Whoppers! A Brief History of the Most Raucus American Hoaxes
On the morning of June 25, 1889, Americans in the Denver area woke up to quite an odd headline in their local newspapers.
The story read, “GREAT CHINESE WALL DOOMED! PEKING SEEKS WORLD TRADE!” It told how the Great Wall of China was destined to be destroyed, and in its place, a road was to be built, for which Chinese entrepreneurs were taking bids from eager American contractors.
The story ran simultaneously in the four major area newspapers; the Times, the Post, the Republican, and the Rocky Mountain News. Within a few short weeks, variations of the tale that included a multitude of elaborate updates began appearing abroad, complete with quotes from alleged Chinese businessmen to help seal the deal.
The oddest thing about the story was that, of course, none of it was true.
Though the details wouldn’t come to light until several decades later, four journalists from a series of Denver area magazines that helped break the story had conspired to fabricate the article out of desperation, having been unable to find anything of local interest that seemed newsworthy. Their greatest obstacle had beeen creating something sensational enough to be of interest to the readers, but so far-removed from daily life in America that nobody (even their editors) would attempt to look for further details on the piece… or worst case scenario, discover the lack thereof.
After much discussion, the journalists settled on what, at the time, seemed a fitting target: China’s Great Wall. One of the reporters, Al Stevens, justified the move by stating, “[it] must be fifty years since that old pile’s been in the news. Let’s build our story around it. Let’s do the Chinese a real favor… let’s tear the old pile down!” The rest might have been history, had there been any truth to it.
It must seem odd in our present media-saturated world that reporting fabricated news stories of this magnitude might once have been tolerated. Strange though it may seem to us now, it has actually been a common occurrence at various points in history for journalists in parts of the world to tell “whoppers”, serving as a means by which they might occasionally use free speech to influence the masses, attack corporate entities without risking libel, or merely create a seemingly harmless form of satirical entertainment.
In frontier America, newspaper hoaxes were typically just that; harmless tall-tales meant to entertain, purposely exaggerated and laced with flaws to help make it evident that there was no truth behind them. Many such exaggerations have been repeated over the years; consider the recurring story of a “cat farm,” a newspaper hoax that continued to circulate off and on for over a century.
The premise for this yarn had been a farm designed to harvest mice in order to feed cats, who would be killed, processed, and fed to the very mice that would later become dinner for the next batch of cats killed for their furs, implementing various other benefits from harvesting the critters in continuance of this gruesome cycle. Similar to it had been the earlier “news” piece about a kitten who floated away after being given warm milk; even more imaginative had been the mermaid wrestled aboard a small fishing boat in an inlet near Tom’s River, N.J. in 1869. Any of them would be too far out there to be considered feasible by today’s standards; and yet there were many readers at the time these stories were published who believed every word.
In such instances, stories like these may live well beyond the printed page, spawning urban legends and folk tales that become rooted in American culture. Our harmless reporters from Denver might have shuttered at the mention of how their hoax, only admitted to on the deathbed of its last surviving participant, was said by some to have actually been the catalyst for the Boxer Rebellion that began in China in June 1900. This too was only a rumor, based on yet another embellishment that was later written by a Denver area songwriter named Harry Lee Wilber. But even famous radio commentator Paul Harvey would help perpetuate the myth in his popular The Rest of the Story radio vignettes. Arguably, one can see that the problem lies in what happens when a writer composes a hoax so well that the public, and the media, simply miss the punch line.
The phenomena of the newspaper hoax seems to have really begun back around the 1830s. It was a time when news, and the way it was printed and reported, would drastically begin to change due to the creation of the penny press. “Penny Papers” were less expensive papers that often featured items of local interest, having found that audiences used to the more business-oriented format of the six-penny papers would scarf up the local stories in a fever. The formula was simple; the common folk wanted news that meant something to them; pure, unadulterated local interest. What resulted, however, were reporters being assigned specifically to local news in every major market, and to every major paper. These reporters became affectionately known as “the locals”.
On a good week, any given local might have half a dozen crimes to report, one death of a public figure, an unsolved murder, two or three human interest pieces, and the usual gossip that might be circulated around town. However, occasionally local news might go through a drought period of a day or so. If other area newspapers still managed to find stories, it meant trouble for competing locals who weren’t finding their own newsworthy items.
Hence, the pressures of competition sometimes lead to the hoaxing of flamboyant, completely made-up news stories (today we have a somewhat similar phenomenon on the Internet, where writers rewrite existing news, adding flashy headlines… “clickbait”, in other words).
Living in post-pioneer America, the gullible, often paranoid public, freshly settled in still unfamiliar territory, were occasionally sitting ducks for the mind’s wanderings of some imaginative writer, especially if the hoax in question at least sounded fairly credible. As in the case of the Great Wall of China hoax, other local papers grabbed these stories, and not to be outdone, would sometimes embellish the already outlandish lies, blowing everything even more out of proportion to the point that silly hoaxes involving encounters with “Hodags,” mermaids, floating kittens, and destruction of foreign landmarks made national news.
On a few occasions, the local writers would actually fall victim to hoaxes themselves. Characters of the era like Joe Mullhatton, and many other 19th century professional fibbers would literally travel abroad, spinning yarns just to see how many whoppers they could get local newspapers to report.
