Why do we seem to be simultaneously obsessed and outraged by people who lie, invent different identities and dupe people into believing them? Tricksters and frauds have been around for ages, making up one colourful persona after the other. How can researchers deal with dishonest historical actors, for example when looking at the fairground? In this article, Hannah Welslau looks back on a research seminar with professor Tine Van Osselaer on the topic of imposters and the ambivalent sources they have left.

Liars are fascinating. In the last years, famous scammers such as the fake heiress Anna ‘Delvey’ Sorokin, the ‘Tinder Swindler’ Simon Leviev, or health-tech fraud Elisabeth Holmes all featured in popular docuseries on major streaming platforms.  Also in earlier movies, like Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002) or Daniel Vigne’s Le retour de Martin Guerre (1982), the main characters played with different identities. Why do con artists keep us so occupied? Do we, on some level, want to be tricked?

The miracles of Bertha Mrazek

In November 2022, the SciFair team had the pleasure of hosting professor Tine Van Osselaer (University of Antwerp) for an interesting seminar on the topic of tricksters and how to deal with the doubtful sources they left. In her research, Van Osselaer focuses on themes of religion, gender, and the miraculous. While investigating the miraculée Bertha Mrazek (1890-1967), Van Osselaer encountered lies fabricated by her research subject for the first time.

Before being miraculously healed and starting her life as a religious priest, Mrazek was “a lion tamer, contortionist (femme serpent), a lightning-sketch artist, night club singer, poet, war hero and German spy. Or, none of those”, as Van Osselaer explained. What set Mrazek apart from other imposters is that she “added chapters to an already colourful biography”, instead of restarting her life completely after every reinvention.

Although Mrazek’s lies were debunked, and she was put in jail and into an asylum, she still had and has followers, until today.

Another setting where one might encounter a trickster or two was the nineteenth-century fairground. In this context, we might see trickery as a commodity, and “making the impossible seem possible” as part of the showpeople’s core business. At the funfair, people encountered all sorts of wonders imaginable. Colourful signs, posters and tents competed for attention with extravagant showpeople, announcing their shows in loud voices.

The visitors were promised real magic, the most fantastic creatures, the latest scientific discoveries, the strongest man or the tiniest woman, actual ghosts, and so on. Showpeople made the wildest claims to lure people inside their booth or tent, and the public bought a ticket to see for themselves how much of these grand spectacles they were willing to believe.

At fairs across Belgium and The Netherlands, you could visit the booth of professor Mullens and his daughter, for example. Their act was announced as “Spiritism and Somnambulism”, with the daughter (Johanna Mullens) performing as a writing medium or a somnambule (clairvoyant). In a sleeping state, the medium claimed to see and know everything you wanted to know.

It would be easy to just consider the public as gullible masses, mindlessly gathering to see the latest curiosities. However, is it not more fun to believe what you see? Is it not more interesting to keep the truth in the middle, if there even is “a truth”, than to state that something is completely false or totally true? People who went to the fair wanted to be entertained, to be intrigued, to have to watch closely, and guess for themselves.

Context is key

The historiography on tricksters and imposters stresses a vital element: the importance of the historical context in which they acted. As Miriam Eliav-Feldon wrote in her work on Renaissance imposters: “Each episode can tell us far more about the mentalities of its period than about the mentality of an archetypical false pretender.”

Building on Eliav-Feldon’s work, Van Osselaer discussed the notions of social mobility and anonymity during the seminar. The historical circumstances of the nineteenth century allowed people to travel and reinvent themselves wherever and however they deemed possible. This is similar to the entertainment and fairground scene, where people reinvented themselves and their shows time and time again.

While the content of entertainment in this period was quite different from what we are accustomed to today, the competition and the fast succession of trends were not. Showpeople had to keep up with the times, and when their show was not profitable anymore, it was time to look for something new.

The British Emma Hardinge Britten (1823-1899) is a great example of someone who completely transformed herself. After pursuing a career as a stage actress in London for almost a decade, she became one of the most influential figures in Anglo-American Spiritualism. As a trance medium, Britten became extremely successful and remains amongst the most well-known mediums of modern Spiritualism. She was an influential advocate for the movement, as well as the author of two important histories of Spiritualism.

Clémentine Delait (1865-1939), in turn, was someone who more so played with the interpretation of her (gender) identity. Delait was a French “bearded lady” or femme à barbe. Her appearance made her quite famous, and she toured around Europe to give shows. While Delait was certainly not the only “bearded woman” of her time, the active way of taking control over her own image makes her stand out. She played with notions of gender and created her own celebrity by, for example, posing for photographs in both traditionally feminine and masculine clothing and posture. These postcards attest to her identity play.

Credible lies

The levels of success that many trickster achieved, force us to think about the credibility of their stories. “Their identities needed to play upon the expectations, existing roles, images and storylines that their contemporaries would recognize”, as Van Osselaer pointed out. “They allow us to see what fears, dreams and beliefs preoccupied people’s minds.” The ideals and historical context of a given time and place tell us more about the types of lies, forgeries, false identities and constructed lives the imposters take on. Or perhaps it is the other way around: the lies might give us insight into a specific time period.

As, for example, the funfair in the nineteenth century was also a place for popular science, showpeople adopted titles of “professor” or “doctor”. These terms meant something to the public, they had a respectable standing and evoked an idea of expertise. A “professor” showing the latest discoveries of x-rays or microscopic visions made sense to the audience. This title-claiming became one of the showpeople’s theatrical tools to construct a certain persona and credible identity.

A historical method for things that never happened?

How are we as researchers supposed to work with the sources these tricksters have produced? “What’s the historical method for things that never happened?”, as historian Luise White asks. During our seminar, Van Osselaer proposed two approaches to deal with stories we already know to be untrue. Instead of trying to “unmask the liar” and go out looking for the “truth”, she decided to focus on Bertha Mrazek’s multiple stories and the intertwinement of the different parallel lives and their resonance, which proved to be more productive.

Each reinvention and lie can be seen as a conscious attempt to create an identity through performance (the staging, the costumes, certain objects as props, etc.) and stories. Where and how did these stories resonate; did they succeed? When and why did they (not)? Was this success or failure dependent on a specific setting?

Building on this resonance of invented stories, we can also look at attempts of debunking by contemporaries. Lies were often uncovered and tricksters unmasked. Who engaged in this and why? Instead of trying to puzzle together all the stories and responses to a certain trickster’s antics, focusing on the efforts of the contemporaries to differentiate between true and false, and their reasons for doing so, could offer another interesting perspective.

Approaching the imposter

Working on such figures often means dealing with fragmentary sources. Van Osselaer, as well as other authors, like Matt Houlbrook working on Netley Lucas for Prince of Tricksters or Natalie Zemon Davis in her famous work on Martin Guerre, ran into similar problems. Houlbrook and Davis took different approaches to the lacunas in their case studies. Whereas Houlbrook chose to be open about the limits and uncertainty of his conclusions, Davis decided to fill in the blanks. Both are of course just one of the many possible solutions for these kinds of research challenges.

“Tricksters paradoxically seem both universal and exemplary of their time and place”, states Houlbrook. Working out their stories means both recounting their lives and deeds, but also exploring how truth was performed and plagiarized, and either recognized or questioned by their contemporaries. In any case, in trying to approach them, working on imposters, con artists or tricksters will never prove to be a boring task.

Want to learn more?

Works mentioned:

  • Eliav-Feldon, Miriam. Renaissance Impostors and Proofs of Identity. Palgrave Macmillan London, 2012.
  • White, Luise. “Telling More: Lies, Secrets and History”, History and Theory, 39 (2000), 11-22.
  • Houlbrook, Matt. Prince of Tricksters. The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  • Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Return of Martin Guerre. Harvard University Press, 1983.