"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, January 26, 2015

Writ in Water: The Enigma of Psalmanazar

"Here lies one whose name was writ in water."
~epitaph for John Keats

Sometime around the end of the 17th century, a young man could be seen wandering through Germany and the Low Countries. He was a poor man, little more than a footloose beggar. He described himself as "a Japanese converted to Christianity." Little was known about Japan at the time, and the youth's habits were odd enough to make people accept he was some sort of exotic foreigner.

It did him little good. No one cared where this ragged, lice-ridden stranger came from, they just wanted him to go away. Having no other options, in Cologne he enlisted in the army of the Duke of Mecklenburg. He gave his name as "George Psalmanazar."

"Psalmanazar" was no ordinary soldier. He made a point of eating nothing but raw meat and herbs and he had an elaborate daily ritual involving facing the rising and setting suns while he chanted in some incomprehensible language that he assured everyone was fluent Japanese. In 1703, this peculiar fellow attracted the attention of an Alexander Innes, chaplain to a Scottish regiment stationed near Mecklenburg's troops. Innes was sharp enough to see at once that "Psalmanazar" was a fraud, and he was unscrupulous enough to utilize the young playactor for his own personal ends. He felt that the unusual achievement of converting a "heathen Japanese" would be very good for his career.

Innes made a great show of baptizing the "heathen." Then he wrote his superior, the bishop of London, a letter relating "Psalmanazar's" remarkable tale, with a few even more baroque additions of his own. In this letter, Innes changed the land of "Psalmanazar's" birth from Japan to the even lesser-known Formosa. He threw in a great deal of self-congratulatory remarks describing his triumph at converting this pagan to the True Protestant Faith. The bishop swallowed it whole, and begged for more. He quickly wrote back urging Innes to bring this exciting new Anglican to London as soon as possible.

Thus is was that this penniless, enigmatic vagrant became a leading light of British society. England has always loved its human curiosities, and you didn't get any more curious than Psalmanazar. He soon proved himself to be not only odd, but highly intelligent, erudite, and charming. He and Innes explained that he had been kidnapped from his native land by Jesuit priests, who sought to take advantage of his talent for languages by training him to be a missionary. He managed to escape their clutches, and, fortunately, fell under the protection of Chaplain Innes.

Psalmanazar delighted the bishop by translating the Church of England catechism into, uh, "Formosan." It was such a hit that he was prevailed upon to write a history of his homeland. In 1704, he produced "A Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, An Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan." It all bore about as much resemblance to the real Formosa as "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" does to Des Moines, Iowa, but fortunately for Psalmanazar, no one around him knew enough about the far-off land to be able to tell. The well-written, colorful, and astonishingly detailed work was a huge success. When it was pointed out that Formosa belonged to China, not Japan, he loftily accused these nitpickers of either lying or being grievously mistaken.

It was his air of certainty that did the most to make his outlandish hoax a success. Psalmanazar later explained that, "There was one maxim I could never be prevailed upon to depart from, viz. that whatever I had once affirmed in conversation, tho' to ever so few people, and tho' ever so improbable, or even absurd, should never be amended or contradicted in the narrative." In other words, if he was a ridiculous fraud, at least he was a consistent one.

Londoners adored Psalmanazar. The clergy delighted in landing such a fascinating convert. Scientists and linguistics experts flocked to study his exotic Formosan language. The titled and wealthy considered it an honor to become his patrons. Everyone was spellbound by the lurid tales of his homeland--human sacrifices, polygamy, cannibalism, and all.

Rather amazingly, Psalmanazar's bizarre heyday lasted until around 1710. Then, he found himself dealing not only with increasing doubts about his story, but with a novelty-hungry public's satiety and eagerness to discard him for new thrills. With his decreasing popularity came a corresponding lack of self-confidence. It all combined to create a perfect storm of personal disaster.

The next few years of Psalmanazar's life are hazy. All we know is that the impostor, humiliated by his public exposure as a fraud, deliberately hid from the world--and himself--in what he later described as "a course of the most shameful idleness, vanity, and extravagance."

By 1715, he had pulled himself together enough to obtain a position as clerk to a regiment of dragoons. He couldn't resist presenting himself as a descendant of Formosan royalty who had been knighted by Queen Anne, but by now such taraddidles scarcely raised an eyebrow. He remained quietly with the regiment for two years, until it was transferred to Ireland. He had become rather disgusted with himself, and sincerely tried to make an honest living. He turned his hand to tutoring, then becoming an artist, then a translator, but nothing worked out for him. His only real talent, it seemed, was one for make-believe. Although by now he was heartily sick of being a faux-Formosan, it seemed to be the one thing people found valuable about him. He was, in a word, trapped.

In 1728, Psalmanazar fell seriously ill. As with so many other people who narrowly escape death, the experience caused him to undergo a long period of solemn soul-searching. He came to bitterly repent his long, wasted years of deception and dissipation, and resolved to spend the rest of his life making amends for his folly.

Although he continued to go under the name of "Psalmanazar," otherwise he was a changed man. His lifestyle became one of saintly asceticism and self-disciplined study. He earned a living by writing--always anonymously--on various topics (including Formosa, where he scornfully attacked the ridiculous falsehoods of George Psalmanazar.) Secretly, he began to write his memoirs, which would prove to be one of the oddest non-confessional confessions on record.

Psalmanazar had gone from goofy charlatan to public sensation to scorned laughingstock to, in his later years, a beloved, even revered figure, greatly admired for his scholarship, dignified demeanor, and purity of character. His friend Samuel Johnson wrote, "Psalmanazar's piety, penitence, and virtue exceeded almost what we read as wonderful in the lives of the saints." Johnson called him the best man he had ever known.

Psalmanazar died on May 3, 1763. With what had become his characteristic modesty and self-denial, he requested that his body "be 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 enclosed 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." His funeral was as anonymous as his recorded life had been.

His memoirs were published after his death, as he had instructed. For the first time, he explained how he had concocted an entire language and history of Formosa out of whole cloth. He gave only vague details about his early life. He was probably born around 1679. He described himself as having come from a poor Catholic family in a small village in an undisclosed country--probably, it has been guessed, somewhere in southern France. The local monks gave him a good education, and he was sent to a university to study theology. He showed little interest in the subject, but he discovered he had an extraordinary talent for languages, quickly becoming fluent in six or seven different tongues.

However, he soon tired of the academic life, and left the university to become a tutor. Finding that did not suit him either, at the age of sixteen he set out on his own, apparently with no real goals or plans other than to see the world. He was the only surviving child of parents who would never hear from him again. The directionless young man fell into a vagrant lifestyle that only ended with his transformation into "Psalmanazar."

His only explanation of why he constructed such an outlandish persona was that he thought people would be more likely to give alms to a colorful foreigner. As for why he continued to hide behind it, even after he repented of the deception, all he would say was that "I deserve no other name than that of an impostor." His memoirs gave no hint of his real identity, which is almost certainly lost to us forever. Psalmanazar felt he deserved punishment, and he got it from spending nearly all of his long life as a stranger to everyone around him. He lived, died, and was buried with no one who knew him ever having any idea who he really was.

What an incredibly lonely fate.


  1. Perhaps Psalmanazar's epitaph might have read simply: Hey diddle diddle.

  2. An honest fraud. In a later age, he could have been a successful fiction writer, perhaps like the fellow you described last week who wrote a detailed biography of a man who didn't exist.


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