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A guest post by LH Member David Harry. Review of “The Century of Deception” by Ian Keable

century_of_deception_cover-768x1181 (1)London changed enormously in the 18th century.

In particular literacy increased, London population exploded with a rural exodus, there was a relative freedom in the press, a massive growth in coffee houses opened up new ways to meet and discuss news and ideas and entertainments became more sophisticated and varied. A key factor is also the sheer increased volume of documentation that survives from this time.

Ian Keable’s argument is that this was the first great century of hoax, which he defines as “amicably spoofing people for the sheer joy of it” and that this was enabled by many of the factors above, in particular the ease with which ideas could be disseminated, and the interest in the bizarre human stories these presented.

One of the problems with this definition, as he admits, is that in reality only one of the hoaxes he writes about fully fulfils it. However this merely illustrates the scale of choices made here, and luckily for London Historians, nearly all the ten hoaxes here take place either entirely or in part in London.

I will say at the start that I thoroughly enjoyed it and fully recommend it, both for education and entertainment.
Keable is a professional comedy magician, speaker and writer (previous works include a definitive book on Dickens as a conjuror) with a previous career in chartered accountancy.

He brings a forensic and thoughtful approach to the topic, mixing new research with informed ideas and an overarching questioning of motive, effect and relationship between the hoaxes, hoaxed and public.

Although we may be tempted to scoff at the credulity of the public then, we need look no further to our own times and the current debates about vaccines, Presidents spouting “alternative truths”, Facebook and Twitter storms to realise that we are not that different ourselves, despite the media changing from pamphlets in Coffee Houses to screens in bedrooms.

The ten hoaxes are presented chronologically, from the invented country of Formosa promoted enthusiastically by the Bishop of London in the first decade up to the audacious Shakespearean fraud that tricked the experts in the 1790s.

They jump from literature, medicine, travel, technology, theatre, ghosts, astrology, fraud and disappearances, demonstrating the pervasive theme, and Keable has evidently done his research. He fully brings out the essential nature of successful hoaxes, that they are both fooling and amusing.

In particular, he believes that he has genuine new information about the Bottle Conjuror Hoax at the Little Theatre Haymarket, which I found both compelling and fascinating.

For London connections in particular I recommend these four: the Bottle Conjuror chapter, Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane, the Stockwell ghost hoax and the Chevalier de Moret’s fated balloon adventures in Chelsea, but all are excellent and only the chapter on Ben Franklin does not reference our beloved London.

Highly recommended.

The Century of Deception: The Birth of the Hoax in Eighteenth-Century England (320pp) by Ian Keable is published by the Westbourne Press. Copies are available at Home – Century of Deception

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