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.
Maybe Another Kook
11/29/2016 12:17:28 pm
Doesn't this fall under the category of Yellow Journalism?
The Perfect Blue Boy
11/30/2016 10:13:31 am
I am the perfect blue boy
11/29/2016 01:57:16 pm
Ah, but Jason, you're ignoring the clever and logically sound answer fringe historians—especially, gigantologists—will give in rebuttal: there are so many stories, reported in so many papers, they can't *all* be fake. Because truth is determined by volume, right?
11/29/2016 02:10:15 pm
Why would someone completely make something up? It just doesn't make sense. There must be some parts of these stories that are based on facts. Clearly these stories are modern retellings of older stories and myths that were experiences of ancient peoples passed down through oral traditions through the generations until they could be put into print.
11/29/2016 02:48:50 pm
>>>Why would someone completely make something up?<<<
11/29/2016 03:20:16 pm
I guess I should have ended my statement with (Sarcasm).
11/29/2016 03:27:50 pm
No problem, DaveR. I've encountered so many conversations where one person made a serious comment containing the gist of your reply, it's become harder to tell when someone is serious or not. My bad.
11/29/2016 08:51:29 pm
The short answer to your question, DaveR, is: some people just like to F% with you.
11/30/2016 01:30:36 pm
Only Me; The fault is mine, I should have been a little more clear what my comment really meant. I get what you're saying about the things people post so it's easy to miss sarcasm.
11/29/2016 02:02:44 pm
The late 1800s Republican was quite different from the late 2010s Republican. The 1960s republican is different from the 2016 type. In Lincoln's day he was progressive and would be considered a democrat today. They had whigs and democratic republicans, and the then hard line republicans dissolved into the south at the end of the Civil War, eventually to reemerge (turned conservative) in a century as 'dixie crats' and were brought in by Nixon in the 1970s. The current right wing conservatives are quite opposite the 'conservatives' of a century ago.
11/30/2016 11:30:34 pm
Well, everything you typed is wrong. The Dixiecrats were Democrats. The "crats" part is kind of a clue. But you're right, Nixon did time travel back to 1948 to curry their favor. Seriously, dude? FAIL. Lincoln betrayed the Constitution and should have been killed sooner.
11/29/2016 03:05:32 pm
How many other stories written by the New York American have been demonstrated to be hoaxes? Sure, some of the stories were sensationalized. But that's different from a story that is outright fabricated. I don't think the argument that the 1912 Atlantis story is a hoax stands on firm ground unless you can point to another story written by the New York American that was clearly and definitively a hoax. If no such other story exists, then wouldn't it be very unlikely that the Atlantis story was a hoax, as surely a newspaper wouldn't just write ONE story that was such a blatant hoax?
11/29/2016 03:27:54 pm
By the way, to take (a claim) with a grain of salt, as Maverick said, means to accept it but maintain a degree of skepticism about its truth.
11/29/2016 03:57:15 pm
Given that the "author" of the Atlantis piece never existed, and his story contains basic and fundamental factual errors, it's pretty clear it's a hoax.
11/29/2016 06:11:17 pm
Oh, the denials of someone who really WANTS ir to be true!
11/29/2016 04:09:26 pm
But everyone knows that sea serpents & sasquatch were much more common back then (back then = any convenient time period before this morning).
11/30/2016 01:29:14 pm
Didn't the Six Million Dollar Man get in a fight with a squatch?
11/30/2016 12:35:31 pm
Jason, you're doing great work here as usual. One of my hobbies is the folklore of lost mines and treasures of the southwestern U.S., and I can tell you there are many treasure hunters out there who are firmly convinced of the validity of the 1909 Grand Canyon hoax. And what's their proof? Why, they read it in a newspaper! Your background research on the phenomenon of newspaper hoaxes is a great rebuttal to that way of thinking. Of course, it would be much better if common sense told them it was all nonsense, but what can you do?
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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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