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.

The Real Case of Spontaneous Combustion That Inspired a Death in Dickens's Bleak House

iStock.com/GeorgiosArt
iStock.com/GeorgiosArt

In The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine, medical historian Thomas Morris presents a collection of bizarre but fascinating stories culled from the pages of old medical journals and other accounts. In this tale, he discusses the final moments of an aristocratic older women, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, whose demise would provide fodder for Charles Dickens over 100 years later.

 

Do human beings ever burst into flames? Two hundred years ago, many people believed that they could, especially if the victim was female, elderly, and a heavy drinker. Spontaneous human combustion became a fashionable topic in the early 19th century, after a number of sensational presumed cases were reported in the popular press. At a period when candles were ubiquitous and clothes often highly flammable, most were probably simple domestic fires in which the unfortunate victim’s subcutaneous fat acted as supplementary fuel. Nevertheless, the circumstances in which some were discovered—with the body almost totally incinerated, but nearby objects left untouched—led some to believe that these conflagrations must have another, more mysterious, cause. Numerous theories were put forward to explain the phenomenon: some supernatural, others scientific.

One of the true believers in spontaneous combustion was Charles Dickens, who even killed off Krook, the alcoholic rag dealer in Bleak House, by means of a fire that left nothing of the old man except an object looking like a “small charred and broken log of wood.” Dickens had read everything he could find on the subject and was convinced that its veracity had been proved. His description of the demise of Krook was based closely on that of an Italian aristocrat, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, who was consumed by a fireball in her bedroom. Her case was reported in 1731 by a clergyman called Giuseppe Bianchini, and subsequently translated by a famous Italian poet and Fellow of the Royal Society, Paolo Rolli:

"The Countess Cornelia Bandi, in the 62nd year of her age, was all day as well as she used to be; but at night was observed, when at supper, dull and heavy. She retired, was put to bed, where she passed three hours and more in familiar discourses with her maid, and in some prayers; at last falling asleep, the door was shut."

The following morning, the maid noticed that her employer had not appeared at the usual time and tried to rouse her by calling through the door. Not receiving any answer, she went outside and opened a window, through which she saw this scene of horror:

"Four feet distant from the bed there was a heap of ashes, two legs untouched from the foot to the knee with their stockings on; between them was the lady’s head; whose brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin, were burnt to ashes; amongst which were found three fingers blackened. All the rest was ashes, which had this particular quality, that they left in the hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking moisture."

Mysteriously, the furniture and linen were virtually untouched by the conflagration.

"The bed received no damage; the blankets and sheets were only raised on one side, as when a person rises up from it, or goes in; the whole furniture, as well as the bed, was spread over with moist and ash-coloured soot, which had penetrated the chest of drawers, even to foul the linen."

The soot had even coated the surfaces of a neighboring kitchen. A piece of bread covered in the foul substance was given to several dogs, all of which refused to eat it. Given that it probably consisted of the carbonized body fat of their owner, their reluctance to indulge is understandable.

"In the room above it was, moreover, taken notice that from the lower part of the windows trickled down a greasy, loathsome, yellowish liquor; and thereabout they smelt a stink, without knowing of what; and saw the soot fly around."

The floor was also covered in a “gluish moisture,” which could not be removed. Naturally, strenuous efforts were made to establish what had caused the blaze, and several of Italy’s best minds were put to the problem. Monsignor Bianchini (described as “Prebendary of Verona”) was convinced that the fire had not been started by the obvious culprits:

"Such an effect was not produced by the light of the oil lamp, or of any candles, because common fire, even in a pile, does not consume a body to such a degree; and would have besides spread it-self to the goods of the chamber, more combustible than a human body."

Bianchini also considered the possibility that the blaze might have been caused by a thunderbolt but noted that the characteristic signs of such an event, such as scorch marks on the walls and an acrid smell, were absent. What, then, did cause the inferno? The priest came to the conclusion that ignition had actually occurred inside the woman’s body:

"The fire was caused in the entrails of the body by inflamed effluvia of her blood, by juices and fermentations in the stomach, by the many combustible matters which are abundant in living bodies, for the uses of life; and finally by the fiery evaporations which exhale from the settlings of spirit of wine, brandies, and other hot liquors in the tunica villosa [inner lining] of the stomach, and other adipose or fat membranes."

