Jesus Started A Chain Letter — And Other Hoaxes


William Shakespeare wrote in the margins of his books. You can see it. Noah washed up in Vienna after the flood. And Jesus sent a letter back to earth after his ascension into heaven. Did you miss those artifacts of history? Of course they're all frauds concocted to convince the unsuspecting, and often they did. So what are outright frauds doing on display in the esteemed George Peabody Library in Baltimore? They're in a new exhibit called "Fakes, Lies and Forgeries." When we paid a visit to the Peabody, Earle Havens, the curator, brought us over to that missive from Jesus, which is now exhibited in a glass showcase.

EARLE HAVENS: About 55 years after he ascended into heaven, he decided he had some unfinished business. He says to Gabriel - Gabriel, take a note. And Gabriel takes the note down to earth and puts it under a rock. And the rock says, he that picketh up this rock shall be blessed. And so everyone walks by, and they say, well, I don't mind being blessed. And they try to pick up this rock. And they can't, until a little boy who's never sinned easily picks it up. And he sees this miraculous letter. It's taken to the Holy Land. And it says, basically, Jesus has decided to change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. Also, it's one of the first chain letters in history.

SIMON: Oh. If you like it, pass it on?

HAVENS: It says, he that copieth this letter shall be blessed of me. He that does not shall be cursed, etc., etc.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. Gotcha. And people believe this? Or enough people?

HAVENS: Many people believed it because they needed to or they wished to because the gaps in history - we have nothing from Christ's life that survives directly, physically from that moment. And so people wanted to fill in gaps - desperately to fill in gaps so that they could feel closer to the concept of a Jesus that was like them.

SIMON: Well, show us something else.

HAVENS: Well, Homer arrived not too long ago. We - still building the collection. This is a facsimile - and I'm doing double air quotes with my fingers - of an engraving of the tomb that was discovered on the Isle of Eos in 1772 by an extremely spurious Dutch count named Pasch Van Krienen. He had been looking for Homer. When they moved the tomb aside, Pasch Van Krienen was the first person since antiquity to stare upon the face of Homer. Homer was sitting perfectly preserved at a desk with a pen and an inkpot. Unfortunately, when the men rustled around with this heavy tombstone, there was a great kerfuffle and Homer's ashes fell to the ground. So Pasch was the only one who ever got to see him. It is the case, however, that there's a reason for this forgery. It's not just what we would call a hoax. It's a forgery because there was a debate raging at the time about whether there was a Homer or whether Homer was many different people or whether Homer - if he did exist - was literate or illiterate.

SIMON: Shakespeare?

HAVENS: Right over here. I give you gentlemen, in front of me, a book from William Shakespeare's library with his autograph on the title page. And there are six pages of furious manuscript notes in the margin, all of which are entirely illegible.

SIMON: Supposedly from Shakespeare's hand?

HAVENS: That's right.

SIMON: So conveniently illegible?

HAVENS: Conveniently because there's an economy to forgery. You only want to give as much as required to persuade somebody that it might be the thing in itself, but never anymore because then you give people rope to hang you with. This is William Henry Ireland - not necessarily the greatest, but certainly one of the most prolific Shakespeare forgers of the late-18th century. He was later found out very quickly and wrote a confession.

SIMON: Well, while we're standing here, why collect forgeries? Why collect hoaxes?

HAVENS: A lot of art forgery has been scholarly - treated in a scholarly way, but not literature and history in the same way. And actually, I remember talking to my colleagues about this collection and saying, perhaps now, more than ever, we ought to be attending to the subject of authenticity because we've already built another Tower of Babel. And that of course is our Internet, where any kind of discourse - true or false, and all points in between - is fair game.

SIMON: We can be amused by a lot of this now, but I'm wondering if there are any forgeries here in this collection that had devastating consequences for people who believed in it.

HAVENS: For those who wished to believe in it, absolutely. There's one on the other side of the room that is arguably the most destructive forgery in our Western history - certainly in modern memory. And that of course is "The Protocols Of The Elders of Zion." We're approaching the case that contains the first German edition. This was popularized in Russia by conservative landholders who feared the Bolshevik removal of the aristocratic privileges of the Russian landholders. It's this idea that there's this Jewish plot to take over all of Western culture. And we're also standing in front of the very first English-British edition. This was picked up by anti-Semites all over the West - the most famous American case being Henry Ford, who had this serially published in the Dearborn Paper - I believe it is. And then he paid for literally hundreds of thousands of copies.

SIMON: Henry Ford believed in it, didn't he?

HAVENS: That's right. And then he was forced by the courts to retract.

SIMON: You take a look at these forgeries, and you're struck by the fact that they took a lot of work, discipline, creativity - qualities that you would like to think could be used more responsibly and honorably.

HAVENS: Yeah. In fact, that was our conclusion as a working group. And what we determined at the end was just how incredibly creative this activity is. We think of it as destructive, right? We think of it as deceptive - fabricating or mutilating history. But in a sense, that's also what historians have been doing for various personal motives or political motives over time. But in any event, even in that destruction, there is this kernel of the imagination and the desire to find ways to persuade other people to believe things - even preposterous things - as the truth, or at least to be plausible. And I think that's where the power of forgery as a category of human expression really, I think, looms large in our history.

SIMON: Earle Havens, Ph.D. - although, of course we want to look into that now. And he's the head of the Department of Special Collections here at the George Peabody Library in Baltimore. The exhibit - what's the title again?

HAVENS: "Fakes, Lies and Forgeries."

SIMON: All right - runs through February 1. Thanks very much for being with us.

HAVENS: And thank you very much. This was a great pleasure.

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