Moon Men, Martians and Elvis

By Jim Ignasher

OK, pop quiz – which of the following news stories from the 1800s is actually true? Bat-like creatures have been observed through a powerful telescope to be living on the moon; scientists believe they can signal Martians with a giant mirror, or a group of men sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in a giant balloon in only three days. Only two of these tales were hoaxes, but each was reported as fact in reputable 19th-century newspapers.

Everyone knows April 1st is April Fools’ Day, a date when finding a wallet lying on the ground, or being invited to join a snipe hunt should be viewed with suspicion. According to internet sources, April Fools’ pranks have been played on the unsuspecting since the Middle Ages, but it’s far more likely that man has been playing pranks since the dawn of time.

“Hey, watch out for that saber-toothed dinosaur behind you! Ha ha, made you look! April fool!”

As time went on the pranks got more elaborate – they had to – and it was only a matter of time before the printed media got in on the act by publishing fictitious news stories, or hoaxes. To be clear, a hoax is meant to be a goof, a gag, a practical joke, and shouldn’t be confused with stories intended to perpetrate fraud, or worse, fake news designed to smear.

One of the earliest media hoaxes occurred in August 1835 when a New York newspaper, The Sun, (No connection to the present-day New York newspaper of the same name.) ran a series of detailed articles about an astronomer named Sir John Herschel who’d been observing humanoid life on the moon through a powerful forty-foot-long telescope. He’d also reported seeing sapphire and gold colored buildings, as well as animals that looked similar to those on earth, but with certain alien differences.

The articles described the “moon men” as creatures with bat-like wings and covered with copper-colored hair from head to foot. As a point of fact, there was an actual man named Sir Herschel utilizing such a telescope which gave the story enough credibility that led other papers to carry the tale. However, it wasn’t long before The Sun was forced to admit that the whole thing had been a hoax conceived by its editor, Richard A. Locke. The hoax boosted sales, and the paper-buying public didn’t seem to mind once the truth was revealed. Locke’s “Great Moon Hoax” had inadvertently set the bar for journalistic pranks.

Nine years later in 1844, The Sun was at it again with an amazing story about “Monck Mason’s Flying Machine” and how it had crossed the Atlantic Ocean from England to the United States in only 75 hours. This story might seem mundane today, but in 1844 it was the equivalent of traveling to the moon. The story was written by the famous author Edgar Allen Poe, who provided enough intricate details of the imaginary trip to give the impression that it had really happened, yet after two days The Sun was forced to admit that it hadn’t.

Hoaxes aside, The Sun was considered a serious newspaper and not a tabloid. And if the name of the paper sounds familiar, you’re right, for it was in 1897 that The Sun published what is perhaps the world’s most read Christmas editorial, “Is There a Santa Claus?” because Virginia’s father had told her that “if you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” The Sun ceased publication in 1950.

Yet not all sci-fi news reports of the 19th century were hoaxes. Take the mirror story for example. In the 1890s some scientists were convinced that there was life on Mars, and that Earth could signal the Martians by using a giant mirror to reflect the Sun’s light the way a castaway would use a hand mirror to signal a passing ship. It sounded good in theory, for building a giant mirror was technologically feasible, but certain logistical problems, such as the Earth’s atmosphere acting to defuse the beam of light, and the rotation of both planets in relation to their orbit around the Sun, made the whole idea impractical.

Sometimes the press was an unwitting accomplice to a hoax, such as with the Great Airship Hoax of 1909. In the autumn of that year, Worcester businessman Wallace Tillinghast claimed to have invented a “flying machine” capable of reaching an altitude of 4,000 feet and traveling 120 miles per hour. This was a truly remarkable claim given that the Wright Brothers had flown only seven years earlier, and aviation technology was still in its infancy. Yet without ever seeing the alleged machine, one paper ran the story, and others followed suit. Before long, reputable citizens all across southern New England reported seeing Tillinghast and his airship which added more fuel to the story. Several weeks passed before the hoax was exposed.

The advent of television provided a new way to enjoy an April Fools’ joke. How many can recall the April 1,1957 BBC “news footage” of the spaghetti harvest in Ticino, Italy, or the 1962 announcement that the recent invention of “Smell-o-vision” would allow greater enjoyment of cooking shows?

Even in modern times one has to be careful of what they see, hear, and read in the media on April Fools’ Day, for newsroom practical jokers are still about, and Photoshop and other technology allow for realistic videos to be posted as “proof” that Elvis was at Kmart that the Moon is made of green cheese, and that NASA has found ruined cities on Mars. Why do they do it? Because it’s fun! And furthermore, there’s a part of us that enjoys being fooled, such as when we watch a magic act. We know the girl wasn’t really sawn in half, but it sure looked like it.

Hoaxes and pranks, by the way, aren’t limited to April 1st, so beware and watch out for saber-toothed dinosaurs.