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home : columns : columns December 14, 2017

10/3/2017 12:24:00 PM
The Petrified Man
By Craig Rullman

In 1782 Ben Franklin published a fake edition of an otherwise real newspaper. It was meant to curry sympathy for American resistance to the British, by claiming that natives allied with the British were on the warpath, slaughtering settlers by the hundreds. Complete with phony ads and other articles, it was all fake news.

Fake news becomes fake news when it is published, or broadcast, by an otherwise reliable source. Conversely, when fake newspapers publish real news the whole centrifuge is thrown out of balance, so maybe they shouldn't do that, either. But even when real newspapers stick to real news, and fake newspapers stick to publishing fake stories, the results can be confusing.

For instance, it may be impossible to disprove the Weekly World News' claims that a redneck vampire attacked a trailer park in Kentucky, that a mermaid cemetery was discovered in the Atlantic, or that a woman in British Columbia was Bigfoot's love slave. In front of a modern jury, which is essentially a collection of licensed drivers, those claims might be much easier to defend than to prosecute as taradiddles.

And in an alarming twist, "real news" headlines are often more difficult to swallow than tabloid fantasies. "Scientists Breed Glow in the Dark Rabbits," we are told -which is both bizarre and true - or this gem, from the revered BBC: "Stoned Wallabies Make Crop Circles."

At any rate, we seem to love a good "fake news" villain, and a plank-holder in that realm is, beyond any reasonable doubt, Mark Twain. Twain didn't invent fake news - but he most certainly grasped the possibilities and flogged them with all of the zest and vigor befitting the energies of a Wild West boomtown.

Twain arrived in Virginia City, Nevada Territory, in 1861. After two years of cynical efforts to strike it rich on the Comstock Lode, he fell into newspapering and began writing for The Territorial Enterprise. He went on to write stories - published as fact - that he made up entirely.

Perhaps his most famous fake news piece was "The Petrified Man," in which he wrote convincingly about the discovery of a man, said to have been dead 100 years, who had turned to stone during his long nap.

Twain wrote: "The people of the neighborhood volunteered to bury the poor unfortunate, and were even anxious to do so; but it was discovered, when they attempted to remove him, that the water which had dripped upon him for ages from the crag above, had coursed down his back and deposited a limestone sediment under him which had glued him to the bed rock upon which he sat, as with a cement of adamant, and Judge S. refused to allow the charitable citizens to blast him from his position."

There had been, at the time, a general mania surrounding the alleged discoveries of "petrified" men, and his real purpose was to make fun of it. And Twain, who seemed to live on the frontier in a state of perpetual bemusement, left clues that careful readers of the piece might have noted, had they attempted to imitate the supposed placement of the mummy's hands, a position which can only be described as the "nanner, nanner" configuration.

A decade after, in a speech given to the Monday Evening Club in Hartford, Connecticut, Twain warned about the perils of news in general: "...the trouble is that stupid people - who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations - do believe and are molded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies."

Instead of quashing the ridiculous, Twain's piece helped carry the petrified man sensation to even greater peaks of absurdity.

The Territorial Enterprise was, in retrospect, a kind of fake news academy. James W. Townsend, a colleague of Twain's, went on to found The Union newspaper in Grass Valley, California. He was known as "Lying Jim" and described by his former Enterprise editor as: "a unique specimen, by all odds the most original writer and versatile liar that the west coast, or any other coast, ever produced."

Townsend, while trying to build an audience for his newspaper, allowed himself to invent an entire town, populated with a mayor and city council, with killings and robberies, law suits, railroad accidents, and a buzzing townsfolk, "Every last one of which he coined out of his own brain."

Almost exactly 100 years after Twain wrote about petrified men and Townsend was inventing an alternative world, the Enterprise struck again when editor Bob Richards published a fake story that camel races would be held in Virginia City. To everyone's surprise, a rival newspaper arrived on the day of the fake race with actual camels, unraveling the story, but also sparking a tradition that carries on to this day, and which now includes ostrich and zebra races, complete with jockeys.

In 1835, New York Sun published a story claiming that an English astronomer had found life on the moon. Readers were told that the moon, seen through a powerful telescope, was a kind of garden party for unicorns, man-bats, and two-legged beavers.

And the undisputed champion of fake news must be Orson Welles, for his 1938 radio show "War of the Worlds," which terrified tens of thousands into believing that Martians were rampaging around with heat rays and poisonous gas.

Fake news is as old as storytelling. Plato warned about it. But in the bait-and-switch tempest of modern information exchange, and in an era when almost any bizarre claim might seem somehow plausible, it can be nearly impossible to finally discern the difference.

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