Today in Mystery History. Unfortunately it turned out that my original source was wrong: the event in question happened a day later. Rather than hold back until 2030, the next time January 16 falls on a Wednesday, I decided to make this a free-standing entry, so to speak.
is a radio hoax, one that terrified large parts of a nation and led to
furious condemnation of the brilliant man who conceived it. It
I believe I
heard some of you saying: "Slow your roll, Lopresti. You are off by a
lot more than one day. Orson Welles famous broadcast of 'War of the
Worlds' didn't happen in January at all. It was the night before
Right you are, dear friend, and
completely wrong as well. Because I was referring to a different hoax.
One with a mystery writer front and center.
of detective fiction, which were at least partly tongue in cheek.
Example: "Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable".
1926 the British Broadcasting Company (It didn't become the
Corporation for another year) was being criticized for being boring, so
they hired the famously witty Knox to give them some spark. And spark he
On January 16th, in a studio in the back of an
Edinburgh music store he performed a one-man show. The BBC warned that
the show was going to be humor, but it began like any news show. Then
it reported that protesters had gathered in Trafalgar Square, led by Mr.
Poppleberry, the leader of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre
In between less-interesting news reports came
announcements of mob violence, explosions, and the roasting alive of
one official who "will therefore be unable to deliver his lecture to
you." And then a mortar attack on the Houses of Parliament: “The clock tower, 320 feet in height, has just fallen to the ground, together with the famous clock Big Ben.” Finally the BBC itself was
It may seem crazy that anyone could take this
nonsense seriously, but radio was still a new medium (having started in
the UK in 1920) and sound effects - used liberally here - were unheard
of, so to speak. Keep in mind that the Bolshevik Revolution was a fresh
memory, and a national strike in Britain was being planned for the
Martin Edwards, in his excellent book, The Golden Age of Murder,
suggests that this disaster encouraged the BBC to look for a less risky
form of entertainment and led to some of the greatest British crime
writers, including Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley,
and yes, even Father Knox, to create a round-robin mystery for the
So, that's the true story of a radio hoax. And none of this has been an April Fool's joke.