The Shakespeare Fraud That Tricked Late 18th Century London

William Henry Ireland, via Getty Images
William Henry Ireland, via Getty Images

In December 1794, a young man in London named William Henry Ireland brought his father, Samuel, a devoted collector of antiquities and curiosities, a parchment document sealed with wax. After carefully opening up the parchment, Samuel was astonished at what he saw: a mortgage deed dated 1610, signed by William Shakespeare and John Heminges, an actor in Shakespeare’s King’s Men troupe of players.

At the time, only a handful of signatures were known to have survived from Shakespeare’s handwritten records, so to have a personal document like this was an extraordinary coup. William Henry explained that the document was one of dozens like it he had found while rummaging in an old chest belonging to a rich gentleman whom William Henry described only as "Mr. H." The gentleman wished to remain anonymous to avoid being bothered, William Henry explained, but had assured the young man that he had little interest in the documents and could take whatever he liked.

Eager to figure out whether the documents were real, Samuel Ireland contacted the College of Heralds (an organization devoted to coats of arms and genealogical research), who determined that the documents were genuine, although they were unable to identify the image on the Shakespearean wax seal. Fortunately, Samuel’s young assistant Frederick Eden was an authority on seals, and he decided that the impression on the seal looked like a quintain—a revolving target used by knights in jousting practice. A tenuous association with actual “shaking spears” was all Samuel needed: These documents must indeed be Shakespeare’s own, he decided, and he promptly put them on display in his curio-filled home on London's Norfolk Street. Before long, A-list literary types were queuing up to take a look—and still young William Henry continued to unearth ever more impressive examples.

An example of William Henry Ireland's forgeries. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
At a time when interest in Shakespeare’s work was at the highest it had been since his death almost two centuries earlier, the Irelands had seemingly unearthed a gold mine of Shakespearean memorabilia. Handwritten IOUs, love letters to his future wife “Anna Hatherrewaye,” signed actors’ contracts, theatrical receipts, and even a bizarrely cartoonish self-portrait all found their way out of William Henry’s seemingly boundless document chest and into his father’s display. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Books from Shakespeare’s library with his own annotations in the margins also soon emerged, as did a first draft of King Lear hand-prepared by Shakespeare, and perhaps most significant of all of the Irelands’ discoveries, an entirely new play, Vortigern and Rowena.

The literary world was suitably shaken up. Although never a fan of Shakespeare (and despite saying he thought its script was “crude and undigested”) Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan was impressed enough to acquire the performance rights to Vortigern and Rowena, which he planned to stage at his newly expanded Drury Lane, then the largest theater in London. Even more impressed was James Boswell, biographer of lexicographer and noted Shakespeare fanatic Samuel Johnson. Aging and in poor health, Boswell arrived at the Irelands’ Norfolk Street home and was ushered into Samuel Ireland’s study. A glass of warmed brandy in one hand and the documents in another, he went through the pages one by one, holding them up to a light to examine their penmanship in more detail. After several hours’ analysis, he lowered himself onto one knee and kissed the collection of pages before him. “I shall now died contented,” he reportedly said, “since I have lived to see the present day.” Three months later, he was dead [PDF].

On Christmas Eve 1795, about a year after the first documents came to light, Samuel Ireland published Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments Under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare—a lavish anthology of all the papers in his collection, featuring facsimiles and reprints of the pages. The book was a success, but its popularity brought the Irelands’ discoveries under more widespread scrutiny.

While some experts of the day had been keen to authenticate the documents, over time the inconsistent handwriting and poor-quality prose began to raise suspicion. In March 1796, the foremost Shakespeare authority of the era, Edmond Malone, published An Inquiry Into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments—a detailed analysis arguing that the documents were nothing but a "clumsy and daring fraud." Even still, opinion was divided; Malone's book was long and scholarly, and not everyone had the patience to sort through its arguments, damning as they were.

