Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Piltdown Man Hoax and Mystery

Other Suspicious Parties

According to an article by L. Harrison Matthews called Piltdown Man: The Missing Links, the Hastings jeweler, W. J. Lewis Abbott, to whom Dawson initially showed the Piltdown artifacts, was a leading suspect in the fraud. Abbott had a reputation as an avid and illustrious fossil collector and geologist, with a specialty in gemology. He often boasted that if it werent for him, Dawson would have never realized the value or importance of the initial Piltdown find. From the beginning, Abbott was in close contact with Dawson and with the infamous artifacts. Matthews suggested that because of this, and his expertise concerning fossils and the geographic area surrounding Piltdown, he had the knowledge and ample opportunity to devise the hoax. Moreover, he believed that Mathews didnt work alone but conspired with Dawson in masterminding it.

William Abbott
William Abbott

Joseph S. Weiner, the South African anthropologist who, along with Kenneth Oakley uncovered the Piltdown hoax, also believed that Abbott could have played an integral part in the creation of the scam. Spencer stated in his book that there was a great deal of evidence supporting the fact that Abbott was a longtime friend of both Dawson and Woodward. He also stated that Weiner believed that Abbott was one of the few suspects that had, the resources, the skills and knowledge to have manufactured the forgery.

However, although Abbott may have been a likely suspect, there are several factors that served to undermine the theory. Abbott was considered to be a proud, almost egotistical man who took his reputation extremely seriously. In short, he believed he knew better than anyone else the true value and authenticity of the Piltdown finds. Thus, it is unlikely that he would have risked his image by taking part in a hoax that would have eventually discredited him in the scientific community.

Moreover, it is unclear why he would ever concoct such a fantastic hoax in the first place. Furthermore, and most importantly, there is no evidence that directly or indirectly links Abbott to the Piltdown fraud, other than his relationship with some of the suspects and his expertise in geology and paleontology. The lack of evidence against Abbott prompted the investigation of other possible suspects, including a man named Sir Arthur Keith who was first implicated in the 1990s by Ian Langham and Frank Spencer.  

Sir Arthur Keith
Sir Arthur Keith

Keith was an anatomist and paleontologist who, during the Piltdown excavations, had aspirations of being an anthropologist. Langham and Spencer suspected him to have been involved with Dawson in the Piltdown forgery because he apparently seemed to know too much. According to a letter Keith wrote in December 1912, he claimed to have known about the Piltdown discovery days before it was revealed publicly, even though Woodward or those in his inner circle never informed him. Thus, Langham and Spencer suggested that his knowledge of the find possibly came from his direct involvement.

Moreover, they speculated that Dawson must have been involved because he and Keith were friends and Dawson had actually entrusted Keith with the Piltdown artifacts in 1911, the year before they were ever presented to Woodward. During the time Keith was allegedly in possession of the artifacts, it was believed he switched the jaw of the human skull to that of an orangutans. By doing this, he would be able to provide evidence to the scientific community that man and ape shared a common ancestry, a theory, which he strongly supported. Moreover, the evidence would likely propel him to a higher status in the scientific community and secure him a position as a leading anthropologist.

Although Langham and Spencer provided an interesting theory, it remained unsubstantiated. Therefore, there still remains no real proof that Keith actually had been involved in the hoax, even though he may have been a likely suspect. However, he would by no means be the last on the long list of suspected perpetrators.

Many others were implicated in the Piltdown forgery. Yet, like a majority of the suspects previously mentioned, there was only circumstantial evidence and nothing concrete to support any of the cases against them. Thus, the identity of the hoaxers will forever remain clouded in mystery unless new and substantial evidence is brought to the forefront.