The ‘Good’ Doctor

Glenside Hospital Museum


Pretending to be someone other than oneself is an attractive prospect, you can forget your insecurities and adopt another persona more confident and  talented than yourself. This is what the acting profession is based on and to a certain extent it is something we all do. I know that when I went to work as a psychiatric nurse I would adopt my work persona; a more capable and self-assured version of my insecure self. Sometimes people take this further. Some people change their name; a friend nearly changed his name to Thor God of Thunder. As a different person you can act out a life which your former self could never achieve.

One attractive proposition is to pretend to be a doctor because people look up to you, you have the power of life and death and you will probably have a lot more sex. William Faulkner McGonicle did this, and acquired a post at the Bristol Mental Hospital.

This is his story as far as I can glean:

McGonicle was born in Belfast in about 1898. As a young man he ran away to sea and later enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps. In this he did not gain any qualifications but possibly gained some medical knowledge. In 1922, he married but was soon divorced. He worked in London as a carpenter before moving to Nottingham. Here he set up a sunray clinic and remarried a widow, a union which produced a son. He proceeded to defraud his wife of her savings, for which he was prosecuted and in 1929, received an eighteen month jail sentence.

After serving his sentence, he took the name Dr Norman Nelson KIrkup and in January of 1931 set himself up in a  medical practise in Exeter. He also started a relationship with a Miss Court, who unwisely, agreed to become his fiancé. In April of that year he obtained a post as a temporary medical assistant at the Bristol Mental Hospital (formerly the Bristol Lunatic Asylum and latterly Glenside Hospital). They looked up Dr Kirkup on the medical registry where indeed there was a such a person, but the real Dr Kirkup was practicing medicine in Canada. He was considered a good doctor. He performed all the usual medical duties, prescribing medication and assisting in surgery. No-one seems to have doubted his abilities. He also claimed to be  a Clerk of Holy Orders and carried out church services. (Donal Early, ‘The Lunatic Pauper Palace’ Glenside Hospital Bristol 1861 – 1994 (Bristol: Friends of Glenside Museum, 2003) pp 50-51)

After working in Bristol for six months he successfully applied for a post as a surgeon in Borneo producing several bogus references. The post required him to be married, so he married Miss Court. Whilst travelling by boat to his new post his new marriage was discovered to be bigamous by the police and after docking in Singapore he was arrested. It was then discovered he was not Dr Kirkup but was in fact a William Faulkner McGonicle (Straits Times 19 December 1931 p12). This discovery was made possible by the new technology of fingerprinting. Despite this evidence and being informed of the consequences of committing perjury he still claimed to be Dr Kirkup. Unsurprisingly he was sent back to England where he was tried at the Long Ashton Court Sessions. Interestingly he was only fined £20 for impersonating a doctor and cleric which apparently was the maximum for this offence (Western Morning News 23 March 1932). The chairman of the magistrates suggested the penalty was wholly inadequate considering the seriousness of the offence (Br Med J 1932;1:690). For the bigamy and obtaining money by false pretences he was given a five year sentence.

After release from prison his deceptions continued often involving elaborate and bizarre fabrications. In 1936 he falsely obtained money from a woman whom he deceived into thinking he had got her a post as a pharmaceutical dispenser in Persia though he later changed his story and suggested he was acting for the Soviet government. In 1938 he was again charged with obtaining money under false pretences. He admitted to being a compulsive liar and suggested he needed treatment. The judge replied ‘I do not know whether yours is a case for mental treatment but the only treatment I can give you is 18 months hard labour’. Following this he does not seem to have come to the attention of the authorities though this could mean he was charged under another undiscovered alias or that his deceptions were more successful.

This is a colourful case but it does raise a couple of questions, firstly did he have a mental disorder and secondly why was it so easy to fool everyone at the asylum. He was obviously a clever and resourceful chap but his successes were short lived. His deceptions required much ingenuity but often for little reward. His 1936 deception only netted him £6 and between 1929 and 1940 he served three sentences of a combined length of eight years. He seems to have had a compulsion not to be himself. He probably craved respect. These other lives were certainly more interesting than his life would have otherwise been. There is no evidence that he actually thought he was these other people so it is doubtful it could be labelled as a mental illness.

Films such as ‘Catch me if you can’ based on a true story and the recent television series ‘Trust Me’ suggest it is not that difficult to pretend to be a doctor. As an experienced psychiatric nurse I think I could have fooled people at least for a while. I think it shows how trusting we sometimes are. Put on a high vis jacket and you can dig the road up, put on a stethoscope and you can be a doctor.

Blog by Dr Paul Tobia