Journalist George Shepard Chappell intended his Cruise of the Kawa (1921) as a burlesque on romantic South Sea adventure books — it records author “Walter E. Traprock’s” improbable adventures among the “Filbert Islands” of Polynesia:
The wak-wak has a mouth like a subway entrance and I was told that so great was his appetite for human flesh that when, as occasionally happened, some unfortunate swimmer had been eaten by a shark, a wak-wak was sure to come rushing up and bolt shark, man and all. Consequently I did most of my swimming in the lagoon.
Chappell salted the whole book with nonsense: “Captain Ezra Triplett” is shown holding a flintlock pistol carved out of wood, and the nest of the “Fatu-liva” bird is shown to contain “four snow-white, polka-dotted cubes.” Author Traprock’s other books are even listed as Through Borneo on a Bicycle, Around Russia on Roller Skates, Who’s Hula in Hawaii, and How to Explore, and What.
Inevitably, though, it received several serious reviews, and at least one reader responded to the book’s ad for an excursion to the South Seas in order to “see the cute cannibals.” So — after an interval of bemused blinking, one imagines — Chappell gamely followed it up with My Northern Exposure (1922) and Sarah of the Sahara: a Romance of Nomads Land (1925).
One of the most eminent architects in the kingdom once showed the accompanying photograph to a number of his colleagues. Had they ever seen such an exquisitely carved capital? They had not; and they said so. Then arose disputes as to the precise nature of the architecture. Finally sundry big wagers were made, and then the architect gravely proceeded to explain the structure of the column and its capital. This he did by producing his Malacca walking-stick and a few sprigs of succulent broccoli, such as are seen in Fig. 19. Naturally enough, however, after many abstruse disquisitions on mediæval architecture had been given on the subject of the mysterious pillar, this explanation of the photograph was received in silent disgust.
— William G. FitzGerald, “Some Curiosities of Modern Photography,” Strand, January 1895
In 1959, Down Beat editor Gene Lees invited Don DiMicheal to be his Louisville correspondent. DiMicheal sent an item about blues singer Blind Orange Adams, and Lees ran it, “because I so respected and therefore trusted Don’s knowledge of the earlier forms of jazz and the blues.”
When the issue appeared he got a panicked phone call. “That was a joke,” DiMicheal said. “I thought you’d get a laugh and take it out of my copy. It’s a pun on Blind Lemon Jefferson! Jefferson, Adams — get it?”
“Too late now,” Lees said. He told the magazine’s editors and publisher, and they began inserting joking references to Blind Orange into their copy. “The career of Blind Orange Adams blossomed during those years,” Lees told author Bill Crow for Jazz Anecdotes (2005). “Soon there was mail about him, and DiMicheal went so far as to rent a postal box and to found the Blind Orange Adams Appreciation Society.”
The joke reached its peak when Lees received a letter from a New York record label that wanted to find and record Adams. “I tried a desperate ploy. I wrote to the company saying that Blind Orange didn’t trust people, and the only one he would deal with was DeMicheal. He would agree to do an album only if DeMicheal and I produced it.” He planned to record saxophonist Eddie Harris as the mysterious singer, but the record label insisted on meeting their artist.
“I can no longer say with certainty what we did to resolve the situation,” Lees said, “but I seem to recall that Don wrote a story killing Blind Orange off in a car crash.”
In 1871 a man calling himself Lord Gordon-Gordon arrived in Minneapolis. He said he had come to purchase about 50,000 acres of Minnesota land to resettle some tenants from his ancestral estates in Scotland. After selecting the land he traveled to New York, ostensibly to arrange a transfer of funds. There his apparent wealth attracted financier Jay Gould and editor Horace Greeley, and the three formed a partnership to gain a controlling interest in the troubled Erie Railroad. Gould gave his new friend $1 million in cash and securities as a gesture of good faith.
When Gould discovered that Gordon-Gordon was selling these, he realized he had been conned, but the swindler fled to Canada before he could be tried. There he escaped an attempt to kidnap him and eluded capture until 1874. When officers finally confronted him with charges of larceny and forgery, he drew a revolver and shot himself.
