American society has long had a reputation for violence. So when the London Times
received a letter from an Englishman living in America detailing a list of bloody duels and murders that had occurred during a routine train ride through Georgia, the Times
not only believed the outrageous claims, but printed and vigorously defended them.
The letter appeared in the Times
on October 15, 1856. It was titled, "Railways and Revolvers in Georgia." According to the account, the traveller had boarded a train in Macon, Georgia. He disembarked ten and a half hours later in Augusta, by which time six passengers had been slaughtered. The murders principally took the form of duels fought with "Monte Christo pistols." For each duel the conductor graciously halted the train so that the combatants could fight with greater freedom of movement. The most brutal killing occurred when a man sliced open the throat of a young boy to silence his cries following the death of his father. To the traveller's shock, this level of violence was considered so normal that it barely warranted a raised eyebrow from the other passengers on the train. This kind of bloodshed was apparently an everyday fact of life in America.
When the American press learned of the letter, a trans-atlantic furor ensued. American newspapers such as the New York Times
vigorously denied the tale. But the London Times
insisted it was true, claiming it had complete faith in the integrity of its correspondent, whom it revealed to be a cotton merchant named John Arrowsmith.
The dispute dragged on for almost two months before the Times
finally admitted it had been duped. A Times
reporter travelling through the South a year later discovered that the term "Monte Christo pistols" was actually local slang used to refer to bottles of champagne (because of the popping sound the bottles made when opened). Empty bottles were referred to as "dead men". The Times
reporter dryly noted, "Encounters with the Monte Christo weapons in the baggage-wagons are, I understand, not uncommon on the line... [but] no fatal results have ever occurred."
Links and References
- "A Prodigious Hoax." New York Times, (November 1, 1856): 4.
- Coulter, E. Merton. "The Great Georgia Railway Disaster Hoax On The London Times". Georgia Historical Quarterly 1972 56(1): 25-50.
- Crawford, Martin. "The Great Georgia Railway Disaster Hoax Revisited". Georgia Historical Quarterly 1974 58(3): 331-339.