Home of the Whoppers
By Dean Jobb
H.L. Mencken, that caustic observer of human nature, once described lying as “necessary and unavoidable.” Half-truths and harmless fibs tend to make life easier. An honest answer to the question, “Should we spend the holidays with my family this year?” may not.
Dutch writer Roelf Bolt was more interested in the whoppers—the big lies that separate fools from their money and the crackpot theories, miracle cures, hoaxes, and academic frauds that have deluded countless trusting souls. The Encyclopaedia of Liars and Deceivers (Reaktion Books), his eclectic collection of 150 stories of fakers, forgers, and con artists, is an overlooked true crime classic filled with enough cautionary tales to make anyone as cynical as Mencken.
Bolt, who died at age 42 in 2012 (two years before his Encyclopaedia was first published in English), began clipping newspaper stories about frauds and deceptions as a child. He was fascinated with the audacity of liars and cheats and just as curious about the gullibility of the people they duped.
The examples offered here—distilled from an astounding 1,400 cases he researched in his short lifetime—leave little doubt that human beings, as he put it, “have an inherently problematic relationship with reality.” If this statement makes Bolt sound like a man ahead of the curve, that’s because he was. The information overload, short attention spans, and truth-challenged political and media culture of 2020 has widened the chasm between fact and fiction, between what’s true and what people are capable of believing.
Other writers have compiled stories of famous frauds and brazen con artists and swindlers, and some of the usual suspects appear here. Among them is Arthur Orton, who became a Victorian-era sensation when he claimed to be the long-lost heir to a fortune. Victor Lustig famously peddled the Eiffel Tower to Parisian scrap-metal dealers in the 1920s. Smart, fluent in five languages, and oozing charm, Lustig “could have been a diplomat,” Bolt notes, if he had been upright and law-abiding. “But, lacking any such good virtues, he became a conman.”
The legendary George C. Parker even more famously sold and resold the Brooklyn Bridge to immigrants newly arrived at nearby Ellis Island. Crewmen on boats ferrying new arrivals to New York steered anyone who appeared to be wealthy and gullible to the bridge, where Parker assured them a fortune could be made if they bought the bridge and imposed tolls. The asking price was a bargain—as little as $200, Bolt reports—and buyers received “an authentic-looking receipt for ‘One bridge, in good condition.’” Parker sold other New York landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty and Grant’s Tomb, before he was convicted of fraud and handed a life sentence in 1928.
Two well-known literary frauds are also featured. Excerpts from Adolf Hitler’s “diaries” appeared in a German magazine and a London newspaper in 1983 before they were exposed as an elaborate hoax. Konrad Kujau, a dealer in Nazi memorabilia in Stuttgart, spent years carefully forging sixty volumes of The Fuhrer’s daily musings for the years 1932 to 1945. The forgeries, Bolt notes, were clumsy (a belated analysis showed the paper and ink had not been produced until the 1950s) and the contents were often banal (in one entry, Hitler supposedly complained of taking medication that caused bad breath and “violent flatulence”). Yet they were good enough to fool the respected British historian who authenticated them and editors at Stern magazine and the Sunday Times.
Just as infamous is the “autobiography” of Howard Hughes. In the early 1970s, novelist Clifford Irving approached publisher McGraw-Hill claiming he had been contracted to ghostwrite the reclusive billionaire’s life story. He negotiated an advance of $750,000—at the time, the largest ever paid for a book—for what turned out to be a collection of fake interviews and rehashed media coverage. The scheme unraveled before the book was published, when Hughes emerged from seclusion, via telephone, to deny any knowledge of the project. Irving served seventeen months in prison for fraud and told the story of his deception—a real story, this time—in a 1981 book, The Hoax.
There are a few unexpected cameos. Hitler claims the encyclopedia’s first entry, as the target of another lie—during World War Two, a British counterespionage agent with a sense of humor forged a passport that identified the dictator as a Jewish painter hoping to emigrate to Palestine. The early Greek astronomer Ptolemy had no qualms about passing off someone else’s stellar observations as his own. And who would ever have suspected that the great Albert Einstein was capable of fudging the results of an early experiment on magnetism?
Bolt presents an array of lesser-known liars who bent the truth not to break the law, but simply to get ahead or to escape their boring routines. A teenaged immigrant from Iran posed as the nephew of director Steven Spielberg to win a spot at an exclusive American high school. When Rosemary Brown was not working in a London school cafeteria, she was at her piano and claiming to channel new works by Liszt, Chopin and other long-dead composers. Music experts dismissed her as a fraud and Bolt suspects Brown, a recent widow “with very little to look forward to,” had resolved “to create a more significant life for herself.”
Along the way Bolt skewers the Vatican (for touting miracles and canonizing some unsaintly figures), eBay (“a godsend for forgers”), Mormons, and Erich von Däniken and other pseudoscientists who theorize about ancient aliens. The producers of basmati rice are unlikely to appear on a most-wanted list, but they too are censured for their duplicity; a 2003 study found that almost half the brands sold in Britain were mixed with cheaper varieties. Bolt reserves a special place in his hall of shame for the quacks who prey on the desperation of the sick and dying.
“Deception is endemic to our society,” he concludes. “We live in a world that favours achievers, and who can say that they have never bent the truth a little to create that impression?” The author declares his own guilt. As a student, he cheated on an economics exam, a minor transgression that nonetheless helped him to become a university instructor.
Most people lie for an obvious reason: money. Selling landmarks and faking credentials can be a lucrative business, and art forgers have made millions of dollars by emulating the Great Masters. But there are other motives to deceive. A surprising number of academics and writers have submitted papers filled with nonsense to journals and publishers they considered pretentious, for no other reason than to gloat once their gibberish appeared in print. And some liars are victims of their own lies. The “discoverers” of cold fusion in 1989 were so convinced they had found the secret to cheap, limitless power that they neglected to conduct the follow-up tests that ultimately exposed their results as false.
While this is a book about lies and deception, don’t let the title fool you. It’s a collection of tales well-told, not some dry reference work. Bolt even stamped his eccentric personality on the book’s structure. Entries are arranged alphabetically by the first letter of the snappy caption he devised for each one, not necessarily by the initial letter of the name of its subject. The entry on the Howard Hughes hoax, for instance, falls under G for “Ghosting an Autobiography, Clifford Irving Style.” Bolt’s sense of fun and wry humor shine through on every page, as does his passion for his subjects and their devious ways.
It’s an engrossing, addictive read. And that’s the truth.
Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception, the true story of a master swindler and world-class liar who scammed the elite of 1920s Chicago (Algonquin Books & HarperCollins Canada). He teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb