Ghost Fame

Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography was a mainstay reference in the 19th century, a six-volume work describing 20,000 eminent people in the U.S. and thousands more throughout the Americas.

Unfortunately, many of its subjects are not real people. In its zeal to profile every noteworthy person in the New World, Appletons’ had paid by the word and accepted submissions uncritically, and it seems that at least 200 of its detailed biographies were invented out of thin air.

Who did this? No one knows, but curiously the fake biographies show as much diligence as the real ones: A 1937 investigation showed that the anonymous writer had invented titles in six languages, showed signs of scientific training, and knew the history and geography of South America. Why go to so much trouble to lie?

See Reference Work.