Hoax Archive: Time Periods
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Literary Hoaxes (1800-1868)
Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812)The Grimm's Fairy Tales, first published in German in 1812 as Kinder- und Hausmärchen, is considered to be one of the major works of 19th-century culture. Popular myth holds that the tales came from simple, peasant folk interviewed by the brothers, Jakob and Wilhelm. In reality, the bulk of the tales came from a handful of middle- and upper-class women. Some of the tales were French in origin, not German. Furthermore, the tales were heavily revised and rewritten by the Grimm brothers before publication.
In his 1983 book One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and their Tales John Ellis argued that the Grimm Brothers engaged in a kind of literary fraud. As Ellis put it, "the Grimms deliberately made false claims for their tales and suppressed the evidence of their actual origin."
Most scholars, however, are more kind to the Grimms. They agree that the tales did not come from peasant folk, but argue that the Grimms did not try to hide or misrepresent their sources. They attribute the Grimm's revision of the tales to their attempt to synthesize different versions of the tales together.
John Howe, British Spy (1827)In 1827 a Massachusetts printer named Luther Roby published The Journal Kept by Mr. John Howe while He Was Employed as a British Spy. It told the story of John Howe, a man said to have been a British spy during the Revolutionary war before switching sides to become an American soldier, then a settler, a frontier trader, an Indian preacher, and finally a smuggler.
Howe was long accepted as an actual historical figure. As late as 1976, the historian Robert Gross referred to Howe in The Minutemen and Their World as a "quick-thinking English civilian-spy." The 1983 biographical dictionary American Writers Before 1800 contained an entry about Howe. But the writer of the 1983 biographical entry, Daniel Williams, realized, upon investigation, that Howe was fictitious and exposed the hoax, 165 years after it had been perpetrated.
Williams concluded that Roby (or someone he hired to do the writing) had created the character of Howe based on a real figure, Ensign Henry DeBerniere, who had spied for General Gage. Roby essentially Americanized the character of DeBerniere, making him craftier and more representative of the American ideal of the self-made man. Roby's motive was probably financial. He recognized that readers would be more interested in the adventures of a supposedly real Revolutionary war hero than a fictional one.
Hoaxes of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was an American writer, celebrated for his dark, gothic tales of horror and suspense. He enjoyed playing games of rationality with his readers. Sometimes he cast himself as a master detective capable of discerning the truth behind any illusion or riddle, a role he expressed through the famous character of Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin. This is also seen in his effort to solve puzzles, such as the mystery of the operation of the Great Chess Automaton.
At other times, Poe liked to display his ability to hide the truth from his readers, to force them to play detective. He published six hoaxes during his brief life. Most modern anthologies of his works fail to note that these stories were first presented to readers in the guise of nonfiction. In fact, both detective and hoaxer were two sides of the same coin for Poe. Both roles manifested the power he believed a rational mind could wield over reality. Poe was also fascinated by other hoaxes besides his own. He once referred approvingly to the age in which he lived as the "epoch of the hoax."
Listed below are his six hoaxes.
The publication of Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures caused an enormous public outcry that fed on the widespread anti-Catholic sentiment of the era. Leading protestants in New York and Montreal demanded an investigation of the convent, to which demand the Bishop of Montreal eventually acquiesced. It turned up no evidence to support Maria Monk's claims, but American Protestants refused to accept these results, claiming the investigation was biased because it had supposedly been conducted by Jesuits disguised as Protestants.
A New York City newspaper editor, Col. William Leete Stone, asked the Bishop for permission to investigate with a team of protestants. The bishop granted his request, and in October 1836 Stone led a team around the convent. With Maria Monk's book in hand, he compared her description of the convent's interior with the convent itself. He found very little correspondence between the two. However he was not allowed to see the nun's rooms or the basement area and had to return to New York City, his investigation unfinished.
Col. Stone later obtained permission to see the entire convent and, on the basis of this fuller investigation, concluded there was no evidence Maria Monk "had ever been within the walls of the cloister."
With her claims discredited, Maria Monk fell from public view. A rumor emerged that she had actually been a prostitute in Montreal, and that the years she claimed to have spent in a convent were spent in the Magdalen Asylum for Wayward Girls. She was later arrested for picking the pocket of a man who had paid her for sex. She died in prison on Welfare Island, New York City, in 1849. Her Awful Disclosures, despite having been shown to be false, remained in print until well into the twentieth century.
The Fortsas Bibliohoax, 1840 (August 1840)Jean Nepomucene Auguste Pichauld, Comte de Fortsas, was a man with a singular passion. He collected books of which only one copy was known to exist. If he ever discovered that one of the volumes in his library had a duplicate anywhere in the world, he would immediately dispose of it. So when he died on September 1, 1839 he possessed only fifty-two books, but each of them was absolutely unique.
His heir, not sharing the old man's passion for book collecting, arranged for an auction to sell off the library, and so a catalog of this small but highly unusual collection was mailed to bibliophiles throughout Europe. The auction, the collectors were told, was to be held in the offices of Mâitre Mourlon, notary, 9 rue de l'Église, in Binche, Belgium on August 10, 1840. More→
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