LiteratEye #29: Kidnapped by Slavers! Abducted and Tortured by Wild Savages! Worse Yet, Branded a ‘Reckless Liar’!

Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Pranksters, Urban Legends

Here’s the twenty ninth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #29: Kidnapped by Slavers! Abducted and Tortured by Wild Savages! Worse Yet, Branded a ‘Reckless Liar’!
By W.J. Elvin III
September 4, 2009

Indian Peter-200Let’s say you had to choose, which would it be:

Abducted off the streets as a child, cast into the dingy hold of a sailing ship and, when it got filled with other unfortunates like yourself, carried off to a foreign land to be sold into slavery “¦ or “¦ captured by merciless wild Indians, witness to the brutal slaughter of numerous of your own people – men, women and children, and cruelly tortured for the mocking amusement of your captors?

Well, if you happen to be as lucky as Peter Williamson of Aberdeen, Scotland, back in the mid-1700s, you could have all that, plus a few other horrors and terrors for good measure.

Williamson, known later in life as “Indian Peter,” made the best of it. He wrote a book that sold well in his own day and remains an oft-quoted classic among tales of Indian captivity.

It’s quite the yarn, as some of the chapter headings indicate:

  • Sold at Philadelphia to a planter
  • His house burned by Indians and Himself carried off by them
  • The cruel treatment he suffered while among the savages
  • The author meditates escape, and accomplishes it at risk of his life
  • Joseph Long, Esq., with his house and servants burnt by Indians
  • His son and daughter carried off by them
  • The deplorable condition in which Miss Long was found
  • An Irishman scalped when drunk, yet recovers
  • And so on, “a plain, simple and impartial narrative,” the author states, of “such things as have actually happened to me.” Scholarly texts, history web sites and blogs, and the Wikipedia entry for Williamson all treat the book as credible, a window on actual events in colonial times.

    Scalping, brutal murder, ghastly torture, rape, plundering and arson, all accomplished by marauding Indians, fill page after page. The sheer volume of atrocities is enough to make you wonder if our Scottish hero might be stretching the truth a bit here and there.

    A bit? As a matter of fact, it may well be that Williamson has wormed his way into mainstream history with a pack of lies.

    I had seen mention of a paper branding Williamson a fake, published a few years back in Northern Scotland, the journal of the Centre for Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen.

    Being remote from any library that might possibly have such a journal on hand, and the journal itself having been at least temporarily discontinued, it seemed unlikely I would find the paper.

    As it happened, though, in searching here and there I found an email address for Dr. Marjory Harper at the University of Aberdeen. She had served as co-editor for an issue of the Journal. I wrote her, on the off chance she might be a helpful sort, and she very kindly looked up the article in question. And, wonder of wonders, it wasn’t long before I received a copy in the mail, with her compliments.

    The author of the paper, “Peter Williamson: Faker,” is B. Bruce-Biggs, a substantial and prolific American writer specializing in history and sociology. Though I’ve since learned that he is not the first historian to question or repudiate Williamson’s account, certainly the doubters are few and far between.

    But then, fact-checking Williamson’s book is no easy task.

    Records from colonial times are sketchy, if they still exist at all. One could expect some luck in cases of persons who owned land or taxable property. And, shameful though it may be, slaves were taxable property and might be listed by name and description. Then too, there may be records of apprenticed or indentured persons. But there certainly wasn’t an Ellis Island to welcome and register young boys kidnapped in the British Isles to be sold into slave labor.

    As for tales of capture and torture by bloodthirsty savages, they are of course hopelessly one-sided, as the Indians weren’t writing news articles or books at the time. That’s not to say there weren’t hostilities – and if someone showed up at your front door to claim your home in the name of the King of England, you might get a bit hostile as well.

    While dismissing much of Williamson’s tale as the work of a “reckless liar,” Bruce-Briggs does allow that the Scot probably lived for a while in Pennsylvania, gathering up stories to claim as his own. But he doesn’t cut our hero much slack. Discussing errors regarding Indian captivity “would be a waste of space,” the historian asserts, “because Williamson’s account is a total fiction.”

    After escaping captivity, Williamson went on to become something of a military hero, engaging in various battles with hostile Indians. Or so he says. According to Bruce-Biggs, no such battles took place.

    Where Williamson’s accounts do have a genuine historical basis, Bruce-Biggs offers documentary evidence that they were plagiarized – in some cases “almost word for word” — from magazines and newspapers of the time.

    As for the bit about being scooped up off the streets of Aberdeen by kidnappers intending to sell him into slavery in the New World, there may be some truth to it.

    A fair amount of slave labor needed for America’s plantations came from Great Britain’s jails, workhouses, brothels and houses of correction. That’s all quite well documented in books such as Emigrants in Chains by Peter Wilson Coldham.

    What we don’t hear a lot about is the abduction of youngsters from the streets of larger cities in England and Scotland to serve as slaves in the colonies. Certainly hundreds, possibly thousands of homeless waifs, as young as six or eight and into their teens, fell victim either to criminal gangs or to harvesters officially sanctioned by local authorities.

    In the colonies they were sold, often ten or twenty at a time, to planters. In British currency, they brought “about 16 pounds a head.”

    At the time there was little or no protest from the public. Child labor was the norm, and the establishment viewed the homeless youngsters as thieves and vandals.

    When Indian Peter returned to Aberdeen and published his book, the town fathers had him imprisoned for “libel,” the infraction being his claim of abduction at age 10 to be sold as a slave. Quite justifiably, whether true in his own particular case or not, he laid blame for the practice at the feet of the merchants and other community leaders.

    Upon release he was banned from Aberdeen. He roamed from town to town in Indian costume, complete with peace pipe and tomahawk, hollering and dancing to draw crowds of potential book buyers.

    And in the end he triumphed, winning lawsuits against his persecutors and going on to prosper as a tavern owner and publisher.

    And to his last day, there was no recanting his story, no confession of lies and plagiarism. He wore his war bonnet to the grave.

    (Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact

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