It may not have been up to the standard of the Tichborne case, but another good scandal showed that an attractive woman could often fool an elderly male judge. This is what Mabel Wilberforce did to Mr Justice Field when, in 1881, she brought a slander action against one Captain Francis Philp.
Wilberforce had met the captain’s elderly father Dr Philp when he was travelling in Europe and, as the daughter of a US officer killed in Mexico, and helping the Red Cross, charmed him. She travelled as his companion to the extent that he treated her as his daughter, changing his will to leave her part of his estate.
It was then that the captain thought it was time to make enquiries. He discovered that Wilberforce was not only the treasurer and secretary but also chief beneficiary of a fund to assist the wounded in the 1871 Russo-Turkish war. His father’s will was changed back and she was asked to leave the family home. She refused and it was only after a 23-day siege was ended by a cash payment that Wilberforce relented. Unfortunately, the captain had hinted to a doctor that she had been helping his father to leave the world with prussic acid. She sued.
So charming was Wilberforce, dressed in deep mourning (because in the meantime Dr P had succumbed) that Mr Justice Field invited her to give evidence from beside him on the bench. And things were going well until she was challenged about having been a cook and having two children, something she denied. She then produced a letter from a Perry Morton backing her claim that he had been her trustee in Indianapolis. Enquiries by Philp’s solicitor Sir George Lewis showed that Morton had died two years before the date of the letter.
Wilberforce lost the action and it was off to the Old Bailey, where she defended herself on a charge of perjury. Convicted on overwhelming evidence by a string of people who recognised her from her former life, she received nine months’ hard labour. She must have charmed the jury as well, because they had recommended mercy.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor