THERE is a class of imposture which must be kept apart from others of its kind, or at least earmarked in such wise that there can be no confusion of ideas regarding it. This includes all sorts of acts which, though often attended with something of the same result as other efforts to mislead, are yet distinguished from them by intention. They have — whatever may be their results — a jocular and humorous intention. Such performances are called hoaxes. These, though amusing to their perpetrators and to certain sportive persons, and though generally causing a due amount of pain and loss to those on whom they are inflicted, usually escape the condign and swift punishment which they deserve. It is generally held that humour, like charity, covereth a multitude of sins. So be it. We are all grateful for a laugh no matter who may suffer.
Not many years ago, in one of the popular dairy-refreshment shops in Holborn, the prim manageress and her white-capped waitresses were just commencing their day’s work when a couple of sturdy green-aproned men swooped down on the place from a large pantechnicon van, and to the amazement of the young ladies commenced to clear the shop.
“There you are Bill. Hand up them chairs, and look slippy.”
“Right o’, mate.”
“Good gracious me, what are you men doing?” shrieked the alarmed manageress.
“Doing, miss, doing? Why moving the furniture. This is the lot ain’t it?”
“No, no, no; there must be some mistake. You must have come to the wrong place.”
“Mistake, wrong place? No miss. ‘Ere, look where’s that letter?” And Jack placed a begrimed document before the lady.
The letter seemed right enough. It read beautifully, a plain direction to clear the shop and remove the stuff elsewhere; it only lacked the official heading of the company. But the joint inspection was rudely broken in upon by the arrival of a couple of the knights of the brush who had come “to do the chimbley, maam”; and ere they could be disposed of vans of coals began to draw up, more pantechnicons, more sweeps, loads of furniture, butchers with prime joints, plump birds from the poulterers, fish of every conceivable kind, noisy green-grocer boys, staggering under huge loads of vegetables; florists “to decorate,” gasfitters, carpenters “to take down the counter, miss”; others “to put it up.”
Pandemonium is quiet compared with that shop. The poor manageress was in tears, deafened with the exasperated, swearing representatives of, apparently, all the tradesmen for miles around. The thing had been well done. No sooner had the provision merchants worked clear and the streams of vans, waggons and carts been backed away to the accompaniment of much lurid language, than ladies began to arrive with boxes of mysterious long garments which, they assured the indignant lady in charge, they were instructed were urgently needed for an event they referred to as “interesting.” There was no monotony, for fast and furious — very furious sometimes — came other maidens laden with more boxes and still more boxes, filled with costumes, bonnets, and other creations dear to the feminine mind. Then came servants “in answer to your advertisement, madam.” They flocked in from all directions, north, south, east and west. Never was seen such a concourse of servants: dignified housekeepers, housemaids, parlour-maids, and every other sort of maid, seemed to be making for that unfortunate manageress. Sleek-looking butlers popped in, as uniformed nurses popped out. Windowcleaners had to be torn from the windows they insisted they had got orders to clean; carpet beaters sought carpets which did not exist. Never had mortal — aye and immortal — requirements been thought out with more thoughtful care. From the needs of the unborn baby, to the
“poor departed one,” whom melancholy gentlemen in seedy black came to measure, all were remembered, and the man for whose especial benefit presumably were intended beautiful wreaths, crosses, harps, etc., which kept constantly arriving. Throughout that live-long day to the “dewy eve” beloved of the poet the game went merrily on.
As a hoax the thing was worked for all it was worth. Not only had shoals of letters evidently been sent out, but advertisements, too, had been freely distributed among the press. Needless to say that, despite the closest investigations, its author or authors, discreetly silent, remained unknown.
