In 1873, residents of Marseille were horrified to learn that a great infestation of sharks had gathered in the sea just off-shore. Fishermen wrote letters to the local press detailing their narrow escapes from these man-eaters. Local authorities begged for help and a force of a hundred soldiers was dispatched on a tugboat to engage and destroy these monsters. This expedition searched every cove but could find no school of sharks. The fishermen’s letters were examined and were found to be all written in the same hand. An official inquiry concluded that the city had been hoaxed.
Twenty-four years later, the author of that hoax, Léo Taxil, finally confessed, or rather, bragged, that he was responsible. Taxil was nineteen at the time of the shark hoax. A few years later he perpetrated another hoax about a sunken city under Lake Geneva that soon had scholars expounding on Atlantis and pre-Noah society. These were only two of the hoaxes pulled off by Taxil who called hoaxing “a noble career”:
Among the maxims of the culinary art, an often-quoted one says: “One becomes cook, but one is born a roaster.” Perfection in the science of roasting cannot be learned. I believe the same can be said of pranksterism: one is born a prankster.
Taxil’s self-congratulation was part of the revelation of his greatest hoax, one that fooled Pope Leo XIII and continues to mislead people today, a hundred and fifteen years after Taxil confessed to it. That hoax claims to show that Masons are Satanists.
Taxil was born Marie Joseph Gabriel Antoine Jogand-Pagès in Marseille. When he was five, his parents sent him off to a Jesuit school. Perhaps they were hoping that their son would find a religious vocation; instead he developed a hatred of priests and religion.
The young man relocated to Paris and adopted the pen name Léo Taxil. He worked sometimes as an artist, sometimes as a writer. He wrote The Amusing Bible and its New Testament sequel, The Life of Jesus, satiric reconstructions of Bible stories.
Taxil specialized in the roman-feuilletons of the day, French versions of the English penny dreadful, pulp fiction of a sensational variety. He enjoyed anti-clerical themes and sold series after series of lurid tales.
Some of Taxil’s work purported to be truth, exposes of the Catholic church, the sort of thing that had been common in France for two centuries. The anti-monarchist, anti-church stance of republicanism intensified French anti-Catholicism after the revolution of 1789. France went through a period of anti-church churches including a Cult of Reason and a non-specific deist state religion. After Napoleon, the Church came back into favor but a great deal of anti-Catholicism had become embedded in the nation’s beliefs. Taxil wrote from a very anti-Catholic position though those who bought his writings were probably more interested in them as pornography rather than philosophic arguments. In 1879, Taxil was charged and tried for insulting a religion recognized by the state. He was acquitted.
These were difficult times for the Catholic Church: republicanism had become the favored political form in Latin America and Europe and republican rejection of king and God was troubling to an organization that had been an official part of European states since Constantine accepted Christianity. Pope Leo XIII determined to reconcile the Church with modern society. He intervened in South American affairs, kept Prussia from persecuting Catholics, and worked out a deal with the new nation of Italy over governance of the Vatican. And he accepted the French republic. All this was necessary at a time when some nations were actually outlawing the Catholic Church. But, while beating a path toward modernity, the pope made one or two slips. He said, in an encyclical of 1884, that there were two warring parties on earth — one was the party of truth and God, the other was of Satan’s kingdom. People interpretated this to mean that certain persons and groups were evil. Some held that Freemasonry, forbidden to Catholics since 1738, was one such group.
Shortly after the encyclical, Léo Taxil announced his return to Catholicism. He had taken a brief turn toward Freemasonry, he said, but now had found the true path. Apparently Taxil was in a Masonic lodge for a short time but was either booted out or left of his own accord. Whatever the facts of that episode, Taxil soon began writing anti-Masonic tracts, as he done anti-Catholic tracts before.
First, Taxil wrote a history of Freemasonry in four thick volumes that reported much bogus testimony about Masons practicing Satanic rites. Then he began the long series The Devil in the Nineteenth Century (Le Diable au XIXe Siècle) which consisted of information from a Dr. Bataille who had travelled the world in search of enlightenment. In his travels, Bataille met an American woman, Diana Vaughan, who had become a sort of vestal virgin of Satanism. Vaughan was able to put on quite the performance:
“I am certain of the celestial protection of the Genii of Light,” said Diana, and, producing her talisman, she bent her right knee to the ground, turned a complete somersault without falling, flung her tambourine into the air, which descended gently and remained suspended a yard from the ground, while she herself, passing into a condition of ecstasy, also rose into the air in a recumbent posture. She remained in this state for the space of fifteen minutes, the silence being only broken by the distant rumbling of thunder. Many of the spectators could not believe their eyes. At length very gently her body assumed a vertical position, head downwards, but as a concession to polite feeling the remaining laws of gravity were suspended, like herself, and her skirts were not correspondingly inverted.
Bataille claimed to have discovered a new version of Freemasonry that he called “Palladian”. This was a devil-worshipping cult and Diana Vaughan was deeply involved; deeply involved, that is, until she decided with the help of Bataille to break free. Diana had spoken the name of Joan of Arc and at once saints and angels and heavenly messengers descended around her. Right away she was convinced that she should break free from Satanism.
This was hot stuff and the public gobbled up the endless installments in Taxil’s work at 10 centimes each. Other writers took up the cause. Anti-Masonic literature had begun appearing around the beginning of the 18th Century. So the sides were drawn: Catholicism on one side, Freemasonry on the other. In France, anyway, that was the choice.
