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Fake News, Folk News, and the Fate of Far Away Moses

Headline proclaiming "Far Away Moses Dead" with a crawler stating "Mark Twain Shocked...Paul McCartney Tweets: 'Live and Let Die.'"

Fake News story generated with the “Break Your Own News” meme generator.

Note: this is the fifth, and probably the last, post on Folklife Today concerning Far Away Moses, a nineteenth century Jewish guide and merchant whose face was the model for one of the “keystone heads” sculpted in stone on the outside of the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson building. For the other posts about Moses, visit the following links:
[The Folklore of Far Away Moses]
[The Faith of Far Away Moses: Yom Kippur 1893]
[The Name of Far Away Moses]
[The Family of Far Away Moses: Tourism, Commerce and Folklife in the 19th Century]

Here in Washington, and across the country, the last few months have made many of us aware of the rise of “fake news.” It influenced many events in the DC area, including protests and threats against the Comet Ping Pong Pizza restaurant, which were based on false reports of terrible crimes.  For us in the nation’s capital, “fake news” was a frequent topic of real news. (The AFC staff even made reference to it in our holiday mummers play!) Still, I didn’t expect to come across fake news in my research into the 19th-century tour guide and merchant Far Away Moses…but as it happens I did. This post will tell that story, and a few others along the way.

The Death and Life of Far Away Moses

Far Away Moses was a dragoman and merchant who was active in Istanbul, Cairo, and several American cities during the 19th century. He was best known for having been Mark Twain’s guide in Istanbul, and thus mentioned in The Innocents Abroad, but he was also written about by many contemporary writers who traveled in the Ottoman Empire.  He also visited the United States, when his company opened a chain of Oriental rug stores in major American cities with Moses as their manager; he seems to have lived in the US for most of the 1870s before going home to Constantinople. He then returned to the US in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition, at which he was one of the leaders of the Ottoman delegation. [1]

Now for the fake news: in late 1893, soon after the Exposition, Far Away Moses was the subject of what today might be called a “celebrity death hoax.” A strange conspiracy theory emerged involving Moses’s death and replacement by an impostor. The story is recorded, as far as I can tell, in just one source: an unsigned article on page 371 of the December 9, 1893 Scientific American weekly supplement, which came out soon after the Exposition closed down in Chicago:

Every visitor at the Exposition heard a great deal about fakes in Midway Plaisance, and no doubt encountered several of them, but one deception has just come to light which will disappoint many people. Probably no character in the Midway was talked about more than Far Away Moses, who was connected with the Constantinople bazar. This individual was made famous by Mark Twain, and nearly every American who has visited Constantinople since Mark Twain’s memorable visit has made use of this guide. When the Constantinople bazar was opened it was heralded broadcast that Far Away Moses was on hand to receive his old friends and patrons and scores of these people have hunted him up. Since the Exposition has closed, it has been discovered that the original Far Away Moses died some three years ago and that this counterpart is an individual resembling him who was brought to Chicago because of the trade he might draw because of his name.

Portrait of Far Away Moses in jacket, waist sash, and head wrap, with a gray beard.

This portrait of Moses accompanied an article by Francis Hopksinson Smith. All the other watercolors in that article are Hopkinson Smith’s own work, but this one is signed by the famous portrait etcher Jacques Reich. It may be a watercolor by Hopkinson Smith that used an etching by Reich as a model. Reich is not mentioned anywhere in the magazine or the book where the article and picture were published.

 

To be clear, I do not find this story remotely plausible. Over 200 people made up the Ottoman delegation to the World’s Columbian Exposition, four-fifths of them Jews. [2] Most of them would have known Moses as a celebrated member of their own small community, and would have been aware this ersatz Moses was not the genuine article. As the Scientific American article itself points out, scores of American tourists who knew Moses personally from meeting him in Cairo or Istanbul met him again on the Midway, so he would have had to fool them as well. In addition to this, as I mentioned above, Moses had lived in the United States for a good part of the 1870s, and had spent some of that time living in Chicago, so he would have had many visitors who knew him quite well, not just people who had seen him once while on a foreign trip. All of these people would have to be deceived, or else be in on the deception.

Among guests who visited Far Away Moses on the “Midway Plaisance” at the Expo, there were some who claimed intimate acquaintance with him, and some of these recounted their experiences in writing. To give one example, the great writer and artist Francis Hopkinson Smith wrote of a visit with Moses during the Expo:

My old and valued friend, Far-away Moses, I say, invited me to dinner. I have enjoyed this especial privilege very often in his own bazaar in Stamboul, and the aroma of the Mocha and the soothing qualities of his Narghilehs have haunted me ever since. Now thanks to his courtesy I can enjoy them every day.

