THESE HOAXES SHOCKED THE WORLD (Oct, 1949)
Oh, and Barnum didn’t say “There’s a sucker born every minute”. That was actually a quote from a competitor after Barnum created his own Cardiff Giant.
If you’ve never actually listened to the Mercury Theater broadcast of War of the Worlds you can stream it or download it at the Internet Archive
The saga of the bogus John Wilkes Booth mummy (actually a chap named David George) is told in a story of 7 parts here.
THESE HOAXES SHOCKED THE WORLD
By West Peterson
THE awful calamity of ferocious beasts hunting human prey in the streets of New York after breaking out of the Central Park Zoo panicked the entire city one gloomy Monday morning back in November, 1874. The highly esteemed New York Herald revealed the grim details of the “catastrophe” in the full-page story you see reproduced here.
“Another Sunday of horror has been added to those already memorable in our city annals,” the Herald announced in a dramatic report on the Zoo break. “. . . We have a list of forty-nine killed, of which only twenty- seven bodies have been identified, and it is much to be feared that this large total of fatalities will be much increased with the return of daylight. The list of multilated, trampled and injured in various ways must reach nearly 200 persons . . . Twelve of the large carnivorous beasts are still at large, their lurking places not being known. . . .”
“All citizens, except members of the National Guard,” the Mayor warned in a “state-of-siege” proclamation, “are enjoined to keep within their houses or residences until the wild animals now at large are captured or killed.”
“There was evidently a fight over the body of Anderson (the keeper whose unfortunate poke at the rhinoceros had set off all the trouble),” an eyewitness of the catastrophe reported. “But I could see nothing more than a mingling, gleaming mass, whence arose the most awful cries. Nearer to me, where (Keeper) Hyland lay, the lioness, the panther, the puma, and presently the Bengal tiger, were rolling over and over, striking at each other with their mighty paws. The lioness tore the skin off the puma’s flank with one blow. The coming of the tiger was something terrible. I shall never forget the awful, splendid look of him as he landed with a spring in the thick of them. I could not move. It was too awful for anything. Oddly enough, while the fight was going on, … I could not help looking at Lincoln, the lion, who was standing behind them, pawing and roaring and lashing his sides with his tail; every muscle in uneasy tension. All of a sudden I had a flash.
” ‘By God, he’s looking at me!’ I said to myself. I saw him crouch. I turned and ran. . . .
“I saw a young man fall from a blow of the awful paw, and another crushed to earth beneath the beast’s weight. . . .”
Such incidents were typical of the “carnival of death” that was sweeping through the city, according to the Herald. A vast hunt—by armed men for the escaped animals and by the prowling beasts for the escaping victims—was stirring up dramatic conflicts not only in Central Park and on Broadway and Fifth Avenue but even inside cathedrals and churches. A buffalo bowled over Earl Roseberry’s carriage in front of the Brevoort Hotel, then rammed into another one. A savage brute, believed to have been a tiger, leaped on board a departing ferryboat at the foot of 23rd Street and sent horses, wagons and passengers plunging overboard.
“It would be impossible at this late hour to describe the numberless scenes of dismay and disaster,” the report went on. “The hospitals are full of wounded … A sentiment of horror pervades the community.”
Life in New York came to an abrupt end as citizens bolted for safety after the Herald broke the “news” about wild animals stalking through the streets. Gotham’s residents were afraid to venture forth to work and hid behind barricaded doors and furniture-barred windows.
It would have been just another morning-after-Sunday Monday if startled readers had held on to their heads till they got down to the final paragraph of the sensational story:
“THE MORAL OF THE WHOLE.”
