The Weekly World News before it ceased publication was one of the few newspapers still reporting hoax stories (Fair Use).

Hoax Journalism

They scream at you from the magazine racks near the checkout counter with improbable headlines like Aliens Stole My Dog! Most people ignore them, or laugh at them. As strange as it seems, however, these tabloids go back to long standing-tradition in American culture involving authors as noteworthy as Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe.

On August 27, 2007, one of the few remaining pillars of a long-established American journalist tradition closed its doors: The Weekly World News ceased paper publication. Over the years the tabloid news magazine had featured such headlines as:

Hillary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby

Bat Child Found in Cave

Mermaid Caught in South Pacific.

The Weekly World News and its sister publication The Sun often printed bizarre articles that either exaggerated facts or were completely fabricated. Many people bought the publications just for the humor within their pages. What most readers didn't know was that such outrageously false news stories are hardly a recent invention. The truth is that these newspapers are perhaps the final holdout of a genre of fiction that has almost completely vanished from the American scene: hoax journalism.

Hoax journalism has been around as long as there have been newspapers, but perhaps it reached its zenith of popularity in the 19th century. Many of these stories were not just exaggerations of fact, or sloppy reporting. Some of the most well-known were complete fabrications from beginning to end. Amazingly in this era, newspapers from the smallest weekly publications to the biggest daily city press printed hoaxes. Also, some of the most famous names in American literature were behind the stories.

The New York Sun included this illustration of the ballon with Poe's article.

Mark Twain, the author of such classic American books as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin, started his career with the fake story about an insane man in Carson City, Nevada, who killed his wife and then went running through the streets of the town "with his throat cut from ear to ear" while he carried his wife's still warm scalp with him.

The Great Balloon Hoax

Edgar Allen Poe, celebrated author of such stories as The Tell-Tale Heart and The Masque of the Red Death, wrote an article in 1844 which came to be known as The Balloon Hoax. It was published in the New York Sun and described the successful crossing of the Atlantic Ocean via a balloon. In the article Poe described the construction of the balloon (flown by a Mr. Monck, who was actually a well-know aviator of that time) in perfect technical detail:

Like Sir George Cayley's balloon, his own was an ellipsoid. Its length was thirteen feet six inches - height, six feet eight inches. It contained about three hundred and twenty cubic feet of gas, which, if pure hydrogen, would support twenty-one pounds upon its first inflation, before the gas has time to deteriorate or escape. The weight of the whole machine and apparatus was seventeen pounds - leaving about four pounds to spare. Beneath the centre of the balloon, was a frame of light wood, about nine feet long, and rigged on to the balloon itself with a network in the customary manner. From this framework was suspended a wicker basket or car.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote on of the most well-known hoaxes of the 19th century.

In truth, the actual crossing of the Atlantic by a non-powered balloon wouldn't be accomplished for another hundred years. Why did Poe participate in this fraudulent story? Though he was recognized by some as an artist genius, Poe was low on money. He had just moved his family to New York from Philadelphia and had less than five dollars in his pocket. We he arrived he aw a chance to cash in on an ongoing competition between the New York Sun, Herald and Tribune newspapers. Each wanted to be the first to break a sensational story and scoop the other, even if it meant not bothering to check the facts. Poe sold the story, then stood back and watched the excitement it created. Later he wrote:

On the morning of its announcement, the whole square surrounding the 'Sun' building was literally besieged, blocked up-ingress and egress being alike impossible, from a period soon after sunrise until about two o'clock P.M.... I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper. As soon as the few first copies made their way into the streets, they were bought up, at almost any price, from the news-boys, who made a profitable speculation beyond doubt. I saw a half-dollar given, in one instance, for a single paper, and a shilling was a frequent price. I tried, in vain, during the whole day, to get possession of a copy.

When the story could not be confirmed, the Sun was forced to retract the article the next day, but not before it had sold a lot of newspapers.

Illustrations from the 1835 article offered to show readers what life was like on the moon.

