Welcome to the Poison Room, a podcast that’s covering a far more light-hearted topic this week, because the last topic was a major downer and also the world is Doin’ a Yikes right now.
So we’re going to look at a book, or series of books – six volumes in total – called Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography. The first volume was published in 1887; the last was published in 1889. Not a bad output. It was published by D. Appleton and Company. Here’s how the preface of the first volume begins:
Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography is intended to supply a want that has long been felt by the nations of the New World, and more particularly by the people of the United States. Every scholar and every reader has recognized the benefit of the great French Dictionaries of Universal Biography, and the utility of the more recent National Biography of Great Britain, now in course of publication. Each nation should, if possible, have its own cyclopaedia of biography. The Belgian, British, and German Dictionaries at present in progress are instances of such work in the Old World. It is proposed to provide a Cyclopaedia of Biography for the New World worthy to rank with them.
The Cyclopaedia will include the names of above fifteen thousand prominent native and adopted citizens of the United states, including living persons, from the earliest settlement of the country; also the names of several thousand prominent native and adopted citizens of the United Sates, including living persons, from the earliest settlement of the country; also the names of several thousand eminent citizens of Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Chili, Peru, and all the other countries of North and South America. The great aim has been to embrace all noteworthy persons of the New World, and to give biographies that shall embody with sufficient fulness the latest result of historical research, rendering it a reference-book of the highest order. The work will also contain the names of nearly one thousand men of foreign birth who, like Bishop Berkeley, Braddock, Burgoyne, Cabot, Columbus, Cornwallis, Lafayette, Montcalm, and Whitefield, are closely identified with American history.
So what’s so interesting about this Cyclopaedia? How does it fit the theme of this podcast? Well. Before I can explain that, I’m going to introduce you to four men included in the Cyclopaedia. Here’s the first one:
Imhoffer, Gustav Melchior, Brazilian Explorer, born near Graetz, Styria, in 1593; died in Bahia de Todos os Santos in 1651. He became a Jesuit, and was attached in 1624 to the missions of South America. He resided many years in Peru, crossed the Andes to the headwaters of the Amazon in 1636, and descended that river from the Napo to its mouth in 1637, two years before the expedition of Texeira. He arranged his notes in Pará, prior to his leaving for Spain when the expedition of Texeira arrived in that city, 1639, and, hearing that Acunha, who had accompanied Texeira, proposed to go to Madrid and present the council of the Indies with a relation of the expedition, he asked leave from his superiors to sail in advance of Acunha, arriving in Madrid in November, 1639, and published immediately the relation of his own journey, “Descubrimiento del Rio de las Amazonas” (2 vols, with charts, Madrid, royal printing-office, 1640). In an introduction the author urged the king of Spain to conquer and civilise the vast country that he had explored. Acunha, who had arrived in Madrid in the mean while, published his own narrative, trying to cast discredit upon that of Imhoffer, and succeeded so well that, although the latter’s narrative is better and more complete than that of Acunha, his name is scarcely known, and many historians have forgotten that he was the first European to describe the Amazon. Comberville, who gave a French version of Acunha’s voyage (4vols., Paris, 1682), published also a version of Imhoffer’s narrative (3 vols., Paris, 1687), and the latter was also translated into English under the title “A Relation of a Journey along the River Amazon” (London, 1689). Imhoffer returned afterward to Bahia, and was rector of the College of the Jesuits. He is also the author of a “Dictionarius linguae Amazoniae,” “Peruviae Societatis historia,” and “Vitae illustrium missionarium qui in Peruviâ vixerunt.” published in the “Bibliotheca Nova Societatis Jesu,” edited by Father Bernard of Bologna (1771). (Appleton Vol. 3: 344-45)
Cool. Interesting life. Lots of travel, bit of academic rivalry. Okay. Next up:
Hühne, Bernhard, German navigator, born in Heidelberg in 1547; died in Nuremberg in 1611. He entered the Spanish service, and was chief pilot attached to the colony of New Spain in 1599. Philip III., believing in the fabulous strait of Anian, where legend placed an immensely rich city, and dissatisfied with the preceding explorations of Viscaino and Alarcon, ordered the Count of Monterey, governor of New Spain, to send out a new expedition. Monterey gave the mission to Hühne and Juan Fernandez, and they sailed from Acapulco in May, 1660, with two vessels, touching at Zalagua, where they separated. Juan Fernandez sailed to Cape Mendocino, and promised to wait there for Hühne, who resolved to enter the country and obtain information from the natives. But the Indians of California attacked the Spanish, killed a great number of them, and obliged Hühne to re-embark. He despatched a small schooner to Fernandez to call him back, and together they sailed for Acapulco, arriving in September. In March, 1661, Hühne sailed again, but was more cautious. He spent nine months at sea before sighting Cape San Sebastian, January, 1602, on the Bay of Monterey, where he resolved to winter. He succeeded in establishing friendly intercourse with the aborigines, and was soon convinced that the city of Anian was fabulous. Although the clever pilot could not realize the object of his mission, he nevertheless resolved to render it useful in some way, and he set to work to correct the chart made by Alarcon, and construct an exact one of the Gulf of California. He consumed two years in the work, and performed it so well that future navigators, using his charts, were able to go from Acapulco to Monterey in two months, when before ten months was considered a quick passage. The charts made by Hühne were in use for over a century. They were published in Acapulco in 1661, and reprinted in Lisbon (1667) and Seville (1670). The “Allgemeine Encyklopaedie” of Ersch and Grüber says he left an undiscovered manuscript. (Appleton Vol 3: 306)
Okay. Explorer. Got a bunch of his men killed. Not great. But at least he made some nice maps? And an intriguing unpublished manuscript! Nice.
