24. The Time Mencken Hoaxed Himself, Part II

Note: For Part I of this article, click here

Melancholy Reflections” appeared in the Chicago Tribune on May 23, 1926. It was not just a confession but also Mencken's cry for the public to use critical reasoning.

The joke had soured. H.L. Mencken was receiving letters of corroboration from some readers and requests for more details from others. And, because Fillmore’s presidency was uneventful, some calendars now marked his birthday with the only interesting tidbit they had: Fillmore introduced the bathtub into the White House.

In “Melancholy Reflections,” Mencken speculated on the probable response to his confession. Cincinnati, where the faux bathtub was (not) invented, had enjoyed a surge in its bathtub industry, which now ran “to $200,000,000 a year.” The city, he lamented, “will charge me with spreading lies against them. The chiropractors will damn me for blowing up their ammunition. The medical gents, having swallowed my quackery, will denounce me as a quack for exposing them.” He wondered if there would be a renewed cry for his deportation to Russia as a Bolshevik.

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The response was worse than the hardened cynic could imagine. Most people thought his confession was the hoax, and the satire was true. The history of the American bathtub had been so charmingly constructed that people simply wished to believe it.

Mencken published a follow-up entitled “Hymn to the Truth” in the Chicago Tribune of July 25, 1926. He commented on the Boston Herald's reprint of his confession “on page 7 of its editorial section” with a cartoon labeled “The American public will swallow anything.” Three weeks later, the same editorial section reprinted the original hoax article on page 1 “as a piece of news!”

Mencken never succeeded in replacing the hoax with truth. Flip through some calendars. Ask a schoolchild. They will tell you: Fillmore introduced the modern bathtub into the White House.


WRY GUYS TEE — H.L. Mencken on Age & Wisdom

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