The joke was not new by any means. Well nigh a century before mischief-loving Theodore Hook had stirred all London by a similar prank — the famous Berners Street Hoax. In those days Berners Street was a quiet thoroughfare inhabited by fairly well-to-do families. Indeed it was this very sedate quietness which drew upon it Hook’s unwelcome attention. Fixing on one of the houses, which happened to be adorned with a brass plate, he made a wager with a brother wag that he would cause that particular house to become the talk of the town: and he certainly did — for not only the town, but all England shrieked with laughter when the result of his little manoeuvre became known. One morning, soon after breakfast, waggons laden with coals began to draw up before the house with the brass plate, No. 54. These were quickly succeeded with tradespeople by the dozen with various commodities. These in turn were followed by van loads of furniture; followed by a hearse with a coffin and a number of mourning coaches. Soon the street became choked: for, what with the goods dumped down as near as possible to the house — pianos, organs, and cart loads of furniture of all descriptions, the anxious tradesmen, and the laughing mob of people quickly attracted to the scene, confusion reigned supreme. About this time the Lord Mayor and other notabilities began to arrive in their carriages. His Lordship’s stay was short. He was driven to Marlborough Street police office where he informed the magistrate that he had received a note purporting to come from Mrs. T., the victimised widow resident at No. 54, saying she was confined to her room and begging his lordship to do her the favour of calling on her on important business. Meanwhile, the trouble in Berners Street was growing serious, and officers belonging to the Marlborough Street office were at once sent to keep order. For a time even they were helpless. Never was such a strange meeting: barbers with wigs; mantlemakers with band-boxes; opticians with their various articles of trade. Presently there arrived a couple of fashionable physicians, an accoucheur, and a dentist. There were clockmakers, carpet manufacturers and wine merchants, all loaded with specimens of their trade; brewers with barrels of ale, curiosity dealers with sundry knick-knacks; cartloads of potatoes; books, prints, jewellery, feathers and furbelows of all kinds; ices and jellies; conjuring tricks; never was such a conglomeration. Then, about five o’clock servants of all kinds began to troop in to apply for situations. For a time the police officers were powerless. Vehicles were jammed and interlocked; the exasperated drivers were swearing, and the disappointed tradesmen were maddened by the malicious fun of the crowd who were enjoying the joke. Some of the vans were overturned and many of the tradesmens’ goods came to grief; while some of the casks of ale became the prey of the delighted spectators. All through the day and late into the night this extraordinary state of things continued, to the dismay and terror of the poor lady and the other inmates of the house with the brass plate.
Theodore Hook had taken precautions to secure a good seat for the performance, having taken furnished-apartments just opposite the house of his victim, where he posted himself with one or two companions to enjoy the scene. Hook’s connection with the mad joke was, fortunately for him, not known until long afterwards; it seems he had devoted three or four whole days to writing the letters, all couched in ladylike style. In the end the novelist seems to have been rather frightened at the result of his little joke, for he made a speedy departure to the country; and there is no doubt that, had he been publicly known as its author, he would have fared badly.
One very amusing variation of the countless imitations, which the success of this trick gave rise to, was the “cat hoax” at Chester, in August, 1815. It was at the time when it had been determined to send Napoleon to St. Helena. One morning, a number of hand bills were distributed in and around Chester, stating that, owing to the island of St. Helena being invested with rats, the government required a number of cats for deportation. Sixteen shillings were offered for “every athletic full-grown torn cat, ten shillings for every adult female puss, and a half-crown for every thriving kitten that could swill milk, pursue a ball of thread, or fasten its young fangs in a dying mouse.” An address was given at which the cats were to be delivered; but it proved to be an empty house. The advertisement resulted in the victimisation of hundreds of people. Men, women, and children streamed into the city from miles around laden with cats of every description. Some hundreds were brought in, and the scene before the door of the empty house is said to have baffled description. When the hoax was discovered many of the cats were liberated; the following morning no less than five hundred dead cats were counted floating down the river Dee.
Practical jokes of this nature have more than once led to serious results. In the summer of 1812 a report was extensively circulated that a grand military review was to be held on the 19th of June. Booths were erected and as many as twenty thousand people assembled, despite the efforts of the authorities who, when they learned what was happening, posted men in the several roads leading to the heath to warn the people that they had been hoaxed. But their efforts were useless. The rumour was believed and the contradiction ignored; vehicles, horsemen and pedestrians pushed on to their destination. When, however, the day wore on without any appearance of the promised military pageant, the crowd grew angry and then broke out in acts of violence. The heath was set on fire. Messengers were sent off express to London, and a detachment of the guards had to be marched down to quell the mob. In the disorder one poor woman was thrown out of a chaise and picked up in an unconscious condition.
Many distinguished actors have been very fond of playing practical jokes and perpetrating hoaxes. Young, the tragedian, was one day driving in a gig with a friend on the outskirts of London. Pulling up at a turnpike gate he noticed the name of the toll-collector written up over the door. Calling to him the woman, the wife of that functionary, who appeared to be in charge of the gate, he politely told her that he particularly wished to see Mr., naming the toll-collector, on a matter of importance. Impressed by Young’s manner, she promptly sent for her husband, who was working in a neighbouring field. Hastily washing himself and putting on a clean coat he presented himself. The actor gravely said: “I paid for a ticket at the last gate, and was told that it would free me through this one. As I wish to be scrupulously exact, will you kindly tell me whether such is the case?” “Why of course it is?” “Can I then pass through without paying?” The toll-collector’s reply and his vituperation as the travellers passed on had better, perhaps, be left to the imagination.
