“Not a plumber fired a salute or hung out a flag,” Mencken lamented. “Not a governor proclaimed a day of prayer. Not a newspaper called attention to the day,” the purported seventy-fifth birthday of the bathtub. Mencken’s piece provided a vivid and full history of the introduction of the tub to American life. It singled out for praise Millard Fillmore for his role in bringing one of the first tubs to the White House, giving it “recognition and respectability in the United States.”
“A Neglected Anniversary” was so finely rendered that it literally sprang back to life—like a reanimated mummy—and found its way into print dozens of times, criticized, analyzed, and repeated as a real chapter in American history.
Hoaxes like this seem so Colbert now, like mutant cousins to his notion of “truthiness.” But hoaxers are historically not comedians; they are, like Mencken, journalists who write entertaining stuff that sounds vaguely true, even though it’s not, for editors who are usually in on the joke. The hoaxing instinct infected newsrooms throughout the early days of modern newspapers to a degree that most of us find puzzling today. Newspapers contained hundreds, if not thousands of hoaxes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most of them undocumented fakes in obscure Western weeklies. The subjects were oddball pets and wild weather, giants, mermaids, men on the moon, petrified people (quite a few of those), and (my favorite) the Swiss Navy. As a novice editor at the Virginia City, Nevada, Territorial Enterprise, a young Mark Twain put his talent to the test with a hoax of hoaxes. “I chose to kill the petrification mania with a delicate, a very delicate satire,” he wrote. He called it “A Petrified Man.&rdquo
Who knew? The twinning of news and entertainment that plagues us today grew not from some corporate greedhead instinct of the go-go eighties, but from our own weird history. The reasons for hoaxing were mostly mercenary: for the publisher, it was to fill column inches and bring in eyeballs. For the journalist, it was sport, a freelance fee or a ploy to keep his job. Strange to say, readers didn’t seem to mind too much.
The first major fake news event of the modern media age was the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. A series of articles began appearing in the New York Sun on August 25, the late-summer brainchild of its ambitious publisher, Benjamin Day. Day wanted to move papers, like every publisher, and came up with a novel method. He began publishing a series of articles, allegedly reprinted from a nonexistent scientific journal, about Sir John Herschel, an eminent British astronomer on his way to the Cape of Good Hope to test a powerful new telescope.
What Herschel saw on the moon was… Life! Not just flora and fauna but living men—hairy, yellow-faced guys, four feet tall with enormous wings that “possessed great expansion and were similar in structure of those of the bat.” It was all too much, but New Yorkers had to see for themselves and the Sun’s circ hit a new high of 15,000. Even after its men-in-the-moon story was revealed to be a hoax, the paper retained its popularity with readers.
Edgar Allan Poe, famous but destitute in 1844, wrote another well-known hoax for the Sun. “The Atlantic Crossed in Three Days!” Poe’s story began, and it went on to describe a lighter-than-air balloon trip that wouldn’t actually take place for another sixty years. Thirty years later, at the behest of its publisher, James Gordon Bennett Jr., the New York Herald ran what’s often been called the Central Park Zoo Hoax. “Escaped Animals Roam Streets of Manhattan” the headline warned. The article maintained that twenty-seven people were dead and 200 injured in terrible scenes of mutilation. State militiamen were called in to control the situation, and sensible New Yorkers barricaded themselves in their homes.
In 1910, The Washington Post waxed nostalgic over the old men-on-the moon hoax, with a short item under a no-nonsense headline: “This Was A Famous Hoax.” In fact, that kind of warm retrospective began to appear as an occasional column or feature, illustrating a growing trend among newspapers to look back with a smile on the bad old days of great hoaxes. In the intervening years, the newspaper business had grown up into the Fourth Estate; hoaxes, for better or worse, were a part of its wild-child adolescence. By 1937, it was pretty much over, at least according to Marvin H. Creager, the president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors who addressed the group’s fifteenth annual convention. “The day of the fake and the hoax…seems to have passed,” he said, “and with it the reporters and editors who delighted in perpetrating them.”