In 1899, Ebenezer Breach, a flat-Earther, threatened to sue Sir John Gorst, UK’s secretary of education, for teaching globe Earth. The story is the source of a hoax in today’s flat Earth communities.
Ebenezer demanded that schools must stop teaching spherical Earth at once & replace it with flat Earth. Or, he will prosecute Sir John Gorst under the so-called “imposters’ act.” Nobody knew about this supposed law. Not even the reporters covering the story.
Another article mentioned that the act’s name was the “Children’s Impostor’s Act”, enacted by the House of Commons. legislation.gov.uk archived all enacted acts since 1267. However, there is nothing about the supposed act on the website.
Some newspapers in America found the story amusing & wrote an article covering it in a fun, sarcastic tone. In hyperbole, they presented Ebenezer as if he was the “hero” fighting against the “wicked” Sir John Gorst.
The article’s ending should give it away:
“At last accounts, Sir John was still at large, and so was Ebenezer.”
Sir John was a high-ranked government official & cannot be “at large” without generating huge headlines. Besides, as the expected plaintiff, Ebenezer should never be at large.
There is no indication Sir John was punished for this “crime”, nor did the lawsuit ever occur. Nobody took the “threat” seriously, including Sir John.
Today’s flat-Earthers fail to realize that they themselves are the article’s object of a joke. It became a hoax claiming “flat Earth was widespread at the time” and that “teaching the globe was once a crime.”
In reality, from the case, we know that just like today, at the time, flat-Earthers were already a common object of ridicule in light-hearted news articles.
Table of Contents
The Cook County Herald, 21 April 1900
Says Earth is Round, And He May Be Thrown Into Prison
Sad Condition of Affairs in England — Sir John Gorst Accused of Intention to Teach False Precepts — City of Portsmouth Excited
It is painful to read that Sir John Gorst, the head of the British educational department, is in serious trouble and has been threatened by Mr. Ebenezer Breach and other taxpayers of the city of Portsmouth, in the kingdom of England, with prosecution under the “imposters’ act.” It seems that the schools of Portsmouth have been teaching the damnable and heretical doctrine that the earth is a sphere. Sir John’s attention has been called to this dissemination of seditious and treasonable doctrine, but he has refused to correct the abuse. Ebenezer and his friends know, of course, that the earth is as flat as a pancake.
They have been patient with Sir John, and day after day have allowed the false teaching regarding the shape of the earth to go on, but can stand it no longer, they say, to see their children corrupted with this most “heretical doctrine,” as the complainants call it in this protest. Sir John Gorst has many political enemies, and even his political friends do not always agree with him; but the depth of his depravity was not known until he was unmasked by Mr. Ebenezer Breach and his friends. Sir John may cavort about parliament and deceive some people, but when he runs up against a body of respectable British taxpayers, the bulwarks of the throne and the guardians of the constitution, it is another matter.
Such newfangled ideas as that of the earth being a sphere he may impose upon the frivolous persons who riot in the ungodly city of London, but not upon the taxpayers of Southampton. Ebenezer and his friends mean business, and have served formal notice upon the Portsmouth school board that the teaching that the earth is a sphere “cannot be allowed to continue under any circumstances, plea or explanation whatever,” and that it must be abandoned under the pain of the “punishment for the schism by the law provided.” After having stamped out the dastardly doctrine in the school of Southampton, the committee announce that they will next go up to London and bring the London school board before the courts, being well advised and informed that the same doctrine regarding the shape of the earth is also taught in London schools.
Sir John, meantime, is to be brought to court and prosecuted under the “imposters’ act” aforesaid. Now, the “imposters’ act” is a part of the British constitution, probably— no one knows what is, and what is not part of that nebulous thing— and provides certain pains and penalties, such as forfeiture of estate and burning at the stake, if recalcitrant. Ebenezer and his friends are worthy and reputable citizens and mean business. If necessary they will light the fires of Smithfield again for the wicked Sir John. At last accounts Sir John was still at large, and so was Ebenezer.
Los Angeles Herald, 28 August 1899
Believes the Earth is Flat
An English School Board Enjoined to Change Its Teaching
Mr. Ebenezer Breach, the flat-earth philosopher, has served upon the Portsmouth, England School Board an ultimatum forbidding them to continue any longer to teach in the elementary schools of the borough the “heretical doctrine” that the earth is round.
