Big Ben Takes a Tumble

It has been nearly ninety-six years since that fateful Saturday night when a previously peaceful unemployment demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square turned into a violent mob ransacking the National Gallery and the Houses of Parliament, and knocking down the clock tower containing the famous Big Ben.

A shock, for sure, the wireless report from the BBC may not have been entirely unexpected by a nation made nervous by the recent 1917 Russian revolution. England had elected its first Labour Government in 1922 and the country was in the grip social change.

Trafalgar Square with approximately the same amount of mob violence as was seen on January 16, 1926. Charlie Forman, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dumbfounded wireless listeners followed the breaking news story until the final moments when the BBC’s London station was overrun and the broadcast faded into assorted music. The audience was left to anxiously wait for their newspapers to arrive the next morning with more details of what had befallen their capitol city.

Then, heavy snows the following day in London delayed those newspapers to many of the more isolated rural areas, leaving some in great suspense, imagining the charred ruins of the Savoy Hotel and the terrible lynching of Minister of Traffic Mr. Wotherspoon.

Of course, astute listeners may have understood that there was, in fact, no such position as the Minister of Traffic in the English government of 1926 and that “Mr. Wotherspoon” is kind of a silly name, as is that of Mr. Popplebury, the Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues and ringleader of the violence.

Standing tall. Alvesgaspar, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In addition, those listeners who had tuned in from the very start would have heard the preface explaining that the fictitious news account they were about to hear came from the imagination of brilliant satirist, Catholic priest, and maybe slightly ironic lover of cozy mysteries Father Ronald Knox, whose tongue was so firmly implanted in his cheek that it was surprising he could talk at all.

Knox’s performance piece Broadcasting the Barricades was a smash hit eliciting a huge number of responses which were about nine to one positive, and included only one report of a stress-induced fainting. The piece, written by the same man who would later come up with the “10 Commandments of Detective Stories,” one of which says that “No Chinaman must figure in the story,” encouraged the BBC to begin its long and glorious tradition of April Fools pranks a few months later, and most likely influenced the War of the Worlds radio play presented by Orson Welles in 1938.

And today it serves as a good example of why, when you hear something terribly upsetting on the news, you probably ought to take a deep breath and look for another source, from a different perspective before you pass out from the stress. Because surprising, terrible, scary things do sometimes happen, but there are probably also a lot of snarky priests out there, good detective stories involving Chinese characters, and, it seems, fake news reports.

Trending in History: Giants and Jerkfaces

On October 16, 1869, on William Newell’s farm near Cardiff, New York, two men digging a well, hit something surprising with their shovels. What they eventually uncovered was a ten foot tall, 3,000 pound petrified man.

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Someone clearly had an unfortunate run-in with geode water. Excavation of the Cardiff Giant, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

For years, newspapers had been featuring reports of petrified men, believed to have come into contact with water from the inside of geodes. So no one had any doubt such a thing could happen. The good people of Cardiff flocked to see the giant, took selfies to post on Instagram and tweeted out the Syracuse Daily Standard article that dubbed the giant “a new wonder.”

Of course there were a few skeptics. Among them was Dr. Boynton, a local science lecturer who assumed the find was actually a large statue of historical significance. Noteworthy geologist and paleontologist James Hall liked this theory, calling the find, “the most remarkable object yet brought to light in our country,” a quote that once added to a picture of the respected scientist became a meme netting more than 120,000 likes and 15,000 shares on Facebook.

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Looks legit to me.

Many theologians got excited, too, pointing to the very large man as evidence supporting the literal interpretation of Genesis 6:4, which claims there were once giants on the earth. The news commentators and bloggers had a lot to work with.

But notably absent from most “media” coverage was the assessment of Yale paleontologist Othniel Marsh who stated upon seeing the Cardiff giant, “It is of very recent origin, and a most decided humbug…” Marsh wasn’t the only one to voice such outrageous ideas, but he might as well have not said anything, for all the good it did.

Most visitors adamantly claimed there was no way they would ever believe the giant had not once been a living, breathing creature. Because once a person’s decided to believe something, it’s hard to convince them not to.

Eventually, the man behind the humbuggery did confess. Cigar manufacturer, dedicated atheist, and cousin to Mr. Newell, George Hull admitted to having the statue commissioned and buried after engaging in a debate with a Methodist preacher over the literal interpretation of Genesis 6:4. He really just wanted to say, “Gotcha!”

As a bonus, he also made a pretty penny off his share in the scheme eventually selling his interest for nearly a half million adjusted 2017 dollars. He definitely fooled a lot of people and certainly supported the point that those who set out to make a point by fooling a lot of people, are kind of big jerkfaces.

Seriously, it was ALL OVER social media. #HumbugHull  #CardiffCon #GiantJerkface.

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P.T. Barnum, America’s favorite son of humbuggery, offered to buy the Cardiff Giant. When his offer was refused, he commissioned his own gypsum giant and claimed the first was a forgery. Like a boss. Public Domain, via Wikimedia

But I do think, unwittingly, Hull made another point, too. Because his giant was the fakest fake news of the day. That’s right, folks. We’ve ALWAYS had fake news. Just like we’ve ALWAYS had biased news. Because none of us, members of the media included, lives in a vacuum. Our experiences, our intentions, and our personalities, whether individual or institutional, all serve to inform our biases.

The media attention given to the Cardiff Giant rarely included expert voices that contradicted the sensational because sensational sells and improves SEO as its shared widely across platforms evidently designed to make otherwise reasonable and more or less kind-hearted people seem completely insane. So media outlets use (among other tactics) carefully worded headlines, precisely cut-off quotes, and selective expert interviews to make that happen.

So how do we combat this? First, I think we would all benefit from a deep breath. Then, the next time you think about clicking “share,” take a minute to analyze three things:

  1. The bias of the source (and, yes, there is one, see the previous paragraph)
  2. Your goal in sharing the piece (if it’s either to taunt or to yell, “Gotcha!” it’s possible you should reconsider)
  3. Whether or not the piece will further civil discourse (or whether you’re just behaving like kind of a jerkface).

I don’t mean to sound like I’m coming off heavy-handed here, though I admit that’s exactly what I’m doing. I don’t deny that I have an agenda. I want my social media feeds to be kinder, more civil places today than they were yesterday. I want to have informed conversations with informed adults who don’t always agree with me, but whose opinions are interesting and worth giving some serious consideration. And I want the media to stop reporting about how biased the media is, because, frankly, that’s super old news.

So I hope you’ll remember George Hull and the Cardiff Giant and give some thought to my terribly biased interpretation of the way we should view his story. I hope, too, that at some point you will begin to question the authority of a history blogger who insists that #GiantJerkface was trending on Twitter in 1869. And, last but not least, I hope you are careful to avoid contact with geode water (which I think sells for $7 a bottle at Whole Foods), because I’d hate to see you get petrified, and I read somewhere that can happen.