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.

Continue reading When You Want To Fool the World, Tell the Truth

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)