The giant potato hoax of 1894 was perpetrated in Loveland, Colorado. In all fairness, it was not a malicious act. It was the brainstorm of a news reporter offering a helping hand to promote a local farmer’s potato crop. But when one thing led to another the tale grew too tall to stop.
Today we’re accustomed to data of all types going viral and circling the globe in moments. You might be surprised to know that the human behavior that fuels the “viral” universe has not change. The giant potato hoax offers a slow-motion glimpse at how stories and images go viral.
It Started As A Promotion
Joseph B. Swan was an expert at growing potatoes. He allegedly grew more than 70 types and up to 26,000 pounds on one acre. Whatever the actual numbers, he was good at his job and was featured in local newspapers.
When plans were underway for a local festival, local editor W. L. Thorndyke had a great idea to garner attention both for the fair and farmer Swan.
According to the Museum of Hoaxes in San Diego, California, Thorndyke enlisted local photographer Adam Talbot to produce the now famous photo that would appear in an 1895 issue of the Loveland Reporter. It features Swan holding a giant potato labeled the “Maggie Murphy Potato” weighing 86 pounds 10 ounces and measuring 2 feet 5 inches.
“Adam H. Talbot. Talbot took a photo of a potato and enlarged it to mammoth size. He then cut out a wooden board the size and shape of this enlarged image and he attached the photograph to the board. Finally, he posed Swan holding this giant faux-potato on his shoulder.”
A Good Gag Sprouted “Eyes” And “Legs”
We can only guess that Loveland locals realized the photo was a spoof. But the image was amusing so copies began to circulate outside the community. An editor in a neighboring town posted it on his bulletin board where it attracted more attention.
“In mid-1895, a copy of the photo came into the hands of Dumont Clarke, Esq. of New York City, who promptly passed it along to the editors of Scientific American. On the back of the photo was a note claiming the potato had been shown for a while in the office of the Loveland Reporter…” (Museum of Hoaxes)
The photo looked authentic enough that editors of the Scientific American printed it as a real story on p. 199 of their September 18, 1895 edition. They included location, size and weight of the potato and Farmer Swan’s name.
Because it was difficult to reproduce photographs, the editors produced a high-quality engraving of the “original” great potato hoax photo. They published that engraving, thereby legitimizing the image.
But they soon realized the “original” was a fake. They published this retraction:
“The picture of the mammoth potato we published on page 199 proves to be a gross fraud, being a contrivance of the photographer who imposed upon us as well as others. An artist who lends himself to such methods of deception may be ranked as a thoroughbred knave, to be shunned by everybody.”
People Wanted To Believe
Although the “thoroughbred knaves” who perpetrated the great potato hoax never intended harm, they feared being shunned by everybody as suggested by the Scientific American.
Although we cannot find evidence to confirm this, Farmer Swan reportedly tried to tell people the giant potato hoax was just that. But they wanted to believe. Many wanted a piece of it or seeds to grow their own. Farmer Swan finally had enough and told people it had been stolen.
The Damage Was Done; The Photo Went Viral
But the damage had already been done. The great potato hoax spread across country and even to Europe. The photo of Swan and his potato appeared in more publications, even years later. Among them was The Strand magazine and the Planter’s Monthly.
Once it appeared in the international press, it became as real as Tulip Mania, the Great Moon Hoax, the Texas Horned Toad who supposedly survived decades of entombment and multitudes of stories appearing in the time of Yellow Journalism.
Americana Tall Tale Post Cards
The Great Potato Hoax photo might have given birth to a genre of tall-tale postcards. According the Met Museum, they flourished in the American Midwest roughly between 1908 and 1915. The earliest master of the genre was William H. “Dad” Martin, a studio photographer in Kansas.
“He established a successful sideline crafting photomontages of outlandish agricultural abundance. Intimately familiar with the tribulations of Midwestern farmers, including a fierce drought that parched the land for most of the 1890s, Martin lampooned the inflated promises of fertile soil, abundant rain, and hardy livestock that land companies used to lure settlers westward.”
Spotting A Faked Potato: Why Do We Believe Fake Stories?
Even smart people believe fake stories. As with Tulip Mania, the sheer scope of repetition created momentum and that engendered believability. Pictures, graphs and anecdotes make false stories more credible. Mackay used all of these in his book.
The story of Tulip Mania was not just a cautionary tale against economic bubbles. It was also the poster child for fake news and human gullibility. With the Internet, eye-popping headlines invite sharing, much like Mackay created in 1841.
In Harvard Summer School’s 4 Tips For Spotting a Fake News Story author Christina Nagler writes:
“Another contributing factor according to Pew Research is confirmation bias. People are more likely to accept information that confirms their beliefs and dismiss information that does not.”
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