THE NAME. Henry Cecil.
«GEORGE ELEPHANT!», called the Clerk in Court Number One (1); and
a small man with glasses was brought.
«Are you George Elephant?», asked the Clerk.
«You are charged with murder; that you at Golders Green (2) on
the 19th day of January 1948, murdered Jane Elephant. How say you, George
Elephant, are you guilty or not guilty?».
«Very well», said the Judge. «You may sit down».
Except for a few remarks on the curious name of the prisoner, few people
were interested in the case. The facts as stated were very simple. On the 20th
January the prisoner had walked into a police station. «I have cut my wife’s
throat», he said. «She’s quite dead».
It seemed true enough. Her throat seemed to have been cut with a razor
which was near her body.
No defence was put forward at the police court (3). It seemed a
clear case. The prisoner was, however, later defended by Sir Gordon Macintosh,
who seldom accepted facts as they seemed. He never accepted more than one case
at a time and he went into that case very thoroughly indeed. These are the
facts that he discovered about George Elephant.
George was born of ordinary middle-class parents at the end of the
nineteenth century. There was no sign of madness in the family. On leaving
school George had gone into his father’s business, and after that he had
married and settled down to an ordinary life. Jane was not a particularly
attractive wife. Although she was pretty, she grew fat as she grew older. She
took a good deal of pleasure in laughing at George, and one of the subjects of
which she never seemed to get tired was his last name. George was a little
ashamed of his name, but he had never had the courage to change it.
I have known a man called Sidebottom very reasonably change his name to
Edgedale when he had grown impatient of the telephone calls of jokers.
Usually, however, the owners of unfortunate names just bear them. George
had certainly suffered a great deal. When he first went to school and was asked
his name in front of the other boys, he replied, «George Elephant».
«Olliphant?», said the master.
«No, sir, Elephant».
«What, Elephant? Like the animals?»,
«Yes, sir, like the animals».
After that at school he was called by the names of all known, and some
unknown, animals. George was modest, and boys at school are merciless. He was
not happy there and was thankful when he left. But his troubles did not end
when he left school. Like Mr. Sidebottom, he received many calls from the
people who have nothing better to do than to use the telephone as a means of
You Smiths and Robinsons, who have never suffered in this way, may
smile. These unwelcome attentions from impolite strangers may seem to you
unimportant. But change your name to a foolish one – even for two weeks – and
see what happens to you. Some of the Elephant family did, in fact, change their
name to Olliphant; but George’s father said that what was good enough for his
father was also good enough for him. He kept the name Elephant.
George, indeed, had no pride in his name but, for no exact reason, was
unwilling to change it. So he suffered the smiles of shopgirls when he gave his
name, and the continual jokes of the people on the telephone. He even thought
of giving up the telephone, but he needed it and so he kept it.
When he married Jane he had hoped she would make his difficulties
lighter. But Jane did not mind being called Elephant; in fact she told everyone
her new name, particularly if her husband was near. Even when she was being
loving she used to call him «my elephant boy», and so he was not allowed to
When Sir Gordon Macintosh had discovered these facts, he had no doubt at
all of the proper defence to raise in the court. He immediately had George
examined by famous doctors. He claimed that either the prisoner had been driven
mad by his early sufferings and his wife’s behaviour; or that he had entirely
lost control of himself.
In putting forward the defence of madness he did not say that the
prisoner had imagined he was really an elephant. He simply said that the man’s
mind had given way. It was proved that George was a quiet little man who had
never offered violence to anyone. Relations and friends said that his behaviour
towards his wife was without fault.
«Why», said Sir Gordon, «should this mild little man kill his wife
unless he was mad? I listened to all your names as they were read out in court.
You will pardon me if I say that they were all ordinary names. How happy you
must be that they are. I do not, however, ask you to find the prisoner not
guilty out of thankfulness or pity. I ask you to listen to the words of famous
doctors. They will tell you that the mind of the prisoner has been affected
from his earliest childhood by this extraordinary name. These doctors have
discovered that the boy’s nurses and teachers used to make him angry by
laughing at his name. At that time he probably did not know the fact, but the
effect on his mind was increased by the boys at school, by those whom he met in
business, by jokers, and finally by his unfortunate wife. These doctors are
ready to say that, in their opinion, the mind of the accused man may have been
in such a state that he was not, at the time when he killed his wife, fully
responsible for his actions».
