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A History of Newspaper Hoaxes Aimed at Boosting Circulation

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

It is to be hoped (perhaps naively to be assumed) that most people reading supermarket tabloids at the peak of their creativity realized that, for the most part, the stories were fiction.

With headlines such as “Two-headed Man Runs for Mayor . . . Against Himself,” “Dust Bunnies Breed like Rabbits,” or “Cave Paintings Reveal Existence of Pre-Historic Insurance Salesman,” the now-defunct Weekly World News would have to be a strong challenger for the wackiest.

Mainstream newspapers long ago learned the value of sensationalism. According to former U.S. President Donald Trump they’re still at it, unless they write something complimentary about him, in which case it’s fantastic journalism.

Invented Newspaper Stories Have a Long History

In the late summer of 1835, a series of astounding stories appeared in The New York Sun that claimed the famous astronomer Sir John Herschel had made an amazing discovery. As related by BBC History Magazine, the articles “claimed that a powerful new telescope trained on the Moon had picked up many signs of life there. Goats, bison, and beavers had all been spotted . . . ”

According to History.comThe New York Sun, founded in 1833, was one of the new ‘penny press’ papers that appealed to a wider audience with a cheaper price and a more narrative style of journalism. From the day the first moon hoax article was released, sales of the paper shot up considerably.”

The lush vegetation and winged humanoids said to be on the Moon’s surface were the creative work of a British “journalist,” Richard Locke. He was newly arrived in the United States and looking to make a name for himself. The stories were widely believed until they were exposed as a hoax at the end of 1835.

Life on the Moon as "seen" by Sir John Herschel.

Life on the Moon as "seen" by Sir John Herschel.

The Indian Rope Trick

Another fake news report from 120 years ago is still believed in some circles.

On August 8, 1890, the Chicago Tribune published the account of an extraordinary piece of street magic. David Brown of The Independent reported that the story told of “a boy climbing an unsupported rope and disappearing at the top.”

A magician, armed with a sword, would follow the boy up the rope. He too would disappear. Then, there would be blood-curdling screams and body parts would start to fall to the ground and land in a large basket. The climax of the trick was when the magician came back down the rope and lifted the perfectly healthy boy, in one piece, from the basket.

The article was written by John Elbert Wilkie, but the newspaper, by placing it under the byline of one Fred S. Ellmore assumed the public would catch on that it was tomfoolery.

The editors failed to take into account the gullibility of their audience among whom miracles and mysticism were popular at the time. Readers did not make the connection with boosting subscription sales and “sellmore.”

The Indian Rope Trick but Without the Dismemberment

Invented Story Becomes an Urban Legend

However, the Indian Rope Trick story took on a life of its own and was reprinted in papers all over the world; few people noticed the small piece in The Tribune four months later revealing the whole thing was a publicity stunt to raise circulation. But, by now, the tale was so widely believed that it was difficult to destroy its credibility.

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A senior British official in India is said to have offered ₤10,000 to the person who revealed the trick’s secret. One gentleman claimed to have unravelled the mystery by suggesting identical twins were used and that one of them was actually murdered during the proceedings.

Indian Rope Trick Stirs Interest

Stage magicians began performing versions of the trick omitting, of course, the chopping up of the child and several other parts that are impossible to accomplish.

Eyewitnesses started to pop up, claiming they had indeed witnessed the trick performed in India. Some of the accounts were detailed and lurid. Even photographs of the magical performance appeared, later revealed as bogus in small print buried in the back of the paper.

The illusionist Teller, of Penn and Teller fame, writes in The New York Times that “Members of Britain’s magicians’ alliance, the Magic Circle, systematically hunted down and discredited eyewitnesses, and even offered a 500-guinea reward for anyone who would actually perform the trick.” The reward was never claimed.

The Global Warming Hoax

No, not Donald Trump’s musing about China trying to undermine the U.S. economy. This story goes back more than 150 years.

