I admit I smiled when it turned out that Martin Eisenstadt, the McCain campaign staffer who admitted being the source behind the “Sara Palin is an idiot” leaks, turned out to be Dan Mirvish and Eitan Gorlin, two idiots who actually took the time to “Punk” the media. But I smiled at the adolescence of the thing, not the inventiveness. This is like claiming credit for inventing the “Get the Ball-Where’s the ball” game with your dog. It’s been done before; a lot.In August of 1835 the “Penny Dreadful” New York Sun published a series of articles entitled “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel…” John Herschel was a famous astronomer who was the son of a famous astronomer and using a new telescope he reported that he had observed on the moon “…nine species of mammalian …” including tail-less beavers that walked on two legs and lived in huts, unicorns and four foot tall people with bat wings.
Of course Sir John Herschel had made no such report because he wasn’t nuts. But neither was Richard Adams Locke (above), who was grandson to the philosopher and the actual author of the moon-beavers story. He was a one time editor of the Sun, and an acquaintance of Edgar Allen Poe - who claimed he knew of “…no person possessing so fine a forehead as Mr. Locke”. The “Punked” story of the moon-beavers sold an additional thousand copies of the Sun, which gave it a temporary advantage in its sales war with its rival New York Herald. Like I said, it’s been done before.In fact, in an age of unlabeled Corporate Video News Releases (VNRs) padding out local news programming from sea to shinning sea it’s gotten easier to fool the fools, not harder. In Edgar Allen Poe’s day fake news had to be an inside job. Even Poe himself did it. Poe had already written “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue” but when he moved to Baltimore with a sick wife he had just $5 in his pocket. And as a hungry writer who has produced articles for such distinguished men’s publications as “Velvet” and “Velvet Talks”, (back in the 1980's they paid $125 for 1200 obscene words and $25 for three accompanying obscene “letters”) I can sympathize with Edgar.Now, Edgar Allen Poe was “odd”. Both his parents died when he was young. He was adopted by a wealthy manic depressive patriarch who was alternately loving and vicious toward him. The result was that Poe became an un-socialized morose alcoholic who as a college student confided to his roommate that he had “joked” that he was going to murder their landlord, and the landlord had believed him: ha, ha. Poe was married in 1835, when he was 25, to the sickly Miss Virginia Clemm, who was just 13 years old. Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with this guy.Faced with imminent starvation Poe undoubtedly sought out Locke’s advice, and probably based on what Locke told him, Poe wrote what later would be called “The Great Balloon Hoax of 1844”, or as I like to call it, “72 Hours of Hot Air”. The headlines in the Sun read, “Astounding News by Express, via Norfolk! The Atlantic Crossed in Three days!...in the Steering Balloon “Victoria”, after a passage of Seventy-five hours from Land to Land! Full Particulars of the Voyage!” According to the 5,000 word front page story, the plan had been to cross the English Channel suspended beneath a silk dirigible filled with 40,000 cubic feet of coal tar gas, but once airborne above Wales, and impressed with their “Archimedean Screw” propeller, the decision was made “on the fly” to sail to North America instead.“We soon found ourselves driving out to sea at the rate of not less, certainly, than 50 or 60 miles an hour…as the shades of night have closed around us, we made a rough estimate of the distance traversed. It could not have been less than 500 miles…The wind was from the East all night…We suffered no little from cold and dampness…Sunday, the 7th, this morning the gale…had subsided to an eight or nine knot breeze, and bears us, perhaps, 30 miles an hour, or more…at sundown, we are holding our course due West...Monday the 8th, the wind was blowing steadily and strongly from the North-East all day…Tuesday, the 9th One P.M. We are in full view if the low coast of South Carolina. The great problem is accomplished. We have crossed the Atlantic – fairly and easily in a balloon! God be praised!”According to Poe’s unbiased reporting, the day of publication the Sun’s offices were besieged from soon after sunrise till two o’clock in the afternoon. “As soon as the first copies made their way into the streets, they were bought up," wrote Poe, "at almost any price. I saw a half a dollar given, in one instance, for a single paper…I tried, in vain, during the whole day, to get possession of a copy.” And Poe was there, telling anyone who would listen that he was the author of the story, and…that it was false. Now why would he do that?Poor old Poe had a number of personality traits that confused most people who liked him. For instance, he could not stop himself from maintaining contact with the writer Elizabeth Ellet, a carnivorous little “pot-stirrer” who made passes at Edgar in German. I mean, German has always been the language of love, hasn’t it? “Halten Sie mich schlieben, meine little Turtle Dove?” Doesn’t that make you feel all romantic? And then when Poe cut off all contact with her, she "sic’ed" her brother on him. Poe asked a friend to loan him a gun for the duel, and the friend bluntly said he didn’t believe Poe. They ended up beating each other up, over a woman who clearly didn’t think much of either of them; men. Sigh.
The point of all this is that it seems to me that idiots who spend their time and energy perpetuating a hoax on the public are hoping the public will not make a note to never-ever trust the idiots again, ever. As an example, the very next day after the balloon hoax, there appeared on the back page of the Sun the following notice; “…the mails from the south…not having brought confirmation of the balloon from England…we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous”. Well, that’s one way to maintain journalistic integrity. NOT!Me, I’m willing to bet that Poe was paid $25 for writing the back page mea culpa. The publishing business hasn’t changed much in 200 years. And neither has the life of writers. Poe’s wife died of tuberculoses in New York, three years after the Balloon Hoax. And two years later the New York Sun, which sold for a penny a copy, was bought for $250,000 (more than $6 million in today’s dollars). That was the same year that Edgar Allen Poe died in Baltimore, flat broke as usual. Sigh.
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