We talk of the old days in Stamboul and of the morning we spent at the bath where I was parboiled and rubbed full of holes by two insufficiently clad Greeks; and then of the festival night at Saint Sophia when, as a member of his household, I entered the Sacred Mosque barefooted and befezzed. [3] Later on a lighted lantern is brought in and we follow another gorgeous slave into the mysteries of my host’s private apartments, where a repast of kebabs and boiled rice is served.

It certainly doesn’t seem plausible that Smith could have had this long session of reminiscences with “an old and valued friend,” without once suspecting he was visiting an impostor.

After Far Away Moses returned to his native land, people continued to report seeing and meeting with him until the early 20th century. In 1902, William Eleazar Barton published The Old World in the New Century, and wrote the following:

Portrait of W.E. Barton, about sixty years old, dressed in a formal suit.

William Eleazar Barton, who met Moses several years after the Exposition, was an eminent figure of his day, a theologian and historian best known to general audiences for his biographies of Abraham Lincoln. Folklorists know him for his collection of African American spirituals, Old Plantation Hymns.

We had a guide in Constantinople, “Moses No. 1.” He is not “Far-away Moses,” but counts himself quite as good a guide. We counted him among the best of our guides. The former Moses is in a store, finding it more profitable to sell goods on his reputation than to continue as a cicerone. We visited his bazaar and met him. He has been in America, and I think is an American citizen. Indeed, it surprised us to find that a good many people had come to America the year of the World’s Fair, and had become naturalized and returned. Moses’ employer or partner is one of these, and speaks English well. [4]

“Moses’ employer or partner,” mentioned by Barton, was probably Robert Levy, a partner in the firm where Moses was employed.  Levy is also described as Moses’s employer by Mary Frances Willard in Along Mediterranean Shores, a book for high school students evidently written about a trip taken some time after the Exposition, and hence at least five or so years after Moses’s supposed death:

The largest bazaar belongs to a man named Levy, who has a famous salesman nicknamed ‘Far -away Moses.’ This man was at the World’s Fair in Chicago and speaks excellent English. He chats with all of the Americans who wander in and out of his rooms, and offers each one a tiny brass cup of Turkish coffee, which is made by boiling finely ground coffee and sugar together for a long time. It is so strong that it is bitter, and yet it is very sweet. Levy’s bazaar is on two floors in several connecting houses. Here we see men and women weaving the handsome rugs we call Turkish, most of which, however, as we know, are woven in Syria. [5]

Finally, I’ll mention The Ship Dwellers, which describes a trip undertaken by Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain’s biographer, intending to follow in the footsteps of his idol. Paine describes a procession he witnessed headed by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, and in a footnote tells us that it was only a few weeks later, in April 1909, that the Sultan was dethroned. This dates his trip to early 1909. During this same stay in Constantinople, Paine made a visit to Far Away Moses’s shop:

The Isles of the Princes, Or, The Pleasures of Prinkipo

This portrait of Far Away Moses was included in the book The Isles of the Princes, Or, The Pleasures of Prinkipo by Samuel S. Cox, describing the author’s experiences in 1886. The photo may come from an earlier year, however.

We called at the bazaar of Far-away Moses, but he wasn’t there. He died only a little while ago, and has gone to that grand bazaar of delight which the Mohammedans have selected as their heaven. [6]

If we can trust these accounts, then, whoever was known after the Exposition as “Far Away Moses” continued to do Moses’s job for the same company Moses had long worked for, until he died in 1908 or early 1909.

Given all this, the story in Scientific American simply can’t be true without a massive conspiracy, a large number of very unobservant people—or, more likely, both operating at once. To believe it, you’d have to imagine that 200 Ottoman subjects kept a secret so well it was only reported in one place. You’d need to believe that the impostor fooled scores more people, including close friends of the man he was impersonating—or that they were in on the scam. And finally, you’d need to believe that the ruse was continued, with the impostor Moses still employed as a bazaar manager by the Sadullah, Levy & Vve. Souhami Company for a further fourteen years after the Exposition was over, without being discovered, and for no particularly pressing reason.

Fake News or Folk News?

