A Fake News Story from 80 Years Ago

On August 7, 1937–exactly 80 years ago–the Nantucket Island Inquirer and Mirror newspaper led with a startling headline:
A Sea Monster | Bill Manville Says He Saw One Off Nantucket. Insists He was Not Dreaming. Hopes I Appears Again to Verify His Story.

See the digital copy of the article here.

Planning a Hoax

This was an elaborate hoax in which the newspapermen knew that the story was fake. It took a long time to prepare for, but no one knows exactly how long.

Here’s what we know about the sea monster

Tony Sarg was a master puppeteer and ran a local Curiosity Shop on Nantucket. He was responsible for the original design for the massive balloons that flew in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He saw them as upside down puppets or marionette. If you’ve ever watched the balloon handlers, you can understand how apt this analogy was.

For the 1937 Parade, Sarg designed a massive sea monster balloon. Sometime that spring or early summer, Sarg and Macy’s officials agreed to do a publicity stunt and float the balloon off Nantucket Island. They talked with the newspaper editor of the Nantucket Island Inquirer and Mirror, who agreed to go along and to print articles, even though he knew they were fake. Another newspaperman who worked for a wire service agreed to reprint the story and send it out on the wires.

To make the hoax a reality, the Akron Rubber and Tire Company, the makers of the balloons, shipped the balloon, along with several thousand pounds of compressed air to fill up the balloon.

For two weeks, newspapers printed stories about the sea monster. The story itself spread from Cape Cod to California. Finally, on August 18, 1937, word went around that the sea monster had been caught by Tony Sarg. People flooded the beach to see it–only to discover that it was a rubber balloon.

Researching the Book

To research the book, I went to Nantucket Island in 2011. We rode bicycles across the island, stopping at cranberry bogs, and visiting Mandaket Beach and the beach where the balloon was pulled out. The historical museum had an interesting archive of material. However, they mentioned to me that another author, Melissa Sweet, was researching Tony Sarg. When I went home, I contacted her and learned that she had a contract for a book. That was Balloons Over Broadway, which was awarded the 2012 Robert F. Sibert Medal, and the 2012 NCTE Orbis Pictus Award.

After emailing with Melissa, I knew my story was dead in the water.
But here’s the thing: I was never interested in the same thing as Melissa. As an artist herself, she was interested in Tony Sarg’s art and life. I was only interested in the sea monster hoax. Still, no one would touch my story after her brilliant book.

Non-Political Fake New Story

But time moves along. And this year, in 2017, after a grueling election process in 2016, I began to hear teachers, parents, and librarians ask for a particular kind of book: A non-political fake-news story. I pulled out the research and looked at it again. Yes, this was a non-political story. And it was definitely a fake news story. Whether you call it a hoax, a fake new story or a publicity stunt matters not. The fact is that newspapermen knew the story was false when they published it.

To make the book useful in the classroom, I added a discussion of the First Amendment. I found two contradictory statements from Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. President:

1) “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.” Source
2) “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” Source

Historical Archive of Photos

One of the fascinating things about this event are the photographic records. The Nantucket Historical Society maintains a Flickr album with many b/w photos that were invaluable to illustrator Peter Wills as he worked on this book. See the Tony Sarg’s Sea Monster in Nantucket Flickr Album.

Here are a couple photos from that album.

Tony Sarg's sea mosnter | Mims House
See the length of the sea monster (135 feet) and compare the size to people.

Sea monster footprints on Nantucket Island | MimsHouse.com
Measuring the sea monster footprints on the beach.

Tony Sarg and spectators pose in front of the sea monster's mouth. | MimsHouse.com
Tony Sarg and spectators pose in front of the sea monster’s mouth.

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