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A true history of fake news: Unicorns on the moon

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Illustration by Angela Zirbes

Part two of two. Read part one: A true history of fake news: The many identities of Benjamin Franklin

The 2016 U.S. presidential election season unleashed new anxieties about “fake news” and other slippery forms of propaganda that have been enabled by our newfangled social media. However, media manipulation has a long history — one we are doomed to repeat again and again unless we study the past. With that in mind, it’s worth examining a little-known political hoax timed for the 1864 elections that anticipated some of the racially-charged fake news stories that circulate today.

Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and the Negro was a 72-page pamphlet that is most notable for coining the word “miscegenation,” unleashing it on the public imagination. African-American studies scholar Sidney Kaplan documented how it caused an immediate sensation by claiming that it was the Caucasian man’s “noble prerogative to set the example of this rich blending of blood.” Predictably, white supremacists went into apoplectic fits.

David Goodman Croly, an editor at the New York World and an avowed racist, surreptitiously wrote Miscegenation with George Wakeman, a reporter at the same paper (which regularly stirred up white working-class racial anxieties). “And now, behold!” announced the authors, who posed as anti-slavery crusaders, “the great Republican party has merged into the little abolition party. The drop has colored the bucket-full.”

From a contemporary vantage point, Miscegenation reads like an ideologically confusing game of Mad Libs: Look at those anti-white Republicans and their progressive agenda! Who will they vote for next, a black president with a white mother? The pamphlet stoked passions on both ends of the political spectrum; it was embraced by prominent abolitionists while at the same time passages were read in the halls of Congress in an attempt to obstruct the Freedman’s Bureau bill, which was meant to assist former slaves.

Croly and Wakeman expertly managed the hoax like a public relations campaign, sending abolitionist tastemakers advance copies along with a warm letter soliciting their opinions. Parker Pillsbury, the editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, endorsed the Miscegenation pamphlet, hoping that “there will be progressive intermingling and that the nation will be benefited by it.” Pro-slavery newspapers happily expanded on the hoax by making up their own fictions. The New Hampshire Patriot concocted an article titled “Sixty-four Miscegenation,” which implausibly claimed that 64 pro-abolitionist teachers in New England’s Port Royal school gave birth to “mulatto” babies.

Miscegenation successfully turned interracial marriage into one of the central campaign issues of the 1864 elections, at a time when the electoral tide was turning against Lincoln. Croly and Wakeman’s hoax had long legs, and it helped shape racial history in 20th-century America. Within a year after the publication of the Miscegenation pamphlet, this newfangled word was in widespread use, and as Kaplan has noted, it remained a powerful rhetorical tool used to police color lines for decades. It took until 1967, in the Loving v. Virginia decision, for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional.

Deception in journalism thrived throughout the 1800s, when news outlets regularly mixed fact and fiction. Of particular note was the New York City Sun, which specialized in crime — if it bled, it led — as well as other eye-popping articles geared towards the working masses. The Sun entertained people with huge headlines, slang-filled prose, sensational stories and several bald-faced hoaxes. During the summer of 1835, Sun reporter Richard Adams Locke published a series of stories about shocking new astronomical discoveries made from a South African observatory.

The sightings were attributed to famed astronomer Sir John Herschel, who heard about the hoax only months later. In the Sun article, he allegedly scanned the moon with his telescope and came across a field of poppies, a red-hilled valley and moon animals with horns! Locke named this area “The Valley of the Unicorn.” The surreal sight grew weirder when the scientific team observed a group of man-bats, or Vespertiliohomo, who apparently enjoyed active sex lives. (Their “improper behavior,” Locke intoned, would “ill comport with our terrestrial notions of decorum.”)

The Sun’s circulation soon topped 18,000 — transforming it into the biggest daily paper in the world. Explaining the moon hoax’s popularity, the famous journalist Horace Greeley spoke of its “unquestionable plausibility and verisimilitude,” claiming it had fooled “nine-tenths of us, at the least.” Doubts grew louder, and the buzz spread around town that Richard Adams Locke was — gasp — a “hoaxer.” News of the ruse quickly rippled around the world.

Four decades later, the New York Herald whipped the city into a frenzy when it published a story on Nov. 9, 1874 about a Central Park Zoo animal riot that killed 49 people and injured more than 200. According to hoaxes.org, New York Governor John A. Dix reportedly arrived with a gun in hand, and several other prominent New Yorkers took part in an animal hunt on Broadway.

Because of the slow speed at which news traveled back then — no telephone or radio, for instance — many city residents lived in fear until the following morning. Readers locked themselves indoors, and some journalists even fell for the story. Dr. George W. Hosmer, a celebrated war correspondent, appeared in the Herald’s offices with two large Navy revolvers, shouting, “Well, here I am.”

Even James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the paper’s owner, collapsed in his bed after reading the story and remained there all day. Like many of his own paper’s readers, Bennett didn’t make it to the article’s final paragraph, which began: “Not one word of it is true.” The Herald’s stated goal was supposedly to “test the city’s preparedness to meet a catastrophe,” though selling lots of papers was likely the hoax’s main objective.

Technologies have evolved, but America’s murky media landscape has remained unchanged in some important ways, from the more frivolous moon and zoo hoaxes to the racially-charged fake news of the 1864 presidential elections and the 2016 campaign season. However, the appropriation of the term “fake news” by Donald Trump, his contempt for facts and the way the president has branded reporters “the enemy of the people” represents an entirely new and disturbing turn of events that is downright Orwellian (insert quote from 1984 here, any will do).

In addition to being a prankster, Kembrew McLeod is also the author of Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World (NYU Press, 2014). This article was originally published in Little Village issue 248.


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