When You Want To Fool the World, Tell the Truth

Otto von Bismarck? Charles Haddon Spurgeon? George Bernard Shaw? Gaston Means? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: An individual who is distrusted can tell the absolute truth and experience solid skepticism. This is particularly accurate when the truth is difficult to believe or comprehend. This observation is reflected in the following adage. Here are four versions:

  • When you have to fool the world, tell the truth.
  • To fool the world tell the truth.
  • The way to fool the people is to tell the truth.
  • When you want to fool the world, tell the truth.

This saying has been attributed to Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, but I have been unable to find a citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In February 1885 the “Democrat and Chronicle” of Rochester, New York reported on a confusing stock transaction executed by a financial partner of the powerful speculator Jay Gould. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The entire street was puzzled by the performance. The general opinion seemed to be that the transactions were “wash” sales and that Gould had simply sold the stock with one hand and bought with the other. Others held that Gould was simply acting on Bismarck’s principle: “When you have to fool the world, tell the truth.”

Gould’s partner and confidential broker sold a large number of shares of Western Union. Normally, this would cause the share price to drop significantly, but Wall Street denizens suspected that something secret was occurring, and the price only fell a small amount. This outcome pleased Gould.

In 1885 Bismarck was still a powerful figure in European politics; he lived until 1898. QI has not yet found a contemporary German version of this quotation ascribed to the statesman. The newspaper referred to the adage as “Bismarck’s principle”; hence, it remains possible that he never said it; instead, observers synthesized the statement to describe the behavior of Bismarck.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A very similar article with the same principle assigned to Bismarck appeared in “The Philadelphia Inquirer” of Pennsylvania. 2 Oddly, “The Boston Sunday Globe” of Massachusetts published a variant principle. Yet, QI has not seen this variant elsewhere, and it might have simply been an error: 3

Others held that Gould was simply acting on Bismarck’s principle, “When you have to face the world, tell the truth.”

In 1887 “Proverbs, Maxims and Phrases of All Ages” compiled by Robert Christy included a section listing sayings about “Truth”. Here were four of them: 4

128. What is true is not always probable.
129. When anger blinds the eyes truth disappears.
130. When you have to fool the world, tell the truth. Bismarck.
131. Whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? Milton.

In 1889 well-known preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon published “The Salt-Cellars: Being a Collection of Proverbs, Together with Homely Notes Thereon”. He included the saying attributed to Bismarck: 5

To fool the world tell the truth.

So accustomed are men to chicanery, that plain honesty appears to them to be the subtlest form of deceit. Bismarck has the credit of this proverb; and it shows his shrewdness.

In 1894 a newspaper in Saint Albans, Vermont printed a thematically similar comment without ascription. The word “to” was misspelled as “too”: 6

The best way for the habitual liar too fool people is to stop lying and tell the truth.

The famous playwright George Bernard Shaw placed a related notion into the dialog of a character in his comedy “John Bull’s Other Island”. Shaw’s preface stated that the play had been written in 1904: 7

KEEGAN. My way of joking is to tell the truth. It’s the funniest joke in the world.

In 1905 a newspaper in Fort Wayne, Indiana printed the saying in a box on the top of the front page: 8

SUGGESTION
When you have to fool the world, tell the truth. —Bismarck.

In 1924 an Iowa newspaper reported that a notorious conman employed the saying without attribution: 9

“The way to fool the people is to tell the truth,” said Gaston Means at the close of the session.

In 1942 H. L. Mencken placed an instance credited to Bismarck into his massive compendium “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”: 10

When you want to fool the world, tell the truth.
OTTO VON BISMARCK ( 1815-98 )

In 1954 an editorial in “The New York Times” ascribed the saying to Bismarck: 11

The very Communist Manifesto declared that “the Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims,” and they have since copied Bismarck in the policy that “when you want to fool the world, tell the truth.” The Communist truth is at last catching up with them and is now yielding diminishing returns, except among those who insist on being fooled.

In 1968 quotation collector Evan Esar included the saying in “20,000 Quips and Quotes”: 12

When you want to fool the world, tell the truth. —Bismarck

In conclusion, an instance of the saying in English was attributed to Otto von Bismarck in 1885, but it was not a direct quotation. It was described as a principle of the statesman. QI has not yet found a contemporary instance in German ascribed to Bismarck; hence, this linkage is weakened. By 1887 the adage appeared in a proverb collection with an ascription to Bismarck. The English statement evolved over time. Perhaps future researchers will discover additional illuminating citations.

Image Notes: Illustration of the Fool’s Cap Map of the World which dates from circa 1580-1590. The origin of the map remains mysterious. Image accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Image has been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to Elizabeth Tamny whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1885 February 16, Democrat and Chronicle, Mystifying Wall Street: Selling Out Western Union, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1885 February 16, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Closing Lower: Traders In Stocks Said To Be Shifting Their Position, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1885 February 15, The Boston Sunday Globe, Wall Street’s Conundrum: Jay Gould’s Partner Suddenly Appears in the Stock Exchange and Sells Western Union Right and Left, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1887, Proverbs, Maxims and Phrases of All Ages: Classified Subjectively and Arranged Alphabetically, Compiled by Robert Christy, Volume Two of Two Volumes Combined, Topic: Truth, Quote Page 389, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link
  5. 1889, The Salt-Cellars: Being a Collection of Proverbs, Together with Homely Notes Thereon, Edited by C. H. Spurgeon (Charles Haddon Spurgeon), Volume Two – M to Z, Section: Old Saws and Rhymes, Quote Page 271, Passmore and Alabaster, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1894 October 27, Saint Albans Daily Messenger, Financial Outlook: Ciapp & Co’s Weekly Survey of the Business Situation, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Saint Albans, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1907, John Bull’s Other Island: And Major Barbara: Also How He Lied to Her Husband by Bernard Shaw, Play: John Bull’s Other Island Act II, Quote Page 36, Archibald Constable & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1905 April 12, The Weekly Sentinel, (Quotation in a box in upper left of front page), Quote Page 1, Column 1, Fort Wayne, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1924 March 22, The Sioux City Journal, Third Party Forces Boom La Follette, Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Sioux City, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Topic: Truth, Quote Page 1225, Column 1, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1954 October 16, The New York Times, What Moscow Really Wants, Quote Page 16, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  12. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Topic: Truth, Quote Page 827, Column 2, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)