Abraham Lincoln applied for a patent on a newspaper-like version of Facebook in 1845? If someone told you that in a bar, you’d laugh. But if they wrapped it in a tall tale, wrote it on a blog, and attached a Photoshopped front page, it seems they can garner national press attention.
Entrepreneur and sometime blogger Nate St. Pierre published such a fable on his website Tuesday. He claimed to have visited a cemetery for circus folk in Delavan, Wisconsin (such a place does exist) and seen a gravestone that referenced P.T. Barnum and Abraham Lincoln.
That led him on a journey to the Lincoln museum in Springfield, Ill., where a librarian supposedly helped St. Pierre dig up a failed patent application for the “Springfield Gazette,” replete with status updates, a profile photo and pithy quotes. “After we read it, we both sat there quiet for a long time,” St. Pierre wrote. “It was so obvious what this was, guys. A patent request for Facebook, filed by Abraham Lincoln in 1845.”
Most tall tales have red flags in them for the alert reader. This one was like a Beijing Olympics of red flags.
For starters, St. Pierre referenced Barnum, and not in a subtle way. He pointed out the circus huckster’s predilection for hoaxes, alongside the most famous quote Barnum never said: “there’s a sucker born every minute.”
There were more technical fallacies, like the fact that the picture of Lincoln postdated the newspaper by decades. Still, the most glaring red flag was this: Abraham Lincoln’s life has been picked apart by more historians than any other American celebrity. We know everything there is to know about his early years in Kentucky, his law practice in Springfield, his one genuine patent (a device to lift boats over shoals).
And now one blogger digs up a whole secret area of Honest Abe’s life in one afternoon, with the help of a dedicated Lincoln librarian who has somehow never come across it before? If you believe that, we’ve got a wrought-iron bridge to sell you.
Still, the tale was enough to fool at least three publications: Forbes, The Next Web and ZDNet. (All three have since amended or redacted their stories). Many more kept their powder dry, but St. Pierre claims he got more than 100,000 views on his blog post. We’ll take that with a pinch of salt, but the 15,000 Facebook Likes don’t lie.
St. Pierre says he’s at work on a post that will explain his reasons for the fabulation. We’ll summarize it in another 19th century truism: you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.
Ironically, that quote has been attributed to two historical figures: Abraham Lincoln and P.T. Barnum. Yes, really.