Denis Vrain-Lucas (1818 – 1882)
If you are trained and working as a law clerk and frustrated in your ambitions to be a librarian for want of a degree and a knowledge of Latin, you need a bit of excitement in your life, or at least Frenchman, Denis Vrain-Lucas, thought so. And he came up with quite a wheeze which was astonishing in how successful and long-running it was. But, then, as is often the way with hoaxes, if you find a mug who wants to believe that something is what it purports to be, then they will.
After a period of experimenting with inks and papers, Vrain-Lucas began forging letters and documents from French authors. He became proficient and soon found that they gained ready acceptance as being the real deal. Then came the fateful meeting with one of the leading French astronomers and geometricians at the time, Michel Chasles. Sources are inconclusive as to when this meeting took place, some dating to as early as 1854 while others place it in either 1861 or 1862. What is clear is that Chasles had a passion for collecting old manuscripts, manna from heaven for Vrain-Lucas.
To hook Chasles in, the forger sold him some letters purporting to be from the likes of Rabelais, Racine and Moliere. Of course, the obvious question was: how had a humble clerk like Vrain-Denis come into possession of such rare documents?
Vrain-Lucas claimed he was acting as a middle man for a descendent of the earl of Boisjourden who had amassed a vast collection of valuable documents. During the French revolution, the Earl had tried to secrete his collection out of France and take them to the safety of America but the ship sank and the trunk was salvaged and returned to France. Because the rest of the family did not know that the documents were being offered for sale, it was necessary for Chasles to keep shtum. The greedy Chasles willingly agreed.
His mark well and truly hooked, Vrain-Lucas set about forging documents on an industrial scale, up to 30 a day. He cut out pages from old books, used some of the old inks he had developed and to add verisimilitude to the story of the shipwreck stained the papers with sea water and smoked them over the flame of a candle. For the contents of the letters he copied information relevant to the interests of the supposed correspondent from an encyclopaedia, topping and tailing them to give the impression that they were truly letters.
Initially, Vrain-Lucas was rather circumspect as to whose letters he was putting in the hands of the ever eager Chasles, restricting himself to correspondence from Frenchmen who had recently died. But then he got more ambitious, producing documents from the likes of Shakespeare, Newton, Archimedes, Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Pontius Pilate and many more.
For Chasles, Vrain-Lucas was the gift that kept on giving.
He never paused to wonder why all these documents were in French when the supposed correspondents’ native language was English, Latin, Greek or Hebrew. He also never wondered why the letters were always unfailingly flattering about France nor how people who lived in different eras could have possibly written to each other. Chasles was just delighted to augment his burgeoning collection of supposedly priceless epistles.
As well as being incredibly credulous, Chasles was vain and patriotic. What led to the unravelling of this astonishing was fraud was a collection of letters from Blaise Pascal in which he appeared to have formulated the law of gravity ahead of Isaac Newton. For Chasles this was too exciting a piece of information to keep locked away in a dusty drawer. In 1867 he approached the French Academy of Science with this astonishing revelation.
They reviewed the letters and immediately noted that the handwriting was somewhat different from that in letters definitely written by Pascal. Chasles maintained their authenticity but eventually revealed that he had bought them from Vrain-Lucas. This put the spotlight on the forger who, in an attempt to play down many of the obvious discrepancies in the letters, produced many more.
But it was to no avail. Vrain-Lucas was arrested for fraud in 1869 and sentenced to two years in chokey. It is estimated that Chasles paid him around 150,000 francs for the worthless documents. It is even claimed that when he was arrested, Vrain-Lucas had in his possession what would have been the crowning glory of Chasles’ collection, the text of the Sermon of the Mount, written by Jesus himself.
En francais, bien sur!
If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone