Hoaxing for Fun and Profit

Magnus Magnusson. Fakers, Forgers and Phoneys: Famous Scams and Scamps. Mainstream, 2007.
In his final book historian and TV presenter and quiz host Magnus Magnusson surveys the world of hoaxers, forgers and frauds. These range from such artistic forgers as Tom Keating and Hans Van Meergeren, literary fraudsters such as Thomas Chatterton and William Henry Ireland, archaeological frauds such as Piltdown man and the Vinland map, through to people assuming false identities such as the Tichborne claimant or George Psalmanzar who claimed to be a cannibal from Formosa.

Reading through this you may wonder with Magnusson, how on earth they got away with it. The answer seems to be that the will to believe extends far beyond the domains of religion and the paranormal. The desire to possess what no one else possesses, whether a material object, such as a lost Rembrandt, the forgotten Shakespeare, a really special map, or just some secret knowledge or revelation can be readily overwhelm caution, as can so-called evidence which backs up preconceived notions. If you already knew that fairies existed, or the Vikings were the first Europeans to settle America, or that the Celtic realms were home to lost wisdom, then evidence which appears to back this up can become alluring. Also through many of these stories we can detect a theme which is familiar to us; the belief that one of the hoi polloi can not possibly get one over on the Great Me, the really intelligent and sagacious world expert.

Some of these hoaxers subvert the idea of authenticity, a painting or a play has merits (or lack of them) regardless of whose signature is on it. People like Keating and Ireland (who produced lost Shakespeare plays) produced works with some merit in their own right. Chatterton who produced documents from the fake medieval monk Rowley had all the makings of a major talent, and might have become one of the literary greats had he lived. Today we can also see him as the prototype of the historical novelist, before any such concept had been developed.

The motives for hoaxers are varied, these range from trying to impress parents as in the case of the Cottingley cousins (surely the prototype of many pairs of teenagers, though more usually boys, who have produced flying saucer photographs) or William Henry Ireland, through money, nationalism, the desire to amaze, to become a celebrity, to get ones own back on the establishment, through to, in the case of the escaping slaves the Crafts, a matter of life and death.

Exactly what constitutes a hoax is a difficult question to answer. In the UFO and paranormal fields hoaxes are thought to be rare, but that is only because we usually only diagnose a hoax if attempts are made to produce physical or circumstantial evidence which falls apart. A story based on pure assertion is usually untestable, after all if I say “last night I dreamed of Mandalay” no-one can ever know whether I am telling the truth or not. -- Peter Rogerson

No comments: