"Collecting"--whether it be of stamps, historical documents, paintings, Betty Boop toothbrush holders, what have you--can lead a person into some very peculiar byways. In many cases, the increasing passion the collector feels to add to their stash of personal treasures warps their judgment and utterly clouds their intellect. It is a profound love, of a sort, and everyone knows love is blind.
One of the unlikeliest victims of this phenomenon was Michel Chasles. Chasles held the chair of geometry in the Imperial Polytechnic of Paris and was a member of the French Academy of Science. His distinguished career was built upon a talent for rigid logic and mathematical precision. Chasles was, in short, the last man you'd expect to see playing the role of dupe. Yet, duped he was, and in a manner that would have embarrassed a five-year-old.
After Chasles was elected to the Academy of Science in 1850, he began to research the history of science. His immersion in the old books and manuscripts awakened a desire to start his own collection of historical documents. Most unfortunately for him, one of the people who learned of this ambition was a man named Denis Vrain-Lucas.
One day in 1861, Vrain-Lucas introduced himself to Chasles, and made a most enticing proposition: He had for sale an immense collection of books, manuscripts, and autograph letters. They had been, he explained, the property of a Count Boisjourdain, who had drowned while sailing to America in 1791. The collection was now owned by an old man of Vrain-Lucas' acquaintance. He was naturally reluctant to part with any of it, but he badly needed money, so he was willing for Vrain-Lucas to act as his agent in gradually selling items from his stash. Vrain-Lucas said diffidently that he himself had no idea if anything in the collection was of any value, but as he had heard Chasles was an expert in such matters, he was willing to sell them for whatever Chasles thought they might be worth.
When Chasles learned of the treasures Vrain-Lucas was offering him, he could hardly believe his luck. Among the long-deceased Count's collection were letters personally written by Molière, Rabelais, and Racine. And his new-found benefactor was ready to part with them for the equivalent of less than one hundred dollars each!
It seemed too good to be true!
Chasles, of course, did not know anything about Vrain-Lucas and his mysteriously acquired documents--and was too dazzled and greedy to ask--but this "agent" was, to put it mildly, a dubious character. Vrain-Lucas was the son of a poor laborer. He had had little formal education, but after he obtained a clerking job, he had the opportunity to spend much time at the local library, where he became fascinated by old books and manuscripts. He eventually moved to Paris, where he got a job working for a genealogy firm. When this particular business had difficulty finding genuine documents for its clients, the employees worked around this problem by simply forging them. The firm was an excellent training ground for a young man who combined a lust for history with a handy lack of principles, and Vrain-Lucas soon became an experienced forger.
After the head of the genealogical firm retired, Vrain-Lucas set out on his own. By the time he and Chasles had their fateful meeting, he had a long and profitable career of selling highly dubious documents to credulous collectors all over Paris. Like all the great forgers, Vrain-Lucas combined a scholar's genuine love for and knowledge of historical artifacts with a con-man's thespian abilities. Like our old friend Joseph Cosey, Vrain-Lucas was very good at presenting himself as a humble, slightly witless fellow who was, in his ignorance, offering priceless artifacts at bargain rates.
Chasles knew his science. Chasles knew his higher mathematics. When it came to human nature, he was as innocent and gullible as a baby. He eagerly snapped up anything Vrain-Lucas so casually offered him, no questions asked.
The trouble began when Chasles began proudly shared his purchases with the world. In 1865, Florence, Italy, was holding an exhibition in honor of Dante. Chasles helpfully sent them a letter written by the great poet that he had recently purchased. The letter arrived too late for this exhibition, so it avoided any close examination. The next year, he presented to the Belgian Academy two letters written by Charles V to Rabelais. Although some archivists had their doubts about their authenticity, the Academy, much to its later embarrassment, published them.
In 1867, Chasles gifted the French Academy with two letters purportedly written by the poet Jean de Rotrou to Cardinal Richelieu. Again, even though some in the Academy privately muttered some skepticism about these letters, they were reprinted as genuine in the Proceedings of the Academy.
Things began to unravel in earnest the following year, when Chasles presented the Academy with a letter written by Pascal to Robert Boyle, detailing the principles of gravity years before Newton's discovery.
This upending of history raised a few eyebrows. Even more eyebrows were lifted when it was noted that the letter contained serious grammatical errors and jarring anachronisms. It was also noted that the handwriting of this letter differed considerably from assuredly genuine Pascal manuscripts. When Chasles, in an effort to defend the letter's authenticity, brought out more of his Pascal letters, the fat was truly in the fire. They included notes from Pascal to Isaac Newton--which, from the dates, would have been written when Newton was only eleven! There was a letter to Pascal from Newton's mother--where she signed herself by a name she had long ceased to use when the letter was purportedly written.
Chasles' meetings at the Academy became increasingly uncomfortable. Vrain-Lucas, however, was able to soothe all his doubts with various "new" letters which explained all the questions that had been raised about the previous documents. Scholars scoffed at the idea that Pascal would be discussing complex scientific discoveries with an eleven-year-old boy? Vrain-Lucas responded with a letter written by Newton's tutor, commenting on how his pupil had written to Pascal under his guidance. The letter written in French by Galileo in 1641 about his "eyestrain"--when history records the scientist went completely blind in 1637 and never wrote in French? The biographers, Vrain-Lucas assured Chasles, were simply in error. The fact that these letters contained so many previously unknown details only added to their value. And so on.
Before long, however, the long list of blatant textual errors and inauthentic handwritings found in these letters were unacceptable even to Chasles. Two of France's leading manuscript experts were brought in to finally make a thorough examination of Chasles' purchases. It was an impressive list: Over a period of less than ten years, Vrain-Lucas sold him a total of nearly 30,000 manuscripts, allegedly from over six hundred different people. Vrain-Lucas was a one-man forgery empire.
Fortunately for the interests of justice, he was as sloppy as he was prolific. He rarely bothered to even do plausible imitations of the genuine writing of his subjects, and usually merely copied passages out of old books, with little concern for historical accuracy. To add some much-needed verisimilitude to his handiwork, he occasionally sold Chasles some authentic vintage book or manuscript.
These rare examples of honest transactions constituted Vrain-Lucas' sole defense when he was put on trial in February of 1870. He claimed that the genuine items were worth more than the entire sum Chasles had spent on his collection.
It was a feeble argument. Chasles paid out about 140,000 francs for his now utterly-discredited "bargains," while the few authentic specimens were worth--at best--about 500 francs. Vrain-Lucas' attorneys then tried an even more novel argument. The defendant could only be guilty of fraud, they suggested, if his transactions were designed to deceive someone of normal intelligence. Who in their right minds, they argued, could believe they were buying a letter Cleopatra had written to Julius Caesar? Or from Mary Magdalene to Lazarus? Or Alexander the Great to Aristotle? Particularly since all of them were written in French?
The most amazing part of this story is that Chasles evidently did. Even after Vrain-Lucas was found guilty and imprisoned for two years, Chasles refused to admit that he had been well and truly hoodwinked. To the end of his days, he clung to the belief that the mythical Count Boisjourdain and his magnificent manuscripts really existed, and that he had just acquired clumsy replicas of them. In an equally astounding touch, despite his well-demonstrated ability to be gulled, Chasles' reputation survived the scandal, and he remained a respected figure in the field of mathematics. A road in Paris is named after him, and the mathematician is among the 72 worthies whose names are engraved on the Eiffel Tower.
After Vrain-Lucas served his sentence, he promptly found a new victim: An elderly man whom he swindled out of his pitiful fortune and his few valuable books. For this latest escapade, he returned to jail for another three years. He then was nabbed for stealing rare books from a library, which earned him another four years in prison. Sources give varying years for when he died, but it was sometime between 1880 and 1882.
Chasles passed away in 1880, from choking on a marshmallow. Which somehow seems a fitting end to our tale.