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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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