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Sunday 10 November 2013

Hoaxes in the Age of Reason

Judging from Alex Boese’s excellent book The Museum of Hoaxes, the 18th century was something of a golden age for that particular art form. It’s probably no accident that this coincided with the so-called “Age of Reason”, sandwiched between the witch-burning Puritanism of the 17th century and the Gothic romanticism of the 19th. A hoax works best when the victims think of themselves as sophisticated, logically-minded intellectuals!

I was reminded of two of the most famous hoaxes of the 18th century by this picture I saw on the British Museum website. You may spot the reason immediately – but if not, bear with me and everything will become clear in the end. The picture dates from 1771, and shows a central figure wearing female dress while adorned with distinctly male accessories, including a sword and Masonic regalia (the picture is subtitled “The Female Freemason”). The subject is the Chevalier d'Eon, whose gender was much disputed – living first as a man, and then from middle age onwards as a woman.

Nowadays this would be seen as a transgender issue, but in the 18th century that simply wasn’t an option. Whether you were a man or a woman was simply a question of anatomy, and if you claimed to be one when you were actually the other then you were perpetrating a hoax. As it happened, d’Eon claimed to be anatomically female, but was eventually revealed by post-mortem examination to be anatomically male. So to that extent, the skeptics – like the creator of this print – were right.

You can tell the artist considered d’Eon to be a hoaxer from the two pictures he’s drawn hanging on the wall. These depict two of the most notorious London-based hoaxes of the 18th century. The picture hanging on the left shows Mary Toft allegedly giving birth to rabbits. This isn’t an exact reproduction of William Hogarth’s Cunicularii, which I described some time ago in Paranormal investigation, 18th century style, but it’s the same subject. As I described in that earlier post, the hoax was particularly aimed at “supposedly intelligent and educated individuals who ‘want to believe’... and hence are easily duped by hoaxers.”

The picture hanging on the right side of the d’Eon portrait depicts the “Great Bottle Hoax” of 1749. This was the result of a wager between the Duke of Portland and the Earl of Chesterfield regarding the gullibility of the public. The Duke claimed he could advertise a patently absurd feat – that a man was capable of squeezing himself into a quart bottle – and still fill a London theatre with people prepared to hand over cash to see it. The (non) event took place at the New Theatre in Haymarket, and the Duke won his bet easily – every seat in the house was sold, and many people had to stand or were turned away. I’ve seen conflicting descriptions of the ensuing events. Some say the curtains simply remained closed, while others say a man appeared, showed the audience a bottle, thanked them for their money, and promptly left. What all accounts agree on is the riot that followed – some versions even end with the complete destruction of the theatre!

You can read more about the Mary Toft case, the Great Bottle Hoax and other examples of 18th century hoaxes on the Museum of Hoaxes website.


Peni R. Griffin said...

I'm not surprised they rioted. Most of those people obviously expected to see some spectacular magic trick. Gullibility is hardly the right word for that.

You have to admire the Chevalier d'Eon. Transgender is a difficult identity even now that we have the concept for it, yet he managed to pull it off, more or less, for the second half of his life.

Andrew May said...

You said "he" -- I was careful to avoid using a gender-specific pronoun!

Peni R. Griffin said...

For politeness's sake I should've said "she." I normally would. We'll call that a typo.