To this day, his real identity remains unknown. A Scottish peer he certainly was not: It turned out that before coming to America he had swindled Englishmen and Scotsmen out of some $50,000 while posing as “Lord Glencairn.” “Whatever and whoever he was,” writes historian Edward Harold Mott, “he had genius enough to deceive the shrewdest financiers, the greatest editor, and the most brilliant lawyers of this country.”
The residents of Waterloo, Iowa, were surprised to find a 36-foot airship in their midst in April 1897. Constructed of canvas and wood and fitted out with “compressors and generators,” the ship was attended by several “operators” who told the townspeople that they had come from San Francisco. Five thousand Iowans surrounded the machine, but the men forbade them “to inspect the machinery, and any attempt to cross the rope fence … was met with an order to stay out.” When one of the “crew” said that “one man had fallen overboard just before landing,” the townspeople organized a party to search the river for him when they realized that “the entire affair was a joke.” (Des Moines Leader, April 11, 1897)
A rash of airship sightings swept the western United States that month. If the pilots were aliens, they had some endearingly quaint technology — here’s an account from the Houston Daily Post:
Merkel, Texas, April 26. Some parties returning from church last night noticed a heavy object dragging along with a rope attached. They followed it until in crossing the railroad it caught on a rail. On looking up they saw what they supposed was the airship. It was not near enough to get an idea of the dimensions. A light could be seen protruding from several windows; one bright light in front like the headlight of a locomotive. After some ten minutes a man was seen descending the rope; he came near enough to be plainly seen. He wore a light blue sailor suit, was small in size. He stopped when he discovered parties at the anchor and cut the ropes below him and sailed off in a northeast direction. The anchor is now on exhibition at the blacksmith shop of Elliott and Miller and is attracting the attention of hundreds of people.
Feeling mischievous in 1874, Nevada journalist Dan De Quille invented the story of Jonathan Newhouse, “a man of considerable inventive genius” who waded into Death Valley wearing “solar armor,” essentially a suit made of sponge that was wetted continually from an india-rubber sack. “Thus, by the evaporation of the moisture in the armor, it was calculated might be produced almost any degree of cold.”
De Quille published a deadpan report of the tragic outcome in the Territorial Enterprise of July 2: Newhouse’s corpse was found 20 miles inside the desert, “dead and frozen stiff.” “His beard was covered with frost and — though the noonday sun poured down its fiercest rays — an icicle over a foot in length hung from his nose. There he had perished miserably, because his armor had worked but too well, and because it was laced up behind where he could not reach the fastenings.”
Amazingly, even in the heyday of newspaper hoaxes this was largely taken seriously. Scientific American reported it without comment, and London’s Daily Telegraph wrote only that “we should require some additional confirmation before we unhesitatingly accept it.”
De Quille obliged, reporting that Newhouse’s carpet-sack had been found to contain a collection of chemicals that the inventor had apparently combined into “some frigorific mixture.” Apparently he had been wetting the suit with this, not with water, and had inadvertently drenched himself with it while trying to unlace the suit. Whether this satisfied the Telegraph is unclear — they never responded.
In 1873, Lewis Carroll borrowed the travel diary of his child-friend Ella Monier-Williams, with the understanding that he would show it to no one. He returned it with this letter:
My dear Ella,
I return your book with many thanks; you will be wondering why I kept it so long. I understand, from what you said about it, that you have no idea of publishing any of it yourself, and hope you will not be annoyed at my sending three short chapters of extracts from it, to be published in The Monthly Packet. I have not given any names in full, nor put any more definite title to it than simply ‘Ella’s Diary, or The Experiences of an Oxford Professor’s Daughter, during a Month of Foreign Travel.’
I will faithfully hand over to you any money I may receive on account of it, from Miss Yonge, the editor of The Monthly Packet.
Your affect. friend,
Ella thought he was joking, and wrote to tell him so, but he replied:
I grieve to tell you that every word of my letter was strictly true. I will now tell you more — that Miss Yonge has not declined the MS., but she will not give more than a guinea a chapter. Will that be enough?
