A Conference held by M. L‚o TAXIL
at the Hall of the Geographic Society in Paris
Part 2 of 6
THE ORIGINS OF A PRANKSTER
Of course, this last episode had to end in April, the month of gaiety, the month of pranks, --and let us not forget that the hoax also started in April, on April 23, 1885, --this last episode is the only one which has to be explained today, though in broad terms only; because if everything was to be told and secret aspects disclosed from the start, it would take many days. This April Fools catch brought home a gigantic whale. (Explosion of laughter.)
However, it is necessary to illuminate the starting point with a few rays of gentle light.
Among the maxims of the culinary art, an often-quoted one says: "One becomes cook, but one is born a roaster." Perfection in the science of roasting cannot be learned. I believe the same can be said of pranksterism: one is born a prankster.
Here are some admissions concerning my outset in this noble career:
THE SHARKS OF MARSEILLES
Let us begin with my native town. In Marseille, nobody has forgotten the celebrated story of the coves ravaged by a school of sharks. Letters from local fishermen describing their escape from the most awful dangers began to flow in. Panic spread among swimmers, and beaches were deserted for several weeks from les Catalans to the Prado beach. The municipal Commission felt upset; the mayor suggested, quite judiciously, that the sharks, plague of the coves, likely came from Corsica, following a ship which, no doubt, must had thrown overboard a spoiled cargo of smoked meat. The municipal Commission voted an address to General Espivent de la Villeboisnet-martial law was then in force-requesting a company armed with Chassepot-rifles for an expedition on a tugboat. The worthy general, only wanting to please the administrators he had picked out himself for the dear and good city where I was born (Laughter), General Espivent, presently a senator, thus granted one hundred well-armed men, with an ample stock of ammunition. The rescuing ship left the harbor under the cheers of the mayor and his deputies, coves were explored in all directions, but the tugboat returned empty-handed; no more sharks than here in this room! (General laughter) A later inquiry showed all letters of complaint from various local fishermen to be fanciful. Such fishermen did not exist in the localities where these letters were posted; and once the letters were collected, one noticed that they all seemed to have been written by the same hand. The author of the hoax was not found out. Here he stands before you. All this happened in 1873; I was then nineteen years old.
I do hope that General Espivent will forgive me for having once compromised his prestige in the eyes of the population with a prank. He had suppressed my paper, La Marotte, journal des fous. The stuff about the sharks was a most harmless vengeance, wasn't it?
THE UNDERWATER CITY
Some years later, I was in Geneva, absconding from a few press sentences. In the mean time, La Fronde , then Le Frondeur, succeeded La Marotte. One fine day, the scientific world was thrilled to hear of a wonderful discovery. Someone in the audience may remember what it was about: an underwater city was said to have been perceived rather confusedly on the bottom of Lake Geneva between Nyon and Coppet. Letters were dispatched to the four corners of Europe, keeping the papers informed of the alleged searches. They relied upon a most scientific explanation founded upon the Commentaries of Julius Caesar: this city must have been built during the Roman conquest, at a time when the lake was so narrow that the Rhone traversed it without disturbing its waters. Well, the discovery made lots of noise everywhere-everywhere, except of course in Switzerland. The inhabitants of Nyon and Coppet were not a little astounded when tourists, arriving every now and then, asked to see the underwater city. The local boatmen ended by resolving to take the most insistent ones on the Lake. Oil was spread over the water in order to see better and, indeed, there were some who did manage to perceive something.... (General laughter) remnants of streets rather well set in a line, crossings, what do I know? A Polish archaeologist who made the trip, returned contented and issued a report in which he asserted he had very well recognized the remainder of a place in the middle of which a nondescript object might well be the remnant of an equestrian statue. An Institute delegated two of its members; but upon their arrival, they got in touch with the authorities and being told that the underwater city was a pure humbug, they returned from whence they came and, alas, did not see anything!
The underwater city did not survive their scientific proceedings (Prolonged laughter). The father of the city under the Lake of Geneva-presently speaking-had a precious auxiliary for the spreading of the legend in the person of one of his fellow exiles-it is hardly necessary to stress that he too was born in Marseilles-, my colleague and friend Henry Chabrier, presently residing on the borders of the Seine, just as I am. Both anecdotes, among a hundred that I might quote, are told merely to assert that your servant's inclination for great and joyous pranks goes back more than twelve years ago.
THE MOST GRANDIOSE PRANK
I come now to the most grandiose prank of my existence. It comes to an end today and will evidently be the last because, after this, I doubt whether any colleague, even belonging to the Icelandic or Patagonia press, would confidently accept the report of any extraordinary event upon my recommendation or that of one of my friends!... (A voice: Obviously! --Laughter.)
One will easily understand that the formidable fame of my irreligious writings didn't make it easy for me to be accepted in the bosom of the Church without being met with an even more formidable mistrust. I needed, however, to get there and to be greeted, so that once the mistrust had faded away completely, at least in high quarters, I could organize and lead the prodigious prank of contemporary devilry. (A voice: Distasteful! How can one admit to being such a prankster?)
In order to reach the goal I had set to myself, it was necessary, indispensable, to entrust no one with my secret, absolutely no one, not even my most intimate friends, not even my wife, at least in the beginning. It was better to be deemed to have turned crazy in the eyes of those who approached me. The least indiscretion could ruin everything. And I was playing for high stakes because I faced a powerful opponent. (A voice: Oh! yes!) On the contrary, the hostility of some, the saddened and vexed annoyance of others, were my best trumps since-as was to be expected-I was set under close scrutiny during the first years.
Nevertheless, a few particulars will strike a bell for my old friends if I recall them now.
EXPULSION FROM THE ANTICLERICAL LEAGUE
Thus, after the publication of the letter in which I disowned all my former irreligious writings, the Parisian groups of the Anticlerical League gathered in a general assembly to vote upon my expulsion. People were surprised to see me arrive there; the Leaguers were baffled, and my presence was incomprehensible indeed, since I had not come to defy those from whom I seceded, and didn't say a word either to try and gain them over, as a convert would have done in his neophyte's fervor. No! I came to the meeting under the pretense of making my farewells-though having demitted for more than three months!-but in fact in order to seek and find the opportunity to place a word I could remind them of later, when time would be ripe.
Most of these anticlerical leaguers were my friends. Some of them cried and I was moved myself....
A Catholic journalist: You, moved?... Come on now!... You made fun of them like you make fun of us!
M. L‚o Taxil--I assure you that I was not taking leave
from them unconcerned. Well, take it as you wish. Though I
felt affected, I kept cool in the middle of a true tempest;
I refer you to contemporary newspapers.
In order to close the meeting, the president submitted
the following resolution which was agreed upon through an
Considering that the individual named Gabriel
Jogand-PagŠs, called L‚o Taxil, one of the founders of the
Anticlerical League, has disowned all the principles he
stood up for, has betrayed free-thinking and all his
The leaguers attending the meeting of July 27, 1885,
without taking into consideration the motives which dictated
such an infamous behavior to the individual named L‚o Taxil,
expel him from the Anticlerical League as a traitor and
I objected then against one word, one single word of
Presumably, old friends who attended the July 1885
meeting are in this room. I shall remind them of the
formulation of my protest.
I said the following in a most peaceful voice:
"-My friends, I accept this resolution, except one
The president interrupted me and exclaimed:
"-Indeed, this is cheeky!"
I kept on undisturbed:
"-You have the right to say that I am a renegade, since
I just published, four days ago, a letter in which I
expressly retracted and disowned all my writings against
religion. But I beg you to cross out the word traitor which
in no ways applies to my case; there is not the shadow of
treason in what I do today. What I tell you here, you cannot
understand at the present moment; but you shall understand
I refrained from putting too much insistence on this
last sentence, because I could not let them get suspicious
of my secret. But I said it clearly enough so that it would
stick in their memories, though it laid itself open to
And, when I had the opportunity to issue a report of
that meeting, I took great care to omit this declaration
which indeed could have put people on their guards.
Second fact. Between the day in April when I came to a
priest and trusted him with my conversion, and the day of
the meeting when I was expelled from the free-thinkers, an
anticlerical congress took place in Rome, of which I had
been one of the organizers. Nothing was easier for me than
to disorganize it and to make it fail completely. This
congress took place in the first days of June. All the
leaguers know that, until the end, I devoted all my strength
for its success; only the death of Victor Hugo, which
happened at that time, turned public attention from this
Later, when it was learned that since April I had seen
priests again, it was said and printed that, under the
pretense of this congress, I had gone to Rome to negotiate
my betrayal and was received secretly at the Vatican. It was
even inserted in my biography that I was given a large sum,
it was said "one million." (Laughter)
I let it go because I didn't care much and laughed
But today I have the right to say that things were
quite different. Amongst the guests of the present evening,
there is an old friend who made the trip with me, who
accompanied me everywhere, who did not leave me for a
minute. He is here and will not contradict me. Did he leave
me a minute? Did I leave him to undertake anything
This is not all. During the same trip, while returning
to France, we stopped in Genoa. I insisted on visiting
someone with whom I was bound by friendship: general
Canzio-Garibaldi, Garibaldi's son-in-law.
During this visit, I was accompanied by the friend I
just mentioned and another one, he is still alive, was with
us: Doctor Baudon who was recently elected Deputy of
Both can testify to the fact that during the visit, I
withdrew one moment aside with Canzio. And then Canzio can
testify to what I told him:
"-My dear Canzio, I have to tell you, under the seal of
secrecy, that in a short while, I shall make a complete and
public break. Be surprised at nothing, and keep your trust
in me in your heart."
I did not insist much with him either, and later I was
even afraid of having said too much. For the next two or
three years, Canzio sent me his card on New Year's Day, in
spite of our break. Then, likely estimating that things took
too much time, he must have gotten tired and stopped
Lastly, one of my former co-workers who liked me a lot,
kept on seeing me in spite of everything. He is now dead:
his name was Alfred Paulon, a former magistrate.
A voice: He is dead! So he won't disown you.
Please wait. I know that through his shrewd and
constant observation, he reached the conclusion that I was
hoaxing people. (Various reactions.)
A voice: Then you boast about deceiving Catholics!...
It's a scandal!
M. L‚o Taxil --Paulon, my former co-worker who kept on
associating with me, had a way of defending me which was
often in my way.
This is what he said of me to his friends: "L‚o is hard
to get. I thought first that he had turned crazy but when I
resumed relations with him, I noticed on the contrary that
he is in full possession of his mental faculties. I don't
get it: something tells me he is still with us in his heart
and mind; I can feel it. I never touch religious matters
with him, because I noticed he doesn't want to let the cat
out of the bag, but I would stake my life on it, he does not
work for the clerics; one of these days, we shall have a big
Alfred Paulon cannot testify to what he noticed; but he
mentioned it to many friends. And if there are any in this
room, I ask them: "Is it true that when he spoke of me,
Paulon expressed himself that way?" Various voices. --It's
true! It's true!
THE CONFESSION OF LEO TAXIL
Translated from Le Frondeur, April 25, 1897
Alain Bernheim, A. William Samii, and Eric Serejski
Reprinted from Heredom
The Transacations of the
Scottish Rite Research Society
vol. 5, 1996, pp. 137-168
(c) 1997 Scottish Rite Research Society
All Rights Reserved
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