26 April 2022

BEHIND THE HOAX

Ian Keable. The Century of Deception. The Birth of the Hoax in Eighteenth-Century England. Westbourne Press, 2022. 

So many of the phenomena that Magonia reviews are bedeviled by hoaxes, from the Cottingley Fairies and the Patterson Bigfoot film to the Fox Sisters’ raps. And straight away I’ve started an argument! Once a hoax enters the collective consciousness it is virtually impossible to convince the believer that is is anything but the whole truth. 

One of the arguments put forward to defend any kind of hoax, is to challenge the suggested reason for committing it. There is always an assumption that any hoaxer must have something definitive to gain from perpetrating it.  Sometimes we are told that the hoaxer would not have done it ‘as they have too much too loose’, and that no-one would be so foolhardy to commit such a misdeed. Sometimes indeed, alleged perpetrators have suffered such harm as a result of their experience, even risking their lives. They could not be hoaxers, surely? Well yes, they could, as this book clearly demonstrates. 

Keable is a conjurer, and his favourite hoax was the ‘Man in a Bottle’ stunt of 1749. It a way it was more of a practical joke than a hoax, but the boundaries are vague. Advertisements were placed in two London papers announcing that a man would appear at a theatre in Haymarket, and after performing tricks such as borrowing a walking-cane and playing a tune on it, he would then produce a wine bottle - ‘a common tavern bottle' - to be examined by members of the audience, after which he would climb inside it and begin to sing. As a footnote he announced that after exiting the bottle he would meet with people privately and raise any of their relatives from the dead! 

Ticket prices for the performance were comparable to shows at other London theatres, and they were soon sold out. Fearing for the crowds, it was announced that there would be “a proper Guard to keep the House in due decorum”. It hardly comes as a surprise to learn that 'due Decorum' was nowhere near kept, and the theatre was largely wrecked after the inevitable no-show, with benches and scenery being dragged into the street an consumed in a giant bonfire. 


Of course, the theatre takings disappeared, one newspaper reporting that £100 was “carried off by the Principals” and the remaining £75 “fell into the Hands of the Audience.” It was never really discovered who was responsible for the hoax, which became a subject of political satire for a century afterwards, and served to embarrass several public figures who found themselves involved in the incident. Keable does his own detailed summary of the evidence and comes up with a convincing candidate. He would certainly have been someone of considerable wealth, as all claims for damage to the theatre were fully met.

But why? There was ‘nothing to gain’ in a pecuniary or reputational sense, quite the reverse if the culprit was the individual Keable names. We can only assume that it was done for the sheer fun of it, or perhaps to demonstrate the gullibility of the public. 

It could not however have been a great deal of fun for Mary Toft of Godalming. In 1726 she started giving birth to rabbits. This occurred shortly after she had a miscarriage, and subsequently claimed to have given birth to something resembling animal parts. Her husband called a local surgeon, who was present when she produced more animal parts, including what appeared to be the skinned body of a rabbit. 

As these grotesque ‘births’ of rabbits and parts of rabbits continued, more doctors and surgeons arrived to investigate the ‘monstrous births’, including two surgeons to King George I, and Sir Richard Manningham, the leading ‘man-midwife’ of the day, who had been instructed by the King to investigate on his behalf. Although some were sceptical of Mary Toft’s claims, other medical men had been present at these ‘births’ and thought them genuine. 

Eventually Mary confessed to the hoax, but her reasons for it remain obscure, and the lengths she went to in order convince so many people of its reality are almost unimaginably grotesque. It was certainly not done lightly, as from descriptions of the ‘deliveries’ “the pain [she suffered] was clearly not faked.” Certainly it was not for any hope of profit, although she did receive a gift of a guinea from one of the surgeons who examined her – which would have been a very large sum at the time – but this could not have been anticipated.

Some hoaxes have been done for profit, and the author describes the attempts of the Chevalier de Moret to exploit the new and very fashionable technology of the hot-air balloon to raise money from eager would-be spectators, although from the account of his various performances it is difficult to work out whether he was a cunning fraudster, or a not very competent showman!

- The Cock Lane Ghost -


One of the most famous hoaxes of the era was the ‘Cock Lane Ghost’, which started as a personal vendetta and escalated into a national sensation, profiting no-one but the sellers of satirical engravings. George Psamanazar may have may some money from his hoaxed account of life in Formosa, as the first edition of his book earned him twelve guineas, but his eventual confession led to him ending his life in straightened conditions. William-Henry Ireland faked Shakespearian documents and the play Vortigern, which may have been done for profit, but his primary motive seems to have been a mixture of impressing his father and the pleasure of fooling the 'experts'. The 'Stockwell Ghost' bears all the characteristics of modern poltergeist cases, and Keable compares it directly to the Enfield case, but again, no-one can be said to have gained anything from it, other than the rather grim satisfaction due to a hard-done-by maid.

Other hoaxes described include John Swift's notorious fake prediction of the death of Jonathan Partridge, which ended Partridge's flourishing career as an astrologer and almanac-maker, and Benjamin Franklin's completely mythical account of the sad life of Polly Baker, whipped and imprisoned in Connecticut for the crime of bearing illegitimate children, which was still being quoted in history texts more than a century later. 

