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2. THE NAME


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.

«I am».

«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?».

«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 annoyance.

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 forget.

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.

 

READING NOTES.

 

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.

 

EXERCISES.

 

(a) Questions:

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 jury?

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 occurred.

8. Say what you think is the object of the author’s ridicule in this story.

9. Man and his name.

10. People seldom accept facts as they seem. How would you explain this?

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