Hjorn, Oscar, Swedish naturalist. Born in Bagnildstorp, Sweden, in 1741; died in Paris in 1792. He was a preceptor in the family of the Duke of Mirepois, and, owing to the protection of that nobleman, obtained from Louis XVI in 1776 a mission to South America to study the flora of that country. He explored for ten years the vast regions included between the river Amazon and the river Plate amid dangers of all kinds, suffering great hardship and sometimes persecution from the Spanish and Portuguese authorities. Although he was kept a prisoner during 1780-82 by the Guarani Indians, he formed a herbarium of 1,100 specimens, and, returning to Paris in 1776, published “Les légumineuses arborescentes de l’Amérique du Sud,” a work which caused a sensation in scientific circles as the first of that kind ever published in Europe (Paris, 1787); a “Dictionnaire raisonné de l’histoire naturelle de l’Amérique du Sud (1789); “Choix de mémoires présentés à l’Académie des sciences sur divers objets de l’histoire naturelle” (Paris, 1791); and “Dix ans dans l’Amérique du Sud” (3 vols., 1790). The herbarium of Hjorn forms a part of the collection of the Museum of natural history in Paris. (Appleton Vol. 3: 219)
Huh. Shame it’s a bit scant on the detail about what hardships and persecution he suffered. And also what he did to upset the Guarani.
Huon de Penanster, Charles Henry, French botanist, born in Dinan in 1727; died in Santo Domingo in 1771. He was descended from an ancient family of Brittany, and left the French navy in 1751 to devote himself to botany. He had seen in New Spain the cochineal insect, of which the Mexicans forbade the sale of foreigners, and, resolving to naturalize it in Santo Domingo, he went in 1752 to Mexico under the disguise of a Spanish physician. He remained there three years in the country learning how to breed the insect, and also ascertaining the use of the nopal-plant, on which it feeds; and, having at last obtained specimens of both in 1755, he transported them, at great personal risk, to Santo Domingo, where their cultivation soon became a prosperous industry. Louis XV made Huon knight of St. Louis, the governor general of Santo Domingo granted him a large tract of land near the city of Cape Français, and the inhabitants of the colony, through a public subscription, presented him with a gold medal in 1758. Huon never returned to the Spanish possessions, as the Mexicans were greatly incensed against him for depriving them of the tribute for cochineal from European countries. He made Santo Domingo his home, and devoted the remainder of his life to the welfare of the colony. He was pensioned as a royal botanist in 1763, and founded in Cape Français the botanical society of the Philadelphes, establishing also a botanical garden, which is still one of the ornaments of the city, and opening a museum of natural history, the content of which he had himself collected. He published “Traité de culture du nopal” (Cape Français 1758); “De l’éducation de la cochenille, et de leur acclimatation à Saint Domingue” (1767, reprinted in “Mémoires de l’Académie des Sciences”), and “Voyage à Guaraxa dans la Nouvelle Espagne” (1761). (Appleton Vol. 3: 327).
Wow. Nice legacy. We still use cochineal insects for red food dyes today, and a few other things. And in the past it was used as a paint pigment. So… I guess he was pretty important.
But why are these four men of interest to us? You may have noticed that they all have some things in common: they’re all Europeans who went off and explored parts of Mexico, Central, or South America, they all wrote something important for their field, and none of them died in the United States.
There’s one more thing that they all have in common: none of them existed.
And yet, each of them has an entry in Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography. Somehow these entries got published in a book, without anyone noticing that these men didn’t exist. And no one notices for the next thirty years. Or. Well, no one who noticed bothered to tell anyone about it for the next thirty years. The Cyclopaedia just… sits on the shelves in libraries and homes without any signs that anything might be amiss.
In 1919, the problem of the presence of some fictitious entries was finally brought to, uh, ‘public’ attention by John Barnhart, in an article published in the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden. Not gonna lie, guys, I am seriously unimpressed with Barnhart. Because apparently, he’d known for ‘many years’ that there were fictitious entries in the Cyclopaedia and just… didn’t bother to tell anyone (Barnhart 1919: 171). Because hey, they weren’t doing any harm, right? And apparently it was just… inconceivable or something to Barnhart that they might very well start to cause problems in the future. I mean… why intervene to stop something becoming a problem in the first place when you can just… wait until it becomes a problem and thus far harder to actually do something about, right? Right?? Let it do some damage first, and then we’ll maybe think about telling people about this thing we could have told them about before that would have prevented the situation had we done so. That’s certainly a strategy that has always worked well for everyone ever.
