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Mar 30

April 1: The day the world believes almost anything – contributed by Carol Brooks

Posted on March 30, 2022 at 11:30 AM by Tamara Vaughan

Local writer Carol Brooks recalls the April Fools’ Day prank staged by The High Point Enterprise in 1949. No stranger to an April Fools’ joke herself, Brooks was responsible for two reports that turned out to be hoaxes while serving as editor of her college newspaper at UNC Greensboro in 1974. That April, the newspaper printed that movie star Robert Redford had been on campus. No picture accompanied the article, but many students claimed to have seen the handsome celebrity.* Both stories were false.

It's the duty of a newspaper to report news events accurately, giving clear details of occurrences so its readers can keep abreast of what is going on in their area. Readers usually trust their newspaper to tell the truth.

That being said, there are times – hopefully few and far between – when reporters feel the urge to shake off their journalistic integrity and, shall we say, stretch the truth.

The High Point Enterprise was famous for its April Fools' pranks in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s – seven pranks, to be exact. The most famous one, perhaps, ran on April 1, 1949. That is the day the Enterprise reported: "Mystery Ship Steams into City Lake of High Point."

black and white photo of ship on left, water on rightOn April Fools' Day in 1949, The High Point Enterprise published this doctored photograph showing a battleship anchored in City Lake. The image and accompanying story were convincing enough that hundreds of readers went out to the lake to see the ship for themselves, only to discover they'd been duped. The caption for the photo stated, “Mystery Ship at Anchor in City Lake – Shown riding at anchor a few hundred yards from the short of High Point’s municipal lake is the mighty battlewagon which somehow slipped into the lake during the darkness last night. The identity of the ship and its presence in the lake remain a mystery late today, as throngs gathered at the lakeside to watch for some clue to the solution of the enigma.”

According to the Enterprise, a Japanese—or maybe it was German—battleship had docked at the lake, near the current playground. How a 10,000-ton ship could have navigated the inappropriately-named (at least in the Jamestown area) Deep River was not explained. The report "quoted" the real Secretary of the Navy, John Sullivan, as voicing disbelief that the deep-draft vehicle had been able to navigate this far inland.

"All attempts to approach the vessel by small boat failed when the ship's commander, speaking through a public address speaker rigged in the wheelhouse, warned all boats to keep away," the article read. No sailors could be seen on board, only a small brown and white dog, scurrying across the gun turrets. Attempts to reach the ship by short-wave radio were unsatisfactory.

But there was a photo so it had to be real. Right?

The article was written by then cub reporter Joe Brown, who later became editor of the Enterprise. The photograph accompanying the article presumably showed the battleship in the lake. However, it was actually a photograph of the lake with a photo of a battleship cut out and pasted on top so it appeared the ship actually was in the City Lake. (Just think what the pranksters could do today with Photoshop.)

Brown recalled the incident in 1999, saying "… that ship didn't anymore look like a battleship than a kid's toy in the bathtub. I'm not sure the picture was even of City Lake."

The final paragraph of the story should have been the giveaway: "You know, folks, a story like this would be a reporter's dream if only today weren't April Fool’s Day."

But the disclaimer didn't work.

Article titled "Mystery Ship Steams Into City Lake of High Point

 The article was so persuasive that traffic was reportedly backed up for miles on Main Street/Greensboro Road as spectators came to witness the incident for themselves, not to mention calling the Enterprise, High Point Police Department, the federal, state, county, and city authorities and, of course, City Lake Park.

"It is now evident that some people who fail to believe what newspapers say for 364 days in the year can be led to believe what is absolutely false on April Fool’s Day," wrote columnist W.A. Bivens in the April 2 Enterprise.


*Carol notes that Robert Redford was big deal in 1974. He starred in the hit movies, The Way We Were and The Sting, the year before and would certainly have caused quite a stir on the Greensboro campus. Redford was a nominee for Best Actor for his role in The Sting which won Best Picture at the Oscars ceremony on April 2, so clearly he was busy that week. Use this link to see Carol’s entire April Fools’ edition of UNC Greensboro’s campus newspaper, The Carolinian, featuring a front-page article on Redford’s campus visit to discuss sex at a seminar in the Department of Drama and Speech. The Carolinian [April 1, 1974] | Gateway Digital History Collections (uncg.edu)

 

 

Contributed by Carol Brooks. Carol is a lifetime resident of High Point and a lover of the area’s history. She is a member of the High Point Historical Society and volunteers at the High Point Museum. She is on the board of directors of the Historic Jamestown Society. Carol serves as historian for the First Baptist Church in High Point and has co-authored the latest history of the church, which will celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2025. After several years of full-time reporting and serving as editor of the Jamestown News, she is currently a freelance writer for the Jamestown News.

 

 

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