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Making Mischief In The Modern World

Kembrew McLeod

While a printer's apprentice in his teens, Benjamin Franklin adopted a number of pseudonyms to get himself published. Silence Dogood was the most notorious, but also used Ephraim Censorious, Patience, the Casuist, the anti-Casuist, Anthony Afterwit and Margaret Aftercast. Writing as Margaret Careful and Celia Shortface, he wrote faux-indignant attacks on business rivals' morality, and manufactured the first anti-abortion debate. He used the multiple personnas to argue every side of the debate.

PT Barnum revelled in his reputation as a trickster and a charlatan. He maintained he was an entertainer, and he entertained by fooling people. One of his earliest pranks was when he was on a harbor ferry and convinced a clergyman that he was a barber and would give the man a free shave. But with half the man's beard shaved off, he paused to sharpen his blade, then pretended it had fallen overboard. The clergyman had to disembark with a towel over his half-shaved face.

To promote his sideshows, he offered free music for all to hear. But he hired the worst musicians he could find, in the hope that their racket would drive audiences into the sideshow to escape.

Until early 1830's, NY newspapers were staid and respectable. The Sun fixed that with a penny press specialising in death and calamity. In 1835 the Sun reported that a well-known astronomer, Sir John Herschel, who, conveniently, was working in remote South Africa, had found life on the Moon. Not only could he see poppies and fir trees, but also animals, with horns.

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