A tale as old as the printing press: What a 150 year old wreck teaches about the spread of misinformation

At the pace news moves today, it is frustrating when inaccurate information makes it into the public square.

Social media has only exacerbated the problem. Now, misinformation can reach the far ends of the earth before the fact-checker has a chance to render a verdict on whether to rate the information “true” or “pants on fire.”

As the old saying goes, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” Some sources attribute the quote to Winston Churchill, while others indicate Mark Twain uttered the words; neither likely said it.

For anyone worried inaccurate information is a more recent phenomenon, there is some potentially good … news. Misinformation is as old as the printing press and probably older.

In researching my book about the Memphis, Clarksville & Louisville Railroad, I explored an 1869 wreck at Budds Creek in Montgomery County, Tenn.

The wreck was a case study in how easily inaccurate information could make it into print. Initial reports said the train’s express messenger, John C. Dugan, as fatally injured.

A subsequent account, however, said Dugan was severely wounded. An even later story revealed he “is not dead. He is doing well.”

While “well” was a bit of an overstatement, Dugan survived the wreck and returned to work on the railroad.

So many of the stories of the Budds Creek disaster are derivative of one another. Misinformation flowed quickly and appeared in newspapers around the country and globe.

Determining what happened on July 28, 1869, is nearly impossible a century-and-a-half later. But the tragedy, which resulted in five deaths, illustrates how difficult discerning the truth was and is.

Anyone who has worked as a reporter knows newsgathering is challenging. Many people, whether they be politicians or community leaders, do not like people asking probing questions and try to obfuscate the truth.

Journalism in the mid 19th century was different. What is the excuse today for the level of misinformation in the public square?

Todd DeFeo
About Todd DeFeo 412 Articles
Todd DeFeo loves to travel anywhere, anytime, taking pictures and notes. An award-winning reporter, Todd revels in the experience and the fact that every place has a story to tell. He is owner of The DeFeo Groupe and also edits The Travel Trolley and Railfanning.org.