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The Six Hoaxes of Edgar Allan Poe

American master of horror fiction

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe's Illustrious Career

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) American writer, poet, and literary critic, was talented, eccentric, and an alcoholic. A short story entitled The Purloined Letter, published in 1844, earned him the distinction as father of the detective story. The Murders in the Rue Morgue, published in 1841, three years earlier, introduced Poe's popular detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Some literary critics regard it as the first detective story.

Literary judges awarded Poe $50 for his story, MS. Found in a Bottle. He was the winning contestant. The Baltimore Saturday Visitor published it October 19,1833.

Poe developed his own stories and became a harsh book critic for the Southern Literary Messenger. Anthologist and editor, Rufus Griswold, was angry Poe wrote a bad review of his The Poets and Poetry of America; Poe insisted Griswold included mediocre poets in "the January 1843 edition of The Philadelphia Saturday Museum." After Poe's death, Griswold wrote a defaming biography that highlighted Poe's characteristics in the worst light. He was motivated by great hatred towards the poet and invented numerous lies, a couple of examples, Poe was expelled from the University of Virginia because he was mentally unstable and careless, he also accused Poe of deserting the army.

The Evening Mirror published Poe's dark poem, The Raven, January 29, 1845. The New York publication had changed it's name, previously entitled The New York Mirror from 1823-1842. In 1845, the poem was reprinted in American Review and The Liberator, gaining enormous attention. It helped him became famous in America and all over the world.

American actor, Vincent Price, and director, Roger Corman helped popularize many of Poe’s finest tales; motion picture adaptations appeared in the early 1960's, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of Red Death, and Tales of Terror included his short story, The Black Cat.

New York loved sensational exhibitions


The hot air balloon illustration

Design sketch of Balloon Victoria

Design sketch of Balloon Victoria

The first hot air balloon to cross the Atlantic

Double Eagle II 1978 Atlantic crossing

Double Eagle II 1978 Atlantic crossing

Invasion of Martians radio broadcast

In 1938, Orson Welles frightened people by dramatizing H.G. Wells,” War of the Worlds.” Broadcast over radio at the Mercury Theater, again, New Yorkers' and people of New Jersey, were over excited about an incredible event, invasion of Martians.

The Balloon Hoax of 1844 amazes New York Sun readers

The fictitious imaginary tale was written with a scientific nonfiction style and people were fooled into thinking a floating balloon crossed the Atlantic Ocean. New Yorkers lined up outside the Sun building and wanted to purchase newspaper copies of the story. No one had seen hot air balloons launched over their area during the time. The Balloon Hoax caused the reading public to overact because they were enthusiastic about technological progress. They wanted to believe Mr. Monck Mason had actually navigated a hot air balloon across the Atlantic Ocean in 75 hours.

This story took place in a time when telegraphs had not been invented yet. Many stories were not substantiated by fact soon enough. In spite of that fact, the hoax only lasted one day.

Readers of the Sun were fooled into thinking Balloon Victoria embarked to Paris from England. Navigators had difficulty with their propeller and their balloon was forced by heavy winds to drift toward the Atlantic Ocean until they were able to land on Sullivan Island, an area near South Carolina.

Why New Yorkers believed the Victoria Balloon journey was a documented event.

The Sun’s promotion of the event looked like the billing of a P.T. Barnum circus poster. Certain words were emphasized in large bold letters. In 1842, Barnum met 25 inch and five year-old midget, Charles Sherwood Stratton. Barnum visited his Bridgeport, Connecticut home, and with support from Charles' father, the kid was nick named Tom Thumb. In 1843, Tom Thumb and Barnum toured America. Tom Thumb was trained to perform, crack jokes, and impersonated Napoleon. In 1844, they toured England and performed for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace.

Poe named his fictitious balloon, Victoria, an interesting choice. Barnum’s circus museum was located in New York City. The people had a hunger for sensationalism.

The opening of Poe’s story establishes the characters' immediate situation. The balloon navigators were able to relay details of the expedition through their agent, Mr. Forsyth. It implied to readers that an investigative reporter had exclusive knowledge to a private event.

