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Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory, by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot.
Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory, by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot.

The American Eclipse of 1878 and the Scientists Who Raced West to See It

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory, by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot.
Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory, by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot.

On a scorching July afternoon in 1878, the moon's shadow descended on the American West, darkening skies from Montana Territory to Texas. This rare celestial event—a total solar eclipse—offered a priceless opportunity to solve some of the solar system's most enduring riddles, and enterprising scientists raced to the Rocky Mountains to experience totality. Some, like University of Michigan astronomer James Craig Watson, hunted for a planet (called Vulcan) that was thought to exist between Mercury and the sun; others, like astronomical artist E.L. Trouvelot, sketched the sun's mysterious corona. Vassar astronomer Maria Mitchell headed west with an all-female team of assistants and a societal goal to achieve—opening the doors of science to women. Even a young Thomas Edison got involved. During the eclipse, he aimed to demonstrate the value of his latest device—an infrared detector called the tasimeter—and to prove himself not just an inventor, but a scientist.

In this excerpt from American Eclipse: A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World, science journalist David Baron writes about the morning and afternoon just before the eclipse, when national anticipation was at its peak.

 
 

Monday, July 29, 1878 // Morning through mid-afternoon

Across the breadth of the nation, on the morning of the great eclipse, it seemed as if a long-awaited tournament—or battle—was set to commence. New York’s newspapers exuded anticipation. “[I]t will probably be the most interesting and important total eclipse ever seen by man,” The Daily Graphic rhapsodized. The New York Herald explained that scientists would investigate “in a manner never before possible the theories of solar physics.” The front page of The Sun offered the headline THIS AFTERNOON'S ECLIPSE, with the subhead: “Prof. Edison and Other Savants Ready to Watch the Moon’s Passage.”

A rundown of those savants appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Professors Newcombe and Harkness take charge of the stations at Creston, Wyoming” began the list, which, despite small errors of spelling and location, conveyed a good sense of the field of play. “Professor Langley, with General Myer and Professor Abbe, of the Signal Service, are at Pike’s Peak, and various other points in Colorado are occupied. With these astronomers there are many amateur scientists, and others will make observations independent of the government programme. Professor Young is at Denver, Professor Draper at Rawlings, and Miss Maria Mitchell near by.”

Chicago Times Map depicting the path of the 1878 total solar eclipse.
Courtesy of David Baron // Public Domain

As to the scientific goals for the eclipse, The Chicago Times outlined the most important. “First, the establishment of a relative co-ordinate of the sun and moon”—that is, determining the precise start and end times of the eclipse at different locations, which would enable the Nautical Almanac to update its tables of the moon’s orbit. “Second, the study of the physical constitution of the sun by an examination of the corona and protuberances that jut out from behind the moon when the sun’s disc is wholly obscured.” In this regard, Edison’s tasimeter was a new tool that could offer new insights. “A third matter of interest,” the paper continued, “is the opportunity the total eclipse affords in searching for any planetoid or group of planetoids that may be between Mercury and the sun”—in other words, Vulcan. The Washington Post left no doubt that this last trophy was the most coveted. “Should this body be discovered, it would be one of the greatest triumphs that astronomy could achieve.”

The Boston Globe ended its preview of the day’s event on a patriotic, self-congratulatory note, reminding its readers that eclipses were once seen as omens that portended “accident, the coming of disasters, and tokens of the anger and wrath of the Creator.” Not so in modern, enlightened America. “Science and general education,” the paper asserted, “have banished all the dread which these events inspired.”

 
 

There was ample dread, though, among the scientists at their camps in Wyoming and Colorado. The depths of anxiety experienced by an astronomer in the hours before a total solar eclipse are difficult to fathom. With so much to do and so much to go wrong, emotions can overwhelm. One British scientist who headed an eclipse expedition to Siam in 1875 recalled that, the day before the event, “I could not help sitting down and having a good cry.”

At Creston, William Harkness and his party emerged from their postal-car sleeping quarters to a chilly sunrise and nervously eyed the heavens over the Great Divide Basin. “[N]ot a cloud was to be seen in the deep-blue sky stretching above us in all its purity,” wrote an enthusiastic E. L. Trouvelot. Harkness too was optimistic. “Everything promised well for the eclipse,” he remarked. The men washed up, then sat down for breakfast. A wind blew in from the southwest. It quickly strengthened, propelling dirt airborne. By eight o’clock, the astronomers in the mess tent found themselves and their dishes covered with sand and dust.