So, is this an example of 19th century “fake news?” Russell Frank, who studies the appearances of folklore in journalism as well as the use of current events in online folklore, defines “fake news” as “intentionally false reports” “written in conformity with journalistic style.” He makes the distinction of “intentionally false” to distinguish “fake news” from news stories that are simply mistaken, or that have been written by authors taken in by a hoax. [7] This story about Far Away Moses was not written in newspaper style. But it was written in the style of the column in which it appeared, which was itself part of a mainstream magazine. We don’t know who the author of the story was, and we likewise can’t prove or disprove any particular motivation on the part of Scientific American.  On the other hand, the “celebrity death hoax” is a recognized genre of fake news, and this story fits right into that mold. The bottom line seems to be that by some (but not all) definitions, this piece qualifies as “fake news.”

Of course, “fake news” may not be a useful way to frame matters anyway. In an interesting recent article for Culture Digitally, Whitney Phillips points out that stories are interesting on many levels, beyond whether they are true or false. “Fake news” stories may be fascinating for reasons that have nothing to do with their objective truth.  She proposes the term “folkloric news” or even “folk news” as a substitute, a suggestion subsequently picked up by New York Magazine.

Although the term “folk news” seems handy, I am uncomfortable with a simple substitution of “folk news” for “fake news.” For too long, “folklore” was used as a substitute for “popular error” or “untrue stories believed to be true.” Some dictionaries still use this definition, since it’s still in common usage.  But folklorists have rejected the identification of folklore with falsity for many years, not least because it casts the people who carry on folk traditions as gullible rubes.  (See my colleague at The Angry Scholar for more on this issue.) Since (by our definition) folk stories are not necessarily false, “folk news” is not necessarily “fake.” Folklore and news intersect in many interesting ways, after all, and many real news stories have folkloric traits as well.  Thus, “fake news” may be no more or less folkloric than “real news,” a point we’ll return to later.

Newspaper clipping of Wanamaker's ad.

This excerpt from the Wanamaker’s ad of April 6, 1892 is a composite image bringing together two sections. The full ad is very long, and occupied more than a full column of the newspaper page.

Still, Phillips makes a good point that applies to the Far Away Moses story when she says that it would be better to use “a frame that foregrounds why a particular story is believed, and what that belief reveals about the broader cultural landscape—not just whether or not the story is true.” True or not, it’s not difficult to imagine why such a story might arise about Moses, nor why it would be appealing and believable in America in 1893. We’ve already seen in my previous post that for years, there had actually been impostors who pretended to be Moses in order to pick up tourist business in the bazaars of Cairo and Constantinople. So, people who had only read about Moses might know him as someone who was often impersonated by hucksters. Moreover, it’s possible that some people, having been fooled by a fake Far Away Moses overseas, might have met the real Moses in Chicago and thought HE was the impostor. This could create a situation where some people started the rumor in good faith, and others were ready to believe it.

On the level of the broader culture and community, as I’ve pointed out before, there were people who had long wished to discredit Far Away Moses, including department stores with which he competed. Not long before the Expo, Wanamaker’s (with whom Moses had directly competed by opening a Philadelphia store in the 1870s) ran an ad that tried not only to discredit Moses specifically, but to suggest that anyone with Ottoman origins was untrustworthy:

The humbug of Far-away Moses has often been punctured and yet foreign travelers in Turkey are still swindled in Constantinople. Devious and crafty Armenian ways are grafted upon American trading in Oriental Embroideries and Rugs. Childlike and bland, dignified and solemn, mysterious and mystical are the manners; artful and subtle the methods by which the credulous are cajoled into purchasing ‘bargains’ that pay fabulous profits.

To press its point home as to who can and cannot be trusted, the Wanamaker’s ad continues:

The Orient is the region of romance.  The English literature of Oriental merchandise is too often Orientally romantic. Tested by Occidental accuracy the wonder vanishes away.

For those who were aware that Moses was Jewish, antisemitism probably played a role as well.  Some observers, while admitting that Moses himself was probably honest, nevertheless distrusted the whole class of Jewish merchants from which he came.  In his Moss Gathered by a Rolling Stone, for example, Richard Ferguson wrote:

Travellers, almost invariably, are victimized by their dragoman who, of course, gets a percentage on their purchases, and has his favourite tradesmen, or they fall into the hands of Jew brokers, of whom the most famous, much patronized by Americans, is Far-Away-Moses of Constantinople and Cairo, a man as honest as an Eastern can be expected to be.

