It is 150 years since Lady Tichborne, who never accepted that her son Roger had died when his sailing ship sank somewhere between Jamaica and Rio de Janeiro in 1854, began a newspaper campaign to find her lost boy.
Her efforts were rewarded when one Arthur Orton (pictured), then calling himself Castro and working as a butcher in Wagga Wagga, Australia, came forward to claim the title. There were problems. Tichborne, a cultured man, had weighed some 125 pounds at the time of his disappearance and the barely educated Orton was a massive 300lbs. But, after all, he had been gone for 14 years. Letters were exchanged; an elderly servant who had known Roger well was lulled into believing Orton was indeed the long-lost heir.
In England, Lady Tichborne welcomed him and his family. Others were not convinced. ‘Roger’ spoke no French; his tattoo ‘RCT’ was no longer visible; and he knew nothing about his old school. Nevertheless, in 1871, 100 people at the trial over the inheritance - including a barrister, six magistrates, a general, three colonels, four members of the clergy and a chorus of servants and tenants - claimed that he was indeed Tichborne.
Giving evidence, Orton made a poor showing, maintaining whenever a difficult question arose that he had suffered memory loss. The case went against him. After another trial in 1873 lasting some six months, he received 14 years for perjury. On his release, he toured the music halls with decreasing success and finally opened a tobacconist’s shop in Kilburn, London. In 1895 he published his ‘confessions’ in The People.
When he died destitute in 1898 aged 64, his coffin was inscribed ‘Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne’. Two days before his death a collection of papers relating to the case was sold at auction for less than £8. In 1925 Orton’s widow died in a workhouse in Southampton where she had been known as Lady Tichborne. His daughter Theresa would never accept her father was not a baronet and over the next 25 years continued to harass the Tichborne family and their solicitor, demanding money by threatening to expose them and serving a few prison sentences as a result.
If only fingerprinting (not to mention DNA testing) had been in use; it would all have been over in five minutes. But then we would have lost one of the great attempted cons of the era.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor