Hoax Archive: Time Periods
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Media Hoaxes in the Era of Yellow Journalism
The Bigamist of San Bernardino, 1873 (December 1873)On December 16, 1873 the Los Angeles Evening Express published an article describing a man in San Bernardino who, because of a loophole in the law, was legally allowed to remain married to two women, despite the efforts of townsfolk to force him to divorce at least one of his wives. News of the case caused an uproar in California. However, the story was entirely fictitious, as the Evening Express revealed two weeks later. Unfortunately, the retraction was not as widely publicized as the original story, and so the case made its way as fact into a number of legal textbooks. More→
The Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar, 1874 (April 28, 1874)On April 28, 1874, the New York World ran an article announcing the discovery in Madagascar of a remarkable new species of plant: a man-eating tree. The article included a gruesome description of a woman fed to the plant by members of the Mkodos tribe. Numerous newspapers and magazines reprinted the article, but 14 years later the journal Current Literature revealed the story to be a work of fiction written by NY World reporter Edmund Spencer. More→
The Central Park Zoo Escape, 1874 (November 9, 1874)On November 9, 1874 the New York Herald published a front-page article claiming that the animals had escaped from their cages in the Central Park Zoo and were rampaging through the city. A lion had been seen inside a church. A rhinoceros had fallen into a sewer. The police and national guard were heroically battling the beasts, but already forty-nine people were dead and two hundred injured. It was "a bloody and fearful carnival," the article despaired. And the animals were still on the loose!
Many readers panicked when they read the article. However, those who did so hadn't read to the end of the article, where it stated (in rather small print), "the entire story given above is a pure fabrication." More→
The Chicago Theater Fire, 1875 (February 13, 1875)"Burned Alive!" a headline on the frontpage of the Chicago Times declared on February 13, 1875. The story that followed described a horrific scene of destruction and mass death in an unnamed Chicago theater that was engulfed in flames when a gas burner fell over. People were said to have been roasted alive as they rushed en masse towards the exit. Firemen had to carry out 157 charred bodies from the remains. The story was identified as fictitious both at its beginning and end, but you had to read closely to catch the disclaimers. More→
Hoaxes of Joseph Mulhattan (1853-1914)During the 1870s and 1880s Joseph Mulhattan was perhaps the most famous hoaxer in America. He was a traveling salesman, not a reporter, but he was notorious for repeatedly succeeding in having his farfetched tales reported as news. If an outrageous or bizarre story appeared in the news, reporters would often assume it was the work of Mulhattan. The media showered him with epithets. They called him a "professional liar," "the author of more hoaxes than any other man living," "Munchausen Mulhattan," and the "liar-laureate of the world." He was also widely known by his pseudonym, "Orange Blossom." More→
Hearst’s War, 1897 (Supposedly said January 1897)William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York Journal, had a reputation for never letting truth get in the way of a good story. According to one famous tale, when hostilities broke out between the Spanish and the Cubans, Hearst sent the illustrator Frederic Remington to Cuba to draw pictures of the conflict. Finding that not much was happening, Remington cabled Hearst in January 1897: "Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return."
Supposedly Hearst cabled back: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."
It is doubtful Hearst ever sent such a telegram. The first report of it appeared in a 1901 book, On the Great Highway, by journalist James Creelman. Creelman was in Europe at the time the telegram was supposedly sent, so he either heard the story second-hand or invented it himself. Since he was known for exaggeration, the latter is likely. Hearst himself denied having sent such a telegram.
The Great Wall of China Hoax, 1899 (June 25, 1899)On June 25, 1899 four Denver newspapers reported that the Chinese government was going to tear down portions of the Great Wall of China, pulverize the rock, and use it to build roads. American companies were said to be bidding on the enormous demolition project. Newspapers throughout the country picked up the story, but it eventually became apparent the news was not true. The Chinese were not planning to tear down the Great Wall. Four Denver reporters Al Stevens, Jack Tournay, John Lewis, and Hal Wilshire had invented the tale while sharing a drink at the Oxford Hotel in order to spice up a slow news day. A rumor later suggested that when the news reached China, the Chinese become so furious at the idea of Americans tearing down the Great Wall, that they took up arms against Westerners in the Boxer Rebellion. This rumor was not true. More→
The Great Mammoth Hoax, 1899 (October 1899)Woolly mammoths became extinct thousands of years ago. But in October, 1899 a story appeared in McClure's Magazine titled "The Killing of the Mammoth" in which a narrator named H. Tukeman described how he had recently hunted down and killed a mammoth in the Alaskan wilderness. More→
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