While awaiting his trial for assault in 1853, David Brook was temporarily incarcerated at Kirkcudbright Prison where he evidently took great care to secure the good opinion of the Prison Keeper, James Clark. Of his charge Clark wrote: ‘His general conduct is good. He is quite willing to work. He can write and that is the only mode of communication I have with him’. Crucially, Clark was unshakeable in his conviction that Brook was the genuine article; quite the accomplishment on the part of the impostor. ‘I have watched him attentively and have several times put him to the test [as to] whether he paid any attention to sound. I have never noticed him pay the slightest attention. I am quite persuaded he is both deaf and dumb’ (NRS AD14/53/218).
Similarly, John Lauders Shaw, the Medical Officer at Kirkcudbright Prison, made the following report: ‘Examined the ears, mouth, throat and nostrils of said David Brook. I found nothing abnormal in the organs examined and on patiently watching his behaviour I have not been able to discover anything which would lead me to suppose that his complaints are feigned’ (NRS, AD14/53/218). Like Clark, Shaw declared himself to also wholeheartedly believe Brook was indeed ‘deprived of the faculties of hearing and speech’.
However, among the very same precognition papers, may be found the declarations of a host of witnesses to the alleged assault itself. Unlike James Clark and John Lauders Shaw, these witnesses were almost all illiterate, dictating their declarations and signing them with an ‘X’. In even starker contrast, they each declared themselves thoroughly unconvinced by Brook and his carefully constructed persona.
Having first used his begging cards and his slate and pencil to secure a bed for the night at a Cotton Street lodging house in Castle Douglas, David Brook settled himself by the kitchen fire one chilly April evening. Also present were the owner of the lodging house, elderly Margaret Sloane, her daughter Agnes Shaw and her thirteen-year-old grandson John, as well as group of hawkers; Margaret’s regular clientele.
The declaration of each and every hawker tells the story of this near-fatal evening in precisely the same way: the conversation in the kitchen was, at first, amiable and relaxed. Encouraged by certain signs from Brook, Andrew McCartney consented to represent the company at large in requesting the visitor’s services. As the only literate hawker in the house, it fell to McCartney to write to Brook on a scrap of paper to ask if he could “shae fortunes” and, if so, enquire as to how much would he charge. In response, Brook wrote that he would indeed tell each person their fortune, in exchange for a shilling apiece, causing an explosion of incredulous laughter and much joking at Brook’s expense.
Suddenly, Brook became very angry and picked up a chair with which to attack Agnes Shaw. In a vain attempt to pacify the deaf-mute man and protect Agnes, Andrew McCartney bravely intervened only to be rewarded with vicious stab-wounds to his neck, thigh and back. Clearly, David Brook considered a knife just as vital an accoutrement as either his slate and pencil, or his Beggar’s Directory.
The declarations of the hawkers agree on a further, key point: that Brook’s shockingly violent outburst could only be explained by his ability to clearly hear every word of the raucous fireside conversation. For example, Jane Stevenson insisted it was because ‘some in the house made to laugh at him and to scoff him [that] he turned round in an angry manner which made us all believe that he could hear all that was said well enough’ (NRS, AD14/53/218).
Fellow hawker Peter Kellochan was equally as adamant on this point. He claimed the trouble began once the company had rejected Brook’s offer of a shilling per fortune: ‘this seemed to irritate the man and he threw the paper into the fire…. the lodgers then began to talk amongst themselves that he could tell no fortunes’ (NRS, AD14/53/218). Like Jane, Peter identified this discussion as the catalyst for the assault, the finer details of which should have been impossible for David Brook to follow, had he been genuinely deaf.
Collectively, the 1853 precognition papers demonstrate that Brook’s persona was both fallible and flexible. Among the hawkers, certainly, he lashed out and thus let down his guard. To an itinerant vagrant like David Brook, his fellow Cotton Street lodgers may have seemed entirely dispensable, good only for a hot plate of food or a bed for the night before moving on and therefore hardly worth his trouble. Yet within the bounds of Kirkcudbright Prison, he managed to convincingly feign deafness around the clock under never-ceasing scrutiny. Here, it was evidently in his interests to court such men as James Clark and John Lauders Shaw; figures of grave responsibility, distinction, learning and, above all, of influence.
Almost twenty years of successful imposture later, Brook was finally exposed as a fraud. Firstly, in 1872, The Falkirk Herald reported that ‘a male vagrant about fifty years of age representing himself to be deaf and dumb… was taken into custody for having, while under the influence of drink, assaulted and knocked down a young man’. On being transferred to Linlithgow the following day, he was found to be carrying a number of begging cards. Crucially, ‘the name and story on the cards and other circumstances connected with the assault brought to the Superintendent’s recollection a similar case that had occurred in Ayrshire some years ago’. When challenged as to whether or not he was David Brook, and thus the very same individual, the accused ‘made an essay to write on his slate, but seeing he was not likely to be believed, to the astonishment of the constable who had apprehended him… [he] uttered a single word: “guilty”’. The Herald confirmed that Brook received ten days imprisonment for assault and, ‘once the full extent of his imposture had been brought to light’, a further sixty days for fraud.
