The creation of the penny press during the 1830s completely changed the character of the news business. The old six-cent papers had confined themselves to business and political news, but the penny papers discovered that there was a huge market for local news: stories about neighborhood crimes, police reports, social gossip, and human-interest items. As a result, within a few decades almost every major paper had a reporter specifically assigned to local coverage. Such reporters were referred to, logically enough, as the “locals.” The local had to be able to amuse and entertain readers even on days hen not much had occurred. This called for the skills of a humorist, and indeed many of America’s best-known comedic writers got their start as locals. They spiced up slow news days with humor, satire, tall tales, and hoaxes. Three locals working on western papers proved to be particularly adept at their jobs. They were Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), Charles Browne (aka Artemus Ward), and William Wright (aka Dan De Quille).
The Paulding County Hyena
On February 6, 1858, readers of the Cleveland Plain Dealer were shocked to learn that a hyena had broken loose form its cage in a circus and was terrorizing the residents of Paulding County. According to the report a band of men had set forth to recapture the predator, but with little luck. Following the trail of the enraged beast, the pursuers first discovered that it had disinterred a number of bodies from a local cemetery. Then, when they caught up to it and surrounded it, the hyena leapt on one of their number, killing the man instantly. Finally, it bounded off into the woods, killing another man along the way. Readers of the Plain Dealer anxiously waited to hear more about this vicious beast, but three days later, in a follow-up story, the paper apologetically noted that “a few errors” had occurred in the original article. No men had in fact been killed by the hyena. The paper admitted with embarrassment that the hyena had actually never escaped its cage. It was quite certain of this because it had learned that there was no hyena at all. “He is not there now, never was there, and, it is firmly believed, never will be again,” the author of the article stated with conviction. But the author boasted that there was one fact from the article that he was quite certain of: There was definitely a place named Paulding County! The reporting was the work of Artemus Ward.
The Empire City Massacre
In 1863 San Francisco newspapers were spearheading a campaign to convince investors to shift their money from mining ventures into utilities. According to a story that appeared in the Territorial Enterprise on October 28, 1863, this advice resulted in tragedy for at least one man. After losing all his money because the utility had fraudulently cooked its books, the man went insane and slaughtered his entire family (except for two young girls who miraculously survived). He then rode into town “bearing in his hand a reeking scalp from which the blood was still dripping,” cut his throat, and collapsed dead in front of a saloon. The story was widely reprinted, and readers everywhere were horrified by the gruesome news. No ne thought that it might be false. After all, who would make up something like that? Mark Twain, in fact. He wanted to get the San Francisco newspapers to print a story critical of the utility companies, so he made up the most sensational story he could think of to ensure that they would run it. He succeeded in this goal, but readers failed to see the humor in his hoax. Luckily for Twain his editor forgave him for the controversy that ensued and allowed him to keep his job.
As anyone who has ever been to Nevada during the summer knows, its deserts can become scorchingly hot. In 1874 the Territorial Enterprise reported the “sad fate” of an inventor who had departed on foot from Virginia City toward Death Valley, determined to beat the desert’s heat. He had clothed himself from head to foot in “solar armor”: a sponge suit saturated with a “frigorific mixture” that cooled the wearer of the suit as it evaporated. The frigorific mixture was replenished through sacks located under the arms. Unfortunately, the inventor’s solar armor worked too well, and he was found a day after frozen stiff in the middle of the desert, a foot-long icicle hanging from his nose. Newspapers throughout the world reprinted the bizarre story but the Daily Telegraph of London had a reaction typical of the general response. It dryly noted that “we would require some additional confirmation before we unhesitatingly accept it.” The story was the fanciful work of Dan De Quille, Mark Twain’s colleague at the Territorial Enterprise.
The Traveling Stones of Pahranagat Valley
Dan De Quille published an article in the Territorial Enterprise on October 26, 1867, describing some unusual stones that could be found in the Pahranagat Valley of southern Nevada. When placed nearby each other, he claimed, the stones would move to come together. As he put it, “These curious pebbles appear to be formed of loadstone or magnetic iron ore. A single stone removed to a distance of a yard, upon being released at once started off with wonderful and somewhat comical celerity to rejoin its fellows.” The article, which was written in a semi-scientific style, seemed quite believable to its readers. It was so believable that as the years went by De Quille began to receive numerous inquiries about the stones from people all over the world. A German scientist wrote to De Quille and refused to believe him when informed that the stones were not real. Instead the scientist accused De Quille of trying to conceal the secret of the stones. A showman then offered De Quille “ten grand” if he would go on tour with his rocks. Eventually De Quille began referring inquiries to Mark Twain, who, he assured correspondents, “has still on hand fifteen or twenty bushels of various sizes.” The matter got so out of hand that De Quille was forced to publish a retraction. “We solemnly affirm that we never saw or heard of any such diabolical cobbles as the traveling stones of Pahranagat,” he declared in print on November 11, 1879, twelve years after the publication of the original article. But it was to no avail. Letters seeking more information about the miraculous stones still kept pouring in.
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