Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Edgar Allen Poe, Media Hoaxster

One of the nice things about Halloween is that it resurrects Edgar Allen Poe from unwarranted obscurity. Among his lesser known work, Poe wrote several pieces that could be labeled as “science fiction” and which also happened to be journalistic hoaxes. In the realm of media hoaxsters, I would rank Poe far above the “Balloon Boy” family of recent fame, but I’m not sure that he deserves a place among pranksters like the Yes Men and Alan Abel.

Even so, Poe pulled off a good one in 1844, with his report of a transatlantic balloon flight. On April 13, 1844, The Sun (New York) carried this headline:








Poe’s deadpan article described in considerable detail Monck Mason’s hot air balloon flight from North Wales to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina (near Charleston). Although the flight was originally intended as a crossing of the English Channel, and nothing more, a sudden gale shortly after launch blew the craft out over the Atlantic.

An illustration from Monck Mason's book

Poe included entries from an alleged flight journal kept by Monck Mason:

We soon found ourselves driving out to sea at the rate of not less, certainly, than 50 or 60 miles an hour, so that we came up with Cape Clear, at some 40 miles to our North, before we had secured the rod, and had time to think what we were about. It was now that Mr. Ainsworth made an extraordinary, but to my fancy, a by no means unreasonable or chimerical proposition, in which he was instantly seconded by Mr. Holland -- viz.: that we should take advantage of the strong gale which bore us on, and in place of beating back to Paris, make an attempt to reach the coast of North America. …

We passed over innumerable vessels of all kinds, a few of which were endeavoring to beat us, but the most of them lying to. We occasioned the greatest excitement on board all -- an excitement greatly relished by ourselves, and especially by our two men, who, now under the influence of a dram of Geneva, seemed resolved to give all scruple, or fear, to the wind. Many of the vessels fired signal guns; some displayed flags and in all we were saluted with loud cheers (which we heard with surprising distinctness) and the waving of caps and handkerchiefs. We kept on in this manner throughout the day, with no material incident, and, as the shades of night closed around us, we made a rough estimate of the distance traversed. It could not have been less than 500 miles, and was probably much more.

“ Mr. Ainsworth” scribbled an entry of his own in the alleged journal:

The last nine hours have been unquestionably the most exciting of my life. I can conceive nothing more sublimating than the strange peril and novelty of an adventure such as this. May God grant that we succeed ! I ask not success for mere safety to my insignificant person, but for the sake of human knowledge and -- for the vastness of the triumph. And yet the feat is only so evidently feasible that the sole wonder is why men have scrupled to attempt it before. One single gale such as now befriends us -- let such a tempest whirl forward a balloon for 4 or 5 days (these gales often last longer) and the voyager will be easily borne, in that period, from coast to coast. In view of such a gale the broad Atlantic becomes a mere lake.

I am more struck, just now, with the supreme silence which reigns in the sea beneath us, notwithstanding its agitation, than with any other phenomenon presenting itself. The waters give up no voice to the heavens. The immense flaming ocean writhes and is tortured uncomplainingly. The mountainous surges suggest the idea of innumerable dumb gigantic fiends struggling in impotent agony. In a night such as is this to me, a man lives -- lives a whole century of ordinary life -- nor would I forego this rapturous delight for that of a whole century of ordinary existence.

By the time the craft came within sight of Fort Moultrie, on the South Carolina coast, the winds had died down and the craft landed without incident.

The balloon as shown in The Sun article

Poe included technical information on the craft that made the alleged flight across the Atlantic:

The balloon (an ellipsoid as represented in our engraving of the model) is composed of silk, varnished with the liquid gum caoutchouc. It is of vast dimensions, containing more than 40,000 cubic feet of gas; but as coal gas was employed in place of the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen, the supporting power of the machine, when fully inflated, and immediately after inflation, is not more than about 2500 pounds. The coal gas is not only much less costly, but is easily procured and managed.

In his report for The Sun, Poe concluded:

This is unquestionably the most stupendous, the most interesting, and the most important undertaking, ever accomplished or even attempted by man. What magnificent events may ensue, it would be useless now to think of determining.

Poe delighted in the excitement generated by his "news" account of the transatlantic flight and claimed the Sun was besieged with requests for copies of the paper. "I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper," he wrote.

Two days after publishing the story, though, the newspaper was forced to print a retraction:

BALLOON - The mails from the South last Saturday night not having brought a confirmation of the arrival of the Balloon from England, the particulars of which from our correspondent we detailed in our Extra, we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous. The description of the Balloon and the voyage was written with a minuteness and scientific ability calculated to obtain credit everywhere, and was read with great pleasure and satisfaction. We by no means think such a project impossible.

Monck Mason

Thomas Monck Mason (1803 - 1889) was an actual person who had achieved fame for his ballooning. In the 1830s Mason, along with Charles Green and Robert Hollond, traveled the record distance of 500 miles in 18 hours. Mason also composed operatic works and was a professional flautist, but is best known today as the subject of Edgar Allen Poe’s 1844 media hoax.

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