Bianchini claims that such “fiery evaporations” become more flammable at night, when the body is at rest and the breathing becomes more regular. He also points out that “sparkles” are sometimes visible when certain types of cloth are rubbed against the hair (an effect caused by discharges of static electricity) and suggests that something similar might have ignited the “combustible matters” inside her abdomen.

"What wonder is there in the case of our old lady? Her dullness before going to bed was an effect of too much heat concentrated in her breast, which hindered the perspiration through the pores of her body; which is calculated to about 40 ounces per night. Her ashes, found at four feet distance from her bed, are a plain argument that she, by natural instinct, rose up to cool her heat, and perhaps was going to open a window."

Then, however, he lets slip what is probably the genuine cause of the fire:

"The old lady was used, when she felt herself indisposed, to bathe all her body with camphorated spirit of wine; and she did it perhaps that very night."

Camphorated spirits (a solution of camphor in alcohol) was often used to treat skin complaints, and as a tonic lotion. The fact that it is also highly flammable is, apparently, quite beside the point.

"This is not a circumstance of any moment; for the best opinion is that of the internal heat and fire; which, by having been kindled in the entrails, naturally tended upwards; finding the way easier, and the matter more unctuous and combustible, left the legs untouched. The thighs were too near the origin of the fire, and therefore were also burnt by it; which was certainly increased by the urine and excrements, a very combustible matter, as one may see by its phosphorus."

So it was the “internal heat and fire” that caused the countess’s demise. Only an incorrigible skeptic would point out that an old lady who was in the habit of bathing in inflammable liquids, before going to bed in a room lit by naked flames, was a walking fire hazard.

Book jacket for The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth
Dutton/Penguin Books

Excerpted from The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris. Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Morris. Published by arrangement with DUTTON, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Pee, Poison, and Prosthetic Noses: The Story of Astronomer Tycho Brahe's Suspicious Death

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul, author Eleanor Herman delves into the deadly—and often disgusting—world that lay beneath Western Europe's most glittering palaces. From the gut-roiling poisons used to dispatch enemies and inconvenient heirs to the methods the highest-born unknowingly used to poison themselves (think mercury enemas and lead cosmetics), it's a book that will make you think twice the next time you admire a royal portrait. Along the way, Herman analyzes the suspicious deaths of some of the most famous people in European history—deaths in which poison may have played a part. Read on for an excerpt about Tycho Brahe, possibly one of the most eccentric astronomers in history.

 
 

When the world’s greatest astronomer, the colorful Tycho Brahe, sat down to a hearty banquet at a neighboring nobleman’s house in Prague on October 13, 1601, he must have looked forward to a convivial night of wine, food, charming women, and witty conversation, all of which this fun-loving Dane enjoyed in great measure. Brahe was a jolly soul with an eccentric, extroverted personality. Known to his contemporaries as a “man of easy fellowship,” he “did not hold anger and offense, but was ever ready to forgive.”

Red-haired, blue-eyed, and sporting a trim pointed beard and handlebar mustache, the astronomer wore a metal nose reported to be either gold or silver, as he had lost the bridge of his nose at the age of twenty in a duel over a mathematical formula. When the glue holding his nose in place came loose, he would remove the prosthesis, take a bottle of glue out of his pocket, and glue it back on.

Brahe’s eccentricities were widely known. He had a dwarf jester named Jepp with supposed psychic abilities, who sat under his dining room table during meals. For years, Brahe kept a beer-swigging pet elk in his castle. One night the elk drank too much beer, fell down a staircase and died. It is not known if Jepp predicted this.

Noble banquets offered delicious food, fine wine, beautiful music, a glittering table, and fascinating conversation. But there was one down side. They went on for hours, during which time guests were expected to eat and drink until they nearly popped. It was bad etiquette to excuse yourself to use a chamber pot.

