Select Page



by William H. Benson

October 29, 2009

     In 1831, then at the age of twenty-two, Edgar Allan Poe decided that he would try to make a career as a writer of poetry and short stories. Over the course of the next eighteen years, he proved himself versatile and talented, for “he used his extraordinary mind to work out his literary effects with almost mathematical exactitude.” However, he was never successful financially and was constantly penniless.

     In 1835, Poe wrote one of his less successful stories—The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall—which was published in June in the Southern Literary Messenger, and for which Poe received only the standard fee, a pittance.

     The story is about how Hans Pfaall, a citizen then living in Rotterdam, built a hot air balloon, which he filled with “a constituent of azote,” and with a cat and two pigeons soared into the sky. Nineteen days later he landed on the moon’s surface “in the very heart of a fantastical-looking city and into the middle of a vast crowd of ugly little people, who none of them uttered a single syllable.” None had ears.

     The story was quite fantastic, but above all else, remarkable in that it was one of the first stories in what would become a new literary genre: science fiction.

     Two months later, beginning on August 25, the New York Sun published an account written by a Dr. Andrew Grant who was the companion of a well-respected scientist named Sir John Herschel, who had developed a combination telescope / microscope that permitted him to see the lunar surface. Herschel claimed he had seen bison, goats, water birds, unicorns, beavers without tails that walked upright, and a race of bat-like winged humanoids, Verspertilio-homo, who built temples, all on the moon.

     At first, the paper’s readers believed Herschel’s claims as reported by this Dr. Grant. Circulation increased dramatically, and the profits rolled in. But then several weeks later it was determined a hoax, in the vein of P. T. Barnum, or today’s National Enquirer.

     Dr. Andrew Grant did not exist, and Sir John Herschel had not seen those living things on the moon. Although the Sun never printed a retraction, it was believed that the Sun’s editor, Richard A. Locke had staged the hoax as a stunt to boost circulation. It worked.

     Poe was outraged that Locke had stolen his idea from his short story, had then capitalized upon it, and that Poe had not received a cent.

     Nine years later on April 13, 1844, Poe wrote for the New York Sun a detailed and highly plausible account of a famous European balloonist named Monck Mason who had crossed the Atlantic Ocean in his balloon in 75 hours. Poe was astonished at the enthusiasm this story aroused. “I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper,” he said. Unfortunately, Poe’s article was also a fabrication.

     The French have always revered Poe more than have the Americans. For example, the French author Jules Verne read Poe’s short story and his balloon-hoax story and wrote three works of fiction about balloon travel: Five Weeks in a Balloon, Around the World in 80 Days, and From the Earth to the Moon.

     The story of a hoax involving a balloon continues. Two weeks ago, the Heene family in Fort Collins claimed that their six-year old son was inside a balloon as it floated across the Colorado landscape, but then he was found hiding in a box in their attic. Officials now believe that the Heene’s may have staged the whole thing.

     The biggest hoax of the twentieth century occurred on the night of October 30, 1938. While broadcasting on radio H. G. Wells’s story, The War of the Worlds, the movie director Orson Welles interrupted the production with a news flash that Martians were indeed invading Earth, and thus he created confusion and panic among listeners who, gullible to a fault, had tuned in late and believed his report.   

     Halloween approaches, and Edgar Allan Poe has always seemed to me a Halloween-type of guy, with his weird stories like The Black Cat, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell-Tale Heart— tales of murder, of being buried alive, and of utter terror.


     Look at what the man unleashed. When will the hoaxes end—those involving balloons; travel across the Atlantic or eastern Colorado; the Sun, the moon, and Mars; and    of Martian invasions? Quote the Raven, “Nevermore.” Do not believe it.