Romantic Deceit via Telegraph: How 'Catfishing' Worked in the 1880s

Using technology to fabricate identities and then pursue relationships is nothing new, as the 134-year-old novel Wired Love—about a pair of telegraph operators—can attest.

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Public domain New York Times; AP / Matt Sayles.

Nineteen-year-old Nattie Rogers spends hours every day chatting with, and pining for, her beloved Clem -- even though she's never met him. Via their virtual correspondence, he seems to Nattie to be a witty, elegant gentleman.

But in reality, he's a brutish redhead reeking of musk. Or is he?

Such deception may seem to be a byproduct of the digital age. -- the comprehensive guide to the vernacular of our time, of course -- defines "catfishing" as "the phenomenon of Internet predators fabricat[ing] online identities and entire social circles to trick people into emotional/romantic relationships"; the 2010 documentary Catfish and its subsequent MTV series of the same name present these scenarios to viewers' shock and dismay on a weekly basis. It would seem, then, that the advent of social networking, online dating, and sexting is to blame for ushering in an era fraught with more panic and anxiety over these kinds of uncomfortable virtual-romantic entanglements than ever before.

However, Nattie and Clem prove that there's actually nothing new about "catfishing." The two are the central characters in Ella Cheever Thayer's novel Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes -- which was published in 1879. (Or, as other sources suggest, perhaps it was 1880.)

Wired Love is a tale of virtual romance, mistaken identities, and, yes, even mild sexting (as Clem dreamily remarks, "I hope sometime we may clasp hands bodily as we do now spiritually, on the wire -- for we do, don't we?"). Most of Nattie and Clem's correspondence takes place over telegraph wires, as the two are both operators who work in distant towns. Their conversations, though, and the emotional attachment that ensues, may feel eerily familiar to those who have embarked on an online relationship in the modern world -- even the abbreviated phrases they use and idealized fibs about their appearances. As the Huffington Post pointed out last week, Wired Love "could have been written today."

What Wired Love reveals -- or perhaps more accurately, what the fact that it was written more than a century ago reveals -- is that mystique is inherent to any mediated relationship, regardless of the technology that facilitates it. Whether it's a telegraph or a Facebook chat, these mediums give users freedom to craft a new identity, especially in terms of appearances, age, and even gender.

Consider the conversation Nattie has with her real-life friends Quimby and Miss Archer about Clem, or "C" as he's known over the wire:

"You remember my speaking about 'C' and wondering whether a gentleman or lady?"

"Oh, yes!" Quimby remembered, and fidgeted on his chair.

"He proved to be a gentleman."

"Oh, yes; exactly, you know!" responded Quimby, looking anything but elated.

"It must be very romantic and fascinating to talk with some one so far away, a mysterious stranger too, that one has never seen," Miss Archer said, her black eyes sparkling. "I should get up a nice little sentimental affair immediately, I know I should, there is something so nice about anything with a mystery to it."

"Yes, telegraphy has its romantic side -- it would be dreadfully dull if it did not," Nattie answered.

"But -- now really," said Quimby, who sat on the extreme edge of the chair, with his feet some two yards apart from each other; "really, you know, now suppose -- just suppose, your mysterious invisible shouldn't be -- just what you think, you know. You see, I remember one or two young men in telegraph offices, whose collars and cuffs are always soiled, you know!"

"I have great faith in my 'C,'" laughed Nattie.

However, when Nattie meets a man who claims to be Clem (the aforementioned musk-reeking redhead) she is immediately off-put and exclaims:

"Now that the -- the mystery is solved, and I -- and we have met, I don't think there will be much amusement in talking over the wire."....

"And now," she thought to herself savagely, as she burned up the pieces, "I never will be interested in people again, unless I know all about them. Imagination is too dangerous a guide for me!"

She might as well be giving an exit interview on Catfish, as it's a lesson learned on almost every weekly episode. Such naiveté is rarely rewarded; hopes are almost always dashed. Wired Love is a testament to the fact that this emotional response is more often a byproduct of our own romantic (and often societal) expectations than the technological advancements that facilitate it.

But long-distance lovers in the modern era sometimes end up relying on virtual communication even more after they've been disappointed by the person on the other end of the line -- and the same was the case in Thayer's novel. Nattie, it's revealed later, is actually being deceived by a stranger pretending to be her beloved C (a case of the "reverse-catfish," as it might be deemed in today's world), but through a series of Austen-esque plot twists, she ultimately meets and falls in love with the true Clem when he moves to her town.

However, despite their physical proximity, they both miss the intimacy and freedom to reinvent themselves that only the wire allows. They come to the somewhat surprising conclusion that, "It is nicer talking on the wire, isn't it?" And the novel ends with the two installing a telegraph wire to connect their respective apartments.

It's an unconventional yet prescient ending -- one that heartily endorses the human tendency toward virtual desires.

More than 130 years later, it's more relevant than ever: Today, even when online romantic relationships successfully manifest themselves beyond the Internet, there's often a desire to maintain some sort of digital component as an extension of the couple's identity. Avatars of married couples often elope in role-playing games, as well, and there's even a burgeoning virtual wedding industry, where guests can congratulate the newlyweds via live chatroom updates.

Time and time again, it's not just the mystery that sustains the relationship, but the malleability of identity as well -- and that's a story readers were familiar with in Thayer's day and MTV viewers still tune in for weekly now. In a Season Two episode of Catfish, online lovers Ramon and Paola meet an end somewhat similar to Nattie and Clem's: Ramon is so blinded by his online love for Paola that he insists on meeting her in person, despite knowing well in advance that she has lied about her appearance. His delusion is so strong that upon meeting her, he claims to have blocked the memory of seeing Paola's actual physical appearance via webcam. The two argue as more deceptions are revealed, and they ultimately decide to break up.

Things were surely nicer for these two in the confines of Gmail chats -- where, as Nattie puts it, "people talk for the sake of talking and never say what they mean."