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The Central Park Zoo Scare of 1874

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A threatening ostrich standing in front of blood-soaked animals on the rampage.

In late 19th-Century America, the big newspapermen were kings. Famous publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer exercised inordinate powers over both government policy and 'public' opinion. Perhaps the most spectacular example of this power is one of the greatest hoaxes of all time, one to rival the famous 'War of the Worlds' radio broadcast1: the Central Park Zoo scare.

The New York Herald

The New York Herald was, along with the New York World, one of the most influential news outlets of its day. James Gordon Bennett took over as publisher of the paper in 1867 after the retirement of his father of the same name. The younger Bennett was eager to establish the paper's reputation by financing major expeditions, such as that of Henry Stanley starting in 1869 to find Dr David Livingstone. The Scot, Dr Livingstone, had been lost somewhere in Africa while working as a missionary.

Unlike modern American newspapers, which tend to disguise or even deny their political orientation, 19th Century newspapers were outspokenly political and the Herald was no exception. It was at least nominally populist and certainly sympathetic to the Democratic party. Even more influential, however, was Bennett's orientation toward the advancement of his own power and influence.

The Scare

Although accounts differ on this point, it is generally believed that Bennett was known in upper class New York circles to brag about his influence, claiming that he had so much control over New York that he could keep the entire city in their houses for a whole day. Someone finally took him up on the bet and on November 9, 1874 the Herald's headline screamed 'Escaped Animals Roam Streets of Manhattan'.

The article went on to describe how a large number of wild animals had escaped from the zoo2 in Central Park, which is at the centre of the densely populated island of Manhattan. According to the reports, 27 people were already dead and another 200 injured. The militia was said to have been called in to control the situation. As per his predictions, Bennett's story kept all New Yorkers in their houses for all of 9 November.

The Effects

In terms of the paper itself, the only statement issued later was that the Herald thought the conditions of security at the menagerie ought to have been looked into. After all, the story was issued with a clear disclaimer at the bottom saying 'the entire story given above is a pure fabrication.'

A much more interesting consequence was a somewhat bizarre set of events that led to the current symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties. Thomas Nast3 was a cartoonist for the magazine Harper's Weekly. In response to another story printed by the Herald about the possible 'Caesarism' posed by Republican President Ulysses S Grant running for a third term4, Nast crafted a rather singular cartoon based on an old fable. It included an ass, representing the Democrat-leaning Herald, covered in a lion skin, representing the false fear of Caesarism. This ass was appearing out of the woods of Central Park and scaring a variety of animals so much that they escaped their cages. One of these animals was a bulky elephant marked with the label 'the Republican Vote', indicating that the charge of Caesarism had scared away otherwise loyal Grant-supporting Republican voters.

This cartoon became well-rooted in the public mind, and over time the ass and elephant symbols were expanded to include the Democrat and Republican parties respectively. The original cartoon can be seen here.

1Some don't consider the War of the Worlds incident to be a hoax since there were occasional breaks at which the fictional nature of the story was mentioned2At the time called the Central Park Menagerie3Who had earlier created the now-famous 'Uncle Sam' character4To see what a big deal this would be, see here

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