The Great Balloon Hoax

No, I am not talking about that family who pretended their little boy was caught in a homemade balloon to get a reality show.  This was perpetrated by none other than the great author, Edgar Allan Poe.  (For more on him, please see this post: )

Poe brought the New York Sun and exciting account of balloonist, Monck Mason.  He claimed Mason was famous in Europe and had successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a mere seventy-five hours.  This was done by using the first steam powered airship, invented by William Samuel Henson.  Originally the journey was supposed to be between London and Paris, but was blown far off course.  Poe even supplied the Sun with an illustration of the “Steering Balloon Victoria”, the vessel in which Mason made his amazing journey.  The Sun excitedly printed the story in a broadside, or extra page, in the midday issue of its April 13, 1844.  It included excerpts from one of the navigators and ended abruptly after the Victoria’s sighting off the coast of North Carolina.  Unfortunately for the New York Sun, it was all a fabrication.

Poe loved pranks, and may have been inspired by a prior journalistic hoax called the “Great Moon Hoax”.  It had also been published in the New York Sun almost ten years prior.  This hoax was possibly the brainchild of Poe’s editor, Richard Adams Locke.  Poe was convinced Locke had used one of his stories, “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall”, and may have tried to use this get back at the Sun.  It was an elaborate hoax.  Monck Mason was a real person who had recently ballooned from London to Weilburg, Germany and published an account in 1837.  This was what Poe used to pen his fictional account.  He also used the frontispiece of an anonymous 1843 pamphlet, thought to be written by Mason, as the basis for the illustration of the Victoria.  The Sun bought it hook line and sinker.

The next day, Poe stood on the steps of the Sun’s building in New York City proclaiming the story to be a fake.  Crowds don’t seem to pay him much mind, however.  To gain more attention, he writes an account of the hoax for the rival paper, the Columbia Spy.  He describes his announcement of the hoax to be a bit more impressive than it actually was:

“On the morning (Saturday) of its announcement, the whole square surrounding the ‘Sun’ building was literally besieged, blocked up—ingress and egress being alike impossible, from a period soon after sunrise until about two o’clock P.M…. I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper. As soon as the few first copies made their way into the streets, they were bought up, at almost any price, from the news-boys, who made a profitable speculation beyond doubt. I saw a half-dollar given, in one instance, for a single paper, and a shilling was a frequent price. I tried, in vain, during the whole day, to get possession of a copy.”

After the Poe’s article in the Columbia Spy, the Sun was forced to print a retraction two days later.