“This second letter succeeded in taking me in, and with childish pleasure I wrote and said I did not quite understand how it was my journal could be worth printing, but expressed my pleasure. I then received this letter:–”
My dear Ella,
I’m afraid I have hoaxed you too much. But it really was true. I ‘hoped you wouldn’t be annoyed at my etc.’ for the very good reason that I hadn’t done it. And I gave no other title than ‘Ella’s Diary,’ nor did I give that title. Miss Yonge hasn’t declined it — because she hasn’t seen it. And I need hardly explain that she hasn’t given more than three guineas!
Not for three hundred guineas would I have shown it to any one — after I had promised you I wouldn’t.
Two phantom towns appeared on Michigan’s official state map in 1978. Their names, Goblu and Beatosu, showed pretty clearly that the culprit was a University of Michigan graduate, and state highway commission chairman Peter Fletcher admitted to asking a cartographer to add them. A fellow UM alum had teased him that the Mackinac bridge was painted green and white, the colors of rival Michigan State, and Fletcher had found a surreptitious way to support his alma mater.
Fletcher noted in a 2008 interview that he took care to place the fake towns in Ohio, safely outside Michigan state lines. “We have no legal liability for anything taking place in that intellectual swamp south of Monroe,” he said.
“A more personal example of creative cartography is Mount Richard, which in the early 1970s suddenly appeared on the continental divide on a county map prepared in Boulder, Colorado,” writes Mark Monmonier in How to Lie With Maps (1991). “Believed to be the work of Richard Ciacci, a draftsman in the public works department, Mount Richard was not discovered for two years. Such pranks raise questions about the extent of yet-undetected mischief by mapmakers reaching for geographic immortality.”
In 1996, in order to demonstrate the undiscerning trendiness of postmodernism, NYU physicist Alan Sokal submitted an article “liberally salted with nonsense” to the academic journal Social Text:
As Althusser rightly commented, ‘Lacan finally gives Freud’s thinking the scientific concepts that it requires.’ More recently, Lacan’s topologie du sujet has been applied fruitfully to cinema criticism and to the psychoanalysis of AIDS. In mathematical terms, Lacan is here pointing out that the first homology group of the sphere is trivial, while those of the other surfaces are profound; and this homology is linked with the connectedness or disconnectedness of the surface after one or more cuts.
It was published even though Sokal refused to make any changes.
In 2005, MIT student Jeremy Stribling submitted a paper of computer-generated gibberish to the technology conference WMSCI:
One must understand our network configuration to grasp the genesis of our results. We ran a deployment on the NSA’s planetary-scale overlay network to disprove the mutually largescale behavior of exhaustive archetypes. First, we halved the effective optical drive space of our mobile telephones to better understand the median latency of our desktop machines. This step flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but is instrumental to our results.
It was accepted when none of three reviewers rejected it.
French twins Igor and Grichka Bogdanov insist that their papers on the Big Bang are genuine contributions to physical cosmology, but mathematician John Baez calls them “a mishmash of superficially plausible sentences containing the right buzzwords in approximately the right order.” That battle is still raging.
