The Journal of Liwwat Bocke

Liwwat Bocke was a German woman who moved to Ohio as a young woman during the nineteenth century. From the 1820s until the 1880s she kept a journal of her experiences... a journal that eventually spanned 1100 pages, all of which is written in a dialect of northern Germany known as Plattdeutsch. When historians discovered her journal during the 1970s they thought it was a remarkable find, sure to shed valuable light on the history of the settlement of Ohio. But now they're not so sure. Analysis of the document has revealed that it's a fake, plagiarized from other sources and containing numerous anachronisms. What no one can figure out is who created this forgery, and why they did it. As this article in The Plain Dealer notes, why would someone "go to such great effort to fake a journal about life in the 19th century and then attribute it to a German-speaking farm woman who is buried in a rural church cemetery in Auglaize County... Who would go to the trouble of hand-writing more than a thousand pages in Plattdeutsch - a low German dialect spoken mostly by older, rural people - to describe the settlement of Ohio?"

History Literature/Language

Posted on Tue Jun 15, 2004


Hi, Peggy--

Thanks for your comment about the journal and it's authenticity. I am curious, too, about the circumstances of the journal's creation and the subsequent revelations about its degrees of integrity or falsity.

I am interested to know whether you had the opportunity to see and study pages that you believe are real (authentic) and those that have been alleged bogus, to see the difference for yourself? And if you could comment a bit more about the differences in the particular essays and writings if you have seen the pages.

And I'm also wondering whether you know if any of the journal pages have been examined for carbon dating (or whatever the newer methods of determining original dates are). And if not, do you happen to know why carbon dating hasn't been used?

After reading your comments, I'm trying to get a sense of how much of the journal is authentic and how much is copied. Thanks again. j.
Posted by J. Imhoff  in  Cincinnati  on  Thu Feb 28, 2008  at  05:18 PM
I bought a copy of this book in Maria Stein, Ohio, this weekend. I was enamored by it and couldn't pass it up! I made it a birthday/Christmas present to myself. Imagine my shock and disappointment to discover this controversy over this book! I have read all of the comments here, plus a string of comments posted on the hannover-l listserv on rootsweb in 1998, and tried to read a translated version on the website listed on one of the posts here. I'm of two-minds about it, but I think I've decided to keep the book and read it for what it is. I compare it in a way to the Laura Ingalls Wilder "Little House" series -- they are not an autobiography, but rather historical fiction she based on her own life: Laura had to change names of people and places, the order of events and even dates and ages to fit the flow of the story or to protect family reputations if a situation was not a nice one, but the majority of the book is true. So I kind of consider this book in that light now: even if all the ideas in the book were proved not be Liwwaet's, there is so much of value to be found in there, I'm sure most of it has to be hers as it gives details that only a first-hand account would give. I know the Boke's do not claim it as historical fiction, but that seems to fit best given these circumstances. I am very sorry for Luke Knapke, that all of his years of hard work are being questioned. However, I can understand the family's reluctance -- if the book were proved to be a fake, it could destroy the family's good name and standing in the community, I can imagine, plus so many family members whole- heartedly believe the book to be true, it could destroy the family. I am not sure what the right answer would be. Just imagine yourselves or your own family in that position. Anyway, although I am disappointed by this news, I find I can still enjoy the book for what it is, and wanted to add my two-cents.
Posted by mommy4  in  Cincinnati  on  Mon Oct 13, 2008  at  04:00 PM
Yes, I suppose the book could be categorized as a kind of 'historical fiction', but I think much of the book was 'inspired' by L. Boke's personal writings, rather than 'based' on her life (to regard the book in a most positive light).

After reading facsimiles of the original documents from the German professor's research, some of the (faked) essays could be deemed 'scurrilous' (i.e., the sections about the priests and nuns who settled in the area) and not true to Liwwat's spirit. Of course, I haven't seen any original documents to sort out which parts of the whole are authentic and what is 'inspired'. I'm only relying on what I could sort out from the Professor's links.