So, thirty years after the Cyclopaedia was published, Barnhart finally decides to share what he knows with the rest of us. And also what he doesn’t know. Which is how many fictitious entries there actually are. Barnhart was a botanist. So the entries he’d generally found, and those which he had the expertise to identify as fake, were those of botanists. He presents the reader with 14 entries which he’s sure are fictional, and mentions a few others he personally thinks are fictional, but concedes there might be some room for doubt about (Barnhart 1919: 172).
Don’t worry, I’m not going to subject you to a full account of all fourteen biographies – or any of them, actually, but there are some details they reveal that are worth noting. As with the four you’ve already heard about, all of these men were born outside the United States. They all died outside the United States. They were all explorers in some way, and all of them conducted whatever exploration or research they did in countries south of the USA. They’re working in Mexico, or Central or South America.
They all also wrote things – quite a few things, actually. But obviously, because they’re all jolly foreigners, not a single thing they wrote was in English. It was in French, German, or Latin… or Spanish or Dutch or Italian. So unless you know one of those languages, you’re probably not going to bother to try and track them down. And even if you do know one of those languages, and want to read these books but can’t find them in your local library, there’s a convenient reason for that too: not a single text where the place of publication is mentioned was published in the United States. Most of them were published in Europe. One was published in Rio Janeiro, and no place of publication is given for the rest of them.
Of course, another way to get around an absence of a manuscript that should have made a profound difference to the course of history is for it to just… get lost. Like one of the manuscripts of Giuseppe Igolino, who investigated the ‘Mexican hieroglyphics’, i.e.: Maya script. In Igolino’s non-existent lifetime, the script was still basically wholly undeciphered, but Igolino totally found the key to deciphering them! Alas, the manuscript containing his decipherment was conveniently lost during a shipwreck in 1808 (Appleton Vol 3: 342).
Barnhart makes some small comments on the articles after listing each one, noting that sometimes the works attributed to the men are real, but were written by someone else (1919: 172). In other instances the titles of the works seem to be adapted from actual publications, with minor changes to the title and the date of publication (1919: 175). In another case, Barnhart notes that the details of one of the other fictional men, Édouard Sylvie, appears to be a ‘garbled’ account of a real man, Louis Feuillée, with dates and names changed, and other facts altered. Louis Feuillée actually appears in the Cyclopaedia himself, and Barnhart describes his entry as ‘more or less reliable’ (1919: 179). Which doesn’t really inspire much confidence as to the quality of some of the entries about actual people.
But back to our fake men. Some of them were tangentially involved in events that were real, giving them a veneer of plausibility. Like Frederic Lotter, who was assigned as the botanist to the genuinely real Malaspina expedition. The expedition left from Spain, sailed down through the North Atlantic and into the South Atlantic, and hit South America at what is now Uruguay. It then looped around the bottom of the continent and started back up the other side. Alas, at this point Lotter got ill, and they left him at Concepcion, about halfway up the coast of Chile. Somehow he gets himself to Acapulco in Mexico, which, as the crow flies – if crows flew across oceans – is around 6,541 kilometres from Concepcion. Lotter’s catching up with the ships isn’t as absurd as it sounds on face value, because Malaspina stopped at Acapulco twice – the first time on his way up to find our old friend, the Northwest passage. Failing to find it, he sailed back down and landed at Acapulco again, which, presumably, would have been when Lotter would have rejoined them, had he, y’know. Existed. Anyway, he didn’t stay with the expedition very long. He left again to go off exploring on his own, travelling through Mexico, Peru, Chili, and Argentina (Appleton Vol 4: 32-33).
So the forger has attached him to a real event, which gives an immediate sense of plausibility, and explains why he’s important enough to be in the Cyclopaedia, whilst also explaining why you might not have heard of him if you do know anything about the expedition. Cunning. Barnhart’s entire comment on Lotter’s entry is ‘wholly fictitious. The botanists of the Malaspina expedition were Thaddäus Haenke and Luis Née’ (1919: 176). And speaking of Luis Née, Barnhart suggests that he, along with Carl Sigisimund Kunth were used as inspiration for the name of another fictional entry: Isidore Charles Sigisimund Neé (1919: 177). Though, uh, our anonymous writer got the accent in Neé on the wrong ‘e’.
On other entries Barnhart’s only remark is simply ‘wholly fictitious’.
So in some cases real works are being wholesale assigned to fictional people, in other entries real works are having their titles adapted and reassigned, in others actual events from other people’s lives are being repurposed for the fictional men, and in others their names are being combined to form new identities. Which makes me rather suspicious for the entries Barnhart marked just as ‘wholly fictitious’. Seems like it might actually be the case that he just didn’t recognise the sources of some of the information.
