Adult Hoaxes and Poe’s Birthday
It has been a staple of Baltimore lore for decades. Every year, on Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, a ghostly man in black visits the Baltimore grave of the tragic poet. There he leaves three roses and a bottle of cognac, and vanishes until the next year. The dark ritual so fits the Gothic aura surrounding Poe that it has kept public interest in the author of “The Raven” and “The Tell-tale Heart” intense and guarantees that there is regular tourist traffic to the churchyard where Poe is buried. But now an old man is claiming that he devised and maintained the tradition of Poe’s secret admirer for exactly that purpose, and perhaps he did. Was there anything wrong with that?
There are people who feel that it is unethical for parents to convince their young children that Santa Claus is real, and that hiding eggs to encourage belief in the Easter Bunny is fraudulent. One of my most cherished childhood memories is of the time I buried a lollipop stick in our back yard after watching a cartoon about a “lollipop tree.” The next morning, there was a little tree where I had planted the stick, with multi-colored lollipops dangling from every branch! That memory—I was 34 at the time— was well worth my mother’s temporary deception. (All right, I was eight.) There is no more excusable lie than one used to enhance the innocent magic of childhood.
Lies employed to fool adults into believing myths, legends and miracles are entirely different. What they may accomplish in whimsy and public amusement is overwhelmed by the costs of public deception: wasted time and money on investigations and research, distortions of the factual and historical record, and perhaps worst of all, a gradual erosion of the public’s willingness to believe anything.
A seemingly very nice man, Alek Komarnitsky, was upset with this site for criticizing what he regarded as a whimsical piece of Christmas magic a few years back: he had a website that fooled people into thinking they could turn holiday lights at his home on and off from their computer. But Komarnitsky benefited from his trick; he got media attention, and attracted paying advertisers to his site. And, once the truth came out, some people felt like idiots for falling for it all.
His defense was that it was all in good fun.* This is the “P. T. Barnum Rationalization,” named after the unapologetic 19th century showman who made money by (among other deceptions) attaching a monkey torso to a fish and declaring that he had found the mummy of a mermaid. This is the first of five common patterns in intentional adult myth-making. The second is when a hoax continues anonymously for years, building in credibility and fame until the hoaxer decides that it’s time to cash in for money or TV interviews. Crop circles and the famous Bigfoot film followed this pattern. The third scenario is when the hoax is uncovered by skeptics, as with the Cardiff Giant. The photographs of the Cottingley Fairies exemplify the fourth course in creative hoaxing. A crude bit of trick photography engineered by two enterprising British school girls seemed to show delicate fairies fluttering around, and managed to convince Arthur Conan Doyle, among others, that fairies were real. Despite being authoritatively debunked for nearly a hundred years, the fairy photos still have some stubborn romantics siding with Doyle. These are “The Hoaxes That Will Not Die.” Then there are the hoaxers with a political or philosophical agenda, who may or may not even know they are frauds: the writers, activists and film-makers who use their time and talents to make the public believe as they claim they believe. These people are responsible for the millions of people who think Edwin Stanton helped Booth kill President Lincoln, that Nostradamus could predict the future and that “The DaVinci Code” is literally true. Finally, there are the hoaxes that may not be hoaxes after all, a huge category that covers everything from flying saucers and the Loch Ness monster to Biblical miracles.
A lot of these fake events, mysteries and creatures have the same appeal as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. They fire the imagination, and make life seem more interesting and magical. But feeding a child’s fantasy life for a brief time is very different from deceiving adults about what is real and what is not. Hoaxes alter people’s belief systems when they are successful, and the existence of hoaxes encourage conspiracy theories, ignorance and confusion. The moon landing was really a Hollywood special effect; the Holocaust never happened; dinosaurs never walked the earth. Elvis lives. A significant segment of society believing myths and legends is not a healthy situation.
So now Sam Porpora, 92 years old, comes forward to explain that he cooked up the story of the shadowy Poe fan in the late Sixties. He’d just been made historian of the Westminster Presbyterian Church, built in 1852, and though Edgar Allan Poe was buried in the churchyard, nobody cared. Nobody was coming to the church either, which needed money badly. So Porpora, a former ad man told, a local reporter the black-clad mourner had come to the grave on Poe’s Jan. 19 birthday every year since 1949. The story caught on, and Porpora made sure it thrived by laying down the roses and cognac himself. Or so he says.
Historians, and even some of Porpora’s former colleagues, dispute his story, saying that the visits were documented well before he claims he invented the birthday visitor. One way or the other, Porpora was lying, and the messy controversy has pretty much drained the fun from the tale.
Not everyone sees it this way, of course. Jeffrey A. Savoye, secretary-treasurer of the E.A. Poe Society of Baltimore, told the Associated Press that it didn’t matter if the story was true or not. “Even if Sam’s story is true, so what?” he said. “It’s a tradition. It’s a nice tradition, whether it dates back to 1949 or the ’70s.” It’s especially nice for the Poe Society, since the yearly visits increased public interest in Edgar Allan Poe, membership, publication sales and dues. The Society, like the church, has benefited from a fraud designed to convince the public that something was true that really wasn’t.
That the fraud was fun to believe while it lasted doesn’t change its essential character as a lie. These kinds of deceptions are less related to Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny than they are to cults, palm readers and spiritualists who speak to the dead while bilking gullible relatives of the recently deceased. The ethical principle is really quite simple. Something that would be wonderful and exciting if it were true is neither wonderful nor exciting if it’s really a lie. If the lie is discovered or revealed, it makes us more distrustful. If the lie is never discovered, it leaves us uninformed, misled and ignorant of the world as it is. Childhood fantasies expire; nobody had to tell me that there was no such thing as lollipop tree, and when I stopped believing, all that was left was a fond memory. Adult hoaxes are different. And wrong.
* To his credit, Komarnitsky made ethical amends the following year by figuring out a way to have his site’s visitors really turn on and off his lights.