A white Bengal tiger on display at a zoo. (European Pressphoto Agency)

The headlines told an appalling tale of carnage and mayhem.

“Awful Calamity.” “Terrible Scenes of Mutilation.” “A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death.”

So said the New York Herald on Nov. 9, 1874. The Herald filled its entire front news page (pages 1 and 2 were devoted to advertising) to an account of an escape from the Central Park Zoo by marauding animals who were reported to have killed 49 men, women and children and injured hundreds more. “Twelve of the wild, carnivorous beasts are still at large,” the Herald warned.

The story was rich with grim detail and included a partial list of the killed and wounded. It featured a proclamation from the mayor urging citizens to stay indoors until the danger passed. Ravenous lions and tigers fought to the death, according to the Herald. A rhinoceros broke free and charged a group of young girls, killing one. Leopards and wolves devoured deer.

“It would be impossible at this late hour to describe the numberless scenes of dismay and disaster,” the Herald reported. “The hospitals are full of wounded. There are fifteen bodies at the Morgue and several in the various precincts. A sentiment of horror pervades the community.”

All in all, an extraordinary tale — gripping and horrifying, and one that belonged exclusively to the Herald.

Headlines from the New York Herald hoax.

But not a word of it had any basis in fact, as the Herald confessed in the last paragraph of the lengthy piece. “Not a single act or incident described has taken place.”

More than 140 years before the phrase “fake news” became commonplace, and long before the pursuit of accuracy became a cardinal principle of journalism, a leading newspaper in the nation’s biggest city perpetrated what remains one the most extraordinary news hoaxes in American history.

In the 19th century, intentional hoaxes hatched to sell more newspapers or simply create excitement appeared periodically. One of the earliest and most sensational appeared in the pages of the New York Sun almost four decades before the Herald’s flight of fantasy. In the summer of 1835, the Sun published a six-part series supposedly based on reports from an Edinburgh scientific journal that described how a new, powerful telescope had detected signs of life on the moon.

“All New York was titillated by the series, and Sun circulation rose to 19,000 copies,” according to Robert A. Rutland’s “The Newsmongers.” But the jig was up when the reporter who dreamed up the series joined a colleague for a few drinks at a saloon. “The Sun reporter, his tongue loosened by ardent spirits, talked freely,” and the hoax collapsed. Other newspapers reacted with outrage, Rutland writes, but “most readers took the incident in good humor.”

Months before the Herald hoax terrified readers, the New York World  offered a made-up story about a man-eating tree discovered in Madagascar.

Despite the precedents, few were amused by the Herald’s brazen exercise in journalistic humbug.

The newspaper claimed it wanted to call attention to the potential risk of escape by wild animals from the menagerie at the center of the city. “How is New York prepared to meet such a catastrophe?” the newspaper asked.

Its competitors believed it had other motives.

“It is a striking commentary on the curious position which is held by the Herald that this disgusting and brutal jest is not likely to lower it much in the estimation of the public,” the New York Times sniffed. “It appears that there may sometimes be an advantage in having no character to lose, for then whatever offenses one may commit, people only shake their heads and ask what else was to be expected?”

The Times may have been onto something. James Gordon Bennett Jr., the Herald’s publisher and son of its founder, believed his paper had to create drama to thrive. At his death in 1918, the New York Tribune recounted how Bennett had once demanded his editors come up with a “sensation” for the next day’s paper.

The city editor protested that New York was quiet that night.

James Gordon Bennett (Library of Congress)

“Then send a reporter out and have him kill somebody,” Bennett responded, according to the Tribune. “We must have a sensation.”

The story of the Central Park Zoo certainly succeeded on that score. Panic swept the city. Anxious parents stormed police headquarters demanding answers from the superintendent and held their kids out of school, the Tribune reported. A letter writer identified only as “Mother” in the Tribune said she had “never suffered so intently as I did on glancing at the cruel hoax” in the Herald. “Can’t something be done to punish properly or at least rebuke such trifling with the public?”

If they were able to keep their anxiety in check, some readers might have detected clues that the story was a put-on. It included an improbable description of New York Gov. John Dix, a “trusty shot,” bagging a marauding Bengal tiger who had “already counted up a score of victims.”  A group of visiting Swedish hunters, on their way to Nebraska, were supposedly on the scene to kill a prowling lioness who had already taken 18 lives.

The Herald’s fictional sensationalism reflected the ethical lassitude of the newspaper industry of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ben Hecht, co-author with Charles MacArthur of the comic newspaper play “The Front Page,” admitted in his memoirs that he flourished in his early days as a reporter in Chicago by making things up. “Tales of lawsuits no court had ever seen, involving names no city directory had ever known, poured from my typewriter,” Hecht recounted in his memoirs, “A Child of the Century.”

When he was finally caught, Hecht faced the wrath of the publisher and his editors. But in a sign of how different things were back then, he was advised by an editor to simply stay away from the office for a few days. “Now go out the back way before anybody catches sight of you,” he was told.

Almost 20 years after the Herald’s Central Park hoax was published, editor T.B. Connery recalled its genesis in Harper’s Weekly. Connery said he had been in the habit of walking through Central Park to get to work and one day noticed the keepers at the park’s menagerie, as the zoo was known then, struggling to control a leopard.  The incident made a deep impression, Connery wrote, and he wanted to call attention to the potential risks of dangerous animals running free in the park.

The question was, how to do it? Connery believed a scolding editorial would soon be forgotten. Better, perhaps, to “get up a harmless little hoax, with just enough semblance of reality to give a salutary warning.” Days after getting the assignment, reporter Joseph I.C. Clarke overachieved with the vivid but completely fictional story that shocked the city.

The day the story ran, Connery remembered, he walked to work and quickly realized things had gone too far as Herald newsboys hawked extras and alarmed readers scanned the headlines in fear. “I had seen so many evidences of the bad success of the hoax, that I was thoroughly alarmed and disgusted.”

Bennett, however, took it in stride. “The fun of it is all my friends won’t believe such a serious man as you originated the hoax,” Bennett told Connery. “They all blame me for it.”

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