The Eccentric British Headmaster Who Never Existed

iStock (man) / Dan Kitwood/Getty Images (Cambridge)
iStock (man) / Dan Kitwood/Getty Images (Cambridge)

For several weeks in 1948, strange letters began circulating through the British postal system. Most were addressed to headmasters at elite schools across the country; all were written by one H. Rochester Sneath, headmaster of a minor public school called Selhurst. Not a single one of the letters' recipients had ever heard of Sneath or Selhurst—because neither ever existed.

The eccentric headmaster of Selhurst, said to be located near Petworth, Sussex, penned a series of letters to other school leaders, full of weird complaints and even more bizarre pieces of advice. Sneath asked for help in dealing with rats and exorcisms, requested help finding a sex education teacher, and discussed plans for "an exhibition of Schoolboy Art [for] South America,” whatever that might have been. 

To the headmaster at Oundle in Northamptonshire, he wrote seeking help for an infestation of rodents:

No less than sixty-four rats of various shapes and sizes have been discovered in the precincts of the School with the result that three Matrons have had nervous breakdowns, and the wife of the Chairman of the Board of Governors, who was lunching with me and my wife, had a fit of hysteria upon seeing no less than six of these creatures, and collapsed in a heap, having to be carried away in a blanket.

To the headmaster of Tonbridge in Kent, whom he addressed as “Rootie,” he wrote:

You will doubtless remember old ‘Tubby’ Sneath—well it will give you a helluva shock, you old bounder, because last year I took on the Headship here. Do you remember prophesying my early death in a South American brothel? I must say that I never imagined that you would get muddled up in this racket either, and imagine my surprise when I returned from India to be told that the man whom I had carried home, drunk as a coot seven times a week, should have got a job. At least I presume the Headmaster of Tonbridge is you!

The alarmed headmaster wrote back:

I have received from you a letter opening ‘Dear Rootie’. It is not intended for me though addressed to the Headmaster of Tonbridge. In view of the contents of the letter I should be obliged if you would send me the name of the person to whom you have written as Headmaster of Tonbridge and on what the incorrect information is based; for if it is widely presumed that he is Headmaster of Tonbridge that needs correcting for reasons obvious to you.

The head of Marlborough College, one F.M. Heywood, was also a frequent target. On March 15, 1948, Sneath wrote a letter asking how Heywood had “managed to engineer” the school’s recent visit from the King and Queen. (Sneath explained that Selhurst was hoping for its own royal visit in celebration of its 300th anniversary, noting that “the nephew of a Balkan monarch” had once been a student.) Heyworth wrote back in a huff, saying "I did nothing whatever to engineer the recent royal visit … No doubt the fact that the King’s Private Secretary, the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop  of Canterbury are all Old Marlburians had something to do with the matter.”

Not to be put off, Sneath wrote to Heywood again. This time, he wanted to discuss Mr. Robert Agincourt, a former French teacher at Selhurst now said to be applying for a post at Marlborough. Sneath wrote to warn against this possibility, and several paragraphs are worth quoting in full:

You will understand that nothing that I have to say about Mr. Agincourt is actuated by any personal malice but I feel it my duty to inform you of the impression that he gave while he was at Selhurst.

During his brief stay no less than five boys were removed from the school as a result of his influence, and three of the Matrons had nervous breakdowns. The pictures on the walls of his rooms made a visiting Bishop shudder and would certainly rule out another Royal visit. His practices were described by the Chairman of the County Hospital as ‘Hunnish.’ The prominent wart on his nose was wittily described as ‘the blot on the twentieth century’ by a visiting conjuror.

As you cannot fail to have noticed, his personal appearance is against him, and, after one memorable Carol Service, a titled Lady who was sitting next to him collapsed in a heap. He was once observed climbing a tree in the School Grounds naked at night and on another occasion he threw a flower pot at the wife of the Chairman of the Board of Governors.

Heywood responded that he'd never heard of the man. Sneath wrote back saying that Agincourt had abandoned the idea of an academic career and had become a waiter in a Greek restaurant in Soho. He also asked for the name of a good private detective, and a competent nursery maid. 

