In 1899 four newspaper reporters from Denver, CO, set out to tear down the Great Wall of China. They almost succeeded. Literally.
The four met by chance one Saturday night, in a Denver railway depot. Al Stevens, Jack Tournay, John Lewis, Hal Wilshire. They represented the four Denver papers: the Times, the Post, the Republican, the Rocky Mountain News.
Each had been sent by his respective newspaper to dig up a story—any story—for the Sunday editions; so the reporters were in the railroad station, hoping to snag a visiting celebrity should one happen to arrive that evening by train.
None arrived that evening, by train or otherwise. The reporters started commiserating. For them, no news was bad news; all were facing empty-handed return trips to their city desks.
Al declared he was going to make up a story and hand it in. The other three laughed.
Someone suggested they all walk over to the Oxford Hotel and have a beer. They did.
Jack said he liked Al’s idea about faking a story. Why didn’t each of them fake a story and get off the hook?
John said Jack was thinking too small. Four half-baked fakes didn’t cut it. What they needed was one real whopper they could all use.
Another round of beers.
A phony domestic story would be too easy to check on, so they began discussing foreign angles that would be difficult to verify. And that is THE REST OF THE STORY.
China was distant enough, it was agreed. They would write about China.
John leaned forward, gesturing dramatically in the dim light of the barroom. Try this one on, he said: Group of American engineers, stopping over in Denver en route to China. The Chinese government is making plans to demolish the Great Wall; our engineers are bidding on the job.
Harold was skeptical. Why would the Chinese want to destroy the Great Wall of China?
John thought for a moment. They’re tearing down the ancient boundary to symbolize international good will, to welcome foreign trade! Another round of beers.
By 11:00 p.m. the four reporters had worked out the details of their preposterous story. After leaving the Oxford Bar, they would go over to the Windsor Hotel. They would sign four fictitious names to the hotel register. They would instruct the desk clerk to tell anyone why asked that four New Yorkers had arrived that evening, had been interviewed by reporters, had left early the next morning for California.
The Denver newspapers carried the story. All four of them. Front page. In fact, the Times headline that Sunday read: GREAT CHINESE WALL DOOMED! PEKING SEEKS WORLD TRADE!
Of course, the story was a phony, a ludicrous fabrication concocted by four capricious newsmen in a hotel bar.
But their story was taken seriously, was picked up and expanded by newspapers in the Eastern U.S. and then by newspapers abroad.
When the Chinese themselves learned that the Americans were sending a demolition crew to tear down their national monument, most were indignant; some were enraged!
Particularly incensed were the members of a secret society, a volatile group of Chinese patriots who were already wary of foreign intervention.
They, inspired by the story, exploded, rampaged against the foreign embassies in Peking, slaughtered hundreds of missionaries.
In two months, 12,000 troops from six countries joined forces, invaded China with the purpose of protecting their own countrymen.
The bloodshed which followed, sparked by a journalistic hoax invented in a barroom in Denver, became the white-hot international conflagration known to every high school history student . . . as the Boxer Rebellion. —Paul Harvey
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