Two residents, a man and a woman, were accused of casting a spell on a neighbor’s barn animals, causing sheep to "dance in an uncommon manner" and hogs to "speak and sing psalms."
The Jersey witch story went viral, 18th-century style, reprinted in newspapers throughout the colonies. The tale was captivating, cautionary and completely fabricated.
Mount Holly never held a witch trial. The article was a hoax penned anonymously by Benjamin Franklin, who often published journalistic pranks in the Gazette.
"Franklin was using a hoax in order to expose credulity and superstition and false belief," says Alex Boese, curator of the online Museum of Hoaxes. "What I find so interesting about hoaxes is they reveal so much about different eras and people’s fears, frustrations and preoccupations."
With his Mount Holly spoof, Franklin pioneered the art of the Jersey hoax. Centuries of hucksters, showmen and satirists have followed his lead, using the Garden State as the backdrop for epic practical jokes.
Grover’s Mill is hoax holy ground, the site of a fake alien invasion hyped by Orson Welles, who adapted "War of the Worlds" into a mock 1938 newscast
P.T. Barnum dreamed up the Free Grand Buffalo Hunt of Hoboken in 1843. Some 24,000 spectators packed a racetrack, expecting a herd of stomping behemoths but finding a dozen aging bovines from Boston.
Although there’s a long tradition of whimsy on April 1, none of Jersey’s classic hoaxes coincided with April Fools’ Day. The witch trial and the Martian landing were in October, while the buffalo hunt was at the end of summer.
Boese says the spring celebration evolved into a mainstream media event after it got co-opted by retailers and fast-food chains as a marketing ploy three decades ago.
"April Fools’ Day has an antiestablishment spirit, and companies are piggybacking on that whole anti-authority feeling," says Boese. "You’ll get hoaxes like the left-handed Whopper and the Taco Liberty Bell. Just like people watch the Super Bowl for the commercials, people follow April Fools’ Day ads just to see what Google and BMW are going to do."
As we brace ourselves for a day of corporate mischief, here’s a look back at four historical Jersey hoaxes.
WITCHES OF BURLINGTON
"It’s possible that Franklin was playing upon regional humor and provincialism," says Sean Harvey, Seton Hall history professor. "I also think that for his Philadelphia audience, South Jersey was close enough for readers to recognize but far enough that they don’t have any positive knowledge of what’s happening there."
Franklin is very likely the first humorist to heighten the absurdity of his story by setting it in New Jersey. His main goal, however, was not to taunt the colonists across the river from Philly. His hoax was a commentary on the fervor that fueled the Salem Witch Trials in his native Massachusetts four decades earlier.
"Franklin is famously a skeptic," says Harvey. "He sees the ethical utility of Christianity, but he repeatedly takes the opportunity to skewer extreme forms of religious enthusiasm, the loss of self-control and reason."
Franklin’s account ends with the exoneration of the suspects. They passed two tests, getting dunked in a pond and sitting on a scale to prove they weighed more than the Bible. Suspicion lingered, Franklin quipped, because the alleged witches were wearing undergarments that may have kept them afloat.
"It is said they are to be tried again the next warm weather, naked," Franklin wrote.
P.T. Barnum was just starting his career when he lured folks to Hoboken with the promise of daredevil cowboys and savage animals. A year earlier, he debuted the Feejee Mermaid at his American Museum in New York. The mythical sea creature was in fact the remains of a monkey and a fish stitched together.
"Barnum was on the verge of becoming a larger-than-life character," says Kathy Maher, director of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn. "He found these older, sickly animals at a tent show in Boston and bought them for $700. He figured out a way to make it interesting."
It wasn’t exactly free. New Yorkers paid 12 cents round-trip to visit Jersey via ferry. Barnum profited through a deal with the boat owners to split the revenue. The crowd didn’t turn hostile when they realized they’d been hoodwinked, Maher says.
"Everyone was laughing," says Maher. "These poor darned animals were lumbering around behind a flimsy fence and people thought it was hysterical. The buffalo got scared and ran the fence down and mayhem ensued but no one got hurt. This was an adventure. This was entertainment."
Less than a century later, another smirking giant staged a Jersey stunt with vastly different results.
For Halloween, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre troupe turned "War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells into a radio drama. Listeners who missed the introduction believed that marauding Martians were on the loose in Grover’s Mill.
"You have to consider that this was before WWII and there was a lot of chatter in the media about the possibility of a German invasion," says Boese. "I don’t necessarily think Welles was trying to create a panic. I think it was more his commentary on the ability of radio to sway the masses and the use of propaganda in places like Germany. Welles was saying, ‘Look how easily we can use this medium to make everybody believe something ridiculous.’ "
Welles selected Grover’s Mill as the landing site because it is close to Princeton University, allowing him to pretend that a professor had rushed to the scene, according to Boese.
"I made a pilgrimage to Grover’s Mill," says Boese, of San Diego. "It’s a little disappointing because all that’s there is a stone monument stuck out in the middle of a field. I think the town should do more to capitalize on this part it played in American history."
At least one "War of the Worlds" memento has been preserved. The Cranbury Historical Society owns the remnants of a water tower that was, according to legend, mistaken for a Martian tripod and attacked by locals with shotguns.
"The broadcast became legendary because it reached millions of people and demonstrated how many people could be affected all at once by a small group of people playing a joke," says Boese.
MYSTERY OF ONG'S HAT
The main tool of the trade for today’s hoaxers is the internet, a vast, unregulated forum for flimflam and gossip. Although people like to think of themselves as skeptics and sophisticates, folks have been fooled en masse by bloggers claiming that Jon Bon Jovi is dead or kittens can grow in jars. Popular website Snopes.com is devoted to debunking rumors and myths.
"Whenever you have a time of unease and uncertainty, hoaxes start to bubble up," says Boese. "After 9/11, there was a flood of hoaxes online. I don’t think there were ever so many hoaxes at any time in history. That’s what caused Snopes to become as big as it is today."
In the internet’s olden days of dialup connections and Usenet bulletin boards, a group of writers/gamers collaborated online to create, "Ong’s Hat: The Beginning," a story inspired by Pine Barrens folklore. Overseeing the project was Joseph Matheny, a computer programmer who explored the Pine Barrens with a friend.
Named for a real Jersey ghost town, the tale centers on a cult of scientists, jazz musicians and anarchists who lurk in the woods around a mystical portal near a toxic waste site. Matheny doesn’t consider it a hoax because he wasn’t trying to dupe the audience into believing South Jersey is the gateway to another dimension.
"There’s a lot of people that used to say I need to tell people that this isn’t real," says Matheny. "I didn’t expect the conspiracy crowd to pick it up and run with it. I’m like, ‘If you read this and take it at face value and think it’s real, you need to have your head checked.’
Source: Star Ledger