Hoaxes are sometimes malicious, and often cruel, as the following instance will show: A young couple were about to be married in Birmingham when those officiating — it was a Jewish wedding — were startled by the delivery of a telegram from London with the message: “Stop marriage at once. His wife and children have arrived in London and will come on to Birmingham.” The bride fainted and the bridegroom was frantically perturbed at thus summarily being provided with a wife and family. But it was useless; the unhappy man had to make the best of his way through an exasperated crowd full of sympathy for the wronged girl. Inquiry, however, showed her friends that the whole thing was a hoax — possibly worked by some revengeful rival of the man whose happiness had been so unexpectedly deferred.
Most people have heard of the “Spanish Treasure swindle” and, though less elaborate than the original, a variation of it practised on a French merchant was rather “cute.” One morning he received an anonymous communication advising him that a box of treasure was buried in his garden the exact position of which would be pointed out to him, if he agreed to divide the spoil. He rose at once to the bait, met his generous informant, and before long the pair were merrily at work with pickaxe and shovel. Sure enough before long their exertions were awarded by the unearthing of a box full of silver coins. The hoard proved to consist of sixteen hundred five-franc pieces; and the delighted merchant, after carefully counting them out into two piles, offered one lot to his partner as his share. That worthy, after contemplating the heap for a minute or two, observed that it would be rather a heavy load to carry to the railway station, and said he would prefer, if it could be managed, to have the amount in gold or notes. “Certainly, certainly!” was the reply. The two men walked up to the house and the business was settled to their mutual satisfaction. Twenty-four hours later, the merchant took a very different view of the transaction; for examination discovered there was not one genuine five-franc piece among the whole lot.
One of the most beautiful hoaxes ever perpetrated was one for which Swift was responsible. He caused a broad-sheet to be printed and circulated which purported to be the “last dying speech” of one Elliston, a street robber, in which the condemned thief was made to say: “Now as I am a dying man, I have done something which may be of use to the public. I have left with an honest man — the only honest man I was ever acquainted with — the names of all my wicked brethren, the places of their abode, with a short account of the chief crimes they have committed, in many of which I have been their accomplice, and heard the rest from their own mouths. I have likewise set down names of those we call our setters, of the wicked houses we frequent, and all of those who receive and buy our stolen goods. I have solemnly charged this honest man, and have received his promise upon oath, that whenever he hears of any rogue to be tried for robbery or housebreaking, he will look into his list, and if he finds the name there of the thief concerned, to send the whole paper to the Government. Of this I here give my companions fair and public warning, and hope they will take it.” So successful, we are told, was the Dean’s ruse that, for many years afterwards, street robberies were almost unknown.
The above ingenious device recalls another occasion when some gentlemen who made burglary their profession, and who had been paying a midnight visit to the house of a Hull tradesman were sadly “sold.” They found the cash-box lying handy, and, to their delight, weighty; so heavy indeed that they did not stay to help themselves to anything further. Next morning the cash-box was found not far from the shop and its contents in an ash-pit close by. After all the trouble they had taken, to say nothing of the risks they had run, the burglars found their prize consisted only of a lump of lead, and that their intended victim had been too artful for them.
As an example of how a dishonest penny may be turned the following incident would be hard to beat. Two weary porters at the King’s Cross terminus of the Great Northern Railway were thinking about going home, when a breathless, simple-looking countryman rushed up to them with anxious enquiries for a certain train. It had gone. He was crushed. “Whatever was he to do? He had been sent up from Cambridge with a big hamper of those sausages for which the University town is celebrated — a very special order. Was there no other train?” “No.” The poor fellow seemed overwhelmed. “As it is too late to find another market,” he complained, “the whole lot will be lost.” Then a happy thought seemed to strike him as more of the railway men gathered round, and he inquired ingratiatingly, “Would you care to buy the sausages; if you would, you could have them for four-pence a pound? If I keep them, they will probably go bad before I can dispose of them.” The idea took — “Real Cambridge Sausages” at four-pence a pound was not to be sneezed at. The dainties, neatly packed in pounds, went like the proverbial hot cakes. Shouldering the empty basket, and bidding his customers a kindly goodnight, the yokel set off to find a humble lodging for the night. Grateful smiles greeted the purchasers when they got home. Frying pans were got out and the sausages were popped in, and never was such a sizzling heard in the railway houses — or rather never should such a sizzling have been heard. But somehow they didn’t sizzle. “They are uncommon dry; seem to have no fat in ’em,” said the puzzled cook. They were dry, very dry, for closer investigation showed that the “prime Cambridge” were nothing but skins stuffed with dry bread! The railway staff of King’s Cross were long anxious to meet that simple countryman from Cambridge.
