Date: Mon, 21 Jan 2002 15:01:52 -0500

The H. Petard spoof

The Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s
by
Robert E. Greenwood
Sometime in 1936 or 1937 a group of mathematics and physics students at Princeton University decided to write a tongue-in-cheek article under an assumed name and get it published in a mathematical journal. This reporter was not a member of the group engaged in this project. This reporter will plead guilty to having, at that time, read a large number of detective stories (and probably was continuing to read them to the detriment of his progress in his mathematical program).

At some sort of a social function, the secretary of the Mathematics Department, Agnes Fleming, said that she had received, from various places, some letters addressed to one H. Petard asking that the letters be held for Petard's arrival in Princeton. Then, she said, she had received a letter from H. Petard himself, stating that his arrival in Princeton had been delayed, and asking if the Mathematics Department would forward to a new address any mail which might have arrived for him. Without being specifically asked for my opinion, I voiced the idea that this sounded very suspicious and that it might be a process of trying to build up a spurious identity. (In the previous decade there had been certain colleges which had granted admittance to 11 "manufactured" students with forged credentials.) One or two others at the social gathering thought by idea was farfetched, or at least said so. Then the conversation turned in another direction.

A day or two later I was visited by a couple of members of the group, one of whom had said my idea was farfetched, to ask why I had blown their "cover". I explained that the group should have taken me into their confidence, that I knew nothing about their proposal, and that they should have used more discreet methods. But I told them that I wouldn't give them away, at least not any time soon.

As I recollect and reconstruct the situation, the group had collectively written a paper with the title "A contribution to the mathematical theory of big game hunting". They wanted a Princeton address, presumably to receive the referee's report and reprints, if accepted and published. They didn't feel that they could directly involve the Mathematics Department secretary in this hoax. So they were trying to build up a false identity, get the false identity moved away from Princeton, and hoped to receive mail addressed to someone ostensibly still in Princeton with an implied connection with the Princeton Mathematics Department.

Well, it worked. The tongue-in-cheek article on big game hunting did appear in the American Mathematical Monthly, vol. 45 (no. 7, Aug-Sep 1938), pp. 446-447, under the authorship of H. Petard of Princeton, New Jersey. And some of the members of the group indicated that they now had more respect for my mental acumen and/or savvy.