of slate and pencil, that he was taught reading, writing and ‘finger language’ at the Old Kent Road Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in the 1820s. Remarkably, there is a letter within the precognition papers from the Metropolitan Police Office in Whitehall Place corroborating Brook’s claim: ‘it appears that a person of the name “David Brooke” native of Emsbay in Yorkshire was an inmate of the Deaf and Dumb Institution, Old Kent Road from 2nd March 1820 to November 1822. He was born on the 25th June 1808’.
Although almost impossible to believe, it really does appear that a twelve-year-old David Brook successfully duped the Master of the Institute, as well as his teachers and classmates, into believing he was incapable of both speech and hearing, presumably in order to receive a free education. This fact is all the more astounding given the extremely stringent entry requirements to the Asylum during the 1810s and 20s.
Although the Old Kent Road premises were purpose-built in 1809, the Asylum proved so popular that only six years later children were obliged to undergo a distressing admissions process to win a much-coveted place. Thomas Gaulladet, co-founder of the first school for the deaf in North America, witnessed this ordeal for himself on a visit to the Asylum in 1815 and wrote the following diary entry: ‘Only 16 charity cases can be taken but 73 applicants line the stairs. As the committee in velvet cloaks and ruffles press their advantage, shabbily clad parents push their children in their way, imploring their attention’ (History of Place).
Therefore, it seems the young David Brook, certainly with the collusion of a parent or other family member, won his place at the Asylum over the heads of scores of other, genuinely deaf-mute children. His first foray into imposture was a success.
Having equipped himself early with a method of communicating without speaking, it seems that in the years that followed, Brook then set about gathering an array of objects he felt necessary to his successful operation as an itinerant deaf-mute beggar. The most important of these was undoubtably his printed begging cards, of which the NRS holds a perfectly preserved example:
He appears to have carried these cards upon his person at all times and often in surprisingly large numbers. For example, a report of the local Petty Sessions printed in the Hampshire Advertiser on 5th August 1843 notes that Brook, a ‘deaf and dumb tramp’ arrested on a charge of vagrancy, was found to have ‘between four and five hundred begging cards about him’. Similarly, when he was apprehended at Hillside, Montrose under the name of John McCartney in June 1862, and again under his own name for assault in Linlithgow ten years later, he was forced to hand over a number of begging cards, each bearing the same ‘humble petition’.
Fascinatingly, begging cards were not the only accoutrements valued by David Brook in the homing of his persona. A search of his pockets upon apprehension in the Isle of White in 1851 produced a surprising array of items: a prayer book, a number of the ubiquitous begging cards, The Beggar’s Directory, containing the names and residences of the charitable throughout the kingdom with suggested roosting places for the night, as well as several memorandum books in which Brook had kept a daily account of his collections and expenditure. Here he noted down that he had received the princely sum of £10 3s 6d over twelve days in Jersey and Guernsey making this a prime location to re-visit in the future. Cirencester, on the other hand, is marked down as ‘Not Charitable’ with no sum being entered. Brook dismissed several towns rather harshly as ‘no go’. He also carefully recorded his varying experiences of “fourpenny beds”, many of which were written off as ‘small and uncomfortable’.
Evidently, Brook dedicated an inordinate amount of time, energy, resourcefulness and intelligence to the cultivation of his assumed character. He coupled the skills he learned at the Old Kent Road Asylum, the ability to read and write as well as to sign, with all the outward, material trappings of the deaf-mute beggar. His slate and pencil and his begging cards functioned as a kind of visual short-hand for sensory impairment. Along with his Directory and his memorandum book, they constituted an armoury of objects to be deployed as the situation arose; to play on the sympathies of those he met, or perhaps on the sense of charitable obligation so prevalent in Victorian Britain; a society driven by philanthropic endeavour.
However, a pocket-full of parlour tricks was not sufficient to sustain a career in imposture as long-lived as Brook’s. A further, essential quality was necessary: an almost super-human degree of self-composure, at the very least in the company of those men responsible for one’s fate in a court of law.
To be continued…
NRS, Outreach and Learning Volunteer
This is the first instalment of Rachael’s three-part investigation into treatment of deaf and mute people accused of crimes in our 19th century case papers. Part Two is available here.