Sneath targeted more than just headmasters. He invited George Bernard Shaw to speak at the school's 300th anniversary celebrations, “in view of the long-standing connection between your late wife’s family and Selhurst school.” (Shaw wrote back: “Never heard of any such connection.”) He wrote to Scottish sculptor William Reid Dick asking him to create a statue of Selhurst’s founder “Puritan leader Ebenezer Okeshot." (Dick was interested, but Sneath never followed up.) He also asked Giles Gilbert Scott to design a new building at the school (the architect politely declined).

Most of Sneath’s correspondents fell for his ruse, but some were smart enough to smell a prank. One was John Sinnott, headmaster of Wimbledon College. During their correspondence about a potential exorcism designed to rid Selhurst of the ghost of a matron who committed suicide after having been seduced by a housemaster, Sinnott requested a packet of salt "capable of being taken up in pinches.”

Sneath’s unmasking came after he wrote to The Daily Worker, complaining that he was being prevented from teaching Russian at Selhurst. A curious reporter from the News Review investigated, and after being unable to verify any of Selhurst’s contact information, or any other trace of its official existence, exposed the hoax. The source of the letters: Humphrey Berkeley, a future Conservative Minister of Parliament, then an undergrad at Cambridge University. After Berkeley was exposed, he was formally rebuked by Cambridge officials, and forbidden from visiting the school for two years.

Berkeley went on to earn his degree from Cambridge, and was elected as a Conservative MP in 1959, the same year Margaret Thatcher got her start in Parliament (Berkeley's political career was considered more promising). His political life was relatively unremarkable, but in 1974 he published an illustrated collection of the Sneath letters, entitled The Life And Death Of Rochester Sneath: A Youthful Frivolity. Given his political post, Berkeley took care to downplay his mischievousness, calling Sneath’s existence “the only practical joke I have ever played in my life.” Today Sneath lives on not only in the book, but with his own Twitter account, appropriately used to annoy teachers around the world.

When Theodore Roosevelt Refused Geronimo's Plea

Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Frank A. Rinehart, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On March 4, 1905, Theodore Roosevelt settled in to watch his first inaugural parade. Though he'd been president since the 1901 assassination of William McKinley, this was the first time Roosevelt would get to enjoy the full pomp and ceremony, as Army regiments, West Point cadets, and military bands streamed down Pennsylvania Avenue in the warm March air. Standing in the president's box with his guests, Roosevelt at times clapped and swung his hat in the air to show his appreciation.

Suddenly, six men on horseback appeared in the procession. They were Native American leaders and warriors, "arrayed in all the glory of feathers and war paint," according to The New York Times report the next day. According to Herman J. Viola, they were “Little Plume, Piegan Blackfoot; Buckskin Charley, Ute; ... Quanah Parker, Comanche; Hollow Horn Bear, Brulé Sioux; and American Horse, Oglala Sioux.” The eldest man, leading the group, was "the once-feared Geronimo," as the Times put it.

The inclusion of the Apache elder was not without controversy. For a quarter-century, Geronimo had attacked Mexican and American troops and civilians, putting up a fierce resistance to settler encroachment. That bloody history—though often sensationalized by press reports—still loomed large during the parade: According to Smithsonian, a member of the 1905 inaugural committee asked Roosevelt, “Why did you select Geronimo to march in your parade, Mr. President? He is the greatest single-handed murderer in American history.”

Roosevelt replied, “I wanted to give the people a good show.”

But unlike the other parade participants, Geronimo wasn't there entirely willingly. He was a prisoner of war. And a few days later, he'd beg Roosevelt for his release.