Scientists at Rawlins, Wyoming Territory.
Scientists—including Edison (second from right) and Watson (sixth from right)—at Rawlins, Wyoming Territory.
U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Down the tracks in Rawlins, the Draper party scanned the skies. They anxiously watched a cloud bank thicken in the east, but a few hours later—to their relief—it moved off toward the south. By noon, however, the wind picked up here, too, rocking their frail observatory. Even more vulnerable to the gusts was the chicken coop that housed the tasimeter. Edison had spent the weekend carefully adjusting his instrument, but the gale was now undoing his hard work—throwing the equipment out of alignment. Frantic, Edison ran to the neighboring lumberyard and recruited a dozen strong men to carry boards and help him prop up the structure and erect a temporary fence against the wind, which was blowing—in the estimation of one who experienced it—“with the force of a hurricane.”

James Craig Watson and Norman Lockyer, meanwhile, made a last-minute decision to gain a few seconds of totality. Rather than observe the eclipse in Rawlins, they would head to Separation, which sat closer to the midline of the eclipse path and therefore would experience a slightly longer phase of darkness. J. B. Silvis, the Union Pacific photographer, offered his wheeled studio for transport. Hooked to the back of a westbound freight train, the caboose carried the two astronomers to the remote rail stop where Edison had hunted the stuffed jackrabbit. Joining them were several volunteers for the day: Watson’s wife, Annette; D. H. Talbot, the Sioux City land broker; and the two young men from Cambridge, R. C. Lehmann and his friend James Brooks Close. When the train arrived at Separation, Lockyer erected his equipment by the station, in the lee of the large water tank. Watson, with his wife and telescope, headed on to Simon Newcomb’s camp, which sat almost a mile away on the south side of the tracks. Pushing through the thorny brush could not have been pleasant for a man of girth.

 
 

In Colorado, the people of Denver also awoke to limpid skies. Joseph Brinker, the founder of a private school in the city, kept close track of the weather that morning—at six o’clock, he wrote: “Not a cloud”; seven: “Not a cloud”; seven-thirty: “Not a cloud”; eight: “Not a cloud”—but given the experience of recent weeks, no one could be confident that conditions would remain unchanged in the afternoon.

In the forenoon, locals and visitors prepared for the big event. The eclipse’s brief total phase, when the moon would cover the entire surface of the sun, could be viewed safely with the naked eye, but the much longer partial phase required a dark filter for direct observation. To fill this need, Denverites who had been hoodwinked during the recent blue glass craze—sold azure panes to promote their health—now put their poor investment to profitable use; they employed the glass as a solar filter, in some cases fitting it in the bottoms of boxes or the tops of old stovepipe hats. Many children went a different route, collecting shards of clear glass and blackening them over candles. (Neither smoked nor stained glass is deemed safe by modern standards for viewing the sun, but both were commonly used in the nineteenth century.) “Here’s your eclipse glasses,” Denver’s newsboys yelled, hawking their crude wares for pennies and earning one ambitious youngster a reported seventy dollars over the course of the day.

Stereograph card of the Vassar College eclipse party, Denver.
Stereograph card of the Vassar College eclipse party in Denver.
Archives and Special Collections, Vassar College Library // ID No. 08.09.04

Some in the Denver area left early for eclipse excursions into the foothills and mountains, taking with them picnics of bread and cheese. Many more scoped out suitable viewing locations in town. Maria Mitchell chose for her observation post, at Alida Avery’s suggestion, a hill on the edge of the city, just beyond the reach of suburban development. It was a broad, sloping tract of short grass, easily reached by horse and buggy. Once there, the Vassar party had no time to make elaborate preparations. The women set out wooden chairs, erected a small tent for shade, and mounted their three telescopes on tall tripods. (Mitchell had brought with her the same telescope she had used on her home turf of Nantucket in 1847 to discover her famous comet.) The view east offered an endless, empty expanse of plains. To the west lay Denver and the Rockies behind it. Immediately to the south sat a three-story brick building topped by a gabled roof and an ornate cross. It was St. Joseph’s Home, a Catholic hospital operated by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas. The nuns in dark habits, spying the astronomers in dresses, came over to offer tea.

