The word “doppelganger” is commonly thought to mean a person who looks very much like another or, these days, who has the same name. A mistaken identity can really get people into hot water, especially in this day and age of border crossings, customs and immigration, identity theft and fraud. However, the original sense of “doppelganger” was not just that the other person looked like you, but that the other was, in fact, you – your living ghost.
Many cultures are marked by tropes of malicious spirits who wreak havoc, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not – though typically their very existence is enough to cause trouble. In Jewish culture there are dybbuks, dislocated souls who maliciously possess a body until they are helped, at which point they leave. Christianity also has full-blown possessions, inciting such stories as those portrayed in films like The Exorcist.
The Digo people of Kenya believe in a spirit called shaitani, who usually enters women and demands luxurious goods and possessions from those around them. This latter case sounds a bit like identity theft: “I’ll just use this credit card and buy some really great stuff….” In fact, the Digo do occasionally suspect a woman of playing at being possessed, or even sometimes believe she has colluded with the spirit to possess her.
The reality of mistaken identity, though, is no joke. People have been jailed and even put to death due to a presumption that they’re someone else. If you could assume another’s identity, whose would it be? If someone took yours, how hard would you work to get it back? We’ve compiled a list of ten instances in which a case of mistaken identity had not only serious but tragic repercussions. Whether doppelganger, dybbuk, shaitani or just plain bad police work, here are some situations you’ll be glad didn’t happen to you – or your lookalike…
10. Christina FourHorn: Colorado, USA, 2007
26-year-old Christin Fourhorn of Oklahoma was wanted for robbery. In Denver, a nurse, Christina FourHorn, had a few speeding tickets, but no record. This didn’t stop three police cars from pulling up to her home one day. Police arrested her despite her protests of innocence, and did not look into her claim for the five days she was in jail. Her husband borrowed bail money and things were cleared up. Assumptions of guilt happen all too often, according to multiple groups that defend the wrongly accused. Christina, almost 100 lbs heavier and 7 years older than the actual criminal, did not have a tattoo, and even had a different middle name.
9. Identical Twins Yohan and Elwin: Marseilles, France, 2013
Brothers Yohan and Elwin, aged 24, are being held for the same crime because authorities cannot tell which is the culprit. Identified only by their first names, one (or both) is a serial sexual attacker, who assaulted six women at the end of 2012. The women ranged in ages from 22 to 76. The series of attacks grew progressively more serious and frequent, until three attacks occurred in three weeks. DNA led police to one brother, but they discovered the man lived with his identical twin whose DNA is effectively identical. The main problem here is that only extremely expensive testing costing €1 million ($1.35 million USD) can keep the women of Marseilles safe, as neither of the men is admitting to the crime or accusing the other.
8. Peter Hamkin: Liverpool, England, 2002
DNA matching is anything but perfect. Due to DNA evidence, bartender Peter Hamkin spent almost three weeks fearing deportation to Italy where he would have been charged with murder. Luckily Interpol discovered there was a blunder when matching his DNA profile to that of the killer wanted in Tuscany. Hamkin, whose DNA was on file from a drunk driving arrest, was in Liverpool during the murder and had never been to Italy. DNA-matching tests don’t match entire strands, as this is considered overly difficult, scientifically speaking. Instead, a set number of “loci” are looked for; the amount required depends on the country. The U.S. criteria, itself far from infallible, requires a match of 13, but the European database only looks at 6.
7. Father Bernard Pagano: Delaware, USA, 1979
Father Bernard Pagano had just finished his afternoon tea when police arrived at his home and subsequently charged him with five counts of armed robbery. He was suspected of being the “Gentleman Bandit,” a gunman who would enter a store holding a chrome-plated pistol and would politely ask the clerk to empty the register. Police were told by anonymous tipsters that Pagano resembled a newspaper sketch of the criminal. Seven eyewitnesses then picked him out of a lineup, but Pagano claimed innocence. A private investigator discovered a Ronald Clouser, who owned a chrome-plated handgun, had pled guilty to three similar robberies. All charges against the priest were dismissed when Clouser confessed to three of the “bandit” crimes. The bandit was indeed a gentleman!
