The footsteps of the Sorbonne trio

In his book Newfoundland’s Believe It or Not! Jack Fitzgerald relates a great hoax that in the 1930s rocked two continents with laughter. You can either go out and buy this book, or read the story here!

In 1933 in Paris, the Chamber of Deputies, the name given to several parliamentary bodies in France in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, spent weeks discussing debts owed the United States by European countries as a result of World War I. Public attention too was focussed on the issue.

Each member of the Chamber contributed to the discussion. Three students at the Sorbonne, the historical house of the former University of Paris, were convinced that some of the Deputies knew absolutely nothing about the States or, indeed, the Western Hemisphere. The trio determined to prove the ignorance of contemporary politicians.

A few days later, 72 members of the Chamber received a professionally typewritten letter. The letterhead read: Paris Branch, Ethnical Defence League of Newfoundlanders and Guatemalans, New York, Headquarters, 43 Seventy-Second Street, N.W. 2.”

The letter began with an appeal to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“You know that two States of the Republic of the United States are deprived of a majority of the privileges enjoyed by the other 42,” the authors of the letter declared.

“They are the States of Newfoundland and Guatemala,” they continued. “Newfoundland, as you know, is inhabited by two million people of Spanish origin who still speak Spanish since Cortes[-Real] conquered the country from the Incas; while the Guatemalans speak Portuguese from the time Don Pedro of Syracuse conquered the country in 1456.

“As just one example of injustice, these two States are represented in the United States Senate by only one Senator, whereas others, such as New York, have 12.”

The remainder of the letter was a similar mix of fact and fiction.

The most outrageous result of the hoax was that nine of the 72 Deputies who had received the letter responded to the nonexistent Ethnical Defence League of Newfoundlanders and Guatemalans, promising their undying support for the cause!

As one would expect, once the story got out, the two continents convulsed with laughter. The incident may not be the hoax of that century, as some would claim, but it deserves honourable mention in the history of good-natured deception.

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