The city appeared to be on holiday. As the Denver Daily Times had recommended, banks and retail establishments closed their doors. People gathered on rooftops: the post office, the high school, the fire station, the opera house. A crowd estimated in the thousands assembled along the high ground of Capitol Hill, and in that neighborhood could be found the scientific party sponsored by the Chicago Astronomical Society, including the twenty Denverites who had been specially trained to sketch the corona. They sat themselves on the brow of the hill, facing the sun. A rival team of Chicago astronomers placed itself nearby, on the grounds of the Brinker Collegiate Institute, where principal Joseph Brinker continued to enter notes in his weather log.

Eleven-thirty: “Not a cloud.”
Noon: “Single speck of cloud west.”
Twelve-thirty: “Three light clouds west.”
One o’clock: “Number of small bright clouds west.”

A bit over an hour remained until the eclipse began. Looking south from Denver, the growing throngs could see Pikes Peak standing bright and bold against the sapphire sky.

 
 

Up on the summit of Pikes Peak, the assembled scientists were at last enjoying sunshine. Samuel P. Langley and his brother spent the morning adjusting their equipment and modifying their observing plans, given that they had lost a member of their team to illness.

SP Langley and Cleveland Abbe
Courtesy David Baron // Public Domain

That sick participant, Cleveland Abbe, after being evacuated the night before, had been carried not to the base of the mountain but to just below the timberline, where a rustic lodge sat on a lake at an elevation still of about ten thousand feet. At one o’clock in the morning, a doctor arrived to assess Abbe’s condition. He ordered Abbe not to return to the summit, and left two nurses to care for the ailing scientist until he was well enough to descend to the base of the mountain. Abbe then scratched out a note to be delivered to his boss at the top of the peak:

My Dear General;

I am most devoutly thankful to you for the good care that you have taken of me—and Dr Hart of Col. Springs whom you have summoned—seems decidedly of the opinion that you have done wisely. I must not oppose my own will to reason & your orders. I will therefore stay here today and organise some sort of system of observing the eclipse so that you shall have a report from the Lake House as well as the summit. . . . I trust that you will not yourself suffer from the Pike Peak “fever”

I remain yours truly

Cleveland Abbe.

At daybreak, despite having slept in the somewhat thicker oxygen at slightly lower altitude, Abbe remained weak and faint, yet he was determined to be again what he once was: an astronomer. At noon, he arranged to be carried outside and laid dramatically on a southwest-facing slope with his head propped up. His telescope—a fine instrument made by Alvan Clark & Sons—was still on the summit. All he could rely on were his poor eyes and imperfect spectacles.

 
 

According to calculations by the Nautical Almanac, the eclipse was set to commence in Rawlins shortly after 2:00 p.m. local time, and in Denver at around 2:20. The event’s beginning, like the start of the transit of Mercury, would be barely perceptible—the moon would at first appear like a subtle dent, or flattening, along the sun’s western edge. Across the region, everyone watched and waited. The skies held clear, and for those fortunate enough to be in the path of totality, it promised to be quite a show. “[A]t last we were among the favored mortals of earth,” one Colorado newspaper remarked.

The rest of the nation was less favored—those outside the shadow path would not witness a total eclipse—but everyone would see at least a partial eclipse, weather permitting. Sidewalk vendors in Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, and elsewhere did a brisk business in eclipse glasses. “Here ye are now,” a hawker cried in Manhattan, “blue glass only three cents apiece; all ready to look at th’ eclipse—three cents apiece.”

In the late afternoon, when the partial eclipse was set to begin in New York, the city’s focus shifted upward, as the Herald described:

Portly bankers about to start for home paused on their office steps and turned their eyes above the money making world; merchants stood in the doorways of their busy stores, alternately consulting the face of their watches and the face of the sky; clerks and messengers, hurrying along the crowded streets, ceased to knock and jostle one another and with upturned faces and a blissful forgetfulness of business stood gazing all in one direction, while shop girls, escaping from the toilsome factory, caught a [momentary] glimpse of the heavens above and stalwart policemen stood boldly by frightened French nurses and their infant charges. Even the stage drivers forgot for a single moment to crane their necks and beckon enticingly to passing pedestrians, in the hope of securing another passenger and another fare.

Across the land, as America’s attention was drawn to the higher spheres, an otherwise typical workday assumed a new and exotic countenance.

The cover of David Baron's 'American Eclipse.'

