H.L. Mencken (1880 – 1956) was a newsfaker of the olden times. In his old age, his conscience must have bothered him, for he confessed all in his memoirs.
Last week’s newsfaker extravaganza of Hurricane Florence was nothing, compared with the Johnstown Flood of 1889 and the Coxey’s Army incident of 1894. The narratives surrounding those two “were extremely amusing and instructive” to then-juniors in the trade such as Mencken. Mencken admits suspicion that some of his colleagues who claimed to have covered those stories “were liars and no more…”
There is disagreement now about how many persons died due to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Such was also the case in Johnstown Flood reports where there was disagreement among the scribes “about the number of unfortunates washed into Heaven at Johnstown.”
In the Coxey’s Army reports, there were almost as many reporters on the story as there were members of Coxey’s Army itself, and the scribes never agreed on “the number of hoboes, runaway boys, three-card monte operators, absconding debtors and other such advanced thinkers who marched with Coxey.”
As a young cub in the newsfaker trade, Mencken tells us he was puzzled by discrepancies in the reports. It was only later that he learned “that neither journalism nor history is an exact science.”
But it was the Scopes Trial of 1925 which wins the prize for newsfaker extravaganza. Before journeying to Dayton, Tennessee for THE TRIAL OF THE CENTURY (before the later O.J. Simpson Trial Of The Century), Mencken met with Edgar Lee Masters in New York City. There, the two conspired to have Mencken distribute fake handbills written by Masters once the former arrived in Dayton. The handbills read, in part, as follows:
COMING! COMING! To Dayton, Tennessee. During the Trial of the Infidel Scopes. ELMER CHUBB, L.L.D., D.D. Dr. Chubb will allow himself to be bitten by any poisonous snake, scorpion, gila monster, or other reptile… In demonstration of the words of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, as found in the 16th Chapter of the Gospel of St. Mark…
In Dayton, Mencken caused the fake news handbills to be distributed, then gleefully waited for the local yokels to be fooled.
However Mencken was disappointed in his hopes. In that part of Tennessee at the time, snake handlers were a dime-a-dozen. No one showed up to attend the Reverend Chubb appearance.
Another time while covering the Scopes trial, Mencken belatedly admits responsibility for another bit of fake news. A local preacher kept trying to convert Mencken. Mencken was too polite to tell him to get lost. One day, Mencken and a friend were strolling through town and again the preacher came up to harangue Mencken. In desperation, Mencken lied to the preacher and said, “Can’t talk now, something big has come up.”
The preacher begged to be let in on the “news,” and Mencken, on the spot, invented a story about twenty Bolshevik assassins arriving by train from Cincinnati: they were coming to murder William Jennings Bryan, one of the prosecution team! Mencken told the preacher to tell no one about it, but he disregarded instructions and went to warn Bryan. From there, the “news” went out all over town. The police went on high alert. When the Cincinnati train arrived, only a lowly YMCA employee disembarked, not twenty Russian killers. Nonetheless, the YMCA man was promptly arrested.
So you can see by this how, even in olden times, the newsfakers were wreaking havoc wherever they went.
(Source: Heathen Days, by H.L. Mencken. From, The Days Trilogy: Expanded Edition. New York: Library Of America, 2014.)