From the London Times, July 4, 1874, an account of an attack by a giant squid on the schooner Pearl, as told by its master to the rescuing steamer Strathowen:
I was lately the skipper of the ‘Pearl’ schooner, 150 tons, as tight a little craft as ever sailed the seas, with a crew of six men. We were bound from the Mauritius for Rangoon in ballast to return with paddy, and had put in at Galle for water. Three days out we fell becalmed in the bay (lat. 8°50’N., long 84°5′ E.). On the 10th of May, about 5 p.m.,–eight bells I know had gone,–we sighted a two-masted screw on our port quarter, about five or six miles off; very soon after, as we lay motionless, a great mass rose slowly out of the sea about half a mile off on our larboard side, and remained spread out, as it were, and stationary; it looked like the back of a huge whale, but it sloped less, and was of a brownish colour; even at that distance it seemed much longer than our craft, and it seemed to be basking in the sun. ‘What’s that?’ I sung out to the mate. ‘Blest if I knows; barring its size, colour and shape, it might be a whale,’ replied Tom Scott; ‘And it ain’t the sea sarpent,’ said one of the crew, ‘for he’s too round for that ere crittur.’ I went into the cabin for my rifle, and as I was preparing to fire, Bill Darling, a Newfoundlander, came on deck, and, looking at the monster, exclaimed, putting up his hand, ‘Have a care, master; that ere is a squid, and will capsize us if you hurt him.’ Smiling at the idea, I let fly and hit him, and with that he shook; there was a great ripple all round him, and he began to move. ‘Out with all your axes and knives,’ shouted Bill, ‘and cut at any part of him that comes aboard; look alive, and Lord help us!’ Not aware of the danger, and never having seen or heard of such a monster, I gave no orders, and it was no use touching the helm or ropes to get out of the way. By this time three of the crew, Bill included, had found axes, and one a rusty cutlass, and all were looking over the ship’s side at the advancing monster. We could now see a huge oblong mass moving by jerks just under the surface of the water, and an enormous train following; the oblong body was at least half the size of our vessel in length and just as thick; the wake or train might have been one hundred feet long. In the time that I have taken to write this, the brute struck us, and the ship quivered under the thud; in another moment, monstrous arms like trees seized the vessel and she heeled over; in another second the monster was aboard, squeezed in between the two masts, Bill screaming ‘Slash for your lives;’ but all our slashing was of no avail, for the brute, holding on by his arms, slipped his vast body overboard, and pulled the vessel down with him on her beam-ends; we were thrown into the water at once, and just as I went over I caught sight of one of the crew, either Bill or Tom Fielding, squashed up between the masts and one of those awful arms; for a few seconds our ship lay on her beam-ends, then filled and went down; another of the crew must have been sucked down, for you only picked up five; the rest you know. I can’t tell who ran up the ensign.
“This tale has never been confirmed,” notes Bernard Heuvelmans, “and it may well have been an opportune hoax, for the Strathowen is not to be found in Lloyd’s Register for that year.”
At noon on a spring day in Paris some years ago, an old motor truck broke down in the center of the Place de l’Opéra, requiring the driver to spend a half hour under it to make the repair. After apologizing for the trouble he had caused the policemen who had been directing the traffic around him, the truckman drove away — to collect several thousand dollars from friends who had bet that he could not lie on his back for 30 minutes at the busiest hour in the middle of the busiest street in Paris. He was Horace De Vere Cole, England’s celebrated practical joker.
— Collier’s, 1948
In 1897, con artist Soapy Smith opened a telegraph office in Skagway, Alaska. For five dollars, new arrivals in the Klondike Gold Rush could send 10 words to loved ones anywhere in the world, informing them of their safe arrival and imminent riches.
No one noticed that the cable was simply nailed to the back of the building, and that its other end disappeared in the waters of Skagway Bay.
Telegraph lines did not reach Skagway until 1901.
In 1936, Democrats took over Rhode Island’s state senate and began giving out $100 bonuses to veterans. Concerned at this liberality, a Republican quietly recommended a bonus for Sgt. Evael O.W. Tnesba of the Twelfth Machine Gun Battalion. A Democrat seconded the bill and it passed immediately, sending a ripple of laughter through the chamber.
Sensing they’d been had, the Democrats referred the bill to a committee for study. There they discovered that Evael O.W. Tnesba spelled backward is Absent W.O. Leave.
“It is true that members of the Rhode Island General Assembly, except dual office holders, get only $300 a year each for their legislative labors,” opined the Providence Journal. “But even for this modest sum they ought to do better than to vote gratuities to non-existent war veterans.”
In 1929 a well-dressed man approached Tony and Nick Fortunato, owners of New York’s Fortunato Fruit Company. He identified himself as T. Remington Grenfell, vice president of the Grand Central Holding Corporation, and he told the brothers that Grand Central Station had decided to shut down its information booth. If they could come up with $100,000, the first year’s rent, they could take over the booth and convert it into a fruit stand in the heart of the busy train station.
