This essay examines two cases of deception and fraud in Early America to explore the way knowledge was socially constituted in the first half of the nineteenth century. The first concerns a heated debate over the authenticity of a fossil sea serpent that was exhibited and then offered for sale by a specimen dealer and dime-museum operator from St. Louis named Albert Koch. The second revolves around Samuel Thomson, a better-known figure from the history of "quack" or "alternative" medicine. These cases furnish an intriguing and symmetrically inverse relationship: In the case of Koch's fossil sea serpent, the community of learned naturalists deliberately and consistently desisted from making an accusation of fraud. But in the case of Thomsonian medicine, established and university-trained physicians made every effort to characterize their rivals as dangerous charlatans who were more likely to injure a patient than cure their disease. Taken together, both cases reveal that to accuse someone of fraud was to seek their expulsion from the community of knowing subjects, whereas to defend someone against such an accusation was to vouchsafe and uphold the value of their contributions to that community. Hence, one of the uses to which knowledge was put was to serve as a powerful sorting mechanism for delimiting membership in what might best be described as a knowledge community.


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pp. 501-529
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