As candlelight flickered on golden cups and silver plates, and laughter wafted around him, Brahe felt increasing abdominal discomfort. He must have thought he would be fine once he got home, which was just across the street. After all, the robust 54-year-old Dane had never known any serious illness in his life. By the time he arrived home, the need to relieve his bladder was agonizing. Grunting with relief, he dropped his britches and … nothing. Not a drop. And so began a 400-year-old mystery of jealousy, theft, and possible poison.

Brahe’s fascination with the heavens began in 1560, when, at 14, he witnessed a solar eclipse. He began staying up all night to record astronomical observations. In 1563, he observed a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn and realized that the revered astronomical tables used to predict the event were incorrect. By the time he was in his twenties, his observations had shattered two thousand years of astronomical theory.

In 1599, Brahe became the Imperial Court Astronomer to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Soon after, he hired a new assistant, a 28-year-old German named Johannes Kepler. Though he was an excellent mathematician, Kepler suffered severe hypochondria and violent mood swings. He took the position with Brahe to obtain access to his employer’s 40 years of observations to prove his own astronomical theories—that the universe itself was an image of God, with the Sun corresponding to the Father, the stellar sphere to the Son, and the intervening space to the Holy Ghost. But Brahe, whose work had been plagiarized years earlier by a visitor to his home, refused to give Kepler more than a few observations at a time. Kepler began throwing temper tantrums so epic that Brahe described him as “a rabid dog.” But he didn’t fire him. Perhaps he needed his mathematical abilities.

When Brahe came home from his last banquet, he was in agony, unable to urinate, his belly distended, and feverish. For the next 10 days, pain radiated throughout his body. At times, he was delirious. He died on October 24, 1601.

The strange death of this renowned astronomer caused many to suspect poison. And if Brahe had been poisoned, it must have been the jealous, vicious Kepler, who had carted the 40 years of observations out of Brahe’s house while the grieving family was making funeral arrangements.

Indeed, freed from Brahe’s shadow and armed with his records, Kepler finally achieved the fame he had always desired. He theorized that the planets’ orbits were elliptical, not circular, as had always been believed. He also developed the notion that the sun pulled the planets around by something like magnetic tendrils, a force growing stronger as the planets got closer and weaker as they moved away—breathtakingly close to the theory of gravitational attraction, which Isaac Newton would formulate in 1687 using Kepler’s work.

Archeologists lift the tombstone of the grave of noted Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe at the Church of Our Lady in Prague on November 15, 2010
Archeologists lift Tycho Brahe's tombstone in Prague in 2010.
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

In 1901, researchers in Prague opened up Tycho’s tomb as part of their celebrations commemorating the 300th anniversary of his death. They found a 5-foot-6-inch skeleton in a fine silk shirt, wool stockings, silk shoes, and a hat, and a crescent-shaped injury on the bridge of the nose, the exact same place where Brahe had been maimed in his youthful duel. Researchers removed hairs from the mustache. In 1991, tests conducted on the hair by the University of Copenhagen’s Institute of Forensic Medicine indicated he had, indeed, been poisoned by mercury, which can shut down the kidneys.

But even science is fallible. Given the sensational stories of Tycho Brahe’s poisoning, a team of Danish and Czech scientists exhumed him again in 2010 and took hair directly from his remains. In a stunning reversal of the 1990s findings, the new results showed that Tycho had not consumed excessive amounts of mercury.

So what did kill him? Most likely benign prostatic hyperplasia, known as BPH, an enlarged prostate gland. This gland surrounds the urethra, the tube through which urine flows. As the prostate grows, it can squeeze the urethra, making it difficult and even impossible to urinate. Left untreated, it can prove fatal.

Johannes Kepler is off the hook. He was a thief, to be sure, but no murderer. Though he had succeeded in attaining the fame he always wanted, happiness and health eluded him. At the age of 58, he developed a fever and, speechless in his final delirium, kept pointing from his forehead to the heavens. The night he died, meteors streaked across the sky.

From The Royal Art of Poison by Eleanor Herman. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

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