6. Adolph Beck: London, England, 1895-1901
Adolph Beck was accused of being a con artist using the alias “Lord Willoughby” to swindle £30 of jewelry from Ottilie Meissonier. Beck claimed his innocence, but police then had reports from 10 other women with similar stories who also identified Beck. He was charged with fraud. The real criminal was a man police knew as John Smith who had served four years in prison for crimes committed in 1877. Although Beck had been in South America in 1877, he was found guilty and was sentenced to seven years. Beck was paroled in 1901, but in 1904 another woman made the same accusation and he went back to prison. While he was there, John Smith was arrested for another wrongdoing. Smith, who bore a striking resemblance to Beck, confessed to all of Beck’s crimes. The latter was exonerated and compensated.
5. Joyce Ann Brown: Texas, USA, 1980-1990
In October 1980 a Dallas fur store was robbed and the owner shot to death. The getaway car had been rented by a Joyce Ann Brown. Police had a photo of a 32-year-old Joyce Ann Brown of Dallas because of a prior arrest for prostitution, and the victim’s wife identified Brown as an accomplice. Although nothing was found to incriminate Brown she was charged, even after police learned the woman who rented the car was not the one they had in custody. The other Joyce Ann Brown said she lent the car to Renee Taylor. Taylor’s apartment subsequently turned up the stolen furs and a gun, but Taylor was not found in time for Brown’s trial. The latter had a plausible alibi, but the all-white jury found her guilty. She was sentenced to life. A year later Taylor was found, pled guilty, and testified that neither Joyce Ann Brown was her accomplice. Brown’s exoneration took another nine years.
4. Jeremy Lee Bass: Idaho, USA, 2007
In 2007 Jeremy Lee Bass was treated for meningitis at the Gritman Medical Center. Months later, Jeremy Charles Bass was treated, but died, in the same place after a four-wheeler accident. The hospital confused the men’s identities so badly, an obituary was printed in the paper and Jeremy Lee’s father was called by someone who informed him his son was dead. Not only that, but while attempting to prove his status among the living, Jeremy Lee Bass’s family received the medical bills for the other man, to the tune of $5,000. Now that’s adding insult to injury!
3. Jesus Avila: California, USA, 1990-2002
Jesus Avila and his brother Ernesto belonged to a gang called the Young Crowd in Lynwood, California. They were allegedly at a baby shower when rival Crips gang members showed up. One of the latecomers, Demetrius Kidd, was shot and survived. He identified Jesus as the shooter, although some witnesses said Jesus was in another area of the park during the shooting. Ernesto admitted under oath he had pulled the trigger, but the judge did not allow this testimony at Jesus’s trial. Jesus’s lawyer, also his brother’s on an unrelated case, excused himself due to a conflict of interest. Jesus was tried and found guilty of attempted murder, and sentenced to life in prison. His conviction was not overturned until 2002.
2. Thomas Berdue: California, USA, 1851
On February 19, 1851, San Francisco merchant C.J. Jansen was robbed and beaten. The next day, police arrested James Stuart, an infamous Australian criminal, but the suspect denied being Stuart and claimed to be another Australian immigrant named Thomas Berdue. Authorities did not believe this, particularly after several witnesses identified him as Stuart. Both men happened to have a scar over the same eye and an amputated section of their left forefinger! Berdue stood trial and received a 14-year sentence. Things got much worse, as Stuart was also wanted for murdering a Marysville sheriff. Berdue got the death sentence. Luckily for him the real James Stuart was caught during another attempted robbery. He confessed to the sheriff’s murder and the robbery, and was summarily hanged. Thomas Berdue was exonerated and released.
1. Ralph Alsman: Indiana, USA, 1930s
When things were all sorted out for Ralph Alsman, he was offered several Hollywood leading roles – as John Dillinger! The unfortunate Brookville man was described as being practically a twin to the infamous bank robber. Alsman was not only a lookalike for Dillinger, but was additionally unfortunate enough to have a facial mole in the same location as the criminal as well as a scar on the same wrist (the left). The civilian was mistaken for Dillinger so often he was arrested 17 times. Not only that, he was shot a total of 11 times and was in constant fear of being killed before being able to (once again) prove he was not the bank robber. Eventually the real Dillinger was shot and killed by federal agents. Alsman turned down all offers to play his nemesis.