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

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