Mr. Breach says that in the course of his researches he has discovered an act called the “Impostors’ Act,” which forbids anyone to teach that the earth is round under pain of punishment of schism, and that if the School Board do not at once desist from having this doctrine taught in the schools he will set the law in operation against them.
He also proposes to issue a similar ultimatum against the London School Board. To Sir John Gorst he has forwarded a document of portentous length setting forth the dire calamities which will befall Sir John unless he at once orders the cessation of round-earth teaching in all the schools.
He declares proudly that rather than have the “Impostors’ Act” put in force against him, Sir John, within three months, will have swept away all globes from schools and replaced them by flat-earth instruction books.
The notice with which Mr. Breach has served Sir John and the Portsmouth School Board, and with which the London board is threatened, says:
“The earth is not a Dutch cheese cut in halves. It must, therefore, be patent to the eyes and mind of every true Englishman that such a system of education cannot be allowed to continue under any circumstances, plea, or explanation whatsoever, but must forthwith and forever be abolished.
“The undersigned, therefore, appoint the term of three months’ notice, during which period the urgent and necessary reform must be carried out, or the whole matter further seen into.”
In a postscript is stated: “After due consideration and advice all round we find it most important in this case to urge the necessity of clearing the schools of all implements whatsoever relating to enforcing the imposture within one calendar month, the month of July, 1899.”
The undersigned are Mr. Breach, a Portsmouth town councillor, and several rate-payers of the borough. —Philadelphia Record.
Los Angeles Herald, 19 September 1899
Flat, Says Mr. Breach
Ingenious Arguments About the Shape of the Earth
He Thinks That the Surface Is Circular and That It Is the Top of a Colossal Pillar
Portsmouth, N. H. — Mr. Ebenezer Breach of this town has just written to the presidents of the leading American universities and colleges, seeking to enlist them on his side in an argument that is just now exercising the greatest minds in England, namely, the question of the earth’s shape. So ingenious are the arguments advanced by Mr. Breach that the man who calls on him in a scoffing mood comes away rather perturbed in mind to find that he is half persuaded to believe there is something in the flat earth theory after all.
The talk I had with Mr Breach, supplemented by the information contained in the letters to the American professors, gave me a comprehensive idea of the subtle reasonings which underlie the easy conversational arguments of Mr. Breach. To give the gist of these arguments, Mr. Breach’s idea is that the earth is central and the greatest object in the universe, that its surface is the top of a colossal pillar, its mountains and hollows forming excrescences and indentations as on the top of a Maderia cake; that this top surface of the monstrous pillar is circular in shape, and that above —a mere matter of only 5000 miles or so distant— floats a crystal sea, circular and co-extensive with the earth’s surface, through which we behold the celestial bodies revolving in one plane. The north is the center. The south is the circumference all the way around. There is a perpetual ice at the north center and at the south, the sun performing its course above the intermediate points.
“And the pillar which constitutes the earth, Mr. Breach, upon what does that rest?”
“Ah,” he replied, with a smile, “that I cannot say. Job was once humiliated by that question asked of God: ‘Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened?’ Thus showing conclusively that the earth had foundations and wasn’t a revolving body.”
“Ships have sailed round the world?” I queried. “Quite so. A ship by continued sailing either east or west, is bound to come back to the point of starting. She would have sailed round the world. Nothing is clearer.”
“But the fact that you see a ship’s masts at sea before the hull?”
“An optical illusion. Believe me, it proves nothing. Cape Teneriffe can be seen 120 miles. If earth were a globe the cape should be a mile and three-quarters out of sight.
If ships go out to sea sailing over an orange-shaped ocean,” he continued, “they should as often be seen mountains high above the range of vision as they are constantly seen hulls down, owing to angular vision. We can only see distinctly for three miles. By telescope the ship will appear again as on a sheet of glass. I have proved this by lightships and other things.”
“But at sunrise you see the sun rising out of the water, if you are up early enough, and at sunset it dips behind the horizon to the west?”
Mr. Breach smiled. “It is the law of perspective,” he replied. “Two parallels will meet at a given point.”
“How do you account for day and night?”
