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Saturday, August 25, 2012


On Monday morning, November 9, 1874, the New York Herald newspaper published a story that sent the citizens of the city into a panic. The paper reported the events of the previous afternoon and evening revealing that most of the animals at the Central Park Zoo had escaped and were roaming city streets; randomly killing men, women, and children. The paper said that by dawn 49 people were known dead and over 200 had been injured. The National Guard was called out and was battling the most ferocious animals block by block. The mayor issued a proclamation which said, “All citizens are enjoined to keep within their houses or residences until the wild animals now at large are captured or killed.”

“ESCAPED ANIMALS ROAM STREETS OF MANHATTAN” shrieked the headlines. “The terrible events of yesterday - the bursting forth of the most ferocious of the beasts within the menagerie of the Park, the awful slaughter that ensued, the exciting conflicts between the infuriated animals, the frightful deaths that followed, and the destruction of property are making an era in the history of New York not soon to be forgotten.”

“It is safe to say that at least 20,000 people filled the various walks and avenues yesterday. To nine-tenths of the pedestrian visitors, the Menagerie (the zoo) is the chief source of attraction. . . This writer stood within a hundred yards of the menagerie when the first ominous symptoms of the approaching catastrophe were heard. . . The crowd fled in all directions, women falling as they ran and no one staying to help them up”

“The huge rhinoceros had broken loose. He had apparently made no more of the massive barrier that enclosed him than that of a sheet of pasteboard.” The rhino had broken open the pens reserved for the truly dangerous animals. “The lion bounded into the center aisle of the building and three cages containing the black and spotted leopards, the tiger and tigresses, the black wolf and the spotted hyenas were sprung. . . It was followed by a series of fights between the liberated beasts.”

“They’re coming; they’re all loose,” the account continued. “Police armed with revolvers and citizens with rifles were on the grounds. . . Toward Fifth Avenue came the Numidia lion, with a series of bounds. So sudden, fierce, and powerful was the leap he made into the midst of the storming party that he scattered half a hundred armed and unarmed men.”

The animals continued their rampage. An anaconda attempted to eat a giraffe, a Bengal Tiger was shot on Madison Avenue, a panther attacked worshipers inside a church, and another tiger leaped on to a ferryboat. A list of specific names of the mutilated and trampled people was included in the article. The front page story was six columns wide and ran to 10,000 words describing the carnage in bloody detail. The article caused widespread panic across the city.

The people who didn’t read all the way to the end of the story missed an important detail, however. The last paragraph read, “Of course the entire story given above is a pure fabrication. Not one word of it is true. Not a single act or incident described has taken place.” WHAT? WHY?

The New York Herald was one of the most widely read newspapers of its day. Its publisher, James Gordon Bennett Jr., had taken over the business from his father only a few years before. He was eager to establish his own reputation. He had financed Henry Stanley’s search for Dr. Livingstone; but now he wanted to take another step to advance his own power and authority. Bennett was among the elite of New York City and was well known for bragging about his influence. He claimed that he had so much control over New York that he could keep the entire city in their houses for a whole day. At long last, someone called him on his boast, and made a bet with the young show off.

Bennett had proven his point, in a most unethical way, with his fictitious story of the animal escapes. Competing newspapers in New York, and across the country, deplored the hoax. The New York Times wrote, “If charming sketches of dead children and dying old ladies does not move the reader to roars of laughter, his sense of fun must be somewhat different from that with which the proprietor of the New York Herald has been endowed.”

The New York Herald never offered an apology. No charges were ever brought against the paper. And James Gordon Bennett Jr. sang his own praises for another half century.

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