The Forgeries of Denis Vrain-Lucas

Dec 2, 2022 0 comments

One Monday morning in July 1867, eminent French mathematician Michel Chasles stormed into the building of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris brandishing two letters and a couple of notes. The documents in his hands, Chasles proclaimed, contained enough evidence to prove that the true discoverer of the law of universal gravitation was not Isaac Newton but the French mathematician Blaise Pascal.

The letters that Chasles produced, one of them dated 1652, were written by Pascal to Anglo-Irish chemistry pioneer Robert Boyle, and included an early description of the law of gravitation. The accompanying notes contained calculations of the masses of the major planets, based on gravity and relative to the sun. The date on the letters was decades before Newton first described the same law in his Principia. It appeared that Isaac Newton was to be dispossessed of the glory he had been hitherto accorded.

Chasles exposé caused a sensation. He was a distinguished scholar, whose reputation stretched far beyond France. Chasles was widely respected for his researches in geometry and the history of mathematics. He was a member of the Academy of Sciences, and also a foreign associate of the Royal Society of London and the London Mathematical Society. He established several important theorems in geometry, kinematics and gravitation. He was also the receiver of the Copley Medal in 1865. Chasles’s reputation was a strong argument in favor of the authenticity of the remarkable documents.

The furor that Chasles raised among Europe’s scientific community provoked immediate criticism and dispute that dragged on for more than two years, during which Chasles produced hundreds of additional letters in support of his claim from a bewildering variety of individuals. It eventually came to light that the letters that Chasles made public was only a small subset of thousands that Chasles purchased from one man since the 1850s. These letters carried the autographs of many prominent historical figures such as Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Cleopatra, and even Biblical figures such as Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot. The men of science were astounded. Clearly, the manuscripts were forgeries, but they could not understand how someone as learned as Michel Chasles could be fooled by them. The Academy pressured Chasles to reveal the sources of the documents, but Chasles refused to divulge. The truth was only discovered when Chasles had the man who sold him the documents arrested, but not on a charge of forgery, but for not delivering his purchases. The man was Denis Vrain-Lucas, a judicial clerk by profession, and like Chasles, an avid fan of history.

Denis Vrain-Lucas

Michel Chasles

Chasles met Denis Vrain-Lucas sometime in the early 1860s. Chasles revealed to his new friend his desire to collect historical documents and lamented the shortfall of the same in the Academy of Sciences. Vrain-Lucas saw a tremendous opportunity, and sold the trustful Chasles some letters purporting to be from the likes of Rabelais, Racine and Moliere. On being questioned how a humble clerk came into possession of these valuable documents, Vrain-Lucas explained that the collection originally belonged to the Earl of Boisjourden, who had drowned while sailing to America in 1791. The collection now belonged to the Earl’s descendants who are willing to sell the items because of financial constraints, and Vrain-Lucas was merely acting as an agent.

With his victim caught hook, line, and sinker, Vrain-Lucas went about making forged documents at an industrial scale, sometimes up to 30 documents a day. Vrain-Lucas used pages cut from cheap old books, and used ink that he made himself. For the contents of the letters he copied relevant information from encyclopaedias, adding a few words here and there to give the impression that they were truly letters. At first, Vrain-Lucas was cautious and restricted himself to correspondence from Frenchmen who had recently died. But as the forger became more ambitious and his benefactor more eager to own them, documents began to appear from the likes of Shakespeare, Newton, Archimedes, Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Mary Magdalene, and more.

A forged letter purported to be from Pascal to Galileo, created by Denis Vrain-Lucas

A forged letter purported to be from Pascal to Galileo, created by Denis Vrain-Lucas. Photo: Wikimedia

Chasles never doubted the authenticity of the documents, despite the absurdity that they were all written in French even when the supposed correspondents’ native language was English, Latin, Greek or Hebrew. He also never wondered how people who lived in different eras could have possibly written to each other. When Pascal, Newton and Boyle supposedly exchanged letters discussing the intricacies of gravitation and other ideas of classical physics, Newton would have been only eleven years old. It is hard to understand how Chasles fell for these forgeries, and it is even harder to understand how such an highly intelligent man fell for some of the other forgeries that Vrain-Lucas sold him. There were letters from Cleopatra to Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great to Aristotle, Mary Magdalen to Lazarus, and even Doctor Castor to Jesus Christ.

