Sorry, Abraham Lincoln Didn't Invent Facebook

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Forgive us for being jerks and ruining your feel-good meme of the day, but that story about our beloved Abraham Lincoln inventing his own version of Facebook in the 1800s is a hoax. 

No, we don't exactly blame you for believing in the hoax, because websites like Kottke and The Next Web were just as enthusiastic. "Abraham Lincoln invented Facebook" Kottke proclaimed, while The Next Web's Drew Olanoff, titled his piece of aggregation "Move Over Zuck, Abraham Lincoln filed a patent for Facebook in 1845".  

Both sites were actually plucking the story from one Nate St. Pierre whose account of finding the Lincoln's Fauxbook (get it? get it?) went a little something like this (we've tried refreshing his page, but we're getting a broken link now): 

So I stopped to take a walk around, and realized that I had stumbled upon the circus graveyard, where a lot of P.T. Barnum’s circus folk were buried!

If you don’t know who P.T. Barnum is, this is from his Wikipedia article: “P.T. Barnum was an American showman, businessman, scam artist and entertainer, remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and for founding the circus that became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Well the Barnum reference was the first hint of hoax. For good measure though, eventually St. Pierre connected it to Lincoln via a newspaper called the Springfield Gazette which, as St.Pierre playfully describes, is totally like a Facebook page:

The whole Springfield Gazette was one sheet of paper, and it was all about Lincoln. Only him. Other people only came into the document in conjunction with how he experienced life at that moment. If you look at the Gazette picture above, you can see his portrait in the upper left-hand corner. See how the column of text under him is cut off on the left side? Stupid scanned picture, I know, ugh. But just to the left of his picture, and above that column of text, is a little box. And in that box you see three things: his name, his address, and his profession (attorney).

The first column underneath his picture contains a bunch of short blurbs about what’s going on in his life at the moment – work he recently did, some books the family bought, and the new games his boys made up. In the next three columns he shares a quote he likes, two poems, and a short story about the Pilgrim Fathers. I don’t know where he got them, but they’re obviously copied from somewhere. In the last three columns he tells the story of his day at the circus and tiny little story about his current life on the prairie.

St. Pierre also attached this photo:

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Believable right?  2,700 people shared the story from St. Pierre's site. Kottke got around 100 tweets, while The Next Web's version got 1,700+ shares as well.  And look at the Twitterverse's reaction--that's a lot of people duped. 

As one commenter on St. Pierre's site pointed out, "Newspapers of the era couldn't reproduce photographs. Until the 1880s or so, photographs had to be turned into engravings before printing." Kottke, in an update, followed up, " The first non-engraved photograph reproduced in a newspaper was in 1880, 35 years after the Springfield Gazette was alledgedly [sic] produced" Adding that the picture in the left hand corner "was taken in 1846 or 1847, a year or two after the publication date."  And another commenter on St. Pierre's page points to the real Springfield Gazette, which you can find here. Factor in the Barnum reference and you have the perfect hoax. 

So we'd love to tell you how this is a lesson of the power of social media, the pitfalls of aggregation and whatnot, or maybe it's a testament to human hope and optimism that we just want to believe in our heroes. But, we're on a tight schedule. So, if you excuse us,  now we'll be visiting orphanages and telling them there is no such thing Santa Claus.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.