“Fake news” isn’t really anything new. Robert Darnton points out in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books that “the concoction of alternative facts is hardly rare, and the equivalent of today’s poisonous, bite-size texts and tweets can be found in most periods of history, going back to the ancients.”
As noted previously in this blog, in his early career as a journalist Mark Twain dabbled in this ignoble practice himself. He confessed in a speech he gave to the Monday Evening Club in 1873 that as a reporter he had published “vicious libels upon people” for which he “ought to have been hanged.”
Twain was well acquainted with the sensationalized “click bait” form of “fake news” as well, the kind that distorts real events or even fabricates them entirely. “I know from personal experience the proneness of journalists to lie,” he told the Monday Evening Club. “I once started a peculiar and picturesque fashion of lying myself on the Pacific coast, and it is not dead there to this day.”
Among the most notorious of Twain’s hoaxes was a distant cousin, perhaps, of Kellyanne Conway’s “Bowling Green Massacre.” “A Bloody Massacre Near Carson” appeared in Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise in October 1863. Although as an increasingly notorious frontier journalist, Twain had published other spurious stories (such as one about a petrified man found eternally thumbing his nose in the wilds of Nevada), it was the gruesome massacre hoax that would be the most troublesome for him.
The account involves an actual frontiersman named Philip Hopkins who (according to Twain’s article) goes insane and murders his wife and most of his nine children. In Twain’s increasingly graphic account,
Hopkins dashed into Carson on horseback, with his throat cut from ear to ear, and bearing in his hand a reeking scalp from which the warm, smoking blood was still dripping, and fell in a dying condition in front of the Magnolia saloon. Hopkins expired in the course of five minutes, without speaking. The long red hair of the scalp he bore marked it as that of Mrs. Hopkins.
Twain goes on to describe in disturbing detail the “ghastly scene” that the sheriff and citizens of Carson discover at the Hopkins’ household:
The scalpless corpse of Mrs. Hopkins lay across the threshold, with her head split open and her right hand almost severed from the wrist. Near her lay the ax with which the murderous deed had been committed. In one of the bedrooms six of the children were found, one in bed and the others scattered about the floor. They were all dead. Their brains had evidently been dashed out with a club, and every mark about them seemed to have been made with a blunt instrument.
Not surprisingly, the shocking story went viral. Other newspapers picked it up and reprinted the hoax massacre as fact. Lost amid all the blood-soaked prose, however, was the actual intention Twain had for fabricating the story, which he regrettably buried at the end of his article.
The details are a bit convoluted, but basically Twain meant for his gory story to be a satire of a real-life stock-cooking scheme happening at the time involving San Francisco newspapers and utilities companies. In Twain’s over-the-top spoof, peppered with intentionally glaring errors, the securities scheme was what triggered Hopkins (who was actually unmarried and still very much alive) to go on his murderous rampage. But the satirical attack on unethical stock manipulators was lost on most of Twain’s readers, who were fixated on the horrific details of the non-existent slaughter of Hopkins’ made-up family.
Twain wrote a retraction and offered his resignation to the Enterprise’s editor, who refused to accept it, but the massacre hoax seriously damaged his reputation as a reporter for a time. His writing career would rebound, of course, but the incident left its philosophical mark on him, and he would ruminate on it for years to come. In “My Famous ‘Bloody Massacre’”, published ten years after the original hoax, Twain concluded,
The idea that anybody could ever take my massacre for a genuine occurrence never once suggested itself to me, hedged about as it was by all those telltale absurdities and impossibilities…But I found out then, and never have forgotten since, that we never read the dull explanatory surroundings of marvelously exciting things when we have no occasion to suppose that some irresponsible scribbler is trying to defraud us; we skip all that, and hasten to revel in the blood-curdling particulars and be happy.
I believe this insight would go on to haunt Twain for the rest of his life. A recurring theme throughout his body of work involves the eager propensity we humans have for believing the “marvelously exciting” narratives imposters use to dupe us, despite the “telltale absurdities and impossibilities.” It’s a theme that remains critically relevant in today’s so-called “post-truth” world as our ability to navigate tumultuous times seems to be marred by increasingly blurred distinctions between what is false and what is true.
Twain knew about the dire toll such moral obscurity can take. As he has Hank Morgan realize near the end of Connecticut Yankee, when the narrator is succumbing to an ever darkening and incoherent world of his own making, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”