Yesterday, the Xplrr Media, LLC crew of Scott Wolter and J. Hutton Pulitzer delivered another hour-long podcast criticizing The Curse of Oak Island. They spent the time complaining about the show for many of the same sins found on Scott Wolter’s own America Unearthed, particularly stretching out investigations rather than getting to the point, over-dramatizing minor events, etc. They reiterated their claims that the show is “unwatchable” and that the production is doing damage to archaeological sites. Pulitzer returned to his favorite insult, referring again to people who live in their mother’s basements, this time to say that their personalities predispose them to liking pink Volkswagen Beetles. However, since the two men made no news except to restate the story of Zena Halpern’s allegedly ancient Templar map and say that it (and other copies of copies of alleged documents) came from a shady figure Wolter won’t name (via a military operative who served in Vietnam!), there is really nothing to discuss here. I’ll just mention that Wolter can’t remember his own America Unearthed episodes, so Pulitzer tells listeners to Google “America Unearthed plus New Ross plus Templars.” If you do that, most users will be directed to my review of America Unearthed as the top result. Oops!
In keeping with my discussion of hoaxes from yesterday, I wanted to share this very interesting bit of testimony about how easy it is for spurious documents to be mistaken for genuine, even when their origins are perfectly clear to those with modest expertise. Our example is provided by M. M. Quaife, writing in the Wisconsin Magazine of History in 1919. He is discussing the strange case of the plethora of miraculously preserved copies of an obscure rural newspaper’s issue of January 1800 on the death of George Washington, copies of which now outnumber the newspaper’s original run.
The story can’t help but recall numerous exaggerated claims we find for various documents, autographs, maps, carvings, and other unusual detritus fringe historians allege to have been passed down in obscure family holdings from historical periods.
The following are Quaife’s words, taken from his article “Some Light on Two Historical Hoaxes.” I warn the reader that, being a product of its time, it contains some casually racist language:
From M. M. Quaife, “Some Light on Two Historical Hoaxes”
The Ulster County Gazette was established in 1798 and continued publication until 1822. During this entire period its publisher was Samuel Freer and his son (the latter alone after the death of the father). The younger man died in 1840, and not until ten or fifteen years later was the first reprint of the now famous paper made. Since then reprints have been numerous; over a score have been listed by the Library of Congress, but it is probable many more have been made.
The reader will doubtless be curious to know what motives inspire the reprinting of this and other old newspapers. Fundamentally the motive in all cases is a desire for profit from the transaction, although this is frequently obscured, doubtless, by another, the practically universal interest in old things possessed of familiar historical associations. Now it is a curious fact about newspapers that practically all of the enormous number currently produced are destroyed within a short time and but few people, relatively speaking, have ever seen a newspaper of any considerable age. Thus, only a few weeks ago the news item was carried all over Wisconsin that in tearing down a house at Appleton between the walls had been found an “ancient” paper, being an issue of the Lawrence College paper for the year 1879. Evidently the incident was regarded by those who are familiar with news values as worthy of widespread heralding, even in this time of climacteric stress over the mightiest warfare the world has ever witnessed. Because of this widespread interest in relics of the past, newspaper publishers and others from time to time reproduce an issue of some early paper—frequently one of their own, or it may be one dealing with some event of universal historical interest. Such an event would be preeminently the death and funeral of Washington. Particularly in 1876, when the celebration of the national centennial aroused widespread popular interest, would anything which seemed to pertain directly to the Father of his Country command a widespread appeal. This appeal was cleverly capitalized by one publisher of a spurious reprint of the Ulster County Gazette about the Centennial Year in a circular headed “The Oldest Paper! A relic of 1799. Death of Washington! Slavery in New York, etc.” It offered, at the price of ten cents a copy, a reissue of Freer’s paper concerning the death of Washington so like the original that were Freer himself still living he would be unable to detect the counterfeit. The reprint could “only be obtained from our authorized traveling agents,” and would be placed on sale in all the cities of the country.
A tramp printer of Ethiopian persuasion turned the death of Washington to private account in slightly different fashion at Decatur, Illinois, a dozen years ago. He canvassed the retail merchants of the town for quantity orders for the paper, which he proposed to reprint, holding out the inducement that they could win favor with their customers at slight expense to themselves by enclosing with each order of merchandise sold a copy of the Ulster County Gazette containing the account of the death of President Washington. The argument of the sable salesman was successful to such an extent, I have been informed, that several thousand copies of the paper were struck off in a back-room print shop in Decatur, Illinois, one hundred and seven years after Washington’s death.
Both the paper and the printing of these modern reprints differ from the original, so that it is not difficult for an expert to detect the spurious issue. For the guidance of others who may be interested in this particular paper it will suffice to note that so far as known not a single original copy of the issue of January 4, 1800, is still in existence. A good illustration of the unreliability of family tradition and, consequently, of the care the scholar must employ in making use of information of this character is afforded by the fact that possessors of copies of the Ulster County Gazette commonly relate (and doubtless commonly believe) that their issue has been handed down in the family as a prized heirloom through a long period of time. A concrete illustration of this sort came to the writer’s attention in Chicago some years ago. A negro offered to sell for twenty dollars a copy of the paper under discussion, accompanying the proffer with a moving tale of family illness which forced him thus to sacrifice an object which had been treasured in the family for generations.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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