How a Scottish Swindler Lured His Countrymen to a Fake City of Untold Riches

Courtesy of Chronicle Books
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

Mythological mountain ranges, illusory oceans, and apocryphal islands crowded the maps of early navigators. Some imaginary features, though, remained on charts well after satellite imagery and GPS should have confirmed their nonexistence. As Edward Brooke-Hitching writes in his new book, The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies, and Blunders on Maps (Chronicle Books), some fake places made a lasting impression simply because their promoters were so brazen. In this excerpt, Brooke-Hitching describes one scoundrel's scheme to lure settlers to a fictional Central American city of untold riches—with disastrous results.

There are shameless liars, there are bold-as-brass fraudsters, and then there is a level of mendacity so magnificent it is inhabited by one man alone: ‘Sir’ Gregor MacGregor. In 1822, South American nations such as Colombia, Chile, and Peru were a new vogue in a sluggish investor’s market, being lands of opportunity, offering bonds with rates of interest too profitable to pass up. And so, when the charismatic ‘Cazique of Poyais’ sauntered into London, resplendent in medals and honors bestowed on him by George Frederic Augustus, king of the Mosquito Coast, and waving a land grant from said monarch that endowed him his own kingdom, he was met with an almost salivary welcome.

Perhaps if he had been a total stranger there might have been more wariness, but this was a man of reputation: Sir Gregor MacGregor of the clan MacGregor, great-great-nephew of Rob Roy, was famous from overseas dispatches for his service with the ‘Die-Hards,’ the 57th Foot regiment that had fought so valiantly at the Battle of Albuera in 1811. As a soldier of fortune, he had bled for Francisco de Miranda and for Simón Bolívar against the Spanish; the man was a hero. And now here he was in London, fresh from adventure, with the glamorous Princess Josefa of Poyais on his arm, looking for investment in his inchoate nation.

And the tales he told of his new homeland! Some 8 million acres (3.2 million hectares) of abundant natural resources and exquisite beauty; rich soil crying out for skilled farming; seas alive with fish and turtles, and countryside crowded with game; rivers choked with ‘native Globules of pure Gold.’ A promotional guide to the region was published, Sketch of the Mosquito Shore: Including the Territory of Poyais (1822), featuring the utopian vista below and further details of ‘many very rich Gold Mines in the Country, particularly that of Albrapoyer, which might be wrought to great benefit.’ Best of all, for a modest sum you too could claim your own piece of paradise.

Map of the imaginary Territory of Poyais
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

For a mere 2 shillings and 3 pence, MacGregor told his rapt audience, 1 acre (0.4 hectares) of Poyais land would be theirs. This meant that, if you were able to scrape together just over £11, you could own a plot of 100 acres (40 hectares). Poyais was in need of skilled labor—the plentiful timber had great commercial potential; the fields could yield great bounty if worked properly. A man could live like a king for a fraction of the British cost of living. For those too ‘noble’ for manual labor, there were positions with prestigious titles available to the highest bidder. A city financier named Mauger was thrilled to receive the appointment of manager of the Bank of Poyais; a cobbler rushed home to tell his wife of his new role as official shoemaker to the Princess of Poyais. Families keen to secure an advantage for their young men purchased commissions in Poyais’s army and navy.

MacGregor himself had got his start this way in the British Army at the age of 16, when his family purchased for him a commission as ensign in 1803, at the start of the Napoleonic Wars. Within a year he was promoted to lieutenant, and began to develop an obsession with rank and dress. He retired from the army in 1810 after an argument with a superior officer ‘of a trivial nature,’ and it was at this point that his imagination began to take a more dominant role in his behavior. He awarded himself the rank of colonel and the badge of a Knight of the Portuguese Order of Christ. Rejected from Edinburgh high society, in London he polished his credentials by presenting himself as ‘Sir Gregor MacGregor.’ He decided to head for South America, to add some New World spice to his reputation and return a hero. Arriving in Venezuela, by way of Jamaica, he was greeted warmly by Francisco de Miranda and given a battalion to help fight the Spanish in the Venezuelan War of Independence. He then fought for Simón Bolívar when Miranda was imprisoned. Operations extended to Florida, where he devised a nascent form of what he was later to orchestrate in London, raising $160,000 by selling ‘scripts’ to investors representing parcels of Floridian territory. As Spanish forces closed in, he bid farewell to his men and fled to the Bahamas, never repaying the money.

MacGregor was intelligent, persuasive, charisma personified, with a craving for popularity, wealth, and acceptance of the elite. This was the man to whom the prospective Poyais colonists were faithfully handing their every penny. Every detail of his scheme was planned to perfection. They never stood a chance.

On September 10, 1822, the Honduras Packet left London docks, bound for the territory of Poyais, carrying 70 excited passengers, plenty of supplies and a chest full of Poyais dollars made by the official printer to the Bank of Scotland, for which the emigrants happily traded their gold and legal tender.

Having waved off the Honduras, MacGregor headed to Edinburgh and Glasgow to make the same offer to the Scots. The dramatic failure of the Darien scheme in the late 17th century (in which the kingdom of Scotland had attempted to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama) had virtually bankrupted the country, and any indication of history repeating itself would have been met with extreme caution. But MacGregor was a Scotsman himself, a patriot and soldier. Unfortunately, he was also in possession of a tongue of pure silver. A second swath of Poyais real estate was sold off, and a second passenger ship filled. Under the captaincy of Henry Crouch, the Kennersley Castle left the port of Leith, Scotland on January 14, 1823, carrying 200 future citizens of Poyais, eager to join the Honduras Packet travelers in their new home.

Phantom Atlas book jacket cover
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

To their utter confusion, when the colonists arrived at their destination, they found only malarial swampland and thick vegetation with no trace of civilization. There was no Poyais, no land of plenty, no capital city. They had been fooled by a conniving fantasist. Unable to afford the journey home, they had no choice but to unload their supplies and set up camp on the shore. By April, nothing had changed. No town had been found, no help had arrived, and the camp was in total despair. Disease was rife and claimed the lives of eight colonists that month. The cobbler who had been promised the role of ‘Shoemaker to the Princess’ gave up hope of ever seeing his family again, and shot himself in the head.

At this lowest point, a vessel appeared on the horizon—what’s more, it flew a British flag. The Mexican Eagle from Belize had been passing nearby on a diplomatic mission when it had caught sight of the camp. The weak settlers were brought aboard and began their slow and awful journey back to London, via the hospitals of Belize. Of the 270 or so men and women who had set out for Poyais, fewer than 50 made it back to Britain. By this time MacGregor had high-tailed it to France, where he tried and failed to run the scam again. (He was foiled when the French government noticed the rush of applications for visas to a country that didn’t exist.) He was eventually forced to flee to Venezuela, where he later died in 1845, never properly brought to answer for his extraordinary and terrible crime.

From The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, by Edward Brooke-Hitching, published by Chronicle Books.

Why Don’t Bugs Eat People’s Bones?

ledwell/iStock via Getty Images
ledwell/iStock via Getty Images

In her new book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death, mortician and best-selling author Caitlin Doughty answers real questions she's received from kids about death, dead bodies, and decomposition. In the following excerpt, she describes why the creatures that consider skin and organs a tasty snack just don't feel the same way about our skeletons. (It's nothing personal.)

It’s a lovely summer day and you’re having lunch in the park. You bite into a fried chicken wing, munching on the crispy skin and juicy flesh. Is your next move cracking into the bones, crunching them like the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk”? Probably not.

If you yourself wouldn’t eat a pile of animal bones, why would you expect a beetle to show up and eat your bones? We expect too much from necrophages, the unsung heroes of the natural world. They are the death eaters, the organisms that fuel up by consuming dead and rotting things—and bless their hearts! Imagine, for a moment, what the world would look like without the assistance of the consumers of dead flesh. Corpses and carcasses everywhere. That road kill? It’s not going anywhere without the help of necrophages.

Necrophages do such a good job getting rid of dead things that we expect them to perform miracles. It’s like how if you do too good a job of cleaning your room, then your mom will expect perfection every time. Better to not set expectations so high. It’s just not worth the risk.

The corpse-nosher ranks are filled with diverse species. You have vultures, swooping down for a roadside snack. You have blowflies, which can smell death from up to 10 miles away. You have carrion beetles, which devour dried muscle. A dead human body is a wonderland of ecological niches, offering a wide range of homes and snacks for those inclined to eat. There are plenty of seats at death’s dinner table.

Remember the dermestid beetle? The helpful cuties we’d enlist to clean your parents’ skulls? Their job is to eat all the flesh off without damaging the bone. Let’s be clear: we don’t want them to eat the bone. Especially because other methods of flesh removal (like harsh chemicals) will not only hurt the bones, but might damage certain types of evidence, like marks on bones, which could be useful in criminal investigations. That’s why you bring in a colony of thousands of dermestids to do the dirty work. Plus, while you were over here complaining that they don’t eat enough bones, the beetles were also eating skin, hair, and feathers!

All right, but to your question: why don’t they eat bones, too? The simple answer is that eating bones is hard work. Not only that, but bones are not nutritionally useful to insects. Bones are mostly made of calcium, something insects just don’t need a lot of. Since they don’t need much calcium, insects like dermestids haven’t evolved to consume it or desire it. They’re about as interested in eating bones as you are.

But, here’s a dramatic twist: just because these beetles don’t usually eat bone doesn’t mean they won’t. It’s a cost-reward thing. Bones are a frustrating meal, but a meal is a meal. Peter Coffey, an agriculture educator at the University of Maryland, told me how he learned this firsthand when he used Dermestes maculatus to clean the skeleton of a stillborn lamb. Adult sheep bones are robust, “but in fetuses and newborns there are several places where fusion is not yet complete.” When he removed the lamb bones after the beetles finished cleaning them, “I noticed small round holes, about the diameter of a large larva.” It turns out beetles will go after less dense, delicate bones (like those of the stillborn lamb), but, Peter says, “there has to be a perfect storm of good environmental conditions and poor food availability before they’ll resort to bone, which would explain why it’s not more commonly observed.”

So, while dermestids and other flesh-eating bugs do not usually eat bone, if they get hungry enough, they will. Humans behave the same way. When Paris was under siege in the late 16th century, the city was starving. When people inside the city ran out of cats and dogs and rats to eat, they began disinterring bodies from the mass graves in the cemetery. They took the bones and ground them into flour to make what became known as Madame de Montpensier’s bread. Bone appetit! (Actually, maybe don’t bone appetit, as many who ate the bone bread died themselves.)

It seems like no creature out there wants to eat bone, really prefers bone. But wait, I haven’t introduced you to Osedax, or the bone worm. (I mean, it’s right there in the name, people. Osedax means “bone eater” or “bone devourer” in Latin.) Bone worms start as tiny larvae, floating out in the vast blackness of the deep ocean. Suddenly, emerging from the void above is a big ol’ dead creature, like a whale or an elephant seal. The bone worm attaches, and the feast begins. To be fair, even Osedax don’t really devour the minerals in the bone. Instead, they burrow into the bone searching for collagen and lipids to eat. After the whale is gone, the worms die, but not before they release enough larvae to travel the currents waiting for another carcass to comes along.

Bone worms aren’t picky. You could throw a cow, or your dad (don’t do that), overboard and they’d eat those bones, too. There is strong evidence that bone worms have been eating giant marine reptiles since the time of the dinosaurs. That means the whale eaters are older than whales themselves. Osedax are nature’s peak bone eaters, and they’re even sorta nice to look at, orangey-red floating tubes covering bones like a deep-sea shag carpet. Pretty amazing, given that scientist didn’t even know these creatures existed until 2002. Who knows what else is out there in the world, devouring bone?

The cover of 'Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death'
The cover of Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death
W.W. Norton

Reprinted from Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty. Text copyright (c) 2019 by Caitlin Doughty. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

10 Strange Questions People Asked NYPL Librarians Before Google

The New York Public Library's Rose Main Reading Room
The New York Public Library's Rose Main Reading Room
cla78/iStock via Getty Images

Some of us can barely get through a dinner conversation without consulting Google, our search histories littered with queries both banal ("Why do airlines serve peanuts?") and unusual ("Does the full moon really make people act crazy?"). But before the dawn of the internet, people often turned to librarians to answer life's little (and not-so-little) questions. A couple of years ago, staff at the New York Public Library discovered a small gray file box filled with questions posed to the venerable institution's librarians between 1940 and 1980. A new book, Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers: A Little Book of Whimsy and Wisdom from the Files of The New York Public Library collects these questions alongside answers provided by NYPL librarians today, and featuring illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Barry Blitt. We've rounded up some of our favorite questions below.

1. Is it possible to keep an octopus in a private home? (1944)

A cartoon of an octopus in armchair with coffee and pipe
Barry Blitt/St. Martin’s Publishing Group

Yes, but they require a lot of work and you better keep a tight lid on their tank. Octopuses are excellent escape artists. A good place to start your research is The Octopus News Magazine Online. Want to learn more about these creatures in general? You can find books about octopuses at your local library under the Dewey number 594.56.

2. What is the significance of the hip movement in the Hawaiian dance? (1944)

It’s complicated, depending greatly on the specific movement and the context in which it is placed given that the Hawaiian hula is a sacred ritual dance in which every movement of the performer is codified and deeply symbolic. As definitive a book as it gets is Mahealani Uchiyama’s 2016 The Haumana Hula Handbook for Students of Hawaiian Dance, which describes in depth the origins, language, etiquette, ceremonies, and the spiritual culture of hula. Ultimately though, the full significance could never be communicated in writing—to paraphrase the famed apothegm, writing about hip movements is like singing about architecture.