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The characters Mr. Monck Mason and Robert Holland were credible explorers. In 1836, they navigated a hot air balloon originating from London to Weilburg, Germany. The following year, Mason wrote about his detailed journey in a travel log book, entitled Account of the Late Aeronautical Expedition from London to Weilburg.

The Sun published passages from a make-believe diary written by Victoria navigators. The fictitious account reported that a hot air balloon was spotted near the coast of South Carolina. Edgar Allan Poe adapted The Balloon Hoax from a regular diary that belonged to Mr. Monck Mason and Mr. Henry Ainsworth. Poe used them as a reference point; they were authorities on the construction and aviation of hot air balloons. It helped convey the illusion of authenticity.

There is no doubt people were impressed with the illustration that appeared in the article, Steering Balloon Victoria. Poe sketched the illustration from an 1843 pamphlet that was entitled Remarks on the Ellipsoidal Balloon, propelled by the Archimedean Screw, described as the New Aerial Machine.

Poe’s writing style was ingenious. He carefully considered wind velocity’s effect on his ellipsoidal balloon and stressed the importance of its measurement and weight. He occasionally made reference to the 8 travelers boarding Balloon Victoria. Strong winds made them all vote on changing directional navigation. The narrator constantly checked on the balloon’s navigational instruments, propeller, guiding rope, turning screw, vanes, and ballasts. Readers were able to identify with the characters on board.

Any kind of flight was amazing to New Yorkers' at the time. Floating vehicles such as hot air balloons were experimented with before airplanes. The first zeppelin airship was constructed in 1900. The Wright brothers flew the first airplane three years later. Alcock and Brown were British aviators and successfully embarked on a non-stop flight over the Atlantic Ocean in 1919. But it wasn't until 1978, that Double Eagle II became the first non-powered balloon navigated by man through a 6 day flight across the Atlantic Ocean. It achieved the altitude that Poe had boasted about in his story, 25,000 feet.

The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall (June 1835)

Poe’s first attempt to fool people failed. He wrote about a man who studied revolutionary balloon navigation. He constructed a scientific vacuum device that enabled him and kittens to breath atmosphere in space. Pfaall flew to the moon to escape his creditors. The penniless bellows-mender lived with lunar people for five years and sent one of them to earth on another balloon to deliver a note for him. The thief wanted the Burgomaster to pardon him for murdering three annoying creditors in exchange for his incredible tale. But the Lunar messenger stood only two feet tall and feared all people standing on earth; he navigated his balloon back up into the clouds.

Poe's story was published in the Southern Literary Messenger. He joked around hoping the public would think an actual note was dropped from a floating balloon and sent by a moon traveler. Poe was outdone by another moon hoax published by the New York Sun, The Great Moon Hoax of 1835. The Sun announced to readers that life was discovered on the moon. A super powerful telescope was invented. Astronomer, Sir John Herschel, detected insect life on the moon and winged bat-men. The bat-men appeared in the production of lithographic prints purchased by the public. The story's successful publicity influenced Poe to abandon his moon travel stories. He understood the public wasn't deceived by his "tone of banter." Teunissen and Hinz claim in their article Poe's The Journal of Jules Rodman as a Parody that Poe's "elaborate puns on titles and names make the work too obviously a hoax."

Poe criticized The Great Moon Hoax. He claimed the moon description terminology couldn't have been written by an authentic astronomer. Later on, Poe enjoyed a good laugh with his fictitious story, The Balloon Hoax of 1844, published by the same publication.

A criminal flies to the moon in a vacuum balloon

Illustration of The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall

Illustration of The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1837)

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is a strange novel and made people feel they read fiction. Arthur Gordon Pym is a polar explorer. He believes the earth is hollow and occupied by another civilization. He heard lectures from newspaper editor, Jeremiah N. Reynold, explore the credibility of "hollow-earth theorists John Cleves Symmes." Poe was also inspired by the polar traveling Wilkes Expedition and their plans to embark on a voyage through South America and Antarctica during the late 1830's. Southern Literary Messenger published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym as serialized fiction in 1837. Poe republished it in novel form and included a preface, Pym's adventure was an actual nonfiction narrative.

