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How Catfishing Worked Before the Internet

People have been lying about their identities in search of notoriety or love or thrills for a long, long time.

by Mike Pearl
20 March 2015, 6:20am

Elegant Lady Writing at Her Desk by Gabriel Metsu

Even if you don't watch Catfish the TV show, you probably know it's a reality series about people who lie to others on the internet. The way it works is that someone realizes that they're being duped, they contact the show, an investigation is launched into the catfisher, and, eventually, the hosts show up in the catfisher's town to call them out. It was a thrilling concept at first, but after more than three seasons it's getting a little repetitive, and the producers have had to freshen up the formula with celebrity guests.

That's probably because desperate, dishonest people have been pulling this shit for millennia. Though the etymology of the word catfishis sort of strange, it's a useful term to describe a a type of con artistry that is centered around crafting a fake identity. What's fascinating about catfishers throughout history is that usually they weren't after financial gain—like their contemporary counterparts, their behavior seems to have been compulsive and driven by personality quirks or frustrations. Here are some of their stories:

"Paul" writing his epistles. Via Wikicommons

63 AD: The Book of Hebrews

There's no shortage of conspiracy theories about the Bible—perhaps none more fun than the idea that Jesus married, and therefore had sex with, Mary Magdalene. That's a fun one to think about, but the Bible's real conspiracies and lies are in those preachy parts toward the back: the epistles.

One, once referred to as "Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews," is now generally called "The Epistle to the Hebrews." Theologists refer to "the author" when they talk about it whereas with other epistles they refer to Paul. According to the biblical scholar Paul Ellingworth, "The idea of Pauline authorship of Hebrews is now almost universally abandoned."

Who wrote it then? Probably just some early Christian who wanted their ideas to become dogma.

You see, in the early days of the church, Christianity was most likely just a bunch of people getting together to argue about what Jesus's ideas had really been. Occasionally, a group would get a letter from a big important Christian like Paul or Peter, and feel the way I would feel if Weird Al tweeted at me. Verifying such communications was obviously tricky, so it was possible for the author of the epistle—who could very well have been inside the congregation of the Hebrews—to write something in Paul's style in order to convince the Hebrews to think of Jesus as a "high priest," who works as a mediator between God and humanity.

It may not have started out as a forgery, but partway through, according to a 1964 book by scholar Clare K. Rothschild, this person actively made up their mind to pass the letter off as Paul's writing, going way out of their way to use Paul's language and style in order to ensure that their opinion took hold and became doctrine.

It did. Hebrews is now in the Bible, though obviously not one of the bits that gets discussed a lot in mainstream society. (It's worth noting that some think that most of the epistles in the New Testament are phony in one way or another.)

The New England Courant. Via Wikicommons

1722: Silence Dogood

Back in 1721, James Franklin was a young printer in Boston, started one of the first newspapers in America, The New-England Courant. The following year, someone slid an envelope under the door to his shop, and when he opened it, he found it to be a letter addressed to him. It was a hilarious treatise on daily life written by a bawdy young widow named Silence Dogood. He published the letter and 14 others like it during the better part of 1722.

Silence entranced New England with her hot take on the hoop skirts those crazy teens were wearing at the time:

An honest Neighbour of mine, happening to be in Town some time since on a publick Day, inform'd me, that he saw four Gentlewomen with their Hoops half mounted in a Balcony, as they withdrew to the Wall, to the great Terror of the Militia, who (he thinks) might attribute their irregular Volleys to the formidable Appearance of the Ladies Petticoats.

Dogood's pieces were considered hilariousby the standards of the day, and young men wrote in when they found out Silence was a widow, offering to marry her. But she wasn't a widow, or a woman at all—they were penned by James's clever younger brother, Benjamin Franklin.

This led to sibling rivalry in the workplace, since people had written in to compliment Dogood's writing. James subjected his brother to what Benjamin Franklin later called"harsh and tyrannical treatment," eventually leading to the younger brother's "aversion to arbitrary Power." So in a way, this epistolary charade led to American independence. Sorta.

1837: The Original Lonely Heart Ads

According to pop historian Francesca Beauman's book Shapely Ankle Preferr'd, the personal ad dates back as far as 1695, when someone finally noticed that printing, like every other modern technology in the history of humanity, could be used to get people laid. In Beauman's account—and in other stories online— there are tales of hucksters using personal ads to perpetrate romance scams: They'd send people tantalizing letters quickly followed by sob stories about evil landlords in order to bilk people.

Other forms of deceit documented in Beauman's bookare more tragic than exploitative. In 1837, a Englishman in Bristol met a woman through a personal ad in a newspaper. She said she lived with someone named Lady Courtly, and they had a good time together. On their seventh date, however, he found out Lady Courtly wasn't his girlfriend's roommate, but her mistress, and she was a servant. He broke it off immediately.

The Era of Lonely Hearts Killers

Albert Fish's mugshot. Via Wikicommons

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, "Lonely Hearts Killers" were the Craigslist Killers of their time. But Henri Désiré Landru, Harry F. Powers, Sweden's Gustav Raskenstam, and the married couple of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck were all out to make a buck—using a personal ad to lure people to a secluded place in order to kill them for their cash is awful, but it's hardly a form of catfishing as we know it today.

Ah, but then there was the transcendently weird Albert Fish, who was most active in the 1920s. He wrote to women from his alter ego, a made-up Hollywood tycoon named Robert Hayden. This was early catfishing at its most creative.

The letters he sent to victims would usually start out normal—perhaps to lure them into thinking this was something important that they'd better read—and then they'd veer off course, often into graphic sadomasochistic fantasies. But the luckiest of readers were plunged into coprophagia. His most famous letter starts innocently enough, with just a few Xs meant as kisses:

My Dearest Darling Sweetest Grace xx,
Your dear loving little note at hand. We missed a train on act of James W. Pell. When I told him we were going to Va...

...and then takes a turn:

Tell me when you want to do #2. I will take you over my knees, pull up your clothes, take down your drawers and hold my mouth to your sweet honey fat-ass holes and xxx xxxx xxx Eat your sweet Peanut Butter and as it comes out fresh and hot. That is how they do it in Hollywood. You wont need toilet paper to wipe your sweet pretty fat ass as I shall eat it all xxx xxx xx xxx of it then lick your sweet ass clean with my tongue.

Some apparently curious women would come to Fish's house, where he would introduce himself as James W. Pell and try to get them to whip him with a length of wet rope. Some even testified in court about it after Fish was caught and put on trial. He was executed by electric chair on January 16, 1936.

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