What Hoffman had never heard of is one of three examples of creatures from American folklore listed under “monsters and imaginary beasts” in the Columbia Encyclopedia, the gold standard of one-volume encyclopedias: “the glitch of the Pentagon,” described only as “responsible for general chaos.”
When I first read the entry in the encyclopedia’s online iteration three years ago, I had the same thought you probably just had: How have I never heard of the chaos monster that stalks the halls of the Pentagon? Of course I Googled it — but no luck. Search for a combination of “glitch” and “Pentagon,” and you get news stories about temporarily lost 9/11 photos or the maligned F-35 fighter plane, but no Pentagon monster.
I was able to determine that the entry first appeared in the Columbia Encyclopedia’s fourth edition, published in 1975 as the New Columbia Encyclopedia (NCE) and greeted with acclaim. “Making a one-volume encyclopedia is like taking the broth of the universe and condensing it into a bouillon cube,” the New York Times wrote at the time. “Unfazed by the mass of ingredients, the Columbia University Press has just produced 10½ lbs. of nutrients called The New Columbia Encyclopedia. It has more than 50,000 articles and about 6.6 million words in 3,052 pages.”
I knew that reference books sometimes insert fake entries as a “copyright trap” to deter other publishers from plagiarizing their content. In researching the glitch, I learned about one considered the gem of the genre. Meet:
Mountweazel, Lillian Virginia, 1942-73, American photographer, b. Bangs, Ohio. Turning from fountain design to photography in 1963, Mountweazel produced her celebrated portraits of the South Sierra Miwok in 1964. She was awarded government grants to make a series of photo-essays of unusual subject matter, including New York City buses, the cemeteries of Paris and rural American mailboxes. The last group was exhibited extensively abroad and published as Flags Up! (1972). Mountweazel died at 31 in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.
Combustibles magazine! The entry is pitch-perfect in its simultaneous silliness and exact mimicry of encyclopedia-speak — so perfect that “mountweazel” has become a term for fake reference entries. As it turned out, Ms. Mountweazel was also introduced to the world in the NCE. Was the glitch another fake entry?
I contacted Paul Lagasse, the editor of the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia — the reference work is now online-only — to ask. He told me he was aware of the entries created for copyright protection. “As the one on Ms. Mountweazel shows, the writers and editors on the fourth edition were a literate and somewhat fun bunch,” he said, “but perhaps a little too bored with the faux Civil War generals that I was told once provided protection against cribbing.” However, no one had ever informed him that the glitch was a mountweazel.
Over subsequent months, I made dozens of inquiries about the glitch, but no one — not folklorists or linguists or authors of books about the Pentagon — had ever heard of it. I scoured the NCE masthead for an editor or contributor who might have written the entry. Months went by without success. More than 40 years had passed, and many names were too common or had changed. Some people had died.
But then a breakthrough: I came upon Agnes McKirdy — listed in the Times’s NCE article as a senior editor in the humanities — in an author bio for the late horror novelist Ken Greenhall. The bio described Greenhall as a “former editor of reference books” and named McKirdy as his wife. I found an Agnes Greenhall with a New York phone number and called. When she answered, I said that I hoped I was reaching the right Agnes Greenhall.
“There’s only one and it’s me,” she said. (I didn’t tell her about the other listing in Utah.) She was curious as to how I’d found her, and I told her what I just told you, before getting to the even more complicated reason I was calling. After I fumbled through all the context, the fake entries started to come back to her. She named two off the top of her head: Lillian Mountweazel and another that, as far as I can tell, has never been revealed before:
Dayton, Robert, 1939-, American artist, b. Pasadena, Calif. Blinded in an accident in 1968, Dayton has experimented since then with odor-emitting gases that resemble pungent body odors. His work, called Aroma-Art, is presented in a sealed chamber where an audience inhales scented air.
A literate and fun bunch, indeed. I asked if the “glitch of the Pentagon” rang a bell. “Yes, it does, vaguely, but I can’t remember who actually wrote it,” she said. I asked if it was real, but she said she couldn’t talk right then. I was reluctant to get off the line without an answer, but we scheduled a call for the next day. When we reconnected, Greenhall acknowledged that she had edited the entry. And then, with one word, confirmed the hunch that had launched an obsessive quest. Was the glitch another fake entry?
She asked if I would like to be put in contact with the author. She thought it was Karen Tweedy-Holmes — who, she informed me, was also the creator of Lillian Virginia Mountweazel.
Tweedy-Holmes is now a professional photographer, and portions of her website bio read a bit like a mountweazel: “Her images of the male nude were exhibited extensively to critical acclaim in the 1970s and are among the first art photographs of this subject by an American woman.”
Before we got to the big questions, I asked if she knew what fake encyclopedia entries are sometimes called now, and she said she didn’t. “They’re called mountweazels,” I said.
“I had no idea. I haven’t thought about Lillian in a very long time,” she replied. She told me that she had worked on the NCE as a junior humanities editor with a specialty in art history. When it was decided to include some fake entries, the task of composing one fell to her. “Virginia” was her mother’s name, and “mountweazel” was a nonsense word she and her cousin used. “When I decided to do that article, I thought that was a perfect last name for her. Then I started making up the tales about her life,” she said. “I’m a photographer, so she became a photographer.”
She told me everything she remembered about creating Lillian and working on the NCE. But when I asked about the glitch, she said she’d never heard of it. I read her the entire entry, but nothing.
Here the trail went cold: I was unable to get back in touch with Greenhall. Her number was disconnected and my letter went unanswered.
And then the glitch itself disappeared. A few months after I spoke to Lagasse, he confirmed that, after being unable to verify it himself, he had removed the glitch of the Pentagon from the entry where it had lurked, among the other monsters and imaginary beasts, for nearly half a century.
Nick Norlen is a writer in Bucks County, Pa.