In A Nutshell
In June 1899, four Denver newspapers reported that the Chinese government was going to be selling the Great Wall of China to the highest bidder and that they’d talked to the man—Frank C. Lewis of Chicago—who won the auction. Chicago needed some new roads, see, and the wall was the perfect building material. It wasn’t true, of course, but there’s another part of the story. A few decades later, it was circulated that the story was the cause of the Boxer Rebellion. This obviously wasn’t true, but we have no idea whether or not people actually believed that it was.
The Whole Bushel
There seems to be something about the Great Wall of China that makes it prime material for hoaxes and rumors, with perhaps the best one of all starting in the June 25, 1899, editions of four Denver newspapers.
That’s the day that four newspapers reported—apparently independently—that the Chinese government was so hard up for cash that it was going to sell parts of the Great Wall of China. More than that, though, they had the inside scoop that a Chicago man named Frank C. Lewis had headed to China to bid on the wall. He hoped to get it cheap and turn it into building material for some Illinois roads.
According to the papers, he’d spilled the beans to some of their reporters while he was on a layover in Denver.
The story quoted the erstwhile (and imaginary) Frank C. Lewis as saying, “The company I represent has a capital of $650,000 in cash, and I have been instructed to use every effort to secure an opportunity of doing work. Some of the wealthiest and best known capitalists of Chicago are interested in this enterprise.”
It was, of course, untrue. That didn’t stop the story from spreading, though, and it wasn’t long before papers all across the country had picked up the story and run with it.
And that story apparently sounded so believable that eventually, it wasn’t just in newspapers. A few decades later, it supposedly started showing up as one of the causes of the Boxer Rebellion. The Chinese people, it was said, were so outraged at the idea that the government was going to sell the Great Wall that they took up arms and rebelled.
This was also untrue, but the way the hoax and the follow-up made it into mainstream media is pretty fascinating.
In the 1890s, The Denver Post had a main office that was affectionately known as “The Bucket of Blood,” and it was run by two individuals with questionable credentials. One was a con man and one was a grifter, and when they bought the paper, they did so with the idea of taking shots at those they thought deserved it.
For the most part, those in their sights were people who deserved it: people who were perpetuating unfair labor practices or otherwise taking advantage of the common man.
There’s a lot we don’t know about how far the Great Wall story spread. The connection between the hoax and the Boxer Rebellion was first published in a 1939 article by Harry Lee Wilber, who claimed the entire story was made up by four Denver newspaper reporters to fill a slow news day.
China was picked because it would have been difficult to fact-check a story about China in 1899 and because the idea of tearing down the wall seemed just rational enough to be believable.
So, while we know that the story definitely didn’t start the Boxer Rebellion, did anyone believe this claim at the time? Well, we’re not sure no one. No one seems to have been able to trace it back to anywhere but Wilber’s article, so it’s entirely possible that he built one hoax on the shoulders of another.
It’s not the last go-round for Great Wall hoaxes, either. We know that it’s not visible from space—as was first suggested in a 1932 edition of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! More recently, we know it’s not the home of Gollum, either. In 2014, a photo taken in the nearby mountains showed a creature that looked suspiciously like Gollum crouched by a small pond. It went viral, the Internet being what the Internet is, but it turned out to just be a normal person wearing a costume to film an ad.