3. What time does a bluebird sing? (1944)

Well, the eastern bluebird sings whenever it is motivated to. Most often, males are motivated by seeing nice female bluebirds they want to court, or seeing them laying eggs (at which time they sing softly, which is sweet). Females are motivated to sing more rarely, but may do so when they see predators.

You can hear their recorded song at the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and learn more through Vassar College’s page as well.

4. How much did Napoleon’s brain weigh? (1945)

Unfortunately, Napoleon’s brain was never weighed after his death on St. Helena in 1821. In the 19th century there was a belief that the size of a person’s brain had a correlation with one’s intelligence, and there were a great number of estimates and speculation as to the weight of Napoleon’s brain. However, French officials refused the request of one of Napoleon’s physicians at the autopsy to open Napoleon’s head surgically and it was left intact—although almost bald from the amount of hair Napoleon had sent to his family and friends as mementos.

5. Can mice throw up? (1949)

A cartoon of mice on a roller coaster
Barry Blitt/St. Martin’s Publishing Group

A study titled “Why Can’t Rodents Vomit? A Comparative Behavioral, Anatomical, and Physiological Study,” published in 2013 in PLOS One, concluded that they cannot and that “absent brainstem neurological component is the most likely cause.” Their brains are just not wired for this action.

6. What kind of apple did Eve eat? (1956)

The Bible fails to identify the varietal type of fruit, noting only that it was “seeded.” (It is depicted as a pomegranate and not an apple in all early representations.) The actual type of apple, however, is irrelevant to understanding the parable. The fruit symbolized the knowledge of good and evil. In this librarian’s opinion, that sounds sinfully delicious.

7. What is the life cycle of an eyebrow hair? (1948)

There are three phases in the life of an eyebrow hair: Anagen (growth), Catagen (resting or intermediate), and Telogen (shedding), with the average life span being about four months. According to the Bosley Hair Transplant Company, the average person has 250 to 500 hairs per eyebrow. The older you get, the longer it takes to grow eyebrow hair.

8. What did women use for shopping bags before paper bags came into use? (n.d.)

A cartoon of a woman carrying piles of groceries in her skirts
Barry Blitt/St. Martin’s Publishing Group

The paper bag was invented in 1852, the handled shopping bag in 1912. Plastic shopping bags rose to prominence in the 1960s before achieving worldwide shopping domination by the early 1980s. Prior to the common use of a common bag, women—and men for that matter—used their hands and arms and any other vessel at their disposal to carry as much as they possibly could. The paper bag was actually invented so that shoppers could purchase more at one time!

9. What is the nutritional value of human flesh? (1958)

Hannibal Lecter would truly have to be a serial killer—if he intended to live solely from human flesh. The human body is edible and there have been documented instances of human cannibalism for thousands of years and across many cultures. And human flesh has been used as one form of nutrition from Paleolithic times to those desperate for food in twentieth-century concentration camps and among survivors of disasters in remote areas.

However, according to one recent study of “nutritional human cannibalism” during the Paleolithic (when there was no evidence cannibalism was practiced for a spiritual or ritual purpose) the human body is not an optimal resource in terms of the sheer number of calories that it provides when compared to other sources of meat. The study estimates that, if consumed, a human body would provide an average of 125,000 to 144,000 calories. This means that the meat on one human’s body could have provided a group of twenty-five modern adult males with enough calories to survive for only about half a day. In contrast, that same tribe during Paleolithic times could have feasted on a mammoth that, with 3.6 million calories, would have provided enough sustenance for sixty days. Even a steppe bison would offer 612,000 calories, which is enough for ten days of nourishment.

The study suggests that because humans offered such a comparatively low amount of calories that some examples of Paleolithic cannibalism that had been interpreted as “nutritional” may have occurred for social or cultural reasons.

10. Who was the real Dracula? (1972)

For an answer to this question look no further than Bram Stoker’s Notes and Outlines for Dracula that are held in the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. In her book Dracula: Sense and Nonsense, Elizabeth Miller writes that Stoker got the idea for the name Dracula from the book An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Maldovia by William Wilkinson that the author borrowed from the Whitby Public Library. In his notes he wrote “Dracula in the Wallachian language means devil.”

11. Why do 18th-century English paintings have so many squirrels in them, and how did they tame them so that they wouldn’t bite the painter? (1976)

For upper-class families of the 1700s, squirrels were very popular pets. Children truly enjoyed these fluffy devil-may-care rodents so naturally they made their way into portraits and paintings of the time. In most cases, however, the painter would use a reference from books on nature and animals rather than live squirrels, thus bypassing the need to tame them to sit still and pose!

From Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers: A Little Book of Whimsy and Wisdom from the Files of The New York Public Library by The New York Public Library and illustrated by Barry Blitt. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

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