Biography of Famous Fraud and Imposter Psalmanazar Part 1

About the famous fraud and imposter Psalmanazar who convinced the British aristocracy that he was a former pagan savage.


PSALMANAZAR (1679?-1763), Impostor

Psalmanazar was not his real name. It was all part of the hoax. But the young man who took this false name was more victim than perpetrator of the grand imposture that fooled the British upper classes early in the 18th century. Claiming to be a wild pagan savage from the island of Formosa who had embraced and converted to the Anglican Church, Psalmanazar exchanged a few years at the center of public attention for half a century of guilt and remorse.

He was a mysterious being. Unable to make a full public confession of his fraud during his lifetime. Psalmanazar wrote memoirs for posthumous publication in which he revealed how he had fabricated a Formosan language, culture, and history while lacking anything more than a smattering of information about the island off the coast of China. Yet, even in this his expiation, spilling forth the deceit that had festered inside him so long, he never mentioned his real name.

He was born to Roman Catholic parents somewhere in southern France--probably Languedoc--around the year 1679. Educated in church schools (Franciscan, Jesuit, and Dominican), he briefly attended a university to study theology, but he soon lost interest. His aptitude for languages, though, was extraordinary. He could speak and write in six languages in addition to Latin, in which he was fluent. When he tired of academia, therefore, he tried to tutor. All of his attempts were short-lived, however, including one in which he declined the amorous advances of the student's mother in favor of protecting a thoroughly contrived posture of unsullied virtue.

A failure as a tutor, he was soon wearing rags and begging for food. Nevertheless, he set out for Rome at the age of 16, claiming on his passport to be "a young student in theology of Irish extract who had left the country for the sake of religion and was now on a pilgrimage. . . . ." His need to lie now seemed obsessive, and he even resorted to stealing a real pilgrim's cloak and staff from a parish church in order to make his appearance more convincing.

He changed his destination while en route to Rome, deciding instead to visit his father in Germany. Begging his way across 500 mi. of western Europe, he succeeded in finding his father, who it turned out had little more money than the impoverished adolescent. The young student "of Irish extract" therefore continued on his way, through Germany and the Low Countries. But the fanciful tale on his passport had grown stale with age, and he secured a new one in which he described himself as "a Japanese converted to Christianity." How could a Caucasian from southern France pass for a native Japanese? Apparently his scanty store of knowledge about Japan; his newly acquired habit--acquired specifically to lend credence to his claims--of eating raw meat, roots, and herbs; and his ability to proclaim his phony identity with unflinching certainty were sufficient to convince his contemporaries that here, indeed, was a visitor from the Far East.

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