[snipping my original post — summary:]
If y’all didn’t realize I was going to research the crap out of this just because I could, you clearly don’t understand this blog at all.
So, first off, I seriously doubt there was ever a French military veteran farmer named Pierre Grantaire who moved to Pennsylvania to help wine merchants defraud people and had pet spiders named after Zola and Sarah Bernhardt.
I know it’s sad. And I can’t prove there wasn’t. But you have to understand that “there were articles in a bunch of 19th century newpapers and the notes sections of some scientific journals” is basically the equivalent, accuracy-wise, of saying “I saw it on my tumblr dash”. Which is to say, they shamelessly made stuff up. All the time. And then shamelessly copied it off each other.
I can tell you that there was no person by the name of Grantaire living anywhere in Pennsylvania in the 1880 or 1900 US censuses, though, and nobody with a name even close to Grantaire who was born in France and lived there. (The 1890 records were destroyed in a fire.)
Plus there’s the fact, as needsmoreresearch pointed out, that if you want to make a cellar look spider-y, you don’t use pretty garden spiders that weave neat patterns, you use the cellar spiders that use the fluffy dusty cobwebby silk, which could be a question of art as proposed in needsmoreresearch’s post, but it seems like if you were actually committing fraud you’d go for authenticity over symmetry.
And the earliest version of this story I can find, after checking a bunch of databases, is in the April 16th Edition of the St. Paul Daily Globe. I can’t guarantee that’s the original source, since digitizing of American newspapers is still pretty patchy, but I’d make a fair bet that it is. It’s the full long-form article and includes all the quotes and wording that were copied in the other publications and tbh it really reads like a 19th century newspaper hoax.
Also, unlike any of the other papers, the Daily Globe was advertising it over a week in advance as one of their cool weird stories in the Sunday edition, which none of the other papers did. Including, for several days, under the headline “NOT A FREAK SHEET”. Daily Globe, methinks you may protest too much.
Now you may think it’s sad if this dude did not exist. But. Just imagine: A bunch of Globe reporters just off their alcohol-soaked lunch break, BS-ing about the most click-bait-y hoax stories they can come up with, and one of them says, “I need a name for a weird old rambly French dude who really likes spiders” and another immediately says “Grantaire. Definitely Grantaire.”
And since the ONLY results in Google Books for the word “Grantaire” in all of the 1890s are a) this story, and b) editions of Les Miserables, I am absolutely sure that whoever proposed that name was a Les Mis fan.
In other words, this is totally somebody’s modern-US-AU Grantaire headcanon from the 1890s that got reblogged a lot and is still merrily going viral 125 years later, because Mis fandom never dies.
okay, this post got completely out of hand, in the best possible way — i’m sorry i haven’t been back to comment, but my own research projects took over and i’ve been away from tumblr.
anyway, yes — pierre grantaire is actually not a real person. i’m not as familiar with doing american history research online, so i never would have thought to check census records, but back before i wrote the first post on friday, i actually found his creator: ralph delahaye paine, a young journalist who later became the managing editor of the new york telegraph and served in the new hampshire state government. paine’s autobiography is on google books, and he talks about monsieur grantaire in one chapter, provocatively titled:
apparently, paine had been tasked to write a human interest story by his editor, his original idea had been to interview a man whose claim to fame was that he had been hit by a locomotive, and survived, the three times. but paine’s creativity carried him further:
apparently, paine never expected the story to take off; in his opinion, it was too crazy to be taken seriously.
however, as verseanduniverse describes, the nineteenth century was just as credulous and as prone to sharing things as tumblr today:
the story took on steam, appearing in more respectable scientific journals and even crossing over to publications overseas. eventually, however, paine forgot about it; he took on more serious reporting jobs, traveling to cover the spanish-american war and the boxer rebellion. five years later, however, he was working for the new york herald when pierre grantaire showed up again:
thank you to verseanduniverse for doing the american history side of digging on the story; i’m not as familiar with those digital resources, so i didn’t even think to check things like census records. i also love your idea of calling this a “modern headcanon,” because it totally is!
it also means that these illustrations from le journal amusant, who republished the story of grantaire the spider farmer in 1897, are modern au FANART:
omg look at him being so eager at his spiders! these sketches are even better when you know that hugo’s own sketch of grantaire playing dominoes at the infamous barrière du maine in his original manuscript gave him an equally fab mustache:
JUNGIAN FANDOM SYNCHRONICITY
THIS IS STILL COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY AMAZING.