This week at In The Past Lane, the history podcast, we explore the rise of hoaxes, humbug, plagiarists, phonies, post-facts, and fake news, beginning in the early 19th century. All societies are susceptible to hoaxes and scams, but there seems to be something about America’s culture of striving and reinvention that makes its people particularly vulnerable to the wily ways of tricksters, from P.T. Barnum to Bernie Madoff. To make sense of this fascinating thread that runs through US history, I speak with Kevin Young, author of, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. We discuss famous hoaxes, including the Moon Hoax of 1835, P.T. Barnum’s fakeries like Joice Heth, whom he claimed was the 168-year old former slave nursemaid of George Washington. We also talk about famous imposters, including Grey Owl, a famous Native American from the early 20th century and the more recent case of Rachel Dolezal, an African American activist, both of whom, surprise turned out to be white. As this last point indicates, race has been at the heart of American hoaxes. And Kevin Young also gives us a lot to think about when it comes to understanding how modern day hoaxes are both similar to those in the past, and yet also different in some disturbing ways.
Among the many things discussed in this episode:
What is bunk, or humbug?
How P.T. Barnum became the master of hoaxes and fakeries.
Why are Americans seemingly particularly susceptible to hoaxes and frauds?
How were hoaxes and fakeries in the 19th century early versions of reality TV?
What was the Moon Hoax of 1835?
What was the Cardiff Giant Hoax of 1869?
Why race and racism have long been the inspiration of hoaxes and fakeries.
How contemporary hoaxes and fake news stories are different from those in the 19th century.
Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., P. T. Barnum: America’s Greatest Showman (1995)
Ian Tattersall and Peter Névraumont, Hoax: A History of Deception: 5,000 Years of Fakes, Forgeries, and Fallacies (2018)
Scott Tribble, A Colossal Hoax: The Giant from Cardiff that Fooled America (2008)
Podcasts mentioned in this episode
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)
Ketsa, “Escape the Profane” (Free Music Archive)
David Szesztay, “Joyful Meeting” (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
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Associate Producer: Tyler Ferolito
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