The Meinertzhagen Mystery: The Life and Legend of a Colossal Fraud

Tall, handsome and charming, Richard Meinertzhagen is sometimes known as the English spy who didn't kill Hitler when he met him while carrying a loaded gun in his pocket. Three biographies have been written about Meinertzhagen, who was reputed to be a British war hero, spy, and famous ornithologist (hence my interest), and he is mentioned as a historical character in many more histories, movies and several TV shows. Meinertzhagen lived from the 1870s to the 1960s, was the model for the fictional spy, James Bond, worked for Winston Churchill and worked with T.E. Lawrence ("of Arabia"), and impressed many world leaders. But there is much evidence to suggest that Meinertzhagen lived a Walter Mitty sort of life, rich in imagination, but short on actual achievements. In this book, The Meinertzhagen Mystery (Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2007), Brian Garfield seeks the truth about the man and his legend, relying on meticulous research from numerous independent sources from several countries.

Because, the truth is, Meinertzhagen fooled them all. Even though he lived an interesting life, his legend is primarily based on his own embellishments and tall tales and upon the thousands of pages in his own diaries, some of which he published. In fact, his life story is an exciting tale of intrigue, heroic wartime feats and wonderful scientific discoveries -- some of which are actually true. During Meinertzhagen's colorful military and scientific careers he was decorated, married twice and fathered three children, he explored unknown lands, discovered new species, fought in wars, survived shipwrecks, plane crashes and ambushes, became the elder-statesman of espionage and ornithology and surprisingly, he even had a room named for him at the British Museum of Natural History. But upon closer examination, it turns out that most of his exploits are fiction, based on an overactive imagination, deception and theft. Basically, Meinertzhagen was a colossal -- but convincing -- fraud.

The book begins by investigating the details surrounding the "haversack ruse". This was a celebrated deception that occurred during WWI where a bag containing money, several private letters and some secret military documents was accidentally "lost" near the Turkish lines at Beersheba. In fact, this was a hoax, the military orders were fakes intended to divert the enemy away from the very important desert oasis that they were guarding. As a soldier who was present in the company near the time when it took place, Meinertzhagen credited himself with designing and carrying out this famous ruse when in fact, he had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Because the "haversack ruse" was successful, it was told, retold and written about so many times by Meinertzhagen that even the people who knew the truth remained mysteriously silent while everyone else mistakenly believed he was the author and instigator of this brilliant plan.

After that surprising beginning to the book, the author goes on to investigate a large collection of other wild claims made by Meinertzhagen, including the murder of a Nandi Laibon, or medicine man, which he never committed; the beating and murder of his groom, which never occurred; and his important meeting with Hitler while carrying a loaded gun in his pocket; which also never happened. Oddly, despite his self-described bloodlust, he never took credit for the murder of his second wife, an accomplished outdoorswoman and ornithologist who often went hunting with him. But at the time and even today, it was widely believed that he murdered her. Based on the evidence, the author hypothesizes that Meinertzhagen killed her because she discovered his ornithological thefts and deceptions and was unwilling to go along with them.

While many of his distortions and tall tales were entertaining and made him a popular dinner guest among the British well-to-do, his fabrications were most damaging to the ornithological community. As a self-described ornithologist, Meinertzhagen committed half a century of scientific fraud. In short, he stole specimens from a number of eminent museums and relabeled them with dates and localities crediting himself. As a result, the distribution maps for these species are unreliable at best and are being redrawn to this very day. Fittingly, despite his frequent run-ins with the British Natural History Museum for suspicion of theft of their bird specimens, his extensive collection was bequeathed to them at his death, so at least some of his stolen bird specimens have returned home at long last.

Throughout this book, one wonders what caused this man to tell so many whoppers about himself? Wasn't his real life dramatic enough? Why did people believe his outrageous tales? Why did those who knew the truth never correct his "recollections"? this is a compelling story about a flambouyant rogue, and this book, by its example, cautions us that recorded history sometimes reflects not what actually happened, but what we are told happened.

Brian Garfield published his first novel when he was 18, and has gone on to write 70 more books. He's also credited on 18 movies and TV dramas, including the 1974 box-office hit Death Wish staring Charles Bronson. Most of Garfield's books have been fiction yet he's a master of non-fiction, too: The Thousand Mile War was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1969.

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Thanks for this review. I'm quite familiar with Meinertzhagen's early career (up to the end of WWI) and I've read Garfield's "Thousand Mile War" so this is something I'm going to be sure to check out.

The New Yorker magazine published an article about this fellow and his "contributions" to ornithology last year. A Reporter at Large - John Seabrook, "Ruffled Feathers," The New Yorker, May 29, 2006, p. 50. You can read it online at accessmylibrary (http://www.accessmylibrary.com/)

Good post. I think even Ian Fleming fabricated some of his exploits during WWII. Based on my experience, it seems to me that those who drop hints that they were in the CIA but refuse to elaborate are most likely frauds. Real employees of any spy network would either hold some minor clerical-type job (and, therefore, would have nothing earth-shaking to reveal) or would be involved in some kind of black ops (in which case, they would reveal nothing at all about what they had done). But to create some kind of Baron Munchhausen life takes a certain chutzpah (somehting which Chuck Barris couldn't quite pull off).

By David Group (not verified) on 24 Mar 2007 #permalink