It was October 31, 1938 and Orson Welles was offering a radio adaptation of
H.G. Wells's old thriller
The War of the Worlds on CBS.  Presented as a series
of fake spot news broadcasts concerning a Martian invasion of northern New
Jersey (of all places), it scared the wits out of millions of none-too-perceptive

It was a totally unplanned but entirely successful hoax.

This is the story of a not quite as a famous, but, then again, a not quite so
innocent use of the airwaves as a media for confusion. The alleged instigator of
this ruse was a teacher at the State University of New York at Albany. And
thereby, hangs a tale.

The State University was then known as the State Teacher's College, and the
professor was known as Harold W. Thompson. The year was 1935. The victim
of the prank (and it has never been proven that Thompson was its perpetrator)
was Alexander Humphreys Woollcott.

Some of you out there may not react positively (or even negatively) to the
mention of Alexander Woollcott. By occupation he was an author, critic, lecturer,
arid occasional actor--but, most of all, he was just Alexander Woollcott.

He was simply something else, a bizarre personality made up of equal parts
over sentimentality and hydrochloric acid. His public comportment consisted of
making himself as grotesquely noticeable as possible. Being noticeable in his
crowd was no mean feat.

He helped found the famed
Algonquin Round Table of the early 1920s, a
combination of wit and talent that has unfortunately, not been seen since.
George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, Franklin P. Adams, Ring Lardner,
Heywood Broun,
Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, Harpo Marx, Edna
Ferber, Harold Ross, Neysa McMein, and Marc Connolly were just some of the
members of that unique social club, the Algonquin Hotel's notorious "Vicious
Circle." All were unique, and to stand above them was, to say the least, difficult.
Yet Woollcott emerged as leader of the pack, the character among characters.

"Woollcott considered that Woollcott was the hub the world revolved around,"
wrote his closest friend Harpo Marx, "If he wasn't the center of attraction he was
miserable, and when he was miserable, somebody caught hell. He was a
diabolical master of the insult. He could slay a victim with one stab of a phrase
or a word. Some of his victims became his undying enemies. Others, like me,
became undying friends."

Anyway, Woollcott (the man on whom the play
The Man Who came To Dinner
was based) was in 1935 hosting a fairly successful radio show,
The Town Crier,
which consisted of him haranguing a national audience on what he imperiously
considered to be of importance each week.

In February 1935 a fan letter tugged at both his heartstrings and his vanity. It
came from two sisters--Minnie and Susan (no last names given)--86 and 76
years of age respectively, residing somewhere to the north of Troy, New York,
and living in the direst, most poverty-stricken conditions.

"Life is a little hard," wrote Susan for the both of them, "and this winter we have
been so lonely and cold and were hungry at times. . . . Old age is so frightening
when one is sick and alone. But we have each other. And we have real pleasant
times in the evenings. I prop Minnie up in bed and, oh, Mr. Wolcott, I wish you
could see her face as she hears your voice. You see, you make it seem as
though one of our own had come back through the long-ago years . . . We are
glad that you are young and strong and famous and have so many friends."

The sisters closed by requesting that Woollcott read the Twenty-third Psalm to
them over the air. Woollcott was glad to oblige.

There followed another letter, this one signed "Susan Lovice Staples"and its
fulsome praise read in part: "You can never know the help and comfort you have
been to us. . . . Oh if you could only have been in our little room that February
evening when your kind voice spoke The Lord Is My Shepherd. . . . It seemed as
though you had taken our feeble old hands into your strong young ones and were
showing us the way home to Mother, Father, and the boys, Dear Mr. Woollcott,
you brought a little bit of heaven to us that winter night. . . ."

That second missive contained a sad note, however. Minnie had died shortly
after the Woollcott reading. The Town Crier was more distraught than ever. He
had Troy scoured for any clues to Susan Lovice Staples' whereabouts, and
when that failed he sent a representative to Belfast, Maine, the Staples sisters
reputedly birthplace. Church records were perused; cemeteries searched, but
no trace of a Staples family could be found.

Woollcott broadcast an over-the-air appeal for Susan Staples to reveal herself.
He obtained no reply until several months later, when he received a letter
postmarked Albany and signed by a "Nurse Obrien" who notified Woollcott of
Susan's demise. She described the old woman's reactions as Woollcott spoke
out to her: "I wish you could have seen [We've heard that line before] her little
wasted face when you called her your sister. It looked like a light had been lit
and was shining through her eyes and skin. She stretched out both h her arms
like she was taking hold of your hands. . . . Once she called out your name and
blessed you . . ."

The awed Woollcott now commenced another still more frantic search. Death
records were ransacked and no trace of either Staples could be found, nor
could any record of a "Nurse Obrien." Woollcott fended off all suggestions that
he had been hoaxed until he came across Dr. Thompson one day at a
class-reunion at Hamilton College where both had matriculated.

Realizing that Thompson, living in Albany, a man of literary ability, an
antiquarian, and an old friend of his, possessed all the attributes that the hoaxer
would, Woollcott turned on him with a sudden accusation.

Thompson denied the offense--and never did admit to any foreknowledge of it.
So the mystery of the radio announcer and college professor remains open to
this day.
Whatever the case, Woollcott should have realized something was amiss long
before he actually did.

For the date on the second and longest letter he received, the one signed
"Susan Lovice Staples," was dated April 1--April Fool's Day 1935.
Alexander Woolcott
The Great Radio Hoax of 1935