Barnhart’s whole article is pretty much ‘I hear people have been using these fake articles in this Cyclopaedia, here’s a list of fourteen of them I found’, and genuinely finishes the paper with the comment: ‘surely further comment is superfluous’. No, Barnhart. No. Further comments would not be superfluous, because people have questions. Like: what other entries are fake??? And ‘Who the hell did this???’, and ‘to what extent can we trust anything in this damn Cyclopaedia’??
Unfortunately, no one asks those questions. A summary of Barnhart’s article appeared in the New York Sun on October 12 1919 but… that’s it (Schindler 1937: 680). Nothing more is published about the matter until 1936, when, nearly half a century since the last volume of the Cyclopaedia was published, a guy called Frank O’Brien who collected odd bits of trivia about mistakes in encyclopaedias and books wrote in to the New Yorker to tell them about it. The published article is just a summary of Barnhart’s original paper.
Coincidentally – and I genuinely do mean coincidently, a young researcher by the name of Margaret Castle Schindler was submitting her Master’s thesis to Colombia University. The thesis is called ‘Bibliographia Imaginaria: An Investigation of the Fictitious Element in Appleton's [sic] Cyclopaedia of American Biography'.
Alas, the thesis isn’t available anywhere. Well. It is available one place. Colombia University still have a copy of it in their archives, but they charge $30 for a copy. It pains me to not be able to check it, but I can’t justify that expense right now. And even if I could, some weird virus thing has forced the university library to close, so I’d have to wait until they opened again anyway.
Luckily, Schindler did also publish an article essentially summarising her findings the next year, and that, I can access. The frustrating thing is that she doesn’t explain the decisions she made when deciding what type of entries to look at. Apparently those are in the elusive thesis. She looked at the letter H, and specifically at people born before 1800 and dead by 1850, focusing on those who were associated with the history of Latin America. For reasons I presume she explains in the thesis, she excludes entries about indigenous people (Schindler 1937: 681). She also restricted herself to using only books she could find in New York City, since that’s where the Cyclopaedia was written. Obviously, it’s perfectly possible that our forger had books in their own collection that weren’t available elsewhere in New York, but given that this is a Masters thesis, and there’s no internet in 1936, I’ll give her a pass on that one. For the same reason, I’ll give her another pass for not checking the accuracy of the entries on people who were definitely real.
One of the pieces of information she does share from her thesis is that someone else, or someones else, had also found some fake entries. The staff working on Joseph Sabin’s Dictionary of Books Relating to America had used the Cyclopaedia as one of their sources when they resumed work on the project. The project had published its first volume back in 1868, and they churned out 19 volumes and started volume 20 between then and 1892, when the project then fell dormant due to deaths, other responsibilities, and lack of funding. They’d got as far as ‘Si’. It was taken up again in 1925, and the first volume of the revived effort was published in 1927. The first nineteen-and-a bit volumes had been published before Appletons’ Cyclopaedia even began, but when they resumed their work, it was available as a resource. The staff quickly noticed the problem with some of the entries, because, y’know, they were actually cross-checking the information. By the time they got to the letter V the amount of unverifiable titles was so striking that they started keeping a record, and ended up with a list of 17 names. Two of them had appeared on Barnhart’s list, so that’s another 15 new fakes, giving us a total of 29 so far.
But back to Schindler. She found another fifteen articles in the H section which she thought were fictitious, along with three more from other letters (Schindler 1937: 681).
And if I give you a few of the names Schindler found – Antoine Horne, Lucas Van Huden, Melchior Klüber, Nicholas Piet Hermstaedt – you might have a suspicion that none of them are from the United States. And you’d be right. All born outside the US. All died outside the US. How about that.
The total lack of evidence for any of the publications these men made continued to be part of the evidence against them. Even though some of the things they’d written had supposedly ‘caused a sensation at the time’, or ‘were still considered an authority’, they were totally untraceable. She consulted the catalogues of the Library of Congress, the British Museum, and the Bibliothèque Nationale (and again, no internet: she’s checking physical catalogues here), and couldn’t find any mention of them. This is particularly telling for the books that were supposedly published in France, since, by law, a copy of the book should have been deposited at the Bibliothèque Nationale (Schindler 1937: 682). One or two missing from the catalogue and you might forgive a careless publisher. But all of them? Nah. There’s no book listed ‘cause there ain’t no book.
One of the most egregious fake entries she found is one that you heard at the start of the episode – Charles Henry Huon de Penanster – the one who supposedly smuggled cochineal insects and the nopal plant on which they feed out of Mexico in 1755, changing international trade forever by breaking the Spanish monopoly on the product. Yeah. He didn’t exist.
