The word ‘hoax’ did not catch on till the early 19th century. Before that one spoke of a hum, a frump, a prat or a bilk. But 18th-century Britain, even if not rife with talk of ‘hoaxes’, was full of incautious souls at risk of being bilked. James Graham, a Scottish quack, was able to charge infertile couples £50 a night to lounge in his Celestial Bed, which had a mattress lined with hair from stallions’ tails. The artist Ann Jemima Provis and her father, Thomas, caused embarrassment to the Royal Academy by conning its president, Benjamin West, into thinking they had stumbled on a rare manuscript that would allow him to emulate the luminous style of the Venetian masters. William Charlton painted black spots on the wings of a yellow butterfly and announced thathe had discovered a new species, which in due course found its way into the British Museum.
None of the above appear in Ian Keable’s The Century of Deception. But each is a symptom of an age when it became common to speak of ‘English credulity’. Regardless of whether the willingness to believe absurd fictions was a specifically English affliction (Keable thinks not), there was no shortage of hucksters eager to exploit it. The rise of newspapers and magazines meant that tales of the bizarre and the outrageous could circulate widely and quickly, while the rapid increase in printed advertising made it easy to promote stunts and shams.
Keable, a professional magician, warmly appreciates the mechanics of deception. He regards a successful hoax as similar to a good illusion, since both involve ‘amicably spoofing people for the sheer joy of it’. Yet he admits that only one of the ten he recounts can truly be said to fit this definition, and most are malign or cynical.