People were enamored of Louis de Rougemont, after reading a great deal about him in “3o years among the cannibals of Australia”. Shortly thereafter, he was invited by several scientific societites to give seminars recounting his experiences, and a wax figure of him was placed in Madame Tussaud’s in London.
Born Henri Louis Grin in 1847 in Gressy, Vaud, Switzerland, he abandoned home at the age of 16. He became a footman to the actress Fanny Kemble, servant to a Swiss banker de Mieville in 1870 and a butler for the Governor of Western Australia, Sir William Robinson. The latter job lasted less than a year.
The various other ventures that he tried out yielded minimal success. He worked as a doctor, a “spirit photographer” and an inventor. He also married a wife, only to abandon her in Australia.
However, in 1898, he wrote about his invented adventures in the British periodical “The Wide World Magazine” under the name Louis de Rougemont.
He claimed that he had taken part in several cannibal feasts after being shipwrecked off the north-west coast of Australia; built a house of pearl shells; sent off fleets of pelicans carrying messages in six languages; cured himself of fever by sleeping in the body of a dead buffalo; seen levitating wombats and had ridden on 600lb. turtles! He described his alleged exploits in search of pearls and gold in New Guinea, and claimed to have spent 30 years with the indigenous tribes there, while also adding that the tribes had worshipped him as a god.
Needless to say, many smart readers refused to believe any of his tales from the start, for example, dismissing the notion of riding a turtle.
Furthermore, when he had to place his travels on a map for documentation, he was unable to do so, arousing suspicion. For months, readers argued in the columns of The Daily Chronicle and several other London newspapers.
Rougemont subjected himself to an examination by the Royal Geographical Society, claiming that specifying the exact location meant breaching a signed non-disclosure agreement with a syndicate that wanted to exploit the gold that he had found in the area. He also refused to talk about the Aboriginal languages that he had supposedly learned. His supporters didn’t give up. They were still trying to find precedents for his exploits.
In September 1898, The Daily Chronicle announced that a certain F.W. Solomon had recognized De Rougemont and correctly identified him as Louis Grin, who had presented himself at Solomon’s firm as an entrepreneur. Grin had collected tidbits for his exploits from the Reading Room of the British Museum.
Grin wouldn’t back down. He tried to defend himself by writing a letter to The Daily Chronicle, using his original name, in which he expressed his dismay that anybody would confuse him with Louis De Rougemont.
The Daily Chronicle was more than willing to publish the letter.
But this situation was exploited by The Wide World Magazine, which prepared a Christmas double issue. The sales of both papers increased significantly. Having been exposed as a fraud, De Rougemont himself disappeared from public view.
During 1899, Grin travelled to South Africa as a music-hall attraction. On a similar tour to Australia in 1901, he was booed out of the building! In July 1906, he appeared at the London Hippodrome. During the First World War, he reappeared as an inventor of a useless meat substitute.
On 9 June 1921, in London, “the greatest liar on earth” died a pauper.
And just like the magazine truly put it:
Truth is stranger than fiction
But De Rougemont is stranger than both
–The Wide World Magazine, June 1899, No. 14