Alfred Hitchcock, Mr. Memory, and Asperger’s Syndrome

Alfred Hitchcock’s film, the 39 Steps, bears only the slightest resemblance to the novel whose title it borrows. One of the many differences is the character Mr. Memory, who is central to the film but does not appear in the book.

It may surprise you that Mr. Memory was based on a real person, the English music hall sensation, W. J. M. Bottle, who preformed under the stage name Datas. Bottle could recall thousands of obscure facts and answer trivia questions shouted from the audience, The ages and birthdays of celebrities, the results of sporting matches, obscure facts of geography; his range of knowledge was astounding (see Ricky Jay’s fantastic book Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women for more details).

Bottle wrote a memoir where he disclaimed any early knowledge of special memory powers. In the same book he tells of his accidental discovery of his powerful memory when he overheard two men trying to remember the date of the verdict in the Tichborne trial, a notorious Victorian scandal.

Heir to a great fortune Roger Tichborne had been lost at sea and pronounced dead. A Australian butcher named Arthur Orton, who bore only a slight resemblance to the missing man, came forward and claimed to be Tichborn. Orton’s claim was accepted by Tichborn’s mother, but after her death Orton tried to claim the inheritance. His bid failed and he was eventually convicted of perjury.

Bottle provided them the date of Orton’s conviction; February 28, 1874. When one of the men expressed surprise that Bottle would know a date of an event that occurred before his birth, Bottle proceeded to provide all the important details of the Tichborne case.

In his memoir, Bottle tells us “finding how surprised they were at my stock of knowledge, I felt encouraged, and continued with a number of dates of events in English history, and the names of Derby and Oaks’ winners, in rapid succession.” Bottle’s performance was overheard by a theatrical promoter who invited him to appear on the Standard Music Hall that very night still in his dirty work clothes. He was an instant success and soon quit his job as a manual laborer at a gas works for a life in show business.

Reading Bottle’s autobiography one finds evidence that Bottle may have had Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by social awkwardness and obsessive interest in facts and details. Many children with Asperger’s syndrome are hyperlexic, teaching themselves to read at an early age. Bottle had scant schooling and taught himself to read. As a child he showed obsessive interest in obscure facts; “from memorizing shop-keepers’ names I got to cabbies’ and policeman’s number. Like most children with Asperger’s syndrome he had little interest in his peers. “I was not the same as most other children” in that I took no part in their games, having no desire to.”

Bottle had great powers of visualization and he may have also had synesthesia, which is often associated with superior memory.