A Hever Castle story

In May 2016, over 800,000 people clicked on an article that claimed Ireland would grant political asylum to any Americans who were fleeing the country following Trump’s election. During the campaign, it was alleged that Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager were running a paedophile ring from a pizza place called Comet Ping Pong Pizza, describing this as Pizzagate… It seems that the idea of fake news and alternative facts has become one of the scariest elements in our political sphere today. Brexit, Putin, Trump… it is all about using social media and bizarre websites to spread stories that serve some purpose to someone… but fake news is a phenomenon which is much older than that; in fact in 1892 American newspapers falsely announced that William Astor had just died (The same William Astor who saved Hever Castle in 1903). So what really happened here?

When John Jacob Astor died in 1890, his son William inherited a fortune that in today’s money would be worth about $70 billion, turning him into the richest man in America. William Astor had a problematic relationship with the local media. When he tried to get elected to the US Congress, they criticised him non-stop. He was defeated twice (I guess Republicans couldn’t win a seat in New York in the 19th century either). Luckily for him, the president, Chester Arthur, felt sorry for him and he appointed him to be the American ambassador in Italy.

Eventually, William had had enough of the American newspapers, and he moved to Britain in 1891, but the American press kept hounding him. In the summer of 1892, something bizarre happened. It started on July 12th, when many papers in the US announced that the 45-year-old Astor had contracted pneumonia and died. Two papers were not convinced. The “New York Times” reported the death, but mentioned in the article that when they had called his house in London, they were told that William Astor was actually alive. The “New York Herald” went one step further and decided not to rush to publish…

A few days later, it was clear that William Astor was alive and well, and that it was all fake news… (I’m sure they did not use this term then). So how could they have created fake news back then? Well, via telegrams. This entire fiasco started on the 11th. A telegram was sent from London to New York stating that Astor was very sick. The next day another telegram was sent saying that he had died and that this news should be forwarded to all the news agencies immediately. So who was behind the telegrams? Well, the first telegram was sent and signed by an official agent of the family, John Adams, and it was sent by the cable company the family frequently used. The second telegram, however, was sent from a different cable company, was not signed and its opening sentence read “Mr Adams desires me to say Mr Astor…”, so we don’t really know who was behind it.

Adams himself admitted that he sent the first telegram but denied sending the second. He even said that he might have also exaggerated somewhat when he described Astor’s illness in the first telegram. So who sent the second one? Well, this is the fun bit. Apparently, when you are entering the business of fake news, it doesn’t matter if you are called Adams, Astor or Donald Trump, the best solution is always to blame the media, and this is precisely what they tried to do in this case. The family and the agent claimed that the second telegram was sent using a company that the Astor family never used, but was often used by… the associated press of New York, so what’s new? Let’s blame the media…

The entire saga backfired on William Astor and gave the press a whole new range of stories to mock him with. Astor did not plan to go home anytime soon. He became a British national, and just to be on the safe side with the media, he bought into it… in the shape of an evening paper called the Pall Mall Gazette, and then he purchased the Observer.

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