|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 listeners.
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
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
"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
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
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.
|The Great Radio Hoax of 1935