Have you heard the one about the balloon boy? No, not that balloon boy. On April 13, 1844, the New York Sun printed an extra edition reporting that man had finally flown across the Atlantic. In a balloon.
A postscript in the April 13th morning edition of the Sun taunted readers,
We stop the press at a late hour, to announce that … we are just put in possession of full details of the most extraordinary adventure ever accomplished by man…The Extra will be positively ready, and for sale at our counter, by 10’clock this morning.
Throngs formed before the Sun building waiting into the afternoon for their own copy of the newspaper. In the end though, the readership of the New York Sun may have been more suspicious than those crowded breathlessly around their televisions last week. The Sun, a penny press, had a history of encouraging sales with outrageous stories.
Reporting on the story, the Philadelphia Inquirer reminded readers that, “The Sun, it will be remembered, originally published the celebrated Moon Story Hoax. The foregoing is probably from the same pen. We have Charleston papers [where the balloon supposedly landed] of the 11th, which of course, do not contain a word in relation to the wonderful adventure.”
The Sun retracted the article two days later, “we are inclined to believe the intelligence is erroneous” but noted that regardless, it “was read with great pleasure and satisfaction.” And the author of the hoax, Edgar Allan Poe, defended his story, “There is nothing put forth in the Balloon-Story which is not in full keeping with the known facts of aeronautic experience—which might not really have occurred.”
Where does the American Antiquarian Society fit into the frenzy? We have the only known copy of that April 13, 1844 extra. On August 29, 1929 in response to a letter by AAS librarian Clarence Brigham, the editor of The Sun Frank M. O’Brien revealed that their archives held no copy of it and thus, “It is quite possible, I should say, that the American Antiquarian Society is the only owner of a copy of the Balloon Hoax Extra. If so, it is something to be proud of.”