Of course, I was given to understand that L. Knapke (who resides in the Mercer County area) served as a translator from the Low German only, and was not the writer of the questioned essays.

The most fascinating aspect of the whole book, I think, is Mr. Boke's (who resided in Columbus) foreshadowing in the foreward and end notes. What irony!

Interestingly, I was in Maria Stein a week ago to tour the relic chapel and attend the Octoberfest in Minster. The subject of this book came up, and those in our group who knew of it were incredulous about the questions about it, too. They think a movie should be made of the whole story.
Posted by J. Imhoff  on  Mon Oct 13, 2008  at  05:51 PM
I was pondering this more, and the thought came to me... these manuscripts traveled from attic to attic over many years, and were shuffled over and over, and Luke Knapke states in his end notes. It makes me wonder if other family members' writings and sketches could have gotten mixed in, but when discovered much late, the whole collection assumed to be Liwwaet's. If you compare the sketches to each other, it's obvious to me that some are in a very different style (and ability) than others. Couldn't it be that some are hers, and others belonged to someone else? Maybe the other individual did copy from other pictures, because they liked them or were practicing; but they were mistakenly attributed to Liwwaet because they were all mixed together. I just hate the thought that anyone would purposefully forge these things. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. Just another thought.

BTW, today I read the letter to Bishop Purcell regarding the teaching of Fr. Herzog (you all know what I mean). If you are at all familiar with heresies condemned by the Catholic Church, you will notice the letter refers to "Jansenism". This was a heresy dating back to the 16th century that taught in part that human nature was depraved and incapable of good. It called for extreme measures to avoid sin, one example being this Fr. Herzog's teaching against even married sex. Though the Church condemned the teachings, they still spread, leading many unfortunate souls to falsely believe everything they did was sinful and would never attain forgiveness. I suppose some would argue this is the root of what they would call "Catholic guilt". It was never a teaching of the Catholic Church, but rather the ranting of misguided preachers. If Liwwaet was educated in a cathedral school, as the book says, she would have definitely been well aware of Jansenism and the struggles against it. And I'm sure as a midwife, and it appears the town expert on medical issues, many town-women would have confided in her about their personal issues and confusion about this priest's teaching. They probably grew up with these ideas even in Germany and brought some of the ideas with them already, but then this guy was over-the-top! I just wanted to contribute that to the discussion here too, since I think someone else brought it up.
Posted by Mommy4  in  Cincinnati  on  Tue Oct 14, 2008  at  04:30 PM
Yes, I understand where you are coming from.

Of course, I'm just an amateur sleuth on this topic, but after review of the German professor's research notes, it appears to me that some of the best drawings, supposedly found in the attic, and (erroneously?) attributed to Liwwaet, were direct knock-offs of drawings created much later in time by a craftsman in Germany. Many believe that these copied/traced drawings were done by the late Mr. Vincent Boke from Columbus. This would explain the difference in the quality of the art, I think.

Unfortunately, Mr. V. Boke's relatives who may be able to shed some light on the mystery, have left the scene along with the boxes of manuscripts (some say to Canada, or maybe to teach at a college in Kansas?) and have not made comments, made the papers available, or assisted in any way to unravel the mystery (at least that I know of.) (One can only wonder why not?)

Your comments about Jansenism are interesting, and I think point up one of the 'red flags' in attributing the writings of the Liwwat journal solely to her. Following this thought, some of the researchers interested in Liwwat's book report that the essays are completely out of character for the person, period, and Ohio pioneer culture.

So I went to the Ohio history section of the public library here in Cincinnati to compare diaries of other women (and men) from the same period, many of them far more educated than Liwwat was said to be, and, indeed, there was a distinct difference in the writings. The specious writing attributed to Liwwat was far, far more complex and wide ranging in thought than the manuscripts from other women who were better educated, more worldly, and from distinguished families, even given Liwwat's old country midwifery background.

And without the trove of original documents (in the hands of Mr. Vincent Boke's decendants) to sort out, we will never be able to confirm how much is original, if any.

