Arthur Orton, the butcher from Wagga Wagga, was a crude, gross and barely literate man. Yet, he claimed to be the long-lost heir to the Tichborne title, a stately home and a family fortune. Only one person could tell for sure whether he was the rightful heir or a barefaced fraud. And that was the half-crazed Lady Tichborne, who had scoured the world for her missing son. Now she was about to give her verdict. And it was not the one that the world expected to hear.
In a darkened hotel room a stout man lay on his bed, fully dressed, muffled up, and breathing heavily. An elderly woman stepped up to the bed, leaned over and kissed his forehead. “This,” she said joyfully, “is my son.” Her announcement was to become the talking-point of an entire nation. People everywhere were to ask: “Could the mother– indeed, any mother– have been hoaxed by a complete stranger?”
Eleven years earlier the Dowager Lady Henriette Felicité Tichborne, French-born wife of an English Baronet, had bade farewell to her 25-year-old son, Sir Roger Charles Tichborne, who, after the break up of a love affair, had set off on a long tour of South America and Mexico, to heal his emotional wounds.
In April of 1854, a month after his departure, he reached Rio de Janeiro. From there he boarded the SS Bella of Liverpool bound for New York. The ship was never seen again. As the months passed, all hope of any survivors vanished. Letters Roger had asked to be directed to Kingston, Jamaica, remained uncollected. Lloyd’s of London wrote off the Bella as lost and began settling insurance claims.
Roger’s mother, however, refused to give up hope. When her husband died in 1862 she clung even more obstinately to the conviction that, somewhere in the world, the young man was still alive.
She placed advertisements in several newspapers in South America and Australia offering a reward for information, and mentioning that Sir Roger was the heir to her late husband’s £25,000 estates at Tichborne Park, Alresford, in Hampshire, England.
At about this time, in the Australian township of Wagga Wagga, Thomas Castro, a strong, heavily built butcher, found himself in debt, and agreed to go bankrupt. One evening he diffidently asked his lawyer, William Gibbes, if it would be a legal offence if he should fail to include in his list of assets certain properties to which he was entitled in England. “Such a concealment,” said Gibbes, “would lay you open to prosecution.”
During another chat Gibbes happened to mention his love of sailing. Castro retorted that the lawyer would not be so enamored of such a pastime if he had ever been shipwrecked and spent days in an open boat.
After brooding on both these conversations, the solicitor’s wife put two and two together. She told Gibbes: “That is the man for whom they are advertising.”
A few days later Gibbes met Castro in the street and took the bull by the horns. “Shall I,” Gibbes blurted out, “tell you your real name?” With apparent agitation Castro cried: “For God’s sake, don’t. I do not want my family to know.”
In his hand the butcher was holding a curved briar pipe. On it, Gibbes could not help noticing, were scratched the initials, “R.C.T.”
Motivated by the thoughts of the reward, Gibbes wrote to Lady Tichborne to announce he had discovered her long lost son. At Gibbes’ behest, Castro himself sat down and wrote a letter to the dowager. It was a semi-literate document:
“My dear mother… I deeply regret the truble and anxiety I must have cause you by not writing before… Of one thing rest assured, that although I have been in a humble condition of Life I have never let any act disgrace you or my Family. I have been A poor man and nothing worse.”
To convince the dowager of his identity he referred to a brown mark on his side (which she could not recall). He also requested that she send him the cost of his passage back to England.
Since it seemed clear to Gibbes that Castro, alias Tichborne, would soon be a wealthy man, he persuaded the overweight butcher to make out a will. In it Castro ascribed to his alleged mother the incorrect Christian names of Hannah Frances.
By the time Lady Tichborne had sent on the passage money, Castro had already managed to borrow the appropriate sum in Sydney. A native of that city, coincidentally, was Andrew Bogle, a white-haired Negro who, before emigrating, had been a servant to the Tichborne family. For years he had been in the habit of scrutinizing every man he saw in the streets who seemed to be as old as Roger (if the latter were still alive.)
