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YESTERDAY IN Part 1, Michel Chasles was ecstatic having bought a letter from fellow Frenchman Denis Vrain-Lucas. This letter proved that French scientist Blaise Pascal had figured out gravitation before upstart Englishman Isaac Newton. Here in Part 2, we learn that Chasles was sufficiently well off to scarf up other interesting ephemera offered by Vrain-Lucas, though not necessarily to the advantage of both.
Denis Vrain-Lucas trained as a law clerk, but soon sensed that forgery had a greater potential for wealth. For sixteen years, 1854–1869, Vrain-Lucas passed off some 27,000 faux autographs, documents, and ephemera as legitimate. His scamming of Chasles and other marks earned him hundreds of thousands of francs. Chasles, for example, spent 140,000 to 150,000 francs for his Vrain-Lucas-provided treasures.
An Adept Forger? Vrain-Lucas taught himself the specifics of earlier writing materials and ink, then researched what could have been a significant document from that era. Buyers were enthusiastic, especially when ephemera showed la Belle France in a good light.
On the other hand, Vrain-Lucas had a certain Francophilic flaw of his own: His forgeries to Chasles included six from Alexander the Great to Aristotle, one from Cleopatra to Caesar, one from Mary Magdalene to a revived Lazarus, and one from Lazarus to St. Peter. All of these were in French.
The Scam Revealed. It’s likely Chasles didn’t examine each of his 27,000 treasures, but he clearly was proud of the Pascal document. The French Academy of Science examined it in 1867 and discovered anachronisms. Also, its handwriting didn’t agree with other examples of Pascal penmanship.
Not to be put off by this, Vrain-Lucas concocted other forgeries that explained away his oversights. La meilleure défense est une bonne attaque.
In his book In Mathematical Circles, Howard Eves writes, “But after several years of controversy, Chasles had to acknowledge defeat…. Lucas was sent to prison for two years.”
Eves cites an interesting Vrain-Lucas defense: “…. Chasles had really received his money’s worth… the controversy and trial had stimulated in the public a healthy interest in history… the debates in the Academy had been much more exciting than usual.”
But Wait! There’s More. According to Wikipedia, “In 2004, the journal Critical Inquiry published a recently ‘discovered’ 1871 letter written by Vrain-Lucas (from prison) to Chasles….”
This letter too was a forgery. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018