Obviously I am intrigued by this mystery, too. I would love to know more about the story from someone who has first hand knowledge of Mr. Vincent Boke's participation in this story, or from anyone who has original 'Liwwat' attributed documents who has had them analyzed for authenticity.

And I empathize with all the decendants from Mercer/Auglaize counties who are filled with consternation and disbelief about the book's origins. But obviously some up there continue to discount the research, or are blissfully unaware, since shopkeepers continue to sell it (as authentic material) and haven't pulled it from inventory. (And thus, many parents of Ohio grade schoolers are buying the book for 'show and tell' and 'family history projects' only to find out that they have been duped and quite probably are victims of a 'hoax', too.)
Posted by J. Imhoff  in  Cincinnati  on  Wed Oct 15, 2008  at  07:37 AM
Yeah, the more I am thinking about it now, the less I am enjoying this book. Especially since it cost me $25, which I was only willing to pay because I thought it was such a treasure. I would never have paid $25 for fiction, not to mention the controversy that comes with it. It makes me upset to think I was duped, and now I am stuck with this book I can't return and get my money back. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt; but then sometimes you can only take that so far, and you have to cut your losses. Some birthday/Christmas present to myself - plus now my husband is making fun of me: whenever I say something about a birthday or Christmas idea, he says, "You already bought your present!" (very funny!)

IF the Boke family ever comes forth with the manuscripts and allows them to be analyzed to resolve this situation once and for all, I would be very interested in a republication of Liwwaet's authentic writing and artwork. I'd happily trade this book for that one!

If you ask me, this sounds like a case for the History Detectives on PBS!
Posted by mommy4  in  cincinnati  on  Sat Oct 18, 2008  at  10:38 PM
I know what you mean about buying the book and feeling duped. You are not alone on that one!

At least I didn't send my sixth grader to school with the book for an 'Ohio History' presentation on it (as some other parents/descendants have)!

And I think 'The History Detectives' would love to flesh out the story for a segment! Great idea! If you want to meet to talk about it, look me up in the phone book!
Posted by J. Imhoff  in  Anderson Township, Ohio  on  Sun Oct 19, 2008  at  08:40 AM
Except wouldn't History Detectives need the cooperation of whoever has the manuscripts? Apparently THAT'S not going to happen! I can just imagine what would happen to the Minster Historical Society if this were featured on History Detectives, and then everyone who ever bought this book decided they wanted a refund after seeing the episode. So yeah, pretty unlikely they'd cooperate either!

The world may never know...
Posted by mommy4  in  cincinnati  on  Sun Oct 19, 2008  at  10:04 PM
Well, that's true. (-:

So I guress we'll just have to write a 'fictionalized' script of what happened!

Keep us posted if you find out anything more about the 'mystery'.
Posted by J. Imhoff  in  Anderson Twonship  on  Mon Oct 20, 2008  at  05:24 AM
See my revised B
Posted by Antonius Holtmann  in  Oldenburg  on  Mon Jul 19, 2010  at  11:35 AM
This hoax stuff saddens me. My mother was a Boeke and I know my family spent quite a bit of time and money years ago tracing our history all the way back to Liwwat and buying the book for all 12 of the brothers and sisters. To find that it may have just been a lie is truly disappointing.

My German is quite poor, so I look forward to the English translation of your article, Mr. Holtmann
Posted by Stephen Wuebker  in  Cincinnati / St. Henry  on  Fri Oct 08, 2010  at  03:00 PM
My critical review of "Liwwät Böke, 1807-1882, pioneer" (1987)now has been expanded and published on this website in English and with drawings: Click the British/American flag and go to >Publications.
Posted by Antonius Holtmann  on  Sun Aug 21, 2011  at  02:06 AM
All I can say is WOW..My Dad - Donald has a copy of the book which his brother John "Jack" gave to him. I read it and found it very interesting ! Proud to be related to Liz !
Posted by Robert Knapke  in  Michigan  on  Sat Apr 28, 2012  at  07:12 PM
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