When Edgar Allan Poe Pranked New York City—And Inspired Jules Verne

Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Balloon/Poe, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Balloon/Poe, iStock

On April 13, 1844, a special extra of the New York Sun announced: “ASTOUNDING NEWS! … THE ATLANTIC CROSSED IN THREE DAYS! SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF MR. MONCK MASON’S FLYING MACHINE!!!” According to the article, a balloon heading from England toward Paris had been blown off-course and landed safely near Charleston, South Carolina. The “report” was submitted by a journalist who was also a well-known short-story writer: Edgar Allan Poe.

There was just one problem. He had made the whole thing up.

“The Balloon Hoax,” as it later became known, was Poe’s idea of a calling card. He had just moved to Manhattan, looking for work as a journalist. What better way to announce you’ve arrived than to prank an entire city?

The possibility of balloon travel had ignited the popular imagination since the 1780s, when the Montgolfier brothers built the first balloon to carry a man into the air. By the 1830s, balloonists had successfully crossed the British Channel, and they had begun talking about attempts to cross the Atlantic in earnest.

Newspapers were often full of the exploits of daring aeronauts, and the interest in ballooning apparently led to some fictional takes on the pursuit. Poe’s story in The Sun wasn’t the first: In 1835, Richard Adams Locke published a widely credited account of a balloon reaching the moon. The success infuriated Poe, who had just two months earlier published a story about a man returning from the moon in a balloon, “Hans Pfaall—A Tale.” Poe was certain Locke had plagiarized him, but Locke received all the glory for his “Moon Hoax.” (Ironically, Poe’s own hoax included long sections from the aeronaut Thomas Monck Mason’s 1836 account of his balloon voyage from England to Germany.) Poe decided he would do a little self-promotion while outdoing his old enemy: He submitted the hoax to the same paper that had published Locke’s. The paper published the account with glee, completely unaware that it was fake.

According to Poe's report, a balloon called the Victoria held eight people and made the crossing in 75 hours. At the time, it took two weeks to cross the Atlantic by boat, so the potential for a voyage in which “the broad Atlantic becomes a mere lake,” as one of the passengers supposedly remarked, created quite a stir. Poe later claimed that when the Sun first announced the special Extra with details of the fantastic voyage, “the whole square surrounding the Sun building was literally besieged … I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper. As soon as copies made their way into the streets, they were bought up, at almost any price, from the newsboys.”

Poe included an abundance of scientific detail to give the article an air of authority, from precise measurements of key components, down to the screws and steel wires, to the combined weight of the fictional passengers (1200 pounds). His main characters were also based on real people: Poe named the pilot after Monck Mason, the famed aeronaut whose accounts he had liberally borrowed from.

The report was picked up in the next day's New York Sunday Times (no connection to The New York Times, which had yet to be founded) and Baltimore Sun. Other papers were less convinced of the report's veracity, and seemed to realize that further news should have come up from Charleston. (One contemporary account suggests that Poe himself revealed the hoax by drunkenly boasting about it in front of the crowd at the newspaper’s headquarters.)

Two days after the hoax first appeared, the New York Sun published a retraction. "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," the paper said. However, they added, "We by no means think such a project impossible." Astoundingly, balloonists would not truly accomplish a trans-Atlantic flight until 1978.

Poe believed his little trick would demonstrate his mastery of scientific description and artful writing. He was so assured of his skill, he didn’t seem to realize that publishing known misinformation would hurt his chances of finding work as a journalist—which is exactly what happened.

But the hoax did inspire someone else: Jules Verne later read it and began working on the adventure that would first bring him fame, Five Weeks in a Balloon, published in 1863. That tale was an immediate success, earning him the financial independence that would allow him to go on to write blockbusters such as A Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days. Whether Poe would have appreciated Verne’s achievements, so heavily influenced by his own work, is another matter.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

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