Hoaxes

Hattogate

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Shortly before her death in 2006, British pianist Joyce Hatto released a series of acclaimed CDs on Concert Artist Recordings, a label owned by her husband, William Barrington-Coupe. Though she was battling cancer, Hatto’s output was both prolific and technically dazzling. “Even in the most daunting repertoire, her poise in the face of one pianistic storm after another is a source of astonishment,” wrote critic Bryce Morrison; Jeremy Nicholas called her “one of the greatest pianists Britain has ever produced.”

But skepticism began to grow on the Internet, and in February 2007 Gramophone editor Jed Distler put Hatto’s recording of Liszt’s Transcendental Études into this computer and was surprised to find that iTunes identified it as the work of Hungarian pianist László Simon. On investigating, recording engineer Andrew Rose found that Hatto’s recordings of the Chopin etudes appeared to match those of Italian pianist Carlo Grante but had been manipulated electronically.

Barrington-Coupe defended the recordings at first, but finally confessed to Robert von Bahr, head of Sweden’s BIS label. In all, more than 100 recordings had been falsely attributed to Joyce. Barrington-Coupe maintained that she had been unaware of the fraud, though some critics dispute this; Von Bahr considered suing him but decided against it, considering the affair “a desperate attempt to build a shrine to a dying wife.”

Whatever the motive, the episode does seem to indict the judgment of some celebrated music critics. “Does it affect the way someone perceives a performance if the pianist is a healthy, respected but lowish-profile middle-aged man, or a dying, unjustly neglected British heroine?” asked the Independent. “Maybe it shouldn’t, but the extent to which it does has never been clearer.”

Backstory

When the dowager recluse Ida Wood died in March 1932, she drew more than 1,000 people into a court battle over her $877,000 estate. As a social belle of the Gilded Age, Ida Mayfield had lit up the city with memories of dances with the Prince of Wales and dinners with Abraham Lincoln among the prominent Mayfields of New Orleans. She had married wealthy publisher Benjamin Wood and, on his death, withdrew to New York’s Herald Square hotel, where she was found dead at age 93.

At the news of her death, 406 connections of the Mayfield family filed claims against her fortune, but judge James A. Foley managed to disappoint all of them. Ida, he found, was not a Mayfield at all — she was Ida Walsh, the daughter of English-Irish immigrants who had arrived in Massachusetts shortly before the Civil War. At 19 she had changed her name to Mayfield in order to impress people at her New York debut, and the ruse had succeeded beyond her wildest hopes.

“She was plainly actuated by her desire to suppress her humble origin and to assume an alleged social standing in the period before and after her marriage to Benjamin Wood,” Foley wrote. “It is the jest of fortune that having attained wealth and prominence, she abandoned her pretenses at the age of 60 and retired in strict seclusion.” Calling Wood “a very peculiar woman,” he divided her fortune among 10 cousins.

Underground

On Sept. 21, 1929, each of the major Paris newspapers received a letter from a mysterious organization calling itself the Knights of Themis. The society had been formed, it said, to punish “swindlers, dishonest financiers and others of similar kidney” whom the authorities had failed to discourage.

First on its list was Joseph Eugene Clement Passal, a notorious confidence man who had just been released from Lille Prison after a paltry five-year sentence. Over the next several days, further letters told of Passal’s abduction and torture by a series of bizarre ordeals. Finally, on Sept. 26, he confessed the location of his ill-gotten loot, and his captors retrieved a box containing 10 million francs from the Forest of Essarts. Finding Passal hopelessly unrepentant, though, they resolved to kill him.

On Sept. 27 Passal’s mother received a letter in her son’s hand, confirming that he had been kidnapped, tortured, and sentenced to death. Six days later she received another letter, this one apparently from a repentant captor who thought his fellows had gone too far. He confided that Passal had been buried alive 75 miles west of Paris in a coffin that had been fitted with an airpipe to prolong his agony.