Literary critics weren't thrilled with Poe's first complete novel; they thought it was too repugnant and they accused him of plagiarism.

Poe wrote excellent scientific descriptions in his story. Pym gave insight about penguins and albatross birds viewed on Kerguelen Land. Precise navigational coordinates about sailing vessel's location in the ocean were always noted; each of the ships were described with great visual imagery.

Poe's novel included shark attacks, mutiny, three shipwrecks, rescue, and encounters with black savages that betrayed Pym and his men aboard a Captain's ship.

Poe does an excellent job writing about struggling conflicts that ocean voyagers suffer and the nonfiction aspects of the story are solid. But Poe wasn't considered the best american horror writer for nothing. The first boat Pym embarks on becomes a total wreck. Severe weather conditions effect the sea. Pym and a few companions are dying of thirst and hunger. They practically cling to their life on a raft! Pym gets excited about sighting an upcoming Dutch trading ship. But he smells revolting decay. He recognizes a figure standing next to the bow ropes near a catwalk. As the ship comes within twenty feet of them, Pym's crew get a close-up view of a large sea gull feasting on the man's face. The corpse falls overboard into the ocean and Pym sees that the man's eyes are hollow and the face has no flesh. A cargo of around thirty dead corpses are on board the Dutch ship and many are female. Pym thinks they perished because of yellow fever or some unknown illness.

Pym's personal struggle for lack of food and water is sustained throughout the entire novel. The Boston ship can't survive furious gales and many men and provisions are thrown overboard. Pym and his four companions take turns being lowered down a damaged storeroom to bring up provisions. They're able to bring up bottled olives, a bottle of wine, and a large partly spoiled ham. Pym is cautious eating the ham; he knows it will make him terribly thirsty and water is scarce. Critics considered Pym's voyage and personal struggle too far fetched, it defied belief.

At one point in the story, Parker suggested one of the four surviving members sacrifice himself for the good of the team. Pym was appalled by the suggestion but thoughtfully opened up to it. Parker considered cannibalism but drew the shortest stick. The reading public were horrified about the concept of cannibalism and especially in the late 1830's.

The novel ends on a fantastical suggestion. Pym and Peters escape a black native tribe that plunder Captain Guy's ship and their crewman. They sail southward on a canoe and experience feeling hot water, vapor rising, ash material building around them, and witness a chasm opening up. They're greeted by a giant human figure white as snow. This type of tale reminds people of the legend of the Abominable Snowman. But the creature was associated with Tibet and the Himalaya Mountains. Earlier mythological origins of it existed before Poe's novel. Other stories about the Abominable Snowman were written after 1837.

The treacherous Rocky Mountains

Sir Alexander MacKenzie, first European credited for crossing Rocky Mountains in 1793

Sir Alexander MacKenzie, first European credited for crossing Rocky Mountains in 1793

Frightening shrouded figure

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym 1898 illustration by A. D. McCormick

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym 1898 illustration by A. D. McCormick

The Journal of Julius Rodman (1840)

Poe penned a fictitious narrative about an explorer named Julius Rodman. He led a 1792 expedition through the Missouri River and traveled far north, an attempt to make him the first European explorer to cross the Rocky Mountains. Poe twisted facts from Washington Irving’s Astoria and Lewis and Clark’s History of the Expedition to make his story seem more authentic. The Journal of Julius Rodman was published as a serial in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine and ran from January to June in 1840.

John J. Teunissen and Evelyn J. Hinz, authors of an article entitled Poe's Journal of Julius Rodman as Parady, consider Poe's narrative a parody instead of plagarism. Poe's third attempt fooled the reading public with a hoax. Poe wrote the journal in two parts; the first part is about Rodman's narrative, and the second part is about the editor's perspective. The editors convinced readers that Rodman made "the first successful attempt to cross the Rocky Mountains." They claimed other explorers were mistakenly given credit. Washington Irving's Astoria credited Captain Carver, but MacKenzie accomplished the mission first in 1793. Editors also discredited Lewis and Clarke and credited Rodman for preceding all of them in 1792.

