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View Locals - 19th Century Newspaper Hoaxes

The creation of the penny press during the 1830s completely changed the character of the news business. The older six-penny papers had confined themselves to business and political news, but the penny papers discovered that there was a huge market for local news: stories about neighborhood crimes, police reports, social gossip, and human-interest items. As a result, by the 1860s almost every major paper had a reporter specifically assigned to local coverage.

Such reporters were referred to, logically enough, as the “local.” The local had to be able to amuse and entertain readers even on days when there wasn’t much news to report. This called for the skills of a humorist, so it’s no coincidence that many of America’s most well-known comedic writers during the nineteenth century got their start as locals, spicing up slow news days with humor, satire, tall tales, and hoaxes.

Three locals working on western papers proved to be particularly adept at their jobs (and particularly adept at hoaxes!). They were Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), Charles Browne (aka Artemus Ward), and William Wright (aka Dan De Quille).

Examples of Hoaxes by Local Reporters

The Paulding County Hyena (1858)
A hyena escaped from a circus terrorizes the residents of Paulding County, Ohio. (Artemus Ward)

The Petrified Man (1862)
News report claims that a petrified man has been found embedded in the side of a mountain. (Mark Twain)

The Empire City Massacre (1863)
A gruesome story describes how a man butchered his family after losing his life’s savings when a local utility went bust. (Mark Twain)

The Traveling Stones of Pahranagat Valley (1867)
Unusual stones move towards each other. (Dan De Quille)

Solar Armor (1874)
Inventor of ‘Solar Armor’ found frozen stiff in Nevada desert. (Dan De Quille)

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  • Journalism
  • Media