What's in a Name?

Review of A Swindler's Progress: Nobles and Convicts in the Age of Liberty , by Kirsten McKenzie (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2010)

One of the growing challenges facing our digitally-driven world is identity theft and the mounting costs it inflicts.  If new in its scope, however, it is a challenge less novel in its nature, as Kirsten McKenzie reminds us in this fascinating tale of imposture in the British empire. 

Cover of A Swindler's Progress: Nobles and Convicts in the Age of Liberty by Kirsten McKenzie
Cover of A Swindler's Progress: Nobles and Convicts in the Age of Liberty by Kirsten McKenzie.

McKenzie first visualized the story when suffering a "bad case of footnote paranoia" (291).  While completing a last minute source review before sending her previous book1 to the press, she discovered that one case she had used to illustrate that book's theme—colonial Australia as a "place for social reinvention"—was far more interesting than she had initially realized.  What she had, in short, was a "sprawling saga of opportunism and imposture which reached right across the British empire and linked the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries" (294). 

The basic story goes something like this.  In 1824 a sheriff in the Scottish town of Dumfries arrested a man—likely the son of a bonded coalminer, though his real identity remains a mystery—for having impersonated the son of Sir James Colquhoun and using the prestige this noble title carried to swindle a number of local proprietors.  The swindler—now called John Dow—was exiled to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) for his crime.  But before his ship has even landed in the antipodes, "Dow" began insisting that he was actually Edward Lascelles, eldest son of the Earl of Harewood—one of Britain's richest men. 

"Dow" maintained this claim throughout his seven-year sentence and, after his 1832 release, moved to New South Wales and resumed his swindling.  In addition to assuming the more impressive name of Lascelles, this time around he acted even more audaciously than he had in Scotland, deftly exploiting local tensions in his act.  Having closely monitored the growing debate over how servants should and should not be treated, he decided to make himself "Commissioner appointed to receive and transmit to His Majesty the complaints of Assigned Servants."  Under such a guise, "Dow"—now, of course, "Lascelles"—traveled about the Australian countryside, obtaining free room and board from the landowners unlucky enough to live along his itinerary. 

It was a perfect role for the impostor, providing ample opportunity to hit the road whenever suspicions grew too acute.  Nonetheless, certain details—overly familiar talk with his "servant," a strikingly Scottish accent, "vulgarisms" in his speech, and poor spelling wholly unbefitting a nobleman of his rank—soon exposed him, leading to his arrest in 1835.    

What turns this interesting case into a successful history is McKenzie's impressive skill in connecting "Dow" to the deeper changes that were reshaping the British empire in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  During this period, a time McKenzie calls the "Age of Liberty," Europeans writhed over the fallout of the French Revolution, peoples of the Americas rid themselves of European rule, and Britons abolished slavery in their empire.  Australia, meanwhile, was a penal colony in search of respectability, where a free population increasingly replaced a convict one.  Elites there looked to Britain for models to emulate.  Many British noblemen, however, watched the social and political changes of their day with horror, and some even began to look to Australia—which had long been viewed as hell on earth in their mind's eye—as a potential land of opportunity where the nobleman might live a nobleman's life on firmer ground.  It was an age, in short, of unprecedented social fluidity with great opportunities for the imposter-to-be. 

The reason the case of "Dow" works so well for interrogating this critical era is that, in assuming Lascelles' identity, "Dow" did not merely fabricate.  Instead, he deftly exploited true information about the real, scandalous story of Edward Lascelles (b. 1797).   It is only by placing the rise of the Lascelles family in its deep and global historical context, as McKenzie shows in impressive detail, that we come to see how Lascelles "came to vanish," how "Dow" could capitalize on his disappearance, and what their story has to tell about this "Age of Liberty" (18). 

In brief, from their base in Barbados, Edward Lascelles's ancestors amassed a fabulous fortune since the early eighteenth century in the slave, sugar, and rum trades, as well as by provisioning the imperial armed forces of the West Indies.  As the century wore on, the Lascelles shifted their wealth to land in England, built a magnificent palace, and staked out a place for themselves among the first families of the realm.  Their rise was crowned in 1812, when Edward Lascelles' grandfather was made first Earl of Harewood.  That they were "upstarts," however, was something they could not live down.  This was a problem compounded by the increasing unpopularity of the slave trade.  Though many British families had gotten rich off the slave trade and the industries it fueled, none symbolized its effects quite like the "upstart" Lascelles—a serious problem in an age when Britons were coming to see slavery's existence in the empire as unbefitting their "free" nation.  As a campaign ad directed against Edward Lascelles' father in the parliamentary elections of 1807 put it:

Beware of slave drivers!
They've dealt long in—blood!
If they get into Place [political office],
They—do—Nothing that's good.
So, Gentlemen Clothiers,
Stand up for your Rights!
When they've bled all the Blacks,
They'll bleed all the Whites!!!  (81-2)

If noblemen, then, had to be acutely careful to protect their status, the Lascelles had to be doubly so.  Not surprisingly, when young Edward, heir to the family fortune, clandestinely married a woman his father called a "common prostitute," desperate measures were required.  Edward's father convinced his son to abandon his bride less than a month after the wedding had taken place.  He then had Edward discretely shipped off to Europe.  Had Edward remained in England, his father reasoned, the lad might impregnate his bride (or she could claim such a thing) and thereby imperil the Lascelles hard-earned wealth and status.  Or, as McKenzie wryly puts it, Napoleon's demise at Waterloo "had global consequences," but it also reopened the continent to disgraced British families, whose "black sheep could once more be packed off in the traditional manner" (112). 

While "Dow" did not know all the details of the Edward Lascelles story, he had—good nineteenth-century identity thief that he was—managed to collect enough of them to sow enough confusion to make his swindling possible, if only for a few years.  When he was brought before the Sydney court in 1835, he was unswerving.  After reminding those present that he had been in the antipodes since 1825, by which time Edwards had disappeared from England, he made an appeal to their logic.  "Does it not forcibly carry conviction to your minds," he asked, "that if that nobleman had existed in any country under the canopy of heaven, except Van Diemen's Land, he would have been frequently announced in the London and other journals?  Will it be believed, Gentlemen, that a Peer, and the son of a Peer, would remain in a state of absolute obscurity, through a series of ten years? Gentlemen, it is absurd" (6).  Despite his spirited courtroom performance, "Dow" was found guilty, and his crimes of imposture earned him yet another exile to Van Diemen's Land.  

This is an excellent book, engagingly written and brimming with fascinating detail and wit.  What is perhaps most impressive is that, in telling the story of the true and false Edwards, McKenzie offers a vivid picture of an era on multiple levels, largely delivering on her goal of providing "less a biography of Dow and the Lascelles than a biography of their times" (297).   On occasion, however, I found myself wishing McKenzie would have integrated her own experience working with the sources and the questions they raised more explicitly into the body of the work.  As it stands, the reader is left with little by way of introduction, the narrative left to do the telling.  This was, of course, McKenzie's intention: after all, it is a mystery story she is telling.  But a captivating microhistory—which is exactly what this book is—can offer readers a window onto the historian's work in ways that other genres of history rarely match, and a more explicit introduction right up front (rather than a brief "Reflections" section at the end of the book) could have provided readers with helpful signposts toward this end.  Still, this remains a minor criticism of a fascinating, revealing, and brilliantly told story.  It deserves a wide audience, and anyone looking for a gripping and global story about a pivotal era would do well to read it. 

1 Kirsten McKenzie, Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Capetown, 1820-1850 (Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press, 2004).