Antique Spam

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.

Invisible Man

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.”

(10/23/2021 This has begun to fascinate me. The New York Times reviewed the book, favorably even while acknowledging its possible falsity, in 1902. has a complete copy.)


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).

Art Evergreen

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


In 1959, Down Beat editor Gene Lees invited Don DiMicheal to be his Louisville correspondent. DiMicheal sent an item about blues singer Blind Orange Adams, and Lees ran it, “because I so respected and therefore trusted Don’s knowledge of the earlier forms of jazz and the blues.”

When the issue appeared he got a panicked phone call. “That was a joke,” DiMicheal said. “I thought you’d get a laugh and take it out of my copy. It’s a pun on Blind Lemon Jefferson! Jefferson, Adams — get it?”

“Too late now,” Lees said. He told the magazine’s editors and publisher, and they began inserting joking references to Blind Orange into their copy. “The career of Blind Orange Adams blossomed during those years,” Lees told author Bill Crow for Jazz Anecdotes (2005). “Soon there was mail about him, and DiMicheal went so far as to rent a postal box and to found the Blind Orange Adams Appreciation Society.”

The joke reached its peak when Lees received a letter from a New York record label that wanted to find and record Adams. “I tried a desperate ploy. I wrote to the company saying that Blind Orange didn’t trust people, and the only one he would deal with was DeMicheal. He would agree to do an album only if DeMicheal and I produced it.” He planned to record saxophonist Eddie Harris as the mysterious singer, but the record label insisted on meeting their artist.

“I can no longer say with certainty what we did to resolve the situation,” Lees said, “but I seem to recall that Don wrote a story killing Blind Orange off in a car crash.”

False Plaid

In 1871 a man calling himself Lord Gordon-Gordon arrived in Minneapolis. He said he had come to purchase about 50,000 acres of Minnesota land to resettle some tenants from his ancestral estates in Scotland. After selecting the land he traveled to New York, ostensibly to arrange a transfer of funds. There his apparent wealth attracted financier Jay Gould and editor Horace Greeley, and the three formed a partnership to gain a controlling interest in the troubled Erie Railroad. Gould gave his new friend $1 million in cash and securities as a gesture of good faith.

When Gould discovered that Gordon-Gordon was selling these, he realized he had been conned, but the swindler fled to Canada before he could be tried. There he escaped an attempt to kidnap him and eluded capture until 1874. When officers finally confronted him with charges of larceny and forgery, he drew a revolver and shot himself.

To this day, his real identity remains unknown. A Scottish peer he certainly was not: It turned out that before coming to America he had swindled Englishmen and Scotsmen out of some $50,000 while posing as “Lord Glencairn.” “Whatever and whoever he was,” writes historian Edward Harold Mott, “he had genius enough to deceive the shrewdest financiers, the greatest editor, and the most brilliant lawyers of this country.”

Just Visiting

The residents of Waterloo, Iowa, were surprised to find a 36-foot airship in their midst in April 1897. Constructed of canvas and wood and fitted out with “compressors and generators,” the ship was attended by several “operators” who told the townspeople that they had come from San Francisco. Five thousand Iowans surrounded the machine, but the men forbade them “to inspect the machinery, and any attempt to cross the rope fence … was met with an order to stay out.” When one of the “crew” said that “one man had fallen overboard just before landing,” the townspeople organized a party to search the river for him when they realized that “the entire affair was a joke.” (Des Moines Leader, April 11, 1897)

A rash of airship sightings swept the western United States that month. If the pilots were aliens, they had some endearingly quaint technology — here’s an account from the Houston Daily Post:

Merkel, Texas, April 26. Some parties returning from church last night noticed a heavy object dragging along with a rope attached. They followed it until in crossing the railroad it caught on a rail. On looking up they saw what they supposed was the airship. It was not near enough to get an idea of the dimensions. A light could be seen protruding from several windows; one bright light in front like the headlight of a locomotive. After some ten minutes a man was seen descending the rope; he came near enough to be plainly seen. He wore a light blue sailor suit, was small in size. He stopped when he discovered parties at the anchor and cut the ropes below him and sailed off in a northeast direction. The anchor is now on exhibition at the blacksmith shop of Elliott and Miller and is attracting the attention of hundreds of people.

