Edgar Allan Poe and the Creation of "Fake News"

America’s premier writer of the supernatural, horror and detective fiction, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe, arrived in New York City with just $4.50 in his pockets. The fact that a great writer was walking around nearly destitute should come as little surprise since it often seems as if only the worst writers in American are rewarded monetarily. But that’s another story. It was April 1844 and the man who wrote “The Raven” and The Fall of the House of Usher and created the entire genre of the detective novel once again found himself on the far side of the divide between those who have and those who have not. American ingenuity and the ability to fool most of the people all of the time led to one of the strangest connections between necessity and the ability to pull the wool over people’s eyes in American history. And I ain’t talking about Orson Welles’ War of the World broadcast.

Edgar Allan Poe was, like many writers, keen on making an impact on the world’s stage. Even back in 1844 the greatest way to make a living as a writer was to become a celebrity first. If you can manage to become famous it really doesn’t matter whether you can write or not; and if you can write, like Mr. Edgar Allan Poe most certainly could, then you have the chance to become Dolly Parton rich. And so that April in New York witnessed Poe walk into the offices of the New York Sun and make an audacious offer. He would write a story, entirely bogus, that purported to tell the real story of an Irish balloonist who had managed the amazing and unprecedented feat of crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

The New York Sun being an American paper, they quickly agreed. Why not? The greatest word in the world of journalism at the time was once you have heard in a hundred movies. Poe’s story would be a scoop. And there ain’t never been a media outlet in American history who hasn’t taken the time to juggle the thrill of getting a scoop against the downside of telling a lie. Fox News is perhaps the only media entity in America that never even has to juggle the morality of this sword of Damocles hanging over a Gordian knot. They go with the false scoop every time.

Edgar Allan Poe set his prodigious talent to work and because he was a professional he did not skimp on the authenticity. He managed to procure the actual name of a real life Irish aeronaut. The story that he produced detailed how this man set off from Wales and landed in South Carolina, the land of fantasies and eager dreams. But what made Edgar Allan Poe the genius that he was lies in Poe’s decision to add one beautiful little touch to the story that 99% of writers would never have come up with. Poe decided that his amazing story of a balloon crossing the Atlantic would have occurred entirely by accident!

Poe wrote that the original destination was Paris, France and that the Irish balloonist only landed thousands of miles off course by accident. You see, that’s the kind of little thing that makes all the difference in the world. That’s the kind of detail that those making up the ridiculous stories about Barack Obama are not nearly intelligent enough to come up with. On April 13, 1844 the New York Sun blared forth the headline and asserted that it was astounding news.

On the morning of April 13, Edgar Allan Poe was one of those people standing in the offices of the New York Sun looking down at mad crowds scrambling to scoop (there’s that word again) up the copies of this extraordinary feat. The New York Sun’s circulation jumped for a few days, but the story, which went down in literary history as the Balloon Hoax, transformed Poe into a romantic legend of some renown and did far more for his career than it did for the New York Sun.