Louis de Rougemont: the ‘greatest liar on Earth’

Louis de Rougemont portrait from Wide World Magazine

Louis de Rougemont in Wide World

There are tales and tall tales, and the tallest tales of all were told by Louis de Rougemont, who conned the Victorian world with his fantastic accounts of being shipwrecked and spending decades fighting off sea monsters and living with cannibals in Australia.

His stories were the making of Wide World Magazine, which used ‘astounding pictures’ and ‘thrilling adventures’ to appeal to readers under the line ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’. The magazine was published in both the UK (for 6d) and the US (10c) and serialised de Rougemont’s life story from its August 1898 issue. The opening page for the first instalment sets the scene: ‘The Adventures of Louis de Rougement … the most amazing experiences a man ever lived to tell.’ Even 55 years later in the US, the articles were the topic of comment in Time magazine’s letters page (14 December 1953):

Sir: Quentin Reynolds said he’d been “duped” by the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated.” No, not “the greatest” . . . Far greater, because it was not exposed till many years later, was Louis de Rougemont, whose  accounts were the foundation of Wide World Magazine … Sir George Newnes, publisher of Strand Magazine, and millions of Britishers were duped. The title “Truth is stranger than fiction” later became “Truth is a stranger to fiction.”

Illustration from Wide World Magazine for De Rougemont's serial

Illustration by A Pearce from Wide World Magazine for De Rougemont’s serial

De Rougemont had arrived in England in March 1898. A letter of introduction from Sir J. Henniker Heaton got him into the offices of the Wide World Magazine, which was then being launched by Tit-Bits and Strand owner George Newnes. Having seen the power of the Sherlock Holmes stories in driving sales for the Strand, the magazine’s editors – who claimed ‘we have absolutely satisfied ourselves as to M. de Rougemont’s accuracy in every minute particular’ – knew a good thing when they saw it and so, from August 1898 to May 1899 Wide World serialised ‘The adventures of Louis de Rougemont’.

The fanciful stories were embellished by graphic illustrations by A. Pearce, such as one of de Rougemont’s crew being dragged off by an octopus. The articles were republished as The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont, as Told by Himself (1899).

However, other magazines and newspapers smelled a rat (or perhaps the ‘clouds of flying wombats’ that Rougemont described). In London, the Daily Chronicle cried foul, as did the Sydney Evening News and Daily Telegraph. The Telegraph contacted Rougemont’s abandoned wife in Sydney, who identified the hoaxer from his photograph in Wide World.

In truth, de Rougemont’s real name was Henri Louis Grin and was born in Switzerland. He had several jobs, including working as a butler, and ended up in Australia. He bought a boat Ada, which was later found wrecked. Grin claimed to have sailed 3000 miles after having survived an attack by Aboriginals. He then married, fathering seven children, before deserting them and heading to England to begin his career as a conman.

The Adventures of Louis de Rougement in Wide World Magazine August 1898

The Adventures of Louis de Rougement in Wide World Magazine August 1898

After the scandal, Grin became a music-hall attraction, billed in South Africa as ‘The greatest liar on earth’. He then earned a living as a handyman and married again. As ‘Louis Redman’, he died in London in 1921, and was buried in Kensal Green. His life inspired several books, with titles such as The Greatest Liar on Earth (1945) and The Most Amazing Story a Man Ever Lived to Tell  (1977). In 2009, Donald Margulies, a US playwright, brought de Rougemont’s story to life for a modern-day generation with Shipwrecked!, reviewed by the New York Times as ‘The breathless story of a Victorian gentleman whose colourful past as a seafaring wanderer springs to life like a theatrical pop-up book.’

As for Wide World, it survived as one of the longest-published men’s magazines until 1965, with many of its colourful covers attracting magazine collectors to this day. It has been described as being for the ‘armchair adventurer and the reminiscing old-timer‘.

WATCH OUT for my book on British Magazine Design from the V&A

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4 Responses to “Louis de Rougemont: the ‘greatest liar on Earth’”

  1. Frane Lessca Says:

    Great article. We created a childrens book called “The Greatest on Earth.” Also, There will an exhibition of Louis’s life in June 2915 in Bendigo, Victoria, Australia

  2. Frane Lessca Says:

    Oops: “The Greatest Liar in Earth” is our title.

  3. magforum Says:

    Frané, Thanks for that. These Victorian adventurers were pretty amazing and the new mass media of magazines and newspapers made them household names all over the world – and de Rougemont is obviously still well known 120 years later. Good luck with the exhibition – in June next year I assume (not 2915!).

  4. Four things to blame magazines for | Magforum Says:

    […] the scandal, Grin became a music-hall attraction, billed in South Africa as ‘The greatest liar on earth’. As ‘Louis Redman’, he died in London […]

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