Allen Greenfield, recently announced that he had found in his archives a series of unreleased tapes of interviews that were made by Gray Barker, the UFOlogist and folklorist best known for his coverage of fortean events in West Virginia, including the Mothman, Flatwoods Monster, and for his, some say, invention of the contemporary mythos of the Men in Black. Credulous curmudgeons, and stuffy skeptics often lament Barker’s involvement in the field of Forteana, saying that he was nothing more than an ill intentioned prankster that muddied the waters of serious investigation, or worse, a profiteering culture pirate who took advantage of the gullible with articles for Fate Magazine, books like They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, The Silver Bridge, MIB: The Secret Terror Among Us, and the many publications he put out from others via his imprint Saucerian Press.
A proper hoax, however, has a cathartic value that can be missed if we’re too stuck on the dull task of debunking. Hoaxing is an art, close to satire, that highlights the fears, hopes, and uncertain nature of our culture. The tapes that Greenfield has unearthed are a valuable historical document, containing the raw material, interviews, conversations, and pontifications, that Barker reworked into his popular books and articles. It’s important to remember that a proper hoax has to contain a grain of truth.
It is also important to remember that the American tradition of hoaxing has an august lineage which includes P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Orson Welles, and even our much beloved Benjamin Franklin.
“Franklin had many ventures throughout his career…as a printer, philosopher, man of science, man of letters, and statesman. He was also a hoaxer. Some may even say that he was a fraud. Some eighteenth-century literary figures such as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, used hoaxes for sarcastic ends. Franklin was a master satirist…exposing what he perceived as foolishness and vice to the light of public censure. Addressing public opinion through hoaxes reveals the increasing importance placed upon public opinion (and the idea of democracy) throughout this period.
Franklin was skilled in the art of public relations before that concept had even been dreamed up. The image which he presented of himself to the world was that of a simple but wise American rustic dressed in a raccoon-skin hat. It was a carefully crafted public persona which belied reality…that he was one of the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan men of his era.”
To read more about Franklin’s most famous hoaxes head over to Phantoms & Monsters.