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117 Years Ago: Ambrose Bierce and the "Poe-Scheffauer" Hoax

    Bierce AmbrosewAmbrose Bierce (1842-circa 1914) became one of my favorite authors after a teacher first introduced me to his short stories while I was in grade school. I'm going to take this moment to thank that teacher for opening that wonderful door for me--Thank you, Mrs. T. Anyway, I was thrilled with this newspaper clipping a friend found in a scrapbook put together by the Whitcraft family (more on them later) of Atoka, Oklahoma and Holton, Kansas.* The column highlights the "Poe-Sheffauer Affair."  

     The "Poe-Sheffauer Affair" was actually a hoax perpetuated by Bierce to elicit controversy and excitement but in reality, his joke evoked little response. In trying to elevate the work of his friend and colleague, Hermann Georg Scheffauer (1876-1927), Bierce attempted a feint by pretending the poet's work might be that of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). On March 12, 1899, Bierce let loose with his article in 'Prattle,' his column in the San Francisco Examiner on March 12, 1899. 

     According to author Carroll Hall in Bierce and the Poe Hoax,  Scheffauer was persuaded to take part in the plot by Bierce, who also intended to play a joke on Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916).** Riley was engaged to speak in California at the time. Bierce often criticized Riley's work. Comments such as the following, are a small sample of the biting criticism Bierce leveled against Riley,

"If he would have the goodness to confine his ambition to the reading of his dreary literature to his audiences (whom it serves royally right) he could be suffered in silence, and might even exact a temperate approval as a minister of doom charged with punishment of sin. Unfortunately, he wreaks himself upon the just and the unjust alike...."***

     Yet, in this particular case, Riley's past actions gave Bierce some ammunition.

      In 1877, twenty-two years before Bierce's article, Riley claimed one of his poems as Poe's work to prove a point. Using his poem "Leonainie," Riley's intended to demonstrate that lesser known names could not get published in eastern newspapers, whereas recognized names were well-received. Understandably, once he was found out, Riley's reputation was damaged. It should be noted that he made an impressive comeback and became quite successful. Hall also indicates that the later hoax perpetuated by Bierce failed due to lack of  interest.   

     Even if the hoax did not elicit the controversy Bierce anticipated, this contemporary clipping suggests he nevertheless made a small impact as the poem made rounds through the country's newspapers. The snippet was taken from an unknown source, but it probably hails from a Kansas newspaper as surrounding articles possess subject matter from Kansas. Best, Pat***

*I fully intend to share moments from this wonderful scrapbook, at times throughout the year. 

 **Hall, Carroll D. Bierce and the Poe Hoax. San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1934.

***Joshi, S.T. and Tryambak Sunand. Schultz, David E. A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce. Ohio State University Press, 2003. p. 31

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