As is suggested by his numerous aliases, Charles Tucker was a creative and serial deceiver, able to adopt a variety of identities, seduce young women into bigamous marriages, defraud tradesmen, and peddle dubious scientific and medical theories.
Link to the Digital Panopticon life archive.
We know nothing about Tucker's early life, except that he came from Ireland. During his childhood his family took him to Milan, where he met the Borromeo family.
From his prison records we know that as an adult he was 5' 10 " tall, had dark brown hair, light hazel eyes, a fair complexion, and that he was slender, with a lame left leg. He could read and write well, was a Catholic who later turned Protestant, and his occupation was variously described as labourer, lecturer, and surgeon.
In 1842 he married Mary Ann Sadler in Chelsea, and lived with her for about four years. It was claimed that they had to live in her mother’s house because, it was alleged, he never provided a house for his wife as he had promised.
In March 1858, when he was living in London, he was arrested and tried under the name of "Alexandro Vitaliamo Borromeo" for "Fraudulently obtaining by false pretences, from John Baxter Langley, the sum of 21s., with intent to defraud". Assuming the identity of an Italian Count from "a great Milanese family", Tucker had offered to provide Langley, the manager of a penny paper, The Star, reports of meetings of Italian delegates, in return for payment. These reports were of particular interest because of the unstable condition of Italian politics at the time, as a result of an assassination attempt by an Italian nobleman on the Emperor Napoleon.
The reports turned out to be fictitious, and no meetings had actually taken place. When a warrant was issued for his arrest, he disappeared from his London lodgings, deserting and leaving destitute Mary Ann Shelley, the woman he was living with as time as man and wife (though they do not appear to have been lawfully married). Two months later he was arrested in Reading, under the name of "Dr Tucker", when lecturing on "electro biology", "having pledged himself by the handbills to deprive his audience of the faculties of "speech, sight, and hearing", and their senses generally, if they were inclined to submit to this operation". The police came on stage and arrested him in the middle of his lecture. (Times, 14 May 1858)
At his court hearing, Tucker/Borromeo was asked if he was Italian, and answered in the affirmative. According to the Times,"the coolness with which the answer was given, with a very decided Irish accent, created much amusement in the court". He was committed for trial, where he claimed that because the meetings were by their very nature secretive, he could not get anyone to prove that they took place. He claimed that the prosecution was malicious. The jury was not convinced, and immediately found him guilty. He was sentenced to twelve calendar months in the House of Detention at Cold Bath Fields.
The publicity generated by his trial brought other complaints against him to the surface. The next month he was brought from prison to be charged with bigamy, and he was tried on two indictments in August at the Old Bailey. According to The Times, he appeared in the courtroom "fashionably dressed, and wore a long black beard and moustache, and during the trial he conducted himself in a most impudent manner" (23 August 1858). The first charge was that, while he was still married to Sadler, he married Anna Maria Froggatt, "a ladylike young woman', who lived with her father in Sheffield in the parish of St Philip. She had become acquainted with Borromeo in Preston in 1847 (after he had left Sadler); they married the same year in Gretna Green (Scotland) by "special licence", the prisoner declared himself a single man, and married under the name of "Marco Emile de St Hilaire", from France. She had known him for six weeks. They lived together until 1851, and had one girl. In 1851, he deserted her in Liverpool.
According to later testimony in the divorce court, Tucker represented himself to Froggatt as a political exile, gave speeches and "raised himself to a position of some importance", and ran for a seat on the Sheffield town council. "He took advantage of his popularity to get into debt to a large amount, and also to persuade a young lady named Froggatt to elope with him". Subsequently he delivered lectures in Belfast on mesmerism (a form of hypnosis), collected subscriptions for the purpose of founding a mesmeric hospital, and then ran away with the funds. (The Times, 20 July 1861)
The prosecution for bigamy at the Old Bailey was assisted by the Associate Institution for the Enforcing of the Laws for the Protection of Women. The prisoner’s "very long defence" alleged the prosecution was the result of a conspiracy against him by members of an Italian confederation, whose enmity he had aroused by denouncing their schemes of assassination.
At the same sessions he was tried for a second offence of bigamy, marrying another woman, Margaret Murray, in Sligo, Ireland, in 1853. He was then practicing as a doctor, and lecturing, by the name of "Dr Tucker" (though he married using the name Borromeo). He lived with her for three years, and they also had one child. He spent her "reversionary interest" of £250 and then left her with her consent, because he said he could not earn any money in Dublin. She was left destitute. The prosecution counsel claimed he had also married a fourth lady, whom he had ill-used and deserted "on the verge of her confinement". (The Times, 17 August 1858)
According to the divorce court, Tucker represented himself to Murray as "a physician belonging to St George’s Hospital, although his only connexion with that establishment was that he had once been an out-patient, owing to a wound in his leg which he had received in a duel on the continent. When he had exhausted Miss Murray’s purse he abandoned her, and then gained a living by going to hotels and running up bills and leaving carpet-bags filled with bricks in payment". (The Times, 20 July 1861)
He was found guilty of both verdicts and sentenced to four years’ penal servitude. Given the seriousness of his offences he was told that the four year sentence would not commence until his original twelve month sentence for fraud had expired. As a result of this case in 1861 Sadler obtained a divorce on the grounds of adultery, bigamy, and desertion.
