STORIES FROM THE ILLUSTRATED POLICE NEWS
No 44. Mynheer Van Klaes, the King of Smokers
In May 1872, the Illustrated Police News announced that one of the most eccentric characters in Holland had expired: Mynheer van Klaes, the celebrated King of Smokers. This gentleman had made a considerable fortune in the Indian linen trade, and settled down to spend his old age in a comfortable mansion he had erected for himself in Rotterdam. A handsome apartment in this house contained his Tobacco Museum, containing specimens of tobacco from all parts of the world – cigars, cigarettes and cigarillos of every description, as well as an enormous collection of pipes of every country and period, from those used by ancient barbarians to smoke hemp, to the splendid meerschaum and amber pipes, ornamented with carved figures and bands of gold, like those seen in the finest stores of Paris. The museum was open to visitors, to each of whom, after he had aired his knowledge on the subject of pipecollecting, Mynheer van Klaes gave a pouch filled with tobacco and cigars, and a catalogue of the museum in a velvet cover.
A rotund, bald-headed figure, Mynheer van Klaes was seldom seen without his large Dutch pipe, at which he puffed incessantly. Since his consumption of schnapps, Genever (Dutch gin) and Dordrecht beer was also very considerable, many thought that van Klaes was not destined for a long and healthy life. But the sturdy Dutchman defied them all, living well into his 80s in his Rotterdam house, surrounded by a thick cloud of tobacco smoke. Every day, he smoked 150 grammes (5oz) of tobacco, and he died at the ripe old age of 98; consequently, if we assume that he began to smoke when he was 18 years old, he consumed in the course of his life 4,383kg (9,700lb) of tobacco. If this quantity of tobacco could be laid down in a continuous black line, it would extend 20 French leagues (80km/50 miles).
When van Klaes felt death approaching, he summoned a notary and dictated his will. After he had bequeathed the greater part of his fortune to relatives, friends, and charities, he added: “I wish every smoker in the kingdom to be invited to my funeral in every way possible, by letter, circular, and advertisement. Every smoker who takes advantage of the invitation shall receive as a present 10lb (4.5kg) of tobacco, and two pipes on which shall be engraved my name, my crest, and the date of my death. The poor of the neighbourhood who accompany my bier shall receive every year on the anniversary of my death 10lb of tobacco and a cask of good beer. I make the condition that all those who assist at my funeral, if they wish to partake of the benefits of my will, must smoke without interruption during the entire ceremony. My body shall be placed in a coffin lined throughout with the wood of my old Havana cigar-boxes. At the foot of the coffin shall be placed a box of the French tobacco called ‘caporal’ and a package of our old Dutch tobacco. At my side place my favorite pipe and a box of matches... for one never knows what may happen. When the bier rests in the vault, all the persons in the funeral procession are requested to cast upon it the ashes of their pipes as they pass it on their departure from the grounds.”
If we are to believe a waggish writer in the Daily Telegraph, this bizarre funeral ceremony was carried out just as planned, and when the words “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” were intoned, all the mourners emptied their pipes over the coffin. Since there was not much interesting news in May 1872, the curious story of van Klaes spread like wildfire: many provincial newspapers in Britain abstracted it, often with some facetious comments of their own. The IPN was the only paper to publish the portrait of this prodigious smoker.
The story spread further to American, Australian and New Zealand papers, and got taller as it went along. Even the sombre Lancet quoted the case of van Klaes as a remarkable instance of the human system’s tolerance of the excessive use of tobacco: the singular Dutchman had survived the fumes of more than four tons of this noxious weed! But when a monthly magazine for the tobacco trade, Cope’s Tobacco Plant, made some inquiries in August 1872, they found that the story of the King of Smokers was pure fiction. An offer of a £100 reward to “any person or persons who shall accord such information as shall lead to the identification of Mynheer van Klaes, the Smoking King of Rotterdam, and establish the correctness of the history propounded by the Daily Telegraph” was never claimed. But Cope’s Tobacco Plant was not a widely read periodical, and as a result, the rotund figure of the King of Smokers has never gone up in smoke. In fact, the spectre of Mynheer van Klaes is still alive and well, puffing away merrily in various ill-researched modern books and articles about the history of tobacco smoking. Although there is today a curious Pipe Museum at the Prinzengracht in Amsterdam, its custodians have no knowledge of their alleged predecessor van Klaes, and they express incredulity as to his very existence.