Excerpted from American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World by David Baron. Copyright © 2017 by David Baron. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

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Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory, by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot.
Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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How a Notorious Art Heist Led to the Discovery of 6 Fake Mona Lisas
Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Human civilization has changed a lot over the past five millennia—but our instinct toward fakery, fraud, and flimflam seems to have remained relatively stable. In their new book Hoax: A History of Deception (Black Dog & Leventhal), Ian Tattersall and Peter Névraumont sift through 5000 years of our efforts to con others with scams and shakedowns of every description, from selling nonexistent real estate to transatlantic time travel. This excerpt reveals a convoluted art heist that netted not one, but six, of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous portrait(s).

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is, by a wide margin, the world’s best-known Renaissance painting. The pride of Paris’s Louvre museum, it is hard nowadays for a visitor to get a good look at. Not only do heavy stanchions and a substantial velvet rope keep art lovers at bay, but a jostling horde of phone-pointing tourists typically accomplishes the same thing even more effectively. While you can expect to scrutinize Leonardo’s nearby Virgin and Child with Saint Anne up close and in reasonable tranquility, you are lucky to catch more than a glimpse of the Mona Lisa over the heads of the heaving crowd. And that’s just getting to admire the painting: With elaborate electronic protection and constantly circulating guards, stealing the iconic piece is pretty much unthinkable.

At a time when the standards of security were considerably more lax, around noon on Tuesday, August 22, 1911, horrified museum staff reported that the Mona Lisa was missing from her place on the gallery wall. The Louvre was immediately closed down and minutely searched (the picture’s empty frame was found on a staircase), and the ports and eastern land borders of France were closed until all departing traffic could be examined. To no avail. After a frantic investigation that temporarily implicated both the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the then-aspiring young artist Pablo Picasso, all that was left was wild rumor: The smiling lady was in Russia, in the Bronx, even in the home of the banker J.P. Morgan.

Two years later the painting was recovered after a Florentine art dealer contacted the Louvre saying that it had been offered to him by the thief. The latter turned out to have been Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist who had worked at the Louvre on a program to protect many of the museum’s masterworks under glass.

Vincent Peruggia, Mona Lisa thief
Vincent Peruggia
Courtesy of Chronicle Books/Alamy

Peruggia reportedly told police that, early on the Monday morning before the theft was discovered—a day on which the museum was closed to the public—he had entered the Louvre dressed as a workman. Once inside, he had headed for the Mona Lisa, taken her off the wall and out of her frame, wrapped her up in his workman’s smock, and carried her out under his arm. Another version has Peruggia hiding in a museum closet overnight, but in any event the heist itself was clearly a pretty simple and straightforward affair.

Peruggia’s motivations appear to have been a little more confused. The story he told the police was that he had wanted to return the Mona Lisa to Italy, his and its country of origin, in the belief that the painting had been plundered by Napoleon—whose armies had indeed committed many similar trespasses in the many countries they invaded.

But even if he believed his story, Peruggia had his history entirely wrong. For it had been Leonardo himself who had brought the unfinished painting to France, when he became court painter to King François I in 1503. After Leonardo died in a Loire Valley château in 1519, the Mona Lisa was legitimately purchased for the royal collections.

So it didn’t seem so far-fetched when, in a 1932 Saturday Evening Post article, the journalist Karl Decker gave a significantly different account of the affair. According to Decker, an Argentinian con man calling himself Eduardo, Marqués de Valfierno, had told him that it was he who had masterminded Peruggia’s theft of the Mona Lisa. And that he had sold the painting six times!

Valfierno’s plan had been a pretty elaborate one, and it had involved employing the services of a skilled forger who could exactly replicate any stolen painting—in the Mona Lisa’s case, right down to the many layers of surface glaze its creator had used. By Decker’s account, Valfierno not only sold such fakes on multiple occasions, but used them to increase the confidence of potential buyers, ahead of the heist, that they would be getting the real thing after the theft.

The fraudster would take a victim to a public art gallery and invite him to make a surreptitious mark on the back of a painting that he had scheduled to be stolen. Later Valfierno would present him with the marked canvas, which had allegedly been stolen and replaced with a copy.

This trick was actually accomplished by secretly placing the copy behind the real painting, and removing it after the buyer had applied his mark. According to Valfierno, this was an amazingly effective sales ploy: So effective, indeed, that by his account he managed to pre-sell the scheduled-to-be-stolen Mona Lisa to six different United States buyers, all of whom actually received copies.

