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Courtroom Charlatan - Page 2 of 2

The barrel-switching incident in the Sacco-Vanzetti case apparently had no effect upon Hamilton's phony career as a criminalist. Eight years later he testified for the defense as a firearms expert in a Hoplinton, New York murder case. The defendant, on whose behalf Hamilton testified, was convicted and electrocuted.

The above case involved the May, 1932 murder of Charles Witherell by his son Stephen. When initially questioned by the police, the son admitted shooting his father at point blank range with a Remington, high-powered rifle he had stolen from his cousin. The rifle was identified as the murder weapon by a firearms expert from the New York City Police Department.

When the defendant took the stand at his trial, he denied shooting anyone, and claimed that the body in question was not his father's. (Decomposition and the massive gunshot wound to the victim's head had made the body unrecognizable.)

Albert Hamilton took the stand and said there were two gunshot wounds on the body; the head wound caused by a rifle, and a wound on the victim's hand, made by a pistol. Actually, there was no hand wound at all, the victim had lost two fingers in an industrial accident. Hamilton had proved again that, at best, he was grossly incompetent.

In 1933, Hamilton was calling himself a “chemical and microscopical investigator.” That summer, he got his hands on one of the circulars that had been sent out by investigators working on the Lindbergh kidnapping case. The 20-month-old baby of Charles and Anne Lindbergh had been abducted from the Lindbergh estate near Hopewell, New Jersey on the night of March 1, 1932. Two and a half months later, the child's remains were found in a shallow grave two miles from the baby's nursery. A fifty thousand dollar ransom had been paid six weeks earlier. The New Jersey State Police were desperate for a solid suspect and the best evidence they had were the fourteen ransom notes from the kidnapper.

The Lindbergh circular contained photographs of two of the ransom notes. Law enforcement officials all over the country were being asked to compare the handwriting on the fliers with that of suspicious persons in their custody.

Albert Hamilton took his copy of the circular to the prison in Auburn where he found an inmate named Manny Strewl whose handwriting supposedly matched the Lindbergh ransom notes.

Strewl, a thirty-one-year-old exbootlegger, was in jail as a suspect in the New York State kidnapping of Lieutenant John H. O'Connell, the nephew of a local and prominent politician. Lieutenant O'Connell had been released by his abductor following a forty thousand dollar ransom pay-off.

After studying Strewl's handwriting and the Lindbergh ransom notes, Hamilton fired off a report to the Lindbergh authorities identifying Strewl as the baby's kidnapper. When they checked on Hamilton's background, the officers working on the Lindbergh case decided to ignore his report. Hamilton's reputation as a phony had apparently caught up with him.

Meanwhile, the prosecution in the O'Connell case had secured the services of the renowned questioned documents examiner, Albert S. Osborn. Osborn was also working on the Lindbergh case, and after looking at Strewl's handwriting, was sure he had nothing to do with the Lindbergh crime. However, according to Osborn, Strewl had written the O'Connell ransom letters. Hamilton's findings, therefore, were in direct conflict with Osborn's, and that put Hamilton in a difficult position. Strewl's involvement in the New York kidnapping made him a good suspect in the Lindbergh case. But if Hamilton took the position that Strewl had written the O'Connell ransom notes, he would be agreeing with Osborn, the expert who had concluded that Strewl hadn't written the Lindbergh writings.

Facing the possibility of being left out of both cases, Hamilton took the only avenue open to him, he joined forces with the defense in the O'Connell case, taking the absurd position that Manny Strewl had not written the O'Connell ransom notes. This mind-boggling switch exposed Hamilton as a bold-faced charlatan.

Strewl was tried for the O'Connell kidnapping in March, 1934, at Albany, New York. On March 7, Albert S. Osborn took the stand, and using enlarged photographs of the hand-printed ransom letters, pointed out the similarities between the O'Connell ransom notes and Strewl's known writing. Besides the appearance of the writing, Strewl's specimens contained the same misspellings as those found in the ransom notes.

The next day, the O'Connell prosecutor put two other handwriting experts on the stand, Elbridge W. Stein of Montclair, New Jersey, and Herbert J. Walter of Chicago. Both men linked Strewl to the ransom notes.

Hamilton was the first witness for the defense. After proudly telling the jury he had testified in more than one thousand handwriting disputes, he stated firmly that Manny Strewl had not written the O'Connell ransom notes. On cross-examination, the prosecutor exposed Hamilton as the phony he was. Hamilton was shown two letters he had written six months earlier to the prosecutor. In the first letter, Hamilton had written, “From the examination I have made of the kidnap writings and request printing submitted to me . . . it is my opinion that they were all written by one and the same person.” The request material Hamilton was referring to was Manny Strewl's known handwriting. In the second letter, Hamilton had assured the district attorney that he had not changed his opinion that Strewl had printed the ransom notes in the O'Connell case.

Hamilton had been caught red-handed and publicly disgraced. In light of this revelation, the judge had no choice but to rule his testimony unreliable. The judge told the jury to disregard his findings.

The defense collapsed without Hamilton's testimony, and Strewl was convicted and sent to prison for fifty years. As for Hamilton, his career as a criminalist was finally over. He had disgraced himself for the last time. An old man, he died a few years later.

By the 1930's most of the phony criminalists had been identified and barred from the courts. Although he had disgraced himself many times, Albert Hamilton's career spanned two decades, making him one of the most successful courtroom charlatans in American history.

If there is anything to be learned from Hamilton's career, it is this: the world is full of phonies, and if judges let down their guard, we will have charlatans in our courtrooms and baloney in our verdicts.

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com