The supposed Shakespeare self-portrait. Image credit: Internet Archive // Public Domain

 
In April 1796, Sheridan staged the performance of Vortigern and Rowena at Drury Lane theater. But trouble was brewing: although the first few acts were received enthusiastically, the writing went drastically downhill, and several skeptical actors overplayed their lines for effect. One, John Philip Kemble, the era’s leading theater performer, stole the show in the final act by pronouncing the line “and when this solemn mockery is ended” in a rumbling, drawn-out, overly dramatic voice, prompting minutes of laughter and whistling from the audience. When the curtain came down, the audience erupted into both applause and booing, and a fight erupted in the pit between those who believed the work was genuine, and those who did not.

London was divided. On the one hand, Malone and his supporters saw the Irelands’ collection as an elaborate and heartless deception. On the other, there were those who steadfastly wanted to believe that they were authentic, and that a true goldmine of Shakespeare’s lost works had been uncovered. Boswell and other diehard believers, including Poet Laureate Henry Pye, had even drawn up a “Certificate of Belief” stating that they “entertained no doubt whatsoever as to the validity of the Shakespearean production.” The latter camp, however, was about to be bitterly disappointed. Late in 1796 William Henry Ireland published An Authentic Account of the Shaksperian Manuscripts—in which he confessed that the entire collection were forged.

Knowing that his father was an obsessive collector of Shakespearean memorabilia, William Henry had staged the very first document—the mortgage deed—by copying Shakespeare’s signature from a facsimile printed in an edition of his plays. Doctoring the ink made the writing look aged. Blank pages were torn from old books as a cheap supply of old paper, and scorching the papers with a candle gave them a convincing brown tinge.

As time went by and Samuel’s collection began to gain prominence, William Henry grew bolder in his forgeries. Extracts from Shakespeare’s plays were rewritten with spellings tweaked and lines reworked, sometimes with entirely new sections added. The love letter to Anne Hathaway was made up entirely—as was the entire script of Vortigern and Rowena. No wonder Sheridan had found the text so badly written; it appeared to have been written by a 19-year-old.

Even after his son declared the whole thing a hoax, Samuel Ireland refused to believe the works were forgeries. He went to his death in 1800 believing his son incapable of such an elaborate fraud, and committed to the idea that the works were genuine. William Henry, meanwhile, found it hard to get work once his deceit was uncovered: After a time in debtor’s prison, he moved to France, where he wrote books about French history and culture. He also published his own edition of Vortigern in 1832 and a series of gothic novels, but still struggled to make ends meet, and died in poverty in 1835.

Nowadays, William Henry is viewed more sympathetically: his father, it has emerged, was cold and distant in his childhood, caring more for his precious collection than for his young family. Although naïve in producing his forgeries, William Henry was seemingly only trying to foster some common ground with his father—and the more he brought him, the better the two got on. Alienating themselves from the literary community, it appeared, was just an unwelcome consequence. No matter how he and his work are viewed, however, William Henry Ireland’s great Shakespeare hoax remains an extraordinarily audacious—and, for a time, extraordinarily successful—literary deception.

10 Historically Disappointing Time Capsules

eag1e/iStock via Getty Images
eag1e/iStock via Getty Images

Unearthing a time capsule should be an exciting affair, a chance to see mysterious items hand-picked long ago as apposite examples of a bygone era. Unfortunately, these buried tubes of old garbage rarely live up to the hype.

"Ninety-nine percent of time capsules will remain boring as hell to the people that open them," says Matt Novak, who runs Gizmodo's Paleofuture site. Novak is a self-professed time capsule nerd who has seen enough capsule disappointments to keep his hopes in check. "Time capsules are both optimistic and selfish," he tells Mental Floss. "Optimistic in the sense that they represent a belief that not only will anyone find them sometime in the future, but also that anyone will care about what's inside."

Time capsules as we know them are a relatively new invention that became famous in 1939 with the burial of the Westinghouse Time Capsule at the World's Fair. This highly publicized capsule, which is not scheduled to be opened until the year 6939, contains both quotidian items and extensive writings on human history printed on microfilm (along with instructions on how to build a microfilm viewer). It was an ambitious project, with engineers specially designing the capsule to resist the ravages of time. Most time capsules, however, aren't equipped to be buried underground.

"Burying something is literally the worst way to preserve it for future generations," Novak says, "but we continue to do it." Contents are routinely destroyed by groundwater, so most time capsules reveal little more than trash chowder.

Still, Novak holds out hope for "rare one percenters—those time capsules that not only have something interesting inside, but also survived their journey into the future without turning into mush." The following 10 time capsules, however, fall firmly in the remaining 99 percent.

1. Derry, New Hampshire comes up empty

Just this week, residents of Derry, New Hampshire gathered at the local library to witness what they hoped might be an important moment in the town's history: the opening of a 1969 time capsule, which they believed might include some memorabilia from famed astronaut Alan Shepard, who was a Derry native. Instead, they found ... nothing. Absolutely nothing.

"We were a little horrified to find there was nothing in it," library director Cara Potter told the media. While there's no written record of exactly what was inside the safe, we do know that the time capsule had been moved a couple of times over the past several decades. And that the combination was written right on the back. "I really can’t understand why anyone would want to take the capsule and do anything with it,” Reed Clark, a 90-year-old local, told the New Hampshire Union Leader. But local historian Paul Lindemann says that, "There very well may have been valuable items in there" (including something of Shepard's).

2. The past comes alive in Tucson

In 1961, Tucson, Arizona's Campbell Plaza shopping center—the first air-conditioned strip mall in the country—celebrated its grand opening. To make the event truly memorable, developers buried a time capsule beneath the mall, forbidding anyone from opening it for the achingly long time period of 25 years.

When 1986 finally rolled around, another celebration was held for the capsule's unearthing. Three television crews captured the moment when workers, accompanied by a former Tucson mayor, excavated the capsule and cracked it open. Archaeologist William L. Rathje was on hand, and he later reported its contents as "a faded local newspaper (in worse condition than many I’ve witnessed being excavated from the bowels of landfills) and some business cards."

3. Bay City makes peace with its waterlogged history

In 1965, workers at Dafoe Shipbuilding Co. in Bay City, Michigan buried the “John F. Kennedy Peace Capsule.” It was to remain buried for 100 years—until city council members got antsy in 2015 and ordered for it to be unearthed five decades sooner than originally intended.

When crews unsealed the giant capsule, they found it was totally drenched: The shipbuilders responsible for sealing the capsule couldn't prevent it from taking on water. Many of the items were paper ephemera that didn't survive their 50-year submersion.

Non-paper items that could be identified included, according to MLive.com, “an old pair of lace-up women's boots, large ice tongs for carrying blocks of ice, a slide rule with a pencil sharpener, a pestle and wooden bowl, a centennial ribbon, a coffee grinder, a filament light bulb, an old non-electric iron and lots of Bay City Centennial plates, a 1965 Alden's Summer Catalogue, papers from Kawkawlin Community Church, and booklets from the labor council.”

4. Westport Elementary's too-successful capsule

In 1947, the superintendent of Westport Elementary School in Missouri buried a time capsule that wasn't to be opened for another 50 years. He left a note detailing this fact, but he forgot to include any information about the capsule's location. When it came time to retrieve it, no one knew where to start digging. ''We're calling it a history mystery,'' said a teacher who was tasked with finding it. She had little to go on, as the school's original blueprints—like the capsule itself—were lost.

5. The smell of history on Long Island

For its 350th anniversary in 2015, the residents of Smithtown in Long Island, New York opened a time capsule that had been buried in front of town hall in 1965. An unveiling celebration was held, and a crowd of more than 175 gathered to watch town officials dressed in colonial costumes dramatically reveal its contents.

These included, according to Newsday, "a proclamation of beard-growing group Brothers of the Brush, papers, and paraphernalia from the town's 300th anniversary events, a phone book, an edition of The Smithtown News, pennies from the 1950s and '60s, a man's black hat, and a white bonnet.”

Town residents and officials alike came away unimpressed. "I would have thought those folks would have used a little more imagination and put some artifacts from that time in the time capsule," Smithtown's then-supervisor Patrick Vecchio said.

Kiernan Lannon, the executive director of the town's Historical Society, told Newsday, "The most interesting thing that came out of the time capsule was the smell. It was horrible. I have smelled history before; history does not smell like that. It was the most powerfully musty smell that I've ever smelled in my life."

6. A time capsule worse than going to class

In 2014, New York Mills Union Free School District students filed into an assembly hall to watch the opening of a 57-year-old time capsule. The capsule, buried under the school’s cornerstone, was revealed to contain "a 1957 penny, class lists, teacher handbook, budget pamphlet, and letterhead." In a video of the unearthing, you could hear stray boos from disappointed students who expected much more than letterhead.

7. Norway's anachronistic treasure trove

The residents of Otta, Norway had been eagerly awaiting the day when they'd get to open a package that had been sealed in 1912 and given to the town's first mayor in 1920, along with a note: "May be opened in 2012." Townspeople hoped it contained oil futures, while historians optimistically predicted relics from a 400-year-old battle.

The parcel was opened at the end of a lavish ceremony that featured musical performances and speeches. The crowd, which included Princess Astrid of Norway, had to wait 90 suspenseful minutes (in addition to the 100 years since 1912) before they got down to business.

The Gudbrandsdal museum's Kjell Voldheim had the honor of opening the package. Inside he found ... another package. Inside that package were miscellaneous papers, and Voldheim narrated for the crowd as he pored through the items. “Oye yoy yoy," he said ("almost in exasperation," according to Smithsonian), as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Included among the lackluster documents were newspapers dated from 1914 and 1919, a few years after the package had presumably been sealed. While deemed authentic, the find was nonetheless confusing.

8. New Zealand's rare find

In 1995, a 100-year-old capsule thought to contain historical documents was opened by hopeful scholars in New Zealand. According to The New York Times, "all they found was muddy water and a button.”

9. Michigan's capitol mess

The Michigan State Capitol celebrated its 100th birthday in 1979, and officials marked the occasion by opening a capsule that had been buried beneath the building's cornerstone. While the itemized list of the capsule's contents was intriguing—"1873 newspapers, a state history, a history of Free Masonry, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a silver plate inscribed with Lansing officials’ names, and other papers on specialized topics"—it wasn't included in the actual box. The actual items that were buried wound up being destroyed.

“They’re in very bad shape,” Robert Warner, the late director of the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library, said. Water damage had ruined the fragile paper documents, and Capitol anniversary revelers had to gamely celebrate a box full of sludge.

10. Keith Urban's time capsule confusion

Australia's Pioneer Village Country Music Hall had been left in disrepair, which is what made the discovery of a plaque on its grounds in 2014 so exciting. Perhaps there was promise buried beneath the abandoned venue. Hidden behind overgrown vegetation, it read:

Pioneer Village Country Music Club
10 yr Time Capsule
Placed by Mayor Yvonne Chapman
This Day 4th July 1994
To be Re-opened 4th July 2004

As recounted by Paleofuture, the capsule's opening was a decade overdue, though fans who used to frequent the music hall said they already knew what was inside: a photo of a young Keith Urban. The musician got his start at Pioneer Village, and the photo was buried to celebrate the local star.

Oddly, a different capsule from 1994 was discovered on the music hall's abandoned grounds in 2013. Keith Urban fans eagerly opened it, thinking they had found the photo, but were left disappointed when it proved to be empty. So, by process of elimination, a photo of Keith Urban had to be in the more recently discovered capsule. Unless there's a third capsule, in which case they should probably just give up and buy a Keith Urban photo on eBay.

This story has been updated for 2019.

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

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