23. The Time Mencken Hoaxed Himself, Part I

"Democracy is the theory that ... the common people know
what they want,
and deserve to get it good and hard."
H.L. Mencken


The iconoclastic journalist H.L. Mencken was notoriously scornful of uneducated and uncultured people whom he called the “booboisie.” In 1917, the publishing world boycotted his articles on World War I because Mencken was of German descent, critical of the war and held pro-German views based on the nation's culture, not its politics. Forced into non-political writing, he decided to give it to the public “good and hard.”

On December 28, 1917, “A Neglected Anniversary” appeared in the
H.L. Mencken Bathtub Hoax — guys t shirts & funny political t shirtsNew York Evening Mail. Mencken excoriated Americans for neglecting the 75th anniversary of the modern bathtub, installed in the White House in 1851 by then-President Millard Fillmore despite controversy over the benefits of bathing. Mencken observed, “Boston early in 1845 made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice."

A Neglected Anniversary” was social satire. The bathtub's inventor, Adam Thompson, was a fiction; Andrew Jackson introduced a tub to the White House years prior; and the health law to which Mencken pointed was “buncombe.” The hoax was a private joke to illustrate how easily Americans embraced trivial fiction along with war propaganda. Cheerful contempt was also directed at gullible journalists who swallowed tales of Germans bayoneting babies as readily as they did Mencken's bathwater.

Because the article mixed easily verified facts (when Fillmore assumed the Presidency) with difficult to refute 'facts' (well-cited references from an obscure, non-existent medical journal), the bathtub's 'history' began to appear in reference works and children's schoolbooks. Chiropractors, whom Mencken called  “quacks,” used it as evidence of the stupidity of physicians. The article was reprinted hundreds of times.
In 1926, Mencken decided to come clean. In our next post, we'll share the public's reaction to Mencken's confession, which was more amazing than the hoax itself.


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