Icy Hot,19820816,Desert,incoming_near_Shoshones.jpg

Feeling mischievous in 1874, Nevada journalist Dan De Quille invented the story of Jonathan Newhouse, “a man of considerable inventive genius” who waded into Death Valley wearing “solar armor,” essentially a suit made of sponge that was wetted continually from an india-rubber sack. “Thus, by the evaporation of the moisture in the armor, it was calculated might be produced almost any degree of cold.”

De Quille published a deadpan report of the tragic outcome in the Territorial Enterprise of July 2: Newhouse’s corpse was found 20 miles inside the desert, “dead and frozen stiff.” “His beard was covered with frost and — though the noonday sun poured down its fiercest rays — an icicle over a foot in length hung from his nose. There he had perished miserably, because his armor had worked but too well, and because it was laced up behind where he could not reach the fastenings.”

Amazingly, even in the heyday of newspaper hoaxes this was largely taken seriously. Scientific American reported it without comment, and London’s Daily Telegraph wrote only that “we should require some additional confirmation before we unhesitatingly accept it.”

De Quille obliged, reporting that Newhouse’s carpet-sack had been found to contain a collection of chemicals that the inventor had apparently combined into “some frigorific mixture.” Apparently he had been wetting the suit with this, not with water, and had inadvertently drenched himself with it while trying to unlace the suit. Whether this satisfied the Telegraph is unclear — they never responded.

Nothing Doing

In 1873, Lewis Carroll borrowed the travel diary of his child-friend Ella Monier-Williams, with the understanding that he would show it to no one. He returned it with this letter:

My dear Ella,

I return your book with many thanks; you will be wondering why I kept it so long. I understand, from what you said about it, that you have no idea of publishing any of it yourself, and hope you will not be annoyed at my sending three short chapters of extracts from it, to be published in The Monthly Packet. I have not given any names in full, nor put any more definite title to it than simply ‘Ella’s Diary, or The Experiences of an Oxford Professor’s Daughter, during a Month of Foreign Travel.’

I will faithfully hand over to you any money I may receive on account of it, from Miss Yonge, the editor of The Monthly Packet.

Your affect. friend,

C.L. Dodgson

Ella thought he was joking, and wrote to tell him so, but he replied:

I grieve to tell you that every word of my letter was strictly true. I will now tell you more — that Miss Yonge has not declined the MS., but she will not give more than a guinea a chapter. Will that be enough?

“This second letter succeeded in taking me in, and with childish pleasure I wrote and said I did not quite understand how it was my journal could be worth printing, but expressed my pleasure. I then received this letter:–”

My dear Ella,

I’m afraid I have hoaxed you too much. But it really was true. I ‘hoped you wouldn’t be annoyed at my etc.’ for the very good reason that I hadn’t done it. And I gave no other title than ‘Ella’s Diary,’ nor did I give that title. Miss Yonge hasn’t declined it — because she hasn’t seen it. And I need hardly explain that she hasn’t given more than three guineas!

Not for three hundred guineas would I have shown it to any one — after I had promised you I wouldn’t.

In haste,

Yours affectionately,


A Personal Touch,_Ohio

Two phantom towns appeared on Michigan’s official state map in 1978. Their names, Goblu and Beatosu, showed pretty clearly that the culprit was a University of Michigan graduate, and state highway commission chairman Peter Fletcher admitted to asking a cartographer to add them. A fellow UM alum had teased him that the Mackinac bridge was painted green and white, the colors of rival Michigan State, and Fletcher had found a surreptitious way to support his alma mater.

Fletcher noted in a 2008 interview that he took care to place the fake towns in Ohio, safely outside Michigan state lines. “We have no legal liability for anything taking place in that intellectual swamp south of Monroe,” he said.

“A more personal example of creative cartography is Mount Richard, which in the early 1970s suddenly appeared on the continental divide on a county map prepared in Boulder, Colorado,” writes Mark Monmonier in How to Lie With Maps (1991). “Believed to be the work of Richard Ciacci, a draftsman in the public works department, Mount Richard was not discovered for two years. Such pranks raise questions about the extent of yet-undetected mischief by mapmakers reaching for geographic immortality.”