One anti-Masonic author, A. C. de la Rive, corresponded with Diana Vaughan who told him of an amazing letter from the American Mason, Albert Pike. Pike, an ex-Confederate general, was Supreme Commander of the southern U.S. masons. According to Vaughan, he had sent out a missive that said:
The Masonic religion must be, by all of us initiates of the high grades, maintained in the purity of the LUCIFERIAN doctrine. If Lucifer were not God, Adonai (the God of the Christians) whose deeds prove his cruelty, perfidy and hatred of man, his barbarism and repulsion of science, if Lucifer were not God, would Adonai and his priests slander him?
Now Diana Vaughan was American, so she must be telling the truth about American masonry which was based in Charleston, South Carolina and whose Supreme leader was Albert Pike, according to her statement. American Masons had declared for separation of church and state during their revolution, so French Catholics were well aware that they were opposed to the old Church order. There was no internet then nor even long distance telephones, so no one managed to check with General Pike to see if he really said those words. Anyway, he was a Satanist and thus a liar by definition.
Not everyone was taken in. A number of church authorities believed Taxil’s writings to be fiction but they were overwhelmed by those who wanted to believe otherwise. The young Thérèse Martin, who was to be canonized in the early 21st Century as Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, certainly believed. Eventually, Pope Leo XIII became involved and, in 1887, had an audience with Taxil. The pope was charmed and soon rebuked the bishop of Charleston who had called the Pike missive a hoax.
So things stood for years as Taxil and his cronies cranked out the tales of Freemasonry devils and debauchery. Perhaps some noticed that these were pretty much the same tales that Taxil had written as an anti-Catholic only with lodge commanders instead of priests and magic instead of miracles.
In 1896, A.E.Waite, who wrote a great deal about mysticism and related subjects, examined the evidence and concluded that the notion that Masonry = Satanism was false. Everything, he said in his book Devil Worship in France, hinged on the testimony of Diana Vaughan and it was long past time that she should appear publicly and speak to these matters — that is, if she existed at all. That was the general cry in France: show us Diana or we may conclude that she is a figment of someone’s imagination. So, in 1897, Léo Taxil announced a grand public event where Ms. Vaughan would appear and answer questions.
On April 19th, Léo Taxil appeared before an audience at the French Geographic Society ampitheater. When those gathered demanded to see Diana Vaughan, Paxil pointed to her typewriter which he had brought to the hall. Vaughan worked for Paxil as a typist. She typed up whatever he was writing and, when he needed documentation, wrote out letters in her own hand from his dictation, such as the one to de la Rive about Pike. No Dr. Bataille existed.
Oh yes, said Taxil, it was all a great prank and he had fooled them all, including the pope. [transcript here] The purpose of the exercise, said Paxil, was to show the utter stupidity of the Catholic Church which would believe anything. On one wall was projected a photo that had been taken of Thérèse Martin dressed as Joan of Arc which was compared to Vaughan’s dramatic fictional conversion. So he had fooled them all, said Paxil, the church, priests (many of them in his audience), and a much-publicized young woman who was later to be canonized.
“The most colossal hoax of modern times”, this is how Mr. Léo Taxil himself termed his enterprise, and, in his modest success, he does not hesitate to give himself the title of king of modern pranksters. He flatters himself in having used his natural talents, perfected with a gradual training, for the good of society, infected with the virus of superstition. Since the odiousness of his parodies and contradictory mummeries seem to evade Mr. Taxil, let us not pause to scold him on this point; let us stick to considering him the joyous and gigantic prankster that he claims to be. …The unique concession that we might make to his vanity is to note that he is one of the first to have erected a social career, an industrial profession, on the art of fraud, nevertheless still classifying it among the flimsy fantasies. …There is little to envy in seeing another, alone in amusing himself with his own self-importance; it is ungraceful to dress oneself up with human credulity when one is such a superb example of credulity in sincerely believing oneself the greatest hoaxer of the century.
After his great confession, Paxil was forced to leave Paris for a time. He lived another ten years but never pulled off another hoax as important as that of the Palladian Masons. Vaughan at one point was a sales rep for a typewriter company. Paxil had paid her a hundred and fifty francs a month to participate in his scheme, but he said she was so much into the whole thing that she would have done it for nothing. There are stories that the two were sexually involved which is not impossible. The pope excommunicated Taxil and then tried to put the entire affair behind him. Paxil reissued his Amusing Bible and included a letter to the pope as preface. Thérèse Martin died a few months after Taxil’s show. Life went on.
You might think that, once the entire Palladian business was admitted to be a fraud, that people would forget it, but that isn’t the case. Taxil’s work and that of other anti-Masonic writers like de la Vine continue to be reprinted and cited as sources in all kinds of anti-Masonic literature:
Besides Jack Chick (who isn’t that friendly to Catholicism, either) cult investigators often refer to Taxil’s more lurid work. Most of them, IMO, haven’t even read the guy’s stuff, they just recycle quotes from other anti-Masonic authors. Some are so invested in this nonsense that they claim that there was no hoax or that Taxil’s confession never happened at the same time that they quote General Pike’s letter which is only known through Taxil.
There are funny pranks, meant to be believed only so long as you don’t think about them very much, that are amusing and harmless. But it is easier to get people to believe than it is to renounce their beliefs, so hoaxes can have a very negative effect. Satire is dangerous.