An English Nonsuit: The Tichborne Claimant

Roger Charles Tichborne (born 1829) was the heir apparent to a huge inheritance from a filthy rich British family. He was born and raised across the Channel in France and schooled in England. His native language was French.

He fell in love with first cousin Catherine ("Kate"). Her father forbade marriage until a wait of three years. So Roger took to sea in 1852. He wandered over South America.

In April 1854 he boarded the Bella at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, destined for New York. The ship was lost. No survivors were found. Roger's younger brother Alfred inherited the loot.

But Roger's mother believed her son had survived. She sent messages around the world, one to Australia. There a criminal decided that he should claim the fortune as "Roger."

Arthur Orton (born 1834) grew up in Wapping amongst the London dockage. He also took to sea and ended up in Wagga Wagga, Australia. Because he had committed crimes en route, he assumed the name "Thomas Castro."

His arrival in England caused a sensation. Many dupes thought Arthur was Roger. But there were discrepancies:

  1. Arthur knew no French;
  2. Roger was slender, but Arthur weighed 368 pounds (see the photos); and
  3. Arthur was missing Roger's left arm tattoo, "R.C.T."

The civil trial, Tichborne v. Lushington, began on May 10, 1871, and (with a four month "vacation") ended on March 5, 1872. The final defense proof came from a guy friend (now Lord Bellew) who exchanged tattoos with Roger and from beloved Kate (now the married Mrs. Radcliffe). Then the jury foreman told the court: "The jury do not require any further evidence." Arthur Orton's barrister wisely took a nonsuit. He client was immediately arrested for perjury.

The criminal trial was the longest in British history, commencing on April 22, 1873, and concluding on Feb. 28, 1874. The jury took less than half an hour to convict the imposter. He was sentenced to 14 years. The Queen's Bench affirmed in an opinion quaintly styled Regina v. Thomas Castro, otherwise Arthur Orton, otherwise Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne, Law Reports, 9 Q.B. 350 (Apr. 29, 1874).

The claimant was released early for good behavior in 1884. He died on April Fool's Day 1898.
 


Donald F. Paine DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, Bickers, and Tillman LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, Tennessee Judicial Conference, and UT College of Law. He is reporter to the Supreme Court Advisory Commission on Rules of Practice and Procedure.