Biography of Famous Fraud and Imposter Psalmanazar Part 2

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


PSALMANAZAR (1679?-1763), Impostor

His imposture surely brought him no riches. Clothed in rags and suffering from the itch, he was shunned by everyone, including the prostitutes; in fact, the inspectors whose duty it was to examine travel documents quickly categorized the young man as a derelict and would not even grant him the satisfaction of studying his elaborately contrived passport. In a moment of desperation, he enlisted in the army of the Duke of Mecklenburg, still describing himself as a Japanese but claiming now to be an unconverted heathen named Salmanazar--a name, whose spelling he would alter later, taken from the biblical Shalmaneser, king of Assyria.

In 1702, while in service to the duke, Psalmanazar's strange story and atavistic eating habits brought him to the attention of several prominent people, including one William Innes, chaplain to a Scottish regiment stationed in the same vicinity. Despite Psalmanazar's elaborate rituals of turning to face the rising or setting sun while chanting in a tongue no one could decipher, Innes saw through the fraud at once. Instead of revealing the imposture, however, this man of God convinced Psalmanazar to carry it through on a grander scale. What began as an innocent lark became a far more sinister plot.

After baptizing his heathen, Innes wrote a letter to the Anglican bishop of London describing the remarkable Psalmanazar. In this letter Innes changed Psalmanazar's birthplace from Japan to the lesser-known island of Formosa, and he celebrated the conversion of this pagan to the glories of Protestantism. The bishop believed every word, and he commanded Innes to come to London at once and to bring the Formosan with him. Late in 1703, therefore, two of the strangest con men ever--a Protestant chaplain and a young man who had merely sought a touch of notoriety--arrived in London.

For the next three years, 1704-1706, Psalmanazar was the toast of British society. After endearing himself to the bishop by translating the catechism of the Church of England into "Formosan," Psalmanazar spent six months at Oxford at the expense of the bishop and his friends. Not in the least intimidated by attending one of the great academic institutions of the Western world, Psalmanazar could not resist one innocent bit of deceit. "I used to light a candle and let it burn the greatest part of the night in my study, to make my neighbors believe I was plying my books; and sleeping in my easy chair, left the bed often for a whole week as I found it, to the great surprise of my bedmaker, who could hardly imagine how I could live with so little sleep."

Psalmanazar's Formosan catechism made such a hit with British clergymen that Innes prevailed upon his prodigy to produce a history of his supposed homeland. An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, An Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan appeared in Latin in 1704, was translated into English, and sold so well that Psalmanazar wrote a second edition the following year. As the title indicates, though, Psalmanazar had made a serious error; Formosa belonged to China, not Japan. He adhered firmly to his story, however, accusing his detractors of lying. In fact, he never backed down on any statement, no matter how farfetched. Even after he recognized the absurdity of claiming that Formosans sacrificed 18,000 infants to the gods every year, he refused to modify his negative-population-growth statistics.

Nonetheless, clergymen fawned over their exotic convert; scientists sought to study his strange language; and patrons lined up to shower him with financial support. All marveled at his tales of human sacrifice and cannibalism--the latter being no sin, said Psalmanazar, although admittedly a bit unmannerly.

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