If there is one golden rule when it comes to faking your own death, it is that it should ideally be permanent. Get caught strolling around post-death and you can pretty much guarantee that it will be the only thing anybody remembers you for.
And so it is with John Stonehouse. A onetime British Cabinet minister who enjoyed a long and fascinating career both in and out of politics, Stonehouse died in 1988. But bring his name up now, and all anyone will remember is the time, 14 years earlier, when he attempted to fake his own death by drowning or shark attack, only to be found and arrested five weeks later.
The Stonehouse saga has never really left the public imagination, but it’s now being dredged up again by two competing biographies written by relatives: John Stonehouse, My Father: The True Story of the Runaway M.P., by Julia Stonehouse, and Stonehouse: Cabinet Minister, Fraudster, Spy, by Julian Hayes. One, by his daughter, claims that Stonehouse was simply a victim of circumstance. The other, by his great-nephew, claims that Stonehouse carried out Cold War intelligence work for Czechoslovakia and deserved all his misfortune. Nevertheless, one thing that both books can agree on is that he was not particularly good at pretending to be dead.
Stonehouse’s decision to fake his death came as the walls began to close in on him. Under Prime Minister Harold Wilson, he had improved the U.K.’s mail system in his role as postmaster general. However, his reputation took a gigantic knock in the late 60s, when he was accused of spying for Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, his businesses had run into financial difficulties, and his mistress—who was also his secretary—had begun to complicate his marriage.
He attempted to fake his own death by drowning or shark attack, only to be found and arrested five weeks later.
So, after meticulous planning—which involved reading Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal and then visiting the homes of Clive Mildoon and Joseph Markham, two recently deceased men in his constituency, to politely glean enough information from their widows to steal their identities—Stonehouse chose to pretend to end it all.
The plan was watertight. He would go to Miami, passing through immigration twice with different passports, and check into a beachfront hotel. There he would hide his new identity papers in a phone booth and leave a pile of his clothes on the beach. After that, he would swim along the beach, collect his new identity and depart for another country, while the world mourned the M.P. who was eaten by a shark.
There was just one problem. Nobody noticed he was missing. Stonehouse scoured the news for days, trying to find even the smallest mention of his death, but none were forthcoming. So, with his tail between his legs, he returned to Miami, collected his clothes from the beach, and flew home to England.
Eventually, Stonehouse decided to give his plan another try, only this time with the addition of a witness. He flew back to Miami and arranged to meet a friend at his hotel after a swim. He didn’t show, the friend found his clothes on the beach, and the alert went out. Finally, with the F.B.I. investigating his disappearance, Stonehouse was front-page news.
By the time his obituaries were running in the British papers, Stonehouse was living as Markham in a rented apartment in Melbourne. However, just to be cautious, he decided to switch identities and become Clive Mildoon. He went to a bank as Markham, emptied his account of $22,000, walked a few doors down to another bank, and put the money into a new account as Mildoon.
There was just one problem. Nobody noticed he was missing.
But the Melbourne banking industry is small, and word tends to get out if two identical foreigners withdraw and deposit the same large amount of cash in different banks within minutes of each other. The police were notified. And, after initially thinking that they had caught the accused Mayfair nanny killer, Lord Lucan, officers realized that they had actually caught the other well-known missing Brit and promptly arrested him. It had been 34 days since his disappearance.
In another bizarre twist, the police found that they couldn’t actually charge him with anything. True, Stonehouse had entered the country on a fake passport. But he was still a serving British M.P. He didn’t need a passport at all. So they let him go. He was a free man, at least until the British government realized that he could still be prosecuted for fraudulently moving money between his companies. At this point they extradited Stonehouse and eventually jailed him for three years.
It is a testament to Stonehouse’s charm that he thrived after his release. He wrote novels. He was a regular face on television, talking about his misadventure on programs with titles such as Questions and Motives and Regrets? And in the end, that’s how he died—for real this time—collapsing during the taping of a regional TV show about people who’d gone missing.
To this day, there is a lot to be taken from the life of John Stonehouse. We can learn about what can happen if you become too enamored with money. About the messiness of human life. About how to rebound from a crisis. But, really, if there’s one thing anyone can learn from the blunders of John Stonehouse, it is this: if you’re going to fake your own death, do it properly, for heaven’s sake.
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL