Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
Edgar Allan Poe is best known by school children to be the master of horror, and the depressed writer of eerie poems. These things Edgar Poe certainly did enjoy; but in his own mind he played a greater role in other activities: as literary critic, political activist, and -- yes -- creator of hoaxes.
One of Poe's earliest hoaxes was to fool his college roommate into thinking he murdered a nearby store owner. Poe's favorite kind of hoax, however, was one which could thoroughly fool great masses of people -- especially people who think they're smart. By his own account, and those of others, the greatest satisfaction he received from constructing a hoax came from a newspaper article he wrote, now known as The Balloon Hoax
. Poe excitedly reports the effects of his hoax in The Columbia Spy
a few weeks after its publication:
[T]he "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.
Poe was, in fact, so enthused about witnessing the effects of this hoax, that he stood in front of the Sun building, telling eager buyers that the story was his own fabrication, just to see their reaction.
What was this story that fooled so many people to such an extent that buildings were blocked and newsboys became temporarily wealthy? The headline ran thus on the front page of the April 13, 1844, edition of the New York Sun
: "Astounding News by Express, viâ
Norfolk! - The Atlantic Crossed in Three Days! Signal Triumph of Mr. Monck Mason's Flying Machine! - Arrival at Sullivan's Island, near Charleston, S.C., of Mr. Mason, Mr. Robert Holland, Mr. Henson, Mr. Harrison Ainsworth, and four others, in the Steering Balloon, 'Victoria,' after a Passage of Seventy-five Hours from Land to Land! Full Particulars of the Voyage!"
Thanks to the lengthiness of the headline, the nature of Poe's hoax needs little explanation. He wrote a very detailed, and quite scientific, article on how a hot air balloon crossed the Atlantic in less than three days. It was the intense detail, it seems, that Poe wielded as his primary weapon in generating a sense of authenticity. The public, already awed by the transformative power of the railroad, and deeply impressed by a growing awareness of science's never-ending collection of "facts," readily believed Poe's balloon story, as if the event were inevitable (though the Atlantic wasn't crossed non-stop by air until 1927). An entire third of Poe's article is dedicated to describing the material and mechanical design of the "Victoria." We are told the types and dimensions of fabrics and woods, the capacity of the gas chamber, and, among many
other things, Mr. Mason's precise method of employing an Archimedean screw, composed of brass and steel, as a propeller. It is evident that Edgar Poe took great pains in researching balloon technology (the first hot air balloon took flight in 1783) in preparation for the article. As he himself attests to the scientific correctness of his hoax: "As for internal evidence of falsehood, there is, positively, none
Poe's amazing comprehension of the technology of his time was, no doubt, a great source of pride. Using that scientific mastery to fool people who thought that they, also, understood modern technology, was an even greater source of pride. Poe triumphantly comments, in his report on the hoax, that the so-called intelligent subsection of the population fell for his Balloon Hoax
more readily than the common "rabble." He must have laughed when he imagined the "intelligent" readers reading over this sentence in the article: "This [balloon] model... excited very little interest in comparison with the previous complex machine of Mr. Henson -- so resolute is the world to despise any thing which carries with it an air of simplicity." The readers themselves were being fooled by their own desire to despise simplicity -- by their thirst for the almost uncomprehendingly complex! By inserting a clue which unveils the key strategy used in creating the hoax, in the hoax itself, Poe increased the foolishness of those who were hoaxed.
It was Poe's passionate sense of humor that drove him to ceaselessly think up an array of hoaxes and practical jokes throughout his life. His tricks, in fact, often coincided with his morbidness. It therefore happens that it is difficult to discover which of Poe's tales were written with solemnity, and which were written with a devious smile. We can be sure, however, that The Balloon Hoax
was written with a prominent, and complex, smile.