Richard Bauckham offers vivid demonstration of how reliable eyewitness testimony can be. I was particularly drawn to this pair of accounts relating to the same incident, because it took place in my home county of Norfolk, England.
In June, 1901 a local newspaper carried the following report:
STRANGE TRAGEDY AT WINTERTON - Body Found in the Sandhills
Late on Tuesday, a gruesome find was made on the sandhills at Winterton, a large fishing village eight miles north of Yarmouth. It appears that a fisherman with his dog, accompanied by a Yarmouth gentleman, was walking along the cliff, when they came across the body of a man hanging from a post driven high up in the sandhills and partially covered with sand. The body was hanging by a piece of stout cord, which had been neatly fastened to the post, evidently driven into the sands by the deceased’s own hand. The features were quite unrecognizable, and covered with fungus. From the clothing the body was believed to be that of a fisherman named Gislam, who had been missing from home for about five weeks, and who was supposed either to have been drowned or to have gone to sea. So it was subsequently identified. The spot is a very wild and lonely one, and very rarely visited by Winterton people, and the body would probably not have been discovered had it not been that the dog in question called the attention of his master to it.
The inquest was held the next day and was reported in the paper thus: The first witness called was the deceased’s brother-in-law, Albert Robert George, also a fisherman, living at Winterton. Deceased, he said, was thirty-six years of age. He was at times very strange in his manner, and witness could not say whether on those occasions he was wholly responsible for his actions. He last saw him alive on the 8th of May near his own home. Deceased then put his arms around his little three-year-old son Stanley, said “Good-bye” and walked away. Witness supposed he was going to sea. He did not know that anything had occurred to upset him.
The deceased’s widow, Susannah Boulton Gislam, concurred with the evidence given by the previous witness, her brother. Her late husband’s life, she said, was insured in the Prudential. There was no quarrel between him and her before he left home on May 8th, which was the last occasion when she saw him alive; but he had been upset by being served with a County Court summons. She did not think that he fully knew what he was doing at times, though she had never heard him threaten to commit suicide, or even mention such a thing.
The jury gave a verdict of “suicide while temporarily insane.”
Seventy-two years later, in 1973, a man recalled this very event in an interview exploring village practices in the past:-
Respondent: Well — long story, 1910 this was. This woman wanted her husband to get away to sea or be earning some money — they’d none. Well, you could understand the woman’s a’ being — getting on to him about getting of a . . . At the same time, if he couldn’t he couldn’t. He went on the beach one day, and he was last seen — at an angle — and he went — as people saw him, to the south. But he was artful. When he knew people were all down . . . down home after their dinners, he turned and went north. They . . . ransacked the hills . . . they went to Yarmouth to see if he went on a boat. And nobody found him. No one. And they gave it up. Well, his poor wife didn’t hardly get — well she didn’t go out of doors. . . . The result was — a man one evening — this happened in May, and six weeks following, so that’d be in June — perhaps the fore-part of July, I won’t say exactly, a man was . . . well, like they used to go walking along the water’s edge. . . . He had a dog with him, perhaps he’d got — come out to give this dog a good run. And this dog would not leave this place. That got up on the hills. And he kept barking and yapping, barking and yapping, good way from Winterton, toward the north. And he thought to himself, whatever on the earth’s that. He called him several time. The result was he had to go see — and there was this here man, tied to a post, about that high. And he — well, he was picked by the birds. Awful. Weren’t fit to look at. Of course he got the dog away. . . . Well he had to come home to Winterton and got the coast guard and report it. And of course that was — soon a — well, hullaballoo. There was some people were against her, so much as if they dressed up an effigy, lit it up — didn’t do it ‘til it got dark at night, ten or eleven o’clock, and went round against where they lived. I don’t know what they sung now, I was only ten. I forget . . . But that poor old girl — well she didn’t go mad but she had to go to the hospital, so she died there.
Interviewer: People felt she’d driven, nagged him into it?
Respondent: Yes. Yes.
Interviewer: You said it happened in 1910 and you just said you were ten years old?
Respondent: Well, I was ten years old.
Interviewer: You were born?
Interviewer: If you were ten that would be 1900.
Respondent: Well, didn’t I tell you 1900?
Interviewer: I think you said 1910.
Respondent: Ah well, 1900 might be. Just into the nineteenth-twentieth century. That was June, that . . . May when he done it and — I can’t tell you the exact date — but he was buried — in Winterton churchyard.
Following Bauckham’s lead, we may make a number of observations:-
The newspaper account (published within one week of the event), and the personal recollection (recounted after more than 70 years) are entirely compatible with one another.
This is just the sort of event – unusual and (especially to the mind of a ten-year-old boy) gruesome, that would lend itself to vivid recollection after many years.
For the same reason, we may reasonably assume that the witness had retold the story a number of times. This would have the effect of fixing it in his memory. Frequent rehearsal is a key factor in the recollection of events.
The witness was able to recollect (after prompting) the exact year, as well as the month, of the event. (Details such as dates and names are often remembered less well than the events themselves).
The two accounts offer different, but consistent, perspectives. At the trial, the dead man’s wife and her brother seem keen to avoid the implication that she drove her husband to suicide. According to witness, such an allegation was rife in the village, and he gives some justification for this.
The witness’ account probably includes some minor interpretative elaboration (“And he thought to himself, whatever on earth’s that?”).
(Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, ch. 13)