The strange case of Adolf Beck: Press influence and criminal justice reform in Edwardian England

Paula C Dicks, Marquette University


This study examines the circumstances surrounding the case of Adolf Beck, who was twice wrongly convicted of a series of petty thefts in turn of the twentieth century Britain. Despite conclusive evidence to the contrary, Beck was mistaken for an individual previously convicted of similar crimes. Over a dozen eyewitnesses also erroneously identified Beck in two trials held eight years apart. Although errors were made in Beck's initial trial, no appeal was available to him. The Home Office, exercising the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, repeatedly rejected Beck's petitions for relief even after obtaining definitive proof of his innocence. When the real culprit was arrested shortly after Beck's second conviction in 1904, the case became an international press sensation. This study details the chronology of the case, with special focus on such issues as police identification procedures and the Home Office petition process. Using the sociological concept of moral panic as a template, this work also examines the press treatment of the case, with special emphasis on the Daily Mail, a frequently criticized example of the "new" popular press. That examination demonstrates that, by its dramatic and relentless coverage, the press was influential in forcing not only an investigation of the circumstances surrounding Beck's wrongful convictions, but also two substantive reforms of the British criminal justice system. First, the Home office was determined to be staffed inadequately and gained additional personnel in the wake of the scandal. Second, after decades of debate, the press agitation surrounding the case and other subsequent miscarriages of justice persuaded certain key former opponents of reform that a criminal appellate court was necessary. The Court of Criminal Appeal was established in 1907, but was not successful in eliminating either miscarriages of justice or media campaigns attacking the judicial system.

Recommended Citation

Dicks, Paula C, "The strange case of Adolf Beck: Press influence and criminal justice reform in Edwardian England" (2007). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3277080.