No Source for Winchester’s Hanging-Priests Calumny

When challenged Nov. 1, 2005, at the Washington, DC, bookstore, Politics and Prose, to name his source for the charge in his new book, A Crack in the Edge of the World, America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, that priests "roamed the streets" executing suspected heretics in the wake of the massive 1755 earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, best-selling author, Simon Winchester, was unable to do so. Initially he responded to a question from the audience with great seeming confidence that he had very good sources (plural), and that they could be found in his bibliography.  He seemed genuinely taken aback that anyone could question the veracity of his assertion, but in spite of his self-assuredness, his authority on the matter had been undermined somewhat by the questioner, who had noted that in his presentation he said that the priests had had the suspects burned, while in the passage from his book quoted by columnist, George Will, they had been hanged. 

"Which is it?" he was asked.

"Probably some of each," he said, airily, "but I prefer burning," and this produced a large laugh from the audience.

On the matter of the sources, he put the questioner off by saying that if the questioner would see him after the book-signing was over, he would point them out in his bibliography.

However, at the end of the evening, with no one left but some close friends with whom he was planning to have a late dinner, Mr. Winchester could not think of who his source might have been.  His manner, however, was gracious, and he did say that if the charge against the priests proved to be unsustainable by the evidence he would inform the columnist, Will, so that he might write a correction, and that he would duly modify his book in any paperback edition that might come out.

His increasingly conciliatory attitude might have been influenced by the fact that he was presented with a copy of the 4-part research work by Theresa Carpinelli entitled, "Journalistic Un-Integrity," that he was told shows beyond reasonable doubt that no such priest-ordered executions took place.  E-mail addresses were exchanged and he promised that as soon as he had refreshed his memory with a browse through his bibliography he would do his best to identify his sources. (When contacted more than a week later, he had still failed to do so.)

The Secular Humanist Evangelist

In spite of his promises, any changes or retractions that Winchester might make with respect to those hanging/burning Portuguese priests will be very difficult for him because the charge is absolutely central to his message.  That's right, message. Hearing him speak one realizes that he is more than a polished, charming, witty raconteur who has learned a good deal about geology, but he is something of an evangelist, talking up "science" and "reason" and atheistic secular humanism, which he contrasts with "ignorance," "superstition," and "religion."

"I am not a religious person," he said at one point. "I believe in evolution."

If he were to describe the reasonable actions of the Portuguese, both clergy and laity, in the wake of the great Lisbon earthquake on a more factual basis, his message would be diluted almost to the point of complete ineffectualness. Moreover, his outrageous charge against the church is not only winning converts to his cause, but it is doubtless helping him sell more books.

After all, it was the most provocative thing that George Will cited, and it is through Will's widely syndicated column that most people probably learned about Winchester's book.   At Politics and Prose, a mainstream left-liberal bookstore where readers of The Washington Post and listeners to National Public Radio go to have their prejudices reinforced, he was preaching to a very enthusiastic choir of 50+ people. Many of them lined up patiently after the talk to get copies of the book signed by the author. In his presentation he had kept them in the palm of his hand with many fascinating anecdotes—the truth of which one must now question—about the great San Francisco earthquake and fire. His contrast of the speed and thoroughness with which the government authorities of the time, with their many technological limitations, reacted to the emergency compared to the reaction to Hurricane Katrina by the Bush administration won him points with the audience. 

About two-thirds of the way through the talk, he changed from storytelling to philosophizing. The San Francisco quake, he said, had been something of a "tipping point," where scientific explanations for them had begun to dominate over more primitive, religious explanations. Then he went immediately into the story about the priests in Portugal burning the suspected heretics who were presumably thought to be responsible for the calamity. The remainder of the talk was devoted to the selling of his "rationalism" line, and the Roman Catholics were not the only ones belittled in the process. The American Pentecostal movement, said Winchester, had received a big shot in the arm by the fact that a California minister of that persuasion had predicted such a punishment by God upon the area's sinners in a sermon given only a couple of days before the earthquake hit. "His church was filled to overflowing afterward," said Winchester. 

Apparently a substantial part of the American population has failed to be tipped by the tipping point. Even today, observed Winchester in dismay, "Polls show that 60 percent of Americans believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old."

"The precise number of years is 6,000," a listener interjected from the audience.  “Six thousand? Oh that's it." said Winchester. On second thought, maybe he could expunge the lies about the priests in Portugal without damaging his message irreparably. He would still have American fundamentalists to beat up on as his purest representatives of benighted religious people. 

