W is for Prof Dick Willoughby

This is my contribution to Round Eleven of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.
Prof Dick Willoughby

Prof Dick Willoughby

The Alaskan mining prospector ‘Professor’ Dick Willoughby was looking out across the Muir Glacier in June 1888 when he caught a glimpse of a most remarkable sight – the outline of a modern city skyline looming out of the misty horizon.

Although the mirage lasted only a few minutes, he was able to photograph it to prove that he had indeed seen it. Willoughby speculated that what he had witnessed was the reflection of a real city many thousands of miles away.

Alaska had been bought by the US just 20 years earlier and for many Americans it still represented a weird and wonderful wild world of ice where anything could happen and Willoughby’s story became a sensation after it was published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Silent CityHis photograph was published across the country and the accompanying articles described Willoughby as an expert on Arctic history and talked of his high standing with the Inuit people.

For his part, Willoughby did very well out of it, selling copies of his photograph for 75¢ in his home town of Juneau and being paid to accompany tours of the area where he took it.

The story began to unravel when a Wells Fargo employee recognised the mysterious skyline as that of Bristol, England, and the view from the public park on Brandon Hill.

It transpired that Willoughby had acquired the blurry photo of Bristol as part of a job lot of equipment he had bought from a stranded English photographer for $10 which inspired him to hatch his ‘silent city’ mirage hoax.

Interest in the story continued even after it had been debunked and in 1890 Willoughby sold the negative to a photographer in San Francisco for $500.

In fact, the ‘professor’ was a notorious practical joker and teller of tall tales, not to mention being a shrewd businessman who had netted himself a lucrative mining deal in San Francisco worth $67,000.

Willoughby became a tourist attraction in his own right in Juneau and visitors would call to be treated to one of his tales until he died in 1902 aged 70.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

11 comments… Add yours
  • Willoughby Pudding 19th December 2012

    Ho! Ho! My friends. They don’t call me “Dick” for nothing!

  • Leslie 19th December 2012

    Great post for our W week!

    abcw team

  • Roger Green 19th December 2012

    June 1988? I could have sworn US bought Alaska was 1867, so 20 years later…

    • Mr Parrot 19th December 2012

      Oops! Thanks Roger. My only excuse is that it was written in a hurry last night.

  • Jennifer 19th December 2012

    I can’t help but admire people who do such things and fool everyone with a good tale.

  • Trevor Rowley 19th December 2012

    I read “The Third Eye” by Lobsang Rampa some years ago and was enthralled by its picture of the life of a monk in Tibet. There was some controversy creeping in at the time that the writer was not a Tibetan at all. Later, it was revealed that the writer was, in fact, an Englishman, Cyril Hoskins, born in Plympton, Devon who claimed that the Tibetan monk had entered his body to be able to write the book. Rightly or wrongly, the book, and its successors, went on to be best sellers and Mr Hoskins never did admit to being a fake.

  • Carol Carson 22nd December 2012

    That’s a great story and a fun read this morning. All in all, though I appreciate the joke when I know I’ve been duped, I also feel a bit stupid. There’s a wild account fresh in my mind of a Golden Eagle and a baby…

  • Richard Muirhead 5th March 2014

    Do you know anything about the Steller`s Sea Cow hide Dick Willoughby was supposed to have been buried in? I`ve seen the photo of it, but was it really from a Sea Cow?

    • Mr Parrot 5th March 2014

      I’m sorry Richard, but I really don’t know. It’s not something my light research uncovered, but I will see what I can find out.


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