Appletons’ Cyclopaedia and a Mysterious Literary Hoax

Alert readers of my blog will have noticed that last week’s post on the Restoration scholar and poet Roger Trosse is a fraud; no such man existed and the all-too-plausible biography, though populated with plenty of real individuals – George Hickes and Francis Cherry, among others – is idle pastiche.

I hope this small exercise in invention has met with amusement rather than distress. It was inspired by a far greater and more serious hoax, one committed in the pages of North America’s first comprehensive biographical dictionary. This was Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography, published in six volumes between 1887 and 1889, and an avowed rival of the far larger British Dictionary of National Biography. Although still recognised as a landmark work, since their first discovery in 1919 Appletons’ Cyclopaedia has been dogged by the presence of a series of remarkable and entirely invented biographies.

These biographies, which have never been quantified, but which must number in the dozens if not hundreds, are of individuals supposedly active in Central or South America before the early nineteenth century and are Borgesian in their brilliant and absurd invention. A characteristic example is the entry for Rudolf Ingulf von Köln (1727-1785), “German explorer and sculptor”.

“Rudolf Ingulf von Cöln”, Appletons’ Cyclopaedia, iii. 351.

Ingulf began his career, we are told as a merchant, lived in Mexico, traveled widely, discovering gold in California, and returned to Europe in 1771, soon after publishing a series of works on his travels and the geography of the New World, including the tantalisingly strange Kosmographie von Amerika “Vienna, 1779, with charts”. A copy of this last, “considered as one of the best works of the kind” sold, we are assured, for 700 thalers.

But it was as a sculptor that the polymathic Ingulf really excelled and we are briefly introduced to several of his principal works, his “bust of Endymion” as also of “Columbus, Pizarro, and Velasquez” and, of course, “his group of ‘Indians imploring Spaniards,’ in Berlin” which, Appletons’ informs us, “place him amongst the best German sculptors of the last century”.

Ingulf never existed and it is wonderful that his career could be considered even plausible. He is joined by other, equally implausible, men of many talents: Nicolas-Auguste Voiture (c.1764-1821), explorer of Patagonia and author of a literary history of South America, Charles-Albert Zénon de Rouvroy (1698-1759), author of a “very curious” history of Louisiana and the Mississippi company, almost all copies of which were destroyed by an antagonistic John Law, or Lorenz Wenceslas Kerckhove (1785-1839), a friend of Humboldt and another indefatigable traveller in the depths of the Americas who later served as professor of natural history at Leiden and wrote works as diverse as Surinam in Bildern und Skizzen (Amsterdam, 1835) and Historia ecclesiastica et universalis Guianae [sic] (Amsterdam, 1825).

The depth of invention is remarkable, the bland tone of a Victorian biographical dictionary concealing an entire imaginary world of natives and immigrants, travelling, warring, studying, and writing through a shadowy reflection of the age of Enlightenment. Both their author and the motivation behind them remain unknown. The con-man William Charles Tenner and the out-of-work consular agent Hermann Ritter, two of the named contributors to Appletons’, have both been suggested as possibilities and a variety of reasons have been proposed: from practical joke, to economic necessity, to regional boosterism, but I think that none quite accounts for the surreal detail of these imaginary biographies. Somewhere underlying them is a delight in invention, a love of parody and of pastiche, that is more at home in the twenty-first century than the nineteenth and which found unexpectedly fertile ground in the driest of reference works. Castigated as a fraudster, we should celebrate this postmodern fabulator avant la lettre; their work, once known, surprises and delights.

NB. The best study to date of these biographies is by John Blythe Dobson. Alhough I arrived at the comparison independently, I cannot claim originality in comparing their author to Borges; this was first done by Don Mader in his essay “Ongeschrevern klassieken“.

(c) 2021 Kelsey Jackson Williams

One response to “Appletons’ Cyclopaedia and a Mysterious Literary Hoax”

  1. Kelsey, cousin Clinton here, I really enjoyed the Appleton’s piece, and am somewhat embarrassed that i always found it fascinating to browse through Appletons’, and as the author of a very curious history myself, I would like to see it come back!

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