“Easily enough. When the sun is in the arc of the spiral course, which is above our arc of the flat earth, we have day; when it is the opposite arc we get night. It is foolish to imagine that the sun goes underneath the earth, as foolish as the false teachings that the world rotates round the sun.
“The earth is the greatest of all things created,” he continued. “It was created first, is immovable and all other bodies were made for it. The sun was made first of the subsidiary bodies to give light to the world.”
“But the sun is of greater proportion?”
“No,” he said, laughing at my folly. “Modern astronomers say so, but they are wrong. God created the sun to light the world. Whoever heard of a light being made bigger than the place to be lighted? We never carry a room round the candle, but always the candle round the room.”
The ingenuity and originality of the argument silenced me.
“All plains are flat,” continued Mr. Breach. “Take the Sahara and the Pampas, for instance. If you go to geology you will find all strata in flat layers, not in convex, as they would be in a curved body. Look at the case of rivers. The Nile drops only one foot in 1000 miles. Rivers cannot flow up hill, as they would have to do in mounting the curvature of the world.”
But what excited Mr. Breach even more than the globular “fallacy” was that the earth should be supposed to revolve.
“Why,” he exclaimed, “if the world went round the oceans would be whisked away in a moment. If water is dropped on a spinning top it is at once thrown off. According to the false theory, ships must be upside down at Australia. Ridiculous! All wells would be emptied of their contents, and Niagara would be upturned and tumble upwards.
“If the earth is revolving at about 1100 miles an hour as is taught,” he continued, “why do not balloonist make an easy and swift passage to America by rising into the air and waiting until the New World comes round. Instead of that they go slowly with the wind, either in the direction of the supposed revolution of the earth or against it. Aeronauts have informed me, too, that they see the surface of the earth as the shape of a saucer, concave, not convex, as it would be if bulged out round. You watch a lark rising. When high up it poises itself in the air, moving neither in one direction nor another. Yet it remains exactly over the field it arose from. If the earth revolved a thousand miles an hour that field ought to be a hundred miles away in a few minutes.
“Volcanic substances thrown a mile or so into the air fall near the edge of the crater. They ought, at least, to be left some little way behind. All burning mountains, in fact,” Mr. Breach went on, “deny the revolution of the world, as they would be extinguished by the tremendous velocity, just like a candle swiftly carried through a room. A burning mountain being merely a match-head compared with the size of the world, ought to be snuffed out with a fraction of a revolution at 1100 miles an hour.
“The round-earthites have to adopt an imaginary axis for their world to revolve upon, but no solid body could revolve upon an imaginary axis. The fact is, the round revolving world is just as imaginary as their imaginary axis; imaginary cause, imaginary effect.”
Among the numerous converts claimed by Mr. Breach to his theory of a flat earth is no less a personage than the Prince of Wales. His steadfast opponent is Sir Robert Ball, who is preparing to deliver a lectural broadside that he declares will shatter Mr. Breach’s flat-earth fortifications to flinders. —Kansas City Star.
Illustrated London News, Saturday, 24 June 1899
After beauty, let us have an intellectual show. I want to see those wonderful ratepayers of Portsmouth who have warned the local School Board against the teaching of the theory that our planet is round. They say it is flat, and that any educational authority who pretends the contrary exposes himself to penalties under the “Impostors Act.” The shade of John Hampden ought to rejoice —I don’t mean the Hampden who protested the arbitrary policy of King Charles I., but the Hampden who preached the flatness of the earth, and even wagered five hundred pounds on the issue. He lost his money, and went protesting to the grave. His memory is now vindicated at Portsmouth, and the “Impostors Act” is threatening the Duke of Devonshire and Sir John Gorst. The country needs to be roused on this subject, and the professors of the new science ought to distribute their photographs widely, and exhibit themselves in the principal cities. I think they would find it a useful advertisement to visit Prince’s, and allow the manager to put a notice in the hall of the table where the savants from Portsmouth are sitting. The author of “Dinners and Diners” would be deeply interested, I am sure, in the kind of the meal ordered by a man who says the earth is flat.
Hants and Sussex News, Wednesday 22 November 1899
‘Professor’ Breach’s ‘Conversions.’It is registered in the House of Commons in a Children’s Impostor’s Act. Anyone proved to be an impostor in any court, magisterial or otherwise, shall be punishable with a find not exceeding forty shillings or three months’ imprisonment.