The authorities raced to the scene and found a freshly dug grave from which a tin airpipe protruded. In the coffin was Joseph Passal, dead. When detectives traced the purchaser of the airpipe they discovered Paris thief Henri Boulogne, who confessed everything. He and Passal had been cellmates in prison, and on Passal’s release they had rented a villa, where they had typed the letters and built the coffin. Passal directed his friend to bury him alive, expecting that the authorities would resurrect him and he could sell his story for millions.

The airpipe they had chosen was too small.

Con Heir

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In 1879 Thérèse Humbert was traveling by railway through France when she met an ailing American millionaire named Robert Crawford. She sought medical care for him, and he showed his gratitude with a handsome bequest, which she kept in a sealed safe.

Or so she said. Humbert and her husband lived luxuriously in Paris for two decades, borrowing money against Crawford’s unseen gift. When suspicious creditors finally sued her, they discovered that Crawford didn’t exist and the safe contained a handful of worthless papers. She was sentenced to five years in prison.

In 1897 Ohio con artist Cassie Chadwick “confessed” to a Cleveland lawyer that she was the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie and stood to inherit $10 million on his death. She parlayed his sympathy into a series of bank loans and lived lavishly until 1904, when she was unable to repay a Massachusetts banker. Carnegie, who denied her story, attended the trial and saw her sentenced to 10 years in prison. She died two years later in the Ohio State Penitentiary.

Cut!

Director Curtis Bernhardt was midway through shooting My Reputation in 1944 when he encountered some trouble with one of the stars. Robert Archer insisted on wearing a jacket and shirt while mowing a lawn under the hot California sun.

Bernhardt pressed him, and to his surprise Archer said, “Okay, okay, I’m a girl.”

She was Tanis Chandler, a 20-year-old typist in a local brokerage office who’d gotten tired of waiting for acting jobs. Posing as Archer, she’d won a part in 1943’s The Desert Song, where robes and a burnoose had hid her shape. She’d done so well that the casting office had sent her out for Bernhardt’s film.

“The studios are always yelling about the lack of men,” she said. “I thought I’d have better luck in male roles. Oh, well.”

Altered States

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The Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine declared its independence from Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939. It was annexed by Hungary the next day. It had been independent for only 24 hours.

In December 2006, Belgian public television station RTBF reported that Dutch-speaking Flanders had declared independence and that Belgium as a nation had ceased to exist. Panicked viewers placed 2,600 calls to the station and crashed its website as they sought further information.

The station kept up the story for two hours, then admitted it was a hoax. “It’s very bad Orson Welles, in very poor taste,” said a spokesman for Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. “We obviously scared many people,” acknowledged news director Yves Thiran. “Maybe more than we expected.”

The World’s Littlest Skyscraper

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Image: Flickr

During the oil boom of 1919, Wichita Falls, Texas, was desperate for office space, so investors jumped at developer J.D. McMahon’s offer to build a 480″ highrise downtown.

When the building turned out to be four stories tall, they double-checked the blueprints. McMahon had promised a building 480 inches tall, not 480 feet. And that’s what he’d delivered.

By that time he had decamped with the money.

“A Compulsion to Teach”

Marvin Harold Hewitt was bright enough to find schoolwork boring, so he dropped out of high school. That didn’t hold him back:

  • To get a job at 23, he claimed he was a Temple University undergraduate and found himself teaching arithmetic, geography, and history at Camp Hill Military Academy in Philadelphia.
  • Discovering a taste for teaching, he borrowed the identity of Columbia physicist Julius Ashkin and began teaching calculus, algebra, and trigonometry at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, where he also bluffed his way through managing a physics lab.
  • Still posing as Ashkin, he taught analytical and solid geometry, algebra, and physics at the Bemidji State Teachers College in Minnesota; moved to St. Louis University, where he taught graduate courses in nuclear physics, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, and tensor analysis; and arrived finally at the University of Utah, which hired him as a full professor of physics.
  • Here his luck finally ran out — a number of people noticed discrepancies in his stories, and he had to admit his real identity and return to his mother in Philadelphia.
  • Chastened but not discouraged, he applied next to teach at the University of Arkansas College of Engineering, posing as “George Hewitt,” a former research director of RCA. They hired him, but a former RCA employee exposed him the following spring and he was fired.
  • Posing as “Clifford Berry,” he took a job teaching second- and third-year physics and calculus at the New York State Maritime College in the Bronx.
  • Posing as “Kenneth P. Yates,” he taught physics at the University of New Hampshire at Durham, where he was finally outed by a suspicious student amid publicity too wide to live down.

