Edgar Allan Poe and the Great Balloon Hoax

An excerpt from HOAX: A HISTORY OF DECEPTION by Ian Tattersall and Peter Nevraumont


The morning of Saturday, April 13, 1844, readers of the New York Sun awoke to headlines blaring “ASTOUNDING NEWS!…THE ATLANTIC CROSSED IN THREE DAYS! This then-almost-unimaginable feat had been achieved in a “flying-machine…employing the principle of the Archimedean screw for the purposes of propulsion through the air.”

The story that followed contained a painfully detailed account of how a gas-filled, airship-shaped balloon carrying an astounding eight passengers, among them the celebrated English balloonist Thomas Monck Mason, had been accidentally blown across the Atlantic following a failure of its spring-driven and windmill-like propellers.

Conveniently, the vessel was said to have made landfall on a remote island off the coast of South Carolina, far away from easy journalistic verification.

This was big news in the balloon-mad city of New York, which considered itself the gateway to America. The first balloon flight ever launched from Manhattan had taken off more than fi ve decades earlier (on August 7, 1789), and balloon rides had subsequently become a routine form of daredevil amusement for the city’s more affluent citizens.

Nonetheless, in 1844 ballooning was still in its infancy as a form of practical transportation. The farthest a balloon had ever traveled was the fi ve hundred miles claimed for a voyage between the English port of Dover and the German city of Weilburg in 1835, by a craft piloted by none other than Monck Mason. The aviator’s new achievement of a flight seven times as long now promised great things for America’s Gateway.

The excitement, alas, didn’t last. On April 15, just two days after the story had broken, it was retracted, purportedly on the basis that it couldn’t be confirmed. But, more informally, the story goes that on the very day of its publication the story’s drunken author had shown up in front of the Sun’s building in downtown Manhattan and had begun loudly warning a gathering crowd that he had faked the whole thing. Apparently, nobody much was listening. As he himself later wrote: “The Sun building was literally besieged.…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.”

The author in question was no ordinary faker. He was the struggling writer Edgar Allan Poe, who had arrived in New York a scant week earlier, reporting in a letter to his mother that he was down to his last $4.50. The $50 the Sun is said to have paid Poe for his article would thus seem to have been a more than adequate reason for writing it in the first place (or, more accurately, for plagiarizing most of it from sources such as Mason’s own account of his epic Dover–Weilburg flight). Desperate for cash, Poe could have just grabbed the money and left. So why would he have taken the initiative in denouncing his own fabrication?

Part of the reason is undoubtedly that Poe, a man whose emotions often trumped his moral principles, harbored a strong resentment toward the Sun and its editor. This grudge had originated with a highly fantastical series of articles the paper had published nine years earlier. These alleged that, using a revolutionary new telescope from the new vantage point of South Africa, the English astronomer Sir John Herschel had seen winged but otherwise humanlike creatures walking on the surface of the moon, along with a whole bestiary of other creatures. The series was a sensational success, and the circulation of the Sun zoomed from some 2,500 to 19,000 copies per issue, at the time a world record.

Poe’s problem was not with the fact that the series was entirely fraudulent—although never formally retracted, it became legendary as the “Great Moon Hoax”—but with his belief that the hugely profitable idea for it had been plagiarized from him without compensation. Only two months earlier, he had published a short story, “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall,” which consisted mainly of a supposedly autobiographical manuscript by an individual who had contrived to visit the moon using a hot-air balloon. Poe clearly felt taken advantage of by the editors of the Sun, and even somewhat upstaged by them, notwithstanding that he had himself plagiarized some of the circumstantial detail in his story from Herschel’s writings.

Still, why did Poe wait nine years to take his revenge? Maybe we can fi nd a clue in his 1850 short story “The Imp of the Perverse,” in which he explores the murkiness of human motivations. With astounding circumlocution, Poe’s protagonist describes an inexplicable, “radical,” and “primitive” impulse that is sometimes “absolutely irresistible,” and forces one to “act without a comprehensible object.” Gradually it becomes clear that the narrator is describing his own predicament, as he “peer[s] into the abyss [growing] sick and dizzy,” and realizes that he is “one of the many uncounted victims” of this impulse, the voice in his brain that is compelling him to confess a murder committed many years before. And although he realizes “I am safe—I am safe—yes—if I be not fool enough to make open confession,” eventually, with pounding heart and constricted lungs, “the long imprisoned secret burst forth from my soul.”

Poe has surely put his finger here on an aspect of the human psyche that bears heavily on the experience of any fraudster, even if he or she is the only person who knows—or even could know—that fraud has been committed. For only the most pathological of liars could remain entirely oblivious to the inchoate feeling that Poe describes. It may well be the imp of the perverse that explains why he stood on the steps of the Sun building that morning in 1844, confessing his fraudulence to an unheeding crowd who only wanted to enjoy the lie. And it also probably explains why he was drunk when he did it.



Excerpted from HOAX: A HISTORY OF DECEPTION—5,000 YEARS OF FAKES, FORGERIES, AND FALLACIES by Ian Tattersall and Peter Nevraumont.  Copyright © 2018 by Ian Tattersall and Peter N. Nevraumont. Used with permission.