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The Big Idea: Katherine Cowley

If you think “fake news” is a new innovation, well, Katharine Cowley has news for you: It’s rather older than you think. She offers an example from the pages of history, and explains how it became a part of her novel, The True Confessions of a London Spy.

KATHERINE COWLEY:

I like giving myself constraints.

It’s a little counterintuitive—why would I want to eliminate possibilities? Wouldn’t that make things harder? Yet it’s like sitting at a canvas and only being able to use a certain range of colors—I like the challenge, and the challenge often forces me to be more creative.

When I set out to write The True Confessions of a London Spy, I gave myself a constraint: I decided that I would include at least one major historical event with as many accurate details as possible. (I love historical novels that use a historical backdrop and largely fabricated events—that’s what I did in my first novel—but for this book I wanted to do something different.)

My other constraint was that it had to feature Mary Bennet (of Pride and Prejudice fame) as a spy, solving a mystery.

And so I immersed myself in Regency history, consulting the nonfiction book Our Tempestuous Day and doing a deep dive on timelines posted on Wikipedia.

I considered the London Beer Flood of 1814, the multi-day fog of December 1813, and the technological marvel of gas lights on Westminster Bridge in late 1813, but none of these events had quite the mystery element I was looking for.

And then I discovered a timeline of London in February 1814.

  • The Thames River froze over in London and an ice fair was held on top of its frozen waters (complete with printing presses, roasting bulls, and tents).
  • The Customs House exploded. Literally exploded. And we still don’t quite know what led to the fire that set off the explosion.
  • And finally, the crème de la crème, the Great Stock Exchange Fraud.

If you don’t know about the Great Stock Exchange Fraud, prepare yourself. It is the definition of FAKE NEWS in 1814. And that was why it caught my attention. I was doing this research during late 2017 and early 2018. Blatant “untruths” (as we like to call them) were being said at press conferences every day, and at a rate much higher than normal, even for politicians. As I began to learn about the events of 1814, I saw huge parallels in terms of lying, manipulation, and the public erosion of trust in government and media.

In February of 1814, as Britain and her allies continued to fight a war against Napoleon on the continent, a rich dude and his friends managed to convince a huge swatch of England that Napoleon Bonaparte had been killed in battle. They did this so they could artificially raise prices at the Stock Exchange, sell their stocks, and makes lots of money. And they almost got away with it.

One of the masterminds behind the plan was Mr. Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone, a well-off member of Parliament, and former British governor of Dominica. Cochrane-Johnstone often aligned with the Radicals, people like Sir Francis Burdett and Lord Cochrane, who wanted Parliamentary reform, universal voting rights, humane treatment of prisoners, accountability in government, better treatment of women—things that we tend to sympathize with today. Lord Cochrane was a naval hero, and his personality and exploits inspired the Master and Commander film and book series. But while I admire Sir Francis and Lord Cochrane, Lord Cochrane’s uncle, Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone, was downright evil.

As governor of Dominica, Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone mistreated—and then massacred—his black soldiers. He also kept a harem and misused government funds for his own enrichment. He was court-martialed but found not guilty. Basically, Cochrane-Johnstone’s money, heritage, and family connections allowed him to get away with his crimes.

Fast forward to late 1813 and early 1814. Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone was now a member of Parliament. He knew that his nephew, Lord Cochrane, had made a lot of money by buying stocks when prices were low and selling when they were high. So he came up with a plan: buy a bunch of stocks, but make it look natural—over several months, buy and sell, slowing building up the amount invested in both Omnium and Consols (side note: in today’s terminology, these two stocks would be considered government bonds).

Next step of the plan: Cochrane-Johnstone’s friend, the architect the Baron de Berenger, purchased a fake British uniform and showed up in Dover in the early hours of February 21st, 1814. De Berenger pretended to have just landed after crossing the English Channel. He presented a letter to the military officers in Dover saying that Napoleon Bonaparte had been ripped in pieces by the Cossacks. De Berenger and Cochrane-Johnstone hoped that this letter would result in a message with the news being sent directly to London via light-based semaphore—a precursor to the telegram. Unfortunately for them, it was a foggy day, so no message could be sent. (While they failed at using the semaphore, their plan to use one for a financial crime did have a positive result—it inspired a plot point in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.)

After delivering the original message in Dover, de Berenger took a series of speed carriages to London, paying tips to carriage boys in gold Napoleon coins and spreading hints of Bonaparte’s death.

De Berenger made it to London right around the time that the stock exchange opened and announced the news in the streets. The people of London went wild, rejoicing in Napoleon’s defeat.

Stock prices soared, and Cochrane-Johnstone’s stockbrokers, which included a Mr. Butt (cue juvenile jokes now), began selling stock.

A few hours later, people began questioning the news and stock prices dropped. But Cochrane-Johnstone had planned for this. He had hired a group of lower-class men to learn a few phrases in French and dress as Bourbon soldiers (French soldiers supporting the traditional French monarchy). These men now drove through London in a carriage, passing out printed fliers about the victory against Napoleon. Stock prices again rose.

The Stock Exchange sent a messenger to the Foreign Affairs office. Now they, of course, had not received any word of Napoleon’s death, so they announced that it was all fake news and that Napoleon Bonaparte was still alive and well.

Stock prices plummeted. But by that time, Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone and friends had already managed to sell around a million pounds of stock. That was big money in 1814.

The stock exchange investigated the incident and discovered the fraud, and the perpetrators were brought to trial. De Berenger and others were fined and imprisoned—including Lord Cochrane, who made lots of money that day, for his stockbrokers always sold his stocks when prices were high. Historians still debate whether or not Lord Cochrane was involved. I’m no historian, so my opinion doesn’t actually matter, but I like to think he was innocent.

Unfortunately, Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone fled the country before the trial. However, karma did eventually get to him. In 1833, Cochrane-Johnstone died impoverished and alone in Paris. It was the least of what he deserved after his horrific actions in Dominica and his attempt to fool a nation for his own enrichment.

By the time I’d read the complete 350-page transcript for the trial and half a dozen other books, I knew I had found my set of constraints. I would include, with as much accuracy as possible, the Great Stock Exchange Fraud, the Customs House explosion, and the ice fair. I would tie them together with a fictitious murder of my own devising, and place Mary Bennet at the heart of it all.


The True Confessions of a London Spy: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

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