But the whole ‘smuggling the bug and the plant it lives on out of Mexico’ did happen. Just… by someone else, at a different time. It was actually done by Nicholas Joseph Thiery de Menonville in 1777. Who is also in the Cyclopaedia. In the correct place. With a correct description of his exploit. And the three books that Huon de Penanster supposedly wrote are actually just chopped and changed pieces of the title of the one book Thiery de Menonville wrote (Schindler 1937: 682-83).
The ‘inspiration’ for other entries was easily identifiable, too. For instance, remember Bernard Hühne? He’s the German navigator who, along with Juan Fernandez was sent off in search of the strait of Anian, and its mythical rich city on the orders of Philip III of Spain, because Phil was dissatisfied with the lack of progress being made by the explorers Vizcaino and Alarcon. Hühne and Fernandez split up to explore, and Hühne got a bunch of his crew killed, then met up again with Fernandez. In a later expedition he realised the city he was looking for didn’t exist and decided to make his voyage useful by spending two years correcting Alarcon’s charts and did such a good job that he cut down the journey time between Acapulco to Monterey from ten months to two.
Actually, the super useful and detailed charts were made by Sebastian Vizcaino. Yeah. The Vizcaino even mentioned in Hühne’s entry. Vizcaino was in part searching for the strait of Anian, but this idea of a mythical city being there seems to be our forger’s own invention, as far as I can tell. Possibly an elaboration on the idea that the area accessible by passing through the strait was rich with gold and pearls, though that also seems to be something they thought true of California in general at the time. But hey, mythical cities are more romantic, right? And romanticising events does seem to be a trope with our forger.
Now, Schindler herself notes the cribbing from Vizcaino (1937: 684), but I’m pretty sure the writer was also taking details from Juan Fernandez’s life. See, Vizcaino was indeed responsible for making some very useful and detailed charts, but the whole ‘cutting the route between Acapulco (in Mexico) to Monterey (in California)’ was, I think, also drawing on the fact that Fernandez was responsible for the discovery of a route which made sailing from Peru to Chili a lot faster, because it avoided getting caught up in the northerly Humboldt current (Britannica 2002).
So adding the names discovered by Schindler, our total of fakes is now at 47. Well. I’m gonna say 46, because it seems like one of the articles is actually more of a huge fictionalisation of a genuinely real person, rather than a wholesale fabrication. As far as Schindler could tell, Huet de Navarre was actually a real person, it’s just that everything in the article about him, bar one fact, is made up (Schindler 1937: 686).
But we’re not done yet. Oh no.
Just after Schindler published her article, a Jesuit by the name of Joseph Cantillon published another article about the subject, focusing on Jesuits recorded in the Cyclopaedia. He had possibly shared his list of suspected fakes with a publication called Letters the year prior. Letters was a notes and enquiries type publication, like… the pre-digital version of Quora or Yahoo Answers. After seeing O’Brien’s article in the New Yorker, someone wrote in to the Letters asking for more info, and if anyone knew whodunnit. I preface all this with ‘possibly’ because… I can’t actually find the Letters article either. Probably because the damn thing is called Letters. Which is a great name in a pre-digital era, and a completely awful name when you’re trying to search for it. But luckily, Cantillon published his findings separately.
Both Schindler and Cantillon were way more diligent than Barnhart. Obviously Schindler could just open the volume containing the H entries and start listing names. But if you’re looking for Jesuits, you’d probably start with the index, right? Just check for people filed under ‘Jesuit’. However, he realised very quickly that the index for the Cyclopaedia was rubbish and so went through all six volumes individually checking every single entry to see if it was a Jesuit. Props to you, my man (1938: 164-65). He made a note of the name of every Jesuit he thought sounded suspicious, and then proceeded to investigate each one in turn. He found no fictional entries in volume one, but there was one entry in volume two that was… embellished. A Jesuit by the name of Rafael Ferrer had his story expanded upon in a very… sensationalist way. If the account in Appletons’ Cyclopaedia was turned into a film today, it would bill itself as ‘inspired by a true story’.
When we hit volume three, the forgeries start pouring in. José de Jesu Maria Ignacio, Manuel Jarava, Edouard Etienne Jaubert, Antoine Henry Joubert, Gustav Frederic Klein, Mattias Lottenschiold, Dieudonné Gabriel Charles Henry Moraud, Giuseppe Alberoni d’ Orlando, Etienne Percheron, Charles Henry Quentin, Alexander Sibiel, Bernard von Uffenbach, Karl von Verden, Louis Fiorentin Wallon, and Juan Ortiz de Zapata to name but a few.
His list includes Imhoffer – the Jesuit who explored the Amazon and the Napo rivers two years before the Texeira expedition. And who had his reputation besmirched by his rival Acuña, to such an extend that he’s barely known now. Yeah. Turns out the reason he’s barely known is less to do with the slander of Acuña – a genuine historical figure – and more to do with the fact that he never bloody existed. And guess what else? If you look at the entry on Acuña, you’ll see that the actually existing book that he actually wrote is titled Nuevo Descubrimiento del Gran Rio de las Amazonas. I know you all remember the title of Imhoffer’s book, but just in case you didn’t catch it first time around, it was Descubrimiento del Rio de las Amazonas. Literally all the forger did was remove the words ‘nuevo’ and ‘Gran’
In total, Cantillon found 43 entries about what he termed ‘phantom Jesuits’, excluding the fictionalised account of Ferrer. Eight of them had been found before, so Cantillion is adding 35 new entries to the list of fakes. New total: 81 phantoms.