In all, Hewitt spent nine years teaching mathematics, engineering, and physics at seven different schools and universities, using forged credentials throughout. “The ease with which Hewitt obtained these jobs fills him with indignation,” reported Life magazine, which profiled him in 1954 when it was all over. “The unquestioning acceptance of a transcript and careless checking of references is, in his fairly expert opinion, a universal weakness throughout the U.S. higher educational system. When he considers what might have happened to a great many people had he made medicine or surgery his field, he shudders.”

Antique Spam

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In July 1833 the Earl of Stamford and Harrington received a letter signed “Martha Turner.” “It is with shame, indescribable shame, I presume to address your Lordship with these lines,” she wrote, “but from having a knowledge of your Lordship’s person from my infancy, and through the report of your Lordship’s sympathising and benevolent character, I am about entrusting a most unfortunate affair to your Lordship’s honour and secrecy.”

She had left her widowed mother at Christmas, she said, with a man who had promised to marry her but had left her “ruined and undone.” She begged for “a small pecuniary assistance,” pleading with the earl to rescue her “from entire destruction” and “a miserable death.”

Martha Turner didn’t exist. Her appeal was contrived and arranged by Joseph Underwood, one of about 250 letter-writing impostors who plagued England’s wealthy in the 1830s. Underwood had invented and written Martha’s letter in a woman’s hand, and he forged corroborating messages from her supposed seducer and from a clergyman supporting her story.

Underwood earned nearly £1,000 a year at this, which apparently made his frequent incarcerations worthwhile. “If the faculty of creation be one of the principal attributes of genius,” wrote John Grant in 1838, “Underwood was a genius of the first magnitude. The force and felicity of his imaginative facts were remarkable. Had he turned his attention to novel-writing, instead of to the profession of a begging-letter impostor, there is no saying how high his name might at this moment have stood in the current literature of the country.” Underwood chose otherwise — he died in Coldbath Fields Prison in 1838.

Invisible Man

The book that Montgomery Carmichael published in 1902 seemed at first to be a straightforward biography:

The will of my friend Philip Walshe has put me in possession of a large and extraordinary collection of valuable MSS., and has at the same time laid upon me a task of no little delicacy and difficulty. These MSS. are the voluminous works of his father, the late Mr. John William Walshe, F.S.A., who died on the 2nd July 1900, aged sixty-three, at Assisi, in Umbria, where he had passed the latter half of his life. Mr. Walshe was well known to scholars as perhaps the greatest living authority on matters Franciscan: otherwise he had practically no fame. The busy world, at all events, knew him not.

“It takes some time to realize that this is all an elaborate piece of mystification,” wrote a Dial reviewer, “and to recall the fact that the name of Walshe does not figure in any actual list of Franciscan scholars, living or dead.”

The Life of John William Walshe is the detailed portrait of a man who never existed. Librarian Edmund Lester Pearson calls it “one of the most inexplicable examples of the literary hoax. … It contained not one atom of satire, it was not a parody, and so far as I, at least, could have discovered by internal evidence, it was what it purported to be: a sober and reverent biography of an Englishman dwelling in Italy, a devout member of the Church of Rome, and in particular an enthusiastic student and pious follower of St. Francis of Assisi.”

Carmichael was a member of the British consular service in Italy and the author of a number of European travel books. So far as I can tell, he never explained this work — he called it only “the story of a hidden life.”