A Bitter Legacy

Theodore Roosevelt was no friend of America's First Nations. During his childhood, he read books that contained stereotypes of Native Americas, and he and his siblings would, as he wrote in his autobiography, "[play] Indians in too realistic manner by staining ourselves (and incidentally our clothes) in a liberal fashion with poke-cherry juice.” He carried what he had read into adulthood, saying at a lecture in New York while away from his ranch in the Dakotas in the late 19th century that, "I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

As president, he supported the allotment system, which broke up reservations and forced Native peoples onto smaller, individually-owned lots—essentially remaking traditional land practices in the dominant white image. In his first message to Congress, Roosevelt called the General Allotment Act “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” Roosevelt also favored programs like Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879 to forcibly assimilate Native American children. Students were given new names and clothes, baptized, and forbidden to speak their languages. "In dealing with the Indians our aim should be their ultimate absorption into the body of our people,” Roosevelt said in his second message to Congress.

For most of his life, Geronimo aggressively resisted such attempts at assimilation. Born in the 1820s and named Goyahkla—"One Who Yawns"—near what is now the Arizona-New Mexico border, his life changed forever after his wife, mother, and small children were murdered by Mexican soldiers in the 1850s. Afterwards, Geronimo began attacking any Mexicans he could find; conflict with American settlers soon followed. It is said that his nickname, Geronimo, may have come about after one of his victims screamed for help from Saint Jerome, or Jeronimo/Geronimo in Spanish.

In the 1870s, the Chiricahua Apache were forced onto a reservation in Arizona, but Geronimo and his men repeatedly escaped. Eventually, as Gilbert King writes for Smithsonian, "Badly outnumbered and exhausted by a pursuit that had gone on for 3000 miles ... [Geronimo] finally surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, in 1886 and turned over his Winchester rifle and Sheffield Bowie knife."

The next chapter of Geronimo's life included being shuffled from Florida to Alabama to Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory while watching his fellow Apaches die of one disease after another. He was also repeatedly turned into a tourist attraction, appearing at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and even joining Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show (according to King, under Army guard), where he was billed as "The Worst Indian That Ever Lived."

Geronimo's Tearful Request

The 1905 meeting between Roosevelt, Geronimo, and some of the other Native American men took place a few days after the inauguration, once the crowds had thinned out and things had calmed down a little. Geronimo addressed Roosevelt through an interpreter, calling him "Great Father." According to one contemporary account, Norman Wood’s Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs, he began, "Great Father, I look to you as I look to God. When I see your face I think I see the face of the Great Spirit. I come here to pray to you to be good to me and to my people."

After describing his youthful days on the warpath, which the septuagenarian Geronimo now called foolish, he said, "My heart was bad then, but I did not know it." Now, however, he said, "My heart is good and my talk is straight."

With a tear running down his cheek, he got to the heart of the matter: "Great Father, other Indians have homes where they can live and be happy. I and my people have no homes. The place where we are kept is bad for us. Our cattle can not live in that place. We are sick there and we die. White men are in the country that was my home. ... I pray you to cut the ropes and make me free. Let me die in my own country, an old man who has been punished enough and is free."

According to a March 1905 New York Tribune article, Roosevelt said, “I cannot do so now ... We must wait a while and see how you and your people act. You must not forget that when you were in Arizona you had a bad heart; you killed many of my people; you burned villages; you stole horses and cattle, and were not good Indians.” But it seems at some point, Roosevelt softened—according to Wood, Roosevelt said, “Geronimo, I do not see how I can grant your prayer. You speak truly when you say that you have been foolish. I am glad that you have ceased to commit follies. I am glad that you are trying to live at peace and in friendship with the white people.

"I have no anger in my heart against you," Roosevelt went on. But, he said, "You must remember that there are white people in your old home. It is probable that some of these have bad hearts toward you. If you went back there some of these men might kill you, or make trouble for your people. It is hard for them to forget that you made trouble for them. I should have to interfere between you. There would be more war and more bloodshed. My country has had enough of these troubles."

The president reminded Geronimo that he was not confined indoors in Fort Sill, and allowed to farm, cut timber, and earn money. He promised, "I will confer with the Commissioner and with the Secretary of War about your case, but I do not think I can hold out any hope for you. That is all that I can say, Geronimo, except that I am sorry, and have no feeling against you."

Geronimo's request was never granted. Four years later, in 1909, he died after falling from a horse and developing pneumonia. The Chicago Daily Tribune printed the headline: “Geronimo Now [a] Good Indian."

