I admit I smiled when it was revealed that Martin Eisenstadt, the McCain campaign staffer who admitted to being the source behind the “Sara Palin is an diva” leak during the 2008 Republican campaign, turned out to actually be the team of Dan Mirvish and Etan Gorlin. These two pranksters had actually taken the time to “Punk” the media by inventing Mr. Eisenstadt. And a lot of major media had swallowed their gag. But I smiled at the adolescence of the thing, not the inventiveness. Claiming to have fooled the news media 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. 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 the grandson of 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 story of the moon-beavers raised the Sun's circulation from 15,00 to more than 19,000, which gave it an advantage in its sales war with its rival the New York Herald. On 18 September, 1835, the paper admitted the joke, and the only people not laughing were the editors of the Herald, who felt they had been made to look foolish for not knowing it had been a gag. But it is helpful to remember that in our age with 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 Edgar himself did it.
Edgar 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 myself , 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 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 Edgar 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.
Edgar had gotten married 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 Edgar sought out Locke’s advice, and probably based on what Locke told him, Edgar wrote what would 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 Edgar’s unbiased reporting, on the day of publication the Sun’s offices were besieged. “As soon as the first copies made their way into the streets, they were bought up," wrote Edgar, "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 Edgar was there in the crowd, telling anyone who would listen, that he was the author of the story, and…that it was a gag. Now why would he do that?
Poor old Edgar had a number of personality traits that confused even the people who liked him. For instance, he could not stop himself from maintaining contact with Elizabeth Ellet, a carnivorous little “pot-stirrer” and bad writer 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 Edgar cut off all contact with her, she told her brother that Edgar had insulted her. And he challenged Edgar to a duel. Luckily, since Edgar didn't own a gun the two fools 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, it seems to me, is that idiots who spend their time and energy perpetuating a hoax on the public are hoping the public will not be insulted. But even if the public is willing to laugh at themselves once, the chances are they will not trust the same source a second time, ever. Or, in the immortal words of George W. Bush, "...fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."
The very day after the Sun published the balloon hoax there appeared on the back page of the paper 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 Edgar 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. Edgar’s wife died of tuberculosis 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 money). That was the same year Edgar Allen Poe died in Baltimore, flat broke as usual. Sigh.