Text: Doris V. Falk, “Thomas Low Nichols, Poe, and the ‘Balloon Hoax’,” Poe Studies, December 1972, Vol. V, No. 2, 5:48-49


[page 48, column 2:]

Thomas Low Nichols, Poe,
and the “Balloon Hoax”

Douglass College

In addition to Poe’s account of the reception of his “Balloon Hoax” in his letters to The Columbia Spy (1), another account exists which has been completely ignored by his biographers, even by recent writers on Poe as hoaxer and journalist (2). This second account is by Thomas Low Nichols in Forty Years of American Life, 1821-1861 (3), first published as a whole in 1864 (parts having previously appeared in English periodicals). That it has been neglected is the more surprising in view of the fact that it is listed in the Heartman and Canny Bibliography (4) and that the “Reminiscences of Edgar Allan Poe” by Nichols’ wife, Mary Gove Nichols (Sixpenny Magazine, February 1863), has been mined for every grain of biographical ore.

Nichols and Poe seem to have enjoyed a cordial relationship. Nichols’ reference to Poe’s broken engagement (perhaps based more on contemporary gossip than on fact) is sympathetic. And Poe, on the same pages of his Columbia Spy letter which give his account of the “Balloon Hoax,” defends Nichols (whose name may have been evoked by association with the “Hoax” incident) as “a man of talent” in his quarrel with James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald.

Although only part of Nichols’ comment is relevant to the “Balloon Hoax” episode, I should like to quote the passage in context since it furnishes another interesting contemporary view of Poe. Nichols recounts that he met Poe on the steps of the post office near City Hall in downtown New York:

On the steps stood a slender, pale gentleman, with a pear-shaped head, the broad part upwards, a delicate mouth and chin beautiful grey eyes, and the whitest of hands, with long tapering fingers.

Poe was a Southerner, and a man of rare genius, with some faults of character and one great misfortune — a temperament so sensitive that, as with other poets I have known, a glass or two of wine made him not merely intoxicated but insane. He had a beautiful wife, whom he tenderly loved who died of poverty and consumption. He was wayward, unworldly, and strangely incapable of taking care of himself, or of keeping the friendship of those who wished to serve him. He was sure always to do something to mar his fortunes. One day he sold an ingenious scientific hoax to a newspaper publisher for fifty dollars. The publisher brought it out in an extra; and Poe, crazed by a glass of wine, stood on the walk before the publisher’s door, and told the assembled crowd that the extra was a hoax, as he personally knew, for he had written it himself. The crowd scattered, the sales fell off, and the publisher, on going to the door, to ascertain the cause of failure, saw his author making what he conceived to be the necessary explanations.

Engaged to be married to a lady of wealth, position, and a genius worthy of his own, he took the precious opportunity to invoke his familiar demon the day before the wedding was to have taken place, and to make such an exhibition of himself in the street before the lady’s house as to show that he was much fitter for a madhouse than for matrimony. The match was broken off with such circumstance of mortification as he did not long survive. Thus died the author of “The Raven,” and “Lenore,” and some of the finest writings in American literature. Poor Poe! he was much blamed, but those who knew him best felt for him much more of pity. He lived a sad strange life, and died a sadder death. (pp. 215-216).

Although the passage is familiar to Poe scholars, a re-reading of Poe’s Columbia Spy version in the light of Nichols’ comment is illuminating:

Talking of “expresses” — the “Balloon Hoax” made a far more intense sensation than anything of that character since the “Moon Story” of Locke. On the morning (Saturday) of its announcement the whole square surrounding the “Sun” building was literally besieged, blocked up — ingress and egress being alike impossible, from a period soon after sunrise until two o’clock P.M. In Saturday’s regular issue, it was stated that the news had been just received, and that an “Extra” was then in preparation, which would be ready at ten. It was not delivered, however, until nearly noon. In the meantime I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper. As soon as the few first copies made their way into the streets, they were bought up, at almost any price, from the news-boys, who made a profitable speculation beyond doubt. I saw a half-dollar given, in one instance, for a single paper, and a shilling was a frequent price. I tried, in vain, during the whole day, to get possession of a copy. It was excessively amusing, however, to hear the comment of those who had read the “Extra.” Of course there was great discrepancy of opinion as regards the authenticity of the story; but I observed that the more intelligent believed, while the rabble, for the most part, rejected the whole with disdain. Twenty years ago credulity was the characteristic trait of the mob, incredulity the distinctive feature of the philosophic, now the case is exactly conversed. The wise are disinclined to disbelief — and justly so. The only grounds, in this instance, for doubt, with those who knew anything of Natural Philosophy, were the publication of the marvel in the suspected “Sun” (the organ of the Moon-Hoax) and the great difficulty of running an Express from Charleston, in advance of the mail. As for internal evidence of falsehood, there is, positively, none — while the more generally accredited fable of Locke would not bear even momentary examination by the scientific. 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. An expedition of the kind has been long contemplated, and this jeu d’esprit will, beyond doubt give the intention a new impulse. For my own part, I shall not be in the least surprised to learn, in the course of next month, or the next, that a balloon has made the actual voyage so elaborately described by the hoaxer. The trip might be made in even less time than seventy-five hours — which give only about forty miles to the hour. (Doings of Gotham, pp. 33-34).

The crucial difference, of course, between the two accounts is Poe’s omission of his own self-sabotage. Poe wrote to project an image of himself as the chatty, witty, superior man-about-town, the litterateur proud not so much of deceiving the “mob” as of tricking other intellectuals. And even here he continued to bite the hand that fed him, as Nichols recounts. His remarks on the gullibility of the wise could not have endeared him to the literati, and the reference to the “Moon Hoax” could only have reminded one of these, Richard Adams Locke, of the 1835 battle in which Poe accused him of plagiarizing his “Discoveries in the Moon” from “Hans Pfaall” (5).

As for the authenticity of Nichols’ account, it is entirely possible that his source was Moses Y. Beach, the frustrated publisher of the Sun who had paid Poe fifty dollars for a story which might have had the same success as the “Moon Hoax.” The quarrel referred to above between Nichols and James Gordon Bennett concerned the authorship of a pamphlet satirizing Bennett and the Herald. Bennett had accused Beach of writing it. But, says Poe, “Mr. Beach denies the parentage, and Mr. T. L. Nichols avows it” (p. 32) .

Beach’s association with the Sun was well established at the time of Locke’s hoax, eight years before the publication [column 2:] of the “Balloon Hoax.” Beach well remembered the prodigious success of Locke’s story, which was not discredited until several weeks after its publication — and even then the Sun did not print an outright retraction. In contrast, Beach published a retraction of the “Balloon Hoax” two days after it appeared (6). Surely if Poe’s account had been the whole story, the Sun would never have foregone the publicity and profit to be gained by prolonging the fiction until some scientist or non-witness from Charleston had discredited it. But if Nichols’ version is the true one, then word of Poe’s authorship would have travelled too fast for even the Sun to brazen it out further.

Finally, Poe’s undermining his own success with the “Balloon Hoax” fits exactly into the pattern of the compulsively self-destructive characters in his tales of “perversity” — those madmen who cannot resist the ego-satisfaction of confessing to ingenious crimes. The idea of “the perverse” in himself and others haunted him at the time of the “Balloon Hoax” in 1844. He had just the year before published “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” And the year after the “Balloon Hoax” he published “The Imp of the Perverse.” Surely his own compulsive confession, as told by Nichols, deserves notice in Poe criticism and biography.



(1) Thomas O. Mabbott, ed., Doings of Gotham in a Series of Letters by Edgar Allan Poe as Described to the Editor of the Columbia Spy; Together with Various Editorial Comments and Criticisms by Poe, now first collected by Jacob E. Spannuth; with preface, introduction and comments by Mabbott (Pottsville, Pa.: J. E. Spannuth, 1929), pp. 33-34.

(2) See, for example, Michael Allen, Poe and the British Magazine Tradition (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969); Burton R. Pollin, Discoveries in Poe (Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1970).

(3) New York: Stackpole, 1937, pp. 215-216.

(4) Charles F. Heartman and James R. Canny, A Bibliography of First Printings of the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, rev. ed. (Hattiesburg, Miss.: Book Farm, 1943), p. 85.

(5) Poe attacked Locke again in the Columbia Spy letter of June 8 (p. 52) and continued the accusation in 1846. See Sidney P. Moss, Poe’s Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Milieu (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1963), pp. 87-88.

(6) Frank M. O’Brien, The Story of “The Sun” (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1918), pp. 87-89.


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