We have all heard quite a bit about “Fake News” lately–probably much more than we really want to. But I think it will be interesting to look at a little incident from the 1870s that happened at the Concord Woolen Mill just after Smyrna was incorporated.
This story begins 144 years ago when the following was reported in the Marietta Journal:
A Monster Rattlesnake–Death of Mr. Ballard. Smyrna, Ga., Aug. 19th, 1874. A man by the name of Ballard, who lives near Concord Factory, was badly bitten by a rattlesnake yesterday, and suffered untold agony until this morning at 10 o’clock when he expired. It was the largest snake ever killed in Cobb county. It measured nine feet in length and was as large round as the calf of a man’s leg. Ballard shot it four times before he killed it. Ballard leaves a wife and four children to mourn his sad death. J. T. Davenport. (August 21, 1874 Marietta Journal).
This incredulous story was picked up by The Atlanta Weekly Constitution and other major papers which disseminated the news to readers all over the southeast.
The Augusta chronicle, August 22:
A man named Ballard, living near Concord Factory, was bitten by a rattlesnake last Tuesday, and died next morning.
The Daily Phoenix (Columbia, SC), August 23:
A man, named Ballard, living near Concord Factory, Ga., was bitten by a rattlesnake last Tuesday, and died next morning.
The Macon Weekly Telegraph, August 25:
A Smyrna (Cobb county) correspondent of the Marietta Journal writes, under date of the 19th, that a man named Ballard was “bitten by a rattlesnake yesterday, and suffered untold agony until this morning at 10 o’clock when he expired. It was the largest snake ever killed in Cobb county. It measured nine feet in length and was as large round as the calf of a man’s leg. Ballard shot it four times before he killed it.”
Mr Davenport, who was in fact an actual correspondent for the Marietta Journal, took a few days to investigate what happened and offered the following retraction on August 28:
The article last week in regard to Mr. Ballard and the rattlesnake was a miserable hoax and a forgery, and the party who fabricated the fictitious news had better not be guilty of the like again. Mr. James T Davenport wires to us as follows: “According to promise, I investigated the truth of the article published over my signature in last week’s Journal, with reference to Mr. Ballard and the rattlesnake, and I find that it is entirely untrue. I know no such a man, therefore I will only say that the article was forged by a mischievous Smyrnaite, who in all this wide world could not find anything else to do.”
This retraction was repeated a few days later when an Atlanta reporter visited the Concord Woolen Mill in September of 1874, and published the following in the Atlanta Weekly Constitution:
In your paper of Saturday there appeared an account (taken from the Marietta Journal) of the killing of a monster rattle-snake in this section. Upon inquiry, the people here [at the Concord Factory] find that no man by the name of Ballard (who, according to the account, died from a bite by the snake) ever lived hereabouts, and they are inclined to regard the whole story as a Tom Collins sensation. –Quisquis.(source)
So much for the Monster Rattlesnake. It was only a sensation started by Tom Collins.
Who is this Tom Collins, you might ask?
Be careful before asking this question–you might be setting yourself up to fall for the great hoax going around towns in 1874. The hoax went something like this:
Person A: Do you know Tom Collins?
Person B: No.
Person A: Perhaps you had better go over to so-and-so’s tavern quick as you can, for he is over there talking about you in a very rough manner–calling you hard names, and altogether saying things about you that are rather calculated to induce people to believe there is nothing you wouldn’t steal short of a red-hot stove.
This setup (or some variation thereof) was calculated to work the gullible citizen up into a temper, running off to locate this Tom Collins, prepared to fight to defend his honor. When the victim reached the bar and asked for “Tom Collins”, he would be sent on to another place by people already in on the joke. “He was here–he just left headed over to ________. But you should have heard how he was talking about you!” The poor soul would wander around town a good bit before realizing the joke was on him. This hoax was quite a sensation until no one was left to play it on.
During the height of the gag, there were even songs written and sung memorializing the hoax. Check out the following sheet music recorded at the Library of Congress:
The one residual from the Tom Collins hoax that endures almost a century and a half later is the Tom Collins cocktail named in his honor. Most fans of gin know the drink well, but few know its origins. I believe some enterprising bartender had so many people running into his bar asking for “Tom Collins” that he created a drink he could sell in response.
The cocktail recipe was first recorded in Jerry Thomas’ “The Bartender’s Guide” in 1876:
Before we leave the subject of snakes around the Concord Woolen Mill altogether, there is another large snake incident that happened 4 years later. The Atlanta Constitution records the following entry for May 12, 1878:
The Marietta Journal says Messrs. J H Ruff and J R Love killed a moccasin snake at Concord Factory a few days ago, measuring nine feet and seven inches, weighing forty-three pounds.
James H Ruff, known as Uncle Jim, was a correspondent for the Marietta Journal, writing frequently about happenings in Nickajack under then pen name “Kon.” Perhaps this story is the truth?
And one final snake story, this one recorded on August 30, 1900 in the Marietta Journal. It takes place in the barn behind the Martin Luker Ruff house which is still standing today. The author of the story is “Kon.”, who must have heard the tale directly from his brother, John W. Ruff:
A five-foot chicken snake “prowled” the nest of a setting hen at J. W. Ruff’s last week, and thereby hangs a tale–in addition to the snake’s and the hen’s, too, for that matter. Said hen had but one egg, and demurred to being deprived of that, so she gave the family to understand that help was needed; a rescuer quickly came, and saw at once that the nest was as bare of eggs as “Old Mother Hubbard’s” cupboard was of bones, as his snakeship–as was plainly visible to the naked eye–had gulped down his elastic gullet that lone egg, where in he had perpetrated a grim joke on himself, for that “egg” was not honest hen fruit, but a mere rough plaster of Paris counterfeit. He was going on the judgement of the hen, and the hen was satisfied with general appearances–a plain case of “love’s labor lost” in both instances.