Sir Gordon said much more of the same kind and then called his
witnesses. The doctors said that the accused was not mad, but that his mind was
very much affected by jokes about his name. They thought that he would not have
killed his wife if a policeman had been in the room at the time. They agreed
that he realized that it was wrong to kill a wife. But the doctors for the
defence said that the prisoner might have been made so angry by his wife’s
jokes that he could not control himself.
George was not found guilty of murder, but he was sent to prison with hard
labour (4) for seven years. That, however, was not the end of the matter,
because the case by this time caused great public interest.
A law was suggested to make it a serious offence to use the telephone
for making jokes about names. Letters were written to the newspapers by those
who had unusual names. Doctors wrote articles, and the case of George Elephant
became quite famous. In the end, so much sympathy was shown for George and so
much pressure was put on the Government, that George’s time in prison was
reduced from seven years to three. This meant that George would be set free
after a little more than two years if he behaved himself well.
Two years later, just before he was let out, a priest arrived at the
prison where George was. He had a talk with George.
«Before you leave», said the visitor, «would you like to say anything to
me in secret, so that you may feel, when you leave these walls, that you are
starting life again with a clean soul?».
George hesitated. «You can trust me, you know», said the man. «And I
feel that there may be something – even something quite small – that is a load
on your mind. Perhaps you would like to lay down the load, and perhaps I can
help you. Start telling me in your own words the story of your crime; for
although there may have been an excuse for it, it was a crime. Tell me, for
example, what was it that actually led you to kill your wife?».
«Well, as a matter of fact», said George, «I was fond of another woman».
Henry Cecil, an English writer. He was born in
Middlesex before the First World War; the author of many successful books: Alibi for a Judge, Friends at Court, Sober as a
Judge and others. Settled out of
Court, in a dramatic version made by William Saroyan and the author, ran
for some time at the Strand Theatre.
1. Court Number One: one of the
courts of the Central Criminal Court, or Old Bailey, as it is popularly known,
which is the seat of the Assizes (periodical sessions held by judges) for the
City and County of London and certain parts of the home counties (the counties
nearest to London). Because of the immense population of this area, the Sessions
are held once a month, and four courts are held at a time.
2. Golders Green: a district
in London to
the north of Hampstead Heath.
3. police court: a court for
trying minor offences brought before it by the police.
4. hard labour: work done by
criminals as a punishment.
1. Why was George Elephant brought to trial?
2. Why was no defence put forward at the police court?
3. Who undertook to defend the prisoner?
4. What was Sir Gordon Macintosh’s method?
5. What facts did he discover about the prisoner?
6. What line did Sir Gordon take in defending George Elephant?
7. What did he manage to impress upon the minds of the judge and the
8. Why did he invite doctors to give evidence at the trial?
9. Why did the case cause considerable public interest?
10. Why was George Elephant’s prison term reduced?
11. What had been George Elephant’s true motive in committing the crime?
(b) Read through the
story once again and see if you can find facts to prove that:
1. George Elephant had spoken the whole truth about himself.
2. Sir Gordon Macintosh had built his defence on a false presumption.
3. The doctors’ evidence in court admitted of several interpretations.
(c) Talking points:
1. Explain why George Elephant gave himself up to the police so readily.
2. Why could George Elephant safely own up to murdering his wife on
being released from prison?
3. Give a description of the trial as it may have taken place.
4. Write up the story as it might have appeared in the newspapers.
5. Tell the story as if you were: a) one of George Elephant’s neighbours
giving evidence in court; b) one of the doctors invited to examine George
Elephant; c) one of the jurors.
6. Give an outline of Sir Gordon’s statement in court.
7. Try and explain how such a miscarriage of justice could have
8. Say what you think is the object of the author’s ridicule in this
9. Man and his name.
10. People seldom accept facts as they seem. How would you explain this?