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Michigan author examines the history of rumors, hoaxes and legends in early America

Apr 19, 2016

Credit flickr user Jamin Gray / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The rumor mill is certainly thriving in the 21st century.

But roll the clock back a few hundred years, and we see that not much has changed. Even without the help of Facebook or Twitter, rumors spread quickly in early America.

 

These rumors may have been groundless, but they managed to take root and affected many important issues of the day.

University of Michigan history and American culture professor Gregory Evans Dowd explores all of this in his new book, Groundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the American Frontier.

 

"A hoax ... has a deliberate origin," Dowd says. "Someone creates it, disseminates it, wants to shape events." 

 

He tells us that a rumor can begin with a hoax, but rumors "often arise independent of an individual author. They sometimes arise in collective imagination. They form as people are trying to figure out what's going on in ambiguous circumstances."

 

"The very nature of a rumor is that we don't know its origin."

He tells us that legends are stories, typically historical in nature, that are passed from generation to generation. Like a rumor, he says legends have uncertain origins.

"The two phenomena, rumor and legend, overlap. You have rumors that also are passed on seemingly from generation to generation. They're always about something that's taking place now, but they resemble very much similar stories or almost identical stories that were told in the past," he says.

According to Dowd, fueling the rumor mill is just human nature. 

 

 

Gregory Evans Dowd tells us more about his work and his new book in our conversation above.