During the 1850s, the first transatlantic telegraph cables were being laid, and this, so the story goes, caused the Italian astronomer Giovanni Donati to get his shorts in a knot. He said the cables were acting like gigantic electromagnets and this was causing the Earth to be drawn inexorably closer to the Sun. Eventually, our planet was going to plunge into the fiery core and be fried to a crisp.

A gentleman called J.B. Legendre got wind of the approaching apocalypse and wrote a letter to the editor of The Kansas City Times in February 1874. The editor had to know it was claptrap, or at the very least unreliably sourced, because the yarn spun by Mr. Legendre quoted Giovanni Donati at third or fourth hand.

Newspapers like to feed on each other when sensational news is in the offing, so, within weeks, the story of the coming of the end of the world had reached most households in America. But, this tale of imminent catastrophe fizzled out in a few months. Why?

The Museum of Hoaxes has the answer: “Newspaper editors and readers were used to them (prank stories). And this particular hoax evidently didn’t even seem very convincing to anyone, probably because it was so far-fetched.”

History of the Bathtub

H.L. Mencken was a writer with a devilish sense of humour. In a December 1917 article in The New York Evening Mail he regaled readers with the colourful history of the bathtub in the United States. Under the title “A Neglected Anniversary” he chided his fellow citizens for failing to mark the 75th birthday of the invention of the modern tub in Cincinnati, Ohio.

He wrote that Americans had been fearful of the tub and deemed it a threat to health. This changed when President Millard Fillmore popularized the bathtub by installing one in the White House in 1851. Mencken puffed up his piece by citing bogus authoritative-sounding institutions and phony statistics.

The article was repeated hundreds of times and Mencken did not reveal that it was a complete fabrication until eight years later. Even then, many people believed the confession was a hoax, not the original story. Mencken said he meant it as a bit of “good, clean fun,” but there was more to it than that.

Wendy McElroy (Independent Institute) notes that “ ‘A Neglected Anniversary’ was an act of merry contempt directed at journalists who blithely reported fiction as fact and at readers who were so gullible as to believe blatantly false reports without question.”

And, a good story is hard to kill. Mencken’s fib that Millard Fillmore was the first president to have a bathtub is still cited today, even though it was Andrew Jackson who installed the tub in 1834.

The Telling Lies as News Hasn’t Stopped

Bonus Factoids

  • Edgar Allan Poe wrote a fake story for The New York Sun; yes, that paper again. In 1844, Poe wrote that a gentleman known as Monck Mason crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon―from east to west against the prevailing winds. And, it only took him three days. The first Atlantic crossing by balloon did not take place until 1978.
  • Despite the fact that the Indian Rope Trick cannot be carried out explanations of how it is done continue to appear. In his 2004 book The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick, Scottish academic and former president of the Magic Circle in Edinburgh, Peter Lamont methodically exposes the whole thing as a fraud. Despite this, the Indian Rope Trick story is unlikely to die a complete death.


  • “What was ‘The Great Moon Hoax?’ ” BBC History Magazine, Volume 11, Number 4
  • “The Great Moon Hoax.”
  • “Secret of the Indian Rope Trick is Finally Revealed: it’s a Hoax.” David Brown, The Independent, April 14, 2001.
  • “The Grift of the Magi.” Teller, New York Times, February 13, 2005.
  • “The Global Warming Hoax of 1874.” Museum of Hoaxes, undated.
  • “The Bathtub, Mencken, and War.” Wendy McElroy, Independent Institute, August 1, 1999.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


Suzie from Carson City on May 08, 2017:

Rupert....I'm off to an appointment but will be back to read your article. I couldn't help but perk up when I read your title and especially your By-line....."Many years ago, newspapers battled with each other for circulation by creating FICTITIOUS stories.".......You mean, like today, yesterday,& the past decade at least??? Except currently it can't be for circulation because the stories have been choking us & slowing our blood flow!

See you later, my friend!

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