Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) published six hoaxes during his brief life. He enjoyed playing games of rationality with his readers. Sometimes he cast himself as a master detective capable of discerning the truth behind any illusion or puzzle, a role that he expressed through the famous character of Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin. At other times Poe liked to display his ability to hide the truth from his readers, to force them to play detective. In fact, both detective and hoaxer were two sides of the same coin for Poe. Both roles manifested the power that he believed a rational mind could wield over reality. Poe was also fascinated by other hoaxes besides his own. He once referred approvingly to the age in which he lived as the “epoch of the hoax.”
The Great Balloon Hoax
On April 13, 1844, a broadside, or “extra page,” appeared in the midday issue of the New York Sun (the same penny paper that had perpetrated the Great Moon Hoax of 1835), announcing that the famous European balloonist Monck Mason had succeeded in flying across the Atlantic Ocean in seventy-five hours. If true, this would have been the first time the Atlantic had ever been crossed in a balloon – a remarkable achievement. The balloon, named the Victoria, had apparently taken off from England on a trip to Paris, but had been blown off course due to a propeller accident and ended up floating across the Atlantic and landing on Sullivan’s Island, near Charleston, North Carolina. The entire report was a fiction created by Poe, but Poe later proudly described the enormous crowd that gathered to learn more about the historic news: “On the morning of its announcement, the whole square surrounding the Sun building was literally besieged, blocked up – ingress and egress being alike impossible, from a period soon after sunrise until about two o’clock PM. I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper.” But the excitement didn’t last long. Word soon arrived from Charleston that the story was a hoax.
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
The concept of mesmerism, or hypnosis, fascinated nineteenth-century readers. A quasi-scientific account written by Poe, which appeared first in the American Whig Review in December 1845, described in experiment involving a man on the verge of death, M. Valdemar, who was hypnotized just before he died. As a result his body perished, but his consciousness, still under the power of the hypnotist, survived. The patient could verbally respond to questions. This experiment allegedly continued for several months, at which point the patient began to beg for release from the hypnosis. When released, his body disintegrated as if it had been dead for some time. This story caused great excitement, especially in Europe, where it was widely reprinted. It also prompted many people to write to Poe requesting more information about the experiment. Poe warned one such correspondent. “Some few persons believe it – but I do not – and don’t you.”
Von Kempelen and His Discovery
In 1849 gold was discovered in California, prompting thousands of “forty-niners” to join the Gold Rush to California. Poe’s account of the experiments of a German chemist, Baron von Kempelen, appeared in The Flag of Our Union on April 14, 1849. It described von Kempelen’s discovery of an alchemical process to transform lead into gold. The account concluded by noting that news of the discovery had already caused a two-hundred-percent leap in the price of lead in Europe. Poe hoped that the story would cause some American readers to think twice before heading off to California in search of gold. He wrote to Evert A. Duyckinck, “My sincere opinion is that nine persons out of ten (even among the best informed) will believe the quiz (provided the design does not leak out before publication) and that thus, acting as a sudden, although of course a very temporary, check to the gold fever, it will create a stir to some purpose.” The actual reaction to the hoax was somewhat less profound than Poe anticipate. It is not recorded that anyone delayed his departure to California on account of von Kempelen’s spurious discoveries.
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