“Of course the entire story given above is a pure fabrication. Not one word of it is true. Not a single act or incident described has taken place. It is a huge hoax, a wild romance, or whatever other epithet of utter untrustworthiness our readers may care to apply to it. It is simply a fancy picture which crowded upon the mind of the writer a few days ago while he was gazing through the iron bars of the cages of the wild animals in the menagerie at Central Park. Yet as each of its horrid but perfectly natural sequences impressed themselves upon his mind, the question presented itself, How is New York prepared to meet such a catastrophe? How easily could it occur any day of the week? How much, let the citizens ponder, depends upon the indiscretion of even one of the keepers? A little oversight, a trifling imprudence might lead to the actual happening of all, and even worse than has been pictured. From causes quite as insignificant the greatest calamities of history have sprung. Horror, devastation and widespread slaughter of human beings have had small mishaps for parents time and again.”
The point to this “huge hoax,” this “wild romance,” was to stress the need for improving the facilities at the zoo and to show what might happen unless the buildings and cages were modernized for greater safety and kept in good repair. But for days gullible Gothamites were too upset trying to save their own hides from the imaginary wild beasts lurking around every street corner to worry about stouter bars anywhere—except around their own homes.
The Herald’s fantastic and openly false story about the escape of all the animals from the zoo created almost as much panic on that Monday 75 years ago as would a headline today that an atom bomb had smashed the Empire State Building.
Such deliberate newspaper hoaxes as this zoo yarn were far more common in the “good old days” than they are in 1949. And few of these shockers carried a payoff paragraph at the end—or any hint that the whole story was other than gospel truth.
For instance, let’s look back at a remarkable “scientific” story the New York Sun printed in 1835. The article, published in daily installments from August 25 through August 31, was supposed to have been reprinted from the Edinburgh Journal of Science—a publication which, incidentally.
did not exist. This serialized hoax, running under the heading “Great Astronomical Discoveries, Lately Made by Sir John Herschel, L.L.D. F.R.S. &c. at the Cape of Good Hope,” did as much to boost the Sun’s circulation as any love-nest slaying or hammer murder might do a century later.
Sir John headed a group of astronomers who had finally succeeded in setting up a marvellously powerful telescope on the Cape of Good Hope, according to the Sun’s report. Through this great instrument he discovered “wondrous secrets which had been hid from the eyes of all men that had lived since the birth of time.” Most amazing of these wonders was the revelation of life on the moon.
Far from being a barren, uninhabited planet, the moon had strange, lush vegetation, weird animals with hairy masks to guard their eyes against glare—and winged men and women! These happy little lunar people, who stood scarcely four feet high, wore no clothes. Their bodies, though, were covered with a bear-like (!) fur and when they landed on the ground, they walked “in an erect and dignified manner.”
The Sun’s vivid account of lunar life created a sensation not only among the suckers of that day but also among the scientists throughout the world. After the final installment on the moon story, the Sun published an illustrated booklet on Sir John’s discoveries. The reprint became a runaway best-seller. For months anyone who disputed the story was considered merely a sore-headed crackpot—a real “lunatic.”
But rival publishers, jealous of the Sun’s booming circulation, began checking on the story and eventually disclosed that the “great discoveries” were simply a terrifically tall tale. A young reporter sitting right in the Sun office had cooked up Sir John, his telescope and all his astounding “observations” about the strange life on the moon.
It took Orson Welles, though, to show that the radio is a hundred times more effective than a newspaper in scaring people out of their wits. Like the zoo hoax in the Herald many years before, his Martian broadcast carried an explanation—which also was ignored, as was that final paragraph in the animal fantasy.
Welles’ Mercury Theater production went on the air in a Halloween spirit on the night of Sunday, October 30, 1938. This bogey broadcast, a dramatization of The War of the Worlds, written by H. G. Wells and published in 1898, described how men from Mars invaded the earth. But this thriller had been brought up to date, and the locale shifted from England to the United States.
Welles carefully explained all this in an announcement at the beginning of the program. Apparently a lot of listeners paid no attention. Others—thousands of them—tuned in late and heard shocking statements delivered in a breathless newscast style: “Flash! Meteor reported landing near Grover’s Mill, N. J.. .. Fifteen hundred killed. . . .No, it’s not a meteor—it’s a flying metallic cylinder. . . . Poison gas is sweeping over New Jersey—-The invaders are flying over the nation, raining bombs. . . . The Martians are using death .rays. . . .”