Overjoyed, the brothers brought $100,000 to the corporation’s offices. There they met the president, Wilson A. Blodgett, who accepted their money and gave them a contract saying they could take over the booth on April 1. But when they arrived at the station to begin renovations, they found employees operating the booth as normal, and when they began to argue officials kicked them out of the station. They returned to the Grand Central Holding Company but found an empty suite.
The Fortunato brothers never got their money back, and Grenfell and Blodgett, whoever they were, were never caught. But for years afterward the brothers would visit Grand Central Station regularly to castigate the employees there — a spectacle that itself became a small-time tourist attraction.
In 1984, Bob Ellis, managing editor of the Eldorado, Ill., Daily Journal, announced a contest “to recognize and honor the American summer tradition, Daylight Saving Time.”
“The rules are simple,” Ellis wrote. “Beginning with the first day of Daylight Savings Time this year, those entering the contest must begin saving daylight. Whoever saves the most daylight … will be awarded prizes.”
He arranged for the contest to end on April 1, and hoped he had inserted enough absurdities that readers would see the joke. No pre-dawn light or twilight would be accepted, and moonlight was disallowed. Contestants could store their light in any container and deliver it to the Journal’s office. “All entries will be donated to less fortunate nations that do not observe Daylight Saving Time.”
But they didn’t. Ellis was contacted by media in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Dallas, “every section of the nation” seeking more information about the contest.
That was all right with Ellis. He’s written the piece as “change of pace from the usual and often gloomy side of the news,” he said, so that people “could laugh at the world, and me, and perhaps even at themselves, with reckless abandon. And feel good. And therein lies the worth of such a diversion.”
Industrialist and gambler John “Bet-a-Million” Gates was lunching one day with John Drake, whose wealthy family had founded Drake University.
Gates proposed a bet. He dunked his bread in his coffee and placed it on his saucer. “You do the same,” he said, “and the piece that attracts the most flies wins. Shall we say $1,000 per fly?”
Drake agreed and lost $11,000. Gates made this bet many times, and he always won. His victims never noticed that he left his coffee untasted — because he’d added six spoonfuls of sugar.
In 1924, at the height of Prohibition, rumors began to circulate of rich people partying on a 17,000-ton steamship anchored 15 miles off the New York coast, safely out of the reach of law enforcement. “A Negro jazz orchestra furnishes the music to which millionaires, flappers, and chorus girls whirl on a waxed floor with the tang of salt air in their lungs,” wrote Sanford Jarrell of the New York Herald Tribune, who claimed to have spent a night aboard the mysterious ship.
Other newspapers picked up the story, but none could confirm it. Customs agents began an investigation even as boatloads of intrigued New Yorkers began to search the Atlantic off Fire Island, and Washington ordered a Coast Guard cutter to hunt down the ship.
At first the Herald Tribune defended Jarrell against skeptics, but finally it reported that the story was untrue. The episode had begun with a tip from a reputable source, but Jarrell had followed it up and found nothing. He’d filed his story of the “sin ship” as a hoax, and it had snowballed out of control. Finally he sent a written confession to the paper’s editors.
“In anticipation of the natural penalty for my misdemeanor,” he wrote, “and assuring you of my sincerest regret about the whole affair, I herewith tender you my resignation as a member of the Herald Tribune staff, to take effect at once.”
On Aug. 17, 1921, a bedraggled carrier pigeon landed at the feet of a policeman in Columbus Circle in New York. Tied to its leg was this message:
Notify Dan Singer, Belleclaire Hotel. I am lost in Hoodoo Mountains, Yellowstone Park. Send help, provisions and pack-horses. HELLER. 8-13-21.
At the Belleclaire Hotel police found insurance agent Daniel J. Singer, who identified Heller as naturalist and photographer Edmund H. Heller and recognized the bird as a veteran that had accompanied him on a trip to Africa with Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. Heller had kept it on the roof of the Belleclaire and taken it with him to Yellowstone recently to gather material for a lecture tour.
