The Maggie Murphy Potatoe Hoax and Potatoe Clippings



March 21,2016

Today I came across this funny historical item from the files of the Almonte Gazette. Did you know potatoes used to be considered poisonous, strange and evil? French people thought they could lead to syphilis, narcosis and premature death. When an English explorer first gifted the new vegetable to Queen Elizabeth I, a banquet was thrown for nobles and landowners. Skeptical, the cooks threw away the potatoes and cooked instead the stems and leaves, which turned out to be poisonous. With dozens of sick guests turning green and nauseous, the potatoes were banned from court.

It was recorded in our local paper that the Maggie Murphy potatoes were becoming a preferred variety with the local Carleton Place gardeners.  A by-product of that time, not only with special potatoes, was a phenomenon known as “yellow journalism”.  After months of being nose deep in newspapers I have been flabbergasted to see journalists try just about everything they could dream up to sell newspapers – especially with sensational headlines and little or no legitimate research to back up a story.

According to the Museum of Hoaxes web site Joseph B. Swan was a potato farmer from Loveland, Colorado once grew twenty-six thousand pounds of potatoes in one year on one acre of land.  Swan also claimed to have grown a single giant potato weighing over 86 pounds.

In 1894 the editor of the local newspaper (Loveland Reporter), W.L. Thorndyke, decided to help Swan promote his potato-growing skills by taking a picture of one of the potatoes.  But this picture wouldn’t depict just any potato.  Instead the two men came up with the idea to take the photograph and enlarge it. Swan posed for another picture with this “giant potato” on his shoulder with a sign reporting its weight to be 86 pounds and 10 ounces.

In the spring of 1895 the “mammoth potato” story began circulating in newspapers throughout the country.  The photograph came to the attention of Dumont Clarke of New York.  Clarke thought his “discovery” to be a worthy news item and passed it on to the editors of the prestigious Scientific American magazine.  A high-quality engraving of the photograph was produced and published in the September 18, 1895 issue.  Not long afterwards, however, the editors discovered the photograph was a fake and quickly issued a terse retraction: but that did not stop the Herald in Carleton Place. The newspaper ran with it as fast as you can say ‘mashed potatoes”. Immediately the townsfolk wrote letters and told whomever would listen that they too would be growing the giant potatoes shortly. There was even talk about having a giant potatoe contest and forgetting all about those pumpkins come fall.

Everyone contacted the Colorado farmer for either seeds or a piece of his giant potato to grow some of their own.  The Carleton Place Herald demanded Swan deliver the seeds to their townsfolk.  With the truth about to be exposed Swan grew weary of the attention and simply said the potato had been stolen. That Colorado farmer finally had to explain that the photograph wasn’t real.

Was Swan blamed for Potatoe Gate? No, it was the newspapers including The Herald.  There was almost a mob scene when individuals took it upon themselves to present themselves in the Herald office. They told the local newspapermen they were the greatest liars on earth.” Given the age of “yellow journalism”, this isn’t a surprising statement.


With files from the Carleton Place and Beckwith Heritage Museum and the Almonte Gazette



The Lanark Era
Lanark, Ontario, Canada
18 Sep 1912, W
The Lanark Era
Lanark, Ontario, Canada
22 May 1918, Wed  •  Page 1

The Lanark Era
Lanark, Ontario, Canada
12 Jul 1905, Wed  •  Page 4

Read– How Heavenly Funeral Potatoes Got Their Name

About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

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