Counterfeit Fame

Let me introduce you to Michel Chasles.  Born in 1793 in Epernon, France, he grew to become a famous mathematician.  He studied under the great Simeon Poisson (Poisson distribution, Poisson regression, etc., etc.) and went on to have his own collection of mathematical formulations named after him in a range of fields.  There’s a Chasles’ theorem in kinematics, a Chasles’ theorem in gravitation, and a Chasles’ theorem in geometry.  I mention all this to show that, although you may not have heard of him, Chasles was a man of great intelligence and energy, famous in his own day for doing pioneering work in many fields.

He did, however, have a few flaws.

For instance, along with many others of his time, he firmly believed that France was not only the greatest country in the world, but also that every worthwhile thing in the whole world had an origin that could ultimately be traced back to France or at least to French culture.  His superpatriotism led to become and avid pursuer of a new fad sweeping France: Collecting autographs.

At that time, there was a young man in Paris who was gaining a reputation for seeking out and finding old letters and documents.  His name was Vrain-Denis Lucas.  It was probably inevitable that these two would meet.  In 1861, they started doing business together.  First, Lucas sold Chasles a letter by Moliere for 500 francs.  Then, a bit later, it was a letter by Rabelais for 200 francs.  Then one from Racine, also for 200 francs.

The early 19th century had seen the fall of Napoleon, the fall of the Bourbons, the fall of Louis-Phillipe, and the arrival of Napoleon III.  One result of this chaos was the breakup of many great libraries and collections.  Thousands of documents were available and Chasles wanted the best from them all.  It wasn’t too long before Chasles was insisting that Lucas work only for him.

It was a marriage made in heaven.  Chasles had the money and the appetite and Lucas had the connections.  Books stamped from some of the most famous of the old libraries, often with personal notes by their illustrious previous owners.  Letters by Blaise Pascal, from Emperor Charles V to Rabelais, and from the poet Jean de Rotrou to Cardinal Richelieu.  The list went on and on.  Over time Chasles collected 2,316 autographed documents from Pascal alone.

Reading the Pascal letters, Chasles discovered even more news to warm a Frenchman’s heart:  Pascal had clearly developed the inverse square law of gravity many years before Newton.  In fact, it was pretty clear from the letters that Newton had gotten his ideas and his calculations from Pascal!  And even more, Chasles was able to show from his collection of Galileo’s letters (he had expanded beyond collecting Frenchmen) that in his old age Galileo, too, had been working on the problem of gravity and had sent some calculations to the young Pascal.

Not too surprisingly, as these letters pretty well upended many thing that scholars thought they knew, there were immediate claims of fraud.  The “Galileo” letters were in French, a language Galileo didn’t know.  By the time of these letters, Galileo was almost completely blind, but he mentioned the satellites of Saturn (not discovered by Christian Huygens until twelve years after Galileo’s death).  And at the time of the proposed Pascal/Newton correspondence, Newton was all of twelve years old.

Chasles was not dismayed.  He produced many more letters to prove his case.  He submitted them to the French Academy of Sciences for authentication.  They subjected the letters not only to stylistic analysis by Pascal experts, but also to chemical analysis.  They declared that the paper was certainly old, as was the ink.  The verdict was that if the letters were fraudulent, they were certainly old frauds.  Which let both Chasles and Lucas off the hook.  Whether the letters were real or not, both of them had acted innocently.

But still the controversy dragged on for years.  Chasles not only maintained the letters were genuine, he kept on producing more and more letters to buttress his case.  He even had Lucas arrested, fearful that he was going to abscond with yet more letters that could prove Chasles’ contentions.

Unfortunately, when Lucas’ quarters were searched, sheets of old paper and parchment suitable for forgery were discovered, as well as ink, pens, and even an incomplete letter to Newton.  It proved that the source of his marvelous ability to find old letters and manuscripts was his own pen.  Over the years he had charged Chasles over 140,000 francs for his forged “documents.”

Given the number of errors he introduced into his frauds, such as blind Galileo’s apparent discovery of Saturn’s moons, one would think that Chasles, intelligent man that he was, might have gotten suspicious.

Not so.

But that evidence was the least of it.  As his confidence in Chasles’ gullibility grew, Lucas created letters from Gregory of Tours, Pepin the Short, and Charlemagne, all in modern French.  Then he went even further, producing letters by Sappho, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Cleopatra, also all in modern French!

Chasles bought them all.  His library contained 622 letters from Newton (all in a French better than Newton’s own).  Galileo’s signature was comparatively rare, yet Chasles had more than 3,000 of them.  One could go on and on.  Chasles’ credulity is simply mind-boggling.

How did it all end?  Well, Chasles’ contemporaries eventually forgave him for being such a dupe.  When he died, he was eulogized by Joseph-Louis-Francois Bertrand as one of the glories of France.  But he is largely forgotten today.

Lucas has done better.  He is now much more famous than Chasles.  He is remembered as the “Prince of Forgers.”  And if you go to the Biblioteque Nationale, you will find they have a collection of over 27,000 of his forgeries, carefully preserved for an appreciative posterity.

It seems the road to fame is often paved with irony.

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