This was both dramatic and fishy. If the bird had left Wyoming on Aug. 13 then it had flown 1,900 miles in five days, an astonishing feat. Sure enough, when reporters contacted the superintendent of Yellowstone, he responded, “Edmund Heller is here. There is no foundation whatever for the report that he is or has been lost.”
Apparently someone had arranged the hoax in order to publicize Heller’s lectures, forging his signature on the note. The district attorney saw little humor in the stunt and began issuing subpoenas. The New York Times noted, “At the Belleclaire it was said that Singer was out of town, but had disclaimed responsibility and insisted that some person in the hotel perpetrated the hoax.”
This “parable against persecution” was a favorite of Benjamin Franklin, who would sometimes pretend to recite it out of a Bible as “the 51st chapter of Genesis.” He wrote that “the remarks of the Scripturians upon it … were sometimes very diverting”:
1. And it came to pass after these things, that Abraham sat in the door of his tent, about the going down of the sun.
2. And behold a man, bowed with age, came from the way of the wilderness, leaning on a staff.
3. And Abraham arose and met him, and said unto him, ‘Turn in, I pray thee, and wash thy feet, and tarry all night, and thou shalt arise early on the morrow, and go on thy way.’
4. But the man said, ‘Nay, for I will abide under this tree.’
5. And Abraham pressed him greatly; so he turned, and they went into the tent; and Abraham baked unleavened bread, and they did eat.
6. And when Abraham saw that the man blessed not God, he said unto him, ‘Wherefore dost thou not worship the most high God, creator of heaven and earth?’
7. And the man answered and said, ‘I do not worship the God thou speakest of; neither do I call upon his name; for I have made to myself a God, which abideth alway in mine house, and provideth me with all things.’
8. And Abraham’s zeal was kindled against the man; and he arose, and fell upon him, and drove him forth with blows into the wilderness.
9. And at midnight God called unto Abraham, saying, ‘Abraham, where is the stranger?’
10. And Abraham answered and said, ‘Lord, he would not worship thee, neither would he call upon thy name; therefore have I driven him out from before my face into the wilderness.’
11. And God said, ‘Have I borne with him these hundred ninety and eight years, and nourished him, and clothed him, notwithstanding his rebellion against me; and couldst not thou, that art thyself a sinner, bear with him one night?’
12. And Abraham said, ‘Let not the anger of my Lord wax hot against his servant; lo, I have sinned; forgive me, I pray thee.’
13. And Abraham arose, and went forth into the wilderness, and sought diligently for the man, and found him, and returned with him to his tent; and when he had entreated him kindly, he sent him away on the morrow with gifts.
14. And God spake again unto Abraham, saying, ‘For this thy sin shall thy seed be afflicted four hundred years in a strange land;
15. ‘But for thy repentance will I deliver them; and they shall come forth with power, and with gladness of heart, and with much substance.’
(In reality it’s thought to have originated with the Persian poet Saadi.)
In 1925, small-time criminal Alves Reis convinced the British firm that printed Portuguese currency to make some for him, and he passed some 5 million phony escudos into the Portuguese economy. Because the unauthorized bills came from official presses, the government at first could detect nothing wrong, but finally it found some duplicate serial numbers in Reis’ accounts and the game was up.
Reis argued that he had cheated no one, but he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Lord Macmillan of Aberfeldy called the scheme “a crime for which, in the ingenuity and audacity of its conception, it would be difficult to find a parallel.”
And it raises an interesting legal question: If currency is produced by an official government printer, can it still be called counterfeit?
In December 1964, French photographer Robert Le Serrec, his wife, and his Australian friend Henk de Jong were crossing Stonehaven Bay, Hook Island, Queensland, when a gigantic tadpole-like creature appeared beneath them. Le Serrec and de Jong approached it underwater and had just begun filming when it opened its mouth and they retreated to the boat. The creature was 75 to 80 feet long.
