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

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.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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