The Taxil hoax
There’s nothing like a good conspiracy theory and, even better, a sinner who spectacularly renounces his sins. The incredible story of Léo Taxil, the nom de plume of Marie Joseph Gabriel Antoine Jogand-Pagès, has these elements and more.
Despite, or perhaps because, being earmarked by his parents for a life as a Catholic priest in France, Taxil developed fervent anti-religious, anti-Catholic views. As a journalist he wrote a series of satires exposing the perceived follies of the Catholic church, his pièce de resistance being the semi-pornographic book, the Secret Loves of Pius IX, published in 1881 and for which he was accused of libel. Then, to the astonishment of many, in 1885 Taxil publicly converted back to Catholicism, renouncing his past indiscretions and swearing to rectify the damage he had brought on the Church through his satirical exposés.
During the latter half of the nineteenth century the Catholic church had had an increasingly fractured relationship with the Freemasons. In 1884 Pope Leo XIII had issued an encyclical entitled Humanum genus in which he set out a Manichaean vision of a struggle between those who served “the kingdom of God” and those who served “the kingdom of Satan”. The Pope’s particular ire was directed at the Masons and gripped by a serious case of conspiracy theory he wrote “the partisans of evil seem to be combining together, and to be struggling with united vehemence, led on or assisted by that strongly organised and widespread association called Freemasons”.
What better way for Taxil to demonstrate his newly found Catholic zeal than to use his investigative skills to penetrate into the deepest recesses of the world of freemasonry. He began to publish a series of pamphlets denouncing the freemasons in the 1890s and in a book on Satanism claimed to have met a woman called Diana Vaughan. Vaughan was no ordinary woman, her memoirs, penned by Taxil, claiming that she had penetrated into the heart of the Palladian Order, a sect of the American Freemason movement. Through their offices she had visited Mars, had seen demons summoned by Masons during their black masses, and gave details of a secret factory in the arctic which produced anti-Church and pro-Satanist propaganda.
No matter how outlandish and bizarre the claims Vaughan made were, they were manna from hell for Pope Leo who promulgated them as evidence of the fact that Satanists were amongst God-fearing folk, determined to frustrate the workings of the Church. Those of an anti-masonic disposition were also prepared to believe Vaughan’s testimony but Masons were not convinced, challenging Taxil to produce this remarkable woman. Bowing to the pressure, Taxil agreed to give a public lecture on April 19, 1897 at which all would be revealed.
In front of a packed house in Paris, including several priests priests, Taxil revealed that he was a serial prankster with a string of elaborate hoaxes to his name. This was the most elaborate and he thanked the Church for allowing the oxygen of publicity to expose the fanatical hatred of masonry amongst the Church establishment. He the produced Diana who was his typist and had gone along with the deception for a laugh.
The audience was in uproar and the police had to be summoned to escort Taxil off the premises to the safety of a nearby café. Taxil soon left Paris and saw out his days in Sceauxin until his death in 1907.
But his legacy lived on. In fundamentalist Catholic circles his work was accepted as proof of a Satanist plot to control the world. After all, we do like a good conspiracy theory, even if it is hogwash.
If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone