Environmental Graffiti reporter Thomas Davie investigates one of the most awesome 19th Century global pranks, by one of America's greatest literary geniuses
In Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court Hank Morgan watches his medieval companion wallow with pigs she believes to be enchanted nobles and proclaims, "I was ashamed of her, ashamed of the human race." Twain's own shame at the human race's partiality to superstition and pseudoscience was revealed on a much larger scale by his audacious hoax that claimed a petrified man had been discovered in Virginia state - complete with wooden leg and rude gesture.
Twain's hoax appeared in the Territorial Enterprise newspaper on October 4th, 1862. It claimed that a petrified man had been found in the mountains near Gravelly Ford with his limbs preserved perfectly - even his wooden leg: "Every limb and feature of the stony mummy was perfect, not even excepting the left leg, which has evidently been a wooden one during his lifetime."
The account included a number of geographical inaccuracies that anyone familiar with the local area would have immediately recognised, or so Twain thought - he was shocked by the credulity of his readers as they not only accepted the story, but enthusiastically reprinted it around the world. A local politician, Judge Sewall, was even bombarded with inquires and requests for information about a body he knew nothing about.
If a careful reader pieced together the positions given for the hands and fingers of the petrified man it would have become apparent the article was a spoof. Most alarming was the position of the hands and here perhaps his readers should have started to twig something was not quite right: "the right thumb rested against the side of the nose; the left thumb partially supported the chin, the fore-finger pressed the inner corner of the left eye, drawing it partly open; the right eye was closed, and the fingers of the right hand spread apart."
Although the description is oblique a careful reading reveals that the ‘petrified body', just like Twain's article, was literally thumbing its nose at posterity.