Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography
The six-volume Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography was published between 1887 and 1889 and was one of the first and most definitive works of its kind published in America. It contains biographical information about thousands of people (some famous, some more obscure) in American history. It was hailed as a valuable source of information for both scholars and students alike.
But thirty years after the Cyclopedia's initial publication, questions began to be raised about its reliability. The botanist Dr. John Hendley Barnhart published a brief article in the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden
suggesting that some of the Cyclopedia's biographical sketches might be fictitious. He had specific doubts about fourteen botanists. He had never heard of these people, nor could he find references to them anywhere else.
As other researchers began to fact check the Cyclopedia, more and more false entries were found. To date over 200 suspicious entries have been flagged. But due to the enormity of the work it's doubtful that all of the false information it contains will ever be identified.
Almost all the false sketches found to date describe pre-nineteenth century European scientists who travelled to the New World to study its natural history. Some of these false biographies are more obvious than others. For instance, the biography of Charles Henry Huon de Penanster, identified as a French botanist, almost exactly parallels the real life of Nicolas Thiery de Menonville (whose biography also appears in the Cyclopedia). The biography of Nicolas Henrion, a French scientist, reports that he arrived in South America in 1783, just as the Asiatic cholera broke out there. However, epidemic Asiatic cholera first broke out in South America only in 1835. Miguel da Fonseca e Silva Herrera, a Brazilian historian, was said to have been presented with a gold medal by the historical institute of Rio de Janeiro in 1820, even though this society was not founded until 1838.
Most of the false entries are fairly dry, but a few are more colorful, such as that of Jean Pierre de Vogué
, a Flemish adventurer who apparently ended his days wandering through the Brazilian rainforest in search of the fabled "Mountain of Wealth", and the Spanish geographer Andres Vicente y Bennazar
who reportedly published a map of the world clearly displaying both North and South America sixteen years before Columbus sailed to the Americas.
The author (or authors) of the false entries is not known, but the motive for writing the pieces was probably financial since contributors to the Cyclopedia were paid by space, and the articles were generally checked only for form.
So once the Cyclopedia was recognized as being highly unreliable, it was removed from libraries. Right? Wrong. It can still be found in many libraries throughout America. It was even republished in 1968 by the Gale Research Company. Gale didn't remove any of the bogus biographies, nor did it print a warning stating that hundreds of the sketches were known to be fictitious. Check your own local library. If you find the Cyclopedia there, you may want to move it to the fiction section.
- Barnhart, John Hendley. "Some Fictitious Botanists." Journal of the New York Botanical Garden 20 (September 1919): 171-81.
- O'Brien, Frank M. "The Wayward Encyclopedias", New Yorker, XII (May 2, 1936), pp. 71-74.
- Schindler, Margaret Castle. "Fictitious Biography." American Historical Review 42 (1937), pp. 680-90.
- Dobson, John Blythe. "The Spurious Articles in Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American BiographySome New Discoveries and Considerations." Biography 16(4) 1993: 388-408.
Text copyright © 2002 Alex Boese