All for publicity stunt: First great balloon hoax

COLORADO: The Heenes, who last week tricked the world into thinking their son had floated away in a weather balloon, are not alone - Edgar Allan Poe concocted a similar bogus tale back in 1844. Why did the Heene family of Colorado think pretending to lose their son in the basket of an airborne helium balloon was a good idea is unclear. But as they contemplate possible criminal records for conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, they can at least take comfort in the fact that they have distinguished company when it comes to balloon hoaxes.

On 13 April 1844, 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


(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.” But the excitement was not allowed to get out of hand. Two days later, the Sun printed a retraction: “BALLOON - The mails from the South last Saturday night not having brought a confirmation of the arrival of the Balloon from England . . . we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.” And so the first great media balloon hoax was punctured.

Poe had created the report by supposedly “copying verbatim from the joint diary of Mr Monck Mason and Mr Harrison Ainsworth”, also crediting them for “much verbal information respecting the balloon itself, its construction, and other matters of interest . . .” Extract from the diary — New York Sun, Saturday, 6 April 1844: We commenced the inflation this morning at daybreak; but owing to a thick fog, which encumbered the folds of the silk and rendered it unmanageable, we did not get through before nearly 11 o’clock. At half-past 11, still proceeding nearly south, we obtained our first view of the Bristol Channel; and, in 15 minutes afterward, the line of breakers on the coast appeared immediately beneath us, and we were fairly out at sea. We were all now anxious to test the efficiency of the rudder and screw, and we put them both into requisition forthwith, for the purpose of altering our direction more to the eastward, and in a line for Paris. By means

of the rudder we instantly

effected the necessary change of direction . . Upon this we gave nine hearty cheers, and dropped in the sea a bottle, enclosing a

slip of parchment with a brief account of the principle of the invention..

Hardly had we done with our rejoicings, when an unforeseen accident occurred which discouraged us in no little degree. The steel rod connecting the spring with the propeller was suddenly jerked out of place, and in an instant hung dangling out of reach. While we were endeavoring to regain it, we became involved in a strong current of wind from the East, which bore us, with rapidly increasing force, towards the Atlantic. We soon found ourselves driving out to sea at the rate of not less, certainly, than 50 or 60 miles an hour, so that we came up with Cape Clear, at some 40 miles to our North, before we had secured the rod . ..

It was now that Ainsworth made an extraordinary,

but to my fancy, a by no means unreasonable or chimerical proposition — that we should take advantage of the strong gale which bore us on, and in place of beating back to Paris, make an attempt to reach the coast of North America.