Remember that if Moses had been replaced by an impostor in 1893,  it would not have been Moses himself who was committing a deception, but others in his profession. In other words, in the imaginations of travelers like Ferguson, it would have been the predatory and unsavory dragomans and “Jew brokers” deceiving the public in the hopes of making a buck.

Like both fake and real news, then, this story might spread because it confirmed people’s preconceived attitudes or biases. “We knew Jews and Ottoman merchants were untrustworthy,” they might say, “and here is one more outrageous way they have deceived us!”

In some cases, there was even poetic justice in the idea that Far Away Moses was an impostor: for followers of Wanamaker’s, who had complained of “the humbug of far-away Moses,” how sweet it must have been to find evidence that he literally was a humbug!

Moses and St. Paul: Celebrity Death and Cover-Up

McCartney 1964

Paul McCartney on stage playing a show at the King’s Hall, Belfast on November 2, 1964. Photo by Nick Newbery. This item was shared to the Flickr Commons by the Public Records Office, Northern Ireland, with no known copyright restrictions.

Clearly, the legend of Moses’s death was affected by the prejudices of his age. However, the creation and spread of this kind of legend is not limited to xenophobes and others with an ax to grind, nor is it entirely grounded in the prejudices of a particular era. In fact, it’s hard not to notice how much this story resembles one of the most popular journalistic legends of about 70 years later, which still lives on today in current “fake news”: the story that Paul McCartney was killed in 1966 and replaced by an impostor.

This combination of legend and conspiracy theory first arose in 1969. It is so well known it has its own acronym (PID for “Paul Is Dead”), entire books devoted to it, numerous websites and articles, and its own Wikipedia page.

According to one of many sites devoted to the legend, one of the most detailed accounts was published in a 1969 fan magazine called Paul McCartney Dead: The Great Hoax. The magazine claims that Paul was killed in a car accident in November 1966, after which the Beatles’ record company got involved:

Not wanting to lose potential record sales, record company executives suppressed the story of Paul’s death and brought in a lookalike to replace him. For some reason (this is the part where you have to suspend disbelief) the surviving Beatles agreed to go along with this scheme, but they left clues on all of their subsequent albums about Paul’s death and the impostor who took his place. Paul’s stand-in was a man named William Campbell, who had won a Paul McCartney lookalike contest. With a little plastic surgery, William Campbell had taken Paul’s place in photos of the group. The surgery had been successful except for a small scar above his lip. And, as luck would have it, William Campbell could also sing and just happened to be a songwriter with an exceptional ear for pop melodies.

McCartney2

This Paul played in the Coolidge Auditorium on June 1, 2010, to celebrate winning the Library’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. I doubt he is the impostor William Campbell. For one thing, he’s apparently wearing the same classic suit as the real Paul wore 50 years ago! Photo by Abby Brack Lewis.

The features that the Paul McCartney story has in common with the Far Away Moses story are clear: the untimely death of a celebrity; partners of that celebrity who wish to continue making money from his fame; the scheme to hire an impersonator; and the successful impersonator having or acquiring the skills to retain the new role for the rest of his life. Moreover, both stories, to be true, would logically require the existence of a large conspiracy over many years.

To a folklorist, the similarity of these two stories indicates first of all that Far Away Moses was a true celebrity of his day, subject to the same processes of legend-formation and the same appeal to writers of both fake and real “folk news” which affect modern heroes like Paul McCartney. It also suggests that we may be dealing with a migratory legend, a story that travels from place to place, becoming attached to real people and situations along the way. Given that his life, his family, and even his name were shrouded in mystery, it’s no surprise that Far Away Moses’s death should also become the subject of folklore, or that such folklore might emerge as folk news. It would be interesting to see what other legends about celebrity impostors might be out there in early 20th-century news sources—fake or real.

Rumors of Our Deaths: Correcting “Fake News” with “Folk News”

Coincidentally, Mark Twain, Far Away Moses’s old friend, and the man who had done the most to make him a celebrity, was also once incorrectly rumored to have died. A few years after Moses’s brush with fake news, on May 31, 1897, a tale circulated in the New York press that Twain had passed away after a serious illness. Twain, at that time in London, was immediately contacted for comment by the newspaper editor Frank Marshall White, who had seen him two days before and was reasonably certain he was not ill. According to White’s account, Twain was under deadline for a new book and deeply in debt, but scrawled a hasty letter in reply:

James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness, the report of my death was an exaggeration.

Twain Carte

Mark Twain’s carte de visite, with a photo taken by Abdullah Frères in Constantinople, during the trip on which he met Far Away Moses in 1867.

