The Emperor’s New Pose

exaltation - disumbrationism

In 1924, irritated with the undiscerning faddishness of modern art criticism, Los Angeles novelist Paul Jordan Smith “made up my mind that critics would praise anything unintelligible.”

So he assembled some old paint, a worn brush, and a defective canvas and “in a few minutes splashed out the crude outlines of an asymmetrical savage holding up what was intended to be a star fish, but turned out a banana.” Then he slicked back his hair, styled himself Pavel Jerdanowitch, and submitted Exaltation to a New York artist group, claiming a new school called Disumbrationism.

The critics loved it. “Jerdanowitch” showed the painting at the Waldorf Astoria gallery, and over the next two years he turned out increasingly outlandish paintings, which were written up in Paris art journals and exhibited in Chicago and Buffalo.

He finally confessed the hoax to the Los Angeles Times in 1927. Ironically, “Many of the critics in America contended that since I was already a writer and knew something about organization, I had artistic ability, but was either too ignorant or too stubborn to see it and acknowledge it.” Can an artist found a school against his will?

Perpetual Commotion

In 1875, the Associated Press reported a novel business enterprise being planned near Lacon, Ill. A prospectus summed it up:

Glorious Opportunity To Get Rich!!! — We are starting a cat ranch in Lacon with 100,000 cats. Each cat will average 12 kittens a year. The cat skins will sell for 30 cents each. One hundred men can skin 5,000 cats a day. We figure a daily net profit of over $10,000. Now what shall we feed the cats? We will start a rat farm next door with 1,000,000 rats. The rats breed 12 times faster than the cats. So we will have four rats to feed each day to each cat. Now what shall we feed the rats? We will feed the rats the carcasses of the cats after they have been skinned. Now Get This! We feed the rats to the cats and the cats to the rats and get the cat skins for nothing!

It was only a hoax dreamed up by local newsman Willis Powell, but, legitimized by AP’s coverage, the story bounced around the country for 65 years before the National Press Club finally debunked it in 1940. There’s a moral here somewhere.

A Blind Aye

Rep. Tom Moore was dismayed at how often his colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives passed bills without understanding them. So in April 1971 he sponsored a resolution honoring Albert de Salvo:

This compassionate gentleman’s dedication and devotion to his work has enabled the weak and the lonely throughout the nation to achieve and maintain a new degree of concern for their future. He has been officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts for his noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology.

That’s true as far as it goes — Albert de Salvo is the Boston Strangler.

The measure passed unanimously.

As Advertised

A well-known story is that of the showman who had a big placard on his tent, announcing that he was exhibiting a horse with his tail where his head ought to be. The inquisitive paid their money, were admitted within, beheld a horse turned around so that his tail was in the oat-bin, laughed shamefacedly, and then lingered outside the tent to watch their fellow-creatures get victimized in the same way.

— William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892

In for a Penny …

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Prosper Mérimée is best known as the author of Carmen, the novella that inspired Bizet’s opera. But he began his career as an unknown writer in Paris in the 1820s, where a passing fad for Spanish literature led him to commit a modest hoax — he published Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul, a collection of plays supposedly written by a Spanish actress.

The effort worked: The plays were well received and launched Mérimée’s career. But some admirers wondered — if Clara Gazul doesn’t really exist, who is the fetching Spanish lady in the book’s frontispiece?

It’s Mérimée in drag.

The Great Bottle Hoax

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In January 1749, the Duke of Portland bet the Earl of Chesterfield that “let a man advertise the most impossible thing in the world, he will find fools enough in London to fill a play house and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there.” The earl agreed, and shortly afterward the London newspapers announced a wonderful new performer:

He presents you with a common Wine Bottle, which any of the spectators may first examine; this Bottle is placed on a Table in the middle of the Stage, and he (without any equivocation) goes into it, in the sight of all the Spectators, and sings in it; during his stay in the bottle, any Person may handle it, and see plainly that it does not exceed a common Tavern Bottle.

A crowd packed the theater on the appointed night and, when the performer failed to appear, they rioted, gutting the building. It was jokingly said afterward that perhaps the man had been corked during rehearsals.

The Cheltenham Journal actually topped this in 1825 with an advertisement for five Arabian conjurors:

[T]hey will take each a lighted torch in either hand, when lo! incredible to relate! Suckee, with the burning torches, will jump clean down Mustapha‘s throat, who in an instant, with equal dexterity, will pass down the throat of Abdallah, then Abdalluh will jump down that of Benassar, and Benassar down his brother Muley‘s; who, lastly, notwithstanding he is encumbered with his four brothers and their four torches, will throw a flip-flap-somerset down his own throat, and leave the audience in total darkness!–Probatum est.

Here again the room was crammed, but five minutes before showtime “the conjuror decamped with the money and was no more heard of,” reports William Hone. “Probably he jumped down his own throat.”

“Fiddle-De-Dee”

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A young man, poorly clothed, presented himself before a dealer in curiosities. ‘Sir,’ said he, showing a violin which he carried, ‘I am a musical artist; this is the season of balls and soirées; I have just had a long illness which has exhausted my purse; my only black coat is in pawn, I shall be much obliged if you will lend me ten francs to redeem it. I will leave as security one of the violins you see, for I have two; it is an excellent instrument. I shall return for it as soon as, thanks to my coat, I shall have earned enough money for the purpose.’ The young man had such an honest bearing that the dealer lent him ten francs and kept the violin, which he hung up in the shop. The next day but one, a gentleman, well-dressed, wearing at his buttonhole the ribbon of the Legion of Honor, was choosing from the dealer’s stock of goods some shell-work. Seeing the violin, he took it up, examining it narrowly. ‘What is the price of that instrument?’ said he. ‘It is not mine,’ replied the shopkeeper; and he related how he came to possess it. ‘This violin,’ continued the unknown, ‘is worth money, it is a Cremona. Perhaps its owner is ignorant of its value. If he returns, offer him two hundred francs for it.’ Then handing fifty francs to the shopman, the unknown said on taking his leave, ‘You will keep that for yourself if the affair succeeds; I will return in a few days.’ Two days after, the young man reappeared, bringing the ten francs to redeem his violin, for which the dealer offered him two hundred. After some hesitation, he agreed. At the end of a week, the dealer, not having seen the decorated gentleman, became suspicious; he carried the violin to an instrument-maker, who offered him three francs for it.

— Thomas Brackett Reed et al., Modern Eloquence, 1900

The Cat Hoax of Chester

[In 1816] the interest in Napoleon and St. Helena was strong. A small paragraph in a local Chester paper told the inhabitants of that ancient and usually somnolent city that the British government desired to rid St. Helena of the rats and the mice which were understood to be leading the exiled emperor ‘such a life.’ Accordingly, said the paragraph, the government was offering large sums for cats–sixteen shillings for well grown males, ten for females, and half a crown for kittens. It was requested that all who desired to help in the good work by disposing of their pets at these prices should appear at a given hour at a given address.

At the time and place, an army of about three thousand generous and patriotic souls presented itself at the house designated. There were cats in baskets, cats in boxes, cats squirming restlessly in the warm clutch of children. The house was empty, and a little investigation soon proved that it had been unoccupied for a long time. Next morning more than five hundred cats were found drowned in the waters of the Dee; so that this hoax was not without its element of tragedy, and brutal tragedy at that.

— William S. Bridgman, “Famous Hoaxes,” Munsey’s Magazine, August 1903

April Fools

So recently as 1860 some gay spirits in London put their heads together and perpetrated a successful and notorious piece of foolery on the wholesale plan. Towards the latter part of March many well-known persons received through the post the following invitation card, bearing the stamp of an inverted sixpence on one of the corners for official effect:

‘Tower of London–Admit Bearer and Friend to view annual ceremony of Washing the White Lions on Sunday, April 1, 1860. Admittance only at White Gate. It is particularly requested that no gratuities be given to wardens or attendants.’

The ruse worked so well that a succession of cabs rattled around Tower Hill all the morning, much to the disturbance of the customary peace of the Sabbath, in vain attempts to discover the White Gate.

— William Shepard Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs, 1898

“Sir Theophilus Gooch … Is Being Roasted Alive”

On Jan. 16, 1926, a speech from Edinburgh on the BBC was interrupted with a shocking eyewitness report:

The Houses of Parliament are being demolished by an angry mob equipped with trench mortars. The clock tower 320 feet in height has just fallen to the ground, together with the famous clock, Big Ben, which used to strike the hours on a ball weighing nine tons. One moment, please. Fresh reports announce that the crowd has secured the person of Mr. Wurtherspoon, the minister of traffic, who was attempting to make his escape in disguise. He has now been hanged from a lamppost in Vauxhall. London calling. That noise you heard just now was the Savoy Hotel being blown up by the crowd.

Millions of Englishmen placed calls and wires to learn more about the calamity. Finally the radio company explained that the program they’d overheard had been intended by broadcaster Ronald Knox as a parody. One detail that should have tipped them off: According to the radio announcement, the riot in Trafalgar Square was led by one Mr. Popplebury, secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues.