Biography of Famous Fraud and Imposter Psalmanazar Part 3

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


PSALMANAZAR (1679?-1763), Impostor

Riding the crest of popular adulation, Psalmanazar could scarcely see the impending denouement of his scheme or the depths of degradation, dissipation, and despair to which he would shortly sink. There were, of course, those who had doubted his story from the beginning, and their constant pecking away at details in his description of Formosa weakened his seemingly impregnable defense. But it was not until Innes left England in 1707 to accept appointment of chaplain to the English forces in Portugal that the imposture collapsed completely.

As the tide of doubt swelled, Psalmanazar's confidence plummeted. The patrons who had seen to it that he lacked no material comforts deserted him, and whatever respect he had commanded quickly turned to ridicule. Then, attempting to escape from public attention as much as he had earlier sought to be the center of it. Psalmanazar spent most of the next ten years, in his own words, "in a course of the most shameful idleness, vanity, and extravagance."

Finally, in 1715 he found a bit of happiness as clerk to a regiment of Lancashire dragoons. Never content to let well enough alone, however, Psalmanazar spread the word that he had been knighted by Queen Anne as royal recognition of his descent from Formosan nobility. The ruse proved harmless, and Psalmanazar remained with the regiment until it was transferred to Ireland.

Following a serious illness in 1728, Psalmanazar began the long process of repentance that would consume the final 35 years of his life. His outward behavior was that of a saint, and secretly he began to write his revealing memoirs for posthumous publication. He earned his living as a writer, and in 1747 his anonymous article on Formosa for Archibald Bower's Complete System of Geography contained an admission of guilt regarding the imposture of more than 40 years past. Never during his lifetime, though, did he publish such an explanation under his name.

Late in his life, Psalmanazar struck up a friendship with Dr. Samuel Johnson, who held the much-maligned master of deception in awe. "Psalmanazar's piety, penitence, and virtue exceeded almost what we read as wonderful in the lives of the saints," Johnson said, and when asked the name of the best man he had ever known, Johnson replied, "Psalmanazar."

If not the best man in 18th-century England, Psalmanazar certainly ranks as one of the most enigmatic. When he died on May 3, 1763, no one knew his real name, date of birth, or precise place of origin. And the man who had sacrificed so much for a few brief moments at the center of public attention concluded his strange life with the following instructions: "I desire that my body. . . may be kept so long above ground, as decency or conveniency will permit, and afterwards conveyed to the common burying-ground, and there interred in some obscure corner of it, without any further ceremony or formality. . . .and that the whole may be performed in the lowest and cheapest manner. And it is my earnest request, that my body be not inclosed in any kind of coffin, but only decently laid in what is called a shell of the lowest value, and without lid or other covering which may hinder the natural earth from covering it all around."

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