Hoaxes in History H. L. Mencken's Bathtub Hoax Part 2

About the famous hoax when journalist H. L. Mencken wrote a phony history of the bathtub in America which was taken as fact.


H. L. Mencken's Bathtub Hoax

The column eventually came to an end, but not the legend it had started. The information in the piece was picked up by various sources as a "straight" news story, and before long Mencken began to see the "facts" he had created used in earnest writings by other men, obviously sincere, who took it all at face value. What particularly galled Mencken was that chiropractors (a group heading the list of his pet hates) used the "information" to prove the stupidity of physicians in their reluctance to try new and supposedly beneficial treatments for mankind's ills. Or so he wrote in a retraction of sorts, "Melancholy Reflections," which was syndicated May 23, 1926, in a number of newspapers.

Mencken noted in the same article that physicians now cited the "facts" he'd invented as proof of the advance of public health measures throughout the years, and that these "facts" were beginning to appear in standard reference books, were discussed in Congress, and were referred to in scholarly journals.

Mencken may have thought his revelation would settle matters. After all, he had only written the original piece in an effort to lighten the darker days of W.W.I; it had never occurred to him, or so he said, that anyone would take the piece seriously. But the joke had got out of hand, and now it was time for a correction.

It didn't work out that way. The Boston Herald published Mencken's retraction along with an editorial cartoon satirizing the willingness of the public to believe what it was told. However, three weeks later the same paper reprinted the original 10-year-old hoax article as a piece of uncontested, "real" news, thereby proving that editors can be just as gullible as their readers.

A few weeks later, Mencken wrote another column, also widely syndicated, in which he pointed out the Herald's error and once again disclaimed any valid source for the "facts" people were so willing to believe about the bathtub and its history in America. Again, it didn't do any good.

Mencken's original tale was alluded to in articles and books for years afterward. The ridiculous information appeared in newspapers ranging from Hearst's American Weekly to the staid, proper, punctilious New York Times. Twice Mencken's own paper, the Baltimore Sun, was "stung" by the resurfacing of "facts" from the original article. And President Truman, while showing friends and guests about the White House, used to repeat the "fact" that a predecessor, Millard Fillmore, had introduced the first bathtub there. Truman supposedly even included a sketch of the whole story in a speech he gave in Philadelphia, by way of illustration of progress in public health. That was in 1952, some 35 years after the original piece was published and 26 years after Mencken published his second retraction.

Is the Bathtub Hoax still around? It's difficult to say. But if you ever come across a reference to Cincinnati as the home of the bathtub, or to Millard Fillmore as our first tubbing president, you'll know it hasn't died out altogether.

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