Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub

In the New York Evening Mail of 28 December 1917 appeared an article by H.L. Mencken entitled “A Neglected Anniversary.” The article discussed the very first American bathtub, how the bathtub had faced substantial public, medical and legal opposition, and how one was eventually installed in the White House during the administration of President Millard Fillmore.

Mencken made the whole thing up. “This article,” he wrote, “was a tissue of somewhat heavy absurdities, all of them deliberate and most of them obvious.”

“My motive,” he explained later, “was simply to have some harmless fun in war days. It never occurred to me that it would be taken seriously.” However:

Soon I began to encounter my preposterous “facts” in the writings of other men…. The chiropractors and other such quacks collared them for use as evidence of the stupidity of medical men. They were cited by medical men as proof of the progress of public hygiene. They got into learned journals and the transactions of learned societies. They were alluded to on the floor of Congress. The editorial writers of the land, borrowing them in toto and without mentioning my begetting of them, began to labor them in their dull, indignant way. They crossed the dreadful wastes of the North Atlantic, and were discussed horribly by English uplifters and German professors. Finally, they got into the standard works of reference, and began to be taught to the young.

Wendy McElroy, in The Bathtub, Mencken, and War suspects that more than “harmless fun” was behind the hoax: “Through his hoax, Mencken demonstrated to himself and to selected friends that the American public would believe any absurdity, as long as it appealed to their imagination or emotions.”

Curtis D. MacDougall, in his 1958 edition of the book Hoaxes gives a chronology, which he confesses is surely very incomplete, and which I summarize and update somewhat below:

And, more recently…

Curtis MacDougall ends his list by saying: “If the publishers will include a blank page or two after this one, dear reader, you can continue this chronology yourself.” With that in mind, here are some examples (send me more if you find them!):

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On This Day in SniggleryJune 25, 2001: Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate, finally admits that the magazine’s report on the bizarre sport of monkey fishing was “willful inaccuracy.” (See News Trolls for more info)