What happened when a fictional character penned an autobiography

When Yankee Lawyer: The Autobiography of Ephraim Tutt came out in 1943, a lot of readers were confused. After all, Tutt was a fictional person, the hero of a series of legal novels. Or was he? Many fans became convinced that Tutt was a flesh-and-blood human being.

Ephraim Tutt was the creation of Arthur Cheny Train, a lawyer who once served as assistant New York District Attorney. In 1904, Train published his first short story, "The Maximilian Diamond," and from 1919 to 1943, he wrote about Ephraim Tutt. In Train's stories, Tutt was a crusading attorney, the man who would take on clients no other lawyer would, and would use all manner of innovative legal tactics to ensure that justice—and not merely the law—was served. In the days before Perry Mason, Tutt was the sort of attorney even non-lawyers loved to read about.

In the early 1940s, Train's health began to fail, and he decided to give Tutt a grand literary sendoff. He decided to imbue Ephraim Tutt with life, at least on paper. Yankee Lawyer details Tutt's childhood, his education, his career, and what events turned him into such a tireless champion of the underdog. To add to the sense of realism, Train had Tutt meet real-world personalities, including Calvin Coolidge and Richard “Boss” Croker. Train cast Tutt's relatives from his own family photos, which were included in the book. Young Ephraim Tutt was played by a guide Train had once hired. And, to complete the illusion of Tutt's "autobiography," Train removed his own name from the byline. Ephraim Tutt was listed as the sole author of Yankee Lawyer.

Tutt's autobiography was a cause célèbre. Suddenly, fans who had been reading about Tutt's courtroom theatrics for years were fuzzy on whether their legal hero was, in fact, a fictional character—and many people desperately wanted him to be real. It helped that the book's reviewers argued for his existence. The New York Times said that Yankee Lawyer “couldn’t be a work of fiction,” and the Washington Post rejoiced that Tutt had finally written a book about himself. Although Train claimed that he thought no one would be confused by the absence of his name on the "autobiography," he added to the post-publication hoax. He wrote a review in the Yale Law Journal, which began, "To review the book of a friend is inevitably a delicate and ofttimes a dangerous task."

For months, readers debated Tutt's existence. Tutt began receiving mail at Train's publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons, some from women who had fallen in love with Tutt, some from men who reminisced about their days with Tutt back at Harvard. For a man who never existed, it seemed that Tutt had an awful lot of friends and acquaintances. Finally, in the February 26, 1944, edition of The Saturday Evening Post, Train published his non-mea culpa, "Should I Apologize?" assuring the reading public that Tutt was a fictional creation:

One might think that, after a fictional character has appeared for many years in a magazine of wide circulation, there would be plenty to stand up and nail as monstrous any suggestion that he was other than imaginary. Yet there seems to be almost as much uncertainty about it among habitual readers of the Tutt books and stories as among those of the public who have never before heard of him.

The reason seems to be—and here lies the difficulty of ever clearing the matter up—that, while the readers of Ephraim's legal adventures know that they are pure fantasy, this in itself does not preclude the possibility of there being an actual person of that name upon whose experiences they are based. Former readers of the Post, hearing that Mr. Tutt has written an autobiography, may easily forget just where they became acquainted with him, and recall only that they have vaguely heard of such a person; thus swelling the ranks of those who are not only bewildered but actually deceived. After all, it is, ¿f course, possible that there is an Ephraim Tutt. Who can tell? My personal denial is not conclusive. He may still exist, even if I honestly assert to the contrary.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Train's outing of Tutt is this section, which lends itself to a bit of Jorge Borges-style magical realism:

Max Perkins says that fifty years hence, as between Tutt and myself, Tutt will be remembered as the real person and I as the fictional character. And that, if anyone asks who Arthur Train was, the answer will be: "Train? Why, he was the character that Ephraim Tutt invented as a stooge in his autobiography. There wasn't really any such person. Tutt just put him in to explain how he came to write the hook and to give himself a chance to tell in the introduction what a great chap he was. Clever, eh?"

In fact, there is no longer any doubt about it, for yesterday Mr. Tutt received an invitation from the publishers of Who's Who to permit them to enroll him in America's hall of fame as one who had "accomplished some conspicuous achievement—something out of the ordinary, so to speak—something which distinguished him from the vast majority of his contemporaries." A voluminous questionnaire was enclosed, with a self-addressed envelope for reply. Well, I guess Eph qualifies all right. No one yet ever did what he has done.

Not everyone found Train's revelation as amusing as Train evidently found it, however. Lewis Linet, an attorney who had, until that issue of the Post, thought Tutt a real person, filed suit against Train and his publisher. Linet demanded his money back, as well as an injunction against publishing the book as Tutt's autobiography, putting the fake lawyer in real legal hot water. Autobiographical fakery is serious business nowadays, but Linet was pretty soundly ridiculed in the media, both for believing Train's hoax and for suing for such a paltry amount. The request for injunctive relief was eventually dismissed, and Train passed away before the matter of Linet's $3.50 could be resolved.

Incidentally, Train also wrote two science fiction novels, co-authored with famed physicist Robert W. Wood (a pioneer in infrared and ultraviolet photography): The Man Who Rocked the Earth and The Moon Maker.

And I think this is a rather appropriate coda to the tale of Train and Tutt: much of this information comes from the writings of Molly Guptill Manning, who authored the book The Myth of Ephraim Tutt: Arthur Train and His Great Literary Hoax and the paper "A Tale of Three Hoaxes: When Literature Offends the Law." Manning discovered Ephraim Tutt thanks to a professor, who loaned her a copy of Yankee Lawyer while she was trying to figure out her undergraduate thesis topic. After reading the book, Manning told the professor that it was engaging, but she didn't think Tutt would be an interesting thesis topic given that he had already written his own autobiography. It was only when she learned that Tutt was a fictional person that she realized what a rich topic this character and his fans were.