Today in History: The Day NYC Went Wild
One of the most notorious media hoaxes of the nineteenth century was published by the New York Herald on November 19, 1874.
The front page of the Herald was headlined, "A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death." The article began with details about the escape of dangerous animals from the Central Park Zoo, which led to the death of 49 people and hundreds of injuries.
As the story went, a rhinoceros escaped its cage, trampling its keeper, and went on to break down other cages, allowing other animals to escape. A Bengal tiger was said to have gotten out and was shot in the street by Governor Dix.
Bolded column sub-headers read: "Savage Brutes at large," "Bravery and Panic," "Awful Combats Between the Beasts and the Citizens," and more. There was also a proclamation from the mayor urging all citizens "to keep within their houses or residences until the wild animals now at large are captured or killed."
In small print at the end of the article, the Herald had a disclaimer stating: "Of course, the entire story given above is a pure fabrication. Not one word of it is true." However, as expected, most New Yorkers did not read the disclaimer, leading to widespread panic from the public.
New Yorkers took to the streets with weapons, parents kept their children home from school, and reporters were sent out to cover the story. Other newspapers were perplexed about how their reporters hadn't gotten any information on this historic event. The editor of the New York Times is said to have confronted the police at their headquarters, demanding to know why the Herald was the only paper that the department shared the news.
Hampton Sides wrote about this event in his book 'In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette.' He noted that Gordon Bennet, the owner of the New York Herald, believed that newspaper editors should not only cover news, "they should orchestrate large-scale public dramas that stirred emotions and got people talking."
Sides continued, saying that Bennet enthusiastically encouraged this story to point out that the city lacked an evacuation plan if there was a large-scale emergency. "How is New York prepared to meet such a catastrophe?" the Herald asked. "From causes quite as insignificant the greatest calamities of history have sprung." The story was also concocted to bring attention to the need for repair and updates to the flimsy zoo cages.
While frowned upon by other publications and the public, the Herald technically didn't do anything wrong. They covered their bases by their disclaimer at the end of the article, so no charges were ever filed against the paper. Interestingly, the paper sales did not drop due to the hoax.
One positive outcome of the hoax: the zoo cages were repaired shortly after.
photo: New York Herald headquarters