Then there were the small Midwestern “liar’s clubs,” sometimes called “Ananias,” which became especially popular throughout the Midwest. These mostly consisted of groups of bored, aging gamblers and smokers who would get together and compete in concocting a host of bizarre lies, each one more exaggerated than the last, betting on who could secure a headline in the local newspaper. (It has long been suspected that the infamous story about a dinosaur-like winged beast that appeared in the Tombstone Epitaph was such an invention; decades later, the story was revived in adventure magazines like Saga and Fate, spawning legends about a photograph that purportedly displayed the pterodactyl pinned to a wall, with the men who bagged the creature standing in front of it. To date, no evidence that the photo ever existed has been found.)
In at least a few instances on record, it is apparent that political or social tensions stirred the emotions of local writers, breeding a desire to correct society’s wrongs through blatant satire. This allowed a sort of “attack” without naming any public figures or businesses, and enabled the writer to take ultimate journalistic liberty over the tale, often going completely over the top with gruesome, shocking details not only meant to astonish local readers, but to help make it apparent that the story was a total farce. One popular writer of this period who began his career as a local, Samuel Clemens, was able to spin such masterful yarns of this sort that adopting the pen name “Mark Twain” might have even become a necessity.
In particular, one of Twain’s whoppers, for which the details were so nasty, and so bloody that most people overlooked the obvious parodies woven betwixt his words, not only made it to the pages of his memoirs, but of history books.
In the 1860s, several Midwestern mining operations were repeatedly in the news due to accusations that many of them had been “cooking their books”. This term referred to companies who would report vast revenue increases annually to attract investors, who in reality were selling very little, and thus had little or no actual revenue coming in to back the reports. Many San Francisco newspapers had begun criticizing the guilty businesses, while simultaneously advocating utility companies closer to home, many of whom were cooking their dividends just the same.
Twain resented what, to him, had been an obvious ploy on behalf of west-coast journalists, stating in his memoirs that “The San Francisco papers were making a great outcry about the iniquity of the Daney Silver-Mining Company, whose directors had declared a ‘cooked’ or false dividend… while abusing the Daney, those papers did not forget to urge the public to get rid of all their silver stocks and invest in the sound and safe San Francisco stocks, such as the Spring Valley Water Company.” Seemingly to his delight, Twain adds, “But right at this unfortunate juncture, behold the Spring Valley cooked a dividend too!”
Infuriated after having watched the San Francisco papers pull the wool over the eyes of so many potential investors, Twain devised the most horrific scenario he could muster at the time; “half a column of imaginary human carnage” involving a man named Phillip Hopkins, who had similarly invested with “Jeremy Diddling Trustees”. In the story, upon learning that dividends had been cooked and he had lost his investment, Hopkins loses his mind and brutally murders and mutilates his wife and all but two of his nine children. In an epic last stand, Hopkins slashes his own throat from ear to ear, and rides four miles into town on horseback brandishing his wife’s scalp, which he carries with him as he stumbles into the doorway of a local saloon and collapses dead.
Twain finished his expose by including towards the end that “the sudden madness of which this melancholy massacre was the result had been brought about by his having allowed himself to be persuaded by the California papers to sell his sound and lucrative Nevada silver stocks, and buy into Spring Valley just in time to get cooked along with that company’s fancy dividend, and sink every cent he had in the world.”
Mark Twain’s vibrant, terrifying prose had left a scolding trail that pointed straight to the California newspapers and their blatant treachery, but not without dropping a few proverbial bread crumbs along the way. Included in the story are inconsistencies that Twain hoped would reveal the farce, like the mention of a “splendid dressed-stone mansion just in the edge of the great pine forest between Empire City and Dutch Nick’s”. The joke here had to do with the fact that, at the time, there were no “stone mansions” whatsoever in the Nevada territory. Also, Empire City was commonly referred to as “Dutch Nick’s” in those days, and according to Twain, with regard to any great pine forest, “there wasn’t a solitary tree within fifteen miles of either place.” The details about locations pertaining to the massacre had been purely fabricated, all constituting “winks” aimed at the careful reader.
Nonetheless, the tale had been so overblown that, in all its gore, people overlooked Twain’s rather obvious clues. He guessed that many people never read the tamer portions of the account at all, skipping ahead to the sensational mess that followed. While sitting in a diner the morning the tale went to print, he described watching the jaw drop on a man who had stopped in for breakfast as he read of the massacre. “He never got down to where the satire part of it began. Nobody ever did. They found the thrilling particulars sufficient.”
Twain would later say that “The idea that anybody could ever take my massacre for a genuine occurrence never once suggested itself to me.” And yet, in retrospect it still serves as a forcible reminder of the power of the press, especially when compared to the gossip of today, which usually resolves to feature which power couple is getting divorced, or which Hollywood starlet will be the latest to serve jail time on drug and alcohol charges.
Writers like Twain made it apparent to us early on that the most shocking news is what gets the point across, and in many ways, though outright hoaxes aren’t considered fair, balanced, or otherwise acceptable by today’s standards, the tendency to print the most shocking news available remains a constant even today.