At least, he was finally free.

Mental Floss has a podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

5 Facts About Charles Ponzi and the Original Ponzi Scheme

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Some of the most infamous scams in history have been Ponzi schemes, but before Bernie Madoff (or Bitcoin), there was Charles Ponzi himself. The con he built was so successful that his last name became synonymous with fraud. In January 2020, a century after he set up his fraudulent Securities Exchange Company, the phrase Ponzi scheme is still used to describe any scheme in which funds from new investors are used to pay back old investors. Here are some facts about Ponzi and his scheme that you should know.

1. Charles Ponzi arrived in the U.S. with $2.50 in his pocket.

Charles Ponzi was born in Lugo, Italy, in 1882. As a young adult, he worked as a postal worker and studied at the University of Roma La Sapienza. Neither path panned out for him, however. In 1903, when faced with dwindling funds, Ponzi boarded a ship for America in search of a better life. But Ponzi wasn't a master hustler at this point in his life; he arrived in Boston with $2.50 after gambling away the rest of his life savings on the ship.

2. Charles Ponzi spent time in prison before his famous scheme.

Ponzi was no stranger to crime before concocting the scheme that made his surname infamous. Not long after arriving in Boston, he moved to Canada and got in trouble for forging checks. He spent two years in a Canadian prison for his offenses. Back in the U.S., he served a term in federal prison for illegally transporting five Italians immigrants across the Canadian border. It was only after his so-called Ponzi scheme began to crumble that his criminal history was made public by journalists, thus speeding up his downfall.

3. Charles Ponzi got rich off the postal system.

In 1920, Ponzi discovered the key to the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme: an international postal reply coupon worth $.05. It had been included in a parcel he received from Spain as prepayment for his reply postage. Thanks to an international treaty, the voucher could be exchanged for one U.S. postage stamp worth a nickel, which Ponzi could then sell. Ponzi knew that the value of the Spanish peseta had recently fallen in relation to the dollar, which meant that the coupon was actually worth more than the 30 centavos used to purchase it in Spain. He took this concept to the extreme by recruiting people back home in Italy to buy postal reply coupons in bulk from countries with weak economies, so that he could redeem them in the U.S. for a profit.

4. Charles Ponzi swindled $20 million from investors.

Ponzi technically wasn’t breaking any laws with his postal service transactions, and if he had kept his idea to himself he would have gotten away with it. Instead, he turned his small money-making operation into a wide-reaching scam. If people invested money into his “business” of cashing in foreign postal vouchers, which he dubbed the Securities Exchange Company, they would get their money back plus 50 percent interest in 90 days. The deal was too good for many investors to pass up.

It was also too good to be true: The money wasn’t being used to buy coupons overseas. Ponzi kept most of the investments for himself and used the flood of money coming in from new investors to pay off the old ones. Many investors were so thrilled with their returns that they invested whatever money they had made back into the business, which helped Ponzi keep the sham afloat.

Ponzi was finally rich and famous, but soon enough, cracks in the scheme started to form. The Boston Post launched an investigation into Ponzi and revealed that in order for his business to be functional, he would need to be moving 160 million vouchers across world borders. There were only 27,000 postal reply coupons in circulation at the time. The final blow came when the publicist he had hired to represent him came out against him to the public. His system fell apart and it was revealed that he had stolen $20 million from investors.

Because he had lied to his clients about their investments through the mail, Ponzi was ultimately charged by the federal government for mail fraud. He served three-and-a-half years in prison and then served an additional nine years for state charges.

5. Charles Ponzi didn’t invent the Ponzi scheme.

Though Ponzi schemes were eventually named for him, Charles Ponzi didn’t invent this type of scam. There were many crooks before him who used the same method to exploit investors. Charles Dickens even wrote pre-Ponzi Ponzi schemes into his 1857 novel Little Doritt.

It’s possible that Ponzi got the idea for his own fraud from William F. Miller, who pulled a similar stunt working as a bookkeeper in Brooklyn in 1899. But it was the highs of Ponzi’s success—and the lows of his demise—that made his story so memorable.

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