Mona Lisa returned to the Uffizi Gallery in 1913
Museum officials present the (real) Mona Lisa after its return to Florence, Italy's Uffizi Gallery in 1913.
The Telegraph, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Those copies had been smuggled into America prior to the heist at the Louvre, when nobody was on the lookout for them, and the well-publicized theft itself served to validate their apparent authenticity when they were delivered to the marks in return for hefty sums in cash.

According to Valfierno, the major problem in all this turned out to be Peruggia, who stole the stolen Mona Lisa from him and took it back to Italy. Still, when he was caught trying to dispose of the painting there, Peruggia could not implicate Valfierno without compromising his own story of being a patriotic thief, so the true scheme remained secret. Similarly, when the original Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre, Valfierno’s buyers could assume that it was a copy—and in any case, they would hardly have been in a position to complain.

Decker’s story of Valfierno’s extraordinary machinations caused a sensation, and it rapidly became accepted as the truth behind the Mona Lisa’s disappearance. Perhaps this is hardly surprising because, after all, Peruggia’s rather prosaic account somehow seems a little too mundane for such an icon of Renaissance artistic achievement. The more flamboyant Valfierno version was widely believed, and is still repeated over and over again, including in two recent books.

Yet there are numerous problems with Decker’s Saturday Evening Post account, including the fact that nobody has ever been able to show for certain that Valfierno actually existed (though you can Google a picture of him). Only Peruggia’s role in the disappearance of the Mona Lisa seems to be reasonably clear-cut. Still, although it remains up in the air whether Valfierno faked his account, or whether Decker fabricated both him and his report, the Mona Lisa that hangs in the Louvre today is probably the original.

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Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory, by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot.
Courtesy of Chronicle Books
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How a Scottish Swindler Lured His Countrymen to a Fake City of Untold Riches
Courtesy of Chronicle Books
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

Mythological mountain ranges, illusory oceans, and apocryphal islands crowded the maps of early navigators. Some imaginary features, though, remained on charts well after satellite imagery and GPS should have confirmed their nonexistence. As Edward Brooke-Hitching writes in his new book, The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies, and Blunders on Maps (Chronicle Books), some fake places made a lasting impression simply because their promoters were so brazen. In this excerpt, Brooke-Hitching describes one scoundrel's scheme to lure settlers to a fictional Central American city of untold riches—with disastrous results.

There are shameless liars, there are bold-as-brass fraudsters, and then there is a level of mendacity so magnificent it is inhabited by one man alone: ‘Sir’ Gregor MacGregor. In 1822, South American nations such as Colombia, Chile, and Peru were a new vogue in a sluggish investor’s market, being lands of opportunity, offering bonds with rates of interest too profitable to pass up. And so, when the charismatic ‘Cazique of Poyais’ sauntered into London, resplendent in medals and honors bestowed on him by George Frederic Augustus, king of the Mosquito Coast, and waving a land grant from said monarch that endowed him his own kingdom, he was met with an almost salivary welcome.

Perhaps if he had been a total stranger there might have been more wariness, but this was a man of reputation: Sir Gregor MacGregor of the clan MacGregor, great-great-nephew of Rob Roy, was famous from overseas dispatches for his service with the ‘Die-Hards,’ the 57th Foot regiment that had fought so valiantly at the Battle of Albuera in 1811. As a soldier of fortune, he had bled for Francisco de Miranda and for Simón Bolívar against the Spanish; the man was a hero. And now here he was in London, fresh from adventure, with the glamorous Princess Josefa of Poyais on his arm, looking for investment in his inchoate nation.

And the tales he told of his new homeland! Some 8 million acres (3.2 million hectares) of abundant natural resources and exquisite beauty; rich soil crying out for skilled farming; seas alive with fish and turtles, and countryside crowded with game; rivers choked with ‘native Globules of pure Gold.’ A promotional guide to the region was published, Sketch of the Mosquito Shore: Including the Territory of Poyais (1822), featuring the utopian vista below and further details of ‘many very rich Gold Mines in the Country, particularly that of Albrapoyer, which might be wrought to great benefit.’ Best of all, for a modest sum you too could claim your own piece of paradise.

