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Johnson in His Time

Every well-read person used to know Johnson's Lives of the Poets, and, knowing that collection, knew who Richard Savage was—or at least knew who Richard Savage told people he was.

Richard Savage was a minor poet and convicted murderer, a charming rascal and rackety man about town entirely lacking normal instincts of prudence and self-preservation. Judged as material for a book, he was a striking example of the way life not only imitates fiction, but can become virtually indistinguishable from it. Savage claimed with obsessive pertinacity to be the illegitimate son of Earl Rivers and Anne, Lady Macclesfield. He told everyone he met that his alleged mother had disowned and abused him, and over a period of about 25 years he made her life miserable with libel, blackmail, and the threat of violence. Written down and published by Savage and his friends, the story acquired the convincing objectivity of print.

Such claims to identity, originating in the paranoias and anxieties of life, are fascinating. Passionately believed by the claimant and his supporters, they resisted final proof until modern times brought the invention of DNA testing. It seems likely that most of them, like more common but similar claims to noble descent, have been false. In the case of Savage, he was probably the child of a nurse or servant employed by Lady Macclesfield or someone close to her, who knew about her illegitimate children...

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