One of the most stupendous hoaxes, and one foisted on the credulity of the public with the most complete success, was the famous Moon Hoax which was published in the pages of the New York Sun in 1835. It purported to be an account of the great astronomical discoveries of Sir John Herschel at the Cape of Good Hope, through the medium of a mighty telescope, a single lens of which weighed nearly seven tons. It was stated to be reproduced from the Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science, though as a matter of fact, the Journal had then been defunct some years. In graphic language, and with a wealth of picturesque detail, the wonders of the Moon as revealed to the great astronomer and his assistants were set forth. A great inland sea was observed, and “fairer shores never angel coasted on a tour of pleasure.” The beach was “of brilliant white sand, girt with wild castellated rocks apparently of green marble, varied at chasms, occurring every two hundred feet, with grotesque blocks of chalk or gypsum, and feathered and festooned at the summit with the clustering foliage of unknown trees.” There were hills of amethysts “of a diluted claret colour”; mountains fringed with virgin gold; herds of brown quadrupeds resembling diminutive bison fitted with a sort of “hairy veil” to protect their eyes from the extremes of light and darkness; strange monsters — a combination of unicorn and goat; pelicans, cranes, strange amphibious creatures, and a remarkable biped beaver. The last was said to resemble the beaver of the earth excepting that it had no tail and walked only upon its two feet. It carried its young in its arms like a human-being, and its huts were constructed better and higher than those of many savage tribes; and, from the smoke, there was no doubt it was acquainted with the use of fire. Another remarkable animal observed, was described as having an amazingly long neck, a head like a sheep, bearing two spiral horns, a body like a deer, but with its forelegs disproportionately long as also its tail which was very bushy and of a snowy whiteness, curling high over its rump and hanging two or three feet by its side.
But even these marvels fade into insignificance compared with the discovery of the lunarian men “four feet in height, covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-coloured hair, with wings composed of a thin membrane.” “In general symmetry they were infinitely superior to the orangoutang” — which statement could hardly have been regarded as complimentary; and, though described as “doubtless innocent and happy creatures,” the praise was rather discounted by the mention that some of their amusements would “but ill comport with our terrestrial notions of decorum.” In the “Vale of the Triads,” with beautiful temples built of polished sapphire, a superior race of the punariant were found, “eminently happy and even polite,” eating gourds and red cucumbers; and further afield yet another race of the vespertilio-homo, or man-bat, were seen through the wonderful telescope of “infinitely greater personal beauty . . . scarcely less lovely than the general representation of angels.”
Such were a few of the marvels told of in the Moon story; and, though one may laugh at them as they stand, shorn of their clever verbiage and quasi-scientific detail, at the time of publication they were seriously accepted, for the popular mind, even among the educated classes, was then imbued with the fanciful anticipators of vast lunar discoveries heralded in the astronomical writings of Thomas Dick, LL.D., of the Union College of New York. Scarcely anything could have been brought forward too extravagant for the general credulity on the subject then prevailing; and this well-timed satire, “out-heroding Herod” in its imaginative creations, supplied to satiety the morbid appetite for scientific wonders then raging. By its plausible display of scientific erudition it successfully duped, with few exceptions, the whole civilised world.
At the time, the hoax was very generally attributed to a French astronomer, M. Nicollet, a legitimist who fled to America in 1830. He was said to have written it with the twofold object of raising the wind, and of “taking in” Arago, a rival astronomer. But its real author was subsequently found to be Richard Adams Locke, who declared that his original intention was to satirise the extravagances of Dick’s writings, and to make certain suggestions which he had some diffidence in putting forward seriously. Whatever may have been his object, the work, as a hit, was unrivalled. For months the press of America and Europe teemed with the subject; the account was printed and published in many languages and superbly illustrated. But, finally, Sir John Herschel’s signed denial gave the mad story its quietus.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00