For the full exposé of the false atrocity story, go to Theresa Carpinelli’s 4-part article, “Journalistic Un-Integrity.” 

For George Will quoting Winchester go to

In the meantime, David Shi, historian and president of Furman University, who had also repeated the false charge about the hanging priests in a column he writes for the Greenville (SC) News, has since most graciously and honorably written a retraction.  It can be read at *

One can only wonder if either Winchester or Will will demonstrate the same concern over his reputation and will publicly retract his slander of the Catholic Church.

David Martin

November 17, 2005

* Unfortunately, that link is now dead.  Actually, it should be noted that Dr. Shi originally resisted issuing a correction, and it took two or three emails and appeals to his professional reputation as a historian to get him to come around.  Apparently he doesn't care quite enough about his professional reputation, because I have just discovered—August 14, 2008—that he continues to repeat the uncorrected lies about the priests on his Furman University website. (That one is now thankfully dead, too.  The Internet can be kinder than hard copy to slippery historians.)


One of those refusing to retract in the face of the evidence was James A. Haught, who had a particularly offensive article in Free Inquiry that relied heavily upon the false hanging-priests story.  Apparently not perceiving the difference between argument from evidence and argument from authority, he said that I had given him the word of only "one person," that being Theresa Carpinelli. He insisted that the claim had not been refuted, ostensibly, because a representative of the Roman Catholic Church had not “officially” repudiated it, and that his newspaper sources were quite good enough.  His final position was that if I did not like what he had written, I could write a letter to the editor of Free Inquiry.  Mr. Haught is the editor of the Charleston (WV) Gazette and is therefore quite familiar with how the deck is stacked against writers of dissenting letters.

With no other recourse to set his corruption of the historical record straight, I sent the letter in accordance with Free Inquiry's very restrictive rules, and then followed up with one last e-mail to Mr. Haught.  He did not respond:

Mr. Haught,

I have shoehorned the following correction of your calumny into the requisite 300-word format for letters to Free Inquiry and have sent it, along with my address and phone number. However, it looks as though letters to the editor appear only in the hard copy that subscribers read, not online where I discovered your false charge. For the great majority of people who read your article, this amounts to no correction at all.  I wonder if this is what you had in mind when you urged me to write the correcting letter. 


To the Editor

In his April-May, 2005, Free Inquiry article “Why Would God Drown Children?” James A. Haught undermines his religion-belittling credibility by repeating a newly minted lie concerning the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. “Afterward,” he says, “priests roamed the shattered streets, hanging people they suspected of incurring God's wrath.”

His source for this calumny is probably columnist Kenneth Nguyen of The Age in Melbourne, Australia, whom he cites on a different point later in his article. Nguyen’s December 30, 2004, column is the earliest known newspaper article to carry the hanging-priest charge, but The Washington Post weighed in a day later in an article that had roughly the same passage. The Post writer admitted that he picked it up from the un-sourced online Wikipedia (since revised). The Post article was widely syndicated, and CBS News was among those repeating the false charge. 

In fact, the political lay of the land was such in Portugal in 1755 that the type of vigilantism, religiously motivated or otherwise, recounted by Haught would have had about as much chance of taking place as it would in the United States today. The Jesuit-persecuting Prime Minister, the Marquis de Pombal, was very much in charge of things, and it is well documented that he did have some looters hanged on the spot. Furthermore, had the mindless atrocities that Haught describes taken place, you can be sure that the historical literature would be full of it, and it is not. 

The full exposé of the false atrocity story is in Theresa Carpinelli’s 4-part article, “Journalistic Un-Integrity.” 

Interestingly, a Chicago minister and a Baptist college president/historian who originally parroted the news accounts have since conscientiously printed retractions, but no journalist or news organization has yet done so. 

November 23, 2005

The story continues at "Simon Winchester's Smooth Forked Tongue."

Addendum 2

This matter became a Wikipedia Signpost feature on February 14, 2005, entitled “Misinformation on Wikipedia.”  It concludes, “Both [conservative critic John] Hinderaker and Carpinelli commented on the failure of the Washington Post to run a correction regarding the statement in its article. This shows, one might say, one of the benefits of the wiki system by comparison; Wikipedia has at least managed to correct its information, albeit more slowly than it might have if Carpinelli had just removed the material from the article herself.” 


This episode also reveals the essential dishonesty of Simon Winchester, George Will, and The Washington Post.





 Home Page  Column  Column 4 Archive   Contact