Hysteria broke out over the entire country. The bravest of the listeners grabbed shotguns and rifles and headed for the “scene of the invasion” to do battle. All over the country people flocked into churches to pray.
It took a long time for the radio and the newspapers to end the nation-wide panic.
Then last winter another broadcast version of the invasion-from-Mars story sent the citizens of Quito, Ecuador, fleeing into the streets. The enraged residents wrecked the radio station and a newspaper plant and set the buildings ablaze. Before troops restored order, 21 persons had lost their lives in the panic.
Quite a different kind of a hoax—and possibly the most notorious since the ancient Greeks pulled their classic trick of loading troops into a big wooden horse to enter Troy and capture the besieged city—was the Cardiff Giant. This monstrosity, the figure of a man 10 feet tall and four feet wide, was excavated at a depth of five feet by well-diggers on the farm of Abe Newell near Cardiff, N. Y., and introduced to a credulous public in 1899.
Newell lost no time in cashing in on the publicity. He erected a tent over the mammoth, then charged 50 cents a look to the thousands of curious who stormed his property for a glimpse at the colossus. Later the figure was exhibited to great crowds at nearby Syracuse. The leading scientists began a heated guessing game that soon made the Cardiff Giant the most famous figure in America. Doctors said the giant was the petrified remains of a Goliath who existed hundreds or thousands of years ago. Others said it was a gypsum statue that must have been buried by Jesuit priests back about the year 1600.
A skeptical paleontology professor (expert on fossils) at Yale, O.C. Marsh, pricked the bubble. He called the mammoth a fraud— merely a modern statue—and not a very good one at that. Since the figure was made of soluble gypsum, the professor pointed out that it would have dissolved completely after a few years in the very damp soil on the Newell farm.
As it turned out, the Cardiff Giant was the work of a Chicago stonecutter hired to do the job by George Hull, a relative of Newell. Hull got the idea for the monster not only to make money but also to confute a minister with whom he had an argument about the existence of giants in Biblical times.
The figure was made of gypsum, all right. Then it was dipped in black ink, sanded and treated with sulphuric acid to “age” the figure and give it the Old Look. Pores were created by using a special hammer fitted with sharp needles, but it was impossible to fake any vestiges of hair. From Chicago the statue was shipped to Cardiff and buried. Unfortunately for the hoaxers there wasn’t enough secrecy.
P. T. Barnum, who, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and other celebrities of the day, fell for this colossal hoax, tried to buy the giant for $100,000. But his offers were turned down. Undaunted, he had a similar statue made which he exhibited as the original. So, the great showman pulled a hoax upon a hoax!
For the all-time world’s heavyweight hoaxer, though, there is still nobody to challenge that amazing old trickster, the great Barnum himself. During his fantastic career as a showman, he never ran out of crowd-stopping fakes—always “the one and only,” “the astounding sensation of the age,” etc.
Once Barnum whitewashed a giant Jumbo and passed it off as the genuine white elephant of Siam. Another time he grafted the body of a monkey on to the tail of a fish and made a fortune displaying it as the actual corpse of a mermaid.
But long before Barnum’s time, and long afterward, there have always been a plentiful of hoaxes to shock the world—from that Trojan Horse packed with Greeks to the current “magic spike” that can cure everything from baldness to backseat driving.
How gullible are you? Are you willing to put your faith in a magic elixir absolutely guaranteed to keep you young all your life? Have you seen any sea serpents or flying saucers lately? Do you accept the fantastic things you hear or read without that proverbial grain of salt?
If your answers are “yes,” then you’re a ready-made customer for some Barnum’s “Great Unknown.”
For Barnum found he could drum up terrific crowds for his “Great Unknown,” which he displayed with plenty of fanfare on a railroad siding. The customers lined up one by one before a freight car, then paid for a quick look at the “Unknown.”
And what was the mysterious “Great Unknown”? An empty freight car—and a request not to reveal this secret marvel to the next customer.
As Barnum remarked, “One’s born every minute.”
One what?—did the man say? Why hello, there, sucker! •