All in all, Vrain-Lucas sold the credulous mathematician, over a period of eight years, an astounding 30,000 letters signed by over 600 historical figures. The fraud would have continued a few more years had Vrain-Lucas not forged letters from Blaise Pascal in which he appeared to have formulated the law of gravity ahead of Isaac Newton. Chasles, a fierce patriot, sensing a French victory over the English could not keep this exciting piece of information locked away in his personal study. In 1867, he approached the French Academy of Science with the intention of upending history. But all it did was expose the fraud and Chasles’s own gullibility.

Joan of Arc's letter to the Parisians, a forgery created by Denis Vrain-Lucas.

Joan of Arc's letter to the Parisians, a forgery created by Denis Vrain-Lucas. Photo: Wikimedia

The scientists of the Academy were skeptic when Chasles produced the documents. He was pointed out that the handwriting on the letter differed considerably from those in genuine Pascal manuscripts. But Chasles strongly defended his belief that the letters were genuine. Each time objections were raised, Chasles would arrive with new letters given to him by Vrain-Lucas that appeared to answer his critics. When it was asserted that Pascal could not have achieved the results he was apparently conveying to Boyle without knowledge of the fluxional calculus, Chases produced a letter in which Pascal acknowledged his receipt of ‘a treatise on the calculus of the infinite’ from Newton. When it was pointed out that the law of universal gravitation had been deduced from Galileo’s observations, Chasles produced more letters demonstrating that Galileo communicated with Pascal (then seventeen years old himself) with empirical data on the planets not yet publicly available. When Italian scholars pointed out that at the date of Galileo’s letter the astronomer was nearly blind, Chasles supplied a letter in which Galileo claimed to have feigned blindness in order to save himself from the persecution of the inquisition. When critics pointed out that correspondence from Pascal to Boyle matched word for word to passages from an 18th century book by an obscure naval engineer, once again Chasles found evidence that showed that the naval engineer had briefly been given access to the unpublished letters of his illustrious seventeenth-century forebears, and then plagiarized the same in his book.

There was little to doubt that these letters were forgeries, but being men of science, the Academy handled it the most professional way possible. They scrutinized the handwriting, chemically tested the ink, and analyzed the scientific and historic information contained within, and unanimously declared the documents as forgeries. The Academy believed that the documents may have been the work of more than one forger, given the sheer number of letters forged and their diverse subject matter. The truth came to light only after Vrain-Lucas was arrested in 1870 and tried for defrauding Chasles of nearly 140,000 francs, for which he was awarded two years in prison and payment of a fine of 500 francs. All his forged letters, except a hundred, were burnt.

From prison, Vrain-Lucas wrote to Chasles:

I know you feel betrayed, that, thanks to me, you were the victim of a vast mystification. Believe me, honored Sir, I never had the least desire to dishonor you. But I am shut up in this place thanks to your failure of nerve—your betrayal, some might say—and there is little I can do here except write letters.

Vrain-Lucas then questioned Chasles’s true intentions when he bought the alleged letters:

If you really believed in the authenticity of the letters I was selling you, why was I selling them to you at the prices I did? Thirty thousand letters for 140,000 francs comes to a mere 5 francs a letter. Hardly a fair price for an original manuscript from the hand of Pascal, Newton, or Galileo. You were an experienced collector. If you believed the letters to be authentic, then you were robbing me and the prosecutor ought to have sent you here in my place! And if you believed they were false, then according to the law I did not commit forgery because you were not deceived. You who are an expert in logic must surely see that I cannot be guilty under either assumption.

Vrain-Lucas also mocked Chasles:

It is not my fault that your mathematical proofs will be ignored by history but that future historians will forevermore associate you with the ridiculous drama of the past three years.

...which is not entirely true. Chasles is still remembered for his contribution to geometry, and his name is one of the 72 names inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.

As for Vrain-Lucas, he was released from jail in 1872, and shortly after he went back to prison for another three years for deceiving an old man out of his money as well as his small library of valuable books. He got out in 1876, and a year later he was back in the nick for having made off with rare texts from a bookstore. This time he received double the usual term—four years. Upon his release, he went back to his hometown Chateauden where he tried to eke a living by selling secondhand books on the streets. He died around 1880, at the age of sixty-something.

Michel Chasles died around the same time. He was eighty-seven.

# Missives impossible: How gravity fell victim to fake news, New Scientist
# The mathematician and the forger, MacTutor
# King of Forgers - Denis Vrain-Lucas, Steemit
# Ken Alder, “History’s Greatest Forger: Science, Fiction, and Fraud along the Seine”, Critical Inquiry


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