In a way, this story starts at the end, with the death of our main character.
When George Psalmanazar died on 3rd May 1763, he left behind a manuscript which was published the next year and revealed his true nature – but not his name. The book, “Memoirs of ****, Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar” gives many fact about his life and plenty of clues, but George will forever remain unknown.
The exact year of his birth is not known, though most agree it may probably have been 1679. George revealed that he was born into a Catholic family in the South of France (possibly Languedoc), educated at a Franciscan school and a Jesuit academy. He claims he was soon celebrated as a linguistic genius, excelling in a number of languages.
George entered university to study theology, but soon grew disenchanted with academia, dropping out at the age of 15. He took to tutoring and claims one of his students’ mothers tried to seduce him, but he soon failed at this profession and at age 16 he was wearing rags and begging for food.
He forged a passport and stole a pilgrim’s cloak and staff, thus providing him with his first alias “a young student in theology of Irish extract who had left the country for the sake of religion and was now on a pilgrimage to Rome”. He soon realised that many people were familiar with Ireland and he was unable to keep pretense, He decided then to seek his father in Germany.
Finding his father as impoverished as himself, George then decided on his next alias, “a Japanese converted to Christianity”, and despite the appearances of a typical Caucasian he was able to pull this trick off by eating raw meat spiced with cardamom and sleeping while sitting upright in a chair.
George soon enlisted in the army of the Duke of Mecklenburg, but had now changed his alias to that of an unconverted Japanese named Salmanazar. He’d chosen the same Salmanazar from the Bible, after the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser, who deported the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. The name is also used for 9 litre bottles of Champagne.
In 1702 he reached Amsterdam and met a Scottish priest named William Innes, who seems to have seen through his charade, but instead of uncovering this impostor, Innes persuaded him to take it to even greater heights. Innes wrote to the Anglican Bishop of London, claiming that George had come from Formosa (which was lesser known than Japan) and that he had converted him to Protestant Christianity and named him George Psalmanazar, the name he stayed with for the next 60 years. The bishop commanded that they come to London at once and so it was that the two of them arrived in 1703.
For a few short years George was the toast of English society, meeting many academics, and publishing a book called “An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan” which sold out in English and was translated into other languages.
In it he claimed he was abducted by Jesuits and taken to France, which endeared him to the English because of their suspicion of Catholics and Jesuits. When he was often challenged because of information brought back by Jesuits he was able to prevail because of this religious distrust.
In his book, it looks like George borrowed from stories he heard about the Inca and Aztec, and he made some basic mistakes like the fact Formosa belonged to China, not Japan, and when he claimed that 18,000 boys were sacrificed each year (which would have resulted in a population decrease).
His descriptions of society and customs enthralled people, from the fact that criminals were hanged upside down and killed by having arrows fired into them, to the polygamous society that allowed men to eat their wives for infidelity.
George also included descriptions of the alphabet and language of Formosa, which he’d made up completely, but were so convincing that examples were still being used by grammarians many decades later.
However, it didn’t take too long for the hoax to be uncovered, and by 1706 George accepted that the whole thing was a hoax, yet refused to reveal his identity.
George did display a great intelligence and for the next few years he became part of the infamous “Grub Street”, editing several works and contributing articles to a number of publications. One of the works he contributed to anonymously, “A Complete System of Geography”, allowed George to write about the real conditions of Formosa, pointedly refuting various claims he made in his earlier publication.
In later life George shunned fame, and seems to have gained a respect among his fellow writers and people who lived nearby. Samuel Johnson wrote “Psalmanazar’s piety, penitence, and virtue exceeded almost what we read as wonderful in the lives of the saints” and noted that everyone, including children, showed him respect.
When he died, no one knew his real name, date of birth or even where he really came from. He requested that he be buried in an obscure corner without ceremony, in the cheapest manner possible and without a lid or covering so that the earth can cover him all around.
For a while this man was one of the most famous men in the 18th century, yet we never really knew who he was.