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A Journalists' Favorite Hoax: Petrifications

Historians are familiar with a few of the media's hoaxes, especially the hoaxes published by famous dailies on the East Coast. Newspapers, however, have published thousands of hoaxes. Most of the hoaxes have been lost or forgotten, especially the minor hoaxes published by smaller papers -- including weeklies -- in the South and West.

Journalists created hoaxes to entertain and fool their readers. Journalists also wanted to beat their rivals: to create interesting, exciting (and exclusive) stories for their readers. Before the invention of the telegraph, journalists also created some hoaxes for a more practical reason: to help fill the empty spaces in their papers.

It was difficult, however, for journalists to create hoaxes about topics that were truly new. Newspapers published too many of the hoaxes, and journalists' experiences -- and imaginations -- were limited. Thus, while creating a hoax, most journalists selected a familiar topic: a topic they had already thought or read about.

Journalists created hundreds of hoaxes about unusual animals, often monsters. Journalists created other hoaxes about natural phenomena: earthquakes, tornadoes and volcanoes, for example. While writing about the topics, journalists tried to surpass their rivals. If journalists decided to write about a monster, for example, they tried to create a monster that was bigger, louder and more dangerous than any of the monsters described by their rivals.

Petrifications were another popular topic, especially among editors in the West. Stories about petrified men became so common that Mark Twain tried to stop them. Predictably, Twain failed. Stories about unusual petrifications continued to appear for years after his death. One of the last stories appeared in a Wisconsin weekly. Typically, the story has reappeared dozens of times since then, often as a factual account of a genuine event.

The phenomenon is a common one. When journalists create a hoax, no matter how preposterous, some readers will believe it. Moreover, other journalists will notice and reprint the story, not knowing (or perhaps caring) that the details are fictitious. For years after that, Americans browsing through old newspapers will find copies of it, and other media will reprint the copies. Thus, a good hoax may continue to appear and reappear for 50 or even 100 years. Unfortunately, it is difficult, often impossible, for historians to determine who created the hoax and which newspaper was the first to publish it. Three of my favorite petrification hoaxes follow:


The Petrification of a Human

A San Francisco paper, the Alta, published a story about one of the West's most unusual petrifications. The story appeared in 1858 and was written in the form of a letter. The author, Dr. Friedrich Lichtenberger, said he had witnessed a death so shocking the he wanted to warn everyone about it.

Dr. Lichtenberger explained that a Prussian named Ernest Flucterspiegel had accompanied him on an expedition that began in San Francisco. Because of a storm, they were forced to camp near a small stream. It was still early, Dr. Lichtenberger continued, and several members of the expedition decided to look for gold. They failed to find any of the valuable ore but amused themselves by breaking open geodes: rounded masses of quartz with hollow centers. The geodes varied in size from a few inches to several feet in diameter, and some contained a transparent fluid. Most, however, contained so little of the fluid that it never attracted much attention.

Flucterspiegel found a geode containing a half pint of liquid, and he promptly swallowed it. While returning to their camp, Flucterspiegel complained of a pain in the epigastric and left hypochondriac regions. By the time Flucterspiegel reached their camp, he was speechless. The doctor laid him in a bed, much alarmed, but not guessing the cause of his illness. Attempts to make Flucterspiegel swallow some brandy failed. Cold beads of sweat covered his face. His pulse was feeble, and his heartbeat violent and irregular. In 15 minutes he was dead.

A companion informed Dr. Lichtenberger that Flucterspiegel had swallowed the fluid in the geode, and the doctor concluded that it was some sort of mineral poison. He could not, however, conceive of any poison which acted so rapidly, nor caused such peculiar symptoms.

The doctor observed an unusual rigidity in Flucterspiegel's limbs. It increased minute by minute, "until in the course of two-and-one-half hours the victim's entire body became stiff and inflexible as a board."

The doctor decided to conduct a post mortem examination. He assumed that the cause of death was some poisonous substance in the geode and proceeded at once to examine the victim's stomach and part of his intestines. As Dr. Lichtenberger made the initial incision, his knife created a grating sensation, and he noticed Flucterspiegel's smaller blood vessels were solid and apparently ossified. The doctor then removed Flucterspiegel's stomach. Upon slitting it open, he found several masses as hard as the hardest quartz. The doctor also removed some muscle and lumps of undigested potatoes, all equally hard. The contents of Flucterspiegel's stomach had turned to stone.

The doctor next cut an opening in the victim's chest and discovered that his heart was a natural color, but hard as a piece of red jasper. Dr. Lichtenberger used a small hatchet to separate the heart from its connections and, with some difficulty, broke it in pieces. "The larger blood vessels were all as rigid as pipe stems," he reported, "and in some cases the petrified blood could be cracked out from the veins"

For future investigation, Dr. Lichtenberger saved portions of Flucterspiegel's petrified food and bile, as well as pieces of his heart, lungs and blood vessels. Members of the expedition then buried Flucterspiegel's remains on a little island, erecting stones to mark the spot.