The Great Moon Hoax

Perhaps the most famous journalistic hoax of the era occurred a few years earlier in late August of 1835. The New York Sun ran a series of articles supposedly reprinted from the fictitious Edinburgh Journal of Science. In these an Andrew Grant reported that Sir John Herschel, using a new, powerful telescope, had discovered life on the moon. The articles described a lunar landscape that included beaches, jungles and oceans and was populated by bison, blue unicorns and tail-less, bipedal, intelligent beavers. Perhaps the most startling discovery, according to stories, was the existence of furry, winged, "moon men:"

Certainly they were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified. They averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair...

While Herschel was a well-known astronomer at the time, there was no Andrew Grant and the actual author is believed to be a Sun reporter named Richard Adams Locke. While this series of articles seems outrageous today, many people at the time took it at face value. One witness remembered how the students and professors at Yale college "looked daily for the arrival of the New York mail with unexampled avidity and implicit faith. Have you seen the accounts of Sir John Herschel's wonderful discoveries? Have you read the Sun? Have you heard the news of the man in the Moon? These were the questions that met you every where. It was the absorbing topic of the day. Nobody expressed or entertained a doubt as to the truth of the story."

Despite this account, some competing newspapers and sources at the time were skeptical about the series, expressing doubt that the building of a new, fantastically-powerful telescope - which would have taken years - would have gone without notice in the English press. Interestingly enough, unlike other hoaxes, the Sun never acknowledged the series was fiction, though in its September 16th, 1835, edition, it did run a column discussing such a possibility.

Ben Franklin is thought to be the author of the Witch Trial Hoax of 1730.

Witch Trials in New Jersey

While profit and entertainment was often the reason for such an article, sometimes a hoax story was also written to make a political or social point. On October 22, 1730, The Pennsylvania Gazette printed an article entitled A Witch Trial at Mount Holly. The story, whose author is thought to be Benjamin Franklin (who published the Gazette), contains a description of a very unlikely witch trial in southern New Jersey:

…the Accused had been charged with making their Neighbours Sheep dance in an uncommon Manner, and with causing Hogs to speak, and sing Psalms, &c. to the great Terror and Amazement of the King's good and peaceable Subjects.

The authorities decided to try the witches (along with two non-witches for comparison) by seeing if they weighed less than a thick copy of the bible, or if they would float in water - both thought to be ancients signs of a witch. When neither test gave the inquisitors a reliable result, and believing that the female accused's clothes might have helped her float, the court decided to recess and try the water test again, later.

…they are to be tried again the next warm Weather, naked.

Why did Franklin write this story? Probably he was making a statement about the silliness of such beliefs. The Salem witch trials had occurred just thirty-eight years before, leading to the death of twenty-five people. The beliefs that led to the trials were still prevalent in Franklin's day, and Franklin, a man of science, wanted to expose such things as ludicrous.

Newspapers More Than Just News

While some of these stories, like Franklin's, were written to make people think, most were created to just amuse the readership. The appearance of hoax stories in newspapers really isn't that surprising if one recalls that much of the conventional fiction of the day, which we now associate with books, was originally published in the form of newspaper serials. Newspapers of the era saw their role as entertaining the public as much as informing it.

While the colorful tradition of hoax journalism gives us an insight into entertainment in previous centuries, it occasionally causes historians problems. Any strange tale found in newspapers of the period must be considered suspect unless it can be confirmed with other sources such as letters, other publications, or physical evidence.

As the 19th century was left behind and the 20th century dawned the public began to demand more accuracy from their newspapers. Most dropped their hoax stories and many required independent fact checking on important articles. A few tabloid publications continued the hoax tradition, but with the demise of The Weekly World News there is now one less. Still, the Sun continues to be sold at newsstands and The Weekly World News is available in a web edition, so just remember when you see a headline like UFO CAPTURES LOCH NESS MONSTER! that you're looking at the last of a long-standing tradition.

Copyright Lee Krystek 1996-2008. All Rights Reserved.