True to form, upon release from prison, Brook shook off his old, faithful persona of thirty years and, chameleon-like, promptly re-invented himself. Thus, John Macdonald was born, for whom he also drafted a new begging card, better suited to an impostor of advancing years. It read as follows:
‘A poor old man that is deprived of speech and hearing. The reason for my affliction was by fever at the early age of sixteen years. I belong to Elgin, the country town of Moragshire. My name is John Macdonald. I can make myself useful in any farm place if I could find employment’.
However, after only three short years, David Brook suffered a second, far more sensational and far-reaching expose. Having been apprehended for assault in Kirkaldy, he found himself once again in custody. As the elderly deaf-mute beggar John Macdonald, he gave his declaration before a Mr. Duncan, the Sheriff Substitute for Coupar-Angus, on the slate he habitually carried with him. Alas, once re-committed to prison, ‘in an unlucky moment allowed himself to be off guard and betrayed his secret that his deaf and dumbness was a pretence’.
As a result, Brook was tried for libel; the case against him including an impressively thorough list of all his previous misdemeanours, aliases, court appearances and prison sentences, which were not only published in full in The Scotsman on Saturday 27th March 1875, but also gleefully re-printed in scores of smaller papers throughout the country.
It certainly seems as if the net surrounding itinerant criminals, including those falsely assuming the characteristics and trappings of disability, was beginning to close towards the latter decades of the nineteenth century. As demonstrated in 1872, to David Brook’s detriment, police constables were beginning to reap the benefit of the increasingly common practice of re-printing court proceedings in local newspapers across county and, in some cases, national lines.
The Rogues Gallery, however, represented perhaps the most potent weapon in this campaign to more effectively identify and monitor the movements of Brook and his ilk. Within its carefully curated, cut and pasted pages, the enterprising and forward-thinking constables of Mid, West and East Lothian set about exploiting the very latest technological advancements in photography to visually document the physical appearance of all the criminals they apprehended, from the early 1870s onwards; a format that could be easily copied and shared among police forces across the country. To these images they added hand-written notes detailing court dates and sentences, distinguishing characteristics or marks, as well as any relevant newspaper clippings. This pooling of information offered the police forces of Victorian Scotland new levels of surveillance hitherto undreamed of.
And yet, it was not enough. David Brook’s own entry in The Rogue’s Gallery comprises a full-length photograph of a shabbily dressed man, short in stature, a clipping from an unidentified newspaper detailing the exposure of the imposter John Macdonald in 1875 and a now partially obscured handwritten note dated 1872: ‘‘accused pretended to be deaf and dumb… placard to that effect’. Together, this information should have been more than sufficient to stop Scotland’s most infamous adherent of the “Dummy Dodge” firmly in his tracks. However, following his release from prison in 1875, Brook simply stepped into John Macdonald’s shoes once more and continued to traverse the country unchecked for at least a further four years.
Over the course of half a century, David Brook weathered exposure in newsprint, in the dock, in the pages of The Rogue’s Gallery and in the company of innumerable individuals at lodging houses and taverns, on door-steps and roadsides. Why, then, did his name, and indeed the deaf-mute characters of his own creation, continue to function as effective currency in each new town and village on his meandering route?
The answer appears to lie less in police ineptitude and far more in the stubborn persistence of popular opinion about genuinely deaf-mute individuals; an attitude summarised with devastating finality in 1844, in The Statesman and Dublin Christian Record: ‘A mute is a burden even amongst the rich, how more so among the poor. The poor man can have no hope of assistance from his deaf and dumb child’.
It was precisely the prevalence of this idea, that deaf-mute people were inherently and unavoidably burdensome to society, that made the “Dummy Dodge” not only possible, but positively endemic in Victorian Britain.
Indeed, unsuspecting members of the public could only be consistently relied upon to open both their doors and their purses to those posing as “dummies” because they already universally subscribed to the notion that deaf-mute men and women were hopelessly bound by the limits of their sensory impairment. Defined by their disability in this way, genuine sufferers were considered unfit for work and solely reliant on the charity of the able and the industrious. Imposters such as David Brook needed only to equip themselves with the ubiquitous slate and pencil, and to perhaps adopt the shuffling gait of the perpetual wanderer for good measure, to continue to exploit this misconception to the fullest.
NRS, Outreach and Learning Volunteer
Part 1 of this remarkable story in this NRS Open Book post.