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The Great Wall of China Hoax

“Fake news” is a new term, but lies and propaganda is as old as written history, spread by individuals to aggrandize oneself or smear the public image of an enemy. Then, there is yellow journalism, where newspapers rely on sensationalism and the publication of scandal-mongering articles and exaggerations of news events to increases sales and circulation. While this sort of media irresponsibility is often seen among competing newspapers, there was one time when four different newspapers colluded to publish a blatant lie. The idea was if all four newspapers published the same lie, few would question it.

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Photo credit: Photonomus/Flickr

The nefarious plan was hatched one summer evening in 1899, over drinks at the bar at Oxford Hotel in downtown Denver, Colorado. The four men involved in the plot were Al Stevens, Jack Tournay, John Lewis, and Hal Wilshire—all reporters of the four Denver newspapers—the Post, the Republican, the Times, and the Rocky Mountain News. Each had been tasked by their editors to come up with something exciting to entertain their readers with. Each had come up empty.

According to an article published by the Denver-based songwriter Harry Lee Wilber in 1939—forty years after the event—it was Al Stevens, the reporter for the Denver Republican, who suggested that they fabricate a story. Denver, at that time—the Denver Post notes—was “full of ethically challenged journalists”. The newspaper’s office in downtown Denver was known as “The Bucket of Blood” because of all the “red headlines and splashy yellow journalism” the paper painted the city with. Harry Tammen, the Post’s co-owner, was proud of it. He once said: “The public not only likes to be fooled — it insists upon it.”

Tammen bought the struggling Denver Evening Standard for $12,500 in 1895 and changed its name to Denver Post. Under his stewardship, the newspaper flourished and in three years, one in every five Denver residents were reading his paper.

Tammen’s intention, like any newspaper owner and editor of the era, was to make money, not set journalistic standards. They pounced upon every opportunity to blackmail and bully people of prominence and coerce them to secure advertising and cooperation. The Post was quick to embellish any story or stoke any flame to sell papers

That evening when Al Stevens suggested that they fabricate a story to meet their deadlines, not a single one of them saw fault in the reasoning. They all agreed and decided that instead of inventing four separate stories, they would create a single coherent lie—one that would pique the interest of the public, but that which could not be easily discredited. The four debated the idea briefly and decided to set the story on a foreign land—China. It would take weeks, if not months for anyone to debunk the story, they thought, and by then they would sell a lot of papers.

And so they came up with the story of an American engineer named Frank Lewis, who stopped over in Denver on his way to San Francisco, bound ultimately for China, where the Great Wall was to be demolished. Lewis was going to negotiate a contract with the Chinese government to tear down a part of the wall and use the pulverized stone to build a new road.

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The story was published on June 25, 1899, but for reasons unknown, the papers didn’t publish the story with a screaming headline on Page One, but tucked it inside in the middle and back pages. The Rocky Mountain News never published the news at all, despite its reporter reportedly being part of the cabal. Within a few days several other papers throughout the country picked up the story and embellished it in their own ways. The Fort Wayne Sentinel claimed that the bricks from the wall were to be used to build dikes to contain the Yangtse River. Another large newspaper claimed to have spoken to a Chinese official who confirmed the story. Only the New York Times questioned the authenticity. The paper wrote:

If there is anything which modern China can safely be assumed to regard with respect and devotion it is that famous wall, so ancient, so useless, so queer, and so inconvenient. Like most other things in China, its material is such as to preclude the idea of employing it in making things of present necessity, and that is another reason why the reported scheme is incredible and incomprehensible. And if the Chinamen had decided to destroy the noblest embodiment of Chinese instinct and policy, why shouldn't they do it themselves? Though they may lack the energy requisite for building so large and remarkable a structure, still they would have no difficulty in tearing it down.

It wasn’t until 40 years later that one of the reporters finally confessed to the scheme.

The story about the Great Wall of China hoax was given a new twist by Harry Lee Wilber in an article published in 1939, where he greatly exaggerated the tale creating essentially another hoax. Wilber claimed that the story reached China where it so angered the populace that it sparked the Boxer Rebellion—an anti-foreign, anti-colonial, and anti-Christian uprising in China that claimed the lives of 32,000 Chinese Christians and many hundred Western missionaries. Wilber’s hoax was short-lived. Only seventeen years later, it was featured in the book Great Hoaxes of All Time published in 1956.

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