Balloon boy story is right out of Edgar Allan Poe


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The Balloon Boy story may have been a hoax, but it if was, the Heene family is in good company. No less than Edgar Allan Poe had an entirely fictional account of a balloon voyage published in 1844 in the Sun newspaper. The Guardian writes:

The New York Sun published a breathless account of a great step for mankind: ‘The air, as well as the earth and the ocean, has been subdued by science, and will become a common and convenient highway for mankind . . . The Atlantic has been actually crossed in a balloon . . . and in the inconceivably brief period of 75 hours from shore to shore!’ In a precursor of the reality shows to which the Heenes apparently aspired, the Sun ran excerpts from the faked diary of the Victoria’s navigators, which ended just after their ‘sighting’ off the coast of South Carolina. (In reality, the Atlantic would not be crossed by a balloon until 75 years later, when the rather less romantically named British dirigible R-34 landed in New York City after an 108-hour flight.)The account was cooked up by Edgar Allan Poe, a hoax-lover in an age of hoax-lovers; he perpetrated five others. Poe seems to have rather enjoyed the fuss: ‘On the morning (Saturday) of its announcement,’ he later wrote in the Columbia Spy, ‘the whole square surrounding the Sun building was literally besieged, blocked up from a period soon after sunrise until about two o'clock PM . . . I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper. . . I tried, in vain, during the whole day, to get possession of a copy.’


Edgar Allan Poe’s relationship to the Sun may not have always been so amicable. In the book ‘The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York,’ author Matthew Goodman recounts tension between the now-famous author and the editor of the Sun, Richard Adams Locke. Locke published a report of supposed moon discoveries: Apparently it was home to poppy fields, unicorns and creatures that were part-man, part-bat. The city, except for Poe, went wild. Our reviewer Jim Ruland wrote:

Apparently, Poe’s short story ‘Hans Phaall -- A Tale,’ which recounts one explorer’s unintentional visit to the moon, was printed shortly before Locke’s series ran. Upset that Locke’s story became an international sensation while his did not, Poe -- a notorious plagiarist -- was convinced that Locke had stolen the idea from him.

It seems as if fiction and hoax creation are not-too-distant cousins: Hoaxes are just fictions that people don’t know are untrue. Maybe it’s not surprising that Poe tried his hand at both.

-- Carolyn Kellogg