Truths and Lies in the Realm of the Reasonable
I began research for my article, “Lies, Larceny, and the Christian Zulu Prince,” before the term “fake news” became a synonym for the spread of misinformation in America’s national discussion and a catchphrase used to attack inconvenient facts. But I suspect that its protagonist would have understood this way of thinking, since he was both a contributor to and a beneficiary of a milieu in which it was not always easy to distinguish fact from fiction. The Christian Zulu Prince—his given name is a mystery, so I refer to him by a combination of his two most prominent aliases, as Tip-o-Tip/Borneo Moskego—was a con man. For more than three years, from mid-1890 to September 1893, he traveled the eastern half of the United States, claiming that he was pursuing higher education in order to assist his people. This story allowed him to profit by selling photos of himself, collecting donations during public appearances at churches, YMCAs, and similar venues, and gaining access to the homes of the well-to-do, which on at least one occasion he scoped out for a gang of burglars.
Along the way, he exploited the press. His first stop in a new town was often a newspaper office, and, in addition to the interviews these visits generated, papers published and republished reports of his public appearances. The presence of a Christian Zulu prince in the United States also became part of the pool of information literature shared among newspapers throughout the English-speaking world—short, unattributed blurbs with which editors filled the odd spaces in each day’s editions, often reusing the same material multiple times. He could manipulate the press because his world was informationally much sparser than ours: In his guise as an African he placed himself beyond the limits of most Americans’ knowledge, and there were fewer opportunities for fact-checking and source assessment. People valued authenticity; for example, audiences confronted with Tip-o-Tip/Borneo Moskego or another person claiming to be a Zulu—a common role in circuses and sideshows, sometimes filled by an African person but more often by an American—would when possible test his authenticity by getting a verified Zulu-speaker to talk to the performer who, unless he was able to respond intelligibly and in kind, would be revealed as a fake. But with such experts on this and other subjects few and far between, the decision by the papers and others to accept new information at face value often came down to a guess about whether it was sound.
Adopting an idea from historian Luise White, who in a paper titled “Telling More: Lies, Secrets and History” characterized successful lies as reaching for a truthful ring but requiring a reasonable one, I’ve come to think of this world as a “realm of the reasonable,” where the assessment of new information according to conventional wisdom was not an analytical flaw, but the best tool available. The habit of acceptance was by no means limited to the uneducated or the credulous; during my research I found that the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology included one of Tip-o-Tip/Borneo Moskego’s made-up “facts” about Zulu culture, gleaned from an interview in a Memphis paper, in a published survey of global tattooing practices.
In the realm of the reasonable, a successful false identity required careful blending of the known, the plausible, and the unverifiable. The foundation of Tip-o-Tip/Borneo Moskego’s persona was a fact: he had crossed paths in Nashville with an African student who traveled and lectured to raise funds for study. He layered on plot elements and characterizations drawn from the familiar narratives of circuses and missionary literature, made up anecdotes, and crafted an appealing pitch. Through his selection of a particularly sparse information environment to work in, and his ability to manipulate the expectations of his victims, he could survive on the road. His con wasn’t always successful, but his long-term commitment to it shows that it was successful enough.
Eventually, however, he was trapped by his own success. In September 1893, while he was visiting churches in New Haven, Connecticut, a visitor recognized Borneo Moskego as the Tip-o-Tip whom he had met the year before in Milwaukee. He was arrested and charged with soliciting money under false premises. Since this charge, unlike vagrancy or burglary, hinged on his self-presentation, the “Zulu” element of his persona was subjected to sustained critical attention as he sat in jail and went to trial. Although he stuck to his story, it was disproved both in court and in the press; his downfall offers us another window into the workings of the realm of the reasonable.
His hair was the defining issue for the press. During his years in character he adopted a series of unusual hairstyles, usually red or gold in color, and observers had accepted his hair as evidence of his Zulu-ness. One of the first people interviewed in New Haven claimed to have seen a yellow-haired boy in Africa, adding verisimilitude to the con man’s tale. But when Borneo Moskego was given a short jailhouse haircut, the black roots of his long red hair were revealed. Other aspects of his presentation—his so-called Zulu alphabet, his costume, his assertion that Zulu people washed their faces with glass—were also called into question, but less conclusively; investigators could question their authenticity but not identify them positively as something besides elements of Zulu culture. The power of his red hair to define him as Zulu meant that its observed artifice had the power to define him as not-Zulu.
In real life, none of this makes any sense. The vast majority of young Zulu adults have naturally black hair, so if anything Borneo Moskego’s hair reveal should have added to his credibility. However, journalists were judging him within the framework he himself had created; according to his own rules, he had ceased to be reasonable. One of the dreaded Zulu experts was produced during his trial, a theological student who had grown up in the British colony of Natal and was fluent in the language. But even before Tip-o-Tip/Borneo Moskego failed the language test, the papers had signaled their verdict by depicting him using the condescending attitude and broad dialect reserved for discussion of African American subjects. He was simultaneously convicted within the realm that he had created by exploiting a lack of information, and by the larger society seeking to overcome that absence.
The tale of Tip-o-Tip/Borneo Moskego is a narrow snapshot whose focus on understandings of what it meant to be Zulu, a relatively obscure topic, brings the subject of responses to a lack of verifiable data into strong relief. But the scenario it offers, ending in his simultaneous conviction by two independent, self-contained and internally logical systems of assessing information (one of which he had constructed himself), suggests the ongoing importance for historical scholarship of subjects like the nature of credibility and credulity, and the ways in which historical subjects inhabited and responded to their information environments. I suspect that Tip-o-Tip/Borneo Moskego would have been quite comfortable with our world’s approaches to these issues; perhaps we should become more familiar with his.
Sara C. Jorgensen is an independent scholar. She holds a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University and lives in Austin, TX. Her article “Lies, Larceny, and the Christian Zulu Prince: An Examination of the Realm of the Reasonable in American Imaginings of Africa” appears in the June 2017 issue of the Journal of American History.