Better Safe

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.”

Rogue Don

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:

Dear Heywood,

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.”

Double Scotch

In the early 1970s, University of Minnesota chemical engineer Rutherford Aris received a letter from Who’s Who in America requesting a biography of “Aris Rutherford.” Aris wrote back, explaining their mistake, but the requests kept coming. So in 1974 Aris gamely sent in a biography of Aris Rutherford:

  • Born in Scotland, he earned a degree in 1948 from the Glenlivet Institute of Distillation Engineering.
  • In 1955 he became the chief design engineer and tester for the Strath Spey Distillation Company.
  • From 1960 to 1964, he was a visiting professor of distillation practice at the Technological Institute of the Aegean, in Corinth.
  • He was active in the Distillation Club of Edinburgh and wrote three books, including Distillation Procedures (1963).

The news media quickly learned of the hoax, and Who’s Who cut the entry in the following year’s edition. That’s a pity, Aris said — his alter ego was about to publish another book, American Baseball: A Guide for Interested Englishmen.

Book Club


When a visiting Englishman expressed disappointment that New York had revealed none of the bohemian color that he had hoped for, actor (and inveterate joker) Edward Sothern invited him to a dinner for twelve.

While the soup was being served, one man laid a battleax beside his plate, another a knife, and others produced guns, scythes, and staves.

“For heaven’s sake,” whispered the Englishman, “what does this mean?”

“Keep quiet,” replied Sothern, “It is just what I most feared. These gentlemen have been drinking, and they have quarrelled about a friend of theirs, a Mr. Weymyss Jobson, quite an eminent scholar, and a very estimable gentleman, but I hope for our sakes they will not attempt to settle their quarrel here.”

At that one guest leapt to his feet and cried, “Whoever says that the History of the French Revolution, written by my friend, David Weymyss Jobson, is not as good a book in every respect as that written by Tom Carlyle on the same subject, is a liar and a thief, and if there is any fool present who desires to take it up, I am his man!”

In the ensuing melee, someone thrust a knife into the Englishman’s hand and said, “Defend yourself! This is butchery — sheer butchery!”

Sothern sat by and said only, “Keep cool — and don’t get shot.”

Sothern was famous for such jokes; it’s said that few of his friends attended his funeral because they assumed the announcement was a hoax. Once, at a restaurant, he and a friend gathered up all the silverware and hid under the table. Outraged, the waiter ran off to summon the police. When he returned, the two were sitting at their places as if nothing had happened.

The Devil’s Snare

In 1892 an alarming tale made the rounds of British magazines — the adventure of a Mr. Dunstan, a naturalist in Nicaragua:

‘He was engaged in hunting for botanical and entomological specimens, when he heard his dog cry out, as if in agony, from a distance. Running to the spot whence the animal’s cries came, Mr. Dunstan found him enveloped in a perfect network of what seemed to be a fine, rope-like tissue of roots and fibres. The plant or vine seemed composed entirely of bare, interlacing stems, resembling, more than anything else, the branches of the weeping-willow denuded of its foliage, but of a dark, nearly black hue, and covered with a thick, viscid gum that exuded from the pores.’ Drawing his knife, Mr. Dunstan attempted to cut the poor beast free; but it was with the very greatest difficulty that he managed to sever the fleshy muscular fibres of the plant. When the dog was extricated from the coils of the plant, Mr. Dunstan saw, to his horror and amazement, that the dog’s body was bloodstained, ‘while the skin appeared to have been actually sucked or puckered in spots,’ and the animal staggered as if from exhaustion. In cutting the vine, the twigs curled like living, sinuous fingers about Mr. Dunstan’s hand, and it required no slight force to free the member from its clinging grasp, which left the flesh red and blistered. The gum exuding from the vine was of a greyish-dark tinge, remarkably adhesive, and of a disagreeable animal odor, powerful and nauseating to inhale. The natives, we are told, showed the greatest horror of the plant, which, as we have noted above, they called the ‘devil’s snare,’ and they recounted to the naturalist many stories of its death-dealing powers. Mr. Dunstan, we are told, was able to discover very little about the nature of the plant, owing to the difficulty of handling it, for its grasp can only be shaken off with the loss of skin, and even of flesh. As near as he could ascertain, however, its power of suction is contained ‘in a number of infinitesimal mouths or little suckers, which, ordinarily closed, open for the reception of food.’ ‘If the substance is animal, the blood is drawn off and the carcass or refuse then dropped. A lump of raw meat being thrown it, in the short space of five minutes the blood will be thoroughly drunk off and the mass thrown aside. Its voracity is almost beyond belief.’

None could quite agree on the piece’s source or author, but they were surprisingly open-minded as to its truth. “It must be admitted to be circumstantial enough in all its details to be possible,” wrote the editors of the Spectator. “The story is unquestionably a very curious one, and we may rely upon it, that if the plant really does exist, we shall soon have a specimen at Kew. The digging of the Nicaragua Canal will bring plenty of Americans and Englishmen into the very country where the ‘vampire vine’ is said to exist, and the question whether the whole thing is or is not a hoax may very soon be tested.” Indeed, they said, this argued in favor of the story’s truth: A hoaxer would have placed his plant in a more obscure location.