And yes, they all follow the same trend of being not Americans. They were all born outside the United States – usually in Europe, though there are some from the West Indies, South America, and even one from Canada – and they all died outside the United States, too.
Okay, so this Cyclopaedia is riddled with mistakes and we still don’t even know how many, but at least it went out of print by 1936, right? So… the copies in libraries and people’s homes will probably just disappear slowly. Oh. What’s that you say? Reprinted in 1968? Without any corrections? Without any notice about the fictional entries? Goddamnit, people. Okay, but… surely like… in reviews people pointed that out, right? If we just go find a review of it in a journal…
One of the basic biographical tools in any research library for persons who died between 1789 and 1901. The reprint is faithful to the original, particularly the countless steel engravings which do much to add to the value of the work by giving portraits of lesser known Americans. Articles range in length from a paragraph to several pages, and are generally accurate although some of the considered opinion is dated… Anyone who enjoys lesser known characters may spend pleasant nights with these handy volumes. Take, for example, Isaiah Williamson, who gave away close to $15 million, “never married, and lived obscurely and almost penuriously for many years”. It is with the obscure that this work is primarily of value to libraries – and on that level it has no rivals.
Goddamnit, people! Those are literally the entries you need to be most cautious with.
Don’t worry. I checked. Isaiah Williamson did actually exist.
So what happened then? Well. You know how it took 30 years for anyone to say anything after it was first published? It took another 25 years after the reprint for anyone to bother saying anything about it again.
No one seems to remember there’s a problem until 1993, when a new article was published on the matter by John Blythe Dobson. For his study, Dobson decided to look at all of the articles under I, and some of those under G. Following Schindler’s unknown reasoning, he also missed out any articles about indigenous people, but followed her criteria of needing to be born before 1800 and dead by 1850. If you’re wondering about the precise reason behind those dates, I can’t tell you. But looking at the lists of Barnhart, Cantillon, and Sabin’s crew, none of those entries would have been excluded by these rules, so it seems to be a reasonable cut-off date. He also followed the ‘don’t bother to check manuscripts that it’s unlikely would be available to the writers of the Cyclopaedia’ and ‘don’t bother to check the accuracy of the entries on real people’ rules. But he discarded the rule of looking only at people who had something to do with the history of Latin America (Dobson 1993: 390). Which lead to him discovering two people he would have missed had he stuck to that. Which in turn raises the question of whether Schindler missed any people from her search.
Dobson adds 6 more articles to the list of forgeries, with 9 more he couldn’t confirm the existence of. That brings us to 90 phantoms so far. Though it should be noted that Dobson also checked the work of Barnhart, Schindler, and Cantillon, and by his stricter standards of proof, puts 21 names in the ‘definitely fake’ category, with 65 in a group of ‘spuriousness suggested’, and labels two as ‘spuriousness tentatively suggested. Oh, and if you remember, back in 1919 Barnhart had included four on his list which he thought were probably fake, but he wasn’t sure about. Well, Dobson had done some poking around and discovered that one of those was in fact a real person. An obscure figure, certainly, but one that definitely existed.
Okay. So let’s get to the question I know you all have: what gnarly toadstool was behind this nonsense? Unfortunately, one of the most helpful pieces of evidence in solving the mystery, the house records of the D. Appleton-Century Company, were lost (Cantillion 1938: 198). And even by 1938 most of the people who had been involved in the production of the Cyclopaedia were dead, and they’re certainly all dead now. None of the entries are individually attributed to their authors. At the front of each volume there’s a list of some of the contributors, listing some of the articles they contributed, but it’s not a complete list of what they wrote, nor even a complete list of all the people who wrote entries. And obviously, none of the articles actually attributed to people include any that we know are fake – so far, at least. Frustrating, right?
The most certain thing we know is that it’s someone who either wasn’t involved at all before volume 3, and came on board at that point, or someone who only had the idea of making up entries when they got to volume three. We also know that there was a regular staff of nine people working under the managing editor, who were given a weekly salary (Cantillion 1938: 198), but that contributors were paid based on the work they produced, rather than salaried. Specifically, their pay was determined by the quantity of material they produced, rather than the quality. And we know that contributors were encouraged to suggest new names for inclusion, and that no one was fact-checking the work (Schindler 1937: 688).
Both Schindler and Cantillon thought that the author must have had some sort of ‘scientific training’, whatever that means, and ‘sufficient’ linguistic knowledge to adapt titles in 6 languages. Schindler’s also certain that they were familiar with American Geography and History, given that most of the events and places the phantoms interact with are real (Schindler 1937: 683).
