Serial Killers, Beer, and Lies About the Past

The semester being all but over, it is time to reveal the work of my students in the course Lying About the Past that I taught this semester here at George Mason University.

Because my course was larger this time around, the class split into two hoax teams, each of which perpetrated their own historical hoax. Unlike the last time around (the Last American Pirate hoax), the students did not end up hoaxing any history teachers (at least as far as we know). They did, however, manage to hoax more than a few people out there in the wider world…not so many as the perpetrator of the Lincoln Invented Facebook hoax…but more than just a few.

As with the previous incarnation of the course, the students all walked away from the course with a firm belief that research counts and that accepting whatever you find online at first glance is a bad policy. I was really pleased to see that they extended this lesson beyond the Internet to pretty much all historical sources. As one student said to me, from now on she was going to apply the “sniff test” to all her sources..if it smelled slightly fishy, she was going to have to seek corroboration. If all they got out of the class was this one lesson, then it was well worth teaching.

In addition to the lessons learned, I think it’s fair to say that once again, all the students had fun. It’s not often that history students laugh their way through an entire semester (even as they learned a lot).

So what were the hoaxes?

The first was New York City’s First Serial Killer. In this hoax, a woman working on the family history uncovers details that lead her to believe that her great uncle Joe might have been a serial killer back in the 1890s when he was a young man living in New York. To pull this one off, the students created a fictitious person working on the family history, gave her a blog, created two Wikipedia entries (both of which were 100% true, thank you very much), and tried to use Reddit as the place to get the hoax going.

To see what happened, you can go to the serial killer sub-reddit and read how the conversation about the supposed serial killer went. What is fascinating to me is how convinced the redditers became that, while the story of Uncle Joe was false, it was clearly some sort of attempt to start a viral marketing campaign for a new book or movie.

The other very interesting result of the hoax attempt was how the conversation on Reddit quickly turned to the Wikipedia entries as proof that it was a hoax. Sharp-eyed redditers noted the timing and IP addresses of the author/editors of the entries and declared them the result of someone engaged in “sock puppetry.” The irony here is that the students were all real people (not sock puppets of one user) and the entries were entirely true and based on extensive historical research. The entries have since been deleted, but I have saved copies and will be posting them here tomorrow as part of my continuing discussion of this hoax.

The second hoax was the Beer of 1812. In this hoax, a non-existent beer enthusiast (false fact #1) named Harris Thompson was given an old beer recipe (false fact #2) that, it turns out, was from Brown’s Brewery (true fact), the place where the “star spangled banner flag” of 1812 was created by Mary Pickersgill. The students were hoping to hoax the beer lovers of Baltimore by cashing in on the bicentennial of the war of 1812 and the promotion it is getting in Baltimore at the moment.

While the first hoax managed to (initially) convince a number of redditers, this hoax didn’t ever really seem to catch on. One popular local radio DJ wrote it up in his blog, but other than that, there wasn’t a lot of evidence that anyone actually noticed.

A particularly interesting aspect of this particular hoax is that while doing their research, the students noticed that the wall card for the Star Spangled Banner Flag in the National Museum of American History listed the wrong name for the brewery where Pickersgill sewed the flag…they named it for the subsequent owner of the brewery, not Mr. Brown. The students have written to the Museum to inform them of the error.

Tomorrow I’ll write more about what my students learned from the course.