Map of the imaginary Territory of Poyais
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

For a mere 2 shillings and 3 pence, MacGregor told his rapt audience, 1 acre (0.4 hectares) of Poyais land would be theirs. This meant that, if you were able to scrape together just over £11, you could own a plot of 100 acres (40 hectares). Poyais was in need of skilled labor—the plentiful timber had great commercial potential; the fields could yield great bounty if worked properly. A man could live like a king for a fraction of the British cost of living. For those too ‘noble’ for manual labor, there were positions with prestigious titles available to the highest bidder. A city financier named Mauger was thrilled to receive the appointment of manager of the Bank of Poyais; a cobbler rushed home to tell his wife of his new role as official shoemaker to the Princess of Poyais. Families keen to secure an advantage for their young men purchased commissions in Poyais’s army and navy.

MacGregor himself had got his start this way in the British Army at the age of 16, when his family purchased for him a commission as ensign in 1803, at the start of the Napoleonic Wars. Within a year he was promoted to lieutenant, and began to develop an obsession with rank and dress. He retired from the army in 1810 after an argument with a superior officer ‘of a trivial nature,’ and it was at this point that his imagination began to take a more dominant role in his behavior. He awarded himself the rank of colonel and the badge of a Knight of the Portuguese Order of Christ. Rejected from Edinburgh high society, in London he polished his credentials by presenting himself as ‘Sir Gregor MacGregor.’ He decided to head for South America, to add some New World spice to his reputation and return a hero. Arriving in Venezuela, by way of Jamaica, he was greeted warmly by Francisco de Miranda and given a battalion to help fight the Spanish in the Venezuelan War of Independence. He then fought for Simón Bolívar when Miranda was imprisoned. Operations extended to Florida, where he devised a nascent form of what he was later to orchestrate in London, raising $160,000 by selling ‘scripts’ to investors representing parcels of Floridian territory. As Spanish forces closed in, he bid farewell to his men and fled to the Bahamas, never repaying the money.

MacGregor was intelligent, persuasive, charisma personified, with a craving for popularity, wealth, and acceptance of the elite. This was the man to whom the prospective Poyais colonists were faithfully handing their every penny. Every detail of his scheme was planned to perfection. They never stood a chance.

On September 10, 1822, the Honduras Packet left London docks, bound for the territory of Poyais, carrying 70 excited passengers, plenty of supplies and a chest full of Poyais dollars made by the official printer to the Bank of Scotland, for which the emigrants happily traded their gold and legal tender.

Having waved off the Honduras, MacGregor headed to Edinburgh and Glasgow to make the same offer to the Scots. The dramatic failure of the Darien scheme in the late 17th century (in which the kingdom of Scotland had attempted to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama) had virtually bankrupted the country, and any indication of history repeating itself would have been met with extreme caution. But MacGregor was a Scotsman himself, a patriot and soldier. Unfortunately, he was also in possession of a tongue of pure silver. A second swath of Poyais real estate was sold off, and a second passenger ship filled. Under the captaincy of Henry Crouch, the Kennersley Castle left the port of Leith, Scotland on January 14, 1823, carrying 200 future citizens of Poyais, eager to join the Honduras Packet travelers in their new home.

Phantom Atlas book jacket cover
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

To their utter confusion, when the colonists arrived at their destination, they found only malarial swampland and thick vegetation with no trace of civilization. There was no Poyais, no land of plenty, no capital city. They had been fooled by a conniving fantasist. Unable to afford the journey home, they had no choice but to unload their supplies and set up camp on the shore. By April, nothing had changed. No town had been found, no help had arrived, and the camp was in total despair. Disease was rife and claimed the lives of eight colonists that month. The cobbler who had been promised the role of ‘Shoemaker to the Princess’ gave up hope of ever seeing his family again, and shot himself in the head.

At this lowest point, a vessel appeared on the horizon—what’s more, it flew a British flag. The Mexican Eagle from Belize had been passing nearby on a diplomatic mission when it had caught sight of the camp. The weak settlers were brought aboard and began their slow and awful journey back to London, via the hospitals of Belize. Of the 270 or so men and women who had set out for Poyais, fewer than 50 made it back to Britain. By this time MacGregor had high-tailed it to France, where he tried and failed to run the scam again. (He was foiled when the French government noticed the rush of applications for visas to a country that didn’t exist.) He was eventually forced to flee to Venezuela, where he later died in 1845, never properly brought to answer for his extraordinary and terrible crime.

From The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, by Edward Brooke-Hitching, published by Chronicle Books.

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