Following his convictions he was sent to Millbank prison for over a year, and then transferred to Lewes Convict Prison for eight months, where the Governor assessed his character. While he described Tucker's general character as "good", and deemed him well educated, he went on to report:
"This man gave some very slight information which led to the detection of another Prisoner engaged in trafficking, and he has endeavoured to make capital out of it. As a rule his statements are not to be depended on. He is very fond of whispering suspicions against officers and prisoners." (emphasis added)
In July 1859 he was transferred to Dartmoor Prison, where he stayed for three years. During his time there he was described as an "invalid", which is not implausible, given later evidence. He was released on a prison licence on 31 July 1862, with his destination given as London, to carry out the remainder of his sentence (until May 1863) at large. During this period he appears to have got up to his old tricks, as a Dorset magistrate later claimed that he had been defrauded by Tucker sometime in 1863, when he claimed he had served "in the Crimea, having a ball in his side, nine wounds, [and] a large insurance to pay up in Paris", and "nearly induced his landlady’s daughter to marry him", offences very similar to those he would be charged with in 1865. (The Times, 4 February 1865).
In January 1865, having adopted the identity of "Henry Charles Smithwick" (or Smethwick), physician and army officer on half pay, he was arrested and charged with fraud, having ordered "a variety of fashionable articles, among them a wedding dress", from a shop, and "led the attendants in the shop to believe that ready money would be paid for them". Later he attempted to pay for them with a bad cheque. He claimed that he was entitled to a pension of £197 from the Turkish government, which would have paid for the goods, but this claim was proved false.
A policeman, O'Dell, who investigated the case claimed that Smithwick had been in partnership with a quack doctor, and had been living with Ann Bone (who the wedding dress had been intended for), a sixteen year old girl who admitted that their acquaintance "was of the most intimate kind". Smithwick told her and her mother that "he had been about nine months in England, and that he had come from Constantinople with a great deal of money. He said the ship having caught fire on the passage he got burnt out and lost it all. He also said that he had been a surgeon in the army during the war with Crimea; that he had been wounded nine times, and had a ball in his side". He also said that he would soon be receiving money from Turkey, where he owned a number of houses. O'Dell claimed there was no evidence he had been in Crimea, but he had been in a duel in Florence, after cheating at cards, when he received a wound in his ankle. According to O'Dell, since his commitment to the Lambeth Police Court on this charge "he had received letters from ladies and tradesmen in different parts of the kingdom complaining of the prisoner’s frauds and heartless conduct". ( The Times, 25 January and 4 and 8 February 1865)
In February 1865, he was convicted at the Surrey Quarter Sessions in Newington, Southwark, on three indictments of obtaining money by false pretences. Before his trial while a prisoner on remand, he tried to poison himself when he was in the infirmary of the gaol, by drinking a lotion of "blackwash" which was being used to treat him, stating that his reason for doing so was "the disgrace he felt at having to appear in a Court of Justice". The surgeon, however, reported that he was "doubtful whether it was a genuine attempt at suicide". By this point, nobody seems to have trusted him.
The authorities were aware of his previous convictions under the name of Borromeo, owing to information provided by the police. Although he denied that he was the same person, the description of his physical details is broadly the same, except interestingly he was listed as 3.5” shorter than when he was first committed to Newgate 7 years earlier--perhaps this was due to his poor health: at this point he was described as having wounds on both legs and several parts of the body, especially his legs. The fact of these previous convictions no doubt explains why he was sentenced to five years penal servitude for these offences.
Borromeo returned to prison, first in Millbank and then in Woking Invalid Prison for almost four years (Woking was the first prison specifically for infirm prisoners, both physically and mentally disabled), where he was described as being of good behaviour, and engaging in the prison trades of knitter, tailor, nurse. No offences were recorded in prison. His health worsened, however, and in January 1869 he was identified as having a disease of bones in the left leg, opthalmia, and a syphilitic infection of the skin.
He was released from Woking Prison the same month, and gave his destination as Manchester. At this point he reported that he was unable to give any information about his family or next of kin, and it's unclear why he headed for Manchester. This is the last record we currently have of him, and while it is possible he longer offended, perhaps owing to ill health, it is perhaps more likely that he devised a new alias and new deceptive frauds and his further offending has not been detected by the project.
The case of Charles Tucker alias Alexandro Charles Borromeo alias Marco Emile de St Hilaire alias Henry Charles Smithwick testifies to how easy it was to adopt aliases at this time. While the publicity accorded his criminal trials in the press led to his previous offences being exposed, it seems likely that other aliases he used were not detected, and that many other convicts successfully used aliases without detection. Nonetheless, it is a testimony to the detailed record keeping of nineteenth-century criminal justice that we have been able to find out so much about him. And yet, more information is available in other sources. Much of the relevant evidence for this case was found in The Times newspaper, and this points to the importance of following up cases in other sources beyond the evidence recorded on the Digital Panopticon website; despite the Panopticon metaphor, we have not been able to gather all relevant information about convict lives into this database.
The rapidly growing English economy in the late nineteenth century was based on credit, and the ease with which Tucker could carry out fraudulent purchases points to just how insecure (and yet important) financial transactions based on credit and promises were at this time. Buyers and sellers depended on their assessments of the respectability of their clients, but this case shows that some people had the ability to repeatedly and convincingly adopt false identities in order to commit frauds. While our image of the threats posed by crime in Victorian England is normally based on murder, violence, and theft, in fact one of the most pervasive and threatening crimes at the time was the many different types of fraudulent financial transactions.
Tucker's deceptions also involved marriage and science. The fact so much attention was paid to his bigamous marriages may well be a result of the passage of the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act (20 & 21 Vict., c. 85), which made it easier to obtain a divorce. Concerns that marriages could be too easily dissolved may have resulted in an increased desire to punish those who deserted their spouses and illegally entered into new relationships. Tucker also pretended to be an expert in science and medicine, lecturing on mesmerism and practising as a doctor and surgeon. While pseudo-scientific theories were very popular at the time, others attempted to prevent fake experts and "quack" doctors from promoting their ideas and practices.
Bigamy, Fraud, Imprisonment, Prison Licence, Recidivism, Alias, Penal Servitude
This page was written by Robert Shoemaker with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.