That’s the story that Le Serrec published in Everyone magazine in March 1965; unfortunately, it quickly came to light that he was fleeing creditors in France and had boasted of money-making plans involving a sea serpent. Striking photo, though.
In London some years ago a man named Pierce Bottom, weary of jokes about his name, spent several days combing through the telephone directories, seeking people who had ‘bottom’ in their names. He found dozens — Bottom, Bottomley, Winterbottom, Throttlebottom, Greenbottom, Sidebottom, Higginbottom, and so on. He arranged for a dinner to be served in the sub-basement of a London building, and sent engraved invitations to all the ‘bottoms.’ Most of them showed up, but Pierce Bottom did not, and the guests found that each of them had to pay his own check. The entree was rump roast.
— H. Allen Smith, The Compleat Practical Joker, 1953
For several years during the Cold War, New York police guarded the Soviet consulate at 9 East 91st Street in Manhattan. Officers manned a pale blue guard post 24 hours a day. “It’s like being a prisoner of war stuck in a telephone booth,” one said.
The Soviets left in 1980, and the police department accordingly canceled the guard, but two months later the 23rd precinct received a call from an Officer Cowans who said that Inspector Whitmore of police intelligence had ordered the guard to be reactivated. So the police resumed their vigil over the now-disused building.
Five months later, in May 1982, the police happened to mention the consulate duty in a report. “What booth?” asked a bewildered intelligence official. It turned out that Officer Cowans and Inspector Whitmore did not exist; the police had been guarding an empty building around the clock for five months, right through Christmas, for no reason.
They closed up shop and removed the booth. “Whoever did this was someone who wanted to break chops or who stood to gain from it,” Lt. Robert McEntire told the New York Times. “We’re not sure which, and we probably never will be.”
In 1948, while a student at Cambridge, future MP Humphry Berkeley conceived “the only practical joke that I have played in my life.” He invented a public school called Selhurst and, writing on fake letterhead, began to send letters to public figures posing as its eccentric headmaster, H. Rochester Sneath.
Sneath invited George Bernard Shaw to speak, William Reid Dick to erect a statue, and Giles Gilbert Scott to design a new house at Selhurst (all declined). But mostly he plagued and bewildered the masters of English public schools, seeking advice regarding rats, ghosts, and other peculiar problems at his college. In March 1948 he sent a warning to the master of Marlborough College:
I am writing you this letter in the strictest confidence. I understand from a Mr. Robert Agincourt who was Senior French Master at Selhurst, for one term two years ago, that he is applying for a post on the staff of Marlborough College.
He has asked me if I could give him a testimonial to present to you and I told him that by no stretching of veracity was I able to do this. You will understand that nothing that I have to say about Mr. Agincourt is actuated by any personal malice but I feel it my duty to inform you of the impression that he gave while he was at Selhurst.
During his brief stay no less than five boys were removed from the school as a result of his influence, and three of the Matrons had nervous breakdowns. The pictures on the walls of his rooms made a visiting Bishop shudder and would certainly rule out another Royal visit. His practices were described by the Chairman of the County Hospital as ‘Hunnish.’ The prominent wart on his nose was wittily described as ‘the blot on the twentieth century’ by a visiting conjuror.
As you cannot fail to have noticed, his personal appearance is against him, and, after one memorable Carol Service, a titled Lady who was sitting next to him collapsed in a heap. He was once observed climbing a tree in the School Grounds naked at night and on another occasion he threw a flower pot at the wife of the Chairman of the Board of Governors.
Should you wish any further information, I should be glad to furnish it for I could not wish another Headmaster to undergo the purgatory that I suffered that term.
(When the Marlborough master replied that the man had not approached him, Sneath reported that he had abandoned the idea of an academic career and “has now become a waiter in a Greek restaurant in Soho.” He also asked for the name of a good private detective and a nursery maid.)
When Sneath wrote to The Daily Worker complaining that he was being prevented from teaching compulsory Russian at Selhurst, a reporter exposed the hoax. The master of Pembroke College formally rebuked Berkeley and barred him from the college for two years — though, Berkeley wrote, “I think that I saw a twinkle in his eye.”