New York Times Founder Admitted Stories of Monsters, Ancient Artifacts, Unearthed Treasure Were Lies
When I mentioned the silly story of the flat-earthers who believe that the Japanese preserved an ancient Chinese map of the flat earth, including the Americas, I blamed the newspaper for perpetuating a hoax. I compared it to similar hoaxes, like the 1885 “lost city” hoax, the 1909 Grand Canyon hoax, and the 1912 Atlantis hoax. But this inspired me to take more of a look at just how widespread hoaxing was prior to World War II, when modern professional standards began to take hold.
Everyone reading this is likely familiar with some of the most famous hoaxes, particularly the great moon hoax of 1835, along with the similar hoaxes put forward by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, whose moon journey of Hans Pfaall (1835) and balloon hoax (1844) were overshadowed by the contemporary moon hoax. But as I learned, the newspapers of the 1800s and early 1900s had a rather loose relationship to the truth. Consider the fact that in 1848 Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune allowed into a print a completely fictitious news report that a revolution had broken out in Ireland, aimed at overthrowing the British government then in power. To that end, his New York Tribune fancifully reported that a battle had broken out at Sleivenamon, with six thousand British casualties. The resulting battle, the newspaper breathlessly reported, left Limerick and Killkenny in the hands of the rebels, while the government in Dublin imposed silence that only the Tribune’s brave reporter dared break.
Greeley was not implicated in the hoax because he was exploring Lake Superior at the time it occurred, and the Tribune maintained that their only sin was believing letters they received from Ireland to be genuine. One of the men alleged to have been wounded in battle challenged Tribune writer and future New York Times founder Henry J. Raymond to a duel over the lies it printed. Presumably he did not accept the challenge.
A hoax published in 1844 in the Ithaca Chronicle in Ithaca, N.Y., and repeated thereafter by other papers, doctored an English travelogue from 1836 in order to convince Americans that James K. Polk had personally used a branding iron to impress his initials on 43 slaves that he then sent to be worked to death in a sugar mill. The fake story, known as the Roorback affair, became an issue during Polk’s presidential campaign, causing a huge scandal until the Albany Argus, doing much as I do on this blog, exposed the hoax by actually reading the damned book the text came from and showing how the hoaxer had added sentences to the actual text to create the fraud. Polk was elected president.
In 1864, the New York papers all carried a forged proclamation from Abraham Lincoln demanding hundreds of thousands of new soldiers to be drafted. Two newspaper reporters were later found to have concocted the fake proclamation—which Secretary of State William Seward had to deny was real—and were promptly prosecuted and jailed.
I take these examples from a book on the life of Henry J. Raymond written in 1870 by his friend and biographer, journalist Augustus Maverick, of the Tribune, Times, and many other newspapers,. Maverick, a Republican advocate, was the founder of the New York Times, a paper he started because he thought that the Tribune was too hyper-partisan, while other papers were not partisan enough. Maverick was an open supporter of Republican politics and didn’t see a need to separate journalism from political activism, so long as it was within established boundaries. His obituary in 1888 said that he was a well-known stump speaker for Republican causes.
I want to close by paying special attention to Maverick’s own testimony about the honesty of the newspapers he knew so well from within the profession of journalism:
In time of peace, newspaper hoaxes are of the mild type, — inoffensive affairs, which please the fancy of the reader, or justify the employment of capital letters in three-line headings. Of this class are the stories of wild men prowling in the woods, of sea-serpents disporting in the placid waters of remote lakes, of marvellous discoveries of hidden treasures, or of revelations of ancient relics, — all of which may be taken with grains of salt.
Remember that the next time you hear a fringe historian championing a newspaper story about a lost city, monsters, or giants.
The irony, of course, is that Maverick’s biography of Raymond was itself unreliable and freely mixed revisionist history and fanciful hagiography with facts. Never trust a man who tells you he’s a liar.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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