Irish practical joker Horace de Vere Cole orchestrated his masterpiece in 1910: He dressed four friends as Abyssinian princes and inveigled a tour of a British battleship. One of the friends, improbably, was Virginia Woolf disguised in a false beard and turban. We’ll describe how the prank was inspired and follow the six through their tension-filled visit to the HMS Dreadnought.
We’ll also examine the value of whistles to Benjamin Franklin and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.
You can support Futility Closet by taking a 5-minute survey. Your answers will help match our show with advertisers that best fit our listeners, like you, and allow us to keep making these podcasts. Listeners who complete the survey will be entered in an ongoing monthly raffle to win a $100 Amazon Gift Card. We promise not to share or sell your email address, and we won’t send you email unless you win.
Here’s Doug Ross playing “Fallen Star” without us yakking over it:
Sources for our segment on the Dreadnought hoax:
Martyn Downer, The Sultan of Zanzibar: The Bizarre World and Spectacular Hoaxes of Horace de Vere Cole, 2010.
Adrian Stephen, The Dreadnought Hoax, 1936.
Georgia Johnston, “Virginia Woolf’s Talk on the Dreadnought Hoax,” Woolf Studies Annual, vol. 15 (2009), 1.
Joseph M. Hone, “Grand Deception — Princes Who Outwitted British,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, April 19, 1956.
For Horace de Vere Cole, this hoax formed the capstone in a long career of practical jokes. My earlier posts on Cole:
The Dreadnought “gave Cole what he had always wanted — fame, or at least notoriety, and, because some of the participants were later to achieve celebrity, a lasting place in the chronicles of the time,” wrote Quentin Bell in his introduction to Adrian Stephen’s 1936 memoir of the escapade. “He did little else during his lifetime but he did once contribute to the gaiety of nations.”
Here’s the whole hoaxing party, made up and ready to depart for Weymouth:
Left to right: Virginia Stephen, Duncan Grant, Adrian Stephen, Anthony Buxton, Guy Ridley, Horace Cole.
Costumier Willy Clarkson remembered, “[Virginia's] first make-up was a failure, the project was almost abandoned; but I felt piqued at being thwarted from an effect which I knew could be obtained and made a fresh start. This time the result was astounding in its realism. The beautiful girl had vanished, and in her place was a slim, dignified, dusky nobleman with a sombre countenance and a flowing regal beard.”
After departing the Dreadnought, the party returned to London by train. “Mr. Cholmondeley [Cole] gravely told the railway officials that the princes could not have any meals served with the naked hand,” Virginia told a newspaper. “There were no spare gloves on the train, and the officials consequently had to buy a few pairs, and the attendants who waited on us at dinner appeared wearing grey kid gloves. We gave them princely tips.”
Here’s the full text of Ben Franklin’s letter to Madame Brillon, Nov. 10, 1779:
I received my dear friend’s two letters, one for Wednesday and one for Saturday. This is again Wednesday. I do not deserve one for to-day, because I have not answered the former. But, indolent as I am, and averse to writing, the fear of having no more of your pleasing epistles, if I do not contribute to the correspondence, obliges me to take up my pen; and as Mr. B. has kindly sent me word that he sets out to-morrow to see you, instead of spending this Wednesday evening, as I have done its namesakes, in your delightful company, I sit down to spend it in thinking of you, in writing to you, and in reading over and over again your letters.
I am charmed with your description of Paradise, and with your plan of living there; and I approve much of your conclusion, that, in the meantime, we should draw all the good we can from this world. In my opinion we might all draw more good from it than we do, and suffer less evil, if we would take care not to give too much for whistles. For to me it seems that most of the unhappy people we meet with are become so by neglect of that caution.
You ask what I mean? You love stories, and will excuse my telling one of myself.
When I was a child of seven years old, my friends, on a holiday, filled my pocket with coppers. I went directly to a shop where they sold toys for children; and being charmed with the sound of a whistle, that I met by the way in the hands of another boy, I voluntarily offered and gave all my money for one. I then came home, and went whistling all over the house, much pleased with my whistle, but disturbing all the family. My brothers, and sisters, and cousins, understanding the bargain I had made, told me I had given four times as much for it as it was worth; put me in mind what good things I might have bought with the rest of the money; and laughed at me so much for my folly, that I cried with vexation; and the reflection gave me more chagrin than the whistle gave me pleasure.
This, however, was afterwards of use to me, the impression continuing on my mind; so that often, when I was tempted to buy some unnecessary thing, I said to myself, Don’t give too much for the whistle; and I saved my money.
As I grew up, came into the world, and observed the actions of men, I thought I met with many, very many, who gave too much for the whistle.
When I saw one too ambitious of court favor, sacrificing his time in attendance on levees, his repose, his liberty, his virtue, and perhaps his friends, to attain it, I have said to myself, This man gives too much for his whistle.
When I saw another fond of popularity, constantly employing himself in political bustles, neglecting his own affairs, and ruining them by that neglect, He pays, indeed, said I, too much for his whistle.
If I knew a miser, who gave up every kind of comfortable living, all the pleasure of doing good to others, all the esteem of his fellow-citizens, and the joys of benevolent friendship, for the sake of accumulating wealth, Poor man, said I, you pay too much for your whistle.
When I met with a man of pleasure, sacrificing every laudable improvement of the mind, or of his fortune, to mere corporeal sensations, and ruining his health in their pursuit, Mistaken man, said I, you are providing pain for yourself, instead of pleasure; you give too much for your whistle.
If I see one fond of appearance, or fine clothes, fine houses, fine furniture, fine equipages, all above his fortune, for which he contracts debts, and ends his career in a prison, Alas! say I, he has paid dear, very dear, for his whistle.
When I see a beautiful sweet-tempered girl married to an ill-natured brute of a husband, What a pity, say I, that she should pay so much for a whistle!
In short, I conceive that great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by the false estimates they have made of the value of things, and by their giving too much for their whistles.
Yet I ought to have charity for these unhappy people, when I consider that, with all this wisdom of which I am boasting, there are certain things in the world so tempting, for example, the apples of King John, which happily are not to be bought; for if they were put to sale by auction, I might very easily be led to ruin myself in the purchase, and find that I had once more given too much for the whistle.
Adieu, my dear friend, and believe me ever yours very sincerely and with unalterable affection.
If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at email@example.com. Thanks for listening!