Beatlemania hit the USA 50 years ago. Soon came scandal
In 1898 this Victorian sensation published his ‘Adventures’ with cannibals, moustachioed sea-monsters, gold reefs in the desert and flying wombats.
#1 He told of treasure-hunting and pearl-diving in New Guinea; that he had discovered the lost explorer Alfred Gibson; that he rode turtles through the sea, was shipwrecked by a whale; that he had spent 30 years living with cannibals including a wife who killed and ate her own baby to get breast milk to feed to him, and that he had both wife-swapped (with her consent) and rescued damsels in distress from exotic harems.
#2 Audiences loved it. But some smelled a fraud. His publishers claimed: “we have absolutely satisfied ourselves as to M. de Rougemont’s accuracy in every minute particular.” De Rougemont said that he knew a ‘cannibal king’ who would back up his story, but when asked for evidence he was unable to point out these places on a map, but the public loved him anyway.
#3 His fame spread worldwide but when news of his exploits reached Australia it was the end of the line. He had left an abandoned wife and seven children in Sydney and outraged, she outed him as a fraud.
#4 His real life was more pedestrian. Born in Switzerland in 1847 as Henri Louis Grin, he had gone to Australia as butler. He had indeed bought a pearling ship, which was wrecked in 1877. But this was only part that could be backed up – instead of exotic exploits living with cannibals, he had been working as a waiter!
#5 Exposed as a fraud de Rougemont simply re-branded himself as a music-hall attraction. He billed himself immodestly (but for once quite truthfully) as: “The Greatest Liar on Earth.”
#6 He really was top class entertainment and in 1906 he demonstrated his turtle-riding skills in a large tank at the London Hippodrome. The ‘Daily Mail’ of July 7 1906 reported that he first ‘mesmerized’ the turtle, then jumped on top shouting: ‘Tatali!’ The turtle swam to the centre of the pool, at which point de Rougemont jumped off, flipped the turtle over once, and rode it back to the side to wild applause.
#7 de Rougemont had the last laugh. As well as his legacy of lies, he invented a new Australian sport, detailed in the Evening News in 1911: “a young lady of the party in bathing costume besporting herself in the water astride one of the monsters, thus vindicating the astounding story of Louis de Rougemont.”