After returning to Fort Langley, Dr. Lichtenberger examined the specimens he saved. He applied nitric, sulfuric and hydrochloric acids, but nothing seemed to have any effect whatever on the petrified blood. After various experiments, Dr. Lichtenberger prepared a small quantity of fluorhydric acid, and this, to his great satisfaction, acted upon it rapidly. It also acted upon the contents ofFlucterspiegel's stomach and heart. After still more tests, the whole question resolved itself in the doctor's mind. He concluded that the liquid which Flucterspiegel consumed contained an immense quantity of silicic acid, and that the acid caused a petrification of certain substances within his body.


Mark Twain's First Hoax

Mark Twain moved to Nevada in 1861 but failed as a miner looking for silver and gold. Twain submitted several articles to the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City and was promptly offered a job on its staff. The Enterprise was already one of the best papers in the West. Its editor-in-chief, Joseph T. Goodman, employed a talented staff and encouraged his reporters to write interesting features, including hoaxes.

Twain's first hoax, "A Petrified Man," appeared a few weeks after he began to work for the paper. Twain reported that a petrified man, about 100 years old, had been found nearby. Every limb and feature was perfectly preserved, Twain wrote, even the manÕs left leg, which had evidently been a wooden one. Twain added that water dripping down the man's back deposited a limestone sediment that glued the man's mummified remains to the rock upon which he sat. A Justice "Sewell" or "Sowell" rushed to the spot to conduct an inquest and determined that the man died from protracted exposure, Twain concluded.

Twain had two reasons for creating the hoax. First, he wanted to ridicule a fad: journalists' frequent creation of stories about petrifications. Twain explained that: "One could scarcely pick up a paper without finding in it one or two glorified discoveries of this kind. The mania was becoming a little ridiculous. I was a brand-new local editor in Virginia City, and I felt called upon to destroy this growing evilŠ I chose to kill the petrification mania with a delicate, a very delicate satire."

Twain also wanted revenge. He was mad at the region's new coroner and Justice of the Peace, a man named "Sewall." TwainÕs hoax portrayed Sewall as a fool who rushed to the scene to learn what caused the death of a man who had been dead (and turned to stone) for 100 years. While writing the hoax, Twain refused to even spell Sewall's name correctly.

Like other journalists, Twain was surprised by the public's response to his hoax; by the fact that many of his readers believed it.


Wisconsin Petrified Man

Manley Hinshaw created Wisconsins' most successful hoax and, typically, fooled readers throughout the United States. Other journalists have continued to reprint Hinshaw's story for more than 60 years -- and their readers continue to believe it. On January 21, 1926, Hinshaw's story appeared on the front page of a small weekly: the Rusk County Journal. It reported that two loggers had found the remains of a French explorer lost in 1663. The explorer had been trapped inside a basswood tree, and his body had become petrified there. Now, it was being sent to the State Historical Society in Madison.

Hinshaw apparently wrote the story because he needed something to fill an empty space in that weeks edition of the Journal. Local readers realized that it was a hoax but had also read Hinshaw's earlier stories, including a story about an inventor who extracted static electricity from the air, then used the electricity to run a large motor.

Other newspapers, even a national news agency, picked up Hinshaw's story about the petrified explorer, and reprinted it as truth. As a result, people as far away as Oregon sent the Journal a flood of letters and telegrams, asking for more details and photographs.

Readers who wanted to see the mummified remains drove to the State Historical Society's museum in Madison. An expert insisted that the remains had not been brought to the museum and probably never would be. The expert explained that, to be petrified -- to be turned to stone -- a body's decaying cells would have to be replaced by mineral matter. And it was impossible for the sap in a basswood tree to carry that type of mineral matter to a decaying body.

Other journalists find Hinshaw's story while paging through old editions looking for stories to reprint in their newspapers' "Yesteryear" columns. The columns reprint stories 5 to 50 years old. Some, however, reprint stories 100 years old. In 1976, the 50th anniversary of Wisconsin's most famous hoax, the Ladysmith News received a flurry of letters, apparently as a result of the storys' republication in the column. The Ladysmith News received more letters in 1981, the storys' 55th anniversary.

A book published in 1982 added to the publics' confusion. The book, Wisconsin's Famous and Historic Trees, reprinted Hinshaw's story without explaining that it was a hoax. In 1984, a newspaper copied Hinshaw's story from the book The story goes as follows:

"Recently a firm in Chippewa Falls acquired a tract of land near here. Monday morning two employees of the firm, Art Charpin and Walter Latsch of Owen, set about clearing the land for their company.

"They noticed a large basswood, and felled it. Even though it had a large home some 30 feet above the ground, it looked like good timber. Monday afternoon they struck their saws into the basswood at a point where they expected a cut would give them a 20-foot log and eliminate the portion affected by the large hole. All went well until about half way through the log the saw stuck in a rock. Latsch and Charpin cursed because they knew their saw blade would be dulled.

"After some labor, the men turned the tree trunk over and began a cut on the other side. Before long the same difficulty was encountered, but by turning the trunk about, the cut was finally completed, and the log rolled away, revealing what threw the men into a bad fright.

"There, staring up at them, was the ashen face of a man. And there, encased in the living trunk of the tree, was the entire body of a man, fully clothed in a coarse homespun and buckskins, which fell away when touched, and the head had been covered with long hair which had been tucked up under a Coonskin cap. With the mummified body in the hollow tree was an old muzzle-loading flintlock rifle and a muzzle-loading pistol of fanciful design."



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