Honestly, I’m not convinced. We’ve seen how little adaption some of the titles took – just removing a couple of words, or splitting up a long title into three by breaking up clauses. Sure, you need some understanding of language, but I really don’t think that’s a particularly high bar. Just knowing a bit about one of those languages is enough for someone to figure out how to adapt titles, and the fact that they do make mistakes shows that they’re not fluent in them.
Further, each one of these researchers found multiple instances where the biographies of the phantoms are very obviously drawn from real people – even people who are also included in the Cyclopaedia. Sure, there’s definitely some romanticisation going on, but our forger is really happy to just copy wholesale when they can. And if they’re doing that, then… they really don’t need to know that much. Dobson even identified one of the sources the forger almost definitely used: Louis-Gabriel Michaud’s Biographie Universelle. It was widely available at the time, and Dobson managed to match up some of the Cyclopaedia’s phantoms with entries in the Biographie Universelle (Dobson 1993: 396-97).
As for having a familiarity with American geography and history, well… I’m sure they weren’t completely ignorant of it, but part of the evidence against many of the fakes are mistakes in history and geography. Barnhart notes that in one entry the forger puts the Cayenne, the capital city of French Guiana, in Peru. In the same entry our forger makes his subject the secretary of an astronomical expedition at the ripe old age of 16 (Barnhart 1919: 180). In another entry the subject was supposed to have met another famous scientist in America two years before said scientist ever set foot in the country (Barnhart 1919: 174). Schindler points out that in the case of Nicolas Henrion the forger puts him in Callao, Peru, in 1783 at the start of an outbreak of Asiatic cholera. But the epidemic didn’t reach Peru until 1868, 85 years later (Schindler 1937: 684). Schindler also points out a whole bunch of other problems with both geography and the dates of historic events or movements of historical figure (1937: 685).
Cantillon frequently notes the author’s mistakes about the Jesuits. There are two separate phantom biographies that claim that a Jesuit was in Brazil prior to their actual arrival in 1549 (1938: 186, 196), and another where a Jesuit was supposedly working in Para 24 years before the Jesuits had any residences there (1938: 173). In another entry the author mistakenly refers to a Jesuit residence as a ‘convent’ (1938: 194). There are a bunch of little mistakes like that which suggest that the author didn’t have any particular knowledge about Jesuits beyond what one might reasonably acquire by spending a few hours in, say, a library, or reading multiple biographies of actual Jesuits to crib details from.
But Cantillon also thinks that the author has a notable French bias, it being the language he uses most, with his subjects mostly being French or writing in French (Cantillon 1937: 192). I am a hack and fraud, so I didn’t actually check all of the entries to see if this was genuinely the case, but I did note the nationalities of the Jesuits, and there’s only one more French Jesuit than there are German Jesuits, and there are quite a few Spanish Jesuits, too. Soooo… maybe some confirmation bias going on there, because Cantillon has a theory about who the culprit is. He – very confidently – identifies him as William Christian Tenner, a contributor who attended university in Paris. Tenner is listed as a contributor for volumes 3-6. Of course, none of the entries he’s credited with are our phantoms, but Cantillon lists seven of the entries he’s credited with, and seems to think the fact that they’re all French is convincing proof.
The nail in the coffin, as far as Cantillon is concerned, is the fact that, around a year after the final volume had been completed, Tenner was sentenced to a year in Sing Sing prison after being convicted of forgery and blackmail (1938: 200). Apparently he had gone to several publishers with forged letters claiming that they owed money to people he knew. Money which he needed to dig himself out of a financial hole due to a fondness for gambling. The publishers took him to court and won. That’s according to Cantillon, anyway. He doesn’t cite a source, and it would take more time that I can justify to factcheck that info, especially since Schindler spent quite a lot of time trying to figure out who exactly he was (Tenner was an assumed name, apparently), without any luck. Also according to Cantillon, Barnhart privately expressed his opinion that Tenner was the guilty party (1938: 201). So Cantillon’s theory is that Tenner faked the entries to get more money to sustain his gambling habit, and after the Cyclopaedia was finished, turned to forging letters of debt to various publishers to replace the lost income.
What Cantillon glosses over is the fact that, whilst it’s true that all seven of the entries credited to Tenner are about French people – hardly surprising, given he studied in Paris – most of them are soldiers, authors, or politicians of some sort. Only one of them spent time solely in Latin America, the rest either travelled more widely or only spent time in the United States or Canada. Only one of them was a naturalist, and none of them were Jesuits. I really don’t think this is as convincing as Cantillon wants it to be.
John Dobson isn’t convinced by it, either. He points out that Tenner isn’t credited with a single article on a Latin American person (1993: 398). Which, y’know. If they’re a specialist in Latin America, you might expect to see. And as I already said, most of the entries he is credited with don’t involve Latin America at all. Further, Dobson points out that in one of the entries there’s a fairly egregious error in the French of the titles of one of the fictional books written by one of our fictional people (Dobson 1993: 400). So… surely that kinda counts against the idea that being good at French was a prerequisite for being the forger. And against the idea that it was Tenner.