The journal explores western wilderness travel writing. Poe's main character was only five feet, four inches tall, a strong build and bowed legs. His lips were thin and he had a "saturnine expression." Readers easily identified with a character who didn't have the stature of a Greek god. Rodman's Expedition delves into beaver dam building, fur trading, wild animal hunting, buffalo herd drowning, botanical discoveries, dangerous brown bear encounters, and conflicts with Teton and Sioux Indians.

Poe's attention to detail fooled Congress to authenticate the document in their papers of 1839. U.S. Senator, Robert Greenhow, acknowledged explorers that traveled through the "American Continent" and were led by Julius Rodman through the years 1791 to 1794. He mentioned the journal was discovered in Virginia and scheduled for publication in a Philadelphia periodical magazine.

The Balloon Hoax recording

Museum of Hoaxes

Edgar Allan Poe's stories and poems

Hypnotist fails to save dying friend

The Facts in the Case of M. Vademar Harry Clarke illustration 1919

The Facts in the Case of M. Vademar Harry Clarke illustration 1919

Riveting literary hoaxes

1. The Hitler Diaries of World War II is considered one of the greatest hoaxes in the 20th century. West Germany's Federal Archives began a forensic investigation. Gerd Heidemann claims to have obtained diaries from an airplane wreck in eastern Germany. He took the diaries with him to the west side. The German Archive paid numerous dollars to Heidemann for the material. But Archive World War II experts discovered the diaries were fake. Heidemann and his assistant forge were imprisoned.

2. Autobiography of Davey Crockett's book entitled, Col. Crockett's Exploits, and Adventures in Texas, written by himself. The hoax was discovered in 1884. Richard Penn Smith, lawyer, and newspaper man, used his play writing skills and wrote the book himself.

3. 1794- William Henry Ireland presented his father, a Shakespearean scholar, with a mortgage deed signed by William Shakespeare.

4. 1971- Author, Clifford Irving, wrote the Memoirs of Howard Hughes for McGraw-Hill publications, but Hughes denounced it as fake content.

5. Emperor Constantine (285-337 A.D) forged documents misleading the Catholic Church into thinking they had ownership of Roman Empire's western territories. The hoax is known as The Donation of Constantine, 756 A.D.

6. In Massachusetts, 1827, The Journal Kept by Mr. John Howe while He Was Employed as a British Spy was published by Luther Roby. John Howe was a British spy in the Revolutionary war before he defected and became an American soldier. 165 years later Howe was exposed as a fictional character. American Authors before 1800 contained a biographical piece about Howe that was written by Daniel Williams who revealed John Howe was a fictional character.

7. Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography was published in six volumes during the years 1887 to 1889. The complete volumes were a valuable reference in which to research important botanists. But the Cyclopedia included hundreds of fictional people. Dr. John Hendley Barnhart wrote in The Journal of the New York Botanical Garden, at least 14 botanists listed were fictional.

8. Mencken's History of the Bathtub, December 28, 1917. The New York Evening Mail published H.L. Mencken's article, Neglected Anniversary. American bathtubs are given a historical overview. Bath tubs were regarded a health hazard. President Fenimore Cooper changed people's minds by installing a tub in the White House. Mencken's article was a hoax. He wanted to test how easy he could fool the public and reporters.

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar (1845)

American Whig Review's December 1845 edition published a story about a professional hypnotist who attempted to save his dying friend through hypnosis. The man remains under a trance over 7 months. The hypnotist finally snaps him out of it but the patient perishes into a liquid mass. Some people thought it was a true story. Misleading information is spelled out in the title, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. It suggests the literary piece is a case that examines facts. The first paragraph opens with the intention of clearing up factual information that was distorted.

Numerous reprints of the story gained popularity in America and Europe.

