March 7, 2012

The Illustrated London News Hoax

The "pterodactyl" that stumbled out of a railway tunnel in France, in 1856, was not the first newspaper hoax of the nineteenth century: The man-bat hoax published in the New York Sun, in 1835, also involved a strange winged creature, albeit that one involved a winged-human civilization on the moon. But the 1856 story in The Illustrated London News has apparently fooled people for generations.
"Workmen laboring in a tunnel for a railway line, between Saint-Dizier and Nancy, in France, were cutting through Jurassic limestone when a large creature stumbled out from inside it. [The apparent pterosaur] fluttered its wings, made a croaking noise and dropped dead . . . A local student of paleontology identified the animal as a pterodactyl. The report had the animal turn to dust, as soon as it had died."

I have read that the original newspaper article included something about the creature's image being found imprinted in the rock formation. I see several bits of evidence that point to a hoax, each one valid in itself. With no original source available, we can safely assume that this story is a hoax.

But that does not make all stories hoaxes nor all newspaper articles, even nineteenth-century articles, jokes. Pterosaur fossils do not become fictional because of newspaper hoaxes, and all eyewitness accounts need not be dismissed because of hoaxes. The best that we can learn from that article in The Illustrated London News is that we need to be careful in reading the whole article and in thinking clearly for ourselves.

No Hoax With Pterosaur Sightings

When a malicious hoaxer makes a phone call warning a school official that a bomb has been planted in that school, and careful searches reveal the absence of any bomb, that does not mean that all bombs are fictional or that everybody who makes a phone call is telling a lie.

Nineteenth Century Pterosaur Hoax

The point is that when a newspaper in the nineteenth century printed a hoax story, the idea may have come from another newspaper that had printed a genuine story about an extraordinary sighting of a real pterosaur. The hoax articles do not prove or even lead one logically to assume that all articles on that same subject must be hoaxes.

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