When he heard that the missing heir was indeed now in the city, he called at Castro’s hotel, and, on being told that the gentleman he sought was out, sat down in the courtyard to wait.
When Castro returned and saw the man, he called out, “Ha! Bogle, is that you?” He invited Bogle up to his room, where the one-time servant studied him.
Sir Roger had been a tall and elegantly slim fellow. The man now facing Bogle weighed 224 pounds, but Bogle admitted he recognized Sir Roger. “Yes, Bogle,” sighed the fat man. “I am not that slender lad I was when I left Tichborne!” Bogle willingly accepted Castro’s invitation to accompany him back to England. Castro then inquired after the well-being of various Alfresford characters (whom he named), including a blacksmith and a gamekeeper.
Gibbes persuaded Castro to write what was known as a ‘statutory declaration’, in which he would recite his life history, with the knowledge that any lies could incur legal penalties. The statement was packed with untruths. He named the wrong school at which Sir Roger had been educated. He denied that he had ever, as Lady Tichborne asserted, been an army officer, but said that, for a few days only, he had been a humble private soldier. He explained his disappearance by saying that, after the wreck of the Bella, he was picked up by another vessel which conveyed him to Melbourne, where he first assumed the name of Castro.
When Lady Tichborne wrote a letter expressing tentative doubts about his identity, Castro replied: “My dear mamma… You have cause a deal of truble. But it matter not.” He must have been convincing, for when later faced with Castro’s incorrect statements in his written biography, the dowager wrote to Gibbes: “I think my poor dear Roger confuses everything in his head, just as in a dream, and I believe him to be my son, although his statements differ from mine.”
Meanwhile, in Sydney, Castro met a fromer Hampshire neighbor of Sir Roger. After Castro told him, “I remember you in a scarlet coat riding a Shetland pony,” the other man was impressed enough to loan him £200.
Castro and his wife finally boarded ship, where his fellow passengers quickly put him down as an uncultured fellow. When he was asked to read an address to the captain on their behalf after a ship’s concert, he cut a poor figure as a public speaker.
In London, the Tichborne Claimant (as he was soon to be nationally known) learned that the dowager was now living in Paris. Before crossing to France he visited Alresford, where he carried a bag initialled “R.C.T.” into his hotel and gave the name Taylor, but the landlord, a former chief clerk to the solicitors who had handled the Tichborne family’s affairs, told his guest he was struck by the latter’s resemblance to Sir Roger’s brother, Alfred, who had died young.
The Claimant admitted he was Sir Roger, but added he was travelling incognito, since he wished no one to know who he was until he had seen his mother. The landlord noticed that whenever the Claimant went out he held a handkerchief before his face.
The Claimant’s next step was to hire a young English solicitor, John Holmes, who loaned him the money for the trip to Paris where the two men traveled together. At a late dinner in their hotel, they were conscious of being watched by a man and a woman. The woman, a marquise, proved to be a cousin of the dowager, who was staying in an apartment near by. The marquise promptly went there and announced: “That man is your son.”
The next morning Lady Tichborne sent her manservant to the Claimant’s hotel with the message that she was awaiting him. Castro had just started to dress when he professed to have been taken ill, so Holmes pleaded with the dowager to come to the hotel. Arriving at lunchtime she was taken to Castro’s room, where she found him lying fully dressed on the bed with a white handkerchief over his face.
This was the supreme test. Castro’s wife had just given birth to a daughter. If the old woman did not admit he was her son, his future was bleak indeed. Lady Tichborne raised the handkerchief and gazed at the plump, jowly face. At last she spoke.
“Oh, my dear Roger, is it you? Where is your wife and child? What is your little girl’s name?”
Seemingly overcome, the Claimant burst into tears. “Oh, Mamma,” he said, “I did not think you would care to see them.”
