The Journal of a British Spy
A book titled The Journal Kept by Mr. John Howe while He Was Employed as a British Spy
was published in 1827. It purported to offer the life story of John Howe, a man who had 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. John Howe led a fascinating life. Unfortunately, however, he never existed. He was the creation of a printer in Concord, Massachusetts named Luther Roby.
Roby (or someone he hired to do the writing) based Howe's early experiences on the exploits of a real figure, Ensign Henry DeBerniere, who had spied for General Gage, and whose journal had been published in 1779 as General Gage's Instructions.
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 in presenting Howe as a real character was undoubtedly financial, since he recognized that readers would be more interested in the adventures of a real Revolutionary war hero, rather than a fictional one, but his imposture proved so successful that Howe was long treated as an actual, historical figure. As late as 1976, the historian Robert Gross referred to Howe as a "quick-thinking English civilian-spy" in The Minutemen and Their World.
Even the 1983 biographical dictionary American Writers Before 1800
contained an entry about Howe. The writer of the 1983 biographical entry, Daniel Williams, later realized that Howe was fictitious and exposed the hoax, 165 years after it had been perpetrated.
Williams, Daniel E. "Specious Spy: The Narrative Lives - And Lies - Of Mr. John Howe". Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 1993 34(3): 264-286.
Text copyright © 2002 Alex Boese