The so-called Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century was a period of rapid industrialization and economic expansion in the United States. A by-product of that time, especially in the 1890’s and into the early twentieth century, was a phenomenon known as “yellow journalism”. While today’s article isn’t specifically about that topic (but watch for a series in the future), newspapers tried just about everything they could dream up to sell newspapers – including s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the truth, especially with sensational headlines and little or no legitimate research to back up a story.
Joseph B. Swan was a potato farmer from Loveland, Colorado and according to the Museum of Hoaxes web site, once grew twenty-six thousand pounds of potatoes in one year on one acre of land. Swan had also claimed to have grown a giant potato weighing over thirteen pounds.
The story goes that sometime in 1894 the editor of the local newspaper (Loveland Reporter), W.L. Thorndyke, decided to help Swan promote his prodigious potato-growing skills by taking a picture of one of the potatoes. But this picture wouldn’t depict just a normal every-day potato. Instead the two men came up with the idea to take the photograph and enlarge it.
The services of photographer Adam H. Talbot were engaged and he took the photograph and enlarged it to a ridiculously large size. The next step was to attach the photograph to a wooden board of the same size and shape. To complete the illusion, Swan posed for another picture with this “giant potato” on his shoulder with a sign reporting its weight to be 86 pounds and 10 ounces. This would serve as a sort of “tongue-in-cheek” way for Joseph Swan to promote his product at a local street fair. Some people have jokingly refer to this as the world’s first “Photoshop®” job.
After the photograph was seen and passed around the local community, it came to the attention of an editor in a neighboring town. He thought it humorous, tacked it up on a bulletin board and soon people seeing it would ask for their own copy.
Amazingly, sometime in the spring of 1895 the “mammoth potato” story began circulating in newspapers throughout the country. The photograph came to the attention of Dumont Clarke of New York. Clarke thought his “discovery” to be a worthy news item and passed it on to the editors of the prestigious Scientific American magazine. Clarke was president of the American Exchange National Bank and no doubt a man whose word was trusted – so trusted perhaps that the magazine didn’t bother to check the facts.
A high-quality engraving of the photograph was produced and published in the September 18, 1895 issue. Not long afterwards, however, the editors discovered the photograph was a fake and quickly issued a terse retraction:
The photo 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.
As we would say today, Scientific American got “punked” — embarrassingly so. However, the story continued to be published and even made note of the Scientific American’s original statement of gratitude: “We are indebted to Dumont Clarke, Esq., says the Scientific American, of New York, for the photograph from which our engraving was made, showing the monstrous size of a potato grown by Mr. J.B. Swan, of Loveland, Col.” (Junction City Union (Kansas) 23 Nov 1895)
Even after the publication’s retraction, Swan still had to explain that the photograph wasn’t real. Farmers were contacting him for either seeds or a piece of his giant potato to grow some of their own. With all the hoopla over something originally meant to be a humorous way of advertising his farm products, Swan grew weary of the attention and simply said the potato had been stolen.
His friend Thorndyke, however, was apparently pleased with the hoax he had helped to perpetrate, for he boasted, “Newspapermen are reported to be the greatest liars on earth.” Given the age of “yellow journalism”, this isn’t a surprising statement.
Despite Scientific American’s sternly-worded retraction in 1895 the hoax continued to be circulated. The story was again published with the same photograph by The Strand Magazine in July of 1897. The magazine featured a mixture of both fictional and factual stories, but published the mammoth potato story as a factual one. Like the Scientific American, they too issued a retraction.
In 2012 a play, written by playwright Rick Padden and entitled “The Great Loveland Potato Hoax”, premiered in Loveland.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.