Finally, Dobson also notes that there’s a significant difference between the type of forgery Tenner was convicted of and writing fake articles in a Cyclopaedia (1993: 398). Not sure how convinced I am by that one, to be honest. Escalation is a thing.
But Dobson isn’t just dismissing everyone else’s theory than Tenner is the culprit. He has his own theory. He puts the blame of Hermann Ritter, the head of the Spanish department, and the only person credited with articles on south and central America. He thinks it’s unlikely that Ritter wouldn’t have noticed any of the fake articles as he was going through them – though, I’ll point out that at the start of his article, Dobson suggests that the reason they went unnoticed was because of how rushed the production of the Cyclopaedia was (1993: 388). Dobson’s nail in the coffin is that Ritter took over as department head when they started working on… guess which volume. Yup. Tenner and Ritter joined the team at the same time – volume 3 onwards. My problem with this theory is that I’m pretty sure Ritter is one of the people who was being paid a salary. But I don’t know if the salaried people were being paid on top of that in the same way other contributors were. My immediate assumption is that they wouldn’t be, but I am absolutely just guessing.
So that’s the end of that story.
Except, y’know, of course it’s not. Because the book was still out there in the world. Cantillon found that the Catholic Encyclopaedia, released between 1907 and 1914 used the highly fictionalised account of Rafael Ferrer’s life almost verbatim in its pages (1938: 167). In a cursory search, pre-internet, Schindler found 4 bibliographies, one biographical dictionary, and a science article also using information about the non-existent people from the Cyclopaedia (Schindler 1937: 609). And in a cursory search post internet I found… sigh. There are several sites that have just copied wholesale the contents of the Cyclopaedia, with no knowledge that there are fake entries in there. I’ve notified a couple of websites, and edited some Wikipedia articles. Like Rafael bloody Ferrer’s, ‘cause yeah. That was using the fictional nonsense from the Cyclopaedia, too. If the next episode is late, it’s because I am busy making the internet be less wrong, or working on developing a full list of all the phantoms in the Cyclopaedia. You think I’m joking? I’m not. This forger is my new arch-nemesis.
For one last bit of absurdity, I’ll leave you with the fact that out of all these people writing literal articles about Appletons’ Cyclopaedia nearly all of them, with the exception of Schindler, spelt the name of the books wrong. There’s an apostrophe in the title, but it goes after the ‘s’ in ‘Appletons’, not before it. Which is where everyone else put it, even Cantillon and Dobson who had actually read Schindler’s work. These people spent tens of hours, if not hundreds pouring over these volumes, finding errors in it and after all that they couldn’t even spell the title right.
And that’s the end.
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Let me know on twitter (@poisonroompod ) or by email (email@example.com) who you think the forger was – Tenner? Ritter? Both? Neither? If you have questions, comments, corrections, feedback, want to suggest a topic, etc. send those to the twitter or emails too.
Alternatively, if your quarantined with nothing to do, or even not quarantined but still don’t have anything to do, then… help me in my quest to defeat my arch nemesis and find all the phantoms lurking in this forsaken Cyclopaedia.
Transcripts of all episodes are available at poisonroom.com, where you can also see the references and bibliography. As always if the sources are publicly available, they’re linked to.
You have been listening to The Poison Room, a podcast that firmly believes in fact-checking work before publication.
- The voices of Appletons’ Cyclopaedia were: Tom Embury and Kirsty Reynolds
- The voice of the review of the Cyclopaedia was: Murphy Terrett
- The voice in your ears has been: slightly paranoid one or more of the sources for this story was also just making stuff up.
--- (2002) ‘Juan Fernández’ Encyclopaedia Britannica
Barnhart, J. (1919) ‘Some Fictional Botanists’ Journal of the New York Botanical Garden Vol. 20: 171-181.
Cantillon, J. (1938) ‘Some Phantom Jesuits’ Woodstock Letters Vol. 67: 163-203.
Dobson, J. B. (1993) ‘The Spurious Articles in “Appleton’s [sic] Cyclopaedia of American Biography” – Some New Discoveries and Considerations’ Biography, Vol. 16: 388-408. O’Brien, F. M. (1936) ‘The Wayward Encyclopaedias’ The New Yorker May 2: 55-58
Schindler, M. C. (1937) ‘Fictitious Biography’ The American Historical Review Vol. 42: 680-690.
Wilson, J. G. & Fiske, J. (Eds) (1887) Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography Vol. 3, D. Appleton & Company.
Wilson, J. G. & Fiske, J. (Eds) (1888a) Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography Vol. 4, D. Appleton & Company.
Wilson, J. G. & Fiske, J. (Eds) (1888b) Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography Vol. 5, D. Appleton & Company.
Wilson, J. G. & Fiske, J. (Eds) (1888c) Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography Vol. 6, D. Appleton & Company.