The old woman replied at once. “They are yours, and, therefore, they are mine. They are dear to me.”
She then summoned the best English doctors in Paris, who prescribed for the patient’s illness and nervous excitement. She told the doctors she had no doubts whatsoever about his identity. The only incident that marred the apparent reunion was a visit from Roger Tichborne’s one-time tutor, who, after one look at the huge figure, declared: “No, Madame. He is not your son.” The dowager nonetheless signed affidavits prepared by Holmes confirming her identification.
The Claimant returned to England with his mother, and when he visited Alresford, church bells were rung to mark the reappearance, ‘from the dead’, of the popular heir. At Tichborne Park, he seemed to be totally familiar with his surroundings, even calling attention to the bright colors of a painting which had, in fact, been recently re-varnished, and to another picture which had not been there when Sir Roger left the estate for foreign parts.
While the Claimant’s new lawyers prepared their evidence for the civil court action that would adjudicate on his claim to the Tichborne estate, friends, neighbors and members of the family took up opposing positions. An investigator sent to Australia carried a photograph of Castro which one woman identified as that of a stock-rider she had known named Arthur Orton, originally from England. A man who was interviewed claimed Orton had come from Wapping, in London’s working class East End.
Back in London itself a peer who had long suspected the Claimant to be a fraud, hired a private detective to pursue the inquiries in Wapping. He discovered that on the Christmas night following the Claimant’s arrival in London, a heavily built, muffled stranger wearing a peaked cap had walked into a High Street pub, ordered a sherry and a cigar, and made inquiries about the Orton family who used to live near by.
“I have been there knocking and I can’t get in,” he said. He was told the parents had died and the rest of the family dispersed. A woman in the pub noted the stranger’s resemblance to Arthur’s late father, but he claimed to be “a friend who has come to assist the family.”
The private detective found a former girlfriend of Arthur Orton (who had worked in Wapping as a slaughter-man), took her to Croydon, Surrey, where the Claimant was currently living, and asked her to take a look at him from a distance. She did so and declared: “That’s Arthur, all right.”
When the proceedings in the Court of Chancery began, the Claimant had lost his most ardent supporter, Lady Tichborne, who had died– up to the last, apparently, convinced that she had regained her son. After suffering regular bouts of illness the Claimant himself was now a grotesque figure of 338 pounds. In court he produced more than 100 witnesses to testify that he was Sir Roger.
Evidence was even given by a Piccadilly barber who had attended the Claimant regularly and insisted that his pomade could not have changed the color of his hair to resemble that of Sir Roger. Only 17 witnesses spoke against the Claimant. In their view the lonely and half-crazy Lady Tichborne had ‘identified’ him for the simple reason that she was incapable of accepting that her beloved son had perished at sea.
The case lasted 102 days, during which it became a public sensation devoured by newspaper readers. In the end the Claimant lost. His army of friendly witnesses had not been strong enough to counter the bad impression given by his rough manner of speech. “I would have won,” he himself admitted later, “if only I could have kept my mouth shut.”
After the hearing, Arthur Orton, as he was now assumed to be, was charged with perjury, convicted and sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment. Released after 10 years, he arranged a tour of public meetings to try to regain sympathy. He appeared as a music hall turn, and worked in a pub and a tobacconist’s shop. With poverty staring him in the face, he sold his ‘confession’ (which he later retracted) to a newspaper for the sum of £3,000.00. Nonetheless, when he died in 1898 at the age of 64, he was penniless.
There is, however, a curious footnote to the affair. While the Claimant’s case was being prepared countless affidavits were obtained: so many that it was not possible to make use of all of them during the court proceedings. One collected too late was from a Tichborne family servant who said that when Roger Tichborne was born he had a brown mark on his side– just such a blemish as the so-called impostor said he possessed when he wrote from Australia to the woman he insisted was his mother.
A stroll through modern-day Tichborne & Alresford: