This week on The Secret Sits, I am going to tell you the stories of a literary forger or two, all based around the most illustrious dramatist and poet to ever live, William Shakespeare. But don’t worry, we are also going to have some fun telling these stories.
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Previously on The Secret Sits, William Henry Ireland, produced numerous works by William Shakespeare, until he was finally exposed as a fraud. Today, we are going to take a look at another person who attempted to pass off works by the famous Bard, and that is where we find ourselves while we pick up our story today.
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Welcome to The Secret Sits, I’m your host John Dodson. Join us every Thursday as we uncover the Secrets behind the world’s most fascinating true crime cases. You can find all episodes of The Secret Sits for free on Apple Podcast, Spotify or where ever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you are hearing, reach out to us on Instagram and Facebook @The Secret Sits Podcast or on Twitter @SecretSitsPod. Now, on with our story.
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John Payne Collier was a man who led a life of serenity, he had a delightful wife whom he adored, and six darling children. The large family took up residence in a stunning home where the couple often entertained their friends, family and fellow scholars. In the year 1841, John Payne published an edition of Shakespeare’s plays and this edition was well received, however; the books did not sell as well as they were admired.
John Payne was quite a successful publisher and he had a very fruitful publication on history in the English drama. He had also founded the Shakespeare Society. John Payne was a vivacious 63-year-old man and his career was tipping the peak of accomplishment, John could look forward to a very enjoyable retirement, after all he had 23 grandchildren to visit with.
But just as this seemingly sturdy man should have been slipping into retirement, he decided that what the world really needed was more Shakespeare erudition. You see, John Payne had had quite the good fortune to have acquired a copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio, which was originally published in 1632, approximately 9 years after the world-famous Frist Folio, if you have listed to episode one of this series on Shakespeare forgeries you know that Shakespeare wrote 38 confirmed plays, in the first folio there are 36 plays divided into 3 distinct categories; comedies, tragedies and histories. The two plays not included in the first folio are The Two Noble Kinsmen and Pericles, Prince of Tyre, both of these manuscripts are now accepted as Shakespearian canon, and although he may have not written the entirety of these plays, he made significant contributions to the writing of both plays. None of Shakespeare’s poems were included in the first folio.
The second folio was published 16 years after the death of the world’s greatest poet. The second folio was named the Perkins Folio, because a fellow named Perkins was the first to own the manuscripts. This man felt it was appropriate to scribble his own name across the cover of the Shakespeare works.
So, in the year 1852, John Payne Collier decides to present this previously undiscovered folio to the Shakespearean Scholarly Elite. In the Perkins Folio there are, literally thousands of emendations, or notations in ink, which changed some of the originally scripted words, or the order of some of the words in the original Shakespeare plays. Collier asserted that the notations were all made in a 17th Century hand and that only someone with a profound knowledge of the Bard’s plays could have made the alterations. John Payne went on to assert that the “Old Corrector” as John referred to him, must have been working from original copies of the plays.
He went on to publish his extraordinary findings in an article titled, “Notes and Emendations in the Text of Shakespeare.” John then began production on an all-new edition of Shakespeare’s plays which incorporated all of the changes from the Perkins Folio. This new edition of works by William Shakespeare would make all previous editions irrelevant, including John’s own 1841 edition, but non the less, John Payne pressed on in his endeavors.
During the production of John Payne’s new edition, the Duke of Devonshire passed away, and after his death, his successor donated his father’s complete and vast library to the British Library. And why do we care, you ask? Because John Payne had given the Perkins Folio to the Duke of Devonshire as a gift. When the British Library received the inheritance of the duke’s library, one librarian named, Sir Frederic Madden, was assigned to delve into the treasure trove of literature. As Librarian Sir Freddy began examining the Perkins Folio there were things that stood out and perturbed him. For one, the ink notations had been written or drawn over pencil notations. It was as if some one had made all of these corrections and then gone back over them in ink later. But ol, Sir Fred could not be fooled this easily, and he quickly deduced that some clever forger had first made these notations in pencil, and then traced them with writing ink to give them a look of antiquity, and you have to get up earlier in the morning than that to fool Sir Mad dog Freddy. After pondering his findings and deciding that he was, of course, correct, Sir Madden of the land of Fred, published his findings in an article.
This article did not stop people from believing the authenticity of the Perkins Folio, but it did push the issue into the gossip circles of Scholarly cocktail parties and it became a hotly debated issue. There was a split between Shakespeare’s groupies as to weather the Perkins Folio emendations should be accepted, and the issue was split like a hot topic on the View.
After some 18 years in 1860, Nicholas Hamilton published an article declaring that the Perkins emendations were decidedly forgeries. Following this, Clement Ingleby published book titled, “Complete View of the Shakespeare Controversy”, the book totally dismantled John Payne Collier’s claims about the legitimacy of the Perkins Folio.
John Payne did not even respond to the uproar of criticism around the Perkins Folio. But in the public, he was maligned as a forger. Now under the proverbial microscope, experts began looking at some of John’s other antique documents like the Bridgewater House documents, this was a collection of early English literature obtained by John Payne through the treasures of Lord Ellesmere at Bridgewater House, and here they discovered that John Payne had also added words and lines to these documents as well. By the year 1862, John Payne Collier was in his early 70s and he was a lonely and disgraced man, mocked by his scholarly society.
But you can’t keep a good man down and John Payne went on to live another 20 years, he died at the ripe old age of 94 in 1883. In almost a century of living, John never admitted to forging anything during his life. During his last few years on this giant spinning rock, he continued to write and he produced an autobiography, within this autobiography John writes one sentence that has been mulled over by people for years, “My repentance is bitter and sincere.” Some have taken this as the old man’s veiled attempt at an admission of guilt, but what do you think?
There are those who have staunchly defended John Payne, they assert that Frederic Madden could have made the pencil notations in order to discredit John, other have said that the Perkins Folio emendations were simply John’s most outlandish forgery attempts gone wrong. Despite any of this, and notwithstanding the validity of these emendations, many of these notations have made their way into later editions of Shakespeare’s plays, perhaps, you have read or studied a Shakespearean play and the copy you had was covered in a slew of forged alterations, how would you know?
In 1971, the Folger Shakespeare Library released its findings on the Perkins Folio and they determined that the notations made in the Perkins Folio were a match for John Payne Collier’s own handwriting.
I suppose this would be listed as a tragedy if Shakespeare had written this story himself, John Payne Collier could have had a happy retirement at the age of 50, and he would have maintained his place in history as a Shakespearean scholar, but he chanced his reputation and everything he had to present these forgeries, it is quite intriguing.
Literary forgers create false documents, for an accomplished forger this takes quite a unique set of skills depending on the documents and the level of forgery they are attempting to create. There are other types of forgers, who have no need to create false documents, because they peddle forgeries in the form of legends and stories, told and passed down verbally through-out history. These forgers create stories in an effort to be noticed, to make themselves seem important, or to in any other way, bolster their own image or status.
There have been a few cases of this also related to the great William Shakespeare. One notable case is that of William Davenant, who history will remember as the illegitimate and false son of William Shakespeare.
This oral forgery is quite remarkable, William Davenant was born in 1603 in Oxford, he would go on to become an actor and theatrical manager. William was the son of innkeepers, and it had long been told that Shakespeare would often stay at William’s parents’ inn in Oxford, you see, Oxford was a convenient half way point between London and Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford, this was a trip taken quite often by the Bard and it made since that the traveler would stop during the journey for some much-needed rest.
Originally, William Davenant would claim that the world-famous poet was just his godfather, and what a claim to hold on to, while making your rise in the local theatre scene. But as the young man’s reputation continued to grow during the 1620s, William began hinting that Shakespeare and his mother had, had an affair and that he, himself was a result of their primordial lust. This would also suggest that Shakespeare’s stops at the inn were for more than a good night’s sleep.
