How Twain and other writers pulled off elegant pranks against 19th century life science
By Lynda Walsh | March 2, 2007
It was September 1880, and the famous American paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope was in Arizona, furiously digging for fossils in a race to be the first to prove Darwinian evolution. So when someone showed Cope an old copy of the Territorial Enterprise from Virginia City, Nevada, reporting the amazing discovery of a "highland alligator," he immediately took up pen and paper. If reports were true, Cope urgently wrote to the Enterprise, would it be too much to ask to have the skull, skin, and feet, "even if dirty and broken," sent to him post-haste?
Reading this letter several weeks later in the offices of the Territorial Enterprise, Dan De Quille (né William Wright), the author of the alligator report, likely chuckled to himself -- the entire story was a fabrication. Quille annotated the envelope "A Professor who was sold on the 'Highland Alligator'" before filing it, unanswered, alongside the Smithsonian's unheeded request for an "eyeless fish" Quille had invented four years earlier.
Dan De Quille wasn't the only journalist to invent life science news in the 19th century, although he was the most prolific, with at least 13 fake science reports to his credit. From 1835-1880, famous writers including Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe published dozens of hoaxes in American newspapers, many of them about discoveries in zoology, paleontology, and medicine.
The trend started with Richard Adams Locke's Great Moon Hoax, which was both astronomical (in every sense of the word) and biological. Locke reported that astronomer J.F.W. Herschel had successfully imaged the surface of the moon with his new telescope at Cape Town, South Africa. All of this was true, but Locke embellished Herschel's findings, reporting there were man-bats and moon-bison cavorting around lush oases sprinkled with poppies. New York was in an uproar for weeks as citizens debated the truth of the reports -- one persistent rumor from this time is that a group of Baptists started collecting money to send missionaries to the moon to save the poor, unwashed man-bats. Herschel took the whole thing in good-humored stride, saying it was a reminder how little progress science had really made toward explaining the wonders of nature.
Mark Twain, who worked with Dan De Quille on the Enterprise, wrote a hoax about a Petrified Man that was reprinted widely in the West -- never mind that if readers had read the story carefully (which almost no one did), they would have realized that the Petrified Man was petrified not only sitting up, but thumbing his nose at the reader. Another De Quille hoax recounted the tale of a man who calcified himself from the inside out by drinking too much hard water.
Why did literary writers such as Poe and Twain fool thousands of readers with concocted life science stories? During the mid-19th century, life scientists such as Louis Pasteur and Charles Darwin were helping to change who Americans turned to in order to learn the truth about their universe -- away from preachers, poets, and philosophers, and toward scientists. Writers like Poe and Twain fought back against this perceived attack with guerilla tactics, exploiting readers' unthinking trust in science and fascination with fake stories that read just like the real thing. Once readers were taken in, the writers revealed their hoaxes, using strategies ranging from Twain's subtle textual clues to Poe's drunken revelation of his Balloon-Hoax on the steps of the New York Sun six hours after it came off the presses. If you don't know enough about science to tell a fake report from a real one, they reasoned, how can you be so sure that scientists are telling you the truth?
In the end, these media hoaxes didn't significantly inhibit the progress of the life sciences because they were written by outsiders and intended to launch a social critique -- a critique of readers' gullibility as much as a critique of the power of science in American culture. Even so, the media hoaxes of the 19th century are a powerful reminder that we all consume science news through a filter of our own values, beliefs, and assumptions.
Lynda Walsh is an Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, where she teaches courses in and does research on scientific writing. Her book Sins Against Science: The Scientific Hoaxes of Poe, Twain, and Others was published in September 2006 by SUNY Press.
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