Reading these accounts it is clear that there is no simple pattern to hoaxing It may be done for gain, to fool the 'experts', to trick an opponent, for sheer amusement or to expose credulity. In the case of Mary Toft the reason may not even be know to the perpetrator themselves. Similarly with Elizabeth Canning, who faked her own kidnap and imprisonment, in an episode which has echoes in more recent events, when there have been incident of people claiming to be victims of religious or racial hatred who have injured themselves very seriously to demonstrate the violence of their non-existent attackers. Peter Rogerson relates such a case from the nineteenth century here:

This is a very entertainingly written book, well referenced, illustrated with interesting and often amusing contemporary engravings and with a good bibliography. Ian Keable presents some amazing and often amusing stories of deceit and credulity, but also reveals some desperately sad instances of of human behaviour. Although the title refers to the eighteenth century and the 'Century of Deception' the author makes it clear that hoaxing, for whatever reason, was no more a feature of that century as it is of ours: “If the century of deception' tells us anything, it is that human nature has not changed one iota in 300 years”. 

It is book that everyone who has ever reacted to a claim of hoaxing by asking, 'but what did they gain from it?' should read, as well as an essential reference for Magonians.
  • John Rimmer

15 April 2022

THE MONSTERS THAT MADE US

Tim Flight. Basilisks and Beowulf : Monsters in the Anglo Saxon World. Reaktion Books, 2021.

This is a well-researched and thought-provoking book, which shines a light on some of the cultural origins of our instinctive human fears. Fear of wolves, of snakes and serpents, of dense forests and deep seas, fear of isolation, fear of chaos and disorder. It tells us much about monsters and Anglo Saxons, but also quite a bit about ourselves.
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9 April 2022

NIGHTMARES AND DAYDREAMS

Nigel Kneale. Nightmares and Daydreams
(BFI Southbank)

Can any single genre pin down Nigel Kneale? He certainly used genres to allow ideas to percolate within their parameters but never fell back on the formulaic. For me it’s Kneale’s speculations, satiric power, emotional warmth, ironic viewpoints and dramatic intelligence that grip: all making for a highly unusual and original writer.
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2 April 2022

MIXED BLOOD LINES

Violet Fenn. A History of the Vampire in Popular Culture. Pen and Sword, 2021.

This book got off to a bad start in its introductory chapter, when the author suggests that Conan Doyle's fascination with fairies was in “the 1800s” rather than the 1920s. In the nineteenth century the fear of being buried alive was a very real issue, as the boundaries between life and death became blurred by developments in medicine, a topic which was discussed in depth in a recent study of the Frankenstein story. 
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27 March 2022

THE BEAST DECLAWED

Juri Herz (Director) Beauty and the Beast (Panna a netvor) Second Run. BluRay 2021.


'Beauty and the Beast' is viewed as a classic text about the awakening of female sexuality in a young virginal woman. There have been many musical, film and stage adaptations, and literary re-workings (Angela Carter’s story “The Tiger’s Bride (1979) is an interesting feminist re-writing of the tale). For many Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete (1946) is the definitive film adaptation. 
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23 March 2022

MIRROR WRITING

Barry Fitzgerald and Brian Allan, The Deception of Gods and Men: The Price of Power Has Never Been So Great, Flying Disk Press, 2022.

Ghost hunter Barry Fitzgerald and Brain Allan, editor of the online Phenomena Magazine, expertly advance the notion that our interaction with the unknown has shaped and guided the history of humanity. This is not a particularly new idea, Kubrick’s science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey shows how mysterious monoliths guide human destiny from the Stone Age to the Space Age to re-birth us as spiritual entities of the Universe. 
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14 March 2022

THE NOT-SO-SECRET SOCIETY

René le Forestier, The Bavarian Illuminati: The Rise and Fall of the World’s Most Secret Society, Inner Traditions, 2022.


French historian René le Forestier’s monumental and solidly scholarly Les Illuminés de Bavière et la franc-maçonnerie allemande has been the go-to work on the original Order of the Illuminati since it came out in 1914. Le Forestier drew on original source material, most significantly documents from the Illuminati archive confiscated by the Bavarian government when it closed the Order down in the mid-1780s, to give the most exhaustively detailed account possible of its origins. He also explored how the myth of the Illuminati’s ongoing power began, making his book a key text for the study of conspiracy beliefs.
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7 March 2022

DEBATABLE DEATH

Sharon Rushton. The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein. Bodleian Library Publishing, 2021.


There have been any number of books, some reviewed in Magonia, which have examined the story of Frankenstein’s ‘creature’ from various perspectives: as an aspect of folklore and popular belief, as a literary theme, as a popular cultural icon. This book looks at Mary Shelley’s masterpiece as a presentation of the medical and scientific controversies of the era in which it was written.
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3 March 2022

LET ALL THE HAUNTS BE YOURS

All the Haunts Be Ours (A Compendium of Folk Horror) Blu Ray Box Set – Severin 2021

Defining the term Folk Horror is as difficult as pinning down what Film Noir is. In place of the mean street we have a mean forest of disturbing forces (both real and mythic). Both are treacherous and shadowy worlds. Although Folk Horror Cinema appears to exhibit common themes or traits it remains remarkably fluid. 
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25 February 2022

FROM THE FILING CABINET

Pentagon UFO Files. On iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play & Microsoft


The press release for this documentary feature states: ‘For decades, secrets have been kept from us. Kept from us by the powers that be. After years of silence and secrecy the US government has finally revealed evidence of extraterrestrial life which could shatter our very perception of mankind’s place in the universe.
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