However, there are no records to corroborate any of William’s stories. There is not even a baptismal certificate, to confirm the godfather portion of William’s story. On top of that there are no records of Willy Shakes having ever even stopped overnight in Oxford on his trek from London to Stratford. Was all of this simply William’s way of gaining recognition for his theatrical career? There had to be a better way, like, I don’t know, actually being accomplished at your chosen profession, perhaps? There are no legitimate Shakespearean scholars who give any credence to William’s story, and he is sadly now no more than a humorous footnote in literary history.
From our previous story about the Shakespeare obsessed Samuel Ireland and his vapid son William Henry Ireland comes another story of a Shakespearean fraud, perpetrated against an entire population of Shakespeare obsessed people. John Jordan, you remember him as the town historian who took Samuel and William Henry around Stratford, well, the idolatry surrounding Shakespeare began during the Great Jubilee in 1769, this event was produced in Stratford by the historic actor and theatre manger of the day, David Garrick. The event did not do as well at David had hoped because three days of treacherous rain caused the event to be quite a soggy affair. Despite this, the jubilee sparked a renewed interest in Shakespeare’s work.
We know that Shakespeare’s beautiful home, which he lived in after his retirement, was demolished in 1759, 10 years before the jubilee. The previous owner said that he was tired of people pillaging through his property in their attempts to see the 150-year-old Mulberry tree that had supposedly been planted by Shakespeare’s own hands. So, the man cut down the tree. But this only led to new folklore and that is where a person known to us enters the story, Mr. Sharpe, who carved handmade objects from the wood of old Bill Shakespeare’s mulberry tree. Mr. Sharpe produced small boxes, cups and other items. There were so many items it was difficult to believe that one tree, even at 150-years-old had enough usable wood to produce such an ever-growing array of objects.
For 30 years following the Jubilee, John Jordan continued his role as the local Stratford tour guide for all things Shakespeare, or Shakespeare adjacent and for the next 40 years, Mr. Sharpe, somehow continuously produced new products to sell, made from the wood of this one historic tree. John Jordan did know many accurate facts about Shakespeare, however; to make his historic tours a bit more interesting, John would fill in the gaps of time during Shakespeare’s life with stories that he simply made up. There exists a legend that during Shakespeare’s youth he was caught poaching deer by Sir Thomas Lucy, this is a true legendary story, but when John Jordan told the story he added his own Je ne sais quoi, and he described Shakespeare in his youth as a rabblerouser who would drink heavily and get into mischief. To add authenticity to his fabricated story, John would show his tours a crab apple tree near Anne Hathaway’s house, and there he would proclaim, was the very spot where Shakespeare and his wild and crazy friends would have their raucous drinking parties.
The problem with these made-up stories is that, just like the John Payne Collier forgeries, some of these stories have made their way into Shakespeare biographies and even to this day, some of these erroneous stories appear in books and articles about the famous Bard.
Finally, I want to ask a question, why Shakespeare? Why are the centuries fill with forgeries of this one literary giant? Well, I will answer my own question, today it is estimated that anything, absolutely anything that contains a single authentic signature from William Shakespeare would have a starting price of one million dollars. A completely new Shakespearean document, for example one of his plays in his own hand, would bring in an outrageous amount of money which would far surpass the figures obtained for original works by van Gogh, Picasso or Renoir.
To understand why this price would be so high, you have to understand the process of writing plays in Shakespeare’s time. The writer only wrote for an acting company and anything they wrote immediately belonged to the acting company and not the author. The play script would be copied by hand for each actor, but those were the only copies of the work which existed. Sometimes the actors would reproduce a script from their memory, or a member of the audience would sit and write out the script line by line as it was performed and they would later publish their script, but how accurate were those? Sit at home tonight and watch your favorite TV show and try and transcribe the script at the exact same time you are listening to it, let us see how accurate you would be.
A lot of the actual Shakespearean scripts were destroyed in the great London fire of 1666, 2/3 of the city was decimated during this one single fire. Aside from the Shakespeare Folio number one, which was published 7 years after the poet’s death, play scripts were simply not considered valuable literary documents.
Forgeries are white collar crimes, but they can be just as interesting as all other True Crime stories. And here on The Secret Sits, we love to discuss interesting True Crime, and not just what is in the headlines, and with that, we hope you enjoyed. We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the Secret Sits in the middle and knows.