White sent this report from London to New York by telegram, and the paper printed it. It later appeared, slightly embellished, in Paine’s biography of Twain, as “the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.” In White’s published account of the incident, he said that “this by process of repetition became, ‘The reports of my death are grossly exaggerated.'”

The phrase was soon adopted by all kinds of people wishing to dispel the notion of a person’s death…and, by extension, the metaphorical “death” of an activity, an attitude, a project, or an idea. In time the process of both oral and written transmission created many variants of the phrase. It varies, for example, as to whether the statement is ascribed to Mark Twain or not; whether there is one report (as in Twain’s original) or more than one; whether they are “reports” or “rumors;” whether the reports are of the speaker’s “death” or “demise;” whether they are “an exaggeration” (as in Twain’s original), “a gross exaggeration,” “exaggerated,” “greatly exaggerated,” or “grossly exaggerated;” and probably in other ways I have not documented.  [8]

Most importantly, the recurrent uses of this phrase in popular media, beginning with newspapers, made it into a traditional way to address an untrue rumor of the death of a person or practice. As a traditional sentence which is sometimes metaphorical, and usually employed to address a recurrent type of social situation, the phrase fits many folkloristic definitions of the genre we call “proverbs.” (See this book I co-edited for more details on proverbs!)

Seventy years after Twain coined the phrase, news of the “Paul is Dead” legend reached Paul McCartney. By then, McCartney had Twain’s proverb to fall back on. According to The Beatles Bible, he used a variant of the phrase, telling Beatles assistant Peter Brown to tell the press: “Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

Here, then, is an example of “folk news” which is not fake: a new folk saying emerging through transmission in news stories, undergoing the same process of variation typical for orally transmitted folklore. In both Twain’s and McCartney’s cases, the folklore was created and deployed in the context of “real news,” accurately capturing the speaker’s intended meaning. And in both cases, the “folk news” that was “real news” was published in response to other “folk news,” which was “fake news”: inaccurate reports about a celebrity death.

The simplistic substitution of “folk” for “fake” obviously doesn’t reflect the complexity with which folklore moves through the news. “Folk News” and “Fake News,” it turns out, are entirely different things.

What about Far Away Moses?  There’s no evidence he ever commented on (or even heard of) the story that he had died. On the other hand, who needs evidence in the age of fake news? I like to imagine this little scene:

It’s December, 1893 and Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, is sitting down to read his copy of the Scientific American supplement. He sees a startling note to the effect that his old friend Moses has been dead for years. He immediately sends a telegram to the U.S. consulate in Constantinople: “I hear my old friend, Far Away Moses, is dead. If this is true, please convey my condolences to his family.”

A few days later, he receives a puzzled reply: “Have just had a visit from Far Away Moses. Touched that you remembered your old friend. Says the report of his death was an exaggeration.”

Clemens chuckles, folds the telegram, and places it in his pocket. “The report of my death was an exaggeration!” he says.  ”That’s a good one! I’ll have to remember that!”

Notes

1. For a more complete account of Moses’s life and work, see Cohen, Julia Phillips. 2016. “The East as a Career: Far Away Moses & Company in the Marketplace of Empires.” Jewish Social Studies n.s. 21, no. 2 (Winter 2016) 35-77.

2. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 1997.  “A Place in the World: Jews and the Holy Land at World’s Fairs” in Encounters with the “Holy Land” : place, past and future in American Jewish culture, ed. Jeffrey Shandler and Beth S. Wenger. Philadelphia: National Museum of American Jewish History.

3. As we saw in the last post, Far Away Moses seems to have had access to any part of the city regardless of its ethnic or religious makeup.  Although he was Jewish, he could bring Americans to the mosque as a member of his household.

4. By “the former Moses,” he means, of course, Far Away Moses.

5. The sentences after “this man” certainly refer to Moses, not Levy.  Moses’s habit of chatting with customers in English and offering them Turkish coffee is mentioned by dozens of other shoppers who encountered him over the years.  Meanwhile, the point about the provenance of “Turkish” rugs seems an odd one to make, since she literally watched these particular rugs being woven in Turkey!

6. It was not unusual for people to mistake Moses for a Muslim, as Paine does here.

7. Frank, Russell. “Caveat Lector: Fake News as Folklore.” Journal of American Folklore, vol. 128 no. 509, 2015, pp. 315-332.

8. Of course, the phrase has been spoken, with further variation, by many other speakers, including Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Minnesota governor Mark Dayton, and even former president Barack Obama.

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