Robert Collyer, a successful Boston hypnotist defended Poe's hypnotic experiment on Valdemar. Collyer claimed to have revived a drunken dead man.

A correspondent from Scotland contacted Poe about the truthful accuracy of the experiment. Poe responded, "Hoax is precisely the word suited to M. Valdemar's case."

A German named Franz Anton Mesmer(1734-1815) practiced a medical therapy that healed sick patients suffering from lack of blood flow. He believed blood flow could be stimulated through different areas of the body by applying an electrical charge from a human hand or wand. The technique would put the patient in a hypnotic trance. Mesmer was considered a quack at the time. But mesmerism influenced a new type of hypnotism. Poe's short story is based on an actual medical experiment and he used medical termonology to convey realism.

Von Kempelen and His Discovery (1849)

The Flag of our Union's 1849 April edition published an article entitled, Von Kempelen and his Discovery. Poe wrote a fictitious story about a German chemist. He experimented with a miraculous chemical process that turned ordinary lead into valuable gold. The article claims the value of lead increased 200 percent in Europe. The public probably doubted Poe's story was on the level. In truth, the article was a piece of short fiction. Poe hoped to distract 49r's from gold digging in California.

Poe wrote an optimistic letter to his publisher Evert A. Duyckinck; he boasted, nine out of ten people would believe his story was factual, but no historical records substantiate public opinion was fooled by Poe's hoax.


Many hoaxes schemed by Edgar Allan Poe were ridiculous. He doubted the reading public would be taken in by them. But as a literary critic he fought his competition and cast doubt on them. He wrote natural scientific descriptions although his characters were often trapped in unbelievable situations. The Balloon Hoax of 1844 stirred the imagination and hearts of the public. Americans were hungry to discover new worlds and invent miraculous machines, a dream preserved today. Several future concepts written by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe had an incredible way of becoming true.

1849 California Gold Rush

Gold digging population grew

Gold digging population grew

Edgar Allan Poe Quiz

Edgar Allan Poe Museum


simplehappylife on March 29, 2017:

Well done, it's a good one. Hoax's are always interesting.

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on March 28, 2017:

Thank you, S.A. Williams. Most people think of Poe's horror tales. I came across the information included in this hub from back ground information taken from "The Baloon Hoax." I investigated the other stories and wanted to construct a hub about hoaxes.

simplehappylife on March 28, 2017:

Great Article Gilbert. I love Edgar Allen Poe and really had no idea he had done all of these. Very Interesting!

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on January 01, 2014:

I learned something about Poe that surprised me. Thanks for reading my hub. Have a happy new year writing hubs.

SolaraFrost from Murrells Inlet, SC on December 31, 2013:

I have always been interested in Poe and was fascinated to hear something new that I did not know. Thank you for sharing you knowledge and interest with us!

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on December 31, 2013:

I'm glad you enjoyed the hub, Colleen. I happen to know you love nonfiction and the study of voluntary manslaughter opposed to first degree murder. Poe was a great horror writer in his time, but I was also impressed how he could take nonfiction ideas and place his characters in horrifying situations. Happy New Year!

Colleen Swan from County Durham on December 31, 2013:

Hi Gilbert Really absorbing hub! A literature major, I never knew a great deal about Poe. My first memory of reading him dates back to when, around 12, I read The Black Cat in a cold house late at night and got thoroughly spooked. Thanks for adding a lot to my knowledge.


Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on December 30, 2013:

I'm glad I kept your interest. Thanks for supporting my hub. I appreciate it very much.

mecheshier on December 30, 2013:

What an an amazing Hub! Thank you for such great info! Voted up for awesome and interesting!

leakeem from Earth on December 30, 2013:

Interesting post! Great Hub!

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on December 29, 2013:

I was amazed about it myself. I was fascinated he wasn't the only writer who attempted literary hoaxes. Thanks for looking over my hub.

Jennifer Vasquez from Long Beach, CA on December 29, 2013:

I'm an admirer of Poe 's works & find the info you provide here interesting. His hoaxes are something I'd never heard about. Well-researched hub!

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