Fool’s Cunning

In 1908, a regional newspaper carried a story about the criminal prosecution of a Parisian magician who had sold clients, among other things, a ‘fatal magnetic water’.

One client wrote to the police:

He sold me a bottle of ‘Fatal Water’ for fourteen francs so that I could kill the Emperor of Russia, against whom I hold a personal grudge. I used it as instructed.

The Tsar is not dead, so I’ve been robbed.

The newspaper drily noted that this led to a criminal investigation into the magician, but not his client, the attempted murderer, as this client’s ‘stupidity had disarmed the law’.[1]

But what does it mean to use stupidity as a weapon?

The quick-witted simpleton is, after all, a folk narrative staple. The hero of a thousand funny tales disarms the powerful, the wealthy, and the unjust with literal-mindedness, a kind of simplicity that is somehow… cleverer than being clever.

Might this be what the ‘dupes’ of fraudulent magicians prosecuted in the nineteenth century were doing?

Is it possible that what newspapers at the time called stupidity, credulity, and fear, were actually very good role-playing: creativity, cunning, a strategy. Clients of ‘fraudulent’ magicians played victim because that is what the court asked of them. They danced to the tune the legal system played, and they earned a wage, into the bargain. If they were truly duped, they were entitled to damages.

The question, then, is what victimhood meant in these cases, and whether historians can hope to understand who was fooling who?

[1] Le Guetteur de Saint-Quentin et de l’Aisne 18.11.1908.

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