Edgar Allan Poe was in desperate need of money once after...

OMBUDSMAN

March 13, 1994|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Edgar Allan Poe was in desperate need of money once after moving to New York, so he sold a story to the brash new penny paper, the New York Sun. Next month is the 150th anniversary of Poe's story April 13, 1844, one of the most famous newspaper hoaxes.

Under an ''Astounding News'' headline, Poe wrote that a balloon with screw propeller and rudder, carrying eight persons, had tried to fly from Wales over the English Channel to France. The pilot was one Monck Mason. His propeller broke, so a stiff wind carried the dirigible instead west over the Atlantic to Sullivan's Island, near Charleston, South Carolina.

Poe later bragged that many people were briefly fooled: ''The whole square surrounding the Sun building was literally besieged, blocked up . . . from soon after sunrise until 2 o'clock p.m.'' When ''esteemed contemporaries'' called for better evidence, the Sun mocked them for their inability to ''appreciate the pleasant satire.''

Poe had been influenced by another notable hoax the same paper pulled off nine years earlier. Reporter Richard Adams Locke began a series of stories reporting alleged discoveries on the moon by a famous astronomer, Sir John Frederick William Herschel, looking through a giant telescope in South Africa:

His ''imperishable monuments to the age'' were herds of bison-like creatures with eye flaps to protect them from light, unicorn-goats, beavers that built fires in their huts, ''strange amphibious creatures of spherical form'' which rolled quickly over a pebbly beach, and semi- human winged creatures classified as man-bats. All roamed over pyramid-shaped lunar mountains made of amethyst.

The ruse ended after two months, but the stories had served their purpose. The Sun's circulation on Sunday August 28, 1835 had shot up from a recent 2,500 to a heady 19,360 to become the leading paper in the world, passing The Times of London's 17,000. The Baltimore Sun was to start life two years later as another penny paper.

On September 3, 1933, in a centenary edition noting the New York Sun's founding, the newspaper told its readers that such a hoax had been possible because ''the public of a century ago was so little informed.'' The implication was that nothing like that could happen in the sophisticated 20th century.

Oh? How about the Piltdown Man? In 1912, Charles Dawson announced the discovery of a skull in a gravel bed near Piltdown Common in Sussex, England. This was labeled a new form of man, Eoanthropus Dawsoni. Not until 1953 did the British Museum call it a fake: an ape's jaw and the rest from Homo sapiens. Professional jealousy was the culprit.

The fake Vermeer paintings were more elaborate. ''The Supper at Emmaus,'' a painting by the Dutch master Vermeer, sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1937. The experts swooned. In 1945, 14 new Old Masters paintings were found to be faked by one Hans van Meegeren, a painter who made piles of money with his scheme to fool art critics, whom he hated.

Remember the Vinland map? In 1957, the most amazing cartographic find of the century was announced. It was a map of the eastern coast of North America drawn about 1440, ''proving'' the Vikings were here ''first'' among Europeans. An anonymous donor gave it to Yale University in 1965. In 1974 Yale called it a hoax.

Newsweek magazine devoted its cover and 14 pages to the fake Hitler Diaries in 1983, even while acknowledging rumors the diaries might be a fraud. (They were.) ''Genuine or not,'' Newsweek burbled, ''it almost doesn't matter in the end.'' It did to some, who stopped taking the magazine seriously.

In the early 1980s, a Washington Post reporter won a Pulitzer Prize for story about an 8-year-old heroin addict, who turned out to be imaginary -- a composite concoction. The prize was withdrawn. A New York Times free-lancer wrote of a trip with Khmer Rouge guerrillas in Cambodia, a story made up at a villa in Spain.

Readers and media, beware. Competitive news people hunger for fresh news as much now as in 1844 and are as vulnerable as ever to hoaxers.

Ernest F. Imhoff is The Sun's reader representative.

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