Imp Perfect

Apparently bored in 1940, Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson sent a note to socialite Sibyl Colefax:

I wonder if by any chance you are free to dine tomorrow night? It is only a tiny party for Winston and GBS. I think it important they should get together at this moment. There will be nobody else except for Toscanini and myself. Do please try and forgive this terribly short notice. Eight o’clock and — of course — any old clothes.

“There was only one thing wrong about this heaven-sent epistle, which was written in longhand,” wrote Beverley Nichols. “The address and the signature were totally illegible. The address looked faintly like Berkeley Square, but it might equally have been Belgrave Square and the number might have been anything from 11 to 101. As for the signature she could not tell whether it was male or female.”

Lady Colefax called everyone she knew, but she never found the source. “There is something almost heroic in the thought of her small, thin, determined figure, sitting in her drawing-room in a hail of bombs, reaching out so desperately for the next rung of the social ladder that, for her, reached to heaven.”

The Branded Pen

In the early 1980s Doris Lessing published two novels under a pseudonym. “I wanted to highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that ‘nothing succeeds like success,'” she told the New York Times. “If the books had come out in my name, they would have sold a lot of copies and reviewers would have said, ‘Oh, Doris Lessing, how wonderful.'”

It appears her concerns were justified. Diary of a Good Neighbor was rejected by Lessing’s regular U.K. publisher as “not commercially viable”; another house said it was “too depressing to publish.” When it did appear and no one recognized her work, she wrote a second novel, If the Old Could, under the same pseudonym. Each book received promotion typical for a novel by an unknown author, garnered few reviews, and sold only a few thousand copies.

“Some of the so-called experts on my work, people who I know looked at the novels by Jane Somers, didn’t recognize it was me,” Lessing said. “And many of the readers’ reports to the publishers were very patronizing and very nasty. … What happens mostly is that an immense amount of space will be given to not very good books by established writers.”

Bullet Train


On Oct. 15, 1856, the London Times published an alarming account of a rail journey in Georgia — the author, “John Arrowsmith of Liverpool,” claimed that half a dozen duels had broken out during a single day’s ride:

Of the two dozen passengers fifteen are mentioned as entering more or less into the action of the drama; twelve took a direct part in duels; six were killed, and three were left on the way fighting. Four of the duels were fought at convenient spots, the train stopping for the purpose; one was fought in the luggage car while the train was in motion; and the one with uncertain results was fought at a regular stopping place. Three of the dead bodies were left behind; one was carried from the scene of the duel and deposited on the luggage; another lay where it fell in the luggage car; another was throw out on the roadside.

After a torrent of ridicule from the American press, the retraction-shy Times tried to claim that the affair had taken place in 1828 — but that was “some dozen years,” one critic noted, “before the erection of a railroad in Georgia, or the invention of revolvers, the terrible weapons used upon the sanguinary occasion.” The hoaxer was never identified.

Homespun Silk

A publishing sensation swept the United States in 1926: The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-1765 offered scandalous insights into 18th-century society through the observations of one Cleone Knox, who met Louis XV at Versailles, was introduced to Voltaire in Switzerland, and led a pretty eventful private life:

March 3rd [1764]. This morning had a vastly unpleasant interview with my Father. Last night, Mr. Ancaster, who is the indiscreetest young man alive, was seized suddenly while riding home along the shore with the desire to say good night to me. He climbed the wall, the postern gate being locked at that late hour, and had the Boldness to attempt to climb the ivy below my window; while but half way up the Poor Impudent young man fell. (If he hadn’t Lord knows what would have happened for I am terribly catched by the Handsome Wretch.) As ill luck would have it Papa and Ned, who were conversing in the library, looked out at that moment and saw him lying prostrate on the ground!

America swooned, and the book went through nine editions in two months. One critic wrote, “No modern girl will ever write a diary like this. Cleone Knox breathes the very spirit of the witty, robust, patriotic, wicked, hard-drinking, hard-swearing 18th century.”

Alas, a modern girl had. Embarrassed by the publicity, 19-year-old Magdalen King-Hall came forward to say that she had invented the tale using books from the Brighton town reference library. “I wrote the book in a few weeks,” she said, “but, if I had realized so many distinguished people would have taken it seriously, I should have spent much more time and pains upon it.” She had not meant to deceive anyone — but perhaps her publisher had.

King for a Day

In 1913, German acrobat Otto Witte was traveling through the Balkans when Albania declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire. A fellow circus performer noted Witte’s resemblance to Prince Halim Eddine, whom a local faction were entreating to head the new state.

Witte maintained that he forged a couple of telegrams, arrived in the fledgling nation posing as Eddine, took control of the military, and was proclaimed king. For five days he disported with harem girls, ordered amnesty for prisoners, and distributed gold among the local chieftains. When inquiries began to arrive from Constantinople, he slipped out of town “to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.”

Skeptics note that this story is uncomfortably close to The Prisoner of Zenda, whose first film adaptation had appeared in that year. But Witte insisted the story was true, pointing to his official identity card, issued by the Berlin police, which listed his occupation as “circus entertainer” and “onetime king of Albania.” He seems to have convinced at least himself of the tale — when Witte died in 1958, Time noted that he would accept only mail that was addressed to “Otto I, ex-King of Albania.”