Lenore in Indiana


Convinced that the public would accept anything from an established author, James Whitcomb Riley bet his friends that he could prove it. He composed a poem entitled “Leonanie” in the style of Edgar Allan Poe and published it in the Kokomo, Ind., Despatch on Aug. 2, 1877:

Leonanie–angels named her;
And they took the light
Of the laughing stars and framed her
In a smile of white;
And they made her hair of gloomy
Midnight, and her eyes of bloomy
Moonshine, and they brought her to me
In the solemn night.

And so on. An accompanying article explained that the poem had been discovered on the blank flyleaf of an old book, and the conspirators scribbled it into a dictionary in case anyone asked to see it.

After the poem was published, Riley wrote a critique in the Anderson Democrat casting doubt on Poe’s authorship. But to his horror his poem was championed by critics and picked up in newspapers nationwide, and soon a Boston publishing house began asking for the original manuscript. The group finally confessed when a rival paper threatened to expose the hoax.

Riley won his bet, but ironically he went on to become a bestselling poet himself, writing in an Indiana dialect distinctive enough to invite lampoons of its own. Whether any of these has been passed off as real is unknown — but it would be poetic justice.

Dear Diary

Stuck in a Honolulu jail in 1913, forger William Francis Mannix passed the time by writing a memoir. Unfortunately it wasn’t his own — he invented an autobiography of Chinese viceroy Li Hung Chang:

To-night I am to attend another banquet given by the Czar, which I hope will not continue as long as the one of last night. It is true they prepare foods especially for me, but they do not taste like the foods at home, or those of our own cooks which we have with us.

Mannix contrived the whole thing using books obtained from friends and a typewriter loaned to him by the territorial governor. The book fooled many who knew Li, including former secretary of state John W. Foster; when the hoax was exposed the publisher issued a “confessional” edition in 1923, but by then no one was laughing.

Vox Populi

In 1938, a group of freshmen at the University of Michigan circulated a petition asking that a psychology lecture be rescheduled to avoid a conflict with a football game. The upperclassmen who signed it read the full text in the undergraduate newspaper the following day:

We, the undersigned, hereby petition that the lecture in Psychology 2 be changed from Saturday to Wednesday afternoon. By signing this document without reading it we cheerfully disqualify ourselves as candidates for any degree conferred by this university. We furthermore declare that the freshmen are our superiors in wit and wisdom, and that our stupidity is surpassed only by the mental lethargy of the underpaid faculty that teaches us.

I can’t find a report of the fallout, but there sure must have been some. “Carelessness,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “does more harm than a want of knowledge.”

Typing in Tongues

A hoax which did not deceive the learned, but sorely puzzled them, was that known as the Dutch Mail hoax. Some fifty years ago, an article appeared in the Leicester Herald, an English provincial paper, under the title of ‘The Dutch Mail,’ with the announcement that it had arrived too late for translation, and so had been set up and printed in the original. Much attention was attracted to the article, and many Dutch scholars rushed into print to say that it was not in any dialect with which they were acquainted. Finally it was discovered to be a hoax. Sir Richard Phillips, the editor of the paper, recently told this story of how the jest was conceived and carried out: ‘One evening, before one of our publications, my men and a boy overturned two or three columns of the paper in type. We had to get ready someway for the coaches, which, at four in the morning, required four or five hundred papers. After every exertion, we were short nearly a column, but there stood a tempting column of ‘pi’ [a jumble of odd letters] on the galleys. It suddenly struck me that this might be thought Dutch. I made up the column, overcame the scruples of the foreman, and so away the country edition went with its philological puzzle to worry the honest agricultural readers’ heads. There was plenty of time to set up a column of plain English for the local edition.’ Sir Richard met one man in Nottingham who for thirty years preserved a copy of the Leicester Herald hoping that some day the letter would be explained.

Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, September 1888

Dueling Chameleons

Author Octavus Roy Cohen was visiting a friend in Colorado when the surprising word came that Cohen himself would be speaking at a men’s luncheon club in Denver. Bewildered, the two attended the luncheon and watched an impostor give a “splendid literary talk.”

After this, the program director announced a surprise guest — Edna Ferber. Cohen had always wanted to meet Ferber, but to avoid embarrassing the club he held his peace and watched his impostor trade compliments with the guest author.

On his next visit to New York, he called Ferber. “I’m Octavus Roy Cohen,” he said, “the man you thought you met recently in Denver –”

“What are you talking about?” she said. “I haven’t been in Denver in years.”

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.

Dark Horse

Fifty-one voters of Milton, Wash. (Tacoma suburb) last week marked their ballots for one Boston Curtis, Republican candidate for precinct committeeman. Boston Curtis was elected. Milton’s Mayor Kenneth Simmons, a Democrat, chortled hugely. He, who had sponsored Candidate Curtis and filed his papers, had proved his point that voters ‘have no idea whom they support.’ Boston Curtis is a large brown mule.

Time, Sept. 26, 1938

Print Charming

During the Depression, magazines and newspapers regularly carried advertisements for “talent bureaus” promising to assess the writing of undiscovered authors. Sensing a scam, Author & Journalist editor Willard Hawkins asked his daughter to compose “the most impossible, inane and childish semblance of a story that it was possible to conceive.” She obliged with “Her Terrible Mistake,” the story of 17-year-old Mary Jane Smith, who “fell devinely in love with a very nice fellow who was a machinic by the name of Jack Berry.” When a stranger seduces Mary Jane, her “fionce” exposes him as “a villian in sheeps clothing.”

Universal Scenario Co. of Hollywood declared this “admirably suited to talking picture presentation” and for $10 offered to submit it “personally to those producers whose current production demands call for this particular type of story.”

Encouraged, Hawkins now had Lottie Perkins write a 30,000-word novel, The Missing Twin:

‘Mr. Jones I think something has happened at home. I think we ought to have left someone to take care of our children. What will I do if someone has kidnapped them out from under my nose. How can you sit there and let them be stolen from me. O my babies. How could anyone be so crule as to steel you.’

Economy Publishers of Tacoma, Wash., read this “with ever increasing pleasure and admiration for the author. My! how your characters live and breathe and walk out into the room before one … !” They agreed to publish the book for $375, returning 40 percent of all royalties to Perkins.

In the end, Author & Publisher found that in most such cases, the publisher printed only about 100 copies — and profited $200.

Error on the G String


Fritz Kreisler had already gained immortality as a violin virtuoso when in 1935 he revealed that he was also a composer — for 30 years he had been performing his own compositions in concert but attributing them to Vivaldi, Couperin, Porpora, and Pugnani.

In the uproar that followed, Kreisler argued that as a young man he’d had no reputation; audiences would not have paid to hear the compositions of an unknown violinist. That was just the point, opined the Philadelphia Record: Fans had bought the pieces, and indeed other violinists had performed them, thinking them the work of established composers.

The Portland Oregonian agreed: “What if Fritz Kreisler had died without making confession that over a period of thirty years he had been composing music and signing to it the names of half-forgotten composers of former times? What if he had left no list of his works?”

Which raises an interesting question: How many such hoaxes have succeeded? How many of our great works of art are undiscovered forgeries?

The Sympsychograph


David Starr Jordan announced an exciting breakthrough in Popular Science Monthly in 1896: He’d asked seven people to think of a cat and then used a special device to capture their mental images and combine them into a composite picture, “the impression of ultimate feline reality.”

Jordan had intended the piece as a “gentle satire” of then-prevalent experiments in mental photography, but to his horror the readers took it seriously:

One clergyman even went so far as to announce a series of six discourses on “the Lesson of the Sympsychograph,” while many others welcomed the alleged discovery as verifying what they had long believed, and an eminent professor soberly opined that my reputation as a psychologist would not be enhanced by such discoveries!

He later wrote that the experience had taught him two lessons: “first, that very few people ever read a sensational article through